Paragon City Stories: Death Becomes Her
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act I, Scene 3
Place: Talos Island
Like any busy metropolitan neighborhood, the streets of Talos Island really come alive at night. Exchanging business casual for the latest fashion, the young set takes to the bar scene to mingle. Families and couples fill booths and tables at restaurants serving fine cuisine. And true to form, costumed heroes patrol the rooftops and skyways. Generally prone to more serious attitudes than their daytime comrades, they stalk through the shadows in search of all manner of criminals and evildoers.
Tonight they’re joined by Fen Monique and her eclectic group of allies. Though their level of experience ranges from veteran to green horn, the team is united in their purpose to take down anyone who threatens the safety of the island the gargantuan Hero, Talos, gave his life to defend.
The dark skies of the streets of Talos Island echoes with a nightlife that Paige is usually predestined to ignore. But after 9pm, the bars, restaurants, and music venues have a pulse that is otherwise dormant at daylight. And she sees the appeal of the island as a nightlife spot.
But in turn, the shadows of the alleys betray the well light streets. Paige finds herself walking with the team down one of these very alleys right now.
“Been a peaceful walk so far,” Paige says, looking up the buildings and fire escapes. “I’m sure that will change soon.”
Before Nyghtshade can answer, there is the sound of a scuffle further ahead, an indignant cry, a low laugh. She breaks into a shallow leap, covering distance incredibly fast, and lands just beyond a dumpster behind which a burly young man has a flashily dressed girl pressed back into the corner between the dumpster and a brick wall.
Straightening, cape aswirl, Nyghtshade regards them both. “Evenin’, she says mildly, adding, “Is this boy botherin’ you, Shugah?”
“Leave us alone, this is none of your business,” the young man snarls, while the girl - caged between his arms - tries to knee him in the groin. She misses, and he draws an arm back to slap her, but the girl ducks out and dashes to stand behind Nyght.
“But, you see, this is mah business,” Nyght replies coldly. “Young lady, do you want to press assault charges heah?”
“I… I.. what?” the girl stammers. “He… no… he’s just drunk, I don’t want any trouble.”
“If you don’t want trouble, perhaps you should avoid goin’ out with mean drunks,” Nyght suggests drily, her eyes never leaving the angry young man.
At first glance, the situation is all too common. A young man who’s had too much to drink and wants to take liberties with a woman who’s less than enthusiastic about the idea. Nothing to trouble a single low level Hero out on the beat, much less a group with battle tested veterans in its ranks.
But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that this particular young man isn’t as ordinary as he appears. As he turns to face the group, the profile of a man’s face in a Corinthian helmet, horse hair plume standing tall, is emblazoned on the shoulder of one arm. This particular drunk is a member of the fierce, ancient Greek themed street gang known as The Warriors.
“Cool it, Pony Boy,” Tahquitz says to the Warrior, “Just treat the lady right, and we won’t have to throw down.” He knows this will either make him escalate to a point where he can arrest the punk, or make him reconsider how he’s treating his lady tonight. Both acceptable outcomes.
“So, Capes are letting schoolkids patrol now?” the Warrior laughs, as he slides a metal blade from a sheath on his belt, and sinks into a low martial arts stance. “Little boys, little girls, oh, this should be fun.”
Nyght is distracted as the girl behind her grabs her cape and yanks it. “Hey! Who asked you people to butt in? Leave my boyfriend alone.”
The Warrior takes advantage of the distraction to spring closer to Nyght and swing at her with his blade.
Too bad for the Warrior that his blade meets Adamant’s electricity shield.
Not only does the upward motion of the blade stop abruptly enough to numb the grip, the metal makes a perfect conductor for a sizeable amount of wattage. The Warrior’s eyes fly open, and he seems momentarily suspended in time, before the scream begins and his hand and arm fly back awkwardly. He grabs the hand, limp fingers releasing the blade, amid a slight acrid odor of burnt pork.
Adamant smiles at the man. “…and that’s just the shield…” he points out, giving a couple of gratuitous swings of the four foot laser sword. He ends with the sword pointed at the Warrior’s midsection, threat implicit.
“…you okay, Ms. Fen?” he asks, out of the side of his mouth.
“Nyghtshade,” she grits out, having wrenched her cape free of the girl’s clutching hands. “Thanks for the save, theah, Adamant,” she adds, for emphasis.
The Warrior, however, surprisingly shakes off the residual effect of the electrical attack, scoops up his blade and ducks back out of the reach of the shield.
“So,” he crows, “somebody wants to play with the big boys.” He drops again into a martial crouch, his sword trip trained on Adamant, as the Warrior makes a taunting ‘come on’ gesture with his free hand.
While Nyght could easily drain the Warrior and slow him down, she has the feeling Adamant needs to tackle this unimpeded by the rest of the group, so merely holds herself ready in case something goes South, while keeping a wary eye on the furious girlfriend.
“Hey, Ms. Fen, I have my Hero card…does that mean I can kill this guy?” The laser sword sings over his head, as his smile spreads into an eager grin.
“Good Lord, no!” Nyght raps back sharply. “We’ah Heroes, we don’t kill! We subdue and arrest, and then send them to the Zig.”
This sends the girlfriend into a screeching frenzy as she tries to grab and kick and scratch at Nyght.
“Oh, foah Heaven’s sake,” the lavendar-clad Hero groans, trying to fend the girl off without seriously hurting her.
Completely crestfallen, he lowers the tip of the sword. “Well, what’s the fun of doing that?” he moans, quite seriously.
Turning toward Nyghtshade, he turns the shield off, slips his left hand between the two women…then suddenly snaps the shield back on again. As the pure electricity shield expands, it connects jarringly with the moll, knocking her to the ground.
“Naughty, naughty, little girl…” he admonishes, immediately turning to confront the Warrior who tried to take advantage of the moment to slip closer.
The electricity shield facing him again, the gangster quite reasonably rethinks his intention of striking with the metal blade.
“Leave her alone, or you can visit jail. Your choice.” Tahquitz says to the girlfriend, covering Nyght’s back. His fists freeze over with one pointed at her arms, as the other sends a freezing cone of air to her legs, making her shoes stick to the dew-covered pavement.
“I can deal with frostbite. You can’t.”
At this point, Nyght sighs, glancing from the angry girl to the angry Warrior. “If the girl’s defendin’ him, no real crime’s bein’ committed heah, other than him getting all bristly with us for interruptin’.”
She looks around at the rest of the group. “Not mah ideah of a date, but neitheh one’s likely to press charges against each otheh, and Ah’m not one foah makin’ trouble wheah it’s not needed. Perhaps we should move on, and look foah some… actual crime?”
Tahq thaws his fists, and says back to Nyghtshade. “Agreed.” The girlfriend, pissed that he’d dare to do anything to her when she thought he wanted to protect her, picks up a small milk crate full of trash from the street and hurtles it at him.
“Suffer the slings and arrows…” he reminds himself of Castanella’s advice when a heroic action turns south. Face the music, walk away. Let them lash out against you without reprise if it causes you no harm. The crate smashes against his back as he brushes off the debris.
“Hey, Tony!” a voice calls from somewhere beyond the alley. “Where’d you go?” The shout is accompanied by the sound of heavy footfalls. “You finished with that hot piece of-“
The speaker, a young man wearing a sleeveless olive drab jacket and red headband, stops abruptly as he rounds the corner and stumbles upon the scene.
“And just what’s goin’ on here?” he asks, a clear threat in his tone. “Good thing we came lookin’ for you, Tony. Looks like you got more than you bargained for.”
