Paragon City Stories: Darkness, Digitized
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act III, Scene 3
Your arrival at the Brickstown hospital is without fanfare. With the zone housing one of the largest prisons for superpowered criminals on the East Coast, a few more metahumans in the mix doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. A nurse at the entrance to the Intensive Care Unit informs you that your wounded comrades are out of surgery. One is conscious but the other is almost completely unresponsive.
A quick flash of your FBSA credentials along with an only slightly fabricated tale about your need to see the patient gains you entry into the ward. The sight of your teammate lying in bed with machines assisting their vital functions is disturbing but you’re determined to do everything in your power to help. Bracing yourself mentally, you huddle up and begin to formulate a plan.
“Do you have a plan, or are we wingin’ this?” Nyght asks Xavier.
“I’m not sure if there’s a way to avoid winging it,” Devereaux replies. “I’ve never tried to mend a broken psyche before. The risk of coming out damaged myself always kept me at a safe distance.”
Jon Smith looks up from the floor. As soon as he sees Devereaux, he jumps up and charges. Putting a hand out: “…Forget it. You aren’t going in there,” he says, his voice very low, and full of anger.
He looks at Bubastis. “You can go in…I want you to take over for me, and see that she isn’t disturbed. By anyone…” He glares at the Praetorian.
“As for the rest of you…come with me.” He turns on a heel and begins walking down the corridor.
“Mr. Smith! We’ve come to help,” Nyght protests, following close behind. “We’ve come to help Linuial.”
The cyborg doesn’t bother to reply, but leads the way into an elevator, holding the door open for the team to enter along with him.
As Bubastis enters the ICU, she sees Blood Nut, Stray, and Storm Surge sitting in the adjacent waiting room. She nods to them through the window, and leans over the blonde woman lying in the ICU bed.
The blonde haired man leads the way out of the elevator, down a corridor, takes a right, and walks up to a clear glass wall. Behind the wall, a small atrium can be seen, with a tiny winding path, benches, and greenery reminiscent of a tame jungle. He opens the door into the atrium, and walks halfway across the tiny room, sunlight pouring in from the open sky, before he stops and turns to look at those following him.
“Okay. Now we can talk. Without disturbing the other patients.”
His scowl is visible even through his damaged face.
Cocking an eyebrow at the cyborg, Devereaux asks in a flat tone, “You do realize that you’re killing her, right?”
When John’s face doesn’t soften, he explains. “She has psychic damage. We’re psychics. If you’re going to keep us from seeing her you may as well go ahead and put a bullet in her skull. Like it or not, John, I’m fifty percent of the best chance you’ve got to ever see her alive again.”
“…and one hundred percent of the reason she’s like this at all,” the cyborg responds.
“You told Blood you don’t trust that Malta hasn’t hacked our phones…and I don’t trust you to save her. She…” he nods in Nyghtshade’s direction, “…maybe. Maybe. Maybe not.
“If you’re willing to give me one good reason I should let you in there, I’ll listen.” He crosses his arms, rocks back on his heels.
Nyght glances from Jon to Xavier and back to Jon again, but says nothing, yet.
“I already did. Maybe you’re right and Nyghtshade can save her on her own,” he motions to the purple clad heroine. “Or maybe not. She did some pretty good work with Paige a while back but what we’re talking about now is orders of magnitude beyond that.”
He reaches up and removes his sunglasses, letting John see his eyes. “You can blame me for her condition if you want but let’s be clear about one thing. If she dies, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. I’ll remember her as fondly as possible, might even stop by her grave with flowers when I can. Meanwhile, you’ll be alone again with your fifteen year old’s binary world view. Maybe you’ll even try to kill me for that.”
He shrugs noncommittally, “And when you end up with scrambled eggs for brains, that’ll be your fault too. I guess you could try explaining it to her in the next life. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“Yes, Lin told me about that. How you always put things you’re responsible for off onto other people, never accept responsibility for your decisions. So far…I’m not impressed.
“Lin’s lived thousands of years. Maybe this is her time. Maybe she’s tired of outliving all those she loves. Maybe this is the right time for her to die, surrounded by those she loves, and who love her.
“And that certainly does not include you. If you had any care for her at all, you would have handled things differently. The pity is…I think she really does love you. As undeserving as you are…”
“Oh, foah heaven’s sake!” Nyghtshade sighs heavily, and takes a step forward again, centering herself between the two men. To Xavier, she says, “Ah sweah, Mr. Devereaux, you have an absolute talent foah sayin’ the most provocative things possible. That’s. Not. Helpin’.”
She turns to stare down Jon. “And you… Ah know yo’ah worried foah Linuial. Ah can see you two are close. You want to save her. But you need to know that none of us… none of us,” she ads, cutting a glance at Xavier and looking back to Jon, “knew what we weah goin’ to find in that Crey facility.”
“We weah theah to stop somethin’ horrible, but we didn’t know quite what, till we stumbled into it head first. And it was terrible. It nearly wrecked me, and it drove Linuial into shock.”
Tentatively, Nyght reaches out to lay a gloved hand on Jon’s mechanical arm, a strangely comforting gesture.
“We knew somethin’ had happened to her, but we didn’t realize what had happened till now. And so we rushed back to try and help her. All of us.”
Jon looks down at Nyghtshade with a slightly less intimidating scowl. “If you want to help, you can start by being a bit more forthcoming. Blood said you told him there was something wrong with her mind. She’s been unconscious ever since she arrived at the Infirmary. Tell me what you know…everything you know…about what is wrong with her, besides the heart wound.
“That would go a long way toward re-establishing, for me, that your intentions are…honorable.”
Nyght nods assent, and begins without preamble. “We found that Crey had tried to make some kind of technological mind link, like the Carnies use. What we didn’t know, until we literally walked into the shielded lab, was that the way they weah doin’ it was hookin’ livin’ Carnival people into theah machinery. And it was torturin’ them. Ah’m a telepath, and they weah… they weah all screamin’, driven mad from the pain.”
Nyght breaks off with a visible shudder at the memory, and takes a second to compose herself enough to continue.
“Linuial got hit broadside by it, apparently, but we didn’t realize at first what was happenin’ to her. We didn’t realize… Ah didn’t realize, till yoah friend Spray told us about how Linuial’s people could die of a… a broken heart… Ah realized all of a sudden that while we, Devereaux and Ah, weah hearin’ all that screamin, all that pain….”
Her voice drops, gone husky, “Linuial must have been feelin’ it. Feelin’ all of it. Ah think it ovehwhelmed her… and if Ah’m goin’ to go in to her mind and try to find her, try to reassure her, try to show her some reason to keep livin’… then Ah’m goin’ to need Mr. Devereaux’s help to do it. Unless you’ve got some otheh powehful psionics heah?”
The cyborg’s one human eye flies wide open…he staggers. “Oh…my…God…
“And you people let her continue on this mission after that? Let her get shot?!”
He starts to make an abortive move toward the door of the atrium…then stops.
He turns slowly, his expression now completely unreadable. All signs of emotion are gone…his face is like organic stone.
“Ladies first,” he says, his voice odd and strained. He holds out one hand in a gentleman’s gesture.
As Nyghtshade walks past him, he turns and looks at Devereaux. “Praetorians second…” he says, in the same tone of voice, with a smaller version of the same gesture.
As Nyght starts toward the atrium door, she adds, “Foah the record, Mr. Smith, Ah did mah best to heal her from her shock, and once she was awake again, Mr. Devereaux tried hard to keep her from gettin’ involved in any moah fightin’, tried to keep her back away from it. But Paige got shot, and Linuial threw herself foahward afteh Paige before anyone could stop her, and then Linuial got shot….” She breaks off, faltering and hugging herself tightly.
“And even then….” she finally continues, “we didn’t realize what had happened to her in that lab. Didn’t realize what it had done to her, how it had affected her, till now…..”
Nyght’s head lowers. “That’s on us.”
As Devereaux grudgingly walks past him…the two telepaths hear a staticy hum…Jon steps up right behind the Praetorian…there is a “shhkkktttt!” sound…and Devereaux feels cold metal shoot up his back, resting there, under his shirt.
“Stand very, very still,” Jon’s voice comes to him, very softly. “I really wanted to put my claws through your heart, and I still might if you give me a reason. I don’t plan on dying any time soon, and if that means I have to put you down, I will.
“Don’t interfere!” he snaps at Nyghtshade when she turns around, shock on her face.
“We’re in a Paragon hospital…claws in the heart aren’t going to kill you, they can fix you right up…but I was determined to have my say without you running away like you usually do,” he continues to the man. “And remember, if you shapeshift, each form would have my claws in its heart, as well.
He reaches around the Praetorian’s shoulder, holding an odd looking device in his metal hand. “Psi-blocker,” Jon Smith’s voice is close to Devereaux’s ear. “Mostly Rikti technology. A friend of mine, Kip Cantorum, best electrical engineer in Paragon, worked it up for me. It’s just a prototype…I’m thinking of having the Mark II inserted under my skin. It’ll have much improved control, and a greater range. Just in case you decide to come looking for me while I’m sleeping.
“I’m giving you fair warning…Kip is working on another little surprise for you, on my behalf. One that you won’t find so easy to get away from. Injectable nanobots. Ones that will build a similar psi-blocker inside your skull. Or your heart. Or inside your spinal column. Good luck finding someone who will be able to chase down all those little buggers without killing you. How would you like having to come to me for a 24-hour passcode every time you want to use your power?
“And, good luck figuring out where in my prostheses I have the injector hidden.”
The metal retracts, Jon steps back.
“I only remember a little more than a year, but I’ve been on plenty of missions in that time, and I’ve seen how the average ‘Hero’ treats Empathic Defenders. ‘Is there a healer out there?’ ‘We need a healer for this mission.’ Then, when they respond, and this isn’t just Lin, it’s all of them, the team does everything wrong, makes the healer’s job incredibly hard…runs away from them, ignores them, yells at them, tells them how to do their job, even lets them take aggro and get too injured to do their job…and then as soon as the mission is over, quit team, with never a thank you, never asking if there is something they might need in return. The Empaths have the hardest time leveling of any Hero in the city, and the hardest time moving from contact to contact, because they can never get their assigned missions accomplished.
“Paragon Heroes should be ashamed of the way they treat their healers. All of them. And that includes the Praetorians and the Rogue Isles criminals, too.
“And you treated Lin exactly the same way.”
He shoulders his way past the two telepaths, and enters the first elevator that opens, not bothering to hold the door.
“All right, that’s it. I’m done with this.”
Transitioning smoothly into his Basilisk template, Devereaux centers himself and focuses on John’s retreating form. It only takes a moment to activate Kuji-in Rin, the ancient Ninjitsu technique that grants him control over his own time. Combined with the shinobi’s already preternatural speed, he slips through the closing doors in a blur.
“You don’t listen very well, do you John?” he asks, the sneer on his transformed face hidden by the ninja’s mask.
“At this speed, I’d have time to dismantle you with a screwdriver like a cheap couch from IKEA. If you ever try to pull some cocksure fanboy shit like that again, I’ll mail your shiny metal ass back to Linuial in pieces. As for your tech, don’t make me laugh. I’ll take my chances on Praetorian nanos over the glorified toasters on this dimensional backstop any day of the week.”
Keeping the temporal warping effect of the technique active, he zips back out to stand next Nyghtshade with his arms crossed over his chest. Adopting an almost friendly manner, he chides the big cyborg. “You should know this by now but I’ll tell you anyway. Don’t threaten me with a good time.”
He watches the elevator doors close in the disorienting slow motion of Kuji-in Rin and savors the scowl that twists the large man’s features.
Or.. the doors might have made it closed, if Nyght hadn’t sprung forward and jammed a boot in between them at the last second. She slides inside the elevator, the door still blocked by her foot. She’s stiff with anger and looking positively fierce, as she jabs a small gloved finger into Jon’s chest.
“How dare you presume to know how Ah treat anyone?? How dare you judge us when you weren’t even theah!?! If Linuial didn’t need you right now, both of you,” she continues, glaring at Jon in the elevator and Xavier outside it, “Ah’d slap you both silly! Now climb down off yoah high horses, both of you, put yoah boy-toys away, and let’s focus on tryin’ to save a woman who frankly neitheh of you deserve to even know.”
Still seething, Nyght points at Jon. “You. Ah need foah you to call in eveh’one who Linuial loves, eveh’one who cares foah her, and get them up to her room. If she feels what eveh’one else feels, Ah need her surrounded by love, by people carin’ foah her, by people wantin’ her to come back to them. Do you think you can manage that?”
She turns her head toward Devereaux. “And you… Ah need you to stop with the Alpha Male act and help me figure out how to find a safe way into Linuial’s psyche, to where she’s hidden herself away, and help me coax her into bein’ willin’ to live again. . No sarcasm, no posturin’, no infightin’, just helpin’ her! Do you think you can manage that?”
With an angry jerk of her chin, she steps out of the elevator and heads for the nearby stairwell.
“But that’s part of my charm,” Devereaux calls after Nyghtshade, then reflexively makes a fist when she spins to give him a glare of her own. There’s something decidedly inhuman in the look and he finds himself calculating just what it would take to bring her down.
After a tense moment, he relents. “You’ve got some brass balls, Newbie,” he extols, chuckling. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”
Still laughing to himself, he jogs up behind and follows her into the stairwell. “If we’re gonna pull this off we’ll need to go in with a full chamber. They’ve probably got Paige doped out of her mind on pain meds but I’d rather have her a little loopy than try going in without her. You magic types’ heads are always full of weird shit. The more backup we can bring along, the better.”
Devereaux was right.
Two hours ago, Maggot Man had the uncomfortable experience of helping hospital staff clear out ceiling debris after local anesthesia failed to calm Paige down when they tried to remove her bullet. 30 minutes later, it was bricks and pipes when general anesthesia was administered. Paige’s hospital bill will be calculated in four weeks after contractors figure out the damage.
Now, she’s in a chemically induced coma. The bullet was removed in minutes, lodged in a bank of cartilage near her femur. No fractures or broken bones. She’s bandaged up and in recovery, but the coma… it’ll take hours to wear off and let the chemicals run their course since there’s no medical reason to wake her yet. She needs the rest anyway.
“Devereaux? Is that you? But you’re already here…” Her current dream is of no consequence, as the coma delusion has her in a His Dark Materials setting.
Of course, in the dream, it’s her as Lyra with Tahq as her daemon, Pantalaimon. Devereaux is Lord Asriel with Nyghtshade as Stelmaria, his daemon. And Linuial as Serafina, Queen of The Witches. They’re fighting a bunch of mercenaries in the North Pole to save children from the United States Oblation Board, who is threatening their lives to make adoption more profitable for the North Atlantic states through Intercision…
Well, It’s a fantasy. It doesn’t have to make complete sense.
“This? Nevermind… the stuff they have me on… wow.” Her mind dismisses the fantasy in seconds, and it’s Paige standing alone in a empty dark space. “I tried to contain myself, but after destroying two rooms, they knocked me out. It feels like days I’ve been out. What’s wrong?”
At the top of the stairs, Nyght whirls on Devereaux, incredulous at his latest plan. “Paige?? Are you uttehly mad? You want to drag Paige into this, afteh all she’s been put through?”
She draws herself up to her full 5’ 6” (which still towers over him, since she’s a few stairsteps higher). “Mr. Devereaux, Paige needs rest and some serious counselin’, not being dragged into a powehful bein’s tortured psyche. Do you really want her broken too??”
She adds, voice chilly, “And if - if - Shiara wasn’t defeated, if she’s still lurkin’ around in Paige’s head… do you really want to risk invitin’ her into Linuial’s mind?”
“Do you want to save Blondie?” Devereaux counters icily, his expression turning sour.
“Or was all that talk about putting personal objections aside just a bunch of self-righteous crap? If you think what we did in Paige’s mind was tough, just wait until we find out what Linuial’s five thousand year old brain can throw at us.”
He steps up to the stair directly below her, a challenge oozing from behind his black lenses. “I can appreciate what you’ve done so far but this is what separates me from you and the others. I’m willing to make the hard calls while you’re all busy desperately scrambling to find a way out of doing just that. Even better, you get to blame me later and absolve yourselves of the guilt. You’ve even got the gall to accuse me of being the irresponsible one.”
“Here’s a little reality for you, Newbie. Sometimes there is no pristine choice. Sometimes you’ve gotta get your hands dirty. You, Linuial, John, you’re all so terrified of being monsters that you turn into cowards instead.”
Leaning in until their faces are almost touching, he growls, “Well I say fuck every last one of you chickenshit capes. I’m not afraid to be the bad guy as long as the job gets done. If you’ve got a problem with that, then you can go up there and tell the homicidal metal man that his girlfriend’s got a one way ticket to the vegetable patch. Or would you rather stop annoying me with your bullshit and try to do something about it?”
Locked in the staredown with Nyghtshade, Devereaux nearly misses the telepathic communique from Paige.
“Hey, kid. Glad to see you’re not on a slab in the morgue. Looks like you’re…” He trails off as a barrage of images from the girl’s dreamscape reaches him across their psychic connection. “Higher than a coke head with a six figure salary,” he finishes with a laugh.
“Listen, we need your help with Blondie. She’s still under and it doesn’t look like she’ll come out of it unless we go in and help. They’ve got you, what, near comatose? Can’t be the full nine. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it were.”
In the slowly rising elevator, Jon Smith balls one metal hand into a fist, raises it…
…and holds it in front of his face, trembling with the effort to keep it from smashing anything, everything, in the elevator.
He is nearly at the ICU floor before he is able to unclench and lower his hand. Breathing hard, he leans against the elevator wall, until the door starts to close…reaches forward hurriedly to catch it…pauses for a moment…and then steps out into the hallway. Looking right and left, he confirms that none of Starfire can see him, then stands for a long moment before he sighs, his shoulders relax, and he reaches for the cell phone in a belt pouch. Tapping it, he strides toward the ICU waiting room, already making calls.
Nyghtshade stiffens, almost flinching as Devereaux boasts about owning the inner monster. But, teeth gritted, she merely mutters, “In foah a penny, in foah a pound.”
More audibly, she admits, “Yoah the team leadeh, you’ve known them both longeh than me. But Ah am not ‘chickenshit’, and Ah will not abandon the membehs of this team.”
She steps back, with a tense gesture almost like Jon’s, giving way to let Devereaux pass and dropping in behind to follow.
“Yeah? Prove it.” Every instinct in Devereaux’s body screams at him to say the words but he holds his tongue.
Instead, he opts for a plan of action, “I’ve got Paige on the line. She’s a little off but she should be okay for light duty. Head up to the ICU and get Starfire in order. I’ll be there once I see her for myself.”
“Sure, let’s go rescue Serafina!” She cheers as it is possible the dream hasn’t lost it’s grip on her.
“Make that very light duty,” Devereaux laments as he makes his way out of the stairwell. With his telepathy giving him a clear picture of Paige’s location, it doesn’t take long to find the room where she’s convalescing. He pauses with a hand on the doorknob. The normally vibrant lavender mind on the other side is shrouded in a haze, like a fire burning behind a sheet of fog. “Damn, what kind of drugs did they give her anyway?”
About the same time as he has the thought, the presence of another, only slightly familiar, mind reaches him. “Let’s see how we do with this one,” he thinks as he pushes the door open.
“Maggot Man, a pleasure as always.” He nods to the masked Hero. “You wouldn’t happen to know if they gave Paige morphine or some oxycontin derivative, would you? If you do, mind saving me the trouble and telling me the dosage too? We’re in a bit of a hurry and I’d rather not waste time guessing as to how much amphetamine I’ll need to snap her out of it.”
Maggot Man nods equally pleasantly to the Praetorian. “Devereaux. I hear you’ve been busy.” Without expanding on that remark, he leans forward in the chair where he’s sitting, picks up a sheet of paper from the bedside table, and offers it. “I had the nurses write everything down, in case someone needed it…Paige, whoever.”
As he hands it over, his eyes narrow above the face scarf. “You planning to play ‘doctor’, Devereaux?” He plainly doesn’t like the suggestion, but he doesn’t protest further.
As Jon enters the ICU waiting room, he glances into the ICU proper, sees Bubastis standing next to the blonde woman, holding her hand. He continues speaking into the phone as he sits down in an empty chair, nodding to Blood Nut and Stray.
Finishing his call, he turns to his SG mates. “Devereaux and Nyghtshade think something is wrong with Lin on a…um…’psychic’ level, or something like that. Nyghtshade gave me a quick briefing on some of the things they ran into in that Crey facility. They seem to think only they can help her…I have my doubts, honestly, but Nyghtshade’s heart seems to be in the right place. I’ve decided to let them do what they want…as much as I loathe that man, I don’t think he means Lin any harm, and we all know how tough she is.”
He chuckles, suddenly, his demeanor lightening considerably. “I can’t say the same about him and me…but if he tries anything, he’s going to find out the same thing about me that Crey did.” He laughs.
Sobering again, he continues. “Nyghtshade requested that we get everyone that Lin loves, or who loves her, here around her. There’s no way they’ll let everyone in here at one time…”
“…Jon…” Stray breaks in, “…they just told us they’ll be moving her to a semi-private room in a few minutes.”
Jon’s expression brightens again. “Oh…that’s great, Stray…” He ponders for a second. “Look, you guys keep calling everybody you can think of, I’ll go check with the nurses station and see if they can move her to a private room instead. Fuck the expense…I’ll pay for it myself if I have to.”
“We’ll all chip in, for that matter,” Blood Nut replied. “You do what you have to do, Jon, Stray and I’ll play switchboard operators…we’ll get ‘em here.”
“Damnit, Jim! I’m a spy, not a doctor!” Devereaux cries in faux exasperation, a cheeky grin on his face. “But I do have mind control powers. I’ll have one of the attendings handle it.”
Taking the proffered list, he alternates between scanning it and glancing at the medical equipment arrayed next to Paige’s bed. “So, how much of this is bullshit?” he asks casually.
Then his jovial attitude falls away. “She could die if somebody administers the wrong dosage because you tried fudging the numbers to keep me from waking her up. That’d look like a pretty stupid mistake on your part.”
Maggot Man blinks, sheer surprise widening his eyes. “Man, I’m glad I’m not in your shoes. Spy, indeed. Were you ‘born’ that suspicious, or did you have to work at it? Don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.”
