Paragon City Stories: The Carnival Without
Hosted by UNINVENTIVEHEART
Act III, Scene 1
Place: Atlas Park
It is after 10 pm when you arrive at City Hall. The night is clear, and the moon crests the Atlas statue with silver. As you enter the front doors, the City Representative nods to you…you were obviously expected…and points with her right hand towards a nondescript and unlabeled door to your left. A PPD officer keys the electronic lock and opens the door for you, where you are met by another City Hall employee, who directs you down a long hall and into a large room on the left.
Under the official seal of the City of Paragon, a long table with chairs along the far side is set up. Two more tables are arranged perpendicular to the first, again with chairs along one side, forming a “U”-shape, with all the chairs facing the interior of the “U”. The employee, a pleasant-looking older woman who smells of gardenias, escorts you to four chairs at the leftmost of the side tables, where food and drinks are laid out ready for you, and directs you to be seated and help yourselves.
“I’ve been told that the PPD will want you to report back on a later date for a full debriefing, but for tonight you’re only required to be present until the Mayor’s meeting breaks up, in case anyone wants to ask you questions. After that, you’re welcome to remain here as long as you like, this room will not be cleared until the morning staff come in at 8 am.” She nods politely, and leaves the room the way she came.
As you sit and begin to eat, other people walk in and out of the room, some milling about, others moving with purpose, until the Mayor walks into the room, whereupon the chairs begin filling up. By the time everyone is settled, the Mayor has taken the central position at the head table, with Azuria on his right, and a Dark Mage on Azuria’s right. Other chairs at the head table are taken by the heads of the other Origin departments: Susan Davies of E.L.I.T.E., her husband Rick Davies of D.A.T.A., Antonio Nash of G.I.F.T., and Jonathan St.John Smythe of S.E.R.A.P.H. On the right hand side table across from the Task Force team sits Detective Martins and several other PPD officers, including one with a more ornate uniform.
Devereaux shifts in his seat at the sight of so many public officials in one place. He’s no stranger to meetings with high profile civil servants, the Syndicate kept ties with many such people in Cole’s regime, but there’s still something a little unnerving about being an extralegal actor in a room with a police commissioner.
Remembering a passage from The Art of War, he decides to seize the initiative. “I assume you’re all here to try and discern exactly what you’re up against.”
The mayor clears his throat before speaking. “Yes, mister Devereaux. We-“
“You’ll have to excuse me but I’m a bit too tired to stand on formalities. You can just call me Xavier.”
The mayor looks a bit incredulous. He’s clearly not familiar with being interrupted but, to his credit, he takes it in stride. “Of course. Xavier, I understand that you and your…colleagues were very successful in your mission. If you would, please, tell us about what you were able to discover.”
One hell of an open ended question. “In a nutshell?” Devereaux asks rhetorically. “You have a very serious problem on your hands.”
After a moment spent waiting for him to continue, the mayor prompts, “Would you mind elaborating on that?”
Devereaux adjusts his glasses. “They’re much better storytellers than I am,” he says, motioning toward Tahquitz, Paige, and Linuial. “Believe me, it’s one worth hearing. Come back to me when you want some semblance of what it all means.”
Linuial turns her head to look at Deveraux, smiling slightly, and raises her eyebrows. “You always manage to surprise me,“ she tells her mental image of the Praetorian.
She makes eye contact with Azuria, then with the Mayor, cocks her head quizzically. When the Mayor nods assent, she begins to speak, directing her comments to the head table.
“Mr. Deveraux, Ms. Pirillo, and Mr. Verne, along with Alaric Stahlhelm, were asked to investigate a series of murders that bore the earmarks of the Carnival of Shadows. Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite a bit more dangerous than anyone suspected, and Mr. Stahlhelm lost his life during the first investigation, whereupon I was assigned to the team as his replacement.
“Mr. Devereaux was the one who identified the involvement of the Carnival of Vengeance, after he saw and recognized one of their masks. Ms. Purillo made telepathic contact with one of the prisoners we have here tonight, and might be able to give you further information besides what she has already told us. Mr. Verne and I were largely observers, but we’d be happy to answer any questions you might have for us.
“The one thing we can all vouch for, is that there is a fully established partnership between Primal Earth’s Carnival of Shadows and Praetoria’s Carnival of Vengeance, and that the Praetorians appear to be the driving force, directing the Shadows in the absence of Vanessa DeVore. That the Shadows are active again under new leadership is worrisome enough in itself, but the incursion of Vengeance into Paragon City is an entirely different situation, not the least because, while we know the Shadows intimately, we only have the most basic information on Vengeance.”
Paige leaned into the microphone, and started talking after Linuial finished, nervously she began “THE CARNI–” the room quailed with feedback as Paige lowered her voice, “Wow, these are sensitive. Sorry, I’m not good with public speaking. I’m nervous addressing so many civic leaders and officials at once.”
“Take your time, Miss Pirillo, you’re doing fine,” the Mayor smiled back to reassure her.
“Yes, as Linuial stated, I found that the Carnival of Vengeance were performing identity theft on their Primal Earth counterparts, which is why the murders had no apparent pattern. It was done to remove funds, resources and even property from Primal Earth citizens for them to get a foothold in Paragon City.”
“Mirelle McClune was the person of interest as well as a accessory to the unidentified subject of the investigation as it turned out. Her Praetorian Earth counterpart did not directly participate in her murder, but was definitely a part of the premeditation on the Carnival’s behalf. We tracked their position to a remote area of the Peregrine Islands and under Xavier’s leadership, we apprehended Pronoea, who was in charge of this operation.”
“I’ll write a report on everything I learned in the field after this meeting and make it available to you all.” Paige concluded. She then sank back in her chair and looked at the room nervously to see if she did well enough.
“And I froze a bunch of people and lit myself on fire.” Tahquitz said into the microphone. A few laughs from the audience erupted, but the panel remained silent.