Reaching up and over one shoulder, the new arrival tugs an axe free of the sling across his back. Far from a woodcutter’s tool, the wicked piece of metal is double headed. Each cutting edge is polished and well oiled, catching the dull glow of an overhead light from one of the nearby buildings.
“Hey guys, over here! Tony found us some capes!”
At the call, more Warriors enter the narrow confines of the alley. Armed with swords, axes, and even a spiked morning star or two, they represent all the gang espouses in its reverence for the fighting styles of antiquity.
Nyght sighs, but concedes, “Well. This is a different story.”
Adamant spares but a moment’s glance over one shoulder…it’s not like there is any doubt that things have just gotten a lot more serious.
As the Warrior in front of him, Tony, apparently, opens his mouth to reply to the hail, Adam charges the man, attempting to force his shield against the upraised blade once again. “Worked well the first time…“ he thinks to himself.
Sensing rather than seeing the rush, Tony begins to raise the blade, then snatches it back as muscle memory reminds him of the shock he’s just taken. It’s the split second Adamant needs to swing the sword, but pommel-first into the side of the man’s head, meeting the temple with an audible crunch.
“…oops…” Adam mutters under his breath, then continues the swing to pivot on his left foot, coming about to face the group of newcomers.
Unconsciously, the grin spreads as his eyes narrow, and he tilts his weight up on his toes, bouncing lightly.
Nyghtshade opens mental shields and reaches out across the mob of Warriors. Their minds are curiously hard to lock onto, but she does her best to push a disorienting confusion over as many as possible.
Some seem to stop in their tracks, dazed, or even half turning, lifing weapons not toward foes but instead toward Warrior brethren.
Many more, unfortunately, seem to shake the compulsion off, like water from a duck’s back, and Nyght has no idea how many of the ‘confused’ will remain so for long.
“Alright, this is more my speed,” Tahquitz switches from ice to fire on his fists and starts to fly upwards.
“Cricket, you mind making sure that the girlfriend is out of the picture?” Tahquitz yells down as he waits for a group of the Warriors to gather beneath him.
Paige focuses her mind and uses the Siren’s Song technique. Instead of the attackers, she focuses all her energy on the girlfriend, who passes out in a deep sleep.
“Done.” Paige yells up, as she focuses on two goons with axes that are putting their weapons down and cracking their knuckles walking her way.
“This will be quick…”
With a grin, Jade focuses her Chi and charges into the group of Warriors like a pugnacious bulldog, striking and punching with apparent glee.
As Tahquitz, Paige and Jade enter the action, Nyghtshade picks the loudmouth in the new group of Warriors and focuses, draining away some of the man’s life-force, his strength and health, to weaken him for the others.
In turn, she uses some part of that drained energy to suddenly boost the speed and reactions of Adamant, Paige, Tahquitz and Jade.
Watching the other members of the team, Adam calls out: “Hey, Ms. Fen, what do you want me to do?”
Nyght fishes out a mediporter and neatly tosses it to him. “If you get a chance, see if you can get a mediporteh clipped to the one you took down. And then activate it.”
“If not, watch yoah back and help Jade if you can.”
Adam turns the shield off, too late to catch the thrown object mid-air. With a grimace, he stoops and begins to scuffle around on the ground, trying to find the tiny object in the darkness. After several tries, he finally comes up with an unfamiliar object, lifts it up and tries to examine it by the light of the red laser saber.
He looks up, about to ask Nyghtshade more questions, but she is obviously intent on something else, and he hesitates.
As Jade whirls amongst the mob of Warriors, kicking and striking, she is working closer to the Hewer Elite. He sees her doggedly approaching, and he actually shoves a Warrior between them out of the way. Settling into a crouch and hefting his massive axe, he gives her a grin of his own. “Come on, girlie, come and play!”
“Ohhh, yeah, buddy,” Jade grins even more fiercely as she closes the distance. “Let’s dance!”
The Hewer swings but she jigs back with a quick salsa 2-step, then immediately springs inside the arc of his reach and hammers him with an astonishingly fast Eagle-claw kick, sending him staggering back, shaking his head.
Tahquitz descends slowly on three of the Warriors, with a hit of Fire Breath as they fall to the ground trying to put the flames out. He extinguishes the victims when they lay prone and stop writhing, slapping mediporters on their belts and activating them.
“Three down, eight to go? Ten? I didn’t get a so–” A swipe next to his ear causes him to tumble to dodge a mace being swung into his side, which does catch him to send him tumbling away.
Recovering, he stares down his attacker, a Crusher. “You look fun.”
Nyght has drifted closer to the fight, concentrating hard to try and confuse as many of the Warriors as possible, no mean feat now their adrenaline is up.
She manages to get two of them turned and swinging at one another instead of Jade or Tahquitz, which is fortunate, since one has pulled out a crossbow and fired it at his fellow Warrior.
She sees Adamant hesitating, and sends a quick mental query, “Adam, are you all right?”
Hearing a voice in his head, Adam swings around and around, looking for the source, still holding the unfamiliar object in his left hand, the shield turned off.
“Ms. Fen?” he calls. “I don’t know how to do this…!”
“Do what?” she responds tersely, as a Warrior moves toward her, blade swinging back and forth menacingly.
Still unable to locate the undead Heroine in the dark from the voice in his head, Adam yells back, “…this thing you threw me!”
Finally frustrated, he throws it to one side, snaps on the electricity shield, and wades into the remaining crowd. Tahquitz’s fire is easy enough to locate, so he moves away from it. From the sounds, he can hear someone struggling, the smart smack of flesh on flesh drawing him unknowingly toward Jade.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Fen!” he yells, as he begins swinging the laser sword in large arcs, humming and moaning. The snap and crackle of the powered shield is followed by the odor of singed flesh and burning fabric, and before long the sword is not the only thing moaning. Or screaming.
“It’s alright, clip it to their clothes and press the button at the end!” Paige calls out to Adam, “They’ll head to the hospital when their vitals slow down.”
The two choppers close in on her as she sets her palm on her elbow. Pressing in hard, she slides her hand to her fingertips pointing at the two would be maulers, sending them into the alleyway backwards to land on a dumpster.
As she finished her attack, a bright violet energy spark appears on her right shoulder, throwing sparks and flashing light as it blocks a sword strike. Her gift from Devereaux is working beautifully, protecting her from lethal damage as she turns around and shrieks into the cutter’s face. The quick attack makes him drop his sword and grab at his eardrums.
Jade and the Hewer Elite shift back and forth, he blocking blows with a meaty arm, and she dodging one-handed swings from his heavy axe while searching for an opening. Then, he abruptly shifts to a two-handed grip and swings with greater speed, forcing her to falter and spring back.
To her astonishment, the blade connects, scything across her front with a wicked hiss and drawing blood across a shallow gash to her ribs.
As the Hewer pulls in his axe from its arc and begins to recover his center, Jade touches a fingertip to her oozing wound, raises it to her tongue, and then rises to the challenge, spinning in with a burst of speed and a Bruce-Lee homage cry, her kick snapping in two the shaft of his axe, leaving him with barely a stub to grip.
As Adam Masters stumbles through the darkness, shield held tight to his body, the laser sword making figure eights from his right to his left, the arcs crossing over head, he finally comes close enough to recognize Jade, at least, from her braids and elongated hair pins.
She hesitates, raising a hand to her side, then issues a spinning kick that results in a wooden snapping sound.
