Paragon City Stories: Darkness, Digitized
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act II, Scene 1
Nighttime in Brickstown is fraught with the wail of sirens as yet another inmate tries to escape from Zigursky Prison. Breaking out of the Big Zig is easy. Avoiding the ubiquitous Crey Security Agents is hard.
You and your team are about to confront those same agents, and probably much worse. You stand poised in the shadow of one of the zone’s few proper office buildings. Standing only six stories tall, it is a far cry from the mammoth towers of glass and steel that dominate the skyline in places like Steel Canyon and Talos Island.
Up to now, your team has avoided revealing the disguises and equipment you received from M.A.G.I so as not to alert Crey to your presence. But now the time has come to don the garb and make your assault on the building.
Linuial dons a much more elaborate copy of a Vengeance outfit than the simple all-enshrouding cloak she used on the Cutlass Isles. This time she is fully decked out in dark-gray-and-dusky-red: stiletto boots, puffy jester pants, flared gloves, blouse with puffy sleeves. She quickly pins up her long golden hair, and slips on a shorter wig, straight, gray so dark it is nearly black. She tops it off with a Vengeance mask borrowed from Azuria, wincing slightly just before she slips the mask on.
Bubastis’ only preparation has been to remove her jewelry, equipment belt, and leg wrappings in favor of a spiked leather collar. As she waits on the others, she sits patiently, seated on the pavement as any four-footed creature would do.
Devereaux closes his eyes and turns his focus inward. Delving into his memories, he calls up the image of an Implacable Anchorite complete with gray suit coat, red checkered harlequin pants, and jaunty top hat.
“You think you can use my power?! I will-“
“You won’t do a goddamn thing,” Devereaux replies dismissively as he pushes the latent remnant of the Carnie’s personality back down into his subconscious and locks it away behind a reinforced mental block. Though the Carnival prisoners in M.A.G.I’s custody came in handy for his purposes, extracting the psychic visage from one to acquire their form was far more difficult than with any of the other people he’d used his ability on. This particular member had put up a decent mental struggle, forcing Devereaux to use more strength than normal. To make matters worse, some piece of the man’s conscious mind came away along with the rest of his identity.
When he opens his eyes again they glow with an intense white light. Testing the Anchorite’s form, he rocks back and forth on the balls of his now booted feet and wiggles his now gloved fingers.
Satisfied with the new shape, he drops the bag he’s been carrying and kneels down to remove the magic infused staff inside. He may not be a mage but he can certainly appreciate the craftsmanship of the weapon. Carved from a single piece of white ash wood and topped with a hunk of red crystal, it would be just as fitting sealed behind glass in a museum as in the hands of an experienced spell caster.
Nyghtshade wears the tight-fitting black and red outfit of a Vengeful Attendant, the tall ‘mystical staff’ in hand, one end grounded near her black stiletto boots. Her own hair is neatly bound up beneath a black wig, and a facsimile of the Vengeful Attendant’s black mask is firmly attached over her face. Today she wears her metallic belt hidden beneath the outfit’s black split-skirt corset, with only a glimpse of the large dull red jewel peeking out.
“Ah don’t mind the tight leggin’s or the stilletto boots,” she mutters under her breath, as she twitches with one black-and-red gloved hand at the black and red diamond-patterned legging, “but this giant bosom-bow is ridiculous. Makes me feel positively gift-wrapped…..”
“This jewelry’s no picnic either,” he grumbles, swiping at the heavy silver chain around his neck. “And don’t even get me started on whatever the hell this is.” He shifts his shoulders in a vain attempt to settle the matching harness and shoulder pads into a more comfortable position. He knows it’s a futile effort, they’re as much a part of him as his skin.
“We can’t hesitate once we’re in there. If anybody needs a bathroom break, now would be the time.”
“First, I jump in the head of a Carnie, now I’m dressing like one. Two months ago, this would have put me in a padded cell,” Paige said, as she adjusted her outfit, “And at least you have a figure to flatter, Nyghtshade. I look like a boy in a wig in this thing.”
“…call me biased, but I do like the tights, though.”
Dressed in full Carnival of Vengeance regalia, you approach the office building. Choosing to forgo the front door, you find a bay window set at ground level. A quick Incandescent Burst from one of the Lightstaffs shatters the glass. Now it’s a race against time to reach the server room and extract the encryption key.
As your team enters the darkened office suite, you’re surprised to find that no alarms are ringing. Could your luck really be that good? No, of course not. It isn’t long before a Crey Security Patrol bursts in and orders you to surrender.
Devereaux takes stock of the patrol. It’s a typical group of six agents, all of them armed with fairly standard looking assault rifles and kevlar vests. He picks out the one with the most chevrons on his arm.
“Sorry, buddy,” he thinks to himself. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
Stepping forward, he barks in a thunderous baritone. “You dare to challenge the Carnival of Vengeance?! You will pay for your insolence!”
Drawing a hand back and focusing on the man he’s deduced to be the squad’s leader, he unleashes a vicious Telekinetic Thrust that hurls the unlucky security agent out through the doorway and sends him crashing into the hallway outside.
“Not bad. Shame the Syndicate never found this one.” Devereaux laments. He quickly shoves the thought aside and returns his attention to the task at hand. Keeping his voice low and sharp, he growls out an order. “Destroy them.”
Nyghtshade brandishes her staff at the group of Crey Security staff, projecting the to-be-expected light effect at them, while at the same time – hoping that Crey hasn’t upgraded any mental defense for its agents – she actually attempts to attack the group with a mental Domination, a painful effect that hopefully leaves at least some if not all of them temporarily lost in their own minds and unable to defend themselves.
Paige sneaks by the Crey staff, writhing in agony, dodging them as they stumble or fall down… “Nicely done,” she murmurs to no one in particular. She walks by carefully, not to step or trip on them to break their ‘illusion’.