Rick Davies looked at Tahq oddly, then Tahq continued, laughing nervously, “No, no, no… the self-immolation was just a distraction. I’m immune to fire, and I made sure no one was hurt at all from what I did. I was ready to suppress it if something else carbonized that would lead to harm or property loss.”
He took a breath, then continued, “I was eager to be part of the investigation and evidence discovery, but as demonstrated by my compatriots, there’s sufficient brains behind this group already. It turned out I was the muscle in this team. Most of my efforts were in tactical and offense this time around.”
“Nothing wrong with that. As most of you elected officials know it, you serve where it’s needed, right?” Tahquitz sits back and takes a drink of water.
Devereaux can’t help but chuckle at Tahquitz’s recounting of events. He takes a moment to gather his composure and says, “He was an extremely integral part of the team,” without sarcasm.
“So, any other questions?” he asks, tipping a hand toward the mayor.
“Just one, if you’d be so kind. What exactly does it all mean?”
Drawing a deep breath, he begins to explain. “To be completely honest, I’m not sure. You have to understand, and by that I mean all of you,” he says with a sweeping gesture across the assembled officials.
“The Carnival of Vengeance is an offshoot of the Carnival of Light which was itself the Praetorian counterpart to the Carnival of Shadows. There’s a lot of history there that I’m sure you can find out for yourselves. The important thing to know is that the Carnival of Vengeance is nothing like the Shadows. They couldn’t care less about throwing parties or personal power.”
Turning his attention to Azuria, he continues. “They’re mages, not psychics. Magic isn’t my forte but I’ve had the misfortune of being on the wrong end of a few of their spells. I’d describe them as dark, to say the least. I’m sure you and Linuial could think of something more apropos. The point is, whatever the Carnival of Vengeance is doing in this dimension, you need to be prepared for the fight of your lives.”
With his part of the tale told, he settles back into his seat and fires off a response to Linuial. “I’m trying to surprise them. Judging by the looks on their faces, I’d say I’m doing a fine job.”
The Mayor taps on a small silver bell sitting on the table in front of him. “Very well. You have all heard the basic outline. Detailed recommendations can wait for later. I need discussion, and your immediate feed back, for tonight. Who wishes to speak first?”
Azuria turns to the dark mage beside her, the PPD officers begin to confer with each other, Rick Davies turns to speak quietly with his wife. The quiet conversations gradually increase in volume as the debate livens up.
As the officials carry on their debate, you find yourselves mere spectators for the moment. There is still some of the food leftover in front of you, and the spotlight is off you, temporarily.
As Azuria finishes her conversation with the dark mage, he stands, pushing his chair back, and circles behind the tables and behind the team of Heroes until he reaches Paige at the end of their table. Resting an arm on the end of the table, he goes down on one knee next to her to bring him to eye level with her.
“Ms. Purillo? My name is Fannour. I’m from Praetoria and I have a lot of experience with the Carnival of Vengeance. Would you please tell me everything you can remember about your contact with our Ms. McClune?”
Linuial lowers her eyes to the table, cocks her head toward Devereaux. “Xavier, is it? That your friends call you?” Her voice is low, just meant for his ears. “Not Xav? Or X? Or Dev-dev? Or Snookums?” She chuckles under her breath. “Oh, wait, you’re going to tell me that you’re a tough guy and you don’t have any friends, right?” Her smile spreads, teasing. “All right, what does Pai Mei call you?”
“I’ve got plenty of friends, thank you very much. As for what Pai Mei calls me, you can ask her yourself. She’s sitting right over there.” He inclines his head toward the officials’ table. The movement is subtle, just enough to indicate the middle aged Chinese woman with jet black hair pinned up in a tight bun sitting with the G.I.F.T. delegation.
“But why bother? You wanna be my friend now?” He punctuates the question with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin. “Being affiliated with a scoundrel like me won’t exactly help your reputation.”
She continues to speak softly. “Reputation? My reputation is that no one can figure me out, or predict what I will do next. Associating with scoundrels is just one of the ways I make certain no one can predict me.” She laughs softly, then turns suddenly solemn. “Xavier…I think I may have allowed you to misunderstand something. Perhaps not, but if so…then I should probably clear something up.”
She waits until she is certain that she has his full attention. “If you imagine that empathy is like your telepathy, then you might not have realized something…and in the interest of full disclosure, I feel duty bound to enlighten you.
“When you read someone, you must concentrate. If someone is trying to communicate with you telepathically, they must concentrate. To put up your mental blocks, which by the way have no effect on your emotions, so they don’t block empathy at all, you must concentrate.
“But empathy isn’t like that. It’s more like hearing…I guess you would say that it is ‘always on’…or perhaps it would more accurate to say that it cannot be turned off. Ever. Under any circumstances. Like hearing, it is distance oriented…the closer I am to someone, the more clearly I feel what they are feeling. In addition, the stronger the emotion, the further it travels. Being in a room like this, for me, is like being at a party where everyone is talking at once.”
“I’ll be sure to bring more bipolar people next time we hangout. That should be somewhere around a car crash for you, right?”
His patience for conspiratorial whispers wearing thin, he makes a proposal. “Look, you might not be human but I’ve never seen a face I couldn’t read. I don’t need my powers to know this conversation is about to take a serious turn. If you want, I can make sure whatever it is you’re trying to say stays strictly between us.”
No longer concerned with who sees them or the conclusions that could be drawn, he turns to face Linuial. “You’re going to have to trust me a little bit but I promise not to go digging inside your head. I don’t want any part of whatever’s knocking around in there.”
Glancing around the room, it is apparent that at the moment all parties are involved in their own discussions. She turns toward the Praetorian, and breaks into an impish smile.
“You misunderstand, Snookums.” She laughs. “That was about as serious as it is likely to get. Some people, especially people as private as you appear to be, would be completely freaked out at the idea that someone is reading their emotions…ALL of their emotions…all the time. While I can’t read thoughts, just reflexively reading emotions can tell me a lot about a person’s inner landscape. For example, if I mention a candidate for public office, you don’t even have to speak for me to know instantly if you like or loathe him.