Unsure if that final sound is material or bone, Adam rushes forward with all his not inconsequential weight and strength, electricity shield a maelstrom of glittering energy, sparking anew as it grazes the falling axe head. Without waiting to peruse the result, Adam hacks horizontally at waist height, swinging not just the sword and arm, but twisting from the waist to bring all his upper body strength into play, and at the precise instant that he feels the sword’s velocity decrease, pushes against the resistance, to propel himself in the opposite direction, spinning on his back heel a full 360 degrees to bring the laser blade back into his opponent from the opposite side.
In the dark, it is not yet obvious, but the hewer staggers and drops to his knees, nearly sliced in two by the double blow.
Having been nearly bisected at the waist, the Hewer tumbles forward, his body twisting at an unnatural angle. The closest Warriors, seeing their leader fall, lose their taste for combat.
“Jesus Christ! Did you see that?!” one of them shrieks, full blown panic in his voice. “These aren’t normal capes, man!”
It doesn’t take long for word to spread. The Warriors break and run, nearly trampling each other in a mad rush to get out of the alley and be away from the slaughter. With them gone, an eerie stillness falls over the scene.
But just as the action seems to have passed, the fallen Hewer begins to move again. Starting with a slight twitching of his still form, soon his fingers begin to open and close as if reaching for something just beyond his grasp. A moment later, he draws his arms beneath him and struggles first to his knees, then finally comes to his feet.
The mortal wound in his torso is on full display as he straightens, impossibly, to his full height. More disturbing, though, is the iridescent blue light that pours from his eyes.
“Monique…” he says in a voice that rasps like stalks of dry wheat. “Is this what you’ve been reduced to?”
At the question, his lips twist into a wicked, mocking grin. “Do you think these children can keep you from me? Where are the warriors you’ve kept at your side as of late? The shapeshifter and that so-called healer of yours? Are they too busy to come to your defense?”
The Hewer doesn’t wait for an answer. “Or perhaps they’ve abandoned you just like your dear husband. I couldn’t blame them. Not if they know what you did to the first one.”
A cackle that sounds disturbingly like a crow’s call bursts forth from the Hewer. It persists for a moment before the light in his eyes winks out and he collapses back to the pavement.
Nyghtshade stands as if rooted to the spot, gloved hands flown to cover her mouth, eyes staring in horror at this apparition, at the terrible blue rune-light emanating from its eyes… and the ghastly words pouring from its mouth.
Its last taunt, about her absent husband Long… and about the shame of what happened to her dead first husband, sends her lurching back a step, though.
“No…” she breathes, voice raw with emotion. “No…….”
The neophyte Hero recoils, stumbles back a few paces, then squares his shoulders, lifts the laser sword over his head, strides forward, and with a sweep cuts the hewer’s head clean from its mooring, adding a vicious kick that sends the detached head into the distant dark.
“Shut up, you!” he snarls.
The darkness hides the slow smile that begins to work its way across his face. He glances around, then snaps the shield and sword off, and attaches the sword’s hilt to its hook on his belt, stepping back to stand side-by-side with Nyghtshade.
Jade has watched Adamant’s actions with a raised eyebrow, but makes no comment.
Instead, she moves to stand at Nyght’s other side, keeping an eye on the shaken Heroine, and mutters, “Well, that was just freaky as shit, yeah? If you’re done patrolling, Nyght, maybe we should head back to the Starfire base.”
At first glance, Nyghtshade might almost look to be in shock, although that isn’t physically possible. Her stare is a bit wild-eyed, though, and her expression still horrified as she stares at the collapse Hewer body.
“We… uh, yes, no, I mean… no more patrollin’ tonight. We should…… yes, go back… but… we need to call this in, the body…” Her gaze drifts, and she corrects, seeing the first Warrior Adam had attacked, “…bodies…”
Nyght’s voice trails off, as her gaze locks again on the dismembered Hewer.
If it weren’t so dark, an onlooker would see Adam’s expression shift from a satisfied grin to one of embarrassment.
He turns to the undead Heroine. “Oh, gee…I’m sorry, Ms. Fen, I forgot. I mean, yeah, ‘freaky’, yeah, that’s what it was, and…it just freaked me out so much I forgot…
“Hey, you got any more of those things you tossed me? I sort of…lost it. If you can show me what to do, I’ll take care of that now.”
His expression turns to an apologetic and sheepish smile.
The look she turns on him might remind one of a wild-eyed horse, but she manages a coherent, if short and distracted, answer.
“Mediportehs. We’ll….we’ll talk about it back at the base. Theah both, theah both dead, theah’s no moah need foah any mediportehs heah.”
She doesn’t elaborate on how she knows that.
Tahquitz, after witnessing the reanimated Hewer, comes to his own conclusion. That this Akpan hasn’t exposed himself yet, instead using others to get to us first.
Which tells him one of two things: first, that Akpan is not a acolyte of Ullutay. That guy is a lot more hands on, even if it means a zombie horde is leading his procession wherever he goes.
And that second… this does not rule out he who shall not be named.
“Ah, so Monique’s stalker among the Pantheon knows the ‘Pinocchio’ trick…” Tahquitz mutters, “Big surprise there.”
“Yeah, don’t act too blase about it…” Paige says to Tahquitz, “That scared me plenty if it was just a trick.”
Paige has spent most of her studies with books, lab equipment and research. While she is well versed on the scientific side of things, on matters of spirit and faith she is very much a neophyte.
Jade has finished calling the attack in, and given her contact info to the PPD. She pockets her phone and turns to touch Nyghtshade’s elbow.
“PPD’s got the GPS and they’re on their way. I’ve sent them shots of the scene, there’s nothing more we can do here. Time to go, Nyghtshade. Back to the Starfire base, yeah?”
Jade looks around the group. “Yeah?”
“Oh…umm…hang on, guys, I want to…”
Without finishing his sentence, Adam breaks away from the group. He snaps the electricity shield on again, holding it high and to one side. He begins to sweep his head side-to-side, walking in an ever increasing arc, using the light from the shield to scan the ground.
He has traveled a significant distance before the observers hear “Ah!” and the shield snaps off again.
In the returned dark, they can hear the 18 year old scuffling around in the dark, then walking back in their direction, before veering off to one side. There is more scuffling, then the shield snaps back on again…only this time it appears to be attached, not to Adamant’s arm, but to the post of a street sign.
In the wan golden light, Adam sits on the pavement, reaches up, out, and high with his right fist, then grabs something with his left hand, and hauls it shoulder high. Those with the right angle on the scene see a head and upper body rear up to an upright position, while Adam, a dark streak on one cheek, makes a wide grin, his face close to that of the lolling head. There is a soft whine and a click.
The inert body rolls to one side. Adam reaches down again, and holds up a round, vaguely cantaloupe sized object close to his face, and performs the same actions, grin, whine, click, only this time there are two dark streaks, one on each cheek.
He drops the object, stands, approaches the back of the shield, and it turns off.
He returns to the rest of the Heroes. “Okay, I’m ready now. Back to the Starfires, right?”
The return to Starfire’s base is choked with even more tension than the first arrival. Gang fights, talking zombies, and a pointed message to Fen Monique that the Banished Pantheon isn’t giving up it’s attempts to bring her back under their sway. It all comes together to paint a less than stellar picture of the immediate future.
As the heroes enter the cozy surroundings of the base, one thing is perfectly clear. There’s a fight coming that’s sure to test them all.
Nyght stops short once inside the base entrance, staring at Adam’s blood-streaked face. “What is that?” she asks him, voice strained. “On yoah face, the blood, why did you do that?”
“Huh?” He reaches up, touches the drying blood, looks at his fingertips, then grins, and starts trying to rub the color from his cheeks.