Since sonic attacks are not in the Carnival’s wheelhouse, Paige is content with the staff she’s “borrowing”, using it to temporarily blind people who dare look at them as she follows the team… it’s especially effective on those with night-vision goggles!
Linuial watches Paige sneaking past the patrol. She smiles ruefully to herself…Paige is not “damage” and is probably right in her approach. On the other hand, Dev is “performing” for any unseen cameras around, and his order is explicit. Since her forte is healing, not damage, she turns to Bubastis, following her on all fours, and shouts, clearly and loudly enough for any listeners: “ATTACK!”
As Linuial had instructed beforehand, the feline woman panther-screams, a startling and piercing sound, and leaps full on the nearest member of the patrol, sinking claws and teeth into him. It is the work of but a moment to leave him bleeding and entirely out of the fight, if not dying. No one stops to check his body, and Bubastis leaps on the next victim…and the next.
The fight is quick and dirty. You and your team make short work of the unfortunate guards. It’s unclear as to whether some of them are still alive but since this isn’t a heroic mission and Crey is well known for its lack of concern for human decency, you write them off as collateral damage and continue on your way.
Charging out into the hallway, you pause for a moment to disable a security camera with one of the Lightstaffs. The singed stump where the device was mounted to the wall crackles with sparks as you turn and move with all speed toward the lobby.
As you round the corner you’re confronted by another security team. These Crey thugs are different from the ones you brushed aside earlier. They’re armed with advanced sub machine guns and are being led by one of the company’s suit clad Field Agents.
Hastily Nyght stoops to clip mediporters to the more seriously injured Crey patrol, activated to transport them to the nearest medical facility, and then dashes off after the rest of her group, hoping to catch up before the next encounter.
As she catches up with them and rounds the corner, she sees the next group of Crey Security.
No brandishing of the staff this time; Nyght has no intention of drawing fire. Instead, she focuses on again mentally Dominating the Security Team, to prevent them from immediately interacting with her or the team.
Linuial follows Devereaux into the hall…once the first patrol is taken care of, she pauses to check her team, in case any of them require healing. It would not be a Vengeance move, but with the hall camera out of commission, she can risk it. It is only then that she misses Nyghtshade, and starts to turn back, only to see the other woman hurrying to catch up. Catching her arm as she passes, Linuial leans close and whispers to her. ‘What is it? Is something wrong?’
Paige rounds the corner after Nyghtshade and sees her with Linuial, but notices a shimmer at the end of the hallway… a Field Agent that has a sub-machine gun ready to fire. She doesn’t have long…
“Everybody, GET DOWN!“ Paige pushes to everyone as she hits the deck. She also pushes Mass Hypnosis to the Security Patrol convincing them of a smoke clogged hallway with the only clean air at the ground level. The agents slowly fall to the ground hyperventilating and slowly crawling the opposite direction of your team down the halls.
Of course Paige couldn’t stop the agents closest to the Field Agent from getting hit from friendly fire, she just hoped that their body armor would be sufficient enough to stop them from getting a mortal injury.
Using his borrowed telekinesis, Devereaux rips the gun from the Field Agent’s fingertips. As the weapon spins away, he raises his staff and flings a bolt directly at the man. It strikes him squarely in the chest and he crumples to the floor. The stench of burning clothing fills the hall.
“Nicely done, kid,” he rasps. The Anchorite’s voice is higher than his natural one and the earlier yelling strained his vocal cords.
Raising herself up from the floor, Linuial scans the hallway. A quick check tells her that no one on her team is injured. She pats Nyghtshade gently on the shoulder: “…we’ll chat in a bit…” and stands, turning to look in Bubastis’ direction.
With a quick flick of her hand for direction, she snaps “Follow!” to the feline woman, who slinks forward on all fours as Linuial walks up to the Field Agent.
Standing squarely in front of the man, Linuial turns again to Bubastis. She points dramatically at the Field Agent, and orders: “Threaten!”
Bubastis crouches, stalks forward around Linuial’s feet, growling. She has balled her human hands, giving them much the appearance of paws. It would be easy to believe that she is all big cat.
Still growling, she leans closer and closer to the Agent’s face, begins snuffling at it, so close that her whiskers touch his face. The man’s visage gradually goes white, and as his self-control erodes, his expression turns from arrogance to uncertainty, and finally to panic.
“Okay, okay, what do you want?” he whimpers. “Just get that thing off of me!”
Linuial waits until she complies, just a few inches from the Agent’s legs. The continued threat is obvious.
“We want to know the shortest route to your server room. You have stolen some data from us, and we are going to make certain you can’t use it any longer.” She leans in close, the Vengeance mask inches from his face. “You’ll be happy to help us, won’t you, in return for us knocking you out instead of feeding you to my…pet. Right?”
“Not bad at all, Blondie,” Devereaux sends out to Linuial. “Can’t say I ever thought about it before but having a genetically enhanced superpredator around might just be the thing to do.”
He levels the Lightstaff at the agent again. “You should listen to the woman. There are far worse fates we could choose for you.”
Your quick work against the security patrol and fearsome interrogation tactics convince the Field Agent that he’d be better off telling you what you want to know. He informs you that the server room is located in the basement. You knew that already but you weren’t aware of a service elevator that will take you there directly.
You thank the agent for his cooperation before delivering a swift blow that leaves him unconscious but alive. Someone tosses out a joke about a headache, much to the derision of your team, before you make your way to the elevator and descend to the server room. As the doors slide open, you’re met by row upon row of electronic equipment glowing with lights in a rainbow of colors.
Now you need to find a data port and access the system to claim your prize.
Paige studies the switches, looking at the front and back… “The fans are plastic? Really? … I’ve got the final stroke in mind for shutting this whole room down, but when it comes to technology I’m as useless as a wolf in a wildfire. I have no idea how to get the files.”
