Paragon City Stories: Death Becomes Her
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act II, Scene 1
Place: A Supergroup Base
Now that the true face behind the plot to kidnap Fen Monique has been revealed, it’s painfully apparent that a plan of action is needed. Battling a god is not a task to be taken lightly. Especially when that god is as old, malevolent, and cunning as the dark entity called Mot.
After a night and full day of much needed rest, Monique and her allies have regrouped at the Starfire base to determine a plan of action. They’ll need to be both quick and thorough. Every moment that Mot’s consciousness goes unchecked allows it to grow stronger but rushing in blindly against the fallen deity is a path toward death…or worse.
Linuial bustles around the folding tables set up next to the fire pit.
Earlier in the evening she had called all of the members of Starfire that were not currently away from Paragon City to the base. A catered dinner awaited them…no pizza this time, Chinese was the order of the day…and she had insisted on everyone sitting down and having a good meal in preparation for what promised to be a very long and perhaps grueling night.
When Nyghtshade had awoken from her enforced “slumber”, the tiny blonde had appointed Blood Nut and Pangea to accompany her on her patrol, while others helped her to clear away the remains of dinner, leaving the tables and chairs, but re-arranging them to make it easier to carry out a strategy session.
Nyghtshade’s protectors needed a plan, and they needed it fast, preferably in the next 8 hours.
There was no time to wait on a reply from the prodigal Devereaux.
Adam had appeared at the base after his first day as a neophyte Hero, groggy and ravenous after his exertions of the previous 36 hours. After he had eaten as much as he could stand, Linuial had parked him on one of the padded fire pit benches, over his protests, and within minutes he was oblivious to the world.
A couple of laptops were set up, ready for use if needed, and as soon as she is happy with her arrangements, Linuial herself sits down at one of them and begins tapping keys. She’s still at it when Nyghtshade and her entourage return. She pushes the laptop away and waits for everyone present to find a seat before calling for order.
“All right,” she begins, once the shuffling and chatter dies down. “We have a challenge ahead of us, and it’s not going to be easy. It may even be painful…or potentially lethal. As always with Starfire, you are all here now as volunteers, and anyone who wants to can leave at this point. The same is true for our guests.
“For those of Starfire who remain behind, you’ll be assigned a watch schedule, I don’t want the base left unguarded, and we might need a communication center at some point. Beyond that, Starfire is as of this moment now operationally shut down. No other missions will be accepted by those involved in this situation.
“For convenience’ sake, let’s just call it the Astoria Hotel mission…that should be sufficient to prevent non-participants from getting too nosy into what is going on.
“I’ve been doing some basic research, but we need in-depth intel from anyone with personal experience with Mot, Dark Astoria, or the Banished Pantheon.
“I’ll ask you to confine yourself to the subjects at hand, time is not our friend, here, and not just Paragon City is in danger.
“We’ve got a god to stop.
“With deference to Tahquitz, from here on out we’ll refer to you-know-who as Ammit, the ancient Egyptian god that devours the souls of the dead that are condemned to oblivion.
“The floor is now open. Who’s first?”
The calm, happy smile that replaces the stern look on her face might seem out of place to anyone who doesn’t know the immortal healer well.
Jade is perched on one of the benches, finishing a cup of coffee and a bag of pretzel sticks. She sets both down as Linuial invites sharing personal experiences with Mot, and begins.
“OK, I wasn’t there for the Dark Astoria Coalition fight,” she admits. “I was back home on the West Coast when that happened. But before I’d left, I’d worked a few missions that seemed connected to what was happening there, for whatever that’s worth. Seemed like people who got, ah, infected? with M… er, Ammit, got crazy-guilted, from the way they talked. Like Mot was picking at every insecurity, every doubt, every dark or shameful secret and magnifying the hell out of it. Playing crazy head-games, but deadly ones.”
“And I won’t lie, M… Ammit tried it on me once too. But you know, after you’ve waded through a dozen or so Chinese Hells, what’s one more ‘hell’, yeah?” she says casually. “I can’t tell anyone else how to handle Ammit, but for me, it was not getting sucked into it, not drinking the Kool-aid, yeah? Because if you fall for what it’s selling, then you get trapped there, Chinese Hell or not.”