“I do try to keep as much distance as I can, but some things are going to be obvious to me.
“I knew Von Trier was trying to look down the front of my tunic…I was standing right next to him, remember? I felt the moment when his lust turned to fear…he’s very much afraid of you, you know.” She laughs. “…and I saw you tap your temple,” she copies the motion in illustration, “…the interpretation was obvious.”
“You, my dear scoundrel, were secretly trying to protect the honor of a woman you had met only hours earlier. I know your secret: you’re a gentleman…even chivalrous…possibly even a bit of an altruist?”
“…and as I read Von Trier…so I’ve also been reading you all along…even now…” She winks at him, turns back to the assemblage.
“You, my friend, are a very strange woman” he says and follows suit.
“Don’t think you’re getting off that easy. I may not be as old as you but intel has been my specialty since before I could drive. Whatever it is you’re trying to get at, I’ll find out sooner or later.”
He’s about to say more when his attention is drawn back to the microphone in front of him. It wobbles slightly back and forth as if blown by some unseen fan. To a normal person it would seem odd but he recognizes the gesture instantly. Pai Mei is calling.
“As for Von Trier, I kept him from dabbling in something he couldn’t possibly begin to understand. It just so happens that was you.”
With that, he stands and crosses the room to the G.I.F.T representatives.
Her thought follows him across the room. “Very well, then, I misinterpreted, and you are not a gentleman.“ Her mental voice chuckles. “If you ever want a look inside…it is yours. All the barriers down. But I warn you…you will not come out of it the same.“ The chuckle echoes and fades…
The conference drags on for what feels like an eternity. Debriefings, speculation, and firm handshakes are the order of the night. You and your team want nothing more than to go home and fall into the comfort of your own beds.
After a lengthy, impromptu speech by the mayor thanking you for your diligence and bravery, the gathering finally breaks up. The various delegations return to their offices for what is sure to be a sleepless night spent trying to make sense of all you’ve told them.
But for you, the work is done. You end up outside on the steps of City Hall. It’s a beautiful night in the City of Heroes. The statue of Atlas looms large as always and the occasional car roams the streets.
This is the end of the line. No more mysteries, no more daring acts of heroism. The time has come to say goodbye.
Linuial pauses on the City Hall porch, lifts her head toward the sky over the Atlas statue. She takes one step down, then another, then turns her palms outward at her sides, begins to raise her arms upward. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, stands for a moment, before dropping her arms again.
She remains posed, head back, eyes closed, as she begins to speak, so softly they have to strain to hear her voice.
“ ‘El’ was the first word ever spoken in my language. The literal translation into English is ‘star’. We called ourselves ‘Eldrim’…the People of the Stars. My people have always been at their happiest under the stars.” She drops her head, opens her eyes to turn back toward the team, smiling.
She mounts the steps again to face Paige. Cupping the girl’s cheeks in her hands, she kisses her forehead. “I see great things ahead of you, Paige. You are strong, and smart, and have a great untapped talent. If you ever have need of me, all you have to do is ask.” She laughs. “And the next time I need someone to braid my hair, I’ll be sure to call on you.”
Turning to Tahquitz: “May I speak with Tim?” She places both hands on the boy’s shoulders, also kisses his forehead before looking him deeply in the eyes. “I looked up your demon…he seems to be quite famous in California…schools, mountains, parks named in his honor. Any Kheldian can tell you that creating a working partnership between two personalities within one body is no walk in the park. You’ve done a job many adults could not have achieved. I would expect that there is much more ahead of you…many more adventures, and successes. Paragon City could be proud to number you among its Heroes, if this is where you chose to make your home.”
“And if you don’t, look me up. I know some people who’d pay good money to have an elemental on their side. Provided you can promise not to end the planet in a holocaust, that is,” he adds with a chuckle.
“I meant what I said back there, Tahq. Play your cards right and you’re gonna be one hell of a guy to tangle with. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even go head to head before it’s all said and done.”
He seals the words with a sly grin. Then he turns to Paige. “As for you, lady, you’ve got some serious potential as a psychic. Here.” Digging into the pocket of his coat, he fishes out a cell phone.
“It’s a burner. I always keep one just in case. My number’s already saved. If you’re serious about getting that place for kids like you off the ground, you’re gonna need some capital. I’m not sure if you noticed but I’m pretty savvy when it comes to that kinda thing.”
He holds the device out for her to take. “Don’t hesitate to hit me up. Two mind readers are better than one, after all.”
Tahquitz uninventiveheart) moved 07/24/2016
“I promise absolutely nothing.” Tahquitz says to Devereaux and ends with a fist bump. “But I look forward to anything… we’ll see each other again, Dev.”
He tells Linuial, “Thank you for keeping me in the pink, Linuial. I was only safe because of you. I never knew my mother growing up, but if I did, I’d like to think you and her had plenty in common behind your eyes.”
Finally, he turns to Paige, who is looking at him square in the eyes and says “As for you–” and that’s all that Tahquitz can say before she runs off the steps and towards the train.
“Paige, wait!” He sees Linuial and Devereaux watch her run, and Tahquitz says, “Give me a moment… Let me talk to her.” Linuial tries to tell him something, but Tahq already took off, frustrating her.
Tahquitz flies to where she is running and drops right in front of her. She tries to run past him, but he catches her… She’s gently sobbing and refuses to look at him. “Girl, I can fly… you’re not going to slip past me. What’s wrong?” Tahquitz asks her.
“You.” Paige says softly between sobs.
“What? Me– what the hell did I do?” Tahquitz asks, then Paige cries louder, “I’m sorry, I’m just being brash. Paige, what did I do to make you like this? Linuial and Devereaux are worried, I don’t need to have brain powers to see that. Talk to me.”