“Xavier, you said your contact had the equipment we would need…I’m assuming you brought it, and that what you need is some kind of access port that you can jack into,” Linuial says. “Can you give us some idea what we are looking for? Something we have a chance of finding? Or should we haul out your equipment and examine it?”
Nyght quietly waits to hear what Devereaux needs for them to do next. In the meantime, she keeps her preternaturally heightened senses alert for any hint of further threats to the team.
“Got it right here.” Devereaux reaches into his bag and extracts a black plastic skewer. The strange device is studded with a series of blue and green lights that flash on and off in rapid succession. A small hard drive dangles from a USB cable attached to the dull end.
“Data spike,” he says by way of explanation. “The latest in hacking technology. It’s loaded with an automated search program that’ll find and extract the key. We just need to find the right port…”
Linuial holds out one hand, takes the spike, examines it carefully. “Not a standard jack of any kind. I’ve never seen anything like it…it looks too generic to be much help finding a compatible port.” She ponders. “On the other hand…since it is not going to fit in any standard port, we can safely eliminate most of this equipment. There is too much of it to be hand built, they must have bought it from a vendor, or built it themselves by an assembly line. What we need is equipment that looks substantially different from the rest. Different size, different shape, different color…it should stick out like a sore thumb. In addition, it is likely to be a control hub, if it has non-standard ports on it.”
She continues. “Of course, it is possible that this equipment might not have a compatible port, in which case, our trip was wasted. I hope your contact knew what he or she was talking about…”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Devereaux says with a wry grin. Taking the spike back from Linuial, he moves to a nearby terminal and turns the CPU to access the rear ports. “This thing’s designed to bypass all the usual access points. They tend to be disabled in secure facilities like this.”
He unplugs the keyboard from the tower and connects the spike in its place. One at a time, the lights on the device begin to change from their previous colors to a soft orange. As the last one illuminates, all of them suddenly begin to glow a solid red.
“What the…” Devereaux begins to exclaim, shock evident in his voice. Taking hold of the terminal’s mouse, he begins to click through a series of windows.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” he shouts, slamming a fist down within an inch of the now useless keyboard. “It’s not here. The damn key’s not here!”
“Xavier…I smell a trap!” Linuial spins around in a circle, searching for anything untoward. “Basti, start patrolling our immediate area, and forget about pretending to be four-footed, we need to find a way out of here.”
“I don’t need to,” the feline woman replies, resuming her two-legged stance. “I can smell them coming.”
As she has done in the past, Linuial forms a mental image of Devereaux, and pushes her thought at it, certain that the Praetorian will “hear” it mentally. “The three of us being stalked? There was never any stolen information…it was a trap right from the first contact. And now we’re in the heart of the beast…I hope we can get out of it.“
“The one good thing I can see in this,“ she continues after a second of thought, “…is that apparently they don’t know about Basti, otherwise I would assume it was her genetic information they were after. They prepared for your team, Xavier, they baited the trap well, and we fell for it, all of us…the only hope we have is Nyght and Basti, as they are the only unknowns on our team.“
“So we sit just here and wait to get pegged? Or do we try to escape?” Paige asks, “If the trap is truly sprung, then nothing we do matters, but if someone is going to come and overpower me, I’ll fight them the entire way. You guys know that.”
Linuial stares off into the distance…after a few moments, she walks over to Bubastis and speaks to her softly. The feline woman nods and walks away, out of sight around the corner of a box of glittering light.
Without turning around, Linuial announces: “I’ve sent Basti to check the elevator we used to get here. I’m expecting her to find it locked or powered off.”
Then…something begins to happen to her. She remains visibly a 5’1” Vengeful Attendant, and yet, without changing at all, she appears to grow, taller and taller. It is as if an invisible cloak has fallen from her shoulders, revealing something else. She turns, slowly, and walks up to the Praetorian. Locking eyes with him, even though he is much taller, she almost appears to be looking down at him, rather than up.
“Tell me, Xavier Devereaux,” she says very, very softly, and yet all of them can hear her quite plainly, “…why were there only three photos? Oversight? Because the message was sent to you? You are the one who contacted the rest of us. Was the trap intended for 4 of us…or 3 of us? Are you part of it…or even the creator of it?”
There was a time when Linuial’s usual intimidation tactic would have cowed him. When they first met, he held back for fear of her unleashing some some mystic ability he would have no counter for. Those days are gone. The intense glow of his borrowed eyes couples well with the steely glare he gives her.
“Listen, Blondie, I do my own wet work. I certainly wouldn’t trust Crey or anyone else to do it for me. Best case scenario, whoever wanted this job done also wanted to make sure there weren’t any loose ends. Worst case, they’re after us in particular and they used me to set this up. Either way, they’ll regret that decision. Now, if you’d kindly get the hell outta my face, we need to plan an escape.”
He shrugs nonchalantly. “Unless you prefer a pine box, that is.”
Nyght searches for a blind-spot for any surveillance cameras, and drifts over to it. Mentally, she she sends to Paige, “Shugah, could you please let the othehs know that, since Ah’m apparently a wild-card in this equation, might be best if Ah let the element of surprise work in ouh favor. So, foah the moment at least, Ah’m hopin’ to get hard to see, and if it suddenly seems like Ah’m not heah, that would be why.”
With that, Nyght concentrates, and to those who look, it suddenly seems as if she’s not in the room. Even knowing where she is, the eye would tend to slide past without noting her, as if mildly compelled to look anywhere but where she is…
Linuial’s face is hidden behind her Vengeance mask, but her eyes narrow, with an expression the Praetorian has never seen before…tight, controlled, without humor.
She nods. “Exactly what Xavier Devereaux would say. But are you Xavier Devereaux…at least the one we got to know six months ago? You are a shapeshifter, certainly…but the Devereaux we met in the Tiki Bar could be just as false as the Anchorite we see now. And there’s no point to playing the ‘tell me something only we know’ game…if someone replaced our Devereaux with a shape-shifting double, they would have certainly used telepathy to scan his mind. For all we know, our Devereaux might have been dead for months.