“Oh, that. I was just ‘counting coup’, like what some American Indian tribes do. Kinda my own ‘war paint’, you might say. Just for the fun of it. I wanted to get a photo to memorialize the occasion.” The grin remains as he saunters off to the room marked “Men”, Nyghtshade’s reaction completely unnoticed.
“The ‘fun’ of it,” Monique murmurs, alone now in the entrance. “The ‘fun’ of killin’…….”
It’s too much, and she sinks to the floor in a corner of the entryway, arms clenched tightly around her knees, and bows her head, trying not to cry.
Linuial comes bustling out of the main room. “Monique!” she cries out, worry plain in her voice. “What happened? What’s the matter? Can you walk? Do you want Blood to carry you? If we can get you by the fire, I’ll start some tea for you…”
She kneels and throws her arms around the undead Heroine.
For a moment Monique just huddles there within Linuial’s embrace, trembling and silently weeping, but finally she scrubs the tears away with gloved hands, and takes a long breath.
“It’s just been… too much. The patrol, the Pantheon resurrectin’ up a dead Warrior right in front of us and tauntin’… and Adam… Adam making sport of killin’.”
She lifts her face, shoving the hood back onto her shoulders, and gives Linuial a grimace that might be an attempt at an apologetic smile.
“Maybe some tea… some tea might be nice,” she agrees quietly, as she rises somewhat shakily to her feet.
Paige sees Linuial and Nyght talking, and approaches the two. “Nyght, I don’t know what to do to help you. I’m here if you need someone to listen or to talk to. Or if you need something…”
She sees Tahquitz talking to some of Starfire’s members and turns back to Linuial, “Or if I can help in any way, Linuial. Please tell me.”
“Yes, dear,” the blonde woman tells the teenager immediately, “…can you take Monique next to the fire pit and get her comfortable on one of the benches? You know where the blankets are kept, just anything that will help make her comfortable, while I start the tea. Strawberry, Monique?”
“Strawberry, yes, thanks, that would be lovely, Linuial. Thank you.”
Nyght gives Paige a little hug. “Shugah, yo’ah bein’ heah foah me is helpin’, Ah promise. Ah heard what you did to protect the brownstone, puttin’ yoahself at risk to fight off…. well… Ah can’t thank you enough.”
“But Ah’m sorry you had to see that… horror, out on the patrol. Or heah it.”
Monique walks with Paige back to the benches in front of the fire and curls up there, accepting a blanket and half-wrapping it around her, so that it might catch some of the heat from the fireplace.
Adam Masters strolls into the main room of the Starfire base, munching contentedly on a slice of pizza, more apparently wrapped in a crumpled paper napkin. He glances around the room, picks a spot on the floor next to the fire pit, in front of a bench catty-cornered to the one Nyghtshade now occupies.
He lifts the napkin wad, waves it a couple of times. “The pizza’s cold, but it’s still good, anybody else want some? I’m starving…I guess fightin’ makes you hungry, huh?” he adds, then turns his full attention to the slices without waiting for an answer.
“Adam…” Monique says quietly, “you do realize that those weah people, right? That this isn’t a video game? That they weah people, and now the’ah dead…”
“Even if they were attacking us, they had families, friends, kids. Some of who we just influenced one way or another by doing what we did tonight.” Paige adds, “Heroes aren’t proud to kill.”
Adam glances over at Nyghtshade just as he’s about to take another bite, hesitates, swallows hard, lowers his hand.
Then he glances over at Paige, before returning to the older woman.
“People?” He sounds confused. “That thing with the blue eyes, you call them people?”
“Befoah you… befoah he was killed, yes, he most definitely was a person,” Nyght replies gravely. Afteh he was killed, and the Banished Pantheon desecrated his corpse… that’s anotheh matteh, Ah suppose.”
She pauses, wondering if what had been done to her when she was first resurrected was a desecration… and realizes it probably was, but shakes that off and continues.
“He was also a criminal, intent on doin’ harm, but that doesn’t mean it was open huntin’ season on him or the othehs. Do we have to stop those who are intent on hurtin’ othehs? Yes, certainly. But do we need to kill them? Not if we can help it. Or… well, Ah know not all heroes feel the same about this, but…. but Ah feel life, any life, every life, is too precious to just throw away. We Heroes often wield great poweh, and with poweh, theah’s terrible temptations… theah’s sometimes a very fine line between bein’ a Hero and bein’ a… a monsteh… and some of us, at least, have to work hard not to cross it.”
Monique sighs heavily, and pulls the blanket closer around her.
Adam shrugs, and then fastens on probably the last thing the undead woman would have wanted.
“…’not all heroes feel the same way’? You mean, it’s not a rule Heroes have to follow?” He grins, his expression distant.
His attention returning to the room: “Look, Ms. Fen, I’m sorry, but Ms. Jade here looked like she was in trouble, and I thought I heard her break a bone or somethin’, so I just did what I did to try to help her. That’s what Heroes, do, right? I mean, I don’t need any classes to know that.
“And, that other guy, the first one? I was tryin’ to do what you said…I didn’t hit him in the head with the laser part, I hit him with the hilt…I don’t know why he died, but I was trying my best not to kill him.
“So, if I did something wrong, I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what it was, and I guess you need to explain it to me better, ‘cause while I’ve never been an ‘A’ student, I didn’t ever fail any classes either, and I’m not stupid.”
He looks directly into Nyghtshade’s eyes, almost in challenge, and then looks down and takes a ferocious bite out of a pizza slice.
“Forgive me, then, foah…” Monique hesitates, not sure what she should be apologizing for. Shaking her head, she curls deeper into the blanket, eyes on the fire, but looks up again as the tea is brought and accepts it with a thank you, focusing her attention on dunking the teabag.
After listening to this exchange, Linuial walks around Nyghtshade’s bench, and sits down next to her, re-arranging her blanket a bit more snugly. “Monique, tell us what is really upsetting you. I’ve never felt you like this. I can tell it’s serious, you can’t hide that from me.
“ ‘Troubles shared are troubles halved’,” she quotes. “Let us share with you, dear. I promise we can shoulder it.”
Monique lets the teabag rest in the mug, and cradles its warmth in cold hands, as she considers how to answer.
“We found some Warriors, and theah was a fight,” she said slowly. "And… Some weah killed. And then, one of them pulled itself back togetheh, and stood up, and started talkin’. To me. By name. Tauntin’ me. It was… it wasn’t like any normal Banished Pantheon resurrection,” she adds, forgetting that she in fact was not like any normal BP resurrection either.
“Theah was no ceremony, no ritual,” she frowns. “He died, and then just got right back up again. And trust me, he was most certainly dead. And… he had blue light streamin’ out his eyes, like… like the runes, you know, the Pantheon Runes. But… but how could Akpan get that strong? How is this possible? How do they know wheah Ah am ev’ry minute? And why, why are they huntin’ me now, afteh all these yeahs?”
“None of it makes any sense.”
“If it was me, I’d be completely out of my element.” Paige looks at both Monique and Linuial as she explains, “I’ve spent all of my time in school on science, psychology, and math… I can describe the circulatory system of a frog, I can explain the Jungian concepts of archetypes as well as the anima and animus to anyone who has no idea what they are, and I still take matrices very slowly both in homework and in class, but I have yet to get one wrong.” Paige says, but in a low tone, not trying to boast about her prowess as she continues.
“But none of that is worth anything right now. I want to try to explain away what I saw, but I know it’s not true. Maybe the Hewer was a stalker and wasn’t really dead but trying to scare you? Maybe it was all special effects? My inner skeptic is trying to make excuses, and it all falls so horribly short.”
“I’m so naive when it comes to magic, faith and religion… You may not feel like it, but you’re incredibly strong to handle this at all like you are, Monique.” She puts her hand on Monique’s shoulder as she looks up to her.