He frowns, only his eyes visible. “The printout is straight off the nursing station printer…I don’t have the equipment here to convincingly forge an altered one. Just because your usual playmates are that sneaky and controlling, that doesn’t mean we are.
“…I can’t help wondering just how many Primal Earth inhabitants you offend with that attitude, boyo.” He shakes his head. “Can you even have a five minute conversation with someone without saying something offensive?” Even his eyes show disgust.
Nyghtshade’s temper is still roiling over Devereaux’s mercurial temperment, his venomous condemnation of heroes, of her. She pauses in the hallway, trying to center herself, trying to remind herself that he’s probably just lashing out over his concern to Linuial. And at least she has no doubt he’s truly concerned for Linuial.
She pushes her hood back with a sigh, trying to ignore the overwhelming fatigue that is her curse, come sunrise each morning. The sun is well up now, but she has work to do. For another moment, she bows her head, whispering a prayer and touching her chest above where the little crucifix and rosary rest beneath her costume.
Finally, straightening and squaring her shoulders, she moves off to the ICU, where she finds Jon and the others. “You’ve explained to them what Ah th… believe Linuial needs?” she asks Jon quietly.
Nyght looks around at the cramped ICU set-up. “We need to see if they can move her to a room, she adds. If it’s safe to.”
Laughing at Maggot Man’s assessment of his personality, Devereaux says, “Catch me on an off day sometime. I’m much friendlier when I’m not doing…well…this.”
Even as the words leave his mouth, he locates a doctor lounging in a break room down the hall and issues a mental command. A moment later, the door swings open and a woman appears wearing a lab coat and scrubs. Without a word, she moves to Paige’s bedside and gets to work rousing the teenager from her subdued state.
As the doctor goes about her task, Devereaux joins Maggot Man on the other side of the room. “We could grab a drink and talk about what it’s like to live on opposite sides of the law. I’d tell you to invite John but he’s a little too…morally rigid for my taste.”
The amusement on his face is all too plain.
Maggot Man watches the woman keenly. His eyes now betray suspicion. After a few moments, he says quietly, “…so…I guess you used your telepathy on her, right? I’d like to know how honest you can be…did she have any choice, or did you remove that possibility?”
He turns to look at the Praetorian, not giving him a chance to answer. “You see how it goes? One moment of suspicion, and next thing you know everyone is suspicious of you. That’s how it works. Trust is a fragile thing…break it in an instant, spend a lifetime trying to glue it back together again.
“That doesn’t bother you? No, I guess it doesn’t. Lin sees potential in you, Jon doesn’t. Personally, I’m not exactly the nicest guy in the world, either, and I’ve got my reasons…but I prefer Jon’s sort. I know I can trust him with my back, and he’d die for anybody he cared about. So would I. That gives us a common bond.
“…and that makes it a lot more comfortable to have him as my drinking buddy.”
Jon Smith breaks off his conversation, turns to look at the undead woman. “I’ve got people coming, and they’re about to move her to a private room. Anything else you need…or want?”
Nyght looks from Jon to Blood Nut to Stray, saying seriously, “You all know Linuial is an empath. What you all feel, she feels. You know that, we know that. What we think happened to her is that she, all of us really, but she took it the worst, was exposed to a torture chambeh, and the maddened pain of its victims ovehwhelmed her. Ah think… Ah suspect Linuial has retreated to somewheah deep inside her own mind, to escape the horror.”
Nyght’s own expression reflects something of that horror, but her tone is even as she continues. “What Ah’m hopin’… is that surroundin’ her with her friends and loved ones, with the love you all feel foah her, will strengthen her, reach her, help us find her and bring her back to the heah and now.”
“Yo’ah goin’ to need to put aside fear and worry foah her. Ah know that’s askin’ a lot, but Ah think all of you need to focus on how much she means to you, how much she brings to yoah lives, how much, how very much you want and need foah her to come back, to come home to you. And if moah of you all show up, you need to explain that to them too. Ah think it’s critical.”
“While you all are doin’ that, supportin’ Linuial with yoah love foah her, then when Mr. Devereaux gets heah, he and Ah, we’ll do evehthin’ possible to find her theah, deep inside her mind, and bring her back.
“If we can bring her back, wake her up…” She pauses, looking from face to face, “Ah’ll lay money she’ll tell you she’s fine. But Ah’m guessin’ in reality even if we succeed at bringin’ her back, she’s goin’ to need a lot of care and support foah a while, from her friends and loved ones.”
Devereaux ponders the question anyway. “You guys are a real trip, y’know that? I guess I could’ve just forced her but dominating a mind like that isn’t as easy as it looks. Besides, it tends to come with some nasty side effects. But that wasn’t the point you were trying to make, was it?”
He carries on, heedless of the other man’s pontificating. “I couldn’t care less about whether or not you and Jon trust me because you’re not on my side. You’ve been useful this time, sure, but who’s to say I won’t need to go up against you tomorrow or next week or ten years from now? It wouldn’t be very wise for me to cozy up to people like that, would it?”
“You guys think I’m an asshole and you’re not wrong on that point. Problem is, you’re blind enough to think I’m an asshole just ‘cause. You used to be a cop, right? Put those profiling skills to work and see what you can come up with. Offer on the drink still stands, buddy,” he leans into the last word with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
The doctor straightens, tosses a syringe in a nearby biohazard container, and leaves the room as stoically silent as when she entered.
“Now that we’ve got that out of the way,” Devereaux says as he moves back to where Paige lies. “Let’s see if she’s still all Fruit Loops in there.”
Reaching out to the girl’s consciousness, he asks gingerly, “Paige, Paige, I had them give you something to wake you up. It shouldn’t be enough to bring you all the way back but you’ll still notice the pain in your thigh. Do me a favor and try not to scream, okay? This room’s tiny and I don’t wanna have to put you under again to keep the hospital intact. Besides, I’m not sure Linuial could wait if I did.”
Jon looks at Nyghtshade. The look on his face is hard to decipher.
He leans casually against the wall, looking her over like a side of beef.
“Is that what’s been going through your mind, all this time?” he asks, disbelief in his voice.
“Did it ever occur to you that she’s unconscious because she’s been sedated for open heart surgery, and hasn’t come out of it yet?”
Stray, in her catgirl incarnation, looks over at Jon and Nyghtshade. “You know, Jon…” she says, with a drawl of her own, no mimicry of the undead woman, “…’when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ “
She shrugs. “She and Devereaux are telepaths. To them…every problem is a telepathy problem.”
“But… but…” Nyght looks to Stray. “You said.. what was all that about Linuial’s people dyin’ of a broken heart? Besides, you weren’t theah when she went into shock… You all didn’t…. you didn’t see, you didn’t….”
Nyght is trembling, composure shot. It’s only with an effort of sheer will that she pulls herself together enough to speak again. “OK, then. If she’s really fine, them Ah’m an idiot and no harm done. But if she’s not…. are you at least willin’ to let me check? Once the sedation weahs off… if she doesn’t wake on her own?”
Maggot Man watches Devereaux…sees some sort of effort going on…waits until his glassy gaze returns to the inside of the hospital room.
A snorting laugh comes from behind his mask. “Devereaux…” he says, to gain the other man’s attention again, “…let me share a little something with you. For free.
“I’m dead. Did you realize that? It’s true. There are only three things in this existence that I care about, care to talk about…my widow, my son, and finding the man who murdered me.
“There’s no way I would sit down in a bar with you and discuss my family with you. No way. You’re too dangerous, and the people you play with are too dangerous.” He shakes his head. “Not happening.
“Now, if you had some information on the man who murdered me…or could get it…we’d have something to talk about. But I’m afraid it’d be all business. I simply have no interest in learning what it’s like ‘on the other side’. That’s completely irrelevant to me. Once I find and punish my murderer, I’m off for the Great Beyond. Whatever that is, for me.
“The funny thing is….” he continues, “…Jon is exactly the person you should be shooting the bull with. You’re rough on people. You have no concern about their situation, your sarcasm is off-putting, your perspective completely outside that of most people in this city, and offensive to most. Jon, whatever he thinks of you, is tough. Toughest person I know, outside of Lin. What he’s been through would have killed most people, a hundred times over, and he’s not only still alive, he’s sane, and he’s a pretty all-around good person.
“He can take your shit, and hand it back to you, on a silver platter, with parsley garnish. If you make nice with him, he could probably get over your attitude problem.”
“…you might think about it.” The chuckle is real and heart-felt.
“Oh, that?” the Kheldian replies. “I was talking to your Praetorian. He said something about Lin being ‘immortal’ so he wasn’t worried about the ‘GSW’, whatever the hell that is, just about her mind. He acted like she couldn’t die from getting shot in the heart. I was just correcting him on that mistaken assumption. Lin’s people do die from injury, it just takes a whole, whole lot for it to ‘take’. They’re awfully strong, and Lin’s healing ability makes her one of the strongest. But that doesn’t make her immortal in the sense that it’s impossible for her to die…and she does have one weakness, which apparently none of you knew about…which seems weird to me, anyway, wouldn’t you want to know your healer’s weakness? That weakness is that her kind can, and have, died purely from a broken heart. From excess of emotion. From unrelenting emotion. Their feelings are not their own, they take on the feelings…and pain…of others, willy-nilly, and have few protections against it, other than sheer strength and force of will. Lin has avoided dying, longer than any other member of her species.
“It just strikes me as really stupid to just assume because she’s so strong, that she can’t be broken. Really…really…stupid.” She shrugs.
Nyght draws a deep breath she doesn’t need, and sighs. “All right, then. Thank you foah the… the clarification. Ah’ll go down to the waiting room, and leave you all alone with Linuial. Ah’ll be theah, if you need me.”
She turns to leave.
“Here’s the thing,” Jon continues, holding up one metal hand, starts ticking off fingers. “One, you guys don’t seem to know exactly what you’re doing, and you want to go dumpster-diving in Lin’s brain. Two, she’s still under sedation, and won’t that work at cross purposes if you two are trying to wake her up? Three, we don’t even know if anything is wrong with her, that the surgery and her native healing ability won’t fix. Four…you want to rush me…us…into decisions for Lin, and my instincts are telling me you’re too emotionally involved to be making good decisions.”
Nyght pauses at the door. “Fair points, all of them. Ah’m not leavin’ till Ah know Ah’m not needed, but Ah will get out of yoah hair. Like Ah said, Ah’ll be down in the waitin’ room.” She looks up, gaze meeting Jon’s, and then leaves.
“Well, at least that explains the name.”
“It’s funny. Seems like the more time I spend with Linuial, the more undead people I run into. You’ve all got one thing in common. You take yourselves entirely too seriously.” The smile Devereaux gives Maggot Man isn’t his usual sarcastic one. Rather, there’s something difficult to pinpoint in the gesture. Commiseration?
“Truth is, I’m not in the market for any new friends and I prefer to drink with people who I can trust not to try and lecture me about the merits of a kinder, gentler outlook on life. Still, it would’ve been interesting to see if you can get shitfaced from beyond the grave but I guess that’s something I can always find out later.”
At Maggot Man’s flat stare, he waves a hand in a gesture that could be apologetic. “Right, that was in poor taste. My bad. You’re wrong about John, by the way. He can serve up a decent threat but that seems to be the limit of his abilities, at least for right now. Probably a byproduct of being put on ice before his brain developed enough to comprehend the more nuanced blasphemies life tends to throw at us all.”
Giving Paige and the medical machinery another once over, he turns back to the undead detective. “She should come around in a few minutes. I don’t need to be in here to keep in touch with her. You joining us to help get your leader back or standing guard?”
The look on the visible part of Maggot Man’s face could only be described as “exasperated”.
“Well, at least I can see what Lin’s been talking about…” he says. “I have no idea what you mean about ‘undead’ people. Certainly, there’s nobody like me that I have ever met, around Lin or otherwise. That ‘vampire’ woman? She came with you, not Starfire.
“…’poor taste’ is the least of your worries. Once you figure out how to apologize for the really offensive stuff, you’ll have a good thing going.
“The one thing that I find the most startling, is your casual assumption that you know Jon better than I do. What did you do, jump into his brain telepathically, or something? Oh, I know you didn’t…because if you had, you wouldn’t have that opinion of him.” He shrugs. “Whatever. Info is wasted on you. Obviously your mind is made up, and you aren’t about to be dissuaded by facts.”
He stares for a moment. “…and Jon trusts you to go digging around in Lin’s skull? Obviously, his opinion of you is a lot higher than yours of him…or mine of you, for that matter.” He shrugs. “You tell me what you want…here on guard, or joining you. I’ll follow Jon’s lead…God help us all, and I hope he’s right this time.”
Devereaux opens his mouth to retort, then closes it again, making the calculation that it’s best not to put all his cards on the table in one move. Instead, he returns the shrug.
“Nyghtshade’s got a theory about Linuial’s Empathy overloading her mind’s ability to cope. She thinks getting people who care for her together will make it easier to bring her back around. I’d assumed that included you but considering you just told me that you really only care about your family and your revenge, I’ll leave the option open. Thanks for the chat, Maggot Man.”
Stepping out of the room and making his way toward the ICU, he’s surprised to find Nyghtshade going in the opposite direction. Pinning her with a quizzical look, he asks, “What’re you doing out here? I thought you’d have Starfire all queued up to sing Kumbaya by now.”
Nyght shakes her head. “No… they seem to think the only reason she hasn’t awakened yet is because she’s still sedated from open heart surgery. Which…” she hesitates, then admits, “they could be right. Which means Ah’m an idiot. But… they weren’t theah. They didn’t experience that lab. They didn’t see her collapse and go into shock.”
She looks up, and up, locking eyes with Xavier. “They might be right, but Ah still want to be heah when it’s time foah her to wake up. In case she doesn’t. In case she needs ouh help afteh all.”
“Foah now, though, Ah told them Ah’d be in the waitin’ room. Or… if you can find out how long befoah she’s expectin’ to come to, if theah’s time… Ah might be able to slip out and prevent a few muggin’s while we’ah waitin’…”
Maggot Man shakes his head.
Standing, he follows the Praetorian out, nearly bumping into him when he stops abruptly to talk to Nyghtshade.
Nyght nods politely to Maggot Man, and looks back to Devereaux. “So…” she prompts, “unless you need me foah somethin’, Ah’ll be in the waiting room, just down the hall theah.”
“Whose dumbass idea was that?!” Devereaux explodes. Seeing Nyghtshade ready herself to respond, he holds up a hand to stop her. “Don’t bother. I already know the answer.”
He whirls around to face Maggot Man, frustration carving deep furrows between his eyes. “Forget what I said about having options. I need you to help me convince your boy Jon that he’s about to kill the only woman who’s ever loved him besides his mother.”
Jon is talking quietly with Stray as the Infirmary’s Empathic Healer stands over the blonde woman in the bed, green glowing auras swirling around him and the patient. The tall craggy-faced man withdraws his hands, and the green glow fades away.
He shakes his head, turns and walks toward Stray. “Who are the family?” he asks.
Stray replies, “…I guess we all are. Lin doesn’t have any living blood kin.”
The man in the ornate red-and-blue Hero’s costume looks around at the gathering. “Well, okay…who’s making the decisions, then? I need a next-of-kin, and somebody needs to step up.”
Jon Smith stands up, ignoring the healer’s start. “I guess that would be me. Jon Smith. I’m…her significant other, I guess you’d say.”
The healer recovers quickly, nods. “Well, she’s responded to empathic healing…better than anyone else I’ve ever seen, her constitution must be phenomenal…I understand she’s an Empath herself, which probably explains that…but what it doesn’t explain is that while her heart is almost completely healed again, her Endurance and Constitution are not recovering normally. Particularly her Endurance. It’s almost as if something were draining her, which certainly isn’t happening here in the hospital…or she’s suffered a serious injury to whatever system she has that generates Endurance.
“If she were human, we’d know what to do about that…chakra stimulation, acupuncture for her chi system…but I’ve never seen anyone like her. At this point, about all we can do here is take a wait-and-see approach, and let time run its course.
“I’d ask if there was anyone who should say ‘goodbye’ you might want to call them and have them do so…but it looks like you’ve already got half of Paragon City here.”
He shakes his head. “If anything changes, you can call me. Just pick up the room phone and push the button labeled ‘Defend/Protect 2’. That’ll reach me.
“Sorry. I wish I could do more. She seems like a pretty special lady.”
He shakes Jon’s hand, then turns and walks out of the room.
Paige is opening her eyes for the first time in hours since Maggot Man brought her to the ICU for treatment. Everything is blurry, nothing is clear as her pupils are still dilated from the cocktail of stimulants and depressants she’s been put on. Her hands and arms are numb and tingle with motion, except her leg, which sends a dulled sting through her every time she tries to move it, preventing her knee from closing. But it is bandaged and she can tell from the mulled stinging that the bullet is gone.
She tries to speak, but her voice is dry and raspy… both from the night of fighting as well as all of the dust from the debris she made with her attacks. At best, she can mutter one question… “Where am I?”
Powered by a potent mixture of exhaustion and something bordering on naked rage, Devereaux half cajoles, half threatens a passing nurse into telling him where Linuial’s been moved to. With Nyghtshade and Maggot Man in tow, he flings the door open. His face is set in an icy mask of calm. Far too much calm.
Sweeping the room, his eyes settle on the half metallic form of Jon Smith. “So I hear you decided to let her die after all. Harsh. But hey, she’s your girlfriend. At least you managed to get a solid crowd in here for the eulogy.”
Indeed, the room is packed to the gills with unfamiliar faces. Other members of Linuial’s band of merry men, Devereaux assumes. “Are we doing this in alphabetical order or by who’s known her the longest? I’ve got a great story about this time she played a couple of hick carnies in Croatoa. I laughed, she laughed, the manager almost lost an arm. It was hilarious.”
Stray looks up suddenly. “I was just thinking…does anyone know if Lin has a will? I mean…she’s not likely to think she’ll nee…”
She stops abruptly, as every eye in the room fastens on her. “…too soon?”
Jon’s shocked look gradually fades…then he chuckles…then he breaks into laughter…then doubles over laughing as the rest of Starfire stare at him in dismay.
Nyght puts a a gloved hand on Devereaux’s arm. “Devereaux, please, don’t, don’t be like this. This isn’t helpin’.”
She cuts off at Stray’s comment. “What? A will? what are talkin’ about, she isn’t….?”
Doubled over…Jon’s shoulders continue shaking…but it sounds less and less like laughter, and more and more like body-shaking sobs…
Nyght looks around the group, voice flattening. “What has happened?”
Stray stands, crosses to the cyborg, puts a hand gently on his back. “Jon…please…I didn’t mean…”
She kneels in front of him, her eyes wide, trying to get a look at his ravaged face.
Blood Nut stands, walks over to Maggot Man and Nyghtshade, nods to the hallway.
Once they follow him, “…the Empathic Healer here just gave up on her. She’s still alive, but he can’t recommend anything other than ‘time’. He says she isn’t regenerating Endurance fast enough…maybe that’s why she’s still ‘out’.” He shrugs. “If you guys have any ideas, I’d like to hear them. I think Jon’s about done for.”
He turns to look at the tableau of Stray and the cyborg, his expression solemn.
Her vision returning to focus, Paige pulls the covers off of her and draws her gown back to see the damage. The leg is bandaged tightly, so she can’t see the stitches. But her thighs have scars above her knees from prior “guardians” as Raul Acosta wasn’t the first person to hurt her, so she’s not really worried about looking good for swimsuit season anyway. She was more concerned over what it was like from fascination, being her first gun shot.
Nothing to be proud of, but nothing to be ashamed of. Just another stamp to prove that you’ve lived.
She also notices that the curtain in her room is pulled back and she’s sharing it with another patient… who apparently likes watching Courtroom shows on the one TV in there. “So, what are you in for?” she asks raspily to the old man who is grabbing at his torso..
“Gallbladder surgery. What about you kid?”
“Someone shot me in the leg.”
“Oh, that’s terrible… A young gir–”
“Actually, I’m a registered hero… we were in a mission.”
“Well, then… What’s a cute kid like you doing getting shot at? Don’t you have someone who cares for you at home?”
Paige thinks to herself for a moment. “Home… I haven’t considered anyplace home for a long time. Even the apartment I’m staying at feels like it’s not really mine. Legally, it isn’t. My guardian signed for it although I pay for it. I used to–” Paige’s face freezes in shock as she stops mid-sentence.
“– used to what, my dear?”
“My friends! They’re in trouble! I completely forgot when I woke up!”
Paige closes her eyes and tries to reach out in the hospital, but with her strength still compromised, she’s stumbling more than reaching. She thought she got to Linuial’s mind, but landed in a room down the hall for a weathergirl who broke her leg during a forecast falling off of the platform.
She tried again and found a nurse who had the same deep red hair of Nyghtshade, only to find out it’s a black woman who is fretting about what to wear on her date night with a guy she wants to sleep with. She tried once more and thought she found Maggot Man… only to get to an orderly who keep muttering about how he wants to quit this terrible parody of a hospital with backstabbing co-workers and male staff who can’t stop barking at each other, and go work the stage… as a drag queen.
Paige opens her eyes and breathes heavily… “I can’t… I can’t find them. Is there a…” she looks around her bed and finds a walker. “Is that yours?”
“No, sweetie, but you just woke up. Do you think it’s best for you to be walking around without help?”
“I don’t have a choice. My friend is in danger, and the hospital staff will just tell me to stay in bed.” She steels herself and tries lowering her lithe leg, covered in a bandage to the floor.
“You all know ouh plan,” Nyght says, trying not to snap. “If Linuial is runnin’ out of town, so are we.”
She shoves her hood back again, and turns on Devereaux. “Are you ready to do this?”
“Wait a second,” Devereaux says, pulling Nyghtshade up short. He lets his mind fly back to Paige’s room. Seeing her mental light flare with intense concentration, he moves in to take a closer look. The stream of invective that rushes out to meet him as he watches her struggle to balance on her injured leg, through her own eyes, is equal parts surprising and impressive.
“Kid, take a second and think about that a little harder. Once you realize how pointless it is, turn around and get your ass back into bed.”
The dull sting of her leg becomes a sharp stabbing sensation as the bullet parted some of her muscle fibers. Any extension of her pectineus muscle stings, so mechanically walking isn’t in the cards for her.
She lets out a yelp of pain, slumping back on the bed with her shoulders trying to hold her weight… with the soundwave from her yell striking the television, making it spark as it flickers off and loses picture.
“You weren’t watching that, were you?” Paige asked the old man.
