Paragon City Stories: The Carnival Without
Hosted by UNINVENTIVEHEART
Act II, Scene 3
Place: Peregrine Island
The three-hour train ride is eventless, other than Von Trier’s constant complaining. He is refused the liquid courage he demands, on the theory that a drunk decoy is a dead decoy. The PPD is contacted and appraised of the sting; they agree to cooperate under the condition that Von Trier survives and is turned over to them at the end.
The presence of the Carnival of Shadows at the docks makes them too dangerous as a site for the sting, the Portal Corp. at the other end of Peregrine Island is too open and too busy. The warehouse district northeast of the docks is selected as the best location. Von Trier is placed under a storage area sheltered by a tin roof, and surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, broken at only one location, with the idea that it will slow down escape, either by the Carnival or the bait.
Linuial has been subdued during the ride, the same sad smile on her face, speaking only as necessary.
As the sting is being set up, she takes a post on the fourth-floor balcony of the building to the southwest of the sheltered storage area. She has added torn jeans to her tunic; with her hair piled on top of her head, her appearance is almost…ordinary…other than the headband she uses to conceal her less-than-ordinary ears. She seems to be reading a cheap paperback novel, but peering above it, she can see under the tin roof where Von Trier has been installed; past that, she can see the parking lot of the El Super Mexicano, and a big black car sitting there.
Crouching behind a brick wall next to the storage area, Tahquitz is holding a Parabolic Receiver (courtesy of the PPD) listening in to Uder cussing about all sorts of things.
“This should be fun…” Tahquitz says to himself. Something brushes against his leg, making him spring up… It’s an alley cat. “Don’t do that! Almost froze you, little guy. I’m on high alert here.” Tahq pets the cat briefly then puts the receiver up and goes back to listening.
Sitting in the surveillance vehicle, Devereaux’s eyes are locked on Uder Von Trier but his mind is elsewhere. Nothing about the mission makes much sense anymore.
In a bid to distract himself, he sends a telepathic message to Linuial. “Earlier you said you knew something about this dimension that I might be interested to learn. Care to elaborate on that? After all, we’ve got nothing but time.”
Sitting next to Devereaux, Paige has a set of Binoculars, peering into the storage area. She sees Von Trier and not much else.
Her mind drifts off to her Junior Prom in High School when she was a few years younger. Her date was a bookish young man in the Freshmen class who nobody asked to dances like these. Partly because of that reason, and mostly because she was a wallflower like he was, so if she figured she had to come with somebody, she may as well bring a date she could talk to.
And she was glad she did. Her class of High School students were all 3-4 years older than she was, so her interests didn’t line up with theirs. This is of course, a product of having tutors and homeschooling for years before she made it to Paragon City. Most K-12 schools don’t know how to handle such students… Social Promotion dictates placing her with kids her age, but an 11-year old girl with 5th and 6th graders doing High School level work would have caused more problems than they want, so it was High School or losing the money from her attendance to put her with another Foster Family that supported homeschooling again.
She was humming one of the songs that was in the Prom subconsciously for almost a whole minute, until she remembered that Devereaux was in the car with her. Then she suddenly stopped.
“It’s fine,” Devereaux says, turning to look at Paige. “I actually kinda like that song,” he adds with a laugh.
“Tell me something, Paige. Why are you doing this? I get the draw of the whole hero thing for some people but you don’t strike me as the vainglorious type.” Part of him knows he’s just making conversation but he’s been ignoring Paige as of late. The girl’s shown herself to be rather capable. It would be a real shame to let her think he hasn’t noticed.
Not waiting for a reply, he returns sets his eyes back on Von Trier. “Everything happens in the moment you’re not paying attention,” he thinks, reminding himself of the first rule of surveillance. A simple wave of his hand serves to let Paige know that he’s waiting for her answer.
Linuial considers Devereaux’s question. she had actually forgotten about that comment, in her concern over the mask they had found in Von Trier’s possession.
She glances over the top of the paperback to confirm that Von Trier is still alone, and reaches deeper into her memory for an answer.
She recreates the image of the Praetorian in her mind, speaks to it silently, certain now that he will hear the words she forms.
“I have never been to Praetoria, but I understand that it has fallen, and many of its inhabitants have fled to Primal Earth.“ She begins by setting the stage.
“You have been very vocal in expressing an opinion that child Heroes should not be ‘coddled’, as you perceive it to be. ‘They don’t need a mother.’ That that is the way it is done in Praetoria…and apparently, you feel that your people were doing things correctly, and we are doing them incorrectly…that our way will get Tahq and Paige killed, specifically.
“Tahq and Paige are children of Primal Earth. They are not Praetorian children. Can you already be so certain that there are no differences between Praetorian children, and our children, differences that make your childrearing practices the incorrect ones, and ours the right?
“Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the reason that Praetoria fell is because of its differences from my dimension? That it is their cavalier attitude toward others, toward children, their belief in ‘throw them into the deep end of the pool and see if they survive’, that created Praetoria’s eventual, and inevitable, doom?“
She continues: “You are a stranger here. A visitor. A refugee. Primal Earth has welcomed you, given you a new home, allowed you to function and prosper here as you see fit. Would you duplicate the same mistakes that your people made before? Would you choose to do so if you knew…for certain…that it would cause Primal Earth to fall, and leave you searching for yet a third home?