“Oh, Shugah, that Heweh was definitely dead. Ah know the feel of a person fresh-killed…” Monique sighs. “And Ah know what Banished Pantheon runes look like, Ah’m painfully aware of that.”
She hesitates, but then continues, “But yo’ah right about magic and Faith. Both are real. And Ah’ve been flounderin’ instead of trustin’, trustin’ in mah faith. Ah was so afraid of losin’ mahself that Ah nearly did.”
She reaches out and gathers Paige into a heartfelt hug. “Thank you, Shugah, foah remindin’ me of who Ah am, ratheh than just ‘what’ Ah am.”
Tahquitz is away from the ladies discussing tonight’s events, pondering what is happening on his own. He’s seen resurrections from the Banished Pantheon as well as their possessions of others, and he recognizes that this is not what a typical invasion looks like. The Banished Pantheon is a reckless, no-holds-barred, necromancy group that make his chosen target, the Circle of Thorns, seem like aristocrats in comparison.
This is too surgical, too deliberate for them. It’s looking more and more to be the outcome he faced once already, and he is not looking forward to what that means.
“Hey, Blood Nut. Got a minute?”
The green-and-red giant sticks his head around a corner. “Somebody yell for me?”
“Yeah.” Tahquitz walks to him, “Don’t believe we’ve been introduced. Tahquitz… friends call me Tim, and as for Starfire I consider friends.”
Tahquitz extends his hand to shake, then says “And yet I’m curious about something…”
Blood Nut sticks out a fist the size of a small ham, swallowing Tim’s fist in his before giving it a couple of shakes. “Yeah, I remember you…didn’t you come by Lin’s room when she was in the hospital? Or did I just hear about you from the others?”
“Probably a little of both, but you’re right. I came to visit Lin while she was convalescing. She looks like she’s in good shape now. Is there someone in Starfire who is a specialist in Magic issues? Villains, weapons, plots?”
“Well, that would be Lin, she’s pretty tight with Azuria. Spent some time working on the Circle of Thorns, if I remember right. But Starfire has always been a group that specialized in strategy fighting, rather than on any one particular villain group. Because of Jon, we all got a lot of exposure to Crey, but mostly we just make ourselves available wherever we’re needed.
“Call us generalists, for want of a better word.”
“That’s what I was concerned about. I notice the Crey influence quite a bit from looking around, but this might be something that your senior people might want to listen to. Can you bring over Jon, Maggot Man, and whoever else is handy in strategy? You too, of course.” Tahquitz says, with an uncertain look on his face.
The giant peruses the teenager’s face thoughtfully. “Maybe it would be easier if you just tell me who you do not want present.”
“Alright, anyone who wants to listen. Hell with it.” Tahquitz smiles, then walks back to the fire pit.
Walking close behind Tahquitz, Blood Nut bellows: “Hey, everybody! Strategy meeting, fire pit!”
Starfire members begin to appear from various nooks and crannies and move to take places around the fire pit, both on the benches and seated on the floor.
Jade has settled, crosslegged, on the floor to one side of the bench, trying to be supportive without being obtrusive. She watches Monique carefully, ready to help if Monique needs anything, but so far between Linuial and Paige, it seems Monique is being well cared for.
She looks around, as Tahquitz announces the strategy meeting, and scoots a bit further off to the side of the bench, to make room.
“Alright, I’ll save the formalities for when we have friendlier circumstances. There is an event that occured three years ago that the participants were sworn not to ever tell the general public about, for fear of undoing the work we’ve done. Well, I think that fear is pretty much a certainty from what happened tonight.”
“But there were thousands that night. Too many for me to know or meet individually when we battled impossible odds. That, and I was a very new resident to Paragon City at the time, so forgive my direct approach, but I have one question.”
“Did Starfire help in the Dark Astoria coalition? If not, I’ve got a story to tell.”
Nyght raises an eyebrow at the mention of a “Dark Astoria coalition”, but makes no comment. She quietly holds her mug of tea, taking some comfort from the warmth and fruity scent of it, and waits for Tahquitz to explain.
Linuial shakes her head, as several of the Starfire members glance at her. “We were actually working on some other things, individually. We couldn’t draw enough people together at one time to make an appreciable showing, so we sat that one out.”
“Well, gather around the campfire… This will be interesting…”
When it started with my group, Heads of Cerberus, it was small. We noticed some of our friends from other groups disappearing. Steel Paladins. Paragon Regulators. Fusion Force. Not just leadership, but ANYONE. One after another, and with no pattern. Some would help with a radio call, others would go to Peregrine Island and help with a contact. But when they disappeared, they didn’t return. Days, weeks. Not a trace.
Then it hit close to home. Paige, you remember Requiescat? She was the first one who was… taken. I will refer to him going forward as “He who shall not be named…” because even muttering his name publicly increases his power among the unbelievers. The more who know of his existence, the stronger he becomes. Requiescat was our newest recruit who disappeared investigating a suicide. She was last heard of going to the man’s apartment, which is how I disappeared as well. When I went to her last point of contact and found the apartment, I was back in the cave where I got my powers, and my legs and right arm were just as broken from a 75 foot fall. And as I crawled into a shadow to try to escape the memory, I fell into the shadow… deeper… and deeper.
Into a place between dreams. A place where the waking doubt their consciousness and the sleeping deny their dreams. And there, we were collected, soul by soul to be devoured. Not against our wills, but with our consent. Every one of us was forced to face our pasts and sins, just like the suicide victims did, and somehow agree to… to being consumed by “He who shall not be named”.
And don’t think to yourself that “I wouldn’t have fell for it.” The strong willed and proud there were just as numerous as the cowards and crooks. No one was safe. No one was innocent. No one was immune to the temptation to accept oblivion.
Tahquitz pauses to see if anyone had anything to say so far.
Nyght’s hands shake as Tahquitz reaches “He who shall not be named,” and some of the tea sloshes out into her lap. She doesn’t seem to notice, as she silently mouths, “Mot….”
Tahquitz nods quietly at Monique, acknowledging their common tormentor.
“Which brings me to today. Monique… what we saw tonight. Terry, Adam, Paige? The Brownstone? A giant corpse appearing and disappearing at will? There’s something wrong with all of this.” Tahquitz says, looking down to the floor, “The Banished Pantheon looks to their Gods for everything. But they are not surgical. There’s no rulebook with them: they just devour, kill, and continue. If they have any strategy at all, it’s not what we’ve seen tonight.”
Those who refused to be seduced were few. So many allowed him to take their souls. Some were eaten where they stood and disappeared in seconds. Others walked willingly into the cemetery into the very mouth of madness itself and jumped down the back of it’s tongue. A few fell into despair seeing their friends give up and He took them in turn just as quickly. Reason took a backseat to paranoia and fear. There was little hope.
Until a new champion from the past arrived to help us. His name is the Dream Doctor. And he led the forces of good and evil swept into hell to fight a demigod itself. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t even difficult… it was impossible. One slip up, and we lost 100s of men. One wrong move, and you’d be smiling and talking to your dead relatives as the Banished Pantheon ate you while you were still alive. No villain stood idly by, we fought hand in hand with them. And we needed their help. It was literal mayhem, but we came out on top.
With the help of the Dream Doctor and his compatriots, we sealed the demigod into a tomb. We hoped that it would be enough to contain him for 1,000 years.
“And if they have a strategy, it’s not ‘personal’. Humans are just a part of their diet. They don’t care to influence your thoughts or dreams on their own. Which means only one thing to me.”