“He… It?.. tossed a few pretty heavy guilt-trips at me, and some of them hit deep, but they were twisted, you know? Like dragging up really old shit, stuff I’d already dealt with, a long time ago. And I could see that, so I did the one thing It really didn’t like.”
Jade looks around the room, then admits with a careless grin, “I laughed at It. I mocked it, told it what a total loser it was. Made It mad, sure, but It didn’t eat me. It threw me out, instead. I think It figured maybe I would have been a major case of indigestion?”
She shrugs, picks up the bag of pretzels and and gestures with one. “I’m not sayin’ you guys can laugh at It, if that time comes, or if that’s even the best way for you. But you need to remember that M… Ammit needs for you to drink the Kool-aid…”
“So - don’t.”
Linuial sits back in her chair, staring off into the distance.
“Don’t cooperate…wonder if we can do something with that…”
She straightens up again. “Thank you, Jade, I think that might be very useful indeed.
She looks around. “Next?”
Tahquitz looks down at the floor as he starts to address the group.
“I gave the story last night, so I’ll keep it to a short dossier. This is the extent of what I know about ‘Ammit’…”
“First, he cannot be destroyed. A God of Death cannot die as his own passing simply re-energizes him over time. The act of killing him keeps him alive, but we have to do it as the slumber during his reawakening takes 100’s of years to complete. The goddess Tielekku was instrumental in the effort to stop Ammit, and this plan should have taken him out for almost a millennia. But clearly something went wrong.”
“Ammit and Oranbega go hand in hand. Oranbegans have gone to war with Ammit for their entire existence, as their final gift to humanity with their civilization dying out, they succeeded in trapping him into an Idol and casting it out into a distant land far from the place of his creation… Dark Astoria itself. Our coalition leader was exposed to the Idol which granted a temporary immunity to Ammit himself while we worked to find a solution to contain him once and for all.”
“But before that, a Cimeroran Champion named Marcus Valerius was charged with taking the idol back to North America to try to contain it’s power and seal it off from the rest of the world. The trip succeeded, but not without a price, as Valerius ceased being human and after being driven mad by his power, became his champion, a Sentinel, a servitor beast who has a geas to prepare Earth for Ammit’s arrival… don’t worry about him, we put him to rest during the coalition fight. However, Valerius regained control at a key point and used his connection to him to allow a strategic advantage: he gave us entry to Ammit’s core weakness. His own entrails.”
“The other component that was critical in the fight came from Tielekku herself, an ancient weapon called the God-Killer Sword. The weapon is a soul-work, which means that Tielekku gave a part of her soul up to make it. At Ammit’s full power, it was the only weapon that was capable of subduing him and placing his corpse at the circle that is currently binding him from reawakening rapidly. The sword, if it is unbothered, should remain buried in his chest. If not, then it’s whereabouts becomes a high priority to secure, as Tielekku’s final gift to mankind.”
“Finally, the most important element in the final supposed resting place is the work of David Hazen. The runes that he inscribed in Dark Astoria’s leylines. They, combined with the draining effects of the God-Killer sword, and the invulnerability of the Idol of Ammit allowed us to kill him, then seal his remains in Dark Astoria.”
“Except we’re all here discussing it now. Which means that something has failed. That is the best summary I have for what the coalition efforts looked like.”
“The last insight I can offer is the composition of the Coalition itself. There were some heavy hitters and powerful folks trapped in his influence. Back Alley Brawler. Scirocco. Katie Hannon. Lord Recluse. Lady Grey. Frostfire. This was a multi-pronged attack with all of us fighting for a common goal. The battle was that serious that villains put aside their ambitions, and heroes stopped their moral obligations to end this threat.”
“This should not be overlooked. I’m not being romantic, or trying to name-drop that I rubbed elbows with War Witch. Who cares? I’m trying to impart that the labor to carry the mission out was enormous. And if we spend too long, or fail at our task, a similar effort will be needed again to stop him… and at worst, the spirit of cooperation won’t be as great the second time around. Spectacular circumstances stop being that way if an all encompassing armageddon keeps happening again and again.”
Tahquitz looks around the room and sees everyone looking at him. “So, we need to understand the problem as quickly as possible. Monique, I hate to put you on the spot, but I have to ask this. Your belt. What can you tell us about it and the circumstances on how you got it? Because if it’s designed to ward off the curse you received from the Banished Pantheon, it’s got their alphabet written all over it.”