“No, it was either court shows or informercials. I don’t like either of them, but I like ads less.”
“I don’t mind sweetie, but I heard the hospital staff mutter something about billing you for all of their broken equipment. I’d keep those pipes of yours shut if that’s what caused it. And you should check your gown, sweetie.” The old man turned away as her backside was exposed trying to get out of bed.
“Oh! Thanks. Sorry about that.”
Devereaux’s message reaches her at that moment, as she tries to follow where it came from. It’s two floors down, near the elevator. “Devereaux! Thank God! Is Linuial alright?!”
Blood Nut nods, even though Nyghtshade has already turned away from him.
He claps Maggot Man on the shoulder, then elbows his way into the room, excusing his bulk as he makes his way to Jon. Stray stands and backs up to give him room.
Mimicking Stray’s gesture, he places red-gloved hand on the cyborg’s circuit-patterned back.
“Jon…?” he begins, when the cyborg breathes a deep sigh, shakes his head, starts to look up.
Jon passes both skeletal metal hands across his face, coughs, nods, before looking up. “I got this, Blood,” he says, before standing up and crossing to the Praetorian.
“Save her. If you can do it, save her.”
“Not even close. Nyghtshade and I are getting ready to dive into her mind. Think you’re strong enough to make the trip with us?” There had been a time, not so long ago, when Devereaux would have simply given an order and expected Paige to follow. Recent events have made it evident that he needs to try something different. If not for today, then to keep her poised where he wants her in the future.
Watching disinterestedly as Blood Nut walks back into the room, he’s surprised when Jon manages to pull himself together. Then surprise turns to downright shock when the cyborg actually asks him to help.
“I’ll give it what I’ve got. We all will,” Devereaux finds himself saying.
“No time left to debate about it, Paige. I’ll leave you a line to follow. If you think you’re up to it, come in right behind us.”
With that, he turns and nods to Nyghtshade. “Okay, let’s go.”
Nyght starts to follow Devereaux, and then pauses, turning back to Jon. “Mr. Smith… Ah’d like to at least set up a mind-link with you. Not sayin’ Ah’d need to use it, but just in case, if it might somehow help Linnuial. It’d just take a second, nothin’ invasive, moah like a telephone line. Would you permit it?”
“Alright… Let me get back into bed.”
Paige bites her tongue as she lifts her leg back onto the bed and squeals with her mouth closed over the pain felt. A tear leaves her eye.
“I didn’t get your name… I’m Paige.”
“Bryan.” The old man said. “I’m not a hero… just a singer. But my voice is nothing like yours.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m going to try to rest.” She eyes the painkillers sitting in a clear sample cup on her bed as she downs them and drinks the cup of water next to it. She then tries to clear her throat of the rasp, but fails. “Can you do me a favor Bryan? If I sound like I’m in a nightmare, can you hit your call button? I’d really appreciate it.”
“Of course, dear. Rest well. I’ll be here when you get up, they have me resting in here for a week. Try to get some rest.” Bryan said kindly as he reaches for his phone. “I’ll play some music instead… something soft for you, alright?”
“I appreciate it. Thank you.”
Bryan opens a music app and picks a song from Jeff Buckley, “Lilac Wine”. Paige feigns a resting position, then responds to Devereaux, “Whatever is keeping Linuial from waking up… search & rescue, war, or her own childhood, come what may. Let’s go.”
Jon shrugs, a gesture easier to read than his face.
“I don’t know anything about that kind of thing,” he says to Nyghtshade, “but if there’s something I can do to help, I will. Whatever you want, just tell me what to do.
“Oh…and don’t bother calling me ‘Mr.’, nobody does. It just sounds weird. ‘Jon’ will do.” He turns and winks his one good eye at Maggot Man. “Or ‘Ezekiel’. Yeah, you can call me that.” He laughs, then sobers again, turning to look at the hospital bed.
Nyghtshade pulls off a glove and gently lays a cool hand along the side of his face. Concentrating, she slides easily into his consciousness. “Can you heah me, Jon?” she sends.
He shifts, watching her closely, and nods.
Nyght drops her hand. “That’s all. Ah just need to know we can reach you, if we need to.”
She turns away, moving to the side of Linuial’s bed and kneeling there. “Devereaux, Ah’m ready.”
There is no familiar landscape, no ground, no gravity, no bodies in the dark.
There is not even any dark.
At first it seems as if there is truly nothing…a complete absence of everything.
Not even describable as a void.
But as each mind begins to become accustomed to the nothingness, it gradually dawns that the nothingness is an illusion, created out of the absence of the expected.
The … is alive, with smells, and tastes, feelings, desires, sensations. Gradually sounds that were always there become perceptible.
Flashes of vision swirl, connect, dance, break, swirl away into the distance, and reappear in another form.
“Hello,” the voice makes itself heard. “I’m sorry…I’m not being a good Hostess. Please forgive my lack of courtesy, I wasn’t expecting your visit. Please allow me…”
The void darkens, becomes black after all…a flat plane appears, “up” and “down” appear, gravity appears. Each mind is tickled by a question, whereafter, their inner image of themself begins to form around them, taking form, gradually responding to the false gravity, bringing their imagined feet into contact with the plain.
“I hope that’s better,” the voice continues.
The inner images of Devereaux, Nyghtshade, and Paige connect, drawn to a common point on the plain. “There…I’ve made your time consistent with each other. Is there anything else you need? Some tea, perhaps?”
Jumping from the physical realm into the mindscape, you find yourself disoriented by the abrupt transition. Even more disturbing is the sudden change from nothingness into what passes for reality. But psionic space is strange like that, especially since everyone’s mind is unique to them.
Shaking it off, you and your team try to get your bearings. Stay alert and be wary. You’ll need all the strength and cunning you can muster if you’re to have any hope of accomplishing what you came here to do.
“Well that was…weird.” Devereaux checks himself over, counting fingers and wiggling toes. He’s relieved to find Paige and Nyghtshade are likewise intact.
Straightening his coat, he takes stock of their surroundings. There isn’t much to see. The flat, featureless surface of Linuial’s mental space seems to stretch on forever. Looking at it is like gazing down an infinite, 360 degree hallway straight out of the most boring office building ever constructed.
“Not good,” he comments to no one in particular. “In terms of high cognitive function, her mind’s only doing the bare minimum. No wonder she’s fading.”
In response to the Void’s question, Nyght politely if somewhat warily replies, “No tea, thank you. We need to speak with Linuial. It’s urgent.”
“What a strange thing to ask,” the voice responds. “Linuial is here, all around you.”
A tiny child with yellow-gold hair runs up to Paige, grabbing onto her hand and clinging tightly to it. She is wearing a baby-blue-and-white pinafore. Her features might be described as almost “elfin”…tiny, pushed up button nose, chubby cheeks, cherubim mouth, broad forehead under the yellow-gold bangs, blue eyes deep-set with a disturbing illusion of something “other” going on behind them.
She cocks her head, gazing up into Paige’s face, high over hers.
“Are you my mother?” she asks.
“Yeah…” He trails off, letting the comment he was about to make about Paige’s potential motherly abilities, or lack thereof, die on his lips.
“We were thinking more along the lines of the current version. This one’s…nice and all but I don’t think she’ll be able to help us.”
Then, thinking that he may as well take advantage of the disembodied psyche’s hospitable offer, he adds, “I’ll have some tea, thanks.”
Obligingly, a small round table appears topped with a silver tea service.
The child ducks her head, looking up at the Praetorian from under long blonde eyelashes. As he approaches closer, she draws back, then releases Paige’s hand to sidle behind her leg, clutching it with both hands as she tries to hide herself, peeking around the teenager at the man.
She starts to cry, softly. “You hurt me…” she whimpers.
Devereaux raises an eyebrow and cocks his head slightly to one side. The gesture is directed as much at the sudden manifestation of the tea set as the child.
“I’ve done some bad things,” he says with a matter of fact tone. “But I’ve never hurt you. I didn’t even know you when you were that age, Linuial.”
He brushes past Paige and the childlike vision of the healer without sparing either one a second glance. Reaching the table, he casually peruses the items there before whistling appreciatively at their quality. “I’ve gotta hand it to Blondie. Wherever she’s been the last five thousand years taught her something about good taste in tableware.”
“The child is your guide,” the voice continues. “Once you leave this protected area, you must stay close to your guide. If you do not, you will likely become lost, and I may not be able to find you again. Know this…there is much you may see that I, myself, have forgotten in the passage of time. If you stray off the path into those memories, you are unlikely to awaken ever again.”
Nyght kneels to gaze reassuringly at the child. “We need to speak to the latest incarnation of Linuial,” Nyght clarifies. “The one who worked with us, at the Crey facility last night.”
She pauses, then cautiously adds, “The one who was hurt theah. We’ve come to help her, and Ah don’t think we have a lot of time to do it.”
Lifting her head, the hood falling back from her face, Nyght addresses the emptiness surrounding them, the child, the tea-service. “Linuial, we’ve come to help you.”
“Your words make no sense, Monique,” the voice replies. “I do not understand what you want.” The voice falls silent.
Turning her head to look at the Praetorian sipping his tea, the golden-haired child looks back at Nyghtshade. She wipes the back of her hand across her chubby cheeks. “Are you my mother?” she asks.
“No, Shugah. Ah am yoah friend, though. And so are they.” She lifts a gloved hand to gesture toward Devereaux and Paige.
Rising to her feet, she sighs and looks to Devereaux. “Ah suppose we have to play this out the long way, then. Thank goodness time isn’t the same in heah as out theah.”
“No, sweetheart, I’m not your mother. Are you looking for her?” Paige asks simply. “If you are we can help you find her.”
The child looks up at Paige. “You’re not my mother?” she asks rhetorically.
Glancing back at the Praetorian, she lets go of Paige to wipe her face with both hands. She looks very sad.
She walks a few steps away, turns to look at both of the women. “Okay, I’m ready, now.” She holds out one hand towards them, and waits for one of them to take it in theirs.
Nyght reaches down to take the little girl’s hand, and looks to Paige and Devereaux.
“Come on!” Yanking on Nyghtshade’s hand, the girl starts pulling her toward a now visible edge of the solid plain.
As they approach the edge of the plain, new footing appears in front of the tiny child leading into the nothingness. She steps confidently onto the extension, tugging on Nyghtshade’s hand. “This way!” she squeaks, eagerly.
Nyghtshade follows the girl’s lead, stepping onto the path…but as soon as Paige reaches to take her first step on the walkway, her inner image collapses, and she finds herself to be nothing but a shining aura of colored lights, hovering over the pathway. Seeing Paige’s transformation, Devereaux stops…then when nothing else happens, he also steps forward, and collapses into a swirling ball of color-and-black.
“Come on!” the girl tugs again on Nyghtshade’s hand.
Nyght glances back over her shoulder to see two shimmering balls of light following her, instead of Paige and Devereaux. Looking down, she sees her own hand, clasping the child’s.
“Paige, wheah are you? Did we get separated somehow?” she sends hastily, and repeats the message to Devereaux, as Nyght tighens her own grasp ever so slightly on the little girl’s hand and continues to follow her.
“It’s fine. We’re still here,” Devereaux reassures. “This is just a visual transition. Probably has something to do with us not being fully connected to her like you are.” He waves a hand in the direction of the bubbly little girl, then realizes he no longer has hands.
“Let’s just get this vision quest underway,” he sighs.
“Thank goodness, and OK then,” Nyght replies to both, relieved. She watches the path carefully as she continues to follow the child.
“I guess we’re stars now. Doesn’t surprise me.” Paige said with a chuckle since smiling isn’t a possibility at the moment. “We’re fine Nightshade. Go on.”
“I can take you wherever you want to go!” the tiny girl squeaks excitedly. “Just tell me what you want to see, and I’ll take you there.
“I can’t get lost, you know,” she adds proudly.
“Oh! I know! I’ll show you the dance! Come on!”
Tugging harder on Nyghtshade’s hand, she urges the woman into a trot.
If there are no clocks, can there be passage of time?
It seems so, at least in some subjective part of reality.
“See? See?” the tiny girl squeaks, delightedly.
Looming out of the nothingness, Paige and Devereaux see a gradually increasing number of multi-colored fireflies, dipping and turning, forming pirouettes and spirals, until the area ahead seems to be filled with them.
At the same time…Nyghtshade sees a completely different sight.
To her, she begins to see a night-time scene. There are incredibly tall trees forming a backdrop to an open area, the center of which contains a low mound of what must be grass, gray in the dimness. The only lights are the stars overhead.
On and around the mound are figures, incredibly tall, lithe, sinuous almost-human figures, dancing to unheard music. Their motions are slow, graceful, undulating…forming, breaking, and reforming patterns too complex for the human eye to completely grasp.
At the highest point in the center of the mound are two figures, engaged in an elaborate pas-de-deux. The male figure is nine feet tall, with pure silver hair worn long and straight, down his back below his waist. He wears a silver diadem on his brow. His partner is eight feet tall, and even in the starlight, a slight golden cast can be seen to her hair, worn in the same fashion, with a similar diadem. Her face is familiar…with a start, Nyghtshade at first identifies her as Linuial, but something seems…not right.
Pointing at the dancing golden-haired woman, the girl squeaks, “Mother!”
All the other dancers have dark hair in the starlight…it is difficult to tell exactly what color it might be, but all have a similar cast, as of one breed. There are two exceptions: two more eight-foot-tall women with the same goldish-hued silver, each one dancing within the crowd, but close to the two in the center. As she watches, she sees the same apparent age on all the dancers, mature but unaged, at the height of their power.
As her eye is drawn to the two other light-haired women, they, too, appear to have similar features…when, with a start, she realizes that one of them…IS Linuial.
Nyght is taken by the scene, the ethereally graceful movements of the dancers. Unaware, she begins to sway to the rhythms of their dance as well, taking in the scene, gaze drifting almost entranced from one face to the next. She stands there, holding the child’s hand, registering the pair atop the mound as the child’s parents? Perhaps progenitors of their entire race? And then her gaze stops at one of the other golden-haired dancers. “Linuial…?” Nyght murmurs, then slowly shakes her head. “No… not ouh Linuial… This one’s family is still all theah…”
Still, it takes her another moment to tear her gaze away from the sheer beauty before her. She captures the scene in her mind with an artist’s eye, promising herself to try and paint it one day.
At last, with a wistful sigh, she looks down to the child. With true regret, she explains, “This is lovely, but Ah think we still have a ways to go.”
The tiny girl turns to Nyghtshade, her tiny cherubic features twisted into a precious version of an adult’s scowl.
“No!” she says, stomping her foot. She releases Nyghtshade’s hand, and the woman immediately evaporates into a swirling globe of magenta/violet/mauve-and-black. As she does so, Nyghtshade’s vision of the dance is replaced with swirling colored fireflies swirling in the nothingness.
“You look!” she demands, holding her hand out to Paige’s kaleidoscope of color.
Well, cleahly Ah’ve missed somethin’ important, and now the dancin’ elves are gone,” Nyght observes drily to the others. “And apparently, so am Ah… in the ‘flesh’, at least.”
Paige reaches to take the girl’s hand, becoming corporeal to her self-image again.
“Would you like to dance?” Paige asks as she curtseys to the child.
“I think the best clue I can see so far is that Linuial may get her power from the night skies. Being in this hospital may be doing more harm than good for her.” Paige deduces to herself.
“I will if you will!” the girl squeaks.
Holding tight to Paige’s hand, she drags her into the throng, and up to the eight-foot-tall Linuial. “Watch me dance!” she says, and begins mimicking the taller woman, without letting go.
Paige tries to spin and twirl in time with the figures, smiling as she follows the girl into the throng. She’s not sure if she’s doing it right, but she’s not running into anyone… so far, so good.
“Aren’t I pretty?” asks the child as she dances.
“Oh, yes. I wish I was as cute as you.” Paige replies.
“Linuial’s self confidence is a projection of her past… so many years alive, so many experiences. And our guide seems intent on looking up to Linuial. Is the little girl trying to aspire to something Linuial hasn’t found somehow? A regret she hasn’t faced?” Paige asks herself.
The little girl stops dancing. “No, no, no, no, no!” she squeaks, stomping her foot. Still, she doesn’t let go of Paige’s hand. “Not me….ME!”
She points up at the tall woman.
“She’s not pretty. She’s beautiful.” Paige says, honestly. “Elegant, graceful, poised. You became quite a woman.”
The little girl pouts…then her face brightens into a smile. “Okay. At least you looked.”
She leads Paige back to the pathway.
Approaching the magenta aura, she looks up at it. “You want to look again?” she asks.
“Well, shoah,” Nyght replies carefully. “And thank you foah givin’ me anotheh chance.”
Releasing Paige’s hand, she offers it to Nyghtshade.
Nyght gingerly tries to ‘reach’ out and ‘take’ the child’s hand. As she does, as her essence approaches the girl, she sees with a certain relief her own gloved hand settle into the outstretched fingers of the girl.
And then, Nyght is standing on the pathway beside her once again, looking at the dancers.
“The’ah beautiful,” she says, “and so are you. The tallest lady up top theah, she’s yoah motheh, you said. And the otheh two tall blonde ladies, the’ah her daughters too, yes? So, this one…” and she points toward the one that most resembles Lin, “that’s Linuial and the otheh is her… what, her sisteh? Her twin?”
Looking back down at the girl, Nyght asks, “Do you want us to dance with them?”
Seeing all the bare feet, she adds, “Should Ah take off mah shoes too?”
“No, it’s okay,” the girl shrugs. “You just didn’t look at them. You have to look if you are going to see.” She smiles, a 3-year-old smile. “You said that wasn’t your Linuial.
“But it is.”
“Her true self…” Nyght murmurs. “And her Mama and Daddy up theah, they are not just her parents. The’ah Royalty, and she is too…”
The little girl sighs, then pats Nyghtshade’s hand. “You still don’t see. But it’s okay. You’re just a human.”
She alternates her gaze from Nyghtshade to Paige’s aura. “Okay, I showed you the party. Now what do you want to see?”
“Linuial said that the sound of water falling was her favorite music. How did she come to that realization?” Paige asks, “Can you show me her past?”
The little girl looks puzzled. “What do you mean, ‘her past’? What is a ‘past’?”
“Ah suspect time’s not as relevant in heah,” Nyght murmurs.
“Interesting. If time isn’t a construct, then are we…” Paige thinks.
“You said Devereaux hurt you. How?” Paige asks her.
The little girl looks nervously over at the man’s aura. She drops Nyghtshade’s hand, and reaches for Paige’s, which materializes on cue. Standing on tip toes, she tugs on Paige’s hand to draw her down to the child’s level, cups one hand around her mouth, and whispers in the teenager’s ear.
“…he said he was going to ‘divorce’ me,” she whispers.
“I really wish he didn’t say that, Linuial. But I can’t apologize for him either.” Paige said. “It hurts when someone you love says things like that.”
The little girl ducks her head, then looks up into Paige’s eyes shyly. “You understand?” she asks.
“Yes.” Paige extends her arms to hug her.
The little girl throws her arms around Paige’s neck in a child’s bear hug.
When she is finished, she draws back and plants a big, wet, 3-year-old kiss on Paige’s cheek.
“I love you,” she says, simply. Allowing Paige to stand up again, she wraps her fist around one of Paige’s fingers, cocks her head to one side to smile up at her.
“Okay…where do you want me to take you?” she says, all smiles again, the miniature storm already forgotten.
Paige asks the girl, “We seen how your home looks. How do you see our world? Can you show us that?”
“I don’t understand,” she says, plaintively. “Your world? Your world is my world.”
“Paige, do you think we should ask to see Linuial’s happy place? Her safe place? The place wheah she feels strongest? The place wheah she goes when she’s hurt or afraid? Just spitballin’ heah…”
Aloud, Nyght asks, “Can you take us to wheah Linuial feels safest? A place she goes to when she’s hurt, or afraid?”
Mutely, still clinging tightly to one of Paige’s fingers, the little girl turns to look at the purple-and-black aura, then turns and points at the mound.
“Mr. Devereaux, are you seeing this?” Nyght sends, and immediately exclaims, “Oh shoot, of course yo’ah not. It’s dancin’ elves on a mound and… no, wait, hang on.”
Aloud, she says to the child, “Shugah, Mr. Devereaux heah can’t see what Paige and Ah have seen. Can you show him the dancers on the mound, too? Ah think he’d really like to see them.”
At first the child draws back, and shakes her head. “He’s mean…” she says softly.
Then she looks up at Paige, and seeing reassurance in her expression, she reaches her other hand out to Nyghtshade, taking the hand that materializes to meet hers.
After glancing up at Paige again, she looks at Nyghtshade.
“Take his hand,” she tells the undead woman.
Nyght reaches a hand, an actual if virtual hand, toward the last ball of light. “Mr. Devereaux? Ah promise, this will change yoah view of things.”
With no point of reference, Devereaux fumbles for a moment before he’s able to take Nyghtshade’s gloved hand in his. Instantly, his vision resolves into the scene he’s been unaware of. “And this is why I don’t go mind diving just for shits and giggles,” he mutters under his breath.
Eyes flitting back and forth, he takes in the dancers and their intricate ballet. “So…what are we looking at exactly?”
“Ah thought it was a vision of Linuial’s past, of her people. But when Ah asked the little girl to take us to wheah Linuial would go to feel safe, when she’s hurt or afraid…. Well, apparently this is the place.”
“Which makes sense, Ah think, to retreat to what brings the most comfort, her people. The little girl calls the woman at the very top of the mound “Motheh”. And Ah’m starting to believe the version of Linuial we’ah seein’ heah, the tall blonde dancin’ lady off to the right side just below her, may be the core version we need to talk to. “
“And oh, by the way, the little girl version seems afraid of you, she seems to think you hurt her… Linuial… ouh Linuial somehow. She said she think’s yo’ah mean.” Nyght looks almost apologetic for that. “Ask Paige, she might know moah about it. Just so you know.”
“She goes home. Makes sense.”
Ruminating on the thought, Devereaux comes to a decision. “This isn’t what we need to see. That Peacebringer…Stray, said Linuial’s power comes from her strength of will. That’s the part of her we need to get at.”
Careful not to let go of Nyghtshade’s hand, he kneels to look the child in the eye. “Mean is probably an understatement,” he chuckles. “But Lin…you wouldn’t let that get in the way. We need to see the place you go when someone needs your help. Can you take us there?” He finishes with a grin that belies no cunning or guile.