Tahquitz looks back up, then speaks across the room… “He who shall not be named is unbound again.”
Monique nearly drops her cup this time. “But, but… what about Akpan? He’s the one who has a reason to be huntin’ me, he’s the one who wants to finish the job, make me into what Ah was supposed to be. Or.. or kill me, maybe, to make amends for me bein’ a Banished Pantheon abomination. Ah don’t know…” She trails off, frowning.
“Ah thought it was Akpan, tauntin’ me through that dead Warrior… How do we know it wasn’t?”
It seems pretty clear she’d rather this be Akpan than an evil god.
“As best as I can figure, you are a key to their plan, Monique. Somehow, you are a catalyst to breaking the bonds further that keep him sealed. It wouldn’t surprise me if Akpan is helping to free him.” He said.
Monique just stares at him, appalled, but after a second, she pulls herself together.
“Then… then we just have to… stop him. Them. It.”
She swallows hard, and almost apologetically hands off the mug to Linuial. “Ah don’t want to drop this.”
She clasps her hands tightly in her lap, lightly biting her lip. “Ah don’t really know what to do next, though. Contact Azuria? See if M.A.G.I. needs to strengthen the protective wards on mah belt?”
Linuial accepts the mug, glances into it, sets it on the floor.
She stares into the distance, makes a “…mmmh…” sound in her throat.
“So…whatever went wrong with Monique’s transformation is also the catalyst needed to free this…Unnameable God. Is that right?”
Paige thinks for a second, then says, “If telling people empowers the nameless guy, then we’re the only ones who can stop it, right? We’re on our own, then?”
“I really don’t know. There’s pros and cons to both bringing you with us in a proactive attack, or having Starfire continue to try to protect you unless He consumes you.” Tahquitz says first to Monique, “If we keep you out of Dark Astoria as long as possible, it makes their ultimate goal that much harder. But if you wish to act as a trojan horse of sorts and you risk your life to try to get us inside the plot. I… I don’t know. I wish a better strategist was here.” He says shaking his head.
“Linuial, you’re probably right. I’m a student of Magic, but the belt Monique’s wearing is out of my depths. It could be as simple as the curse she has, or as difficult as a trap for all of us to come to her aid and become His first snack once he steps free.”
“Yes, that’s an excellent point! Everyone! This conversation lives and dies with this campfire. Whether you join us in returning to Dark Astoria, or stay here… what I just told you is not fodder for anecdotes. Take it to your grave, then take it further than that. Don’t even blurt it out when you’re drunk.” Tahquitz said, then looks at Paige, who is very concerned, “And for that reason, if we involve someone, they join us. So we can’t call in the Calvary unless it is absolutely needed. If we bring in all of Paragon City’s heroes, Mot will be that much stronger to defeat. If it’s just us, he’s considerably weakened, although it will still be the worst fight you can imagine.”
Tahquitz says out loud to everyone “I do not look forward to what we need to do. But if he really is breaking free, then it must be done.”
“Excuse me.” Paige says, getting up and walking down the hall away from the campfire. She pulls out her phone and dials a particular number.
“Hi. It’s always a bad time, isn’t it? What do you know about Dark Astoria?”
Adam Masters has been watching and listening, for all the world like a fan watching a tennis match.
He looks over at Nyghtshade, and in the interval of silence as Paige walks away, he clears his throat. “Ms. Fen?” he asks, softly. “Can I ask a question?”
Monique is feeling pretty emotionally wrung out by this point, but she gives Adam her full attention. “Oh course, Adam. Anythin’.”
He hesitates, then plunges ahead.
“When that thing…with the blue eyes, you know? …was talking, it called us children, right? I mean, it didn’t sound like a joke…I don’t know why a devil or whatever it was would be joking, but anyway…it sounded to me like it was being serious. And then it asked you about two other protectors. It said a ‘healer’, and I’m guessing that’s Linuial, am I right about that?
“…but…he also said something about a shapeshifter?
“Do you Heroes actually have something like that? A real live shapeshifter? And who is she? …or he, I guess…”
Monique considers the questions, choosing her words carefully, given that teen egos are involved. “Ah think whoeveh was talkin’ to us through that dead Warrior, he might have used the word ‘children’ because, well, you and Tahquitz and Paige are all a good bit youngeh than me. Even Jade is youngeh, although not quite as much.”
That earns a crooked smile from Jade, but she doesn’t comment.
“And yes, Ah think he…it… was probably talkin’ about Linuial, as the healeh.”
She pauses, considering how to tell him about Devereaux. “We have worked with a shapeshifteh befoah, so yes, that’s a real thing. But he’s pretty secretive, so Ah’m not shoah about givin’ out his name without his permission.”
Monique looks to Linuial, to see if she agrees.
Linuial rolls her eyes. “You’ve already let the cat out of the bag as far as your Unnameable God is concerned. I thought those of you who know about this Mot had already agreed that everyone here is now in some sort of secret society to prevent him from escaping. That includes Adam, he’s been sitting right here through the entire conversation.”
She turns to the swordsman. “Adam, Xavier Devereaux isn’t a Hero, he’s what is known as a Rogue. In his case, he’s a mercenary, and we’ve worked together in the past. Yes, he’s a true shape-shifter, and he’s pretty powerful, not to mention strong and smart.”
Returning to Nyghtshade. “Monique, there must be a reason that Xavier was mentioned so prominently. My first thought is that it’s a trap. You don’t call someone out to a gunfight unless you’re positive your gun is bigger than his.
“I don’t like this, I think it stinks to high heaven. But one thing I do agree on: we should definitely try to get a message to him, because if this Mot has painted a target on Xavier’s back, he needs to be warned.”
Monique looks alarmed at Linuial’s last conjecture. “If Mo… if Devereaux is a target, yes, he needs to be warned as soon as possible so he can stay as far from heah as he can, till this is all resolved. Bad enough Ah’ve pulled you all into dangeh….” Nyght seems to draw in on herself at that. “And Ah’m so terribly sorry foah that, Ah sweah, Ah neveh would have wanted that evil thing turnin’ an eye on you all….”
That thought seems to derail her, and she shrugs deeper into the blanket, as if wanted to retreat from the whole situation. But she manages to finish, “So, yes, we need to warn Devereaux.”
“So, that’s settled.” The blonde woman looks around the room. “Where has Paige…oh.”
She stands up, tugs the blanket a little tighter around Nyghtshade, then turns to walk after the teenager.
“So…did he answer?”
“No… Voicemail. I hope he didn’t destroy his phone yet. If he did, we may be all that we got.”
“So if this thing can get us from anywhere, and nowhere is safe, then we don’t really have a choice but to act now, right?”
“I’m sorry Lin. I’m not trying to insult your intelligence. It’s just a habit we’ve developed over the years to keep those who don’t know of him out of the conversation. The power of his name alone is enough to give him energy.” Tahquitz smiles, “And magic is all about energy.”
He looks at Paige and tries to reassure her, even if he is the one who is looking for reassurance at the moment, “If he was at full strength, once he talked to Monique, she’d vanish once she felt despair. I don’t think he is powerful enough to harm us from afar. We have enough time to rest, but the longer we wait, the stronger he will get.”
“Despair, right, Ah remembeh,” Monique sighs. “So, time foah me to buck up.”
She looks around the group. “Do we wait to see if Mr. Devereaux calls back, or plan on makin’ some kind of move while Ah’m still awake? “
“First things first.” Linuial is all business, now. “Paige, what message did you leave Xavier?”
She hesitates for a second. “No, wait, never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
She reaches into a hidden pocket in her ubiquitous pale blue minidress and pulls out her cell phone, taps the screen, pauses to listen before speaking.