“You have very little concern for concepts like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘altruism’. But I also sense within you, very deeply buried, the very concepts of ‘correctness’ that you criticize consciously. Answer me this, if you will: if a man sees you in the street as night is closing in, and invites you into his home, and gives you a meal and a bed for the night…would you repay his kindness by killing his children and burning down his home? I think we both know the answer without you replying.
“You said that you drug Tahq and Paige into the Rikti fight to ‘prove a point’. Xavier, Tahq and Paige owe you nothing. They do not owe you the right to take their lives in order to prove a point you want to make. That is ego, my friend. It has nothing to do with saving their lives…only with your pride in being ‘right’…always right. And ‘proving’ it, to this world that has sheltered you in your need. In killing our children to prove a Praetorian point…are you not doing the same as the man who burns down his host’s home?“
“From what I was told by my social workers, my parents were killed in a robbery. I was abducted after the murder and raised by ‘parents’ that weren’t mine… After they were arrested from a botched up robbery, DSS in Massachusetts took me in,” Paige said.
“Realizing I had a brain on me, as well as a nasty habit of destroying PE equipment with my sonic attacks before I learned how to control them, they sent me to Paragon City to finish my teenage years and collar some crooks in the process.”
“You’re right. I don’t care about glory or being a hero. To hell with accolades, titles, and medals. Tahquitz wants the key to the city, and he can keep it. I do this so someday I can rescue lost children and give them a better chance than I had, whether I do it as a hero, social worker, or as a unnamed patron they’ll never thank. As long as I can do something about it. I’m not ready yet, but I will be.”
Devreaux whistles softly. “Lofty goals,” he says to Paige without taking his eyes from the windshield. “For that you’re gonna need money. And I’m not talking about Influence or whatever it is Hero Corps pays you in. What you need is c-“
Devereaux stops abruptly as Linuial’s message reaches him. He listens to it carefully. The arrogance of this woman borders on ridiculous. Burn down a man’s house after being offered food and shelter? A cute little idiom, no doubt, but completely ridiculous. He’s made no secret of the fact that he’s not one of those, “Watch the world burn” types. That kind of attitude seems to be a Primal Earth specialty. For all Linuial’s pontificating, even she would be hard pressed to deny that this world seems to produce far more raving megalomaniacs than Praetoria ever had.
“Unbelievable. You’ve managed to completely miss the poi-“ Once again, he’s forced to break away in mid sentence. This time though, it’s for a far less trivial reason.
Under the tin roof, Von Trier is no longer alone.
Linuial glances over the edge of her novel in time to watch a figure walk the last few feet along the fence line, turn, and enter the sheltered storage area. She waits until the figure is completely under the roof, and out of sight.
“Devereaux, there is a fully covered and hooded person who has entered the storage area. I can’t tell if it’s a man or woman, but I thought I saw a mask as it turned the corner. I can’t see it any more…I’m going to reposition myself on the roof over the entrance. If you see it or Von Trier make a move to leave through the entrance, signal me and I’ll drop down and block the way.“
She matches action to words, dropping her novel, activating her flight ability, and soaring silently to the corner of the tin roof, carefully lowering herself so as to make no noise.
Thank goodness it is late in the day, she thinks, in mid-day the roof would have been sizzling hot.
Linuial frowns, sighs silently to herself, decision finally made. “Devereaux, that mask we found in Von Trier’s possession…the soul trapped within it was screaming in pain. I don’t know how long that mask has existed…how long that soul has been in torment…but if that is an example of the kinds of arcane tools the Carnival of Vengeance is using to generate power, I suspect many of them might be certifiably insane. Be expecting anything from this person. I assume I don’t need to tell you that it is potentially extremely dangerous.“
Thank goodness it is late in the day, she thinks, in mid-day the roof would have been sizzling hot.
“I see her” Devereaux responds telepathically.
He knows Linuial is making the right move but he’d much rather handle the close action himself. The blonde has some power but, by her own admission, she’s no fighter. If this goes south, blocking the way is about all she can be relied on to do.
He kicks himself for not realizing it earlier. The composition here is all wrong. Of the four of them, Tahquitz packs the most raw power but this requires more finesse than the boy has ever shown before. His earlier display of metamorphosis convinced Devereaux that he could be useful in situations like this one but there’s no telling how he’ll respond if things don’t go according to plan.
“You don’t need to tell me. I’ve seen these people work first hand, remember? I’ll leave the ‘tormented soul’ to you. Just make sure our new friend over there doesn’t get himself killed.”
Linuial addresses her mental image of the Praetorian. “Recall Friend is not line-of-sight, fortunately. If you see a reason to pull Von Trier out, let me know, and I can pull him to me on top of the roof. I won’t expose myself unless one or both of them makes a run for it and I have to block the entrance…it should slow either of them up long enough for backup. Keep your eyes open for one of them to go over the fence…I’m not so worried about Von Trier, that fence is topped with barbed wire…but not knowing the capabilities of our hooded friend, they might try to make a break for it.“
“We shouldn’t have any problems there. I’ve seen the Carnival do a lot of things but flying was never one of them.”