“If you are Devereaux, you were played, and either way we shouldn’t listen to anything you tell us from here on out, until we are out of this and can sort it out.
“If you have a solution for this problem, I’m listening, but if you think you can persuade me to turn my back on you with Xavier’s characteristic bluster, you are…dead…wrong.”
Without taking her eyes off the Anchorite, Linuial lifts a hand and beckons. Over her shoulder, she calls, “Nyghtshade, from here on out, your job is to protect Paige. That is your only job. It looks highly likely that the target here is the four members of our team from six months ago. Tahq didn’t come…Paige, get out your phone and see if you can track him down…Devereaux…the real one…can take care of himself, as can I. Paige is the weak link…she is not the strongest fighter, nor can she take damage well. In addition, she is peculiarly vulnerable to emotional and psychic exposure to the Carnival of Vengeance. She wasn’t joking when she said something about calling herself ‘Shiara’…if that happens, it means she has been possessed by a Vengeance Mistress, and is our enemy, not our ally.” She pauses for emphasis. “You MUST get her out alive, uncaptured, and sane, at all costs. Do not turn your attention from her at any time, nor spend any attention on the rest of us. If that means killing…then kill. Nothing else matters more. If you get her out safely, and the rest of us die, that is a win.”
Personally, Nyght didn’t consider letting the rest of the team die ‘a win’, but didn’t say so aloud. Instead, she mentally replied to each of them, “Got it - this is a trap. Ah’ll protect Paige, and get her out of heah safe. And Ah undehstand about this Carnival alter-ego. If that happens, Ah’ll just have to protect Paige from Shiara as well.”
“Amateurs…” Devreaux sighs. “If you wanna play ‘Guess the Shapeshifter,’ go right ahead.”
Leaving the quip to hang in the air, he downshifts into his natural form to restore his telepathic powers. Bowing his head and breathing deeply, he expands his awareness. The world around him falls away and is quickly replaced by a pitch black mental landscape dotted with the multicolored lights of all the minds within his reach. Linuial, Bubastis, Paige, and Nyghtshade are all there; though the latter is shrouded like a candle flame behind frosted glass.
He ignores them in favor of another group of lights that are rapidly moving toward the team. The orbs flare with a potent mixture of anger and excitement. Singling one out, he delves into the mind. Its owner is rushing down a hallway toward the lobby and the elevator located there.
“These fools had better not kill any of those metas. Bringing in new material for the Protector program will net me some major cred. Heck, I might even be able to put in for a transfer and get off this stupid computer project!”
Devereaux’s eyes snap open. “Three teams coming in fast, all of them heavily armed. There’s a scientist with them. He knows something.” With that, he shifts back into the form of the Anchorite. “This trap just turned into an opportunity.”
“And what are you proposing to do in response?” Linuial replies softly.
Devereaux’s answer comes with a broad grin. “Simple, we do something stupid.”
At the quizzical look from Linuial, he explains. “Look around. Tight spaces, low light, plenty of obstructions. Nothing about this room favors an attacker. If we split up and stay hidden they’ll have to separate to sweep this place. Once they do we can take them out piecemeal.”
Nyght, still in mentally-influenced ‘stealth mode’, looks around for a defensible corner, hopefully with a bottleneck to reduce the number of foes who can attack at the same time. There are several possible positions, and Nyght mentally suggests to Paige that they quickly pick one and get ready to fight off the attackers.
Paige is reduced to playing psychic-Marco-Polo to guess where Nyghtshade wants her. “You keep saying COLD… give me a hint!“ She stumbles around the datacenter, then gets pointed in the right direction.
In the corner of the data center is a server repair workbench that is directly mounted on the wall, with a rolling trash bin large enough for Paige and a grown woman to hide behind. She sees the bin gently move three inches then stop to signal her to get behind it… “Nicely done,“ as she crawls down to hide beneath the workbench and bin.
Calling Tahquitz keeps resulting in voicemail, as she suspects he’s in Praetoria at the moment. She gives up and hides her phone in her pocket, powered off. No “tells” giving their position away are welcome at the moment.
Backing herself into a corner, Linuial pushes a thought toward the college student. “Paige, can you hear me?“
“Yep, loud and clear…“
“I want you to transmit my message to everyone except Devereaux, can you do that?“
“Then do so. Here’s the message: ‘Whoever this shapeshifter is, he’s right about one thing…his plan is stupid. With everyone hiding, I can’t heal anyone. I can’t buff you either. This is the best possible way for people to get hurt, captured, and killed. I’m open to alternative plans, now. We can’t follow his lead until we know if he is a friend…or an enemy. He may just be leading us right into the heart of the trap, just as he did in getting us here.’“
“Bubastis and Nyghtshade heard it,“ Paige said, replying to Linuial, “I think there’s someone coming! I hear footsteps!“
Taking a position behind a server rack with a view of the elevator, Devereaux steadies himself and waits. It isn’t long before the stainless steel doors open and men in kevlar begin to pour out into the room.
“Standard breaching pattern,” he thinks to himself as he watches a Security Agent armed with a tactical shotgun sweep the weapon in a wide arc while two others, each carrying an assault rifle, cover their colleague from just beyond the doorway.
“No sign of ‘em!” the agent with the shotgun calls.
A nasally voice responds from somewhere beyond the initial assault team. “We know they’re in here somewhere. Go find them!”
He recognizes the voice from his earlier probe into the scientist’s mind. He fires a quick message over the telepathic link. “All of you, pay attention. We’re only gonna get one shot at this. The name of the game is stick and move. You sit in one spot, you catch a bullet. Understood?”