The little girl edges back from the Praetorian, then nervously glances up at first Paige, then Nyghtshade.
Her expression flits through a variety of emotions, finally settling on sadness, then she begins blinking back tears.
“Why don’t you love me?” she asks, starting to sniffle. “I love everybody.”
For a moment, his face crinkles with a confused look. Then, almost as if he hadn’t heard the question, he laughs. “Christ, Blondie, even like this you’re insufferable.”
Suddenly, he releases his grip on Nyghtshade and bursts back into a swirling riot of colors. “Tell me what you see. And don’t bother lying. You know I can tell.”
“Devereaux, what in God’s name is wrong with you?!?” Nyght exclaims in frustration. “You want to know what Ah see? Ah see a total asshole who doesn’t give a damn about anything but himself! And heah Ah thought you actually wanted to help Linuial…”
“Calm down, Newbie. You can finish cooing at her later,” Devereaux sends, his tone light. “Right now, I wanna see what she’ll say.”
Then aloud, his focus on the little blonde, he says, “Take your time. Make sure you get a good look before you answer.”
The little girl lets go of Nyghtshade, buries her face in Paige’s leg, and starts crying.
“It’s all right, little one,” the voice says. “I’m here with you.”
“That is so like you, Xavier,” the voice continues. “You haven’t changed at all in ten thousand years.”
At the mention of his name by the disembodied voice, Devereaux smiles. At least he tries to. It’s a difficult maneuver since he’s short a mouth.
“I knew you were up there somewhere, Blondie,” he teases. “But I think you’re a little confused. I’m not even thirty, much less ten thousand. Besides, I’ve only known you for six months.”
Then, remembering who he’s speaking to, he groans. “Please don’t tell me this is one of those ‘in a past life’ type deals. I hate those.”
There is a long moment of silence.
“Past life? No…” Another pause. “…but I remember you for ten thousand years…”
“Yeah…” Devereaux says, extending the word to show how dubious he finds the statement.
“Maybe you could explain to me how that is? . I distictly remember not remembering anything that happened prior to the invention of punk rock.”
There is another long pause.
“I do not know,” the voice finally replies.
“Why do you try to upset the child? She is merely a construct I created for you, to serve you. She is your guide, and your protector. Of course, she must love you if she is to act in your best interest.
“I told you once that if you wanted, I would allow you into my mind, I would lower all of my inner barriers and allow you to see whatever you wanted. I also warned you that if you did this, you would emerge…changed. You are here as my guest; you made no such request…and so, I have acted to protect you and keep you safe…and unchanged…by giving you a guide. She knows everything I know. She can take you to see whatever you want to see, without danger that it would…overwhelm you.
“She has only the parts of myself that she needs to take you to see whatever you want to see safely, and to be obedient to your wishes, nothing more.
“Why does this not satisfy you? What is it that you want here such that you would act so discourteously toward the helper I provided?”
“Helper?” Devereaux repeats, snorting with disdain. “You gave me a servant. I didn’t come here to take a tour, Linuial.”
Turning his attention skyward, he explains. “I came here because whatever happened to you back in that lab put you down for the count.”
A moment of hesitation, then, “I think you might be dying, Blondie, and I’m going through a lot of trouble to make sure that doesn’t happen. But instead of doing me a favor and speaking for yourself, you send me a kid to show off a sanitized version of your highlight reel. If I’m gonna go through the motions of saving your life, you could at least try to be a little more forthcoming.”
“Linuial, he’s right. The doctors can’t do any more and you’re fading slowly. Devereaux can be an ass, but he’s concerned or he wouldn’t be here.” Paige, with a palpable fear of losing her friend calls out, “You don’t have to forgive him right now, but if we can’t help you then soon you’ll never forgive anyone ever again.”
Paige can’t help from crying now… “Please! What is happening to you? Can we do anything at all?”
“Jon’s worried sick about you,” Nyght adds. “He’s terrified of losin’ you. We all want to do whateveh we can to help you.”
“…but I have been speaking to you for myself.” The voice is gentle, and slightly amused.
“I welcomed you here, offered you tea, gave you what you expected to see, gave you protection from my memories, and offered you a guide. If you wanted something different, all you had to do is ask.” The voice centers around Devereaux. “You asked for tea, and I gave it to you, did I not?” There is the slightest hint of laughter in the far-off distance.
The voice then centers around Paige. “Paige, dear, don’t cry. Look around you. I’m not dying. Everything is as it should be. Do you feel that I am dying? …Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t feel. You can only…” The voice pauses, then continues. “I don’t need to forgive Xavier, he is what he is. And I love him anyway.”
The voice then centers on Nyghtshade. “Jon is…sick? What is wrong with him?”
“Linuial,” Nyght replies quietly, “yo’ah in a hospital. They did surgery on you foah the gunshot wound, repaired yoah heart… yoah physical heart… but the doctohs say you’re losing strength, yoah endurance is inexplicably fadin’. They told Jon yo’ah dyin’. And he sent us in heah to try and save you, because he doesn’t want to lose you.”
“None of Starfire wants to lose you. The’ah gathehed around you right now, can you feel them? The’ah sharin’ theah love for you, tryin’ to strengthen and care foah you the way you do foah them. The way you do foah all of us. We don’t want to let you die, that’s why we’ah heah.”
There is a long pause.
“No…I can’t feel that. When I try…there is…something…in the way.”
A short pause. “…gunshot wound? I cannot remember that, either.”
“We figured,” Nyght nods. “You collapsed while we weah in the Crey facility, went into shock. When we weah able to rouse you, you said you couldn’t undehstand why you weah feelin’ so weak. Then Paige got shot, and you rushed out to heal her, and you got shot, knocked unconscious, and mediported to the hospital, wheah they had to perform surgery on you.”
“Jon and yoah friends from Starfire are theah now, as are we. And we’ah heah, in heah tryin’ to find you and figure out how to heal whateveh’s blockin’ you from healin’ yoah… well, yoah energy, Ah guess. So you can come back to us. Back to all of them. Back to Jon.”
“…I have no memory of any of that. I have a memory of a Crey facility, in Crey’s Folly, and Carnival of Vengeance, and Malta…is that what you are speaking of?
“What do you want me to do? If I can, I will do it.”
Nyght looks to Devereaux.
The voice recenters around Paige. “…you want to see me, is that it? All you had to do is ask…”
The light bathing the plain, coming from nowhere, begins to die down, and like water being squeezed from a rag, the light begins to draw together, becoming flickers of light like the dancing fireflies, which draw closer and closer together, becoming an aura of not only kaleidoscopic colors but glittering brilliance, like tiny jewels under a jeweler’s lamp. The aura begins to take shape, forming itself into Linuial of the Dance…all eight feet of her.
She steps forward, looks down at them. In a soft, delicate voice that echoes off into the distance like silver bells, she says, “…is this better?”
“Yes.” Paige said. “You said there was something in the way stopping you from feeling that gunshot wound. Shall we figure out why?”
“If that is what you want, of course.” She smiles, a very familiar smile, that hides nothing, open and easy.
She lowers her gaze to look at the small child still clinging to Paige. “Come,” she says softly, holding out her hand. The child laughs, claps her hands, and runs to take Linuial’s hand. As soon as she does so, she begins to grow, becoming a stature and apparent age appropriate to a human child of ten.
Linuial releases the child’s hand, and they both turn to look at Paige. “What do you wish to do first?” The echo of silver bells drifts off into the nothingness.
Holding his tongue, Devereaux waits to see how Paige will answer.
In the meantime, he fires a telepathic message to Nyghtshade. “We’re making progress. At least she ditched the facade. We’re still a long way from done though. I’ve got a feeling we’re gonna see a fight before this is over. Stay sharp, Newbie.”
“Definitely. Ah’m thinkin’ we may need her to take us to the place she’d retreat to when she’s been forced to experience somethin’ too horrific to face, something that the very memory of it is devestatin’ to her. And.. Ah’m guessin’ even if she’s willin’ to take us there, she’s not goin’ to want to face it, get past it, come out the otheh side and go on livin’. That may be ouh fight, if it comes to that.”
“If she was gonna do that, we wouldn’t need to be here at all.” After another moment of contemplation, he decides. “I’m rolling the dice. Back me up on this.”
Leaving the words to hang in the psychic space, Devereaux speaks again. “Hang on a second, Blondie. I never got my answer. I guess I’ll have to ask you…well, that version of you, instead. What do you see when you look at me?”
She tilts her head to one side. “I see a man. A human male. Proud. A bit arrogant. Extremely intelligent; extraordinarily talented. Many of the talents you possess you have never even guessed at. You have a charisma that draws people to you, even those that fear your secrecy, and the brutality that you barely keep in check.
“You have been hurt, and do not wear those wounds well. Your deepest emotion is fear; fear of death is one, but not the deepest. You also fear losing your ‘edge’, that which you believe keeps you safe and alive. You fear weakness in yourself. You fear that if you show any vulnerability, you will become weak.
“You do not wish to admit this, but your fear is what drives you more than anything else. You tell yourself that you are strong, not recognizing that dependence on strength alone is the greatest weakness of all, because all things fade, even your strength, and then you will feel abandoned, with nowhere else to turn for survival.
“You saw the dancing place. My people depended too much on strength, and guarded our places jealously, sealing them against time itself, fearing time, fearing change. But time comes to all, and eventually even our strength failed, and we withered, and went away, or perished.
“This is what I learned, before it was too late. I learned to bend before the hurricane. I learned that strength is a trap, that must always close on the hand that holds it tightest. I learned that change is inevitable…and the more perfect a thing is, even strength, the closer it comes to destruction.
“I see that you will not heed my words, will not listen, will laugh and play the clown, to cover your fear. It doesn’t matter, of course. You are too intelligent for awareness not to blossom. Your feet were on the path of awareness before you ever met me. You fear me because I cast light on that path that you do not wish to take….but must.”
Nyght looks taken aback by Linuial’s analysis of Devereaux’s character, and feels secretly glad she hadn’t invited Linuial to take a deep look at her own…
Instead, she watches everyone else, and especially Devereaux, waiting to see when he will want ‘back-up’.
Devereaux sighs, exasperated. “Damnit, Blondie. You missed it again.”
“I tell you what, let’s quit with this ridiculous light show. I need my body for this next part to make any sense. Do me a solid, huh?”
Linuial looks down at the girl and nods. The pathway beneath them extends outward, the fireflies fade, and the tea service appears, even as all three of the telepaths coalesce into the forms that each prefers.
Linuial turns to face the re-materialized Devereaux.
“And what,” she asks, “did I miss that you expected to hear?” An amused smile remains on her lips.
Devereaux returns the smile, matching Linuial’s breezy air. “Remember when we spoke at City Hall after we took down the Carnival? I told you about the difference between reading hearts and reading minds.”
Without pausing to hear her answer, he bows his head and strips off his coat, revealing a criss-crossing network of scars that emerges from beneath his tank top to run down his shoulders and arms. Some are jagged, some smooth. Some are a pale white hue, others are almost dark enough to blend in with his natural russet skin tone. “These are what you don’t understand about me, Blondie,” he says. “Can’t really blame you though. We’ve never been in a position for you to see them and they’re not something I bring up in polite conversation.”
He runs a finger along one of the longer lines that dives down a shoulder to the elbow on his right hand. “Rage,” he says plainly. “I got this one when my parents died. They were members of what eventually became the Resistance. Cole had them executed for treason. I couldn’t take watching them die so I rushed the stage. A Victoria nearly sliced my arm clean in two.”
Reaching up, he touches a short scar that just brushes his collarbone. “Hate. I picked this one up on my first job with the Syndicate. Our contact sold us out for more money. Took a bullet that shattered the bone. I was unconscious when they brought me back to base. If it hadn’t been for some quick work by a talented surgeon, I’d be buried in a tunnel somewhere under Imperial City.”
He hesitates for a moment, then turns his forearm up for her to see. “Fear. The first time I came around after a shift, I thought I was losing my mind. Tried to kill myself with a combat knife. One of the other Adepts found me bleeding out. She died in a raid a month later.”
“So please, don’t lecture me about what I need to do to help myself.” His voice is barely above a whisper. “I already know what it feels like to be overwhelmed. I know what it means to be so beaten down you wonder whether it’s worth it to go on for one more day. I decided it was.”
Suddenly, his head snaps up. The look in his eyes is filled with venomous indignation. “What’s your excuse?”
Her eyes are soft, unshocked. “When I spoke of wounds you do not wear well, I wasn’t speaking of these, but of the wounds inside.” The smile is kind and gentle.
She reaches forward, very slowly, to touch the scar at his collarbone with her fingertips. She closes her eyes, her lips part as she moans softly.
“You are very brave, Xavier, to allow so much of yourself to show. I wish I could convince you of how much I respect you.” She opens her eyes again, withdraws the hand.
“My excuse? There is no excuse, Xavier, only reasons. Do you truly wish to see, to understand? Are you ready to take that walk…with me?”
Staring into Linuial’s eyes, the same hardened expression locked in place, Devereaux answers. “If that’s what it takes.”
He raises a hand, palm outstretched. There’s a slight tremble in the appendage and he forces himself to concentrate on the present, shoving the past away. “Let’s go.”
Paige clutches the ten-year old’s hand as she listens intently.
“They’re both survivors. They’ve been through their own hell, and lived despite everything and everyone they know and trust falling apart. That’s the only thing they have in common. If they can’t figure that out, there’s no chance.” Paige thinks to herself.
“Everyone, Mr. Devereaux?” Nyght prompts, thinking it will be hard to back him up if he and Linuial vanish, leaving her and Paige behind.
She looks deeply into the eyes only partially hidden by the dark sunglasses he favors, and takes his hand, gently at first, then more firmly. She shows no sign of noticing the trembling.
She turns to the others. “This is a journey that will test the limits of what you can survive. There is no need for you to come. You will not return the same as you left. Do not volunteer unless you are prepared to risk everything. I will not let you fall, but the pain may be with you for a very long time.” She shakes her head. “You must have a need to see this, not just be curious…otherwise, the price will be too high.”
The little girl squeezes Paige’s hand back. She looks at the teenager, and shakes her head. “This is not for you,” she tells her.
Nyght glances at Paige, and then back to Linuial. “Mah need is to make shoah you survive. Ah do not abandon a teammate… or a friend… because Ah’m afraid of risk. Hopefully Ah can help.”
She squares her shoulders. “Ah will come, unless Devereaux orders me not to.”
“Monique, you misunderstand. You must chose this path for your reasons…not to ‘save’ me. If you are doing this for me, you will not be strong enough to protect yourself, and you will fall.” She shakes her head.
“I think I–” Paige starts, then feels her body rise… Linuial is making eye contact with her as she exits. She knows it’s not up for debate.
Paige is drawn backward from the scene as her self-image pulls away from Linuial’s mind… the feeling of falling, except up and backwards into ceilings as she hears the little girl speak back into her “You need your rest. Please sleep, I’ll see you again. I promise.”
Paige opens her eyes, and the song “Lilac Wine” is in it’s final notes. She doesn’t rise or move herself to disturb the old man… but takes the little girl’s advice. She closes her eyes and tries to rest.
Nyghtshade blinks, taken aback by this reasoning. ‘Mah whole reason foah bein’ heah was to help you, Linuial… Yo’ah sayin’ that very reasonin’ means Ah cannot….. Yo’ah sayin’, then, that if Ah come, Ah’ll only be in the way? An obstruction instead of a help?”
Resigned, she makes a final offer. “Shall Ah wait heah then?”
“You must make your own decision, Monique. I cannot make that decision for you, or you would be starting off with failure the inevitable outcome. Do not look to me for a reason to do this. Do not look to Xavier to make the decision for you. It must be you, and you alone, who chooses, and for reasons that have nothing to do with me.
“If you do not choose to come, you may wait here if you like. The girl will provide you with anything you need. If you wish, she will give you a vision of what we see…but you will not feel it. That is the best I can offer you.”
Heavily, Monique admits, “You say the very reason Ah’m heah can only lead to failure… It seems Ah’m not meant to come, Ah’ve no otheh personal reason foah it. But… thank you, Ah will stay heah. Just in case.”
“Tell the girl what you need, anything you want.” In response, the little girl makes an Alice in Wonderland curtsy to Nyghtshade, and smiles broadly at her. With the blue-and-white pinafore, it appears as natural as it would be alien in the hospital. “If you wish to see, let her know. She can do whatever you require. Don’t stray from this area without taking her with you.”
She turns back to Devereaux, searches his face, his expression. “Are you ready?” she says, softly.
“As ready as I’m gonna get,” he says with a roll of his shoulders. The gesture comes as much from a desire to physically shake off the ghosts of the past as it does from any need to stretch his muscles.
Her grip on his hand is firm, but she allows her arm to swing behind her as she steps forward, giving only the slightest pull as guidance. The edge of the plain appears rapidly, and, just like the tiny child, the plain extends into a pathway as she steps forward. It is more than wide enough for three to walk abreast.
“I am going to show you memories I have,” she tells him as she walks. “They will prepare you for what is to come. You will not only see, you will also ‘feel’, as I do. Don’t be worried…you will feel a tiny fraction of what I do, and did…but you will feel enough to understand.
“They will appear to be random, and I will move you through them quickly. If you wish something, or if you wish to ask questions or discuss anything, say so. Otherwise, I will make this trip as quick as possible.”
The path arcs downward and curves gently to the right. Fireflies appear on the left-hand side of the path, and a short extension to the path extends in that direction. Linuial guides the Praetorian onto the extension, and a scene begins to unfold before him.
Nyghtshade drops to a cross-legged seat near the tea service, prepared for a long wait, although she knows time has little meaning here.
She watches as Linuial and Devereaux move away, and then solemnly asks the young Linuial, “If you would, Ah’d appreciate bein’ able to see what happens foah them. Thank you.”
Linuial, as Devereaux knows her, stands on the edge of a high cliff next to a short but powerfully built man on horseback, armored for war. Other similarly armored and armed men, both on horseback and off, wait deferentially a few paces behind them. Below, the plain is huge, mostly flat, with only a few foothills visible in the distant background. Two armies stand in formation before them, waiting.
Deveraux can feel the raw lust streaming from the War Lord, greater than the pitiful tug of lovemaking. The men behind him are exuding a similar emotion, in varying lesser degrees, along with fear, trepidation, anxiety, and envy.
It is easy to tell which side will be the winner this day. The army on the left stinks with the odors of confidence, blood lust, anger, superiority, pride. The one on the right smells mostly of terror, trepidation, and desperation. Some waver, struggling against a desire to flee versus a fear of terrible punishment.
The man beside Linuial lifts a war spear with colorful penons attached. Below, horns sound, drums beat, and the two armies rush towards each other, the low-pitched sounds of screaming bouncing off the cliff walls. As the opposing waves meet, clash, and pass into and through each other, the Linuial by the War Lord staggers, catches herself, and through her, he catches a whiff of swords passing through flesh, spears separating tendons, axes severing bones.
The War Lord looks down at her, disapprovingly. “You’re weak, witch,” he admonishes her.
Without turning her head, she replies. “…and yet, you were happy enough when I healed you, happy enough to keep me close to you…”
He looks back at the carnage, a satisfied smile touching his lips, before the smile disappears. “I was weak, too,” he growls.
Linuial waits for a moment, before she pulls gently on Devereaux’s hand, drawing him back, away from the fascination like that of a cobra preparing its prey for the attack.
Devereaux gives his head a shake, breaking his concentration on the scene. “Bloodlust and conquest. That’s something I’m familiar with. Remind me to tell you about Powers Division sometime.”
The pain of men being carved apart and trampled, their lifeblood leaking out to stain the ground, lingers like a bad wound. “Why do anything for someone like that?” he asks, referencing the warlord. “I thought you said you don’t bother helping the cruel. Unless there was more to him than meets the eye, guy seemed to fit that description pretty well.”
She ponders his question with great care.
“Over 7,000 died that day, and over 13,000 were injured, most so grievously that they had to be put down, like a horse with a broken leg, unsalvageable with the medicine of that time. And I felt all of it.
“This is no dream state, there is nothing symbolic about it, there is nothing to interpret. This is a true memory. I was there that day, and many others. I was responsible for this…had I not saved his life, this would not have happened, nor any other of the battles that fed his lust and ambition.
“I saved his life to save mine, knowing his secret weakness, and knowing that he would not allow anyone to harm me, in exchange for what I could do to extend his life. I had not yet learned how to forgive myself, and so I would force myself to stand next to him and feel everything that I was responsible for.”
She turns to the Praetorian, pity in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Xavier, for what I’m about to do, but you must understand, and I suspect the only way you ever will is that you must feel everything that I do. Brace yourself, this will only be a fraction of a second, but it will seem like an eternity.”
Even as he is opening his mouth to protest, he feels it all…the pain, the fear, the suffering, the lust, of all the participants, even the men on the clifftop…and then it is over, and he finds himself on his knees, doubled over, retching, as Linuial holds him in her arms. “It’s over, my love. You will never have to feel that again. I will: not only in the past, but also in the future. You needed to know, as this will have an impact on your decisions when we pass the door that has kept me trapped here.”
As she waits for him to recover, she continues. “I lived this way for over a decade, until I could stand no more of the guilt, the shame; and, while he slept in our bed, I broke the stem off a jewel-encrusted solid gold goblet, and shoved the broken end through his heart, over and over again, while he screamed and twisted my throat in his fists and I suffered his dying agonies.
“I never again harmed another human being for my own survival.” She sighs. “Xavier, I murdered the man I loved most in the world. And I can still feel his arms around me, to this day.” She closes her eyes. “His name was Tiankong Quántóu.” She speaks the ancient Mandarin with tonal purity.
“Come,” she tells him, watching him climb back to his feet. “There is no reason to linger here. There is more for you to see. It gets easier after this,” she reassures him.
Nyght, the passive witness, has seen all that’s happened so far, although she cannot ‘feel’ it. But she does see Devereaux driven to his knees. As he regains his feet, she quickly tries to determine if their mental link is still active.
“Devereaux, can you heah me? Are you all right? Ah just want you to know Ah’m still heah, inside Linuial’s psyche. If you need me….”
She lets that hang, not entirely sure how she can help him if he needs her.
Though he hears Nyghtshade’s reassurance, he’s unable to respond right away. The sheer intensity of emotion, the rawness of it all, makes mustering the required concentration impossible.