With the matter settled for the moment, Devereaux devotes all of his focus to the meeting taking place. Von Trier is angry; that much is obvious. He’s gesticulating aggressively but there’s something else in his body language. His shoulders are tense, pulled high and close. It’s impossible to see his eyes at the current distance but Devereaux doesn’t need to. Years spent observing subjects has taught him to read even the tiniest signals. The man is terrified.
For their part, whoever he’s talking to presents a decidedly different air. The figure stands stock still, not an easy feat when one’s involved in a covert meeting. He doesn’t dare try to reach out and read her mind, not after what Linuial relayed to him about the state of the mysterious person’s soul.
Instead, he opts for another telepathic communique. “We need to know what they’re saying. Anybody got ears on them?”
Her reply is prompt. “Tahq is behind that back wall…I saw him toting a parabolic dish.“
Tahquitz is listening in to their conversation…
Tahquitz thinks to himself hoping someone is listening, “If you guys want to capture her, now is the time!”
Uder: “What do you mean you can’t help me?”
Masked Woman: “You told me you needed my help to get the Carnival of Shadows off your back again. NOT to join the Carnival of Vengeance. I don’t help someone out of false pretenses. What is really going on?”
Uder: “Nothing! I just want to join the Carnival. I’m tired of being a roadie, and I’m tired of running.”
Masked Woman: “And you want to join us because you betrayed the Carnival of Shadows? That isn’t an advantage… how do we know you wouldn’t do the same to us?”
Uder: “I turned state’s evidence in getting the Carnival of Shadows busted. But I didn’t give you up.”
Masked Woman: “But that doesn’t endear you as loyal exactly. This is stupid. Don’t contact me ever again.”
The hooded figure turns toward the entrance/exit of the storage area, and begins walking.
Paige caps the binoculars… “Looks like we’re up. Ready Devereaux?”
Tahquitz puts the Parabolic Receiver down, and hovers quietly over the tin roof, far enough back not to cast a shadow onto anything but the roof of the storage yard, but close enough to freeze someone in place if needed.
“I’m ‘insurance’. I can freeze her in place, but it’s faster if we catch her alive instead of thawing her before interrogation,” he thought.
Taking a moment to give Paige a smile, Devereaux replies, “Of course,” and steps out of the car.
As his foot touches the pavement he shifts. His new form, however, is a bit unusual. Rather than a Widow, a ninja, or another more fantastic shape, he looks undeniably average. From the combat boots to the deep purple t-shirt inscribed with the Vanguard logo, there’s nothing to suggest he’s anything other than a normal young man in his twenties. In fact, the only discernible difference is that his russet skin and dreadlocks are gone, replaced by a far lighter complexion and long, shaggy brown hair.
“Let’s go,” he says as he sets off across the parking lot, careful not to move directly toward the storage area.
Paige casually walks next to Devereaux until she can get an angle that allows her to get the Masked Woman and Von Trier in a line.
“Dev? Cover your ears…” Paige makes eye contact with Tahquitz and Linual, “Both of you. Fly higher. Now.” she pushes to them telepathically.
Paige then turns 70 degrees and aims her wrists towards the two, and sings a high G note while pushing a constant pulse of sonic waves towards the two until they are standing and facing her, confused.
The two are stuck in a Sonic Cage. Von Trier tries running, only to fall on his knees from ear-wracking pain until he gets back to where he was. The Masked Woman tried to use a Psionic lance and stab her way out of the cage, but she met the same fate as she tried to walk where she cut.
Paige is finished with the pulse. “OK, we have 30 seconds to surround them before it wears off… She’s not going anywhere,” she says. “But I have to warn you guys not to cross the ‘cage’ wall, it’ll hurt your ears just as much as theirs until the wave dissipates.” The last part of what Paige says comes out dry and raspy. She swallows a bit and clears her throat, “And that’s why I don’t do this very often. Now I need water.”
When Paige sent that horrifying screach, Tahquitz fell a bit from the stun, then flew higher as she warned him. “Gaaah! THAT HURT!” he said, clutching his ears and rising. He forgot to tell Paige he’s vulnerable to high-pitched noises in particular.
“You could’ve filled me in a bit more before you did that,” Devereaux says, clutching his ears. Then he adds, “Nice work though.”
Breaking into a brisk jog to cover the distance, he quickly arrives at the border of the sonic cage. Still a little disoriented from Paige’s show of power, he carefully draws nearer until he’s standing over Von Trier and the woman. “Wherever you think you’re going, forget it.”
With all the wariness required of someone in his line work, he quickly looks the two over. They’re less than stellar but both are still conscious. “I’d ask if you’re okay but, full disclosure, I really don’t care. So here’s how this works; I ask a question, you answer it. If you don’t…well, you don’t really wanna get into that part.”
Linuial does a double-flip-flop in the air before straightening her trajectory and curving back to glide under the roof. Devereaux gets a mental blast of invective…in several different languages. Her mental voice hisses, “Xavier, please politely remind Paige that I do have the largest ears in this group. They aren’t just for show…“ He gets a mental echo of the effort she makes to get her temper under control.
She settles to the ground behind the Praetorian, keeping wide of the area of disturbed atmosphere, but close enough she can hit the inhabitants with her healing power if they appear to need it.