Paige takes a deep breath and tries to pull back her tears before speaking, but her emotions are getting past her defenses. Tahquitz walks her over to a nearby planter as they sit on the edge together.
“What’s the matter? How can I make you feel better?” Tahquitz says, pulling out a cache of napkins he stole from the City Hall building snack table. “Here, dry your eyes.” Paige laughs, because it’s something she would have done if she thought of it herself.
“I’ve never had a positive relationship with boys,” Paige starts off, “…Men and Women, of course, I’ve had as many mentors as villains. And when Linuial and Devereaux tell me they want to stay in touch, I believe them, but girls my age… I’m nowhere around them at College, because I’m a prodigy. And boys… no one at college will give me the time of day, and the boys who are my age that I run into, I’m nothing to look at, and throughout my life they have passed me by, ignored me, or worse, treated me like dirt. There are so many of my friends who are adults, which doesn’t make Lin or Dev disposable, but with people my age… I wasn’t looking forward to working with someone like you on the team. I thought you’d be someone who just run his mouth, throw his shots, and be done with the team…”
She sniffles a bit before continuing, taking another tissue from his hands to clear her nose, “…but you weren’t. You didn’t treat me like someone who held the group up. You weren’t cruel to me. If I–”
Tahquitz interrupts her, “Okay, if this is going where I think it’s going, I need to say something. I’m seeing someone at the moment.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about!” Paige smacks him on the back of the head smartly. Tahquitz winces a bit, as it was strong enough not to be playful, but not intended to cause him harm either. But she has his full attention. “I’ve never had a family of my own, Tim. And you’ve lost yours… I remember that much. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your father, that’s something I’ll never know, and that’s a hole in your life that I can’t possibly fill, but…”
“I don’t think there’s a legal thing that exists for what I’m asking, as we’re both wards of the state, but if you don’t mind… I could use a brother in my life. I don’t want to go back to school with no one to talk to. I’ve done it for nine years, I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“I’d like that,” Tahquitz said, hugging Paige, smiling with his eyes watering a bit. “I’d like that a lot actually. I’ve never had a sister.” He then has an idea, “In fact, tomorrow, my supergroup is going to go through a uniform change. We’re talking to tailors to pick stuff out… and that crap has always bored me. I’m not asking you to join us or anything, but my group leader will be there, Ventus vis Vires. You’d like her a lot, she’s fiercely intelligent just like you. And my girlfriend, PulseFire, will be there too. If you’re not doing anything, why don’t you come with us?”
“I have mid-terms… I can’t stay long if it’s going to be all day, but sure. I’ll be there,” Paige said.
“Good… now can we go back to the City Hall entrance? There’s a star woman and a Praetorian who are very worried about you.” Tahquitz says as she smiles at him.
Paige walks slowly back up the steps, sniffling again. She sees Linuial and hugs her immediately. They embrace for a few moments.
She wispers softly to Linuial, “Thank you for everything… I hope you find the place you’ve been looking for all this time.”
After letting go, she turns to Devereaux, “You’re not getting away from me.” She hugs him too, then pulls back, “You’re not as hardened and cold as you let on Xavier. You might even make a good husband and father someday.” She knows what effect that has on him as she sees him roll his head away in disgust of the thought.
As Paige runs away, Linuial calls out to her, starts to follow…pauses when Tahq asks to speak with her.
She follows the two teenagers with her eyes, then runs across the City Hall porch to keep them in view as they head toward the train station, stopping only when she reaches the end of the porch.
Her back to him, her expression is hidden from the Praetorian, but her mental voice is quiet, suppressed. “I still don’t think you quite understand, Xavier.“ She pauses, then continues. “When I say that I feel what others do, I actually feel it as if the pain was my own. I felt Steelhelm die…I felt all his death agonies. It was as if I was the one dying. When I asked if I could ease Mirelle’s suffering after you finished interrogating her, it was to ease my suffering along with her.“ Even from behind, he can see her shake her head. “What is strange about that?“
“I never said your powers were strange. I said you are” Devereaux replies as he watches Tahquitz go after Paige.
“That’s the difference between reading minds and reading hearts. You may know how someone feels, sure, but people ignore their feelings all the time. They get out of bed when they’d rather stay asleep, they go to jobs they hate, they spend money on things they’d rather not. Someone once said, ‘It’s not who I am but what I do that defines me.’ People act with their brains, not their feelings.”
As the two young heroes talk out of earshot, he continues. “When you asked me to let you heal that woman, I didn’t stop you. Why would I? You would’ve done it whether I wanted you to or not. But you went out of your way to make sure you didn’t tread on my feelings.”
Whatever Tahquitz said to Paige, it must have worked. As they ascend the stairs, he finishes what he has to say. “You break the rules, Linuial. Feelings are what move you through the world, yours and everyone else’s. I’ve met a lot of people and they all love to talk about who they are. Hypocrites, every last one of ‘em. But not you. You’re one hell of a novelty.” At those last words, his mental voice reverberates with roguish laughter.
Paige and Tahquitz have returned. He watches as the sniffling heroine hugs Linuial. When she turns to him, he’s prepared to offer the phone again but is surprised by a hug instead. The embrace doesn’t last long before she delivers a cringe worthy line about fatherhood.
“Okay, okay. I think that’s enough sentiment for one lifetime. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m about ready to call it a night. You crazy kids be cool now,” he says as he takes a step away from the group. Raising a backward hand, two fingers outstretched in the universal sign for peace, he adds, “It’s been real.”
With that, he descends the steps and walks out into the night.
Paige feels something in her right pocket as Devereaux walks away…a small burner phone. Realizing this she runs to the street to ask Devereaux how he did that but past the Atlas Statue, he was already gone.
“That was impressive. These pockets are tiny… I can’t put anything in them.” She laughs out loud before she heads to the Monorail herself.
“What a strange man…” the tiny woman says softly as she watches him and Paige walk away in different directions.