As the thought races out to the others, the security team begins to pair off and stalk through the narrow corridors between the server racks.
It is only a couple of minutes before a twin pair of bloodcurdling screams erupts mid-way across the room. The screams are cut off abruptly, followed by silence.
Nyght frowns as she listens to what seems to be the team pulling itself apart at the seams. Placing a hand on Paige’s shoulder to show Nyght is right there, she mentally sends to her charge, “Paige, Shugah, Ah don’t know what kind of fight Linuial and Devereaux are havin’, but right now we’ve got incomin’, and we need to stay sharp. Ah’m right heah beside you, and Ah’ll do mah best to stand in front of you and hopefully shield you from sight as long as Ah can. Do what you can from behind me, OK?”
“And Paige, Devereaux is right about one thing, Shugah, we’ah outnumbehed and can’t afford to get pinned down. Unless you have a betteh idea, then we’ll have to strike and take people out, and then we’ll need to move and find anotheh place to conceal ouhselves until the next chance to strike. If… IF… it turns out that Linuial’s right and Devereaux is betrayin’ us, we’ll bug out of heah. But if not, we need to do what we can to even the odds and help the team. Do you agree?”
From above a server rack, Linuial hovers down to crouch with Nyghtshade and Paige. She whispers to them: “Paige, you can’t use your sonic attacks, they will just tell the patrol where you are, and all of them will converge on your location. Nyghtshade, if you have any silent attacks, use them…I’ll stay here with Paige. Come back to us if you need healing.” She ends by chanting, various colored lights forming around her hands and body, and then nods to the older woman.
Another twin pair of screams erupts from a far corner, and is as quickly snuffed out.
Devereaux takes note of the screams. “Gotta make sure I don’t run into the cat by mistake.”
Voices reach him from the other side of the rack where he’s concealed himself. Peaking between the gap, he finds two members of the security detail moving deliberately, one behind the other, and speaking in the clipped phrases characteristic of a strike team.
Reaching out with his borrowed powers, he rattles one of the servers in its mounting. The lead agent turns sharply to face the noise but doesn’t fire. “Oops, you blew it,” Devereaux thinks to himself as he mentally takes hold of the gun of the man in the rear. A single thought is all it takes to depress the trigger.
A staccato chatter rings out as the weapon fires a short burst seemingly of its own volition, striking the lead agent directly in the back. He crumples to the floor, convulsing in a pool of his own blood. Before the remaining assailant can process what has just happened, Devereaux slips away.
Nyght grits her teeth at the constantly changing plans here, but mentally relays to Paige that Linuial will stay with her instead, and then adds to both of them, “All right then, Ah’m goin’ huntin’.”
Projecting to all minds in the area the mental compulsion to look anywhere but at her, Nyght glides off in search of a cluster of agents. She finds a trio who have moved into the room, and from the cover of a bank of servers she attempts to confuse them into believing that one of their companions is really a Carnie who has just leapt into their midst, in hopes that they will turn on one another and reduce the odds. There are startled shouts, and a burst of shots fired, as several turn on one another and are shot down by their squad-members in turn.
She knows the act of attacking will break her mental ‘stealth’ and make her visible, but hopes the confusion will direct their attention away from here… and hopes also that no other Crey agents are moving around and can spot her.
As the Praetorian moves away, behind him he hears another, single scream, accompanied by a second burst of gunfire, and a sickening gurgling sound, before silence falls once again.
Bubastis pauses to lick blood from her hands, and scrub at her sticky face, before she once again leaps gracefully on top of the server racks, crouches down, and begins stalking again, out of sight, hunting by scent alone.
Devereaux’s head snaps around at the scream from his rear. “Definitely need to avoid the cat.”
Forgoing the back of the room, he moves cautiously toward the elevator. Peering around some equipment, he sees the scientist and a pair of security agents who are apparently acting as bodyguards.
“Where’s our backup?!” the scientist asks in a frantic voice. He brandishes a Cryo Pistol, jerking it back and forth at the sounds of combat.
“Quiet, nerd!” one of the guards snaps.
The scrawny man in scrubs rounds on the speaker. “How dare you talk to me like that! I’ll have your job you steroid shooting-“
“I said quiet! You want us to figure out where they are or not?”
Devereaux smiles in spite of himself. In that moment, he recalls a Primal Earth movie he saw during the six months he spent on vacation. Taking inspiration from the film, he curls two fingers and the thumb on each hand into a crude impression of a raptor’s talon.
The guards suddenly begin to clutch at their throats, sputtering and choking as they’re seized in a vice grip by some unseen force. Their charge looks from one man to the other, confused as to what’s happening. It’s then that Devereaux raises his arms to shoulder height and the two men are lifted violently into the air.
Confusion turns to panic.
Paige is crouched with Linuial in her hiding spot, feeling really ineffectual at the moment… maybe Tahquitz should have been here instead of her. Espionage and stealth aren’t her strong suit. And without her powers, she’s a quiet, small girl. Absent of them, she’s nothing special.
Then she remembered how loud, foolish, and obnoxious Tahq can be at times, especially when emotions are running high. Stealth? He’d blow something like this in seconds. “Nevermind…“ she thought to herself, “I belong here… I just hope I’m more useful later on.“
The guardsmen have stopped struggling. Devereaux releases his telekinetic hold and they slump lifelessly to the floor. The scientist they had been protecting scrambles backward until he reaches the elevator wall. Too frightened to think of closing the doors, he fires several wild shots with the Cryo Pistol. Bolts of pure cold lance out ineffectually, trailing ice as they freeze the moisture in the air.
Checking to make sure no one is bearing down on him and careful to keep his voice just loud enough for the man to hear, Devereaux calls out. “It’s useless to resist.”
A frantic shot from the pistol strikes a server rack off to his left. “Perfect.” As the fighting continues in other parts of the room, he moves between the rows of equipment to a new position before calling again. “You cannot escape judgement. Your crimes will not go unavenged.”