Two prisoners in a sonic cage, Von Trier and the hooded figure, await they know not what at the hands of their captors.
“Let’s start with you, miss,” Devereaux fills the suffix with as much sarcasm as he can muster. “Tell me something, do you recognize me?”
From the pavement, the newly captured Carnie simply stares back at him from behind her charcoal colored mask. Her eyes are set squarely on him. If he didn’t know better, he’d say there’s…hatred in them. It’s a look Devereaux knows well.
“Listen,” he says. Though he’s addressing the entire team, he never lifts his gaze from the incapacitated woman. “Like I said before, I’ve dealt with these people in the past and I know how devoted they are to…whatever it is they’re trying to do. If we want information outta this one, we’re going to need to take some less than heroic measures. I can manage that on my own but I don’t wanna hear another lecture about my methods, telepathically or otherwise.”
Finally looking up for a moment, he asks bluntly, “Anybody gonna get in my way on this?”
“Nope, you’re the specialist,” Paige says, “I’m happy to watch from here.” She walks back to the fence and leans back, listening intently, “I guessing like the Tsoo or Council, they don’t respond to typical methods.”
Tahquitz lands in the Storage Yard, walks right past the Masked Woman and Devereaux and fires an ice blast at Von Trier’s legs.
He did it without a single word or breaking his stride, but he didn’t encase them in ice. But there’s frost covering his now-stiff slacks and it’s clearly cold enough to make his legs stiff enough to fall over where he stands. “There, one less person to worry about.” Tahquitz drags Von Trier to the fence next to Paige and sits him upright against it, “Breathe… you’ll be fine. Your legs will work again in 10 minutes,” he says to reassure him, “But I can’t take the chance of you running off to find another ‘handler’, either.”
“Devereaux, she’s all yours.” Tahq says.
“Tahq, how did you know the Sonic Cage dissipated? I told Devereaux, but not you.” Paige asked.
“What’s a Sonic Cage?” Tahquitz asked, “All I know is my ears stopped hurting, so I came down.”
Linuial drops her face into her left hand, shakes her head. She glances up at the sky, but says nothing…there is no point discussing being a “bad influence” on the boy with Devereaux, he’s made that plain enough. She might, however, have a discussion with Tahquitz and Paige later, without the Praetorian present.
“Once you are finished, do you have any problem with my healing her?“ she tells Devereaux’s image in her mind, knowing that if the subject hears this, it will undo what he is about to attempt.
Looking over to Von Trier, she is struck by a second thought: “Devereaux…should I take the children somewhere they cannot see?“
“What, no lecture about how my actions will forever stain my soul?” Devereaux replies in a mocking tone.
Then, rather than continuing by way of telepathy, he decides to speak. “Relax, I’m not going to do anything too drastic…at least I don’t think I am.”
Kneeling down so he’s eye to eye with their captive, he stares directly at her. “You said before that whoever’s wearing this mask isn’t exactly enjoying the experience. I’d like to talk to that person.”
At that, he holds up a fist. Slowly, one at a time, a wickedly sharp claw slides out from between each of his knuckles. “You can take it off or I can take it off for you,” he says, addressing the captured Carnie. “And before you say something stupid, remember, I’m going get what I’m after either way.”
Linuial gasps out, “Dev, she…”
The hooded woman jumps up and back, and leaps toward the entrance, catching her arm on one of the Praetorian’s claws as she scrambles to get away…
“They always run,” Devereaux sighs before making his move. In a feat belied by how mundane his current guise is, he easily leaps the distance between himself and the terrified woman.
She recoils at the sound of his landing but his speed is more than human. Grabbing hold of the back of her neck, he pulls her in close and rests the tips of his claws where the dark mask meets her face. She goes stiff at the contact.
“I told you. Either way you slice it, I win.” Then, with his trademark smirk, he adds, “You’ll have to excuse the choice of words,” and gently taps the lethal instruments against the blackened scales.
Now that the hooded woman’s flight has been interrupted, Linuial has a chance to complete what she was about to say. “Xavier, when you asked her to take off the mask, the waves of hate toward you that I was feeling turned abruptly to terror the like of which I have rarely felt, and that’s saying something. Right now her heart is racing so fast she is in dire danger of suffering a stroke or heart attack. If you don’t want her to die without answering your questions, I may have to step in and adjust her hormone levels. Don’t worry,“ she smiles softly, “…I won’t undo anything you do.“
Briefly, a pained look crosses her face. She addresses her mental image of the Praetorian. “If you think I haven’t seen torture in over five thousand years, you don’t know human nature, Praetorian OR Primal Earth. I know my role. I’m to keep her alive and fully conscious, without getting in your way. This won’t be the first time I’ve assisted an ‘interrogation’.“
“Perfect, thanks” Devereaux says by way of reply. Turning the conversation back to telepathy, he continues. “You’re full of surprises, Linuial. I never thought you’d stand on the sidelines for this. …Or call me Dev.”
Retracting two of his claws, he begins to gingerly slide the remaining one under the woman’s mask. She thrashes wildly but with his current form’s enhanced abilities, he’s able to keep her in his grasp. “Thanks a lot, Bobcat,” he thinks to himself, reminiscing on a run in with the followers of Praetor Barry’s feline hybrid girlfriend.