Turning, she gives Tahquitz a final smile, then soars into the night air. The swift-moving moon has already set; away from the City Hall lights, with only the stars for illumination, her pale blue dress becomes pale gray, almost white, her blonde hair silver. Heading for the top of the Atlas statue, she begins an aerial dance almost as old as the Earth itself…
To be continued in: Paragon City Stories: Darkness, Digitized
Devereaux leans back in his office chair and admires the penthouse decor. From the deep blue walls to the distinctly modern furniture, everything about the crash-pad appeals to his sense of style. Outside the window the massive stone horns of Mount Diable are just barely visible past the gleaming skyscrapers of Aeon City.
“Money well spent,” he says aloud to no one in particular.
His reverie is suddenly interrupted by the mellow, digitized tones of his cell phone. He picks it up without looking at the caller ID. “Go ahead.”
The voice on the other end is heavy with an accent that makes it difficult to understand every word. Still, he gets the gist of what’s being said. There’s another job waiting for him. It’s been nearly six months since the tangle with the Carnival of Vengeance in Paragon City. Wild as it was, the pay was phenomenal. Enough to let him spend some time on a much needed vacation.
“All good things must come to an end, I guess” he says as he replaces the phone on the desk and opens his laptop. A few clicks of the mouse bring him to the login screen for his private email account. He enters the current password and waits for the information to be decrypted. When it is, he opens the most recent message and begins scrolling through the attached files.
“So they want the schematics for that neural network computer Crey’s been working on. Let’s see…No outside network connections, around the clock facility security, seems simple enough.”
He’s about to continue when one of the attachments stops him cold. He refreshes the screen just to be certain his eyes aren’t playing tricks on him. Assured that they aren’t, he closes the files and opens the standard web browser. A few more mouse clicks and several rapid keystrokes later he takes up his phone again.
“Tell them I have a prior engagement,” he says before unceremoniously ending the call. He stands and goes into the bedroom, ignoring the ringtone as his contact tries to call back. Stooping and reaching under the designer bed, he retrieves an innocuous looking black travel bag. There’s no need to check its contents. He’s been religious about keeping it stocked with everything he might need since first crossing the dimensional boundary and leaving Praetoria behind.
Going back into the apartment’s common area he snatches his phone and leather jacket from their resting places.
“Time to get the old band back together,” he chuckles to himself as he heads out the door.
Behind him, on the high definition LCD screen, covertly taken photos of Tahquitz, Paige, and Linuial are displayed next to an image of a theatrical mask covered in smoky gray scales.
THREE YEARS EARLIER:
Dawoud ibn Tariq ibn Ishak Al-Farsi dropped his pencil with a sigh, unable to ignore the cub’s constant chirping any longer. At the action, the chirping increased in frequency and volume. He got up and crossed the office to the training cage. The cub within was now eighteen weeks old, and stood as tall as a two-year-old human when she stretched to her full height. Holding to the bars with one hand, she reached toward him with the other, straining her shoulder through the bars, clawing at the lower bars with her feet, chirping. As he approached the cage, she dropped down and began sprinting around the perimeter of the cage, leaping up to kick against the higher bars, propelling herself ever faster in her leaps and bounds.
“Ho, whoa…calm down, there, B-three,” he told her, holding a hand up. She appeared to give no notice, but when he drew near to the cage door, she dropped down to her haunches in front of the door, chirping excitedly, one hand raised and pawing at the air. He dropped to one knee, she jumped up and started rubbing her shoulder against the door bars. “I already told you, I can’t take you out. I’ll get in trouble.”
With a happy chirrup, she settled down in front of the cage door again, reaching up to paw at the lock over her head. When that failed to move him quickly enough, she stood, leaned against the cage door, rubbing her cheek back-and-forth against the bars, chirruping and purring.
He sighed again. “All right…” he said, standing and shaking a finger at her. “But just this one time more, okay? I don’t want to get fired, and what would you do if I did?” He pulled out the large keyring, turned one key in the lock as she dashed around the cage. “Stop. Stop,” he told her. “I am not going to open the door until you are sitting. Remember?”
She immediately stopped her leaping flight and settled on the floor in front of the door, chirping happily. “All right,” he continued, “…calm. Good girls are calm. Good girls get to cuddle…okay?” He pulled the key out of the lock, cracked the door open, “…Sit!” he told her when her butt lifted from the floor.
She settled back down. He held up a hand in front of her face as he slowly pulled the door further open. She danced with her hands against the floor, but kept her back legs folded. As he leaned over her, she reached up to touch his face with one clawed hand, patting it gently. She gave him an encouraging chirp, raised both arms as he gripped her ribcage and lifted her from the floor, to cradle her in the crook of one arm.
He couldn’t help the wide smile that creased his face. “There’s my good girl. Who’s daddy’s good little girl, huh?” She chirruped back at him, kneading his chest with both hands. “Now, talk to daddy. You remember how to do that? Can you say ‘da-da’?”
She chirped at him. “No, baby girl, ‘da-da’.”
She ducked her chin, focused her eyes on his chest, and forced “…da…da…” out in a low gutteral voice.
He ruffled the fur on top of her head, as she tilted her face up to rub against his chest. “That’s my smart girl, Three. We’re going to show them, aren’t we? We’re going to show them all.”
ONE WEEK AFTER THE MAYOR'S MEETING ON THE CARNIVAL OF VENGEANCE:
“All right, listen up!”
The dull roar in the auditorium quieted, petered off to a few hushed whispers, then became silent.
PPD Assistant Commissioner Grimwald waited a second more, then began to address the room.
“We received an anonymous tip, which was confirmed by investigation. Because we cannot be certain that our tipster is not on the inside, there is to be zero collateral damage. I repeat…no one in or outside of the complex is to be shot unless they are an active shooter. You all have Kevlar, other than the Invulnerables, so act like it.