“Yeah, hey, there, Dev, it’s Linda again. You remember how you told me to be sure and call you if I missed you? Well, I was just thinking about that well done steak you bought me in the Underground Steakhouse, and I’d sure love to return the favor. Any time that’s good for you.
“Listen…you told me to remind you about your daughter Evensong’s birthday…well, it’s tomorrow, so you should drop her a call and wish her happy birthday. You wouldn’t want to miss that just ‘cause you’re busy.
“Oh, and by the way, I heard your brother Jon was still having problems with his PTSD…He’s staying at the Hotel Astoria down on Dark Lantern Lane. Apparently he’s been having these recurring nightmares…you know, like shades of night? …about an unnamed god painting targets on things. Maybe if you do some research, you can figure out what’s going on there.
“Anyway, do get back to me on that steak, right? Love you, miss you, Linda, out.”
She taps the phone again and then pockets it, then looks up at Paige with a quiet smile on her face.
“He answered when you called?” Paige said.
She shakes her head, her blonde hair waving slightly. “I wasn’t expecting him to. I left him a coded message. Come on, let’s get back to the others, we don’t want to miss anything.”
“I guess I don’t have to be the wielder of the ‘Dev’ Signal any longer,” Paige smiles back at Linuial.
As they return to the group around the fireplace, Monique looks from Linuial and Paige to the others.
“Theah’s something else Ah need to tell you all. We can’t… Ah can’t afford to drag guilty secrets into Dark Astoria. Best to get it out now, in front of eveh’one.”
Monique straightens, the blanket slipping down. “You know what happened to mah husband. Because of Carmine Valenti, and a Banished Pantheon curse, Ah was made into a thing that drained away his life. Not realizin’ what was happenin’, till it was too late. But Ah killed him, all the same.”
“But you need to know what else happened that evenin’, what else Ah did. Afteh Tony died, Ah just stood theah, in that room, feeling the changes in me, beginnin’ to be aware of… ev’rythin’… The clock ticking, the curtains stirrin, the crickets, and voices, in the bushes out at the edge of the yard. Men’s voices, talkin’ low but not even whisperin’. Talkin’ about ‘do you think she’s done it yet?’ Ah just stood theah, listenin’, and they talked about the whole thing, the idiots… the hit, the Pantheon, Carmine, how he’d set it up. Set me up, to become this. And Ah could hear them. Ev’ry word.”
She sighs. “Ah was in shock from what had just happened to Tony, Ah was appalled that anyone could do this to me, and then Ah was furious. Ah was findin’ new strengths, new feelin’s, new powehs, ev’ry second. And so, Ah went down to meet them, those two men. Ah made them sleep, so they couldn’t run away, and Ah killed the first one first one quick, sucked him dry same as Tony. But Ah made the second one… hurt a while, and made him tell me ev’rythin’, befoah Ah killed him too. So…. Ah killed three times, that night.”
Her hands are clasped tightly in her lap, as her gaze shifts from one to the other around the fireplace. “Ah have confessed all this to Fatheh Brannigan… And received absolution foah Tony. He says Ah had no control oveh that…… And Ah know… Ah know….” She taps her forehead lightly, “…that’s true. But the otheh two… Ah chose that. Ah killled them. In angeh and cold blood. In the very coldest of blood.”
“Tony’s death… Ah understand, Ah do… that wasn’t mah fault… but the otheh two… Foah yeahs and yeahs, Ah was glad Ah did it! Even though foah those few moments, Ah was truly the monsteh. And it’s the fear of bein’ forced to become that again that has haunted me all these years.”
“Ah’ve spent ten yeahs heah in Paragon, atonin’ foah those deaths. Ah’ve finally come to understand that no matteh what happened to me, Ah had not right to take those lives. Ah’ve made some measure of peace… some peace. But deep down, theah’s still the shame. Ah’ll always have to live with the shame, but Ah don’t want to hide that, not heah, not now, not amongst you all. Ah can’t afford to drag guilt into Dark Astoria. Not this time.”
Linuial looks down at the floor for a second, then walks up to where Nyghtshade is sitting.
“Dear, are you feeling strong enough to take a little walk with me?” she asks, with an expression that will brook no refusal.
Monique regards her, perhaps apprehensively, but stands, shedding the blanket. “Of course, Linuial,” she replies quietly, and follows where the small elven woman chooses to lead.
The tiny blonde woman bends over to pick up the fallen blanket, half-folding it as she leads the way into a back corner of the base, in a room where closet-sized machines rumble, hum, and glow.
She refolds the blanket and lays it on the floor to make a small pallet, sits on one end of it, and indicates to the undead woman to do the same at the other end.
Her expression is somber. “Monique, when was the last time you went to Confession?”
Looking suddenly indignant - although she politely settles on the other end of the folded blanket - Monique exclaims, “Ah go to Confession at least once a week! And Evenin’ Mass as often as work allows.”
“And you have received Absolution for the murders of those two other men?” she continues.
Her gaze drops. “Well… eventually. It took a few yeahs foah me to actually, you know, honestly undehstand… and accept… why Ah should be repentin’ of those two. But, you know, you can’t participate in Communion if you can’t repent of ev’rythin’. You can’t hold back. Fatheh Brannigan had to work with me a long time. Long time. But yes, finally, Ah did, and he did. Absolution.”
Linuial looks down at her hands, neatly folded in her lap. “Monique, you know that I believe in gods that can be seen and touched, powers that can be corporeal and incorporeal, alternately and at the same time…that my own mother was born in their land, the place that your religion would call ‘Heaven’.
“However, over the millennia I have been in relationships of many kinds with many Catholics, and I am not entirely ignorant of their beliefs and ways.
“Has your faith failed you? Is that why you have not accepted the Absolution that has been given to you? For if you had truly accepted it…it would no longer trouble you…you would be secure in the knowledge that your God has forgiven you and embraced you once again.”
Monique stares fixedly at her folded hands. “Ah don’t question that God has forgiven me. But Ah still struggle with forgivin’ mahself. Not so much… not so much foah what Ah did, although that was awful. But… it showed me what Ah could be. What Ah was supposed to be. What the Carmine and the Pantheon wanted me to be.”
She sighs. “Truthfully, Ah could.. Ah could become that any time, if Ah don’t fight against it. Ev’ry night. Ah know what Ah could become, and it scares me. God willin’, it scares me enough to keep fightin’ against it.”
Her voice drops, almost too low to follow. “But… but, all these yeahs, Ah always have a nagging fear that someday Ah’ll… slip. Again. And like it too much to come back.”
Linuial leans forward and takes Nyghtshade’s hands in her own, holding them up between them.
“Monique…I urge you…accept the forgiveness and peace your religion offers you. Accept your God’s love and comfort. Put your future in His hands. If it is His will that you never again lose yourself, and if you trust in Him…then it won’t happen. Lean on your faith, dear…don’t keep trying to carry an unbearable burden on your own human shoulders. That’s what your religion is for…to take those kinds of unbearable burdens and relieve you of them. Forever.”
She waits, watching for Nyghtshade’s reaction.
Monique nods, eyes still downcast. “Ah know yo’ah right. Ah know… Ah think, at least, that He, mah God, he interfered with Akpan’s ritual. Ah want to trust what Ah am could neveh get out of control again, Ah do. Ah told this to all of you, so Mot can’t use it against me.”
She chews her lower lip. “Ah love mah God. And Ah know he loves me. Ah just, Ah have to stop bein’ scared of the Curse. Ah mean, if Ah haven’t slipped in all these years….”