“Listen to me,” he growls at his captive. “I really don’t know what’ll happen when I pry this thing off your face but my friend over there doesn’t seem entirely confident you’ll survive. If I were you, I’d trust her opinion. She is a healer, after all.”
At that, he presses on, pushing his claw a little further under the mask. The woman begins to scream.
Linuial begins to chant, extending her hands to bathe the woman in green light. She looks up briefly and nods to Devereaux. “I’ll keep her alive, and if she fails, I’ll resurrect her.”
Abruptly, the mask gives up its hold on the woman’s face…the hooded woman faints, Linuial screams and claps one hand to her face, and falls backward onto the ground. From her seated position, one hand still pressed to her head, she extends the other toward the unconscious woman, and resumes her interrupted chant. After a second or two, she drops the extended arm, speaks aloud, still nursing her temple. “She’s conscious, but I don’t know how much you’ll get out of her…” she says weakly, breathing heavily. From behind the hand cradling her head, a tear runs down her cheek.
“I don’t need much.”
Devereaux eases the woman to the ground, propping her up against a nearby wall. “Where’s the rest of the Carnival?”
It’s a simple enough question but the young woman, she can’t be more than twenty-five, stares blankly up at him. With the mask removed, he can see that she’s pretty. Not blow you away gorgeous, but attractive in the way that would make the right kind of guy take a second look.
“Guess I’m the wrong kind of guy.” Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he reaches out for her. In a flash, she curls into herself, hugging her knees to her chest. Her arms shield her face but nothing can hide the shivering and wracking sobs.
Devereaux sighs, at least she’s still breathing. “Something tells me I’m not the best person to go poking around in her head right now but we don’t have time to waste.” Then, turning to Paige he says, “Looks like you’re up.”
Paige rises to her feet slowly and walks to the troubled woman. She is unsure of herself. Paige has telepathic abilities, but she’s not anywhere as competent as Devereaux and Linuial.
She brushes her hair out of her face and kneels down next to Dev and the unmasked woman, “You sure about this? I discovered I was a telepath three years ago… I’m not pract–” Silence.
“Alright… here goes.”
Paige places her hand on the woman’s forehead and closes her eyes. Her eyelids start to shake as her closed eyes start to go into REM and her breathing shallows.
Paige has a bead of sweat on her brow… her arm touching the woman trembles.
Paige: Hello? Hello?!
Paige starts to move, as she sees a clouded landscape with a thin horizon she can walk on… as she moves toward the center of the field, some Aurora Borealis lights and other waves of light become brighter as she sees a woman curled into the fetal position over 2,000 feet away.
Paige: Hey! Are you okay? Are you hurt?
As she gets closer, the woman starts to blur. It seems the closer she gets, the blurrier she becomes as Paige saw her clearly from a distance. Strange.
The blurred form is jumbled, it seems like a 10th of a second, the form is one person, then another, then something else. It looks like they’re all women or girls, so she’s confident that’s her.
Paige: Ma’am, are you okay?
The blurred form rises from the floor, turns around, then yells in different voices (as the words are coming out of every figure that is a part of the blur in staccato)…
Figure: LEavE Me aLOne!
Paige: We removed the mask from the Carnival! It was controlling you, we had to do it to save you!
Figure: leAVe mE AloNE! i wON’t sAY it AGaiN!
Paige: We know the mask contained another person’s soul… one that controlled you, that pushed you to the wayside and used you. You were…
Figure: You RUinED evERytHIng! WE we’RE onE! We wERe iN UniTY! i hAD blISs! eUPhoRIa…
The figure began to shift more rapidly, and the voices got faster in chorus. Paige saw herself shrinking.
Figure: YOU TOOK THAT FROM ME!
Paige: No! Please! You have to believe me!
Tahquitz sees Paige kneel down and touch the woman’s face and try to extract information from her. For him, it’s been only a couple of seconds.
He has no idea what any of that is like. What does someone’s mind look like? Is it what the TV Shows make it look like? Someone’s memories in a fog or haze? Is it like a super-colorful make believe land that is up to the owner to compose? Is it like a minimalist theater? Just black and everyone in leotards?
Whatever it’s like, Tahq is sure he doesn’t want that as a power. Psychic talents are a two-way street, and the privacy and dignity of the person using them has to be forfeit to some degree beyond their control. And he can’t imagine someone doing that to him.
Paige’s face is sanguine, her brow covered in sweat, and her jaw straining. Her body is lowering closer to the woman. It’s only been 5 seconds, but fighting that being stuck in the woman’s mind, it’s been 20 minutes to her.
Paige: Stop! Please! Listen to me!
Figure: NO! YOU LISTEN TO ME! I WANT BACK! PUT THE MASK BACK ON!
Paige: We can’t! If we put the mask back on, you have no chance of comin–
Figure: YOU CAN’T PUT IT BACK ON IF YOU DON’T–
###GET OUT OF MY HEAD!###
The figure lunged at Paige in a blurry spike of body parts, shifting. It missed Paige by a mere inch, and Paige can see that the blur isn’t what she thought it was. It was like a Mandelbrot fractal. The spike was composed of thousands of arms: a few hundred large arms of a woman, hundreds more of a teenage girl, and hundreds of thousands of arms belonging to a young girl or a baby. Now picture this being in a single 10th of a second, and scrambling in position and form constantly. The horror of such a vision catches Paige off guard, and she can’t help but scream.