“Blondie, I swear to whatever god is listening…” His breath comes in ragged pants and he stumbles forward, unsteady. “If you ever call me your love again, I’m gonna make you buy me dinner. Hell, I should do it just for springing that little tidbit on me in the first place.”
Steadying himself, Devereaux looks the healer in the eyes, his gaze unwavering in spite of the trembling that still has hold of him. “I’ll admit, that was unpleasant. Very unpleasant, but you said it yourself; you found a way to move on.” There’s something hard in the way he says the words, almost defiant.
“So what’s next?”
“This way…” She steadies him with her touch, then guides him back to the pathway.
She moves rapidly, now, dodging from the main pathway into one side path, then another. She doesn’t pause, but gives him but a few seconds to take in the sensory tableau, and then moves on once again.
“…sortez vos morts…!”
The pealing of the tinny bell bounces around the city walls, echoing hollowly, accompanied by the tired creaking of leather and wood.
“…sortez vos morts…!”
The man lying in the doorway reaches his hand out in supplication. “…eau…” he croaks, his tongue as black as the bottoms of his naked feet.
Devereaux can feel the sludge filling the man’s lungs, how he labors to draw enough breath to make his plea, how the bottoms of his feet burn, and his body itches. He can feel the thirst that causes the tissues of his throat to stick together, the fatigue that prevents him from lifting more than one arm, the terror, the knowledge that he is dying, the fear of facing his God, and the certainty that only Hell fires await…
Around him, an entire city radiates a sensation of malaise. The Praetorian gradually finds it harder and harder to breathe. Sighing, a distant scream, are translated into pale shadows of what each sufferer feels.
Tiny Linuial pulls her embroidery-trimmed cloak tighter around her shoulders, and steps around the man’s legs as she walks, following the creaking cart piled high with corpses. It will lead her to the dumping ground, and the edge of the city. There is nothing more she can do here, her efforts will only prolong the suffering. The only thing she can do now is flee…and hope to find some city, village, town, that has already passed the worst of the sickness, leaving behind only those who were naturally immune…
“…sortez vos morts…!”
“…drink slowly,” she tells the white-haired man. She tips the bowl at a slightly greater angle, as the man tries to grab at the vessel, failing only because all of his fingers are missing. She cradles his head in the crook of her arm, lays the bowl to one side, wipes what is left of his face with a dirty rag. Devereaux can smell the odor of rotting flesh coming from the hole where his nose used to be.
“You! Foreigner! The pilot wants you….although I don’t know why, you’re so demonically ugly…” the Japanese man in the jailor’s uniform pokes her in the back with his baton as she passes him…
“…I told you to hold him still, woman. If you aren’t strong enough, you’ll be next on the rack…!”
…the tiny, blood-covered infant wiggles its arms feebly, and then is still, the umbilical cord uncut…
“…help me…!” She kneels…
The scene is familiar, yet different. The sun is westering, and the trees are dropping golden leaves on the mound with each passing breeze. The air is cool…nippy, when there is a slight gust.
Linuial sits in the center of the mound. Something terrible has happened to her. No longer eight-feet-tall, she now appears to be only slightly over six feet tall.
A similarly statured young woman with long, chestnut brown hair is lying on the mound, her head in Linuial’s lap. Linuial strokes her hair, and sings songs to the supine woman in an unknown, and yet strangely familiar, language.
“…will I see him again?” the brown-haired woman’s voice is only a whisper.
Linuial closes her eyes…a tear trickles down her cheek. “I don’t know,” she answers, almost as quietly. “Even the Queen of the Stars does not know the answer to that question. Only the One Above All knows that. In His Wisdom, He keeps that knowledge for the future.”
The brown-haired woman closes her eyes…takes a great breath…and then is still.
Linuial sits for a long moment, still stroking the other woman’s brow…then stops…tilts her head toward the sky…and lets out a great, soul-searing scream, before falling forward over the other woman’s body.
Suddenly, wave after wave of aloneness sweeps over the telepath. From the outer boundary of his perception, to his innermost being, the aloneness, so intense that his mind cannot even interpret it in any other form, floods over him, through him, threatens to wash him away into a nothingness that seems kind, even desireable, in the intensity of an emotion that he cannot contain.
Linuial’s hand in his draws him back, back to sanity. When he looks at her, he is startled to see her as she was, sitting on the mound, her eyes on an equal level with his own.
He looks around and finds himself back next to the tea set, and standing on his own imagined two feet. Nyghtshade looks at the pair with a startled expression.
“Thus died the last of my kind on this Earth,” six-foot-tall Linuial tells them both, her expression quiet, enigmatic.
“There is but one more,” she tells Devereaux. “Rest for a moment. Drink something…eat something. It may not be real food, but it will still refresh you.
“Ask me whatever you like.” She includes Nyghtshade in that pronouncement with a graceful nod of her head. To Devereaux: “Let me know when you are ready, and I will take you to the place I cannot pass.”
Looking around the plain, six-foot-tall Linuial registers surprise, turns to Nyghtshade.
“Why didn’t you have the girl make you more comfortable?” she asks. Not waiting for a response, she nods to the girl, and a luxurious suite of Louis XIV furniture, new as the day it left the craftsman’s workshop, appears. Next to the tea service appears a small buffet table draped in white damask, with various China dishes containing a variety of foods from across ages of time. A third table offers drinks, hot and cold, and chocolate truffles and tea cakes iced with exquisite life-like flowers.
“Ah didn’t want to put her to the trouble,” Nyght admits. “It’s not like this is a social visit, and it’s not like Ah can eat or drink anythin’. Ah’m fine, really, and…. well, it’s best Ah not get too comfortable.”
“But thank you foah offerin’,” she adds, with a warm smile.
The smile fades a bit, as she regards Linuial almost sympathetically. “Yo’ah shorteh now, than you weah. Does… does experiencin’ all ouh sufferin’ do that, does ouh pain… diminish you?”
Linuial looks at the undead woman with a perplexed expression.
“Monique, dear, this isn’t your real body, don’t you understand that? Here your senses are being provided by me. Anything you put in your mouth, you will taste, can swallow, and will refresh you, as any normal person would experience.”
She waves at the buffet, and laughs, clear as a bell, thoroughly enjoying the moment. “Try it!” she urges, an impish grin lighting her face.
Monique rises lithely to her feet, giving no sign of discomfort in sitting on the ground for a while. She approaches the table laden with the equivalent of a high tea, and pours a cup of minty tea, then loads a small silver dish with several types of chocolates, strawberries, and tart apple slices.
Hesitantly, she lifts a chocolate to her lips, and cautiously tries the smallest bite. Her eyes roll upwards in near ecstacy as the bittersweet chocolate seems to explode across tastebuds which have not functioned in more than 10 years.
“Oh deah Lord, Ah’d almost forgotten….” she exclaims, a little awed by the experience. But then she pauses, waiting for her body’s inevitable rejection…
It does not come, and she stares wonderingly at the chocolate in her hand, and sets it back on the plate, reaching instead for a ripe, juicy strawberry. “Ah always loved strawberries,” she confides a little shyly, nibbling the tip off it, and beginning to smile. “We used to…”
Suddenly, a fat tear wells up, and splashes down her cheek onto the little plate. It would scarcely take an empath to read the wash of regret and sorrow that plays across her face. She sets the plate down on the table, with a sense of finality.
“Thank you foah yoah hospitality,” Nyght says quietly. “It was very thoughtful.”
She perches on the edge of one of the comfortable chairs, and pulls her hood a little further forward, to shade her face from a non-existent sun.
“Monique,” Linuial says softly, “…if you are afraid that you will never be able to relive this…you can always come to visit me here, and we can both enjoy tea and crumpets.
“Consider this my invitation in reply to yours to visit you in your home.”
Turning to Devereaux, with a sarcastic smirk that would have looked right at home on his face, she waves at the table.
“What did you say about me ‘buying you dinner’?” she chuckles.
“It’s kind of you to offeh, but…” Monique pauses, raising her face to look up at Linuial. “Ah mean… Ah’d be delighted to accept yoah kind invitation.”
She adds,somewhat pointedly, “That means, of course, that you will have to help us find a way to make shoah yo’ah still around foah visits.”
She wipes away the tear-track with the tip of a gloved finger and nods firmly.
“And if that happens, will you try the truffles?”, Linuial replies, that impish smile returning.
“If… when we help you return to Jon and the others, and succeed in completely healin’ yoahself, then yes, Ah would be pleased to.”
Over her shoulder to the Praetorian, as he approaches the tables: “…and check out the liquors…I think you’ll find something there you’ll be able to appreciate properly.” She smiles, then laughs out loud.
She approaches the tables herself, prepares a cup of tea in a porcelain cup with delicate yellow roses painted on the side, then moves to the second table to pick up a plate already prepared for her. She picks up silverware of real silver, and walks to one of the sofas, places her burden on the side table, and begins sipping her tea.
“And next time,” Ah won’t let mahself be blindsided by a memory,” Nyght adds more quietly, almost speaking to herself. “Time to look foahward, not back.”
As Linuial hovers over her tea, picking bites from her plate, her expression becomes thoughtful. Turning to Nyghtshade: “Diminish,” she muses. “Yes, that is the exact word.”
“Or perhaps ‘fading’. ‘Fading away’. As our kind left, those of us who remained in this world began to fade, to diminish, as our numbers and powers diminished. It is hard to say why…only that it started when the world changed, and we could no longer take passage to our people’s homeland, the one prepared for us by the Star Queen and her husband. Once we were cut off, we all began to fade, as I did also, over the millenia.” She shrugs. “Who is to say why? I am alone, now, with no one to talk to, to discuss the phenomenon with, no one with any reason to care. I’ve been five foot one inch tall for at least five thousand years, so I have no fear of fading completely away…I heard rumors that some of my kind did, merely diminished until they vanished entirely.”
She turns her gaze to the undead woman, inviting further inquiry.
Nyght picks up the dish she’d prepared, and fidgets a bit with the strawberry, searching for the right way to frame her next question.
“When yo’ah around us, when we’ah hurt or… sufferin’… does that diminish you? Are we makin’ you fade away, just be bein’ what we are?”
Linuial shakes her head, smiles reassuringly. “If that were so, these last five thousand years would have taken their toll, wouldn’t you think? I haven’t faded at all in all that time. I think when I finally became accustomed to this land, this world, accepted it, and it accepted me, we reached a kind of stasis.” She laughs abruptly. “Ancient magic and scientific terminology…an odd combination, don’t you think?
“It probably helped when I found my calling, to heal, to not injure, to help and not harm. To stand back, even as our Gods did, the Star Queen herself, and not to interfere unless the need was great. As I did not fight this world and its people, so this world accepted me, instead of rejecting me.
“And so, here I am today.” She looks down at her six-foot-tall body, laughs. “Well, not today, but as you knew me.”
“And love? Does love strengthen you? Can you feel the love of your friends, in that hospital room? Or are you cut off from it somehow, in heah?”
Tahquitz and PulseFire make it to the hospital reception desk asking to visit Paige. The head nurse gives him a sour look…
“What? I’m her brother. I know there’s no resemblance… She’s adopted.” He said, back in his blond hair and teenage boy appearance. He knows the black skin startles folks who aren’t used to seeing him like that, and he doesn’t anticipate needing to use his powers in here anyway.
“Alright, Mr. Verne, is it? Floor 3, Room 21. Check in at the ICU desk for an armband. Also, you FBSA types are restricted on her level, let me see your IDs.”
“Of course.” Tahquitz hands over his card. PulseFire digs hers out of her purse.
“Good, Floor 3 is restricted to non-psionic visitors only. You both are okay to visit her.” The head nurse hands the cards back, then points to the elevator.
“Thank you!” He calls back to the nurse as they walk to the elevator. “Yikes, so strict. Steel Canyon and Atlas Park is nowhere near this tight.”
“They have to be. This close to Crey Corporation and Devouring Earth, there are too many ‘bad actors’. I can see why,” Lisa replied.
“Look at you… two years in Paragon City and it’s like you’ve lived here your whole life! I love it.” Tahquitz said.
“Us transplants do better with other transplants, after all… California Kid.”
“Which reminds me… September! The reservation has a Fall Ceremony. There’s awesome food, dancing, music, you can meet some of my extended family. I’ve got enough Aunts and Uncles to keep you rolling in family out in California. I want you to come with me this year.”
“Sounds fun. But I have no idea… do you guys speak Spanish? Do I need to dress like Pocahontas or anything?”
“Un poco se le indicaría. But if you want, they all speak English. The elders speak in Pass Cahuilla, I don’t even know what they say, so don’t feel bad.” The elevator dings, as they step inside.
“Floor three, please.” Lisa said.
“Sure,” a kid says, then runs his hands up and down the buttons so all eight levels are lit, then runs out laughing.
“They have ‘jerks’ in Praetoria, right?” Tahquitz laughed.
“Yes. But the police were less shy about scaring them straight. Still not too late to take the stairs… going… going…” Lisa said as the doors closed. “Gone.”
A tall man in his mid forties is sitting in the hallway opposite of the door to Paige’s room. He’s reading a magazine for Golfing as the staff in the ward scurry for various reasons. He’s a few seats down from a mother and her daughter.
“Elise! Sit down! The people here are too busy for your snooping,” the mother chides her, worried that her daughter’s boredom would cause her to break something or irritate the nurses.
“Excuse me sir…” little Elise comes over to the man, “Why are you here?”
“Same reason you are, sweetheart.” the man scratches his chin. It’s been a couple of days since he shaved, so it’s scratchy to the touch. “Who are you waiting to see?”
“My daddy. He got hurt playing cars.” Elise said. “He was supposed to go to work, but he played cars and he crashed. The am– am- am-bah-lince got him out of the car and he was crunchy.”
“Oh, I’m sorry dear. I hope he gets better.”
“He will! The doctor told me he will!” Elise said, smiling widely.
“Elise! Leave that man alone, get over here!” Her mother says.
“It’s quite alright, ma’am. I got a daughter of my own… except she’s in College now. It reminds me of when she was younger.” He smiles back, “They really grow too fast.”
“I have yet to get this one into Kindergarten. She’s so nosey and high energy. Like an elf on speed.” The mother says, “I can’t wait to get her into school.”
“Enjoy it while you have it. Trust me… It doesn’t last very long.” The man closes up the magazine, then gets up to shake her hand, “I’m Gregg. You?”
“Sam.” The mother replied, “My husband’s a taxi driver in Independence Port.”
“Nice to meet you Sam. And you Elise. Be good and listen to your mother, okay? It’s time I visit my own little girl…” Gregg puts the magazine down and approaches Paige’s room, whistling a familiar melody before opening her door. “Hear me sing, swim to me…. Swim to me, let me enfold you…” He opens the door, then closes it behind him softly.
Tahquitz comes up the elevator after stopping at the second floor for eight people who wanted to go to the ground and neglected to notice it’s going up. A 30 second elevator ride becomes three minutes long. He holds the door open for PulseFire to step out.
“The stairs would have been faster, I’m just saying,” Lisa said.
“Yeah, but I have bad luck with stairs. Don’t ask.”
They walk to the ICU Ward Desk for their armbands, then are pointed to the hallway which Paige is resting. Visiting hours are already over, but they allow 1-2 family members to stay with a patient as long as they don’t disrupt the rounds or interfere with the patient’s recovery.
As they round the corner, a older man is whistling a song walking past the two… the last few bars of “Song to The Siren” he hums as the two walk past him, clueless to who he really is. As they enter Paige’s room, Gregg looks back, “So that’s her ‘family’ now. Heh… I can’t wait for her to come home. With her real family.” Gregg puts on a set of sunglasses and walks to the elevator to leave.
In the room, Bryan and Paige are both asleep in their beds, with his phone continuing to play soft music from various singers and songwriters in the 20th Century.
Tim and Lisa are sitting in chairs next to Paige’s bed… “Hey, cricket… Wake up.”
Paige opens her eyes. “Tahq! Hey!” She reaches to hug him, but can’t move her pelvis without agitating her leg, so she lets him bend down to hug him. “I wish you were there this time, we could have used you more than you know.”
“I’m sorry. Next time, I’m in for sure, cricket. But now you’re a part of the club! First Gunshot!” Tahquitz said, then got up from the bed to lift his shirt and show a dimple from his wound when he faced a Council Soldier in Striga Isle. “This one went clean through.” He spins around to show the exit wound in his back. “It stung like a bitch, I bet?” Paige nods in agreement.
“And Lisa! Hi! Thanks for visiting me, too!” Lisa hugs Paige as well.
“Of course, sweetie. When we heard you got hurt, we spent all day trying to get through traffic to see you two.” Lisa said, “The trains were running late, and Independence Port had a trio of accidents plugging up the highways. Were you here long?”
“Nope, less than a day. Maggot Man brought me over here, and they got the bullet out of my leg. The rest of the gang is in here, somewhere. I don’t know where though… Did you guys see Linuial yet?” Paige said.
“Can’t. We tried, they said her room is busy at the moment. We’ll see her next.” Lisa said, “But how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine, I guess. Disappointed that I ruined things for the team.” Paige said. “I tried to be like you guys and take charge of the situation, and not only did I get injured, Linuial is in trouble now. I screwed up. REALLY bad.” Paige has a tear escape her right eye.
“In the heat of a moment, you can’t really blame yourself too much,” Lisa said, “Trust me, I’ve made plenty of rash mistakes.” PulseFire rubbed the forearm of her right arm, which is a modified Clockwork arm, connected through a wetwire interface developed in Neutropolis. “If getting someone hurt is all that you did, you’re lucky. The same day I lost my arm I also lost my partner in the Resistance. I didn’t fight again for 18 months. If Linuial is alright, you have nothing to worry about. She’ll forgive you eventually.”
“I hope so. I… I think I should have been more reserved. I mean it’s Malta that we faced at the end.”
“Malta?!!” Tahquitz said, crestfallen. “And you’re still alive to talk about it? Cricket, you’ve stood against a group I RUN from. You have nothing to be ashamed about. Nothing at all.”
“So has anyone else come to visit?” Lisa asked.
“Nope, just the two of you so far.” Paige said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, to be honest.” She grins from ear to ear, “I’m so happy you guys visted me!”
Her brow furrows, as she stares off into the distance. “Cut off…”
Abruptly, she sits forward, puts the tea cup down on the table, and leans forward, gazing at Nyghtshade, gathering Devereaux in by eye.
“Monique, you’ve had it wrong the whole time. Look around you…there is nothing here that says ‘dying’.” She pauses to allow them a moment to follow her direction. “I’m not ‘dying’…I’m lost.
“What you have seen…the memories…this is what it looks like to me. Disjointed. Disconnected. Individual memories that don’t link up to anything else.
“It is time that has been shattered here.” She closes her eyes, then opens them again. “Something happened to me that disrupted this place’s time. Fragmented it. Some one said I wasn’t regenerating endurance? It requires ‘time’ for that to happen…and time has become broken for me.
She turns to Nyghtshade. “I’m not dying. No matter what happens, I won’t die, and I won’t fade. But I can’t find my way back to your location in time.”
She glances down at her lap, her eyes unfixed. “I can enter any memory, and return here. But entering the active timestream is different, I can only do it once. Once I enter the ‘present/future’, I can’t come back and try again.
“I could just enter at random…but that only means I’d re-enter normal time sometime after I found myself trapped here. Without more clues, I could wind up re-entering…waking up…any time after I first entered this door…from a second later, to a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, even a millenium. Or more.
She turns to lock eyes with first Devereaux, then with Nyghtshade. “I will be fine. I’ll wake up, and life will go on for me, just as always. But if I wake up a century or more from what you recognize as ‘now’, everyone I know will all be dead…with the possible exception of Monique.”
She turns to the Praetorian. “Now, do you understand?”
“You tell me things that to me, haven’t happened. I have no memory of Paige being shot, or myself, for that matter, or any hospital, or Jon. Those memories, if they exist, are being blocked behind something.”
Abruptly, she stands, waves a hand. The door to Sub-level 3, Lab #12, in a secret Crey installation in Crey’s Folly, appears on the plain.
As she walks toward it, she begins to shrink in apparent size. As she places a hand on the surface of the door, she becomes once again a little over five feet tall.
She turns back to the pair. “This is the nexus, this is what I can’t get past. I’ve entered over and over again, but when I leave, I wind up right back here. Over and over again. Something happened to me behind this door. Something that shattered my hold on time.”
Nyght bites her lip, and looks to Devereaux, reluctant to say the wrong thing now. It seems they’ve finally arrived at the crux of the matter, and she’s not sure how to proceed.
She gazes up at the door as if it held some deep spiritual secret, strokes it like a lover.
“When I enter, I can’t hear. I remember that, I remember Paige sealing the stairway. But I also can’t ‘hear’ in an empathic sense, and without that, I’m stumbling around half-blind as well as deaf. There is a continuous empathic roar that I haven’t been able to pick any information out of. I’ve walked all over this room, but I can’t find the way out, what it is I’m supposed to do, what will allow me to get past this room and on to the next memory. If I could only do that, and find the last waking memory I have, I’d know exactly where/when to re-enter the time stream…and we would all meet again, under better circumstances.”
Dropping her hand and heaving a great sigh, she turns, returns to her tea and nibbles. She is still the Linuial they have always known; she sits, and begins to eat, staring into the distance.
“That’s why I need Devereaux,” she says. “He brought me here the first time…and I need a guide to help me figure out where I must go, what I must do, to get back on the memory path to ‘now’. I need someone who can make the decisions I can’t…”
Putting her plate down she turns to confront the Praetorian. “You’ll ask me why it isn’t Jon instead of you. Jon was never here. He doesn’t know this place, he doesn’t know what happened here, he can’t be my guide.
“Unlike you, Jon has no need to be here. He’s already been through his trial by fire. He’s had his catharsis. Jon is at peace, within himself.”
She looks to the Praetorian sadly. “…and, Xavier…you cannot tell me, in all honesty, that you are ‘at peace’.”
“And…regardless of how much you might protest it isn’t true…you know that you are the one who brought me here. Somewhere inside, you know that it is your burden to put this right…so that you don’t bear yet another internal wound to keep you awake at night.”
The now-tiny woman turns to Nyghtshade. “Monique, if you wish to come along now, I have no objections. You need to understand that I have no idea what will happen, or what did happen…you know that better than I do. Xavier has his reason, his personal reason, to be here, and I’ve given him every clue I can think of that might be of help in guiding me to ‘now’. It’s up to you…I have no opinion on the matter.” She returns to her tea…and silence.