“PPD will surround the building and take into custody anyone who tries to flee. The buildings in the complex are kept locked 24/7. If personnel inside can be induced to open the doors willingly, that is the preferred mode of entry. If not, force will be applied to the entrances only.
“Hero Corps will be the only personnel to approach entrances, until such time as all entrances are secured. Hero Corps will sweep each building, signaling for PPD to follow them as they secure each area. Arrest only. You are only authorized to utilize lethal force in the case of active shooters and/or hostage situations.
“As soon as each building is secured, and all ABP personnel removed, G.I.F.T. personnel will move in and begin assessment. Antonio Nash will oversee the acquisition of data, equipment, and biologic materials, including the living subjects we were told to expect. At that point, you are all under his direction. He will inform you when your assistance is no longer needed, at which point you will report back to this room for debriefing.
“I want this done by the numbers, people. Nice and clean. If you meet more resistance than expected, call for backup and wait for it to arrive. No cowboy tactics here, we don’t know what condition the live subjects might be in, and until we do know, we have to assume there are innocent citizens inside. Assume this is a hostage situation.
“All right, you all have your assignments. Move like you’ve got a purpose, people.”
He turned and walked out of the room to the sound of shuffling feet, scooting chairs, and the rising roar of voices.
Linuial turned and gathered her waiting SG members by eye, nodded. They filed out of the room together, no words needed between them.
SIX MONTHS LATER:
“…you couldn’t save any others?” the blonde woman asked Antonio Nash, without hope.
“I’m afraid not,” he answered. His face showed his regret. “They were all too violent to handle, let alone retrain. It was in their DNA, after all…there was no hope of reprogramming them to be anything but what they were designed to be.”
“And Bubastis? The survivor?”
“We’ve completed her training and are looking for a suitable mission to send her on, preferably with a mentor. We need to see if she is going to retain her training, or…”
“…or revert to type?” she asked, delicately.
“What about the termination option?”
Nash signed. “I’m afraid that’s still up in the air. She’s on probation, Lin. Whether or not she’s allowed to live depends entirely on how she handles exposure to the most extreme of provocations.”
“Well, then, consider me to be her mentor.”
“Lin, I know you love saving people, but…”
“No ‘buts’, Tony.” Linuial’s face reflected her determination.
At Steel Canyon University, Paige is filling out her forms for Summer Classes. She is in the Admissions Hall next to Carter Drake, an Upperclassman who was co-author on Paige’s case study that she barely had time to pass after her job in Peregrine Island.
“The control on that experiment was so hard to get together… I’m serious, Paige, how did you manage to find 6 people who had no knowledge of Crey Corporation and felt neutral about their bad press?”, Carter asked, “For a sociology class, you knocked that out of the park.”
Paige isn’t up front with people about having her powers, despite being a registered super hero who evades publicity, so she devises a cover, “I tried to locate people in the Rhode Island Voter Registrations who recently moved here. Out of 300-500 people, 6 is cake.” She covered up the part that she ‘visited’ their minds to find their bias in advance as she pencils in her personal details in the boxes and fills in bubbles. Except since her first time, she’s learned to be MUCH more careful in future trips into other people’s minds as to leave no trace as well as to take nothing back with her. If it gets too real, she can disconnect much cleaner than she did the first time.
But Carter is still going on about the class, as he continues, “It’s still amazing, kid, you put in more work than other students three or four years older. I should work with more prodigies in the future.”
“Good luck with that… we don’t come around too often I hear,” Paige says as she collects her finished paper work. “And don’t sell yourself short, your process in the survey was iron clad. There was virtually no margin of error. You made it easy to write that paper. Ready to hop into the 45 minute long line to say ‘We have no lives during Summer Break?’”
45 minutes? Yeah, right. In 90 minutes, they reach the front counter, as the clerk goes through her paper work…
“Miss, is this a joke?” the Registrar asks.
“Is what a joke?”, Paige asks nonplussed, “What’s the matter?”
“In the state of Rhode Island, it’s a misdemeanor to falsify documents, Paige…” the Registrar says as she hands the papers and her ID back through the window slot, “or is it Mirelle?”
She looks over the forms… the clerk wasn’t wrong. She just tried to register for Junior level classwork under Mirelle McClune, a 42 year old homemaker in Steel Canyon who died earlier this year. The same identity of the Praetorian whose mind she intruded upon when she learned how to use her abilities. She filled in Mirelle’s demographic information instead of her own.
“I don’t think you’re trying to defraud the state from grant money here, so I’m not going to report this. But I don’t have the patience to cut you a break with the lines full. Try again with your real information, kid, then go to the back of the line. NEXT!” the Clerk yells. Paige scurries to collect her paperwork and hide it in her briefcase before Carter comes to catch up to her from 4 windows over. She successfully hides all of them and is left holding her messenger bag and photo ID as he approaches.
“So, did you get your classes?” Carter asked.
“No, I made a mistake on my Admission forms, they want me to start over.” Paige said.
“Lousy bureaucrats… they know we were here last semester; I don’t know why they require the same paperwork again and again.” The clerk Paige just talked to sees Carter as he sneers at her. The clerk rolls her eyes and looks back to the student at her window.
“Listen, I’m going to see Casino Heist 3, with Jessica, you know that one with the guy from that 1990’s sitcom and all of his Hollywood buddies… I got tickets for 3:30, we’ll catch up later and you can tell me what classes you got,” Carter said looking at the doors.
“Sure thing, I’ll see you later, Carter. Enjoy the movie!” Paige smiles back, hiding a trembling façade of concern behind her tiny brown eyes.
After he left, she mutters, “I hope that was a one-time thing… that was weird…” as she grabs more blank forms to start again.
But that was two weeks ago… classes have already begun, although Paige’s mistake meant that she missed out on registering for a needed statistics class to get her Master’s degree on time by her 21st birthday, so she’s looking at another semester spent needlessly to cover the missing class. Her admissions screw up resulted in wasting the effort she spent in Sociology playing catch up after the Carnival of Vengeance almost caused her the same problem. But in a way, they still did.