Paige: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Nooo!
Figure: IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE MASK–
##GET OUT OF MY HEAD!##
Paige sees the spike retract almost instantaneously and the figure rotate around to send another one her way. She starts to skip like she did in Steel Canyon to try to jump out of the Figure’s way as it lunges another spike out to where she is…
She isn’t lifting, but the skipping is what the Figure wasn’t expecting. The spike lands right in front of Paige’s path where she was moving, and it took a tremendous effort to stop herself from touching it.
Figure: IF YOU DON’T WANT TO LEAVE, THEN I’LL CONSUME YOU.
Figure: YOUR ENERGY WILL KEEP MY EUPHORIA ALIVE. YOU’LL BE MY TEMPORARY BLISS! YOU’LL KEEP ME HERE!
She saw the Figure’s spike retract as the enormous figure in the center of the landscape with the torso of the Figure turning red and starting to swirl into a vortex. The red body parts twirl into the center of the vortex into nothing but black.
Paige: OH MY GOD!
It’s been 20 seconds, and Paige is clearly struggling. Sweat is dripping off of her face and mask. Her torso is rocking back and forth.
“Is she alright?”
30 seconds since Paige touched the woman’s face.
Paige’s eyes open immediately as she deeply inhales and breaks contact with the woman’s face. She collapses onto the asphalt, breathing deeply.
There’s multiple Figures now. The first one was the closest to devouring her until she dodged a spike and ran away from it. Then she learned it can split.
Figures in chorus: GOOD! YOUR STRENGTH WILL MAKE THE FEEDING THAT MUCH MORE COMPLETE! YOU CAN’T KEEP THIS PACE LITTLE GIRL!
Paige runs past a spike, then sees one lunge at her from somewhere else. The two spikes become a solid conduit and combine with spikes from a third Figure, forming a net to try to catch her with. Paige sees the net above at the top of the zenith of what she can see and closing in on her.
Paige: Listen to me! I want to save you! I want you to be whole and complete again!
Figures in chorus: WHAT?!! YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW MY NAME!!!
The net comes down faster, with Paige in the center, ducking. She can’t run this time. The center of the net turns red and becomes a vortex too.
Figures in chorus: I… AM…
SHIARA, ATTENDANT OF THE CARNIVAL OF VENGEANCE!!!
Paige thinks to herself, “Is this it? Is this how I die? A carnie is going to consume my soul like all of the other victims? Is there nothing I can do? NOTHING?!!”
Then something inside of her snaps.
Paige screams and instead of fearing the vortex, she leaps straight up. A psionic energy breaks on her fists and head as she approaches the vortex at speed. Then the energy she built up increases, burning bright blue, with the Figure’s red vortex becoming brighter in turn… She reaches the event horizon and collides directly with it…
Still holding her head, the blonde woman calls out, “…catch her!” to the Praetorian, a split second before Paige falls.
Kneeling over Paige, Devereaux performs a cursory check. She seems fine, though there’s sure to be a bruise from the collapse. “Paige, you still with us?”
The teenage heroine doesn’t respond. “Not good.” He begins to ask Linuial to use her empathy to resuscitate Paige but a quick look over his shoulder tells him that the blonde is in a bad way too. “Fine, my turn then.”
“Tahq, do me a favor and get a bird’s eye view. I need someone to keep watch while I make sure Paige didn’t completely fry her brain.”
“Got it.” Tahquitz gets a running start and takes off away from the group so he doesn’t disturb the scene. A cursory look at the ground shows regular traffic, no one coming to the storage yard, and pedestrians being… pedestrian.
The lookout established, Devereaux lays a hand on Paige’s forehead and closes his eyes. Entering a person’s mind is quite different from influencing it from the outside and requires all of his concentration.
The world falls away and he’s left alone in near complete darkness. That isn’t unusual for an unconscious person but something is clearly out of place. “Paige, Paige!” he calls into the void. No response.
“Not good.” Expanding his awareness further, he can feel the constant workings of her subconscious as it handles the usual processes of breathing and pumping her heart but there’s no sign of any activity that would require Paige’s active participation.
“Please don’t be comatose,” he says to himself as he casts about, looking for any sign of the bright young girl who wants to help others like herself. He’s beginning to lose hope when, like a match being struck in a forest at night, he picks up the faint glow of Paige’s personality. Rushing towards it, he finds her sitting on what passes for the ground in this mental landscape. One hand clutches her chest and the look on her face confirms what he suspected. Whatever happened inside the Carnie’s mind took nearly everything she had.
“Hey,” he calls as he approaches. “It’s me. You still with us, Swan Song?”
Paige is exhausted, crying, and mentally spent. She’s trying to reply to Devereaux but it’s difficult between sobs.
“I saw… so much. I thought she… I THOUGHT she would… kill me. But I fought back. I fought her, and-and-and… when I won. Her past… he– her, her, her childhood. Her time… with the… C-C-C-Carnival of Light…”
“I saw it ALL, Dev. I FELT it all.”