Nyght nods, eyes never leaving Linuial’s. “Ah will come with you. We all started this togetheh, we’ll all sort it out togetheh. Ah won’t leave you or Mr. Devereaux. We’ll get through this.”
After a few minutes, or what seems like that in this place without time, Linuial looks over at Devereaux. Worry begins to cross her face.
“You’re being uncharacteristically quiet, Xavier.” She puts down her teacup. “Are you all right? Do you need my help? I control this place, and your current body…do you need something? Are you in shock? You shouldn’t be in pain…that I would know about.”
The Praetorian stares at the doorway into Crey’s chamber of horrors. Seizing a bottle of expensive bourbon, he tugs the cork free and takes a long swallow. The burn is exquisite and he savors the warmth that spreads through his chest like a fire. Then he turns to the now shrunken healer.
“Blondie, let’s get clear about something before we really dive into the shit.” He takes another swig before setting the bottle back in its place.
“I haven’t been anywhere close to peace since Cole killed my parents. But that’s not why I agreed to participate in this little acid trip. I came here to set things right for you, not for me.”
He pauses, considering his next words carefully. “I’m kind of a dick, no shame about it, but I look out for the people I bring to the party. One of them gets hurt on my watch, it’s a problem.”
Breaking eye contact, Devereaux scans the table until his gaze settles on a wooden charcuterie board. He plucks a piece of soppressata and chews slowly, savoring the peppery spices before he speaks again.
“So if you need me to catch you up on the chain of events, fine, I owe you that much.” Then, with just a hint of resignation, he finishes. “But what’s done is done. Going back through that door won’t do anything to help me.”
Linuial smiles, fondly. She turns to look at Nyghtshade, and gives her a wink.
Turning back to the Praetorian, she speaks softly, certain he’ll hear her despite his turned back.
“But that is your reason, your personal reason to be doing this, Xavier. ‘One of them gets hurt on my watch, it’s a problem.’ If you walked away now, it would bother you. And continue to bother you.
“And you don’t need that additional burden, do you? What if I had told you that only Nyghtshade could do this, and left you behind?” She leaves that thought hanging in the air.
“We both know that this is your burden. Not only as team leader, but as the instigator of this entire mission.”
“As far as peace, you are right, you are a long, long way away from knowing that. It’s Jon that knows peace…he fought against it, just as you are doing now, but he eventually embraced it…and while you may not be able to see it, there is still hope for you as well.
“Perhaps it is your destiny to die before you know peace. Prediction is not among my abilities, more’s the pity. But you are not entirely ‘lost’, either. The possibility is there, if you can ever allow yourself to see it.”
She allows herself to study his back as he stands before the buffet tables. “For now, refresh yourself, let me know whatever you need before we step through that door. You don’t realize it yet, but this will test you, and not as you were tested by what I’ve shown you, but in a much deeper, more alien way…you’re going to have to draw on ‘care’, Xavier. For my own sake, I hope you are up to the task, now.”
“For Jon’s sake, and Paige’s, and the rest of Starfire, my future is now in your hands.”
“That was clear before we ever got around to this part,” Devereaux replies, popping another bite of cured meat into his mouth. “Oh, and don’t think this counts as dinner. If I make it outta here alive and sane we’re doing steaks. I know a place in Talos that imports Akita beef from Japan. It’ll change your life.”
Straightening, he takes a moment to adjust his bandanna. “All right, let’s get this show on the road. Should we hold hands again or can I trust you not to let me slip into some obscure corner of your imagination?”
Her brow furrows. “Honestly, Xavier, I have no idea what is going to happen when we enter here. This place is not under my control. I hope that you will be as you were when we all entered the first time. That makes sense to me. But if I were in control in there…I would be ‘home’ already.
“I don’t think there is any danger that you will ‘slip out of’ that room…it seems to be impervious to me, almost ‘cut off’ from everything else you see. If you lose your corporal self in there, you can always try touching me again, and we can always exit…I have no doubt that we would wind up here, as that is what always happens to me. It’s why I constructed this ‘safe’ area around the threshold of this door for you.”
“Xavier…the point of you being here is that, since I am not ‘in control’ here…you must be. This is your mission, now, and I am dependent on you. Nyghtshade can help you make decisions, and if Paige were to return, she as well…but the actual decisions will be up to you, as I will do whatever you tell me to.”
“Then there’s no reason to go in without them. Newbie, get a message to Paige. Tell her to come back using the trail I left for her. I’d do it myself but I need to take care of something that can’t wait.”
Taking a glass from the buffet table, Devereaux pours himself a finger of bourbon and collects a handful of prosciutto and head cheese. Munching contentedly, he replays the earlier foray into the lab, looking for opportunities to change their approach.
Kill the scientist overseeing the project from the start? No, dissonance like that would be perfect had Linuial’s memories been altered in some way, like when Shiara had a grip on Paige, but creating an anomaly in this case could have…undesirable consequences. Simply keep the healer from entering the lab at all? No, same problem as before.
Another sip of dark liquor fails to jog his creativity. He sets the libation down and dedicates himself fully to the task of working out a solution.
Nyght has been eyeing the door, as Devereaux and Linuial talk. Now, she speaks up, non-sequitar as her comment may seem. “When Ah was a little girl, a huge branch fell off an old giant oak in ouh back yard. Clipped the edge of the roof, and needless to say, scared us all pretty badly.”
“Mama was all foah callin’ in a trim-trimmin’ service right away, but Daddy was shoah we could take care of it on ouh own. Ah remembeh goin’ out in the yard with him, and him strugglin’ to haul a branch nearly as big around as he was. It wouldn’t budge, and Ah though we’d have that branch theah foaheveh.”
“But Daddy called all mah brothehs out, and told them togetheh we could handle it. And you know what, it was a hard piece of haulin’, even me clingin’ to a little branch and pullin’… but togetheh, we moved it.”
She looks from Xavier to Linuial and back. “Point is, some burdens can be ovehwhelmin’ foah one person, but lighter to bear if theah’s moah than one carryin’ the load. Ah have an idea, see what you think.”
“In that lab, none of us weah expectin’ what we found, and it hit each of us hardeh for that. Ah suspect what’s behind that door is a shock Linuial’s psyche can’t handle, the pain, the torment of so many, the sheer horror of it. And so, to protect herself, Ah’m guessin’ her mind has blocked it off, won’t let herself face it again. And that’s blockin’ her from movin’ on, no matteh what direction she comes at it.”
“What Ah’d suggest… is that you and Ah, Devereaux… let her see ouh memory of it, to take the edge off. So she’s not comin’ at it blind again. Fore-warned is fore-armed, as they say. Plus, this time it wouldn’t be like she was facin’ it alone. We’d be right theah with her.”
“What do you all think?”
Nyght pauses, gingerly slipping into Devereaux’s mind to find and follow his ‘path’ back to Paige.
“Paige, Shugah, it’s Nyght. Are you up to followin’ Devereaux’s, um, path, and rejoinin’ us heah in Linuial’s mindscape? We’ah all at the tea set.”
Devereaux looks up at Nyghtshade’s suggestion. “Y’know, you’re conspicuously useful when you’re not getting all righteously indignant about something.” He gives the heroine a wink and a wry smile.
“Newbie’s probably right,” he affirms to Linuial. “Everything you’ve described so far fits the classic symptoms of stress induced amnesia. Granted, I’m not a doctor but I am a strategist. If we could show you what to expect, it might go a long way toward preparing you for what’s behind that door.”
“Nyght!” Paige exclaims.
“Who’s Night?” Tahquitz asks, “That Southern Belle lady?”
“Yeah, they had a breakthrough with Linual, they want me to come back. I know you guys just got here, did you have anything going on today?” Paige asks, “I’m sorry to do this after you came to see us.”
“Nah. We’ll hit up the Cafeteria. Do what you gotta do, we’ll be waiting here when you get back.” Tahquitz said, “Lisa, let me introduce you to ‘Hospital Food’.”
“I’ve had Hospital Food. You think as a Blaster I didn’t faceplant and wind up in one of these rooms without a cup of soft pears next to me?” Lisa said, as they both walked out of Paige’s room.
“Alright, I’m coming in…” Paige sent back to Nyghtshade, closing her eyes once more. The trace Dev set up is growing faint as his concentration is clearly elsewhere, but there’s enough of it left to follow to find her way to reach to Linuial’s bedside.
Reappearing in the “Tea Room”, Paige said, “Okay, I’m back…” then tilted her head a few degrees… “Lin? Why are you so tiny?”
Linuial laughs at Paige’s greeting. “Hello, again, to you, too, dear,” she replies, still smiling. “I never thought I’d see the day that my height would be the topic of conversation. I’ll let Nyghtshade fill you in on that…later.”
She turns back to Devereaux. “I am entirely in your hands, my love. Do what you think best.”
She closes her eyes and waits.
“Mr. Devereaux, it might help all of us to group-share each otheh’s memories. If everyone’s wilin’, of course.”
“And bearin’ in mind that what we experience is just that, a memory, of somethin’ in the past foah us now.”
“Definitely Akita beef,” Devereaux grumbles at Linuial’s second use of the ‘my love’ moniker.
Then, gathering his powers of recall, he brings the appropriate images forth from his memory. The process is almost effortless and he notes, with no small amount of irony, that it feels remarkably similar to what he does in order to change forms.
Pushing the memory outward, he flashes through the battle, capturing Dr. Hill, and the timely intervention by Bubastis that led them into the sterilized chamber inside the lab. He pauses just before reaching the moment when the Morpheus Project was revealed.
“Feel free to fill in the gaps,” he sends to Paige and Nyghtshade.
“Um, well, up to wheah we reached the inneh lab, the one that was so heavily shielded, it was pretty much the usual,” Nyght hedges verbally. “Lots of fightin’, people got shot, Linuial tried to heal them…”
“Oh… but theah was the psi-blocker.” She pauses, then lets that detail play out in actual memory, the strange psionic dampening they had all encountered in the outer lab, how it had sundered their contact with one another, left each of them in some ways very isolated within the situation, and in what was to come.
“Sure… Let’s see here…”
Paige tries to do the same thing, but comes up with nothing.
“Hmm. It’s funny we all have Telepathy but each of us work so differently.” Paige notices, then tries again. “I have an idea…”
She steps back and runs directly into the memory, where the duplicate of her is and merges with it. When running the memory back, Paige’s own behavior and words speak over Devereaux’s remembrance of the scene where she acted or spoke. Upon subsequent playback, the corrected behavior and words “stick” and there’s no echo of the prior dialog or memory.
After two or three replays of what happened, Paige dives out of her corrected self and tumbles a bit. She stands up and returns standing next to Devereaux and Nyghtshade.
The image complete. Devereaux gathers the collected memories and shapes them, forming them into as coherent an experience as he can, before directing the stream of consciousness to Linuial.
“Now for the hard part,” he warns Paige and Nyghtshade. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he advances to the true workings of Morpheus. Even with the advantage of a little time and distance, the horror and suffering of the project gives him pause. Having experienced Linuial’s perspective on emotion, the Praetorian can imagine something of how difficult it will be for her to come to grips with what he’s about to reveal.
“Brace yourself, Blondie. This is gonna be rough.”
As before, he pauses to give Paige and Nyghtshade time to include their own perspectives.
Paige dives into herself again for minor corrections.
The rage, the gall of using live humans as mere equipment, her attempt at murder… thankfully stopped by Nyghtshade, the revelations she had at the time. All on tape.
Paige tumbles out again, landing on a wall. Not as graceful as last time. She shakes herself off and watches the scene again.
“Remembeh, Linuial, these are memories, shadows of what happened. And we are all heah with you.”
With that, Nyght reluctantly shares her own experience, the entrance into the lab, being slammed with the unceasing maddened mental screams of those being tortured by Crey’s infernal technology. Linuial’s collapse, subjecting the arrogantly oblivious Hill to experiencing the agony he’s inflicting on his victims, trying to heal Linuial, the shutting down of the machinery, and the finally release of the suffering Carnies.
With a shudder, she ends the memory, gaze moving swiftly to Linuial to see how the woman is doing.
Her eyes still closed, the tiny woman nods understanding.
Nyght steps up beside Linuial, and quietly takes her hand.
“Okay, here we go.”
Devereaux shapes the memories again but this time, rather than letting them flow slowly from his consciousness into Linuial’s, he holds on, withstanding the onslaught of recalled pain. “Stay with us. This is watered down but I don’t want you passing out with us in here.”
The buffet table forgotten, he reaches out and takes the healer by the shoulders. Craning his neck downward until their foreheads are touching, he lets the memories lance into her mind.
At first, nothing happens.
Then, spasmodically, her back arches, her arms shoot outward, her mouth flies open. Locked into this posture, she remains frozen for what seems an eternity. Tears begin to squeeze from between her lids, then become a steady stream.
It seems as if she will not take another breath, but she does, and begins panting. Her eyes still clenched tight, she reaches up and locks her hands around Devereaux’s wrists.
Then she sags, drops her hands, curls forward.
“…Star Queen, save us…!” she whispers, barely audible.
Nyght drops to her knees beside Linuial, arms around her. “We’ah heah, we’ah with you, Lin, we’ah heah.”
Paige watches the transmission between Devereaux and Linuial unfold. She can’t do anything more at this point but watch.
She knew it would hurt her getting “jogged” in this way, not only from the possible cognitive dissonance of what she may have as fragments of the truth, but the fact that this wasn’t what anyone would call a pleasant time.
“Mr. Devereaux… maybe we should give Linuial a little time to come to terms with ouh memories, befoah we try tacklin’ her own?” Nyght suggests, given how shaken Linuial is.
“Good call,” Devereaux pants. “I’m not feeling so well myself.” Indeed, keeping the gathered experiences contained was taxing. “I could use another drink.”
A moment later, he snatches up the bottle of bourbon and two glasses. Pouring healthy portions, he offers one to Linuial. “It’s probably not as healthy as coming to grips with your insecurities but it helps.” He laughs, a ragged, rasping sound.
Hearing his voice close to her, Linuial opens her eyes, sees the proffered glass, and reaches up for it, her hand shaking. “…thank you…” she whispers, gripping the glass with both hands before she lowers it to her lips, taking a tiny sip.
Now that Lin is interacting again, Nyght moves back a bit, giving her space.
Closing her eyes again, clutching the glass in her lap, Linuial speaks, softly. “What kind of…no…no ‘monster’ born or created ever conceived of such a travesty.”
She takes another sip, then, as tears begin running down her cheeks again, throws both her head and the glass back, gulping down the rest, drops the glass, and doubles over coughing, before she sits back up again, wiping her face with her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve nothin’ to be sorry for,” Nyght says quietly. “None of us could have anticipated what was theah, or how terribly it would affect you, or any of us.”
She draws a slow breath, then continues firmly. “What you have to remembeh, to keep foremost in yoah mind befoah facin’ yoah own memories of all this… is that, as terrible as it was, we stopped it. We stopped it, Linuial, and set all those poor people free. Hold on to that.”
“And take yoah time. We don’t have to move on to yoah memory room until yo’ah fully recovered. Until all of us are.” She cuts a glance toward Devereaux.
“How’s your memory now, Linuial? Is it back?” She asks gingerly.
“If I didn’t ruin your hearing, or get us into that mess when Malta arrived, none of this would be happening.” Paige thinks to herself, “The truth is that Linuial is hurt, I got shot in the leg, and Dr. Hill… Dr. Hill, that son of a bitch. Everyone is where they are because I screwed up.”
The tiny woman looks up at first Nyghtshade, then Paige, a sad expression on her face.
“Whose fault could this be, I ask you? Certainly not any of you, you haven’t been alive long enough.
“This is my failure, if anyone’s. It never even dawned on me that such a thing…such a horror…was possible in the world of men. Had it done so, I could have been on the watch for it…could have kept my eyes open for any signs of such a development…and put an end to it long before now.”
She drops her face into her hands and begins sobbing, her body shaking.
Monique moves to sit beside Linuial, putting one arm around her shoulders, and lets her cry it out.
Devereaux takes another swig of his drink, grimacing as the heady liquor sears the back of his throat. Setting his glass down and removing his glasses entirely, he moves to stand in front of Linuial. Tentatively, he places a hand under her chin and gently lifts her head to meet his eyes.
“We put that bastard in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Take some comfort in that if you can.”
He looks for all the world like he wants to say more but keeps quiet. Instead, he goes back to the table and polishes off the bourbon in silence.
“When yoah ready, Linuial, to face that room and what it contains, we’ah all doin’ it togetheh, yes?” Nyght asks quietly.
She watches the Praetorian’s retreating back, then turns to look at Nyghtshade, then Paige.
She reaches up and begins wiping her cheeks with both hands.
“You’re right, all of you. I can feel sorry for myself later. You’ve all given so much trying to help me get back.
“Let’s do this.” She stands, indicates she is ready with a nod of her head to each.
Paige follows in agreement. “Let’s go.”
Nyght rises to her feet as well, but lays one gloved hand on small blonde’s arm. “Befoah we do this, Ah have one last idea to offeh, if it doesn’t violate yoah empath abilities, Linuial.”
“You know that Ah can drain the life-force off someone, and use… well, consume that energy. Ah was thinkin’ that, while Ah couldn’t do what Ah’m proposin’ in the real world, heah Ah could try a variant on that. Ah could try drawin’ off some part of the pain of yoah empathy, foah what yoah about to experience. Take the edge off it, as it weah. If that’s permitted…”
“Assumin’ it works.”
Linuial looks down, pondering, then looks up at Nyghtshade. “Monique, I don’t think I’m competent to be making those decisions. I have no idea what would happen. I’ve promised to do whatever Xavier decides, regardless of what it costs me. Let him make all the decisions…he usually knows what he is doing.”
She considers her next words carefully. “You do understand, do you not, that this new…memory…is still very raw for me. I haven’t had time to think about it, work out all the ramifications, even for myself. You have. Your decisions are likely to be better than mine.” She straightens her back, squares her shoulders, lifts her head, and smiles.
“I’m in your hands, now. Just tell me what to do.”
Nyght nods, and looks to Xavier and Paige. “Mr. Devereaux, Paige, what Ah’m proposin’, Ah’m can’t say foah shoah what would happen, otheh than it’s goin’ to be painful. But Ah’m willin’ to take the risk. Ah can’t speak foah anyone else, but it took a lot of us to lift the tree… Yo’ah call.”
Linuial drops her eyes, then looks up at the Praetorian. “Xavier…you’ve been through this. This is why. Only you have any idea if Monique and Paige can handle what Monique is proposing.
“I will say this…I’ve felt armies clash, fight, and die…and it didn’t put me on the ropes, didn’t shatter my ability to process time, the way this did. I think all of you should remember that fact.
“This may be my cross to bear…alone. I may be the only one strong enough, experienced enough, to do it.
“And this time…I’ll know what to expect.”
“Can’t say I’d recommend it. I just got a taste and it nearly put me on my ass.” He casts a look that’s hard to read in Linuial’s direction.
“Besides, we’re gonna have our hands full when we go through that door. The last thing we need is to be a man down.” He hesitates, then adds, “Again.”
Nyght is disappointed, but it’s his call. “All right then, it was just a thought. Ah won’t try anythin’ like that… unless things get completely out of hand.”
“Actually, Monique, there may be something you can do. Only you.
“Once we enter, I assume I’ll be deaf again. If you can find someone to drain, and try to heal my hearing, we’d be way ahead of the game. If that is possible, of course.”
Nyght blinks, considering this new p0ssibility. “Ah’ll do mah best,” she promises.
The journey to this point has been fraught with dangers of all kinds. But now, deep within the mind of someone you’ve fought and bled beside, your team’s final trial is about to play itself out.
Steeling yourselves, you step up to the door that will lead you back into the depths of Crey’s monstrous Morpheus Project. As the massive doors in the mindscape begin to part, you swallow the anxiety that tries to crawl its way up from somewhere deep in your gut. Despite your teammate’s earlier assurance, there’s no real way of knowing what will happen if you fail now.
Stepping in front of the others on the team, Linuial walks up to the threshold.
She hesitates there, raises one hand to place against the space the door guarded, as if there was a membrane there. She closes her eyes, breathes shallowly, then turns her head slightly to the side.
Slowly, she moves her flattened palm forward…her breath catches in her throat, she shakes her head. “I CAN HEAR A ROAR OF SOME KIND,” she shouts, unable to hear the sound of her own voice. “IT MUST BE ALL THE CHAOS OF THE CREY EMPLOYEES PREPARING TO FLEE.”
Dropping her hand, she takes a step forward, past the open doors, then looks back to the others, and waves them in.
“Remember, our telepathy won’t work here,” Devereaux warns as he steps over the threshold. “So I don’t care if it compromises you, nobody moves without telling someone first.”
He looks Linuial in the eye and slowly mouths out, “Stay. Close. To. Me.” Driving the directive home by pointing first to the healer and then back at himself. That done, the Praetorian comes to terms with the gamble they’re all about to take and proceeds deeper into the lab.
Nyght follows, staying close to Linial, and takes the first available opportunity to drain the health and endurance from the first lab tech they encounter, dropping him limply to the floor, out cold, and bathing Linuial’s head in what she hopes is concentrated healing.
Linuial nods, then her eyes fly open. Chasing after the Praetorian, she steps in front of him. “I REMEMBER SOMETHING.” She makes a lower case “d” with her right hand, runs it along her left forearm…do…points downward in Devereaux’s direction…you…then circles her forefingers around each other…sign.
She then shakes her head, reaching up to her ears with both hands…looks over to Nyghtshade with a quizzical look. “WAS THAT YOU?”
Paige remembers the last time she thought about how this turned out affecting Linuial’s emotions… she has to watch what she thinks while helping her.
It’s not easy. To look at something that shouldn’t exist and say to yourself, “Oh, that’s unfortunate. Such a pity.” The feeling that you wanted to do more to the good Doctor who perpetuated this monstrosity for so long… How it would have felt if I ju–
Nope. Not now. This is about Linuial. Stay focused. Paige is trying to keep clinical about this moment, one of the worst things she’s seen in her life.
Nyght hurries to catch up with Linuial, pulling another wave of energy from a panicking tech and bathing Linuial with it. “Yes!” she says, distinctly and perhaps too loudly. “Ah’m healin’ you, can you heah me now??”