In her dreams that night after going to sleep, she’s back to reliving that final moment at City Hall where she is talking to the mayor of Paragon City:
Paige jolts awake and comes back to the waking world covered in sweat and breathing heavily sitting up in her bed. She walks through her bedroom, stumbles, then falls over her flood of clothes and books on her bedroom floor with a crash. It wakes up her roommate, which she was required to take on as a minor since minors can’t legally sign a contract to inhabit a dwelling even if they go to college. She’s thankful the money from the job allows her to have an apartment in the first place at least… mentally falling apart in student housing would cause much more problems than she’d have right now.
“Take your time, Miss Pirillo, you’re doing fine,” the Mayor smiled back to reassure her.
“Yes, as Linuial stated, I found that the Carnival of Vengeance were performing identity theft on their Primal Earth counterparts, which is why the murders had no apparent pattern. It was done to remove funds, resources and even property from Primal Earth citizens for them to get a foothold in Paragon City.”
“Mirelle McClune was the person of interest as well as an accessory to the unidentified subject of the investigation as it turned out. Her Praetorian Earth counterpart did not directly participate in her murder, but was definitely a part of the premeditation on the Carnival’s behalf. We tracked their position to a remote area of the Peregrine Islands and under Xavier’s leadership, we apprehended Pronoea, who was in charge of this operation.”
“What you don’t realize, of course, is that your prisoner has actually escaped. And she did so under your noses,” Paige added as she throws the microphone towards the chamber desks and walks out of the assembly hall.
“Morons, the lot of you,” Paige says with a different voice as her familiar dirty blond pixie cut changes to long blond hair in her peripheral vision. Devereaux, Linuial, and Tahquitz all have left the tables and rushed the doors to block them off, preventing Paige’s exit. She doesn’t see her new hair for long as a mask forms on her shifting face and new clothes take the place of her suit transforming her into a Carnival of Vengeance duplicate.
Paige’s point of view then becomes omniscient as it spins away from her body, towards Devereaux and company, watching her left to become Shiara in full form. The laughter growing louder and louder, Paige is filled with dread as the words echoing from the woman’s new form “IF YOU DON’T WANT TO LEAVE, THEN I’LL CONSUME YOU!” fills the assembly hall and brings an end to her fever dream.
“You okay, sweetheart?” Liz yells to her, standing in her bedroom doorway in her nightshirt yelling to her as Paige’s door was still closed.
“Yeah,” Paige yells back, “I need to clean my room again.”
“I’ve told you that weeks ago…” Liz yells back as a male voice asks, “What’s going on, babe?” from Liz’s bed…
Her “boyfriend of the week” from Liz’s Theater Arts classes at the university. “Shut up,” she tells him, rolls her eyes, then closes her own door.
He’ll probably be out in the cold by Friday.
Paige scrambles off the floor and grabs a small phone that a friend left to her in her dresser drawer as she steps to the bathroom and closes the door.
Turning on the lights and looking squarely into the mirror, still out of breath, Paige is beside herself and afraid of the young woman staring back at her, yet she’s wearing the same face she’s always had, only without makeup. The same face that no sane person could possibly find scary or imposing at all. She keeps checking herself to make sure it hasn’t changed like it did in her dream, second guessing every crease or mole she sees. Inspecting her hair for strands of blonde hair that simply aren’t there. Staring at her own eyes to see if they changed in any way.
Briefly reassured that she is fine and intact, but still uncertain, she flips open the burner phone. She’s too scared to laugh at the terrible wallpaper of an underwear model sitting herself on the hood of a glossy black Bentley. Paige breaths deeply then activates a speed dial entry labelled “XD XD XD” and presses the phone into her ear. A single tear escapes her left eye as she shudders during exasperation. She’s ensanguined from the realization that should have caught her weeks ago at the admissions line. Or months ago when he warned her that this exact thing would happen.
The phone call connects with loud music and women laughing in the background, “Make it quick, kid. I’m in the middle of something,” a familiar voice answers. Devereaux clearly hasn’t changed a bit.
“I… I need help.”
Tahquitz has been here so many times in fight after fight. Hiding in an office space behind balsa-wood crates, his back to the wood, splinters digging into his sinewy back, next to Requiescat hiding in kind as Ventus vis Vires is further back around the corner trying to revive a knocked out Frost-Kid.
Requiescat, born Rebecca White, is a recipient of a powerful spell from a Fortunata in the highest order of Arachnos to allow Ghost Widow to torment her for information. That never happened as she was abandoned in a Rogue Isles alleyway. Her body was left permanently comatose by the spell after the Fortunata was earlier killed by an Arbiter for failing her mission. But Rebecca’s mind is too powerful to be stuck in bed the rest of her life… she is stuck in delta wave sleep 24/7, which means she can’t do vigorous activity like running or getting shot without passing out. But she is able to walk about as anyone awake can do, levitate herself, see the world around her even with her eyes locked in REM, and talk through telepathy, while having partial access to her powers she enjoyed while awake. Her power to put many villains to sleep at once makes her invaluable in mobs, even if her abilities to handle a single ringleader or arch villain is greatly hampered by her permanent slumber.
Ventus vis Vires is the leader of the supergroup, Heads of Cerberus, who is a Storm Defender. She has the ability to conjure up weather and winds at command, making her immensely valuable in crowd control. She also dabbles in Psychic powers, which is why Tahquitz was glad to introduce Paige to her as a more available mentor as she learns the ropes. Ventus is a native Rhode Islander who grew up in Paragon City and knows the city like the back of her hand. She’s also Tahquitz’s legal guardian, which makes her his foster mother for the next two years until he’s old enough to stop playing sidekick and start taking on missions on his own.