Monique looks startled at the comment about her belt, and her hands slide to embrace the giant garnet, an almost subconscious habit.
A closer inspection would show larger symbols engraved on the metal segments of the belt, and surrounding them a curling web of finer engraved symbols of various magical disciplines and practices, all woven together, in conjunction with even more delicate engravings on the garnet, and very likely the work of multiple mages. It appears clear M.A.G.I. wasn’t taking any half-measures with this belt.
“Are you suggestin’ theah’s Banished Pantheon magic runes on mah belt? The ones they use to kill and raise the dead back up?” she asks slowly. “Because no, that’s not the case at all… although…” She looks down at the belt, tipping one hip a bit to try and see it better. “…Ah suppose Ah can see how you might think that, if yo’ah not lookin’ too closely.”
“Think about it. When would it eveh be a good idea to try and fight evil magic by usin’ moah evil magic? So, no, these aren’t the same runes, even if they look a bit like them. No, these, oh, how did Vadoma explain it to me… they are sort of like a mirror to the ones used to make me, to reflect the magic back away, and sort of like a… a fence, or… no, that’s not right. Like armor? to shield me from the Banished Pantheon’s Curse runes’. It’s why theah’s some resemblance, of course. But they are not the exact runes that made me. Pilin’ on moah evil magic would be a terrible idea.”
“And the garnet… well, garnets have theah own protective properties. They’ve been used foah centuries as talismans to protect warriors, to help heal injuries, for calmin’ and tranquility, and to protect from evil. Ah don’t know wheah M.A.G.I. found one this big, but if you look really closely at the facets, you’ll see supeh-fine little engravin’s all oveh it, and those, like the ones on mah belt, are part of the ward spells M.A.G.I. put on the belt, to protect me from the effects of the Curse.”
“Even that can’t protect me completely. Ah still have to work hard to control the, um, urges, and to make shoah Ah neveh ovehdo feedin’. But Ah shuddeh to think what the Curse would be like foah me without this belt. That’s why Ah neveh take it off foah longeh than it takes to change clothes, and why Ah weah it ev’rywheah, to bed, even in the showeh.”
Somewhat philosphically, she adds, “Of course, if they’d found a way to completely negate the Curse, Ah might just be dead. Completely, bury me in the ground dead. So, that might be a reason why the belt doesn’t utterly negate the Curse, assumin’ M.A.G.I.’d be able to do that at all.”
Monique smooths a hand over the heavy wine-red garnet, and then folds her hands neatly into her lap. “Is that any help, Shugah?”
Once again, Linuial stares off into the distance.
She turns, leans over to Stray, and speaks quietly to her. The cat girl nods, smiles, stands and walks out of the room…there is a concussive blast of air followed by the hum of the entry portal.
Linuial turns to Tahquitz. “Tim…did you actually see this God-Killer Sword, in person?”
“I… did not. We learned of it’s presence from the Dream Doctor, and I got more of those details pieced together after the fact from those who were there. There’s plenty of hearsay, but the two most consistent things everyone is saying is that Tielekku formed it, and it was used to kill Mot.” Tahquitz says. “I have no idea what it would look like, I’m afraid.”
“Hmmm…that’s too bad. Well, it can’t be helped.”
There is the hum of the base portal activating, followed by a concussive blast. Linuial looks up expectantly. “Ah, good. Right on time. Well, I’ll just have to do what little I can, then.”
Stray rounds the corner in her catgirl form, holding a small gray-black wooden box carefully in one hand. Behind her, two beefy men walk into the room, carrying other wooden and cardboard boxes of various sizes, deposit them in the corner of the fire pit room, one nods to Stray, and then they leave by way of the portal.
Stray walks over to Linuial and hands her the small box before taking her original seat.
Linuial picks up the near-black box, holds it between both hands, closes her eyes. She is very still for long moments, until someone begins to shuffle their feet in the growing silence.
She opens her eyes, smiles around the room, stands, taking the box in one hand, and walks over to stand next to where Nyghtshade is sitting.
“Monique, dear, remember that night when you so kindly allowed me to touch your belt? I know that you take it off for a few minutes while you change clothes…would you be so kind as to take it off now and allow me to hold it, just for a minute or two? I promise I won’t keep it long.”
Monique’s hands cradle the garnet almost possessively, but she overcomes that reluctance. Standing, she murmurs something under her breath as she releases a hidden catch and slides the belt off.