Two more shots answer his taunt. “Where are you, you bastard?!” the scientist yells back. “Come out here and face me like a man!”
Devereaux laughs inwardly. This is almost too easy. He can still see his quarry tucked into the elevator, gripping the Cryo Pistol with all the desperation of a cornered animal. He extends a hand, then draws it back sharply. The Cryo Pistol is yanked from the scientist’s grip, skittering off into the dimly lit room.
Like a fool, the man rushes out after it.
From her hidden position on the top of a nearby server rack, a tawny-gold body arcs through the air, barrelling the Crey scientist over, and landing on his chest as he falls backward. The wind knocked out of him, his eyes bug open and he screams silently, as Bubastis crouches, growling, her snarling visage only inches from his face.
Devereaux freezes at Bubastis’ sudden appearance. “Okay, she’s got some chops.”
The surprise is only momentary. His mind snaps back to the task at hand and he calls out from his hiding place. “You see? No one escapes vengeance.” At the same time, he sends the feline Scrapper a telepathic message. “Hey, do me a favor and don’t eat him, okay? I’m coming over to you.”
He steps out of the shadows and crosses the short distance to the elevator. The scientist is whimpering softly but knows enough, or perhaps is just too scared, to struggle. Stopping in the doorway, Devereaux speaks. “Now then, you and I are going to talk. I can assure you, lying is not advisable.”
From his supine position the man nods quickly. Any lingering bravado evaporates under the predator’s unblinking stare.
Nyght, maintaining her stealth, continues to prowl back and forth through the room, keeping watch lest any other Crey agents find a way in, and waiting to see how Devereaux’s interrogation proceeds.
“First things first. You have a radio of some sort, don’t you? Tell your comrades that the threat has been neutralized.”
The man hesitates, unsure whether contradicting Devereaux’s order will be enough to bring Bubastis’ fangs down on him. He swallows visibly. When he does speak, his voice shakes. “I…I need to use my hands to work the microphone.”
Devereaux sighs. “Speak quickly and don’t delude yourself. If you say anything other than what I instructed, I’ll gladly pop your skull like a pimple.” A gentle telekinetic push activates the device built into the bulky visor the man wears.
“This is Jenkins. All targets are KIA. Repeat, all targets are KIA. Stand down.” The message is delivered in a less than convincing tone but the acknowledgement comes back almost instantly.
“Good. Just for good measure, let’s make absolutely certain that we won’t be interrupted.” Devereaux raises his Lightstaff and launches a bolt that vaporizes the security camera installed in a corner of the elevator. At the same moment, he uses his telekinesis to none too gently remove the visor from his captive’s forehead. “Much better. Now, let’s start with something simple. You work on the neural network project, correct?”
“How do you know that?”
Devereaux taps a finger to his temple. “I am an agent of vengeance, Mister Jenkins. All the crimes you have committed are known to me.” A little melodramatic, perhaps, but it seems fitting considering how he looks at the moment.
“I…” the scientist hesitates.
Devereaux waves a hand casually. When he speaks, his voice is almost jovial. “Rip his throat out.”
“WAIT! WAIT, PLEASE! I’LL TELL YOU!”
“I won’t warn you again, Mister Jenkins,” Devereaux chides, wagging a finger for emphasis. “You will answer me promptly and honestly or you will die. Now start talking.”
Bubastis swings her head around to look at Devereaux, then returns her attention to the scientist. Still growling, her weight on his chest keeping him firmly pinned to the floor, she lowers her head, tilts it to one side, opens her mouth, and closes her teeth around the man’s throat. The pressure is light…not enough to break skin…quite…
The growling continues…
“She’s a natural.”
“I’m on the project but I don’t know much about it! I swear I’m just a code monkey!”
Devereaux suppresses a chuckle at the term and the mental image it brings to mind. “You meddle with things you cannot possibly comprehend. We have come to destroy this abomination and punish your arrogance, as is proper. But you dared to lay a trap for us.”
“No, not me! It was Ryan, Luke Ryan! He’s the lead researcher here!”
“Two first names? What a tool,” Devereaux opines, not bothering to keep the thought contained inside his own mind. “This man…Luke Ryan. How did he know we would be here?”
The scientist begins to hesitate again. A raised eyebrow is enough to make him reconsider. “I don’t know exactly. The guy’s a total prick, doesn’t talk to the staff unless he’s barking orders or making threats.”
“No matter,” Devereaux replies. “I will ask him myself. He must be punished as well. Tell me, Mister Jenkins, where can I find him?”
This time there’s no trepidation in the scientist’s answer. The venom in his voice is palpable. “His office is on the top floor. He stayed late tonight so he could be here to monitor us taking you out. Didn’t trust us to do the job without his explicit supervision.”
“Thank you very much, Mister Jenkins. Now for you.” As his captive’s eyes go wide at what he thinks is going to be his last moment of life, Devereaux holds out a hand and unleashes a shockwave that bounces the man’s head off the floor, knocking him out.
“Nice job,” Devereaux congratulates Bubastis, expecting her to respond. When she doesn’t do so much as budge from her feral crouch, he adds, “Trust me, you don’t wanna eat that.”
The shockwave tearing the man’s neck from her jaws, Bubastis looks down to check what damage has been done. Fortunately, her grip had been relatively light, and the only sign of trauma are some deep scratches on the sides of his throat. There is no sign of gushing venous blood, or pulsing arterial blood; the man will recover without first aid.
She lifts her head, turns to look at Devereaux. Her feline countenance cannot express human emotions, but she begins to unfold herself from her predatory posture, standing upright on two legs again. She lifts her head, draws back her lips, teeth open, squints her eyes, and breathes gently through her mouth.
“Some of the Crey are not blooded,” she tells him. “I cannot tell if they are conscious or not. If you don’t need me, I’ll go see their condition.” She looks to him for an answer.