Frost-Kid is Tahquitz’s foster brother, who is another orphan from the West Coast, dealing in Ice/Ice blasting. Tahq and him have known each other for a while, growing up in similar foster homes in the area until they emigrated to Paragon City to learn their powers better. Unlike Tahq, Frost is more guarded about his past, answering to Scott with the mask off. As best as Tim can figure, Frost has been a victim of abuse by his still alive parents, which is why he’s reticent about what happened to them or their whereabouts.
But none of that matters at the moment as Circle of Thorns daggers puncture the boxes on the other side, with Tahq and Req sitting supine waiting for the opportunity for their next move.
“You’re sure they have the Shroud of Ankani? You hear them actually say it, Req?” Tahq checks.
“They didn’t have to say it, Tahquitz. They know it. The leader, Salkun, has it in one of these crates,” Rebecca’s disembodied voice transmits directly to Tahq’s mind, “But they are too fast for me… if I get struck with one of those knives, I’m useless to you guys.”
“I hear you, Van Winkle. Give me a second…” Tahq looks at the angle of missed knives landing on the wall past them, and sees that they appear to have a single point of origin, which means they’re not moving or trying to do ‘cover fire’. “I think I can take one of them out…”, he smirks as another dagger sticks through the box, flying through the damaged panel facing their attackers and sticking on the other side of the panel protecting the two, inches from Rebecca’s hair. “And you might want to duck lower, this crate’s just about had it.”
“VV, is there anyone behind us?” Tahq yells back at the corner… a gust of wind pushes past the part of the hallway he can see with two other Thorn Casters flying backwards into a wall, knocked out. “A LITTLE BUSY HERE!” Ventus vis Vires yells back unseen.
“That means yes. Time to act…”, he gets on his feet and turns, ready to fire as he sees two more Wielders hiding behind crates as well. He lunges on top of the boxes to higher ground as he leaps to a storage shelf of crates to a different position, then dodges knives as he hops from shelf to shelf until he’s parallel to them. He lunges from the top shelf and lands right by the two of them.
“Cloth robes… oooh, poor choice,” he says mockingly as he sprays their frocks with a cone of fire. They writhe on the ground in agony and pass out from the shock, as Tahq then applies cold to stop the fire from setting the building ablaze. “We’re clear Req.”
“Thank goodness… I feel so ineffectual when I’m with you, you know. You’re more of my bodyguard than my teammate here.” Requiescat says as she brushes off her uniform and pulls her hair back behind her ears. She looks at Tahq with her closed eyes and sees phosphenes arranged by her psychic prowess into the same shapes and patterns she’d see if her eyes could actually open. Unfortunately it is a world with no color and limited depth as her psychically assisted eyesight can only emulate the real world so much, making her move and react as a short-sighted woman normally would.
“Not at all. I’ve learned to appreciate psychics more lately than I have in the past.” Tahquitz says walking back to Rebecca, thinking back on how useful having three of them were earlier in the year when facing the Carnival of Vengeance.
“I HEARD THAT!” Ventus vis Vires yelled back as more wind whipped past the corners, followed by her walking backward and throwing another Psionic Lance at her assailants, “Do you mind helping out? We’ve got more than we can handle here.”
“Coming!” Tahq yells back, “Ready Van Winkle? I could use some sleepy magic until I get some energy back. I’ll cover as usual.”
“Let’s go,” Requiescat says telepathically as she opens her mouth for the first time in two hours for a swig of water. They run forward, until Tahq sees errant icicles from Frost-Kid blown backward as he stops to grab Req and duck her from their approach… “Okay, Round 2.”
They round the corner with Tahq as Requiescat gently hovers slowly past her team down the hall and says to all three of them, “Here we go…” Her mind sends a pulse forward in a sweep to cover them in a psionic enfilade encouraging all 9 of them to fall asleep at once. It works on 7 of them, as two resist their compulsion. They load their bows and draw back while Ventus keeps them unable to aim with a mist curtain obscuring their location. Tahq and Frost then pop out of the curtain and make quick work of them with concussive blasts.
After they fall, Ventus allows the mist screen to dissipate as Tahq says to Req, “Sometimes I wish I was a controller. I can’t take out more than two or three at once, and you can make a whole group drop asleep.” He sees the irritable Frost-Kid holding his head, “And welcome back to the living, Frost!” Frost gives him a middle finger, “Yeah, he’ll be fine.”
Ventus looks at him and snickers, “Sorry, Tahq. I’ve seen you at your worst. You’re a lousy tactician under pressure and that would make you a bad controller. You can’t just walk up and wave a hand to make countless bad guys go away each and every time, you know. It takes skill to get that good. Even then, we can’t make 100s of people drop to their knees like you might think we do.”
“Yeah, I’m too impatient, I guess. Holding back to wait would drive me nu—“ Tahq says as a fireball cruises past his head. He turns and sees a Behemoth then hits him with a Bitter Ice Blast to his torso, causing him to double over in pain as Frost Kid sends a second salvo towards the Behemoth’s crown, knocking him down cold.
“Shall we move forward before we get more surprises? Who are we looking for anyway?” Ventus asks as she runs ahead to advance.
“A Force Mage. He’s three rooms over.” Requiescat says telepathically to all three. “He’s got friends, too.”
“Just great,” Frost-Kid says sarcastically as his fists and feet become covered in wet ice sublimating into a cool mist as he runs next to Ventus, “I love bosses that try to kill you when you manage to kill them.”
As it has been well demonstrated, Tahquitz is bad at answering urgent phone calls when it goes off in the middle of combat… His phone shows three unanswered calls from Paige and two from Devereaux in the last 20 minutes as he tries to recover a magic artifact that the Circle has no business keeping to themselves.
It also has a voicemail message from Ironrealm’s former supergroup. The message is from a clerk thanking him for his donation to their charity in his honor… it was $125,000 from his payment on that Carnival of Vengeance job after $150,000 was put into a trust for him to go to college with, and the rest was sent to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Chump change compared to their casino business, but all the same, his prerogative.