“I saw– then– th-th-th-then when she killed– Dev… is this… w-w-what it feels like… to kill? I-I-I’ve-“
“I’ve never, NEVER thought… it would feel like that.” She lost her composure and returned to bawling.
“Happens to the best of us,” Devereaux says in a somber tone. “I wish I had something comforting to say but that’s not really how it goes. Killing’s an ugly business, especially the first time.”
Careful not to move too fast, he sits beside her. Slowly, he reaches out and wraps an arm around her shoulders. “But that wasn’t you. You didn’t do any of those things.”
He pauses involuntarily, unsure of whether what he’s about to say will help. After a moment’s thought he decides to go ahead. “I know what it’s like to experience another person’s life. See, I’m not like a lot of the other metamorphs you see running around. To take on a new form I have to absorb a person’s psychic visage, the image of who they are.”
“I don’t just get their looks and their powers. I get everything. Hopes, dreams, fears, you name it. The first few times I transformed, I couldn’t handle it. I actually thought I was the people I turned into. It took me a long time to figure out how to separate myself, use what I needed and lock away the rest.”
The secret revealed, he takes a breath. “The good news is, it can be done. You saw what she is, sure, but you’re not her. You two fought, she lost, end of story.”
With that, he smiles and says, “You’re gonna be just fine, girl.”
“I don’t k-k-know if I can d-d-do that again…” Paige hugs Devereaux and lets it out a little more. She knows it’s against Devereaux’s character, but this is her mind. If he doesn’t like it, he’s free to leave.
After a couple of minutes, she collects herself, still crying… “What I didn’t tell you guys is that I’ve never attempted anything like this before. I knew I was capable of it, but I kept it to telepathy. Entering into someone’s mind felt so invasive. So impersonal. I didn’t expect… this. I did–”
Paige quails at a realization… she knows something to move forward. “We need to get moving… there’s not much time. I’ll wake up.”
“Uh…yeah,” Devereaux replies. He hadn’t been expecting her to go from distraught to determined quite so quickly. The unexpected hug didn’t help either. “We can talk more later. Trust me, you’re going to want some help sorting all this out.”
He releases Paige and withdraws from her mind. Opening his eyes, he’s back on the street in the real world. He signals Tahquitz to come in for a landing and stands up. As he does, he’s surprised by a popping sound from his knees. “Huh, might be time to start thinking about retirement.”
All the while he can feel Linuial’s eyes on him. He turns to her and says, “She’s a little shaken up but she’s okay. What about you, blondie? You didn’t go and pull a magic muscle on us, did you?”
After idling for 6 minutes, Tahquitz comes to a landing at the Storage Yard. “So, how’s Cricket?”
Paige opens her eyes laying on the hot asphalt. Devereaux is standing over her as she hears Tahquitz land to ask his question.
“I really wish you’d quit calling me that.” She says, sniffling and clearing her eyes, as they keep watering up. Paige is still visibly upset.
“Don’t worry about the crying, it’s my mind trying to process her memories and her emotions. It’s still affecting me. I’m okay, but my nervous system just shut down from the weight of it all.”
Paige looks at Linuial to alleviate her concerns. “I’ll have time to calm down on the way… we have to get to Cutlass Isles. Maylor is hiding there, and they’re on his trail.”
She gets up on her feet, steps up to the comatose Carnie and full on kicks her in the ribcage. She remains unconscious. “Oh, and this woman’s real name isn’t Shiara. It’s also Mirelle McClune.”
Tahquitz looks at Paige crestfallen.
“Turns out Praetoria had an alternate version of her, and she didn’t like the idea of having a counterpart in Steel Canyon. So she had her killed for no reason at all.”
“You can ask me about the details later, but the Carnival of Shadows have joined forces with the Carnival of Vengeance in Paragon City. Without Vanessa DeVore to lead them, some guy named Vermillion is calling the shots. And we’ve got to get to Maylor now.”
Tahquitz is smiling, “I’m sorry, Paige. I just thought you psychics had it more together. Unless those two are just b–”
“I’ve never done that before. If I didn’t just wake up, I’d be yelling at you.” Paige calmly said, drying her eyes.
Tahquitz looks down, dejected. He didn’t consider this was the first time she did this. He tries to speak again, but Paige caught his thought before he could talk.
“You don’t want to know what it’s like,” Paige said, “… you really don’t. I don’t need apologies or pity. Just be glad you’re not a psychic figuring this stuff out for the first time. It’s not like learning your powers in the real world. The psychological world is a whole other ballgame, and nothing works the same way. I’m not saying your powers are easier to handle than mine, but I’ve never been more terrified in my life.”
“The Cutlass Isles are a ways out. Even if we flew it’d still be a decent trip. We need to get moving.”
Devereaux looks down at the fallen Carnival Mistress. She’s a Praetorian, like himself and he can’t help but feel some kind of kinship with her. For all its shortcomings, his home dimension had been graced by its fair share of good people. But this wasn’t one of them. It was impossible to say whether people like her did what they did because they wanted to or if the Carnival of Vengeance had some kind of hold on their minds. Regardless, she’s the enemy now.
“Let’s call the locals in to deal with this one. We’ve got a paycheck to earn.” Without waiting for any further conversation, he turns to leave.