“…Yeah, sure. Do your thing. If you see the others, tell them to finish up and come out here. We’ve got someplace to be and thanks to your handler’s little stunt earlier, I doubt they’ll trust me not to melt their brains or something.”
Linuial’s thought interrupts the Praetorian: “What is happening with Basti? Where is she? Should I assume all the Crey employees are taken care of, and bring Paige with me? And where are you?“
Nyght’s prowling has taken her to the Crey agents she’d tricked into shooting one another. She pauses long enough to check for survivors, and to pull mediporters from her pouch and clip them to those still alive but badly injured. She activates the mediporters and they vanish, transported to the nearest hospital.
That done, she continues to move about the room, on the lookout for any other attacks, and searching for any others wounded but still alive.
“We should be fine for now. They came in with ten. Bubastis handled most of them herself and I persuaded one of the others to call the rest off.”
He snickers, the sound transmitting clearly through the mental link. “Feel free to look around and make sure I’m not hiding with a kill squad. But make it fast. We’re not done here just yet.”
Returning to the top of the server racks, Bubastis slinks across the room, leaping from rack to rack when there isn’t a clear path otherwise, heading toward the locations where she can smell strangers but no blood. She runs across Nyghtshade, and from her superior vantage point, she watches the woman bend over one unconscious man, touch him, and then the man disappears. She watches for a few seconds, until she figures out what Nyghtshade is doing, then silently retreats to finish her sweep.
Linuial sighs deeply, shakes her head. Of course he didn’t tell her where he is, or where to meet him, and now she either has to search for him, or ask him a second time. Shrugging to herself, “…well, it’s certainly in character for the man…“
She turns to the girl. “Paige, come on, we’re going to find the others and meet up with them. Keep your guard up, I’m not absolutely certain all the Crey employees have been taken care of…”
Having sent the last survivor off to the hospital, Nyght drops her mental stealth and moves to join Devereaux, telepathically warning him just before she turns a last corner around a bank of servers, “Ah’ve taken care of the last Crey survivors. What next?”
Devereaux receives Nyghtshade’s warning and lifts a hand in greeting as she comes to join him. “Next we find out just who we’re dealing with. Our boy told his friends to get lost but I’’ll bet they left a few guys in the lobby to wait for our bodies to be brought up. We’re taking the stairs.”
Turning to face the purple clad heroine, he lowers his voice to a near whisper. “Listen, I’m not in the habit of working with people who suspect I’m a mole. Too much chance of getting a knife in the back.” Despite the morbid imagery, his expression is implacable.
“I wasn’t kidding before. You and the cat are free agents. If you wanna walk, walk. There’s really nothing in this for you anyway.”
“So, you and Devereaux… ‘if that is his real name’, are you two fighting again?”, Paige asks Linuial casually as she brushes herself off from the dusty desk interior and catches her pace while walking, “Not that it’s any of my business, I can just see it in your body language just like in Croatoa.”
Nyght shook her head at his offer. “Ah’m not in the habit of bailin’ on a team, and Azuria felt it important Ah be involved with you all in this. Maybe you and Linuial might want to take some time and sort things out, though, once we’ah all done heah. Just sayin’.”
Looking down from her perch on top of a server, Bubastis watches Nyghtshade and the Anchorite speak to each other. Part of the conversation is non-verbal, but her hearing is keen enough to hear the rest, even when the man lowers his voice. She carefully finishes scrubbing the last of the blood from her face and hands before giving a bird-chirp to gain their attention, then jumps silently down to the floor to join them.
Linuial stops walking, turns to look at Paige. “Paige, dear, did you not hear what I said earlier? I’m not ‘fighting with’ Xavier…we have no proof that the man that met us in the Tiki Room is Xavier. He…or she…could be any shapeshifter; you know that there are others, right? Any shapeshifter could have taken Xavier’s form, to fool us into taking this job. For all we know…they might have killed our Xavier and replaced him with another shapeshifter. There is no way to be certain…if they went to such lengths, they would be certain to have scanned his mind first, to be sure that they could carry out the deception.
“I have already challenged him to identify himself to me in a way that could not be faked, and either he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do so.
“Paige, please understand me…if the point of all this was to capture or kill those of us who were being stalked…the man you think of as Xavier Devereaux might be waiting for the right moment to capture you, kill you, or attempt to reawaken Shiara within you. Since we know he is also a telepath, I think that last one is the most likely. Someone might want Shiara. Her power, her identity, some information she had. You cannot afford to drop your guard around him until we can sort this out, and get you out of danger. And whatever you do…
“…do not allow him to enter your mind.” The tone of her voice is grim. “I hope that’s not the case, not only for your sake…but for Xavier’s. If he is a substitution, it is most likely our Xavier is dead, and might have been so for months.” She drops her head…if her face could be seen behind the mask her expression would have been one of such deep sadness as only the immortals can experience.
Devereaux laughs. “Never gonna happen. Some people just can’t be helped.”
A single chirp draws his attention upward just in time to see Bubastis leap down from above. He starts to wave again but reconsiders when he remembers how little social exposure she has. There’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to interpret the gesture so he simply forgoes it all together.
“I take it you weren’t just sitting up there by accident. Same deal, you can stick with me or go chase antelope somewhere. Your call.”
Bubastis stares at the man, her expression, as always, unreadable.
She tilts her head to one side. “I am grateful to you for allowing me to join your mission. As far as ‘sticking with you’, Linuial is my temporary guardian and mentor, and I must follow her instructions or face termination. If that means that I must leave your presence or your mission, I will do so, regretfully.”
She waits to see if he will respond.
Guiding Paige back to the server they tried to hack, Linuial withdraws the data spike, picks up the Praetorian’s bag, and puts the spike inside. She reaches up for the mask she is wearing, hesitates, thinks better of it, and closes the bag, wrapping the strings around her left wrist.