Solemnly, she hands it to Linuial.
The tiny blonde woman takes the arcane belt in her empty hand. She holds both the box and the belt about waist high, well away from each other, and closes her eyes. Once again, there is silence, quite a bit longer this time, eventually broken by shuffling, a cough, and the beginnings of whispered conversations around the tables.
After about two minutes, Linuial takes a long breath, opens her eyes, smiles, and hands the belt back to Nyghtshade.
“Thank you, dear, I appreciate it.”
She walks over and hands the box back to Stray, who once again leaves via the portal, as Linuial returns to her seat and sits down again.
She looks around the room at all the expectant faces.
Monique stands there stiffly throughout the process, watching silently and trying not to look too anxious. But it is with obvious relief that she accepts the belt back and hastily puts it back on.
Taking a seat again, she asks curiously, “What was that about?”
The tiny woman cocks her head to one side. “I had a lot of guesses, and I’ve never tried anything even remotely like this before…and that makes it an event worthy of note alone!” She laughs in that easy, open way she has.
“It would have been a little more certain if Tim had actually seen the sword, but even then it was a real long shot.
“Stray brought me a box from the Midnighter Club. It’s been there a very long time, maybe longer than any other artifact. There’s a legend on it claiming to contain the ‘remains’ of Tielekku.
“Now, whether or not a god can even have remains is an unanswerable question, and I have doubts that whatever relics might be inside have anything to do with Tielekku…but on the off chance that it might be related to her in some way, I wanted to compare the emotional recording to that of the belt.”
She turns to the room at large. “Monique allowed me to touch her belt once before, and I detected an emotional aura, which was not Monique’s. An inanimate object cannot have an emotional aura, only a recording of one, at a static point in time, but it cannot change over time.” To Nyghtshade: “I told you at that time that I thought it was changing, even growing, and you mentioned that you thought you, or it, were becoming stronger over time, better able to resist your Curse.”
Returning to the room at large. “I wanted to compare the emotional recording of the so-called Tielekku remains to the emotional aura of Monique’s belt, while it was not actually in contact with her so I could get a clear image of the belt itself.”
To Monique: “It’s not confirmed, but my suspicion now is that your belt, like the God-killer Sword, contains a piece of the soul of the goddess herself.”
Monique’s mouth drops open, and she fingers the belt, frowning a bit. “Ah… have no idea what to think about that, Linuial. Especially as a Catholic. But it will probably make foah a lively session next Confession.”
“So, assumin’ yoah right, you think this gives us an edge oveh the Banished Pantheon?”
Linuial smiles gently. “Monique…it is entirely possible that you are not the final target of the Banished Pantheon. It may be your belt that they are after. Your belt may be the key to unlocking Ammit’s bondage, or securing it in place forever. They may be simply manipulating you to try to get their hands on your belt, in their way, at their chosen time and place.”
Monique considers that thoughtfully.
“So… are you suggestin’ Ah go stand around outside and see if they take the bait?”
“What’s a… Midnighter’s Club?” Paige asks, “And how would they know about Nyght’s belt?”
For the first time, the cyborg, Jon Smith, speaks up. “Oh, holy hell, Monique, of course, not. The idea would be to keep it away from them, not offer to hand it over!”
Stray leans over in Paige’s direction, and speaks softly. “That’s a complicated question, and we don’t have time to go over it right now, Paige. And they wouldn’t know about the belt, Lin just asked me to fetch that box from its storage place and then return it.” She holds up one finger to her lips, smiles, and turns her attention back to the room at large.
Linuial smiles at Jon before replying. “Monique, Jon is right. We’re not about to use you OR the belt as bait. If either of my guesses are right, and even more so if they both are, then one, we need to keep the belt out of their hands so they can’t use it to awaken Ammit, and two, we may need to have it in our hands to finish sealing him away.”
Monique frowns, countering, “Ah was suggestin’ we lure some out and catch them, then find out what the’ah plannin’. Afteh all, Ah’m awake right now, not as easy to steal as when Ah’m sleepin’. But… keepin’ the belt out of theah hands would mean not stayin’ at mah place till this is resolved. So, frankly, Ah’d like to get it resolved as soon as possible.”
Linuial nods, but it’s obvious her mind has already moved to another topic.