Linuial drops her hand from her face…the trickle of tears has turned to blood, there is blood leaking from the same side of her nose down her upper lip. She drags the back of her opposite forearm across her lower face, leaving smears of blood. She begins chanting, the ball of green light appears around her, the bleeding stops, bloody smears still tracking half her face.
Struggling to her feet, she moves slowly toward the mask, picks it up. “This one is different from the first one,” she tells them. Again turning it over in her hands, smoothing the surface with her fingers, she presses the mask to her face for a couple of seconds, removes it.
Taking a few tottering steps away, she drops the mask to the ground, looks up at Taquitz. “Freeze it solid, then burn it. Burn it to ashes, then freeze the ashes.” She puts out a hand to a nearby metal drum to steady herself as she sways.
“You know, you should really stop doing that,” Devereaux chides. Coming over to stand beside her, he offers an arm. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, I’ll deny it if you do, but you bring something to the table the rest of us don’t. We can’t afford to have you burn out on a stunt like that.”
Giving Linuial a moment to gather herself, he takes the time to check his phone. “Whatever you found out, tell us fast. We’ve gotta be quick if we’re going to beat the Carnival to Maylor.”
Watching the boy perform the task, she pulls out her cell phone, taps it, raises it to the side of her face, ignoring the Praetorian’s proferred arm. “Backup,” she says, in a tired voice. “No, I’m okay, I just need a little help…we’ll wait.”
She sags back to sit on the ground, rubbing one hand across the dried blood, trying to dislodge it.
After a couple of minutes, the vague sound of a jet engine far away starts to become louder. Instead of coming from the sky, it seems to be bouncing off the surrounding buildings. A man bursts from around a corner and runs directly toward them, at terrifying speed. The jet engine sound, and a glittering golden aura, are coming from his boots as he runs.
He comes to a halt in front of the blonde woman…the sound and golden glow vanish…he kneels and puts a hand on her shoulder, gently. An extraordinary sight: long, shaggy blonde hair, a shade darker than the woman’s, heavy brown work boots, stiff new jeans, the hems of the legs shredded, a leather belt with boxes and other equipment attached, are the most ordinary part of his appearance. From the shoulders, his arms and hands are not human at all, but skeletal robotic ones, silver and gray. What appears to be a telephoto camera lens juts out of his right eye socket. His one visible eye is deep-seated under its brow. Gray and silver lines trace across every inch of his visible skin, which is quite a lot as he is shirtless. The lines, on examination, take on the appearance of wiring on a circuit board.
“Lin…” he says softly. She allows him to raise her to her feet. He scans her face with a worried expression…or is it? It’s hard to tell what his expression is, through the circuitry.
“I’m good.” She points at the unconscious woman. “Take her to Azuria for me, and warn her to place wards around her…wouldn’t hurt to lock her up as well, until we get this all sorted out. And stick around until that thing…” she points at the disintegrating mask, “…is ashes, gather them up and take them to Azuria as well. She might still be able to glean something from them.” She shakes her head, tilts her head up to meet the taller blonde man’s gaze. “It looks like we might have new players in Paragon, and we need to suss out everything we can, get ready for it.”
He nods his head: “Got it. I’ll have Starfire on standby. Chris is already at the base, Brother Mathias is on his way…you want Stray to come with you? She’s waiting at the ferry, we didn’t know what you might need.”
“No, have her escort you and our prisoner, and then head back to the base. If I need anything else, I’ll sing out loud and clear.” She smiles up at him, an easy and familiar smile, finally looking more relaxed than she has since Croatoa.
He smiles back at her, an expression hardly more pleasant that Deveraux’s trademark scowl, turns his head to glare at the Praetorian, before picking a crate to sit on, pulling out a cell phone and speaking softly into it.
Linuial looks at the Praetorian. “Okay, now we can go.”
Tahquitz grabs a stick on the ground and puts it through the eyehole of the mask, and drags it off to the side to incinerate it.
Five minutes later, he comes back with a coffee can. “Here you go. It’s a little cold to the touch.”
The blonde cyborg glances up from his phone: “Lin, a minute.” He puts the phone on the crate, pulls a handkerchief from one of the boxes on the belt around his waist, walks over to her as she watches him, puzzled…he dabs at the blood on her face, spits on the cloth, rubs some more, and manages to get a good bit of red off of her. She closes her eyes, opens them again when he is finished. “Thank you, Jon…” she says softly as he returns to his phone and the crate.
As Tahquitz walks forward with the can, Jon Smith stands, puts his cell in a belt pouch, leans over the unconscious woman, picks her up in his arms, then reaches one metal hand out towards the can, the woman’s legs draped across that arm. He waits for Tahq to place the can in his hand…he has no temperature sensors, so the cold doesn’t bother him…nods and smiles at Linuial. There is the sound of a small jet engine revving, and gold sparks begin to shower from his boots. A second, and he and the unconscious woman are out of sight around a building, a rapidly disappearing golden trail the only mark of their leaving.
The Heroes take a moment to grab drinks and tacos to go from El Super Mexicano, Linuial excuses herself to the bathroom to finish cleaning up. They leave Paige to pay the bill, Linuial promising to Recall her to them when the other three reach the Cutlass Isles.