She pushes her thought to the Anchorite. “Where should Paige and I meet you?“
Nyght scowls at Devereaux, seriously put out by his flippant attitude, but realizes that with the mask on, he can’t see it. So, instead, she swings to face him, fists planted on her hips, and say quietly but forcefully, “If you think it’s no big deal that part of yoah team isn’t even shoah yo’ah really you – and with a shapeshifteh, that’s not an unreasonable concern – then we’ah all headin’ foah trouble. In the middle of a fight, havin’ people reluctant to have yoah back, or flat-out concerned you don’t have theahs, is an invitation to disasteh. How do you not get that??”
“I don’t want to have this conversation right now… How did we know we got Tahquitz back when he stopped playing a dumb teenager who lit himself on fire back in Croatoa and came back to us after almost an hour unseen?” Paige asked, “Dev always could shapeshift, it’s not like this is new to us… Why did we trust him months ago when we asked him to lead us through that mission?”
“I understand being cautious, but how much of this is concern for our safety and how much of this is cognitive dissonance? Neither of you ‘got each other’ easily in the first place, that’s all I’m saying,” she breathed in slowly, “But I appreciate your concern for our safety, Linuial, and I do know you wouldn’t let anything happen to any of us. I just…”
“…nevermind, this isn’t the time for this. We need to focus,” Paige relents from discussion and goes back to following Linuial.
Devereaux’s demeanor flashes from nonchalant to bitterly acerbic in an instant. “The psychic vampire’s gonna lecture me about trust? Please. Let’s get something straight, newbie. In my world, suspicion isn’t a character flaw. It’s what keeps you alive. If I worried about everyone who didn’t like that I can be anyone, I’d never get outta bed in the morning. Like I said, if you don’t wanna be here, then don’t be.”
Before he can say more, Linuial’s message reaches him. “At the elevator. It’s all clear.”
Not waiting for any further indignation from Nyghtshade, he addresses Bubastis. “As for you, I can understand that you’ve got your own priorities to worry about. We don’t have to be best friends. Just keep doing that whole sneaky, sneaky, scratchy, bitey thing and we’ll get along fine.”
Nyght rolls her eyes, frustrated, but refrains form saying anything else. Stepping back out of Devereaux’s way, she waits for him to lead off.
The tiny woman grabs at Paige’s arm as she starts to turn away. “Paige, listen to me, please. We never had a reason to doubt Tahq. Nor did we have a reason to doubt Xavier, and I didn’t. I didn’t doubt him in the Tiki Bar, and that was my mistake. The ‘stalking’ photos were our first warning that something was not right, especially since there wasn’t a photo of Xavier. The second was that when I asked him, he couldn’t identify who either his contact or his employer was. I didn’t take it seriously enough, and now you are not taking it seriously enough, either. What finally got my attention was when this shapeshifter used the so-called ‘data spike’ that he said he got from his contact, that could have been nothing more than a pretty flashing prop, and declared that there was no key, the very thing that we were supposed to be here for. Paige…that isn’t paranoia on my part…it’s ‘three strikes, you’re out’. Three things that don’t add up, and he has no explanation for. I know you are young and inexperienced, Paige…please allow me to share my long history with you…and be on your guard. If it is Xavier, I’m sure we’ll clear this up eventually, but while you are still in danger, I cannot trust that man with your life, your well-being, or your sanity. Please don’t fight me on this. Paige…you know that my only motivation is your safety, just as it was six months ago. You do not know that about the shapeshifter…and naivety will get you killed…or worst…faster than anything else. You know you can trust me…but can you really trust him when I say not?”
Remembering how Kathy used to grab her arm when Paige upset her as a motherly gesture to reinforce what was important to listen to and what was just banter, she stops talking back to Linuial and listens to what she says.
Paige thinks to herself, “I do trust Devereaux as much as her. I wouldn’t be around now if he didn’t help me when I needed him, and I know he’s not who he lets on, but that’s not all a bad thing. I just hope they find some direction… I can’t tell her this, and I hope I’m wrong, but the passion between them speaks volumes. They may either they need a hotel room for the night… that, or a considerable arsenal to fire at each other to find any peace. I can’t tell which would be more effective.“
She dismisses the thought, and follows Linuial as she continues to locate the other half of the party.
Linuial takes a long hard look into Paige’s face. “Empathy can be a curse as much as a blessing“, she thinks to herself, not for the first time. To her preternatural empathic sense, it is obvious that Paige doesn’t believe her. She sighs, hoping against hope that at least she heard the warning and will remember it, especially if she is attacked. “There is only so much one can do…“ she reminds herself…hoping with all her heart that neither Paige nor Devereaux pay with their lives for her failure.
Resigned, she resumes her path to the elevators, nodding to Nyghtshade, Bubastis, and the shapeshifter when they arrive there.
She addresses the man: “All right, what now?”
“We’re headed to the top floor. Our guy here,” he motions to the unconscious scientist, “filled me in a little on how we got into this mess. Apparently, we need to have a word with his boss.”
He moves to a nearby door with a placard depicting a figure ascending a staircase. “We’ve gotta assume there’s a squad waiting for their buddies to come back up with our corpses. Eventually they’ll figure out that’s not gonna happen. We shouldn’t be here when they do. If anybody’s been slacking on their cardio, my apologies.” A smirk accompanies the last words.
With nothing more to say, he pushes through the door and takes the stairs two at a time.
Your situation has become much more complicated than you ever could have foreseen. You’ve sprung the trap laid for you and managed to stay alive for the moment. But now the true nature of one your team mates is in question. Are they the person you believe them to be or an infiltrator sent to ensure this is your last mission?
The conundrum fills your thoughts as you begin the charge up the stairwell. You have a lot of questions and precious few answers but one thing is certain, you are not even close to being out of danger.