She stands and makes a long-arm grab for a large roll of paper further down the table. She unrolls it and presses it down against the table, then looks up to beckon to Tahquitz.
It’s a large-scale map of Dark Astoria.
“Tim, do you have any idea where the body of Ammit might be lying right now, assuming it is still pinned in place by the Sword? If so, that’s where we need to go.
“We need you to tell us exactly the route you and your coalition took the first time. What route you took through Astoria. Where the entrance was. What kind of resistance you met along the way. What route you took to find Ammit, as we are going to have to travel the same way, unless you can think of a shortcut that would be safe enough to use.”
“The Moth Cemetary. That’s where Ammit rests, and where the God-Killer sword should lie. Specifically, it’s where the Sleeper’s Crypt used to lie. After he reawakened, the Cemetary was destroyed and turned into his personal shrine. Getting there from the city is typical fare. The place is full of crooks that were trapped there after Ammit fell.”
“But the cemetary gates… that’s a trial by itself. Then past that, there are Banished Pantheon Elite Bosses and Giant Monsters abound. The final bridge to Ammit himself is where we faced the Sentinel. There may be a new one present since we defeated Valerius, or a different encounter all together. No idea.”
“Either way, the mouth of Ammit itself… THAT gives me nightmares… the height, the sinews twisting holding his jaws open, the smell, the horrific rumbling. After we defeated him, it turned to stone and became a monument to the battle. If he’s back, I have no idea if it’s reanimated or not.”
Tahquitz leaned down to Paige, and whispers, “Ask me about the Midnighter’s Club when this is through… how do you think I learned about all of this? I’m not really the scholar type, but without them, I’d be as new to this as you are.”
Linuial searches the young Hero’s face. “Tim…look around this room, and tell me…never mind when Ammit was awake and gathering power; do you think this group can even get to the body? Or are we going to have to gather an even larger force?”
Monique stares at the map, searching all the areas Tim has pointed out. “What we need is a way to sneak in…”
Linuial shakes her head. “Do you think that is even possible, with you wearing your belt? You apparently thought just standing outside the base would be enough to give your location away and bring the Pantheon running.”
She stares up at the ceiling. “On the other hand, if I could get to the entrance while Monique is safely stashed away somewhere in Dark Astoria, I might be able to Recall her to us…”
“All I know is when we left. The majority of crooks in Dark Astoria now are spread apart. Banished Pantheon was disorganized and fractured. And very powerful villains and heroes were keep the warring factions of Tsoo, Knives of Artemis, and Circle of Thorns under control… people who are far more powerful than anyone in this room.” Tahquitz says, “But since then, it’s been two years. Anything is possible.”
“…we might have to make a preliminary fact-finding sortie, first, then,” she says, almost to herself. “I just don’t know if we have the time…”
She looks up. “The goal here is to either confirm that Ammit is still safely bound or not, and if not, then find a way to bind him. No matter what, this mission will not be finished until we actually look at the body with our own eyes, one way or the other. Nothing else will do. Time is not our friend, and being too cautious might eat up time that we don’t have.
“All right. The floor is open. How do we do this?”
“Check with the Midnighteh’s, to see what they know currently? Or the Tsoo, they weah involved in tryin’ to put Mot down,” Monique offers. “Jade, do you have contacts with the Tsoo?”
Jade rolls her eyes. “If you mean ‘contact’ as a euphemism for this,” she replies, smacking a closed fist into an open hand, “then yeah, sure. But, if you mean do I have information sources among the Tsoo….”
She frowns, thinking.
“OK…. There might be one of two people I could pump for some answers about what the Tsoo are doing in Dark Astoria these days.”
“Jade, how long would that take you?”
Jade pauses, thinking.
“Depends on how fast I can run them to earth. Could be anywhere from half-an-hour to two, three hours. Maybe. Either way, by 2 - 3 hours, I should know if I’m going to find out anything useful.”
“The other problem with gaining access to Dark Astoria… while they have unsealed the foot gate to get there, the Security Chief at the gate bars entry to anyone who isn’t going in without an Incarnate. We need a powerful escort. Someone who can get us past the Chief at the least.” Tahquitz said, “I know one person who can do that for us… although I haven’t talked to him in a while.”
He thumbs through his phone for a contact and finds him… a crazy man who has an affinity for creatures of the chiropteran variety.