Linuial reads the nod Nyghtshade unconsciously makes as she speaks, more than the words. “I’M HEARING SOMETHING NOW, BUT IT’S JUST NOISE,” she shouts. “WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING, KEEP IT UP.”
“Here we go,” Devereaux mumbles to himself as he looks up, scanning the catwalk overhead for Dr. Hill. Knowing where to look, he’s able to catch sight of the man as he starts to flee.
“Paige!” the Praetorian snaps, pointing to the manifestation of the despicable scientist. “Hit the catwalk and cut him off. Controlled burst this time!” He shouts over the din of the lab, urgency born from his own burning desire to get things right.
“Nyghtshade, put another Transfusion on Linuial then get up there and bring Hill down!” Even as he gives the order, his body begins to ripple in a shift. But rather than a Night Widow, when the transition ends he’s metamorphosed into the Carnival Anchorite.
Reaching out with telekinetic might and no small amount of fury, he crushes the parts of the catwalk that occupy the space Hill vacates, leaving the man with no path of retreat.
Although things are definitely different this time around, Nyght is more than willing to skip the incidentals and cut to the chase. Keeping close to Lin, she grabs health almost indescriminately from any Crey staff around them, bathing Linuial in an almost non-stop bath of healing energy, and asking everyone few seconds, “Is it betteh, Linuial, can you heah us now?”
Linuial begins to laugh, nods to Nyghtshade, and eventually, gives her a thumbs up. “Thank you, Monique, I think that’s done the trick,” she says, just loudly enough for the other woman to hear her.
Her expression sobers immediately, as she looks back to Devereaux.
Paige bounds onto the catwalk and throws a Sonic Siphon onto the scientist. The power makes Dr. Hill grab at his ears and drop to his knees making him easy pickings for Nyghtshade.
Knowing her psionic abilities are blocked here, Nyght reaches out instead and does a powerful drain on Dr. Hill, simultaneously bathing Paige with strength and energy, and, for good measure, with a boost in strength and reflexes.
“Much smoother than the first time.” Devereaux asses, exhaling a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Good.”
“You’ve seen this before,” he says to Linuial. “It wasn’t nearly as clean but the gist is the same.” Movement on the periphery catches his attention. A lab tech, braver than they are smart, rushes toward him with a scalpel clenched in an outstretched hand. The Praetorian casually tosses the would be attacker aside with a quick burst of psychic power, then steps closer and lowers his voice. “You sure you’re ready for what comes next?”
Nyght shifts closer to Linuial, while keeping an eye on Paige and Hill up on the catwalk, and steels herself mentally for what has to come next.
Linuial stands in front of Devereaux, begins swinging her head, surveying the surroundings. “Xavier, I have a request…can you, Paige, and Monique clear the rest of these Crey employees out of here, entirely? So they aren’t…’jamming my frequencies’, making more empathic noise than is necessary?”
She turns to Nyghtshade. “Monique, remember, these are not living beings, merely reconstructed memory echoes. You don’t need to hold back where they are concerned.”
A devilish grin creeps its way onto Devereaux’s face. “Definitely.”
Gathering his focus, he pulls both hands back then shoves forward with palms extended. A telekinetic wave surges outward, crashing against people and objects alike, flinging them violently aside.
He gives Nyghtshade a nod. “You heard the lady. Cut loose.”
Nyght turns to face the terrified techs, her gaze sweeping coldly from side to side. “You all see what we can do. If you value yoah lives, Ah highly recommend you leave heah. NOW. You have 30 seconds. Don make me regret bein’ generous.”
Raising her voice, she projects: “GET. OUT!!”
There is a second of frozen shock, and then the techs practically climb over one another rushing the exits.
She watches, ready to “Sleep” anyone who doesn’t flee.
Linuial holds up a hand…”Wait”.
She begins to turn slowly, her eyes narrowed. Her hands flutter almost unconsciously, as if she were playing some sort of invisible instrument.
Completing the circle, she looks up at Devereaux.
“I can feel it,” she tells him, softly. “I can feel Morpheus.”
“Okay,” Devereaux responds soberly. “Let’s get on with it then.”
Motioning to Nyghtshade and Paige, he gestures for the heroines to bring Dr. Hill down to the lower level. At the same time, he transitions into the Night Widow template. The assassin’s razor claws deploy with a soft ‘schnik’ and he’s surprised to find something akin to comfort in the sound. “Should’ve made that double a triple.”
Nyght, who is staying close to Linuial, waits for Paige and Dr. Hill to come down to the main level.
“Sounds good. Let’s go, stupid.” Paige grabs Dr. Hill by the ear and drags him down the catwalk stairs as he cries out in pain. She’s not concerned about the memory ‘resisting arrest’ as Lin’s imagination would need to fill that gap and so far, the “cast” has been very compliant.
Devereaux winces as Paige manhandles scientist. “Tactile psionics, sonic blasts, and a teenager’s disposition. Godspeed to the boyfriend.”
When the girl drops Hill at his feet, he wastes no time. “Funny, I find you even more disgusting than I did on our first go ‘round,” he says acidly.
“What the hell are y-“ Hill’s words end in an anguished scream as Devereaux’s hand flashes out, effortlessly slicing off the man’s ear. He notes, with some concern, that the mental projection bleeds as realistically as any actual person he’s ever come across.
Linuial’s eyes fly open, she gasps softly…looks down…steadies herself.
Nyght lays a calming hand on Linuial’s shoulder.
The healer’s sudden reaction immediately draws Devereaux’s attention away from the wounded Hill, who continues to writhe and whimper in a rapidly growing pool of crimson.
“You all right?” he asks softly, genuine concern in his voice. “I thought you said we were okay to play a little rough.”
“It’s all right, you just…surprised me.” She smiles at the Widow. “You are making the decisions, Xavier…I’ll be prepared now.”
She laughs softly. “After all…we both know this is nothing…don’t we?” She looks back at the bleeding man, her expression hardening.
“Got the keys.” Paige wiggles the keys of Dr. Hill at Devereaux. “All set, Linuial?”
She turns…unerringly facing in the direction of the hidden room.
“Lead on, Mr. Deveraux,” Nyght says, straightening her shoulders and following Linuial.
“Here we go,” Devereaux says quietly, as much to himself as to the team. Taking Linuial’s hand in his, he starts toward the hermetically sealed portion of the lab. The all too familiar blue plastic curtain hangs ominously behind the reinforced glass, shrouding the true measure of Crey’s depravity.
With every step, he can feel Linuial’s reluctance to take another. “Knowledge is no substitute for experience” he laments, remembering her distress at the mere recollection she faced before. In an attempt at solidarity, he gives her hand a squeeze. When she doesn’t return the gesture he downshifts, hoping that the sight of his natural form will impart some measure of reassurance and strength.
Almost oblivious to Devereaux taking her hand, she walks beside him, but her attention is for the room ahead, and its contents. Raising her other hand in front of herself, she opens her palm forward, as if feeling her way through an invisible barrier. Her breath becomes labored…she stops…then takes another step forward…and another…slower and slower she walks, but resolutely continues to push forward.
About ten feet from the door, she stops again. She is breathing heavily…her hand becomes clammy in Devereaux’s grasp. “They’re not real,” she says, an edge to her voice as if she was shouting against a strong wind. “They’re not living beings. This is just a memory.” It sounds as if she is trying to convince herself of something, but she turns to Devereaux.
“This is not the memory you gave me. There is something real here, and I can feel it.”
She turns back to the room. “It’s Morpheus, but without the bodies. It’s…alive.”
Nyght steps up and wraps an arm around Linuial’s shoulders to stead her. “How is that possible?” she asks, voice thin and strained.
“This is Linuial’s memory… how am Ah feelin’ it all oveh again…” She tightens her grip, needing steadying herself as she feels overwhelmed once again. But it is different from before, pain and more pain, but somehow focused this time.
“I know,” Devereaux admits. “I didn’t put it all together until afterwards so I couldn’t include it in the memory.”
Without taking his eyes off the curtain, he explains. “Crey digitized the minds of the Carnies they were holding here; spliced them together into a single piece of software. For all intents and purposes, Morpheus was an AI. Never, in Praetoria or on Primal Earth, have I come across something as twisted as this was.”
Paige hears the same static in her mind that she heard when the room was revealed to her being the source of the investigation. As her telepathy doesn’t deal in emotions, she is in the same mental state as before she nabbed Dr. Hill in this simulacrum… and the static is only growing louder.
Of course, it isn’t really static. Now that she reflects on what Morpheus was, it’s the sound of data. All of those neurons being used to process 1s and 0s. Like a modem screech that simply will not stop.
“How is this happenin’?” Nyght exclaims. Did it get into ouh heads? How can we get it out?”
“Best I can tell, it’s a residual effect,” Devereaux says, ignoring Nyghtshade’s paranoia about invasive psychic entities. “Contact with powerful psionics can do this. It’s why people who have bad run-ins with telepaths often suffer from night terrors. You can’t just touch someone’s mind without leaving fingerprints.”
Still holding Linuial’s hand, he goes on. “But this isn’t our mind. Not really. We’re in your head, Blondie. We couldn’t even manifest our physical forms until you got involved. That kind of control is impressive. We could use a little more of it now.”
“You don’t have to tell me that twic–” Paige’s face freezes in a moment of revelation.
“Oh, no. No, no no…” She’s shaking her head and her hand is covering her mouth.
“Dev, remember my first attempt at Domination? I wound up with a Carnival of Vengeance lady in my head? Do you think Linuial’s empathy copied Morpheus by any chance in the same manner?” Paige sends to Devereaux and Nyghtshade.
“If so, then Linuial would have to be the one to reject it, to push it out or destroy it, same as yoah stuggle with Shiara,” Nyght speculates to Paige and Devereaux, having gotten a grip.
The tiny woman turns to look up at the Praetorian. “Control…”
She turns to look at the room again…drops contact with Devereaux’s hand. Squaring her shoulders, she begins to walk toward the door, one slow step at a time.
Still three feet away from the door, she stops, then turns to face the team.
Raising both arms from the elbows, she makes a sudden movement crossing her hands before her…and everything around them vanishes with the exception of the plain, and the glassed-in room where Morpheus awaits.
“… but what if she doesn’t want to? What if she wants to join it? To be a part of Morpheus like they were?”
“Linuial! Wait!” Paige calls out but it’s clear she’s not interested in what she has to say.
The Praetorian holds out an arm in warning to Paige and Nyghtshade. “Give her a minute.”
Standing stock still, he looks Linuial in the eye. Finding her expression unreadable, he speaks. “What’s the word, Blondie?” Then, more tentatively, “You still with us?”
The tiny woman gives Devereaux an amused smile. “Per your request, I’ve re-exerted ‘control’ over this area. That leaves only Morpheus to take care of.”
She walks forward, turns to face the shrouded room, and offers a hand to the Praetorian, another to Paige. The 10-year-old girl runs up and takes Nyghtshade by the hand.
“Any soon-to-be famous last words to offer?”
“I love you too Linuial. I know I didn’t say it earlier, but I didn’t understand what was happening at the moment.” Paige said. “Now I’m ready.”
Linuial turns her head to give the teenager a fond smile, squeezes her hand.
Nyght clasps Paige’s hand and nods. “Linuial, if this Morpheus thing is like a virus, computeh or othehwise, and yoah a healeh… maybe try to healin’ the crap out of it?” Nyght suggests.
“And if you need strength, Ah’ll give you mine.”
Linuial turns her head to make eye contact with the woman in purple. “Good idea, Monique, I’ll keep that in mind,” as the young girl gives her a smile and pats her hand.
Taking the proffered hand silently, Devereaux gives the heroines each a nod. “Want me to do the honors?”
Her eyes fixed on the waiting door: “Lead on, my love.”
“Seriously, why do you keep calling me that? No, nevermind. I don’t think I wanna know.”
Taking the key from Paige, Devereaux steps up to the doorway that will lead them into the dark heart of the Morpheus Project. After a quick swipe of the electronic keycard, there’s an ominous hiss as the hermetic seal disengages and the thunk of heavy bolts meets his ears.
He’s surprised at the rush of feeling that accompanies the sounds. Anger, grim determination, and a modicum of fear come on in a rush. Drawing on all the tenets of both his work as an operative and someone responsible for the well being of others, he pushes forward and crosses the threshold.
As the blue curtain parts, revealing the sickness inside, something primal surges to the surface of Devereaux’s mind. His free hand immediately curls into a tight fist and it’s all he can do not to don one of his more destructive guises and set to work tearing the room apart.
Dropping Paige’s hand, Linuial follows Devereaux into the room, first hesitating at the threshold, then straightening her back, lifting her head, and striding forward like a queen.
She moves to a position to his left, slightly behind him.
Nyghtshade grits her teeth and steps through the doorway as well, taking a position beside Linuial, across from Devereaux. She’s not caught by surprise this time by the anguished mental screams, but their pain does build a white-hot anger within her.
With an effort, Nyght banks that anger, pushing it down, channeling it into strength, into determination to see this finished, and Linuial freed.
“Well…we’re here,” Devereaux says, sweeping his gaze over the room and matching the gesture with a wave of his arms. “Honestly, I didn’t expect we’d get this far. At least not on the first go. Now what?”
“I don’t think smashing it apart is going to be enough this time… I remember the static I heard when I tried to enter Morpheus. I suspect it’s not noise, but the sound of data being written.” Paige tells the group.
“If it’s a sound in any form, I can try to mess with it. Maybe if I concentrate and try to emit a counter frequency to the static, it will cause errors to happen. It won’t have a high success rate, as I can’t match the speed the data is moving, but perhaps over time it will stop Morpheus from spreading and start receding it until it’s gone from Linuial’s mind?”
“The only thing I can see going wrong is if Morpheus adapts to my meddling and processes faster. Then I don’t know if Lin’s other memories are at risk.”
Nyghtshade starts to speak privately with the others via telepathy, then realizes that since they’re already inside Linuial’s psyche, if Linuial could ‘hear’ something telepathically, then most likely the ‘infecting’ Morpheus could as well.
“In theory, if Linuial’s personality is still independant of Morpheus’, then Ah could try to distinguish between the two of them, and drain Morpheus of whateveh constitutes ‘life’ foah it. Ah’d be glad foah any tips on how to tell them apart in heah, though.”
Linuial stands silently for a long moment, frowning.
Finally, she speaks, softly, but plainly enough so the entire team can hear her.
“This is part of my brain,” she points out. “It is very likely that destroying Morpheus will damage whatever part of my brain, my mind, that this used to be.
“You mustn’t let that stop you. If you must flee this room to save yourselves, do so. Whatever you must do to finish Morpheus, you have to do, whatever it costs me.”
She turns to Devereaux, locks eyes with the Praetorian, her expression soft and enigmatic. “You know what you must do, my love.”
Grunting by way of response, Devereaux takes a position at the terminal. Lights, screens, and keys, all of it a perfect facsimile of the one he himself forced Hill to use to shut the project down. “We’re coming at this too scientifically. I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy.”
“Listen. I don’t know if this will work. At best, it’s a hunch. At worst…well, let’s just say we’d have better odds in Vegas.” Looking over his shoulder, he gives them all a wry grin.
“Hey kid,” the telepathic missive is couched for only Paige to receive. “I’m about to do something pretty stupid. If anything happens, get the hell outta here, take my phone, and call Kestrel. Just let her hear your voice and she’ll know what to do.”
When he speaks aloud again, his voice is husky. “You better appreciate this, Blondie.”
Stroking the keys at a breakneck pace, the Praetorian executes a series of commands. A string of text flashes across the screen before it goes completely dark. After a moment, light returns to the monitor along with a phrase highlighted in neon red.
‘WARNING: EMERGENCY CONDUIT DOWNLOAD REQUESTED. ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WISH TO PROCEED? Y/N’
Before the others can make a move to stop him, Devereaux punches another key and the text changes.
He screams, a bone deep cry of agony that stretches on until he collapses into convulsions on the floor.
“GET OUT!” Linuial screams to the two women.
Striding forward towards the stricken man, with each step her height grows, until, reaching him, she is at her full stature…and power.
Without bothering to check on the other two, she wraps her arms around him, and lifts him as easily as a child. Chanting in her native tongue, green auras appear and fade as she walks toward the door carrying her burden…the door now closing, as sirens sound and spinning lights turn the room into a mad and deadly trap for the senses.
“…get out..get out, Paige…get out, Monique,” she thinks, frantically, over and over again. Her attention is focused on the dying man in her arms, the precision of her chants, and the closing door…
“Not leavin’ him, OR you!” Nyght snaps back, refusing to be intimidated by Linuial in all her glory. She paces beside them, and although her face cannot be whiter, she is raging inside at the Morpheus abomination.
“Put the damn thing in a BOX, Xavier!” she raps out, hoping he can hear her. “Keep it separate, let me kill it, once and foah all!”
“Devereaux… Don’t do it… No! Nooooo!” Paige yelled as she heard his possibly final order come across in telepathy.
That didn’t have the desired effect on the stubborn leader, as he only worked faster to stop them from intervening. She runs to the door and picks up debris to jam into the track to slow it’s progression. It works, but it is buying seconds, not minutes.
“Monique! I can’t stop the door for long! Hurry!!!”
Sputtering and choking, the shapeshifter reaches out with a twitching hand to seize Nyghtshade’s hood.
“S-s-screams! All screams!” he stammers, unable to stop the involuntary clenching of his jaw. “Ge-g-get out-t!” The next sound that escapes his lips is something close to a howl.
Nyght drops behind and gives Linuial and her burden a powerful push, propelling them through the now closing door. She slips through and out of the room as well, clinging now to the door from the outside, trying to keep it from shutting completely.
“PAIGE, out, OUT Now!!” she sends urgently.
Turning sideways to slide through the door with her burden, she drops to her knees on the plain outside.
As she once filled the Praetorian’s mind with everything she felt on the blood-drenched plain, she now pours everything she has of her healing power, and her strength to resist pain. As she does so, her stature also fades.
Pausing momentarily to look around she sees Paige at the door…thankfully, the girl has had the presence of mind to slip outside. “Close it!” she screams to the teenager, then turns all her attention to the man now lying with his head in her lap.
“You IDIOT,” she says, softly. “Whatever possessed you…” She begins her chanting again, her hands on either side of his head, the healing power funneled directly where it is needed most.
“…stay with me, my love, stay with me..“
Paige grabs a broom handle and spins the head off as she jams it into the shrapnel before the door allows a oxygen arrestor to pour out of the vents to stop possible fires. She manages to dislodge the piece as the door violently snaps the wooden broom handle out of her hands and snap it into splinters.
She falls next to the fallen leader, frantic on what to do next.
Lifting her hands momentarily, the tiny blonde woman lifts her arms at the elbows, then snaps them crosswise in front of herself. The shrouded room evaporates, leaving only the four of the team, the plain, and the small blonde girl.
She drops her hands immediately, and begins chanting again.
As the surge of healing power flows through him, Devereaux lifts his coffee brown eyes to meet Linuial’s hazel ones. “Gotta…pay your…debts,” he says weakly and gives a smile to match.
The green aura of restoration still swirling around him, he opens his mouth in a gaping yawn. A thunderhead of color billows outward. Purples, reds and blues shot through with a black darker than a moonless sky. The swirling cloud swells as more and more of it escapes his body to gather overhead.
Raising a hand made feeble by exertion, he closes the fingers into a fist. The rapidly growing nimbus suddenly collapses in on itself, restrained into a tight mass of pain and mismatched hues.
His head lolling now, he shouts with a powerful voice that seems misplaced coming from his supine body. “You wanted a target, Newbie?! Well there it is!”
Lifting her hands to the sides of her head, Linuial begins chanting again, a different song, her eyes fixed on the swirling cloud the Praetorian is holding together at such a grave cost.
Nyght drops to her knees, right arm outstretched and fist closed as she drains and drains away energy from the roiling multi-hued ball.
“Anyplace safe to dump it, Linuial, or do Ah just swallow it like a Sin Eateh?” she asks urgently.
“Not goin’ to just dump it back on you.”*
Unable to stop her chant on the long-activation Psionic Lance, she summons up her mental image of Nyghtshade. “If it’s healing, dump it on Xavier. If it’s dangerous, dump it on me, I’ll handle it.“
“Got it,” Nyght grunts, pointing her other arm at Devereaux, allowing the continuing stream of Morpheus’ draining energy to pass through her and pour into Xavier, bestowing to him what passes for ‘health” “healing”, and “strength and endurance”.
In the frozen interval required to finish the spell, Linuial reaches out to her mental image of the Praetorian.
“Oh…Xavier…this was no debt you owed me…“
After a moment, she continues, a slight twinkle of humor coloring her mental voice. “…the next time you decide to try your hand at heroing…you know you’re no damned good at it, don’t you? …come to me first for lessons. The first lesson is: never offer yourself for sacrifice if there is any alternative.“
Before she manages to close the mental connection, he hears the slightest iota of a sob.
Paige is beside herself.
In one moment, she’s shifted from being in fear of Linuial’s life and wellbeing to Devereaux’s, which is a bit of whiplash.
And after Devereaux’s act of absorbing Morpheus and trapping it, she’s in awe of his raw power on display. Something that is equal parts awe-inspiring as well as terrifying. Whether this is how he handles his psyche in the realm of the mind, or if this is his ability at work also in the real world is something that she is curious about.
She sends a counterwave of sound into the cloud that opposes the tones she can still hear in the static that is weakening considerably under the triple attack on the entity.
The surge of healing power from Linuial and Nyghtshade has done its work. Though the fatigue remains, he’s far more capable than he had been a mere moment ago. Directing his will toward the greatly reduced essence of the Morpheus Project, the Praetorian begins to sort through the assembled psyches that constitute the cloud.
Of all the stars in that nebula, very few have a light of their own. Looking at the scene through his unique telekinetic perception, he realizes that Crey’s labors were disturbingly successful at creating a hive mind. Only a precious few independents remain. Most have become simple extensions of the pseudo-being, ‘Morpheus’. It’s one of these holdouts that Devereaux propositions.
Negotiation is hardly required. Given the choice of imprisonment with something akin to comfort or flat out annihilation, the psyche accepts without much complaint. Quickly wrapping it in his own consciousness, he beats a hasty retreat.
Reopening the connection to Linuial, Devereaux replies. “Thanks for the offer but I prefer Rogues’ rules.” He flashes an image of a Dark Ring Mistress in all her debauched glory. “First: if you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
Continuing the Psionic Lance chant, Linuial glances down at the man whose head is still nestled in her lap.