She nods, raising her head. “Yo’ah right, of course. Paige reminded me, Ah have to keep holdin’ on to who Ah am. Not what.”
She straightens slowly, nodding. “Thank you.”
“Monique…I am not of your faith. I am, however, a healer. Faith heals, make no doubt about that. If you can accept the help of someone not of your faith, I can work with you on strengthening yours.”
She drops the other woman’s cold dry hands. “And if I can make one more suggestion…go back to your Father Confessor, and make one more last confession…that you’ve been afraid to accept God’s forgiveness, and help, and strength, and that you are ready to accept it now. And then ask for Absolution again, and make certain to open your heart to it. All the way.
“And know that you have the love and support of a lot of people beside you and behind you, who all believe that you are strong enough to keep yourself whole, and as you wish to be.”
Impulsively, Monique embraces Linuial in a long quiet hug, then leans back, nodding. “Ah will. Ah’ll talk to Fatheh Brannigan again, and tell him all that. Soon as we’ah done with the Banished Pantheon. And Mot.”
Rising to her feet, she holds out a hand to help Linuial up. “Thank you again. Ah know it’s mah friends that help keep me human.”
Once standing, Linuial returns the quick hug, then bends down to pick up the blanket again. She leads the way back to the fire pit, and the puzzled looks that greet them there.
She laughs, gives an airy wave, turns to tuck the blanket around Nyghtshade as she takes her seat again.
“Just girl talk. Carry on,” she announces breezily. Glancing down at Adam, she adds, “…is it time to start cooking pizza again? it must be well past midnight by now, I’m sure some of you are getting sleepy.”
Tahquitz listens intently to Monique’s story, hearing how her self-control got to her that moment. He doesn’t blame her, if something of that nature was done to him against his will ending in the death of someone he loved… he would probably have done the same. He watches the two women walk away from the firepit.
Then he notices Paige standing alone, with a tear on her cheek as the group starts to talk among themselves. She’s not sobbing, but she clearly needs to talk.
“Cricket, what’s wrong?”, Tahquitz asks, walking to her side. “Want to talk?”
Paige, hearing his voice, sniffles a little bit as he walks to her side.
“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about… The night that I got shot. Monique and I aren’t too far from the same mold it seems.” She said, walking over to the wall away from the group as Tahquitz follows her.
“How so?” Tahquitz asks. “You… you haven’t killed anyone, have you? I don’t understand.”
Tahquitz remembers the visit he and Lisa made to the hospital when Paige was injured. She told him about her encounter with Malta, and how she lost control of her sonic powers to the point that she had to be carried out to safety. He also knew that the weeks convalescing led to her decision to cancel her classes that semester. If she did kill someone, that would necessitate the recovery even more.
“Did she? … No. There’s no way.“ He thinks to himself. Part denial, perhaps, but maybe it’s not.
“No. But I was so close to doing so, Tim.”
She then recounts her attempt to kill the Doctor behind Project Morpheus, and how she was prepared to do it… if it hasn’t been for Nyghtshade bringing out of her fugue and back to reality.
“I was so close to rationalizing it. To the belief that what I was about to do was a heroic act. That this monster would kill others again to continue his experiments. To further his… research.” She starts sobbing a little, then wipes her eyes. “I’m chastising Adam on the sanctity of life when I almost found the same reverie in doing it myself. I’m a complete hypocrite.”
Adam clambers to his feet, walks over to Linuial. In a low voice, he volunteers, “…I can do the pizzas, Ms. Linuial. It’s the least I can do for eating so much of your food.”
Linuial smiles at him. “Actually, that’s a great idea, Adam. You sure you can handle it? …and you don’t have to call me ‘Ms. Linuial’, most people just call me Lin.”
“Yeah, I think so. I’m just the new guy, I don’t think I can do anything but listen…and fix pizza, Ms….uh…Lin.”
He suits action to word, and begins walking around the room, quietly asking what he can get for each person, as Linuial sits back down on the bench next to Nyghtshade.
Jade rises to her feet as well. “Tell you what, Adam, want me to go with you and help carry pizzas?”
“And after that, if no body objects, I will probably head back to the Brownstone to check and see how the repairs are going. Shall I meet everyone back here in the morning, or later in the afternoon, closer to when Monique will be rising?”
“That all depends. You’d be a hypocrite only if you didn’t learn anything since then and told Adam that.” Tahquitz said, leaning on the wall next to her.
“You got caught up in the moment. We all get that way. Nyght did. Linuial may have in her past… she had many more adventures than any of us ever have. Devereaux, I don’t even need to start on him.”
“So, tell me, what changed between that moment and now?”
“When the moment was over, I come to a single thought that cleared my thinking. Mom.” Paige started tearing up again, “How the state wouldn’t let me visit her when she was in jail. How she died… My letters were held at the end because the hospital had her in intensive care. They kept them bundled and delivered them all back to me after she passed away.”
“The one thing I wished that my powers could do… and they couldn’t bring her back. If they could, what would she think of her daughter, killing a defenseless criminal on his knees?”
“After that moment, I swore never to find myself in that place ever again. But that moment when I began to consider doing it… when I got swept away. I’m afraid of it, Tim. I’m afraid it will happen again.”
“That’s the part you’re forgetting.” Tahquitz smiled.
“You can’t be a hypocrite because the Paige who tried to become a Sonic Shotgun didn’t have that epiphany yet. She was full of vengeance. Then she transformed into you. The only difference was the interference.”
“Know this, Cricket. We will always be there for you, especially with this mess we’re in. But in case we’re not, you have the best possible weapon that I wish I had.” He said, then pointed at her temple. “Your mind. That one guy you told me about, Des Cartez?”
She shakes her head.
“But you know who I am talking about. The Sea of Doubt. If you can’t trust your senses, your feelings, or your surroundings, what do you have left?”
“I think therefore, I am.” Paige said. “The self. If you can’t doubt your own existence, then you exist.”
Paige smiled, “And if you can arrive at that with reason, you can go from there.”
“I don’t know if that helps. I remember you explaining the Sea of Doubt thing to me… but I remember you mentioning that part of his revelation was that God’s truth would always be the rock you stand upon.” Tahquitz says. “That if you exist, then you do so as a part of God. I always liked that thought. That rock could be a number of things–”
“I’m agnostic. Sorry. The rock might simply be what it feels like beneath my feet. Just a rock.” Paige says.
“But I think I have a grasp on this… I hope. Thanks, Tahquitz. I should have told you about this earlier instead of now, but it’s been eating away at me.”
“You’re going to be alright,” Tahquitz said as he walked away from her, only to have Paige grab his elbow for a second.
“Or, we could stay here and talk more.” He returned to the wall and started, “How long has it been since we came back home? How’s school going?” They continued talking for another 30-40 minutes as they caught up on all that happened in the last month or so.
Adam finishes wiping down the counter with a paper towel, and mimics a jump 2-pointer into the now over-flowing garbage can.
“Hey, Jade,” he calls, as he catches her turning to leave out of the corner of one eye. “Can I come back to the brownstone with you? I haven’t even slept in my own new bed yet, and I still have to get up early to head to City Hall. I can walk you back, and we can shoot the bull…yaknow?”
The threat has been identified…and it’s worse than anyone suspected. Far from being a simple plot by the Banished Pantheon to settle unfinished business, it seems the dark god Mot seeks Fen Monique for its own twisted purpose.
Patron deity of the Pantheon, Mot is the embodiment of suffering, despair, hopelessness, and death. It won’t be satisfied with the cursed Heroine alone. Rather, it will use her power to further free itself from the bindings that have held it in check for millennia. If that happens, the whole of creation will be in jeopardy.