“Jade, can you do that at night? If so, do it now and get back as quickly as you can.”
She turns to the rest of the group. “I’m not confident about getting intel on all these groups piecemeal…is there anyone who is a specialist on Dark Astoria? How about someone working at the Hospital there….they should have their finger on the pulse of daily casualty rate, what kinds of injuries are involved, and so on.”
She turns to Tahquitz, waving at him over the edge of his phone. “Would your Incarnate friend have any knowledge about the current state of Astoria?”
“On it,” Jade nods, rising smoothly to her feet. She starts to leave, then turns back.
“We got any kind of comm-links, some way to stay in touch?”
“If we’re talking within a half of a mile, I can cover it. But an entire city neighborhood or past the war walls, I can’t keep people linked.” Paige says. “Technology would have to step in for that kind of distance.”
“Just use your cell, we don’t have time to set up any kind of specialized communication system. Everybody has cells, as far as I know.”
“OK, yeah, I already added all of yours. I’m off then. I’ll call when I have something worth talking about.”
Jade turns and trots off to the portal and out.
“Foah what it’s worth,” Monique notes quietly, “Ah’m an Incarnate.”
A slow smile lights the blonde woman’s face. “Monique, you beautiful woman, you. I could kiss you.
“Tahq, cancel that call, unless you think your friend can bring enough firepower to make a difference. We’ll keep this in family in so far as we possibly can.”
Jon Smith speaks up. “Lin, while you’re waiting on Jade to get back, I’ll take a run over to DA myself and talk to the Hospital staff, then do a quick run around the zone. Hyperstride will pretty much keep me safe from assault, and I can be back in about an hour, hour and a half.”
The blonde woman nods. “Do it, Jon. But stay safe.”
“You know I will,” he smiles broadly, then turns to leave the gathering.
As he leaves the base, Linuial stands and walks over to the boxes still lying in a corner of the room.
As the group begins chatting, she turns and claps her hands to gain their attention once again.
“Okay, everybody, listen up. One more thing to do.”
She turns toward Nyghtshade. “Monique, would you please join me over here?”
When the undead woman does so, Linuial tells her, “Monique, as far as is humanly…or undeadly, I guess…possible, I want you to avoid using your powers. We have no idea how the Banished might be able to twist them against you, or against us, for that matter.”
When Nyghtshade opens her mouth to protest, she holds up one hand, kneels and pulls open a long, narrow wooden crate. She reaches inside and pulls out a shotgun and a bandoleer covered with shells.
“Holy Shotgun Shells,” she states. “Tobias Hansen crafted these to slay the undead. In so far as you can, use this, both to fight and to protect yourself,” she continues as she hands the gun and ammunition over. “It should have a much greater effective range than your own powers.”
She stoops over a cardboard box, and tussles with it until she gets the top open. “Paige, please come here.” She pulls out an odd-looking and rather short metal rod. “This is the Empowered Linchpin of the Wheel of Destruction. You can use it to summon a protective cloak of flames. Between this and Xavier’s belt, I think you’ll be able to keep up with the rest of us.”
She indicates four remaining boxes. “Okay, I’m going to let you guys figure out who needs to carry what. I’ve got the Empowered Center of the Wheel of Destruction, the Empowered Piece of the Wheel of Destruction, Empowered Shard of the Wheel of Destruction, the Idol of Lughebu and an Undead Slaying Axe,” she states. “This last weapon was specifically crafted by MAGI to slay the undead.
“One item per person please, and understand that anyone carrying an artifact will be responsible for assisting others.”
She waves her hand to encompass all of the boxes. “These have to be returned to MAGI in a short period of time. Hopefully, their charges will last long enough for us to get to the body, but if not, they will stop working after a while, so be prepared.”
“Works for me.” Tahq taps out a SMS before pocketing his phone.
UltraBatz: It’s been a frw yearss. How are ya buddy?
Tahquitz: I slipped and dialed by accident, but yeah, we should catch up. Anytime.
UltraBatz: Sure! Just saay when and wher.
Tahquitz: Will do!
Strategic collaboration concluded, the time has come to move from planning to execution. Resources have been gathered and tasks have been delegated. One can only hope that the old axiom proves false and some plans do indeed survive first contact.