“Xavier…? Are you…all right?“
“No. I’m not at a gourmet restaurant enjoying the greatest steak anyone’s ever eaten, with a beautiful wo-“ The last word dies as he clamps down on the thought. “I’m good. Don’t worry about the Mistress. She and I…well, we reached an agreement. Just another one for the armory.”
He gives a somewhat wobbly thumbs up. Though he knows Linuial won’t take her eyes from the task to see it, the Praetorian smiles up at her anyway.
Reassured, she releases Psionic Lance, deep into the heart of the rapidly shrinking globe of chaos.
It isn’t much…she has always kept Psionic Lance deliberately underpowered, favoring it for sniping rather than damage, something she is ill suited for.
But it is enough. Between the double drain of Paige’s sonic dissonance and Nyghtshade’s life force absorption, the Psionic attack is sufficient to cause the now-barely-stable entity that is/was Morpheus to begin to oscillate, stretching outward against the barrier Devereaux has created around it, then falling back inward, each oscillation reducing the size of the swirling mass of light-and-dark, until, finally, it falls entirely inward, and vanishes, like a miniature black hole.
In the aftermath, the plain seems eerily silent.
As Morpheus collapses into itself and vanishes, Nyghtshade drops both arms and stands there, shoulders slumped , exhausted. But she can feel that the Morpheus construct, whatever it was, feels gone, truly gone.
She gives a great shudder, as if trying to rid herself of the ‘feel’ of all the chaotic energy she’s channeled, and raises her head to look to Devereaux, relieved, truly relieved, that he seems to be recovering.
“Mr. Devereaux, you are one crazy bastard.” Nyght murmurs, with a faint smile, “I kinda like that about you.”
“Gotta be a little crazy if you wanna change the world,” Devereaux says with a laugh that quickly devolves into a coughing fit.
Panting lightly, he levers himself up on his elbows to look the undead woman in the eye. “Like I told Bubbi, I grow on people.” He tries another laugh with similar results.
“How about you, Blondie? Think we’re ready to start braiding each other’s hair while we talk about boys?”
Paige listens to see how Linuial is. As her wellbeing is the whole point of this, it does no good to eradicate Morpheus and leave her mind in shambles. However, she is tired in tandem, both physically and mentally. If cleanup is needed, hopefully it won’t be as stressful.
“Linuial,” Nyght asks cautiously, “Are you OK? Are yoah memories reconnectin’ now?”
Looking around to each of the desperately tired team…Monique, Paige, finally Devereaux struggling to sit up, Linuial smiles, quietly, calmly.
Devereaux dissolves into a swirling mass of colored lights and darknesses. Taking her time, she stands, brushes imaginary creases from her pale blue tunic.
She turns back toward the cosmic orb that is Devereaux. Reaching out a hand into the chaos, his hand materializes and fits itself into hers, as the rest of his body solidifies, and his feet meet the plain, with nary a jar.
His body is not simply intact, it is the same body that formed around him when he first arrived…rested, uninjured, what he conceives of as his “normal” state.
She smiles at his startled expression, gently squeezes his hand surreptitiously, and releases her grip.
Turning to Nyghtshade, she nods. “Morpheus is gone…dead, if such a being can be said to be truly alive…and my mind is my own, now. The path back is clear, I can see every part of it. I couldn’t have done it alone. My debt to you is incalculable.”
Turning to Paige, she smiles warmly at the girl. “I know you are worried, dear. Don’t be. I am myself again. I will see you again in a few minutes.
“You were very brave. You made some very mature decisions, and I’m proud of you. We’ll talk later, but for now, you still need rest and recuperation.”
She lifts a hand, palm toward the teenager, and makes a gentle pushing motion…and the girl finds herself impelled backward and up, until she returns to her own mind, her own hospital bed.
Turning back to the Praetorian: “…there is only one more thing I have to do. You and Nyghtshade may return now, or you may stay.” She favors Nyghtshade with another smile.
“Well that’s convenient.” Looking down at his reconstituted body, the Praetorian finds himself pleasantly whole again. Even his stamina and vitality are completely restored.
He smiles at the healer, then says in no uncertain tone, “I came this far. If the job’s not done, I’m not earning my pay.”
Nyght staightens as well. “With all due respect, Linuial, Ah won’t leave until Ah know we’ah done heah. If theah’s still somethin’ to be taken care of, Ah’d prefer to stay.”
Linuial looks from one to the other, then smiles, and sighs. She shakes her head. “…stubborn…” she says, mostly to herself.
“Very well,” louder, addressed to the pair. “Understand this…there is nothing for you to do, only a task for me. If you wish to be here, your role is observer, nothing more. Whatever happens, you must not interfere.”
She turns her back to them, and a corridor forms itself around them, out of nothing. In front of them, they can see the end of the corridor, and what must be a larger room extending to the right around a blind corner.
As the landscape forms, they hear the sounds of military personnel at their tasks, and Chuck Firenze barking out orders.
Linuial takes two running steps forward and soars into the air. Flying past the blind corner, she turns in the air to face the Malta boss.
There is the sharp bark of a heavy rifle, and she is slammed backwards against the wall with a tremendous impact, sliding down the wall until she lies in a crumpled heap. As she lies there, and the seconds tick by, a pool of blood begins to crawl like a living thing from underneath her still form.
One second, two seconds…and her body begins to shimmer, then fade, then vanishes, leaving behind a shockingly large pool of blood.
The Praetorian and the undead woman feel themselves being drawn back to their physical forms, as everything fades to not-darkness filled with fireflies.
Nyght had flinched as Linuial was shot, but forced herself not to react, knowing what was happening in front of them, understanding that Linuial’s time-line was catching up to the real world, and that this last memory was the step she needed to take to reconcile her memory and reality.
She feels a wave of relief for Linuial’s success, even as the mental link severs and Nyght is drawn back into her own body, her real one.
Devereaux winces as the scene plays out. The crack of the rifle, the dull thud as Linuial’s propelled backwards and strikes a wall, the shimmer of a force field that goes up too late to soften the impact; all of it plays out in vivid detail. He watches in stoic silence, though his gut roils with the desire to do something.
Then, as quickly as it began, the memory concludes and he can feel the tug of his body drawing him back. “Not bad for a day’s work.”
After what can only be described as a head trip, you’ve finally dealt with the last task that stood between your team and success. With the last vestiges of the Morpheus Project destroyed, you come to in the Brickstown hospital Intensive Care Unit. Groggy from your mental sojourn and the general stress of the entire ordeal, you’re ready for a long stretch of rest and relaxation.
But there’s one last thing that needs to be seen to first. It’s time to find out just how effective your efforts were.
In the tightly packed room, Devereaux’s eyes flutter. Blinking away the bleariness distorting his vision, he tries to take a step away from Linuial’s bedside and nearly stumbles. Pins and needles run from his feet to his knees as the muscles in his legs protest their recent disuse.
“Damn…” he groans, giving his head a shake. “How long were we out?”
Silence meets the question and he looks up to see the members of Starfire staring pensively back at him. “Uh…morning, everybody.”
“LIN!” Maggot Man shouts.
Jon Smith’s head jerks up from its contact with the hospital bed mattress, he stands fully, leaning over the bed, his hand still clutching that of the patient.
Her eyes are fluttering, her gaze locks on first the ceiling, then on the cyborg’s face.
She smiles, weakly. “…hi…” she says, then coughs, then grabs at the dressings criss-crossing her chest with her opposite hand.
Jon searches her face. His expression relaxes, and he gives her a wan smile.
He turns to the rest of Starfire. “Okay, everybody gets one hug, and we need to let her rest. Pizza at the Starfire base, my treat. We’ll have a proper welcoming back party as soon as the guest of honor can attend.
“I can’t think you all enough for being here. I know you helped. We’ll start sending out emails on her condition as soon as we know something ourselves.
“MM, call that Infirmary healer and get him back here, asap.”
The room becomes a swirl of chaos and voices.
Stepping back, the big cyborg watches the chaos, a slight smile visible on his lips.
After a few seconds, he swings his head to look at the Praetorian.
His expression unreadable, he steps to the side, away from the bed, allowing others access to Linuial’s bedside. He turns to face Devereaux.
“Thank you,” he says, quietly, holding his metal hand out toward the Praetorian. Nodding, he adds: “I owe you more than ‘one’.”
Nyght has remained motionless, in the same position as when she’d entered Linuial’s mind – on her knees beside the hospital bed, slumped slightly forward, forehead resting on the edge of Linuial’s mattress.
As the room erupts in jubilation over Linuial’s recovery, and friends crowd around the bed, Nyght is inadvertently jostled.
Slowly she slumps to one side, collapsing in an motionless heap on the floor.
Standing stock still, Devereaux sizes up the man who had been an enemy not so long ago. “Don’t worry abou-Shit!”
Seeing Nyghtshade tumble out of the corner of one eye, he moves to her side. At least, he tries to. Between the bed, the medical equippment arrayed around it, and the general bustle in the room, there’s no clear path to her. He settles for the next best thing.
“Newbie, you okay? Move, damnit!” Shouldering his way past Jon Smith, he forces a path to the undead heroine until he’s close enough to kneel beside her. “C’mon, you’re ruining our happy ending,” he says urgently as he gently shakes her shoulders.
There is no response. Her head lolls limply, eyes closed.
“What’s wrong with her?” Stray asks the Praetorian, bending over both of them, and reaching out to place a palm on Nyghtshade’s forehead.
Nyght’s skin is cool. She is not breathing.
The shapeshifter’s response is terse. “Not sure.”
Looking Nyghtshade over, he’s unable to find any visible signs of trauma. “Not like that matters. Considering what we just did, she could be brain dead.” A cursory telepathic scan reveals only a tight series of mental walls and shrouds. Seeing the network of defenses, Devereaux immediately pulls back. “Definitely not brain dead.”
Realization hits him like a slug to the chest. Every film involving vampires he’s ever watched comes back to him in a rush. “What time is it?” he demands of the Peacebringer.
“It was a little before 9 am, last time I checked,” the catgirl tells him.
“She’s past her limit,” Devereaux says, already beginning to gather Nyghtshade into his arms. To his surprise, she’s heavier than he expects. “I need to get her somewhere dark. Secure would be a bonus.”
Blood Nut steps forward. “I can take her to the Starfire base…no windows, nice dark living room with a fire and padded benches where she can sleep.”
He holds out his arms. “Just pull her hood over her face, Lin told me she doesn’t do well in the sunlight.”
Devereaux looks the green giant up and down with a suspicious gaze. After a tense moment, he sighs. “All right.”
Fixing Nyghtshade’s hood in place, he lifts her carefully from the floor and deposits her in Blood Nut’s well muscled arms. “When she wakes up, tell her it’s all over. She’ll know what you mean.”
Nodding, Blood Nut turns to leave, threading his way through the crowd with practiced ease, mindful of his precious burden.
The crowd is beginning to thin out, leaving behind mostly the core group of Starfire.
Jon Smith sidles up to the Praetorian. It’s hard to read his expression, beyond the fact that he is smiling, with a sly twist to his face.
“By the way, I also want to thank you for the other thing. You know, your suggestion.”
“C’mon Jon. I’m tired and I could really use a drink. If you don’t mind, let’s save the gamesmanship for our next go ‘round.”
Hopping backwards to clear as much space as he can in the relatively cramped room, Devereaux transforms into the familiar form of one of Praetor Sinclair’s masked acolytes. He drops into a fighting stance, one hand outstretched to ward off a blow, the other drawn back in preparation for a counter strike.
“Bring your best,” he says, though the words don’t carry his usual mocking tone.
The cyborg breaks into a laugh. He shakes his head.
“Maybe I’ll break your head another time,” he says, grinning. “This is hardly the time…or the place.
“No, I really mean it. I’ve never seen Kip so happy in all the time I’ve known him.” The sly look spreads.
Devereaux doesn’t relax his stance, though he does allow his arms to fall just a fraction.
The ninja’s voice is just above a whisper. It carries both the Praetorian’s own suspicion along with something mildly sinister. “And your point is?”
“Man, you sure are hard to thank, aren’t you?” The sly look hasn’t changed an iota.
“I just wanted to let you know how much Kip appreciated your suggestion. You know…those Praetorian nanobots you were bragging about. In fact, he’s so excited that he’s already called all of his favorite procurers. I hear they’re lining up at Portal Corporation already, and taking odds to see who’ll be the first to bring Praetorian technology back to him.”
He gives the Praetorian a wink with his one eye, and turns away, chuckling audibly.
“I usually take my thanks in cash,” Devereaux mumbles under his breath.
“He’s got as much chance of getting his hands on actual toasters,” he calls to the cyborg’s retreating back.
When Jon turns, Devereaux’s returned to his natural form. “I guess you didn’t hear. When you Heroes showed up and took Cole out, he nuked the place. Granted, it was only Nova Praetoria but that still left a nice big smoking crater to blame you guys for.”
The wolfish grin begins to spread across the Praetorian’s face. “Some random Primal comes sniffing around, looking for loose tech, he’s as likely to get shot as get an offer.”
The grin blossoms into a full fledged smile. “Unless he had a contact who could vouch for him, that is.”
As Jon turns, it becomes obvious he is still smiling, a sly glint in his one eye.
“Now, you see, Devereaux, you’re starting to get the hang of it. That’s how things are done on this side of the tracks…you keep your saber in your pants, and do deals with cash and a handshake.
“Yeah, I can see some sort of cash-for-trade arrangement.” His stance is easy and relaxed, as he walks slowly back to face the Praetorian.
He is still smiling as he peruses the other man’s face closely. After a few moments, the smile begins to fade, and he peers closely into Devereaux’s eyes.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he says, so softly that only Devereaux can hear him. “…she got to you, didn’t she?”
“Put it this way. I’ve seen some things,” he says with a chuckle. “Anyway, looks like we’ve got some negotiating to do. Unfortunately, I’m wiped and I’ve still gotta check on Paige. Next time, huh? You buy first round.”
Clapping the big cyborg on the shoulder, Devereaux strolls casually past him and out of the room.
“Devereaux,” Jon calls. He takes two large strides into the hallway, where he can see where the Praetorian paused.
Softly: “…welcome to the human race.” His voice is low and serious. “…you keep that up, and someday I just might call you ‘Brother’.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, but turns back to the room.
Paige is back in her mind… and resting hard. She didn’t even bother trying to wake up after Linuial “put her back”. She’s lying on her side, snoring softly with her mouth open.
Tahquitz and PulseFire walk up to her room and reach for the door handle, when a text message arrives: “Ventus vis Vires: We’ve got a problem… The Tourist has returned. Get here ASAP, and bring anyone you have who’s available.”
“Goddamn it.” Tahquitz says.
“What?” PulseFire asked.
“Three weeks ago? Remember when I was in a hospital? Quiescent Tourist has popped out of hiding, back at selling the organs of abductees for pennies on the duodenum.”
“That’s not funny, Hawkeye.”
“I know. I’m pissed. I was so close to taking him out, then that last minute Sniper attack… I owe him an orange jumpsuit after a Courtroom Sentencing full of his victims families.”
“You’re not going to face him alone again?”
“No. I was close though, so with help, he’s as good as caught. But Paige is out of action, Requiescat is at Vanguard, Frost-Kid is in therapy, and Devereaux is probabl—Actually, I don’t know. Maybe he’s available?” Tahquitz said, thinking of who would be interested.
“I wouldn’t count on it. He’s pay to play, right?” PulseFire asked.
“Depends. His loyalties are all across the board. If I mention Quiescent Tourist is an organ trafficker for the Goldbrickers, it may or may not catch his interest depending on if the Goldbrickers screwed with him. Can’t hurt to ask, right? The reward for collaring him is lousy, you’re right.”
“20,000 Inf. The smallest of the small fries.”
“A Cowboy Bebop reference! God, I love you! But yeah, it’s not penthouse rent, that’s for sure. I’ll pass on Dev, then.”
“I’ll call around The League of Extraordinarily Well-Dressed Gentlepersons. How about Steel Paladins?”
“Yup. UltraBatz is definitely into this kind of mission.” Tahquitz says, then hesitates, “Hold on a moment, I want to leave Paige a note… so she knows we didn’t just ditch her for a movie or something.”
“Sure. I’ll make some calls.”
Tahquitz hits up the nurse’s desk for a Sticky Note and a pencil: “Remember The Tourist? We got a lead! I’ll be back tonight with dinner. – Your Favorite Brother”. He sticks the note on the back of her phone bedside, then fixes her blanket. “Sorry, cricket… you know how it is. I’ll see you tonight, promise.” He kisses her forehead and runs after PulseFire.
If Tahquitz waited for 5 minutes, he would have run into the man himself, but ASAP isn’t meant lightly in superhero circles. If every opportunity to stop an elusive fiend has a deadline, hesitation guarantees failure.
Poking his head into Paige’s room, Devereaux finds her solidly unconscious. He smiles, admiring the girl’s ability to sleep so soundly after a day that could only be described as insane. Creeping in with all the stealth of a proper spy, he plucks the handwritten note from the phone by her bed.
“The Tourist? Never heard of him.” Setting the note back down, he debates whether or not waking Paige is worth the trouble.
The argument proves to be a short one. “Hey, kid,” he whispers while shaking her gently. “I came all the way down the hall to see how you’re doing. It’d be pretty rude if you didn’t at least say hello.”
“Mmm. Wha–?” Paige stirs softly then turns to face him, “Dev! Hi! How are you feeling?”
“I’m a little banged up but I’ll live,” he replies, laughing. “How’s the leg? I see they didn’t have to amputate after all.”
She giggles, “No, although I bet they were tempted to at one point to inflate my bill… after the damage I’ve caused.”
“I think my friend will take care of it though… he’s been helpful in getting me my apartment, getting Paragon City University to admit me. Bit of a spaz, though.”
“Is Linuial up and about? Where did Nyghtshade and Bubastis go?” Paige asks, still bleary eyed from the drugs finally letting go of their hold on her with a bit of a hangover.
Devereaux laughs and waves a hand dismissively. “You know how Blondie is. A few chants, some time with the boyfriend, and she’ll be ready to nag me incessantly for another five thousand years.”
“Nyghtshade’s…sleeping, I think. Pretty sure she’s got the vampire equivalent of sun poisoning. Should be fine once the moon comes up.” He hesitates a moment, trying to recall his B-movie monsters. “Or is that werewolves? I’m not sure.”
“As for Bubi, I’m pretty sure she’s hanging around somewhere. Probably off scaring orderlies into giving her saucers full of milk. We never did find out what her deal is.”
“Something bothers me, still.” Paige’s face sinks, as she looks down at her bandaged leg.
“Dr. Hill is going to try again. You know that, right? We stopped Morpheus, but that compulsion from scientists to go that extra step further. This isn’t the last we’ll hear of him, is it? We handicapped him, sure, but someone with conviction like that to do that to living people… He won’t stop…”
“That’s why when you told me to do… well, THAT… well, I didn’t hesitate. I knew that was what would happen if we arrested him. He’d get off if Crey represented him, or serve a reduced sentence if they didn’t by turning State’s evidence… The point is he’d get free, someone in a different circle somewhere would pick him up, get him a lab, and we’re back to square one… I know killing someone is wrong. But what choice did we have, Dev?” Paige looks into his eyes, with a single tear leaving her right eye. “What choice did we have?”
Devereaux stares back at her from behind his dark glasses, the pivotal nature of the moment hanging heavy in his mind. Taking a deep breath, he brushes the tear from her cheek.
Then he lies.
“That’s what you capes are for, Paige. You go out there and stop the bastards like Hill before they get the chance to do things like that. It’s like I told you back in the lab, killing’s not the point. It’s just a tool. The key is making sure you’ve got the right tool for the job you need to do.”
“So you didn’t send him to Hell where he belongs. So what? You said it yourself; he’s sure to give you another shot. If he doesn’t, someone else will come along.”
“I feel like I’ve failed.” Paige said. “We stopped them, we shut Morpheus down, quite possibly the most sophisticated surveillance system ever made. We did what we set out to do.”
“But I get the nagging feeling that if killing him wasn’t the answer as Nyght told me, and catching him wasn’t going to stop him, it’s on me to figure it out.”
She inhales deeply and wipes a tear off… “But in the heat of the moment, we can never be perfect, I guess. What happened, happened. I still have a lot to learn before I’m as competent as you guys… I’m not there yet.”
She smiles at him. “Thanks for everything, Dev. You don’t hear it enough, but we couldn’t have gotten through this without you. And you know that already.”
He shrugs. “To be fair, you wouldn’t have been here without me either. The way I see it, we’re about even.”
“Thanks for coming along, kid. Shame about Tahq but I’d say you filled in nicely. If the whole college thing doesn’t work out, you could really clean up in demolitions.”
With a final good natured chuckle, he straightens and turns to leave. “Try to sleep a lot. They’ll wanna put you through some physical therapy, standard practice for gun shot victims. It’s a bitch.” There’s something sad in Devereaux’s last words.
“I’ll swing by and check on you again in a little while.” Then, with the usual casual air, he vanishes around the edge of the doorway.
As the various members of Starfire gather their promised hug from the supergroup’s leader, Bubastis watches, her immobile face betraying no expression…only the constant twitching of her tail demonstrates that she is alert at all.
Stray, in her catgirl form, walks over to the feline woman.
“Is there anything you need? You want to come up and hug Lin, too?”
Bubastis hesitates for a moment. “You are very kind, but I believe that the people who are closest to her should take advantage, not I.”
“Well, I’m sure after this, Lin will probably treat you like one of the family.”
“Again, you are kind, but I prefer to confirm that before I begin taking liberties.”
“Suit yourself,” Stray shrugs. “You need anything else? A ride home, maybe?”
“No, thank you. I will be fine.” She nods her head politely.
As one after another files out of the room, she eventually nods in Jon’s direction, and slips out into the hallway.
Leaving the infirmary, the night air is cool as she walks. She drops down to her all-fours running stance, stretching her lithe muscles for the first time in hours.
Her first mission, she muses. I hope it went well, she tells herself. It would be nice if she could gain her citizenship.
She pushes the idea out of her mind. It won’t do to get impatient, she has already been warned about that.
She opens the door of her apartment, and walks into the dark, as brilliantly lit to her feline eyes as if all the lights were turned on.
Darkness, she thinks. Home.
Cool, comfortable darkness.