As the team arrives in Dark Astoria, it’s impossible to ignore the wanton destruction that the sleeping god, Mot, has been able to bring about. More striking still is the eerie red glow cast over everything. It’s as if the moon itself is shaded by some bloody specter. Even so, there’s no choice but to put steel on the bones and ice water in the veins. To be unnerved here is to fail and to fail is to allow the entire world to suffer in the fallen god’s malevolent shadow.
Dark Astoria has become a luridly oppressive place, and once Monique would have cringed at the idea of coming here. But her long session earlier today with Father Brannigan, and her full acceptance this time of the Absolution, has strengthened her courage and resolve.
More or less forbidden to use her powers, she hefts the bulky shotgun, and hopes she can hit the broad side of a barn. At least with the bandolier, she has a fair amount of ammo, assuming she can reload fast enough in a fight.
Jade had called dibs on the Undead Slaying Axe, and carries it almost casually as she stands with the others, watching alertly in all directions.
“This place takes bordello-red to a whole new level,” she mutters, eyeing the moon and the luridly red war-walls.
Paige looks around the hazard zone, and sees a streetfront that would almost look normal and a easy fix-er-upper. That is, except for the complete lack of citizens save for the Hospital just outside the gates. And the band of Banished Pantheon rotting chambers walking down the street like nothing is unusual in pursuit of the Tsoo, who are running for their lives.
“Yeah, it’s not what I thought it would look like at all.” Paige admits to Jade, stating “No dead people on spikes or shrunken heads just yet. So far, so good.”
“Remember, Cricket, if this begins to remind you of hell, you haven’t visited New Jersey yet. It CAN get worse.” Tahquitz says, as he adjusts his belt with a complement of magic-infused daggers, potions and pouches full of unknown powders and stones. “There’s always Newark!”
“Tim, you’ve been here before. I want you to take point. Monique, stay as close to the center of the group as you possibly can, and close to me. Everyone else, spread out, but not too far. Remember, heals as always are line-of-sight, so don’t get yourself anywhere you can’t see me.”
She takes to the air, hovering just above the heads of her group, remaining as close to their exact center as she can.
“Just pretend it’s an average sewer run. By the book, use your strategies, pull mobs when possible, watch your aggro, and yell for help when you need it…no shame to that. In fact, I’ll bake a chocolate cake for the person who racks up the most injury without dying on this trip.”
She laughs, but it’s a grim one, not her usual airy humor.
“There’s gonna be chocolate cake for me, ha!” Jade grins in return, as she moves out to one side, twirling the axe and keeping an eye out for any foe wandering too close to the group.
Monique nods quiet assent and positions herself as instructed, center of the group. She makes sure the safety is off for the shotgun, and moves along with the others.
“Alright, we’ve got a neighborhood to skate past and a graveyard to raid.” Tahquitz shakes his fists, setting one to ice, the other to fire. “Remember, the closer we get to the cemetery, the more frequent the hallucinations will get until we are INSIDE the cemetery itself. Keep an eye on each other, so if someone loses their bearings, we can all keep them safe.”
Tahquitz starts down the street heading north of the hospital. He begins to lead the team towards the northern highway, which will take them to the entrance of Moth Cemetery.
Jon Smith, as usual, is keeping his foot-long blades stowed inside his skeletal robotic forearms…not that he can’t eject and lock them almost instantaneously. “Hey, Tim…explain to me about those ‘hallucinations’ you just mentioned, again?”
“Nothing major. Just your uncertain moments, insecurities, crippling fears. Everything that makes you question your past or doubt your future. No big deal, right?” Tahquitz smiles as he walks onward.
“It doesn’t help to say ‘it’s not real, it’s not real’ over and over again, like Jade explained. Just tear it apart by questioning things.”
The big blonde cyborg continues. “Okay, so, like feelings, rather than like images?”
“It talks to you,” Monique mutters. “It taunts, and digs, and needles. It twists things and tries to make everything your fault. Don’t let it.”
“…Nyght said it best. It’s both feelings and images. This is no one-trick pony.” Tahquitz answers back.
Jade seems least affected by the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Instead, she moves along easily, softly whistling a slightly off-key redition of “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”, as her gaze roams watchfully back and forth.
Jon continues. “If it’s images, does that mean it can make you think a friend is an enemy, or vice versa?”
“It could make Lord Recluse look like your dead Grandmother, let alone convince you that ledge you’re about to dive off of is a swimming pool.”
“That’s why we all need to watch each other. I’m a decent flyer, but if we catch someone taking a half gainer into concrete too late, not even I’m fast enough to stop them from landing.” Tahquitz says, taking a dagger from his belt with his lit-up hand and spinning it until it catches fire as well.
As the group inches through the badly warped streets of Dark Astoria, mystical implements clutched in hand, a clamor begins to fill the air. As the Heroes draw ever closer to Moth Cemetary the din grows louder.
Rounding a corner, the cause of the commotion becomes clear. The undead minions of the Banished Pantheon are locked in a pitched battle with, of all people, the Tsoo. Tatooed Inkmen employ all their magically enhanced abilities against the Husks and Chambers, slamming fists and feet into the reanimated corpses.
A Death Shaman and a Tsoo Sorcerer stand at either end of the melee, both of them extolling their troops to push forward. The Sorcerer gesticulates wildly, fervently casting spells to embolden and support his men. The Shaman, on the other hand, is stock still but wild eyed, chanting rapidly as he empowers his minions to continue the battle.
“Oh, look!” Jade exclaims, “A diversion. How thoughtful!”
“As a John named Elton doth spoke, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.’” Tahquitz smiles at Jade, then charges his fists up, dagger in hand, waiting for the right moment to strike after the first taunt.
“Or we could just sneak oveh the cemetery walls furtheh back,” Monique suggests, “while old Ammit’s focused on this mess.”
“Everybody, stop right here!” Linuial’s clear bell-like voice rings out.
“Tahq, tell me what all you see. Are they enough engaged with each other for us to skirt around them unnoticed?
“Once we do engage, everyone verbally check your targets. Act like anime characters, only instead of shouting out your moves, shout out your opponent. If you see someone about to engage a mismatched target, warn them back, they’re hallucinating.”
“Wet blankets…” Tahquitz mutters and discharges his fists, keeping only a light coat of ice and orange flame visible on each fist.
“No one sees us yet, we can duck down this alley.” Tahquitz points further north, “Then we can cross that way and scale the first cemetery wall.”
At that moment, a Dry Husk turns around and hisses at the party… “Scratch that! They know we’re coming!”
“Dibs on the Shaman!” Jade exclaims, ready to spring but holding till Linuial gives the order, rather like a hound straining at the leash.
“All right, but stand your ground, don’t advance. Make them come to us. Jade, you can have the Shaman, but wait until he notices us on his own, don’t draw his attention. Prune the leaves and branches, as much as possible, before we take on the Shaman. Use pulling to draw singles if you can.
“Better we outnumber them than the other way around. Once he does notice us, everyone pile on him. You can lead, Jade, but don’t expect the rest to hold back, we want him down fast, so he can’t spawn backup minions.
“Unless and until the Tsoo show aggression, assume they are friendlies.”
The empathic healer begins chanting in a language which most likely she is the only one able to understand any more. Colored balls of flickering, pulsing light form around her, and as she spreads her hands, they also spread, touching each and every member of Nyghtshade’s protectors. “Okay!” Linuial announces, as she finishes her repertoire.
Jade nods, a short jerk of the head, and advances only slightly, to take up a defensive position abreast of Tahquitz and off to one side. She is suddenly all business, axe at the ready as she sinks into a low stance and watches the mob ahead.
Suiting action to word, the hovering empath places her hands to either side of her head, shouts out “Desiccated Chamber!” and begins to chant, aiming for a minion on the extreme far side of the battle.
The psychic “bee-sting” of Psychic Lance draws the attention of the Chamber, who focuses on the healer, and begins to run headlong through the battling figures straight at her, looking neither right nor left. None of the other minions appear to notice his head-long flight.
Paige eyes the two up front and sings a pitched soundwave to aid in their preparation, as a low tone fills their ears giving them Clarity of thought.
She then stays low to the ground, ready to spring ahead if needed.
Nyghtshade shifts position to one side, to make sure she has a clear shot with none of the group in the way, lifts the rifle and waits.
Adamant takes two long strides forward, as the Chamber Linuial “pulled” charges the front line. He steps to his left and swings the laser sword, cutting the thing’s head off just as Jon Smith spins, foot-long metal claws extended, taking a huge chunk out of the Chamber’s left side.
As the Chamber falls, headless and heartless, the two men, older and younger, meet eyes over the now inanimate corpse. After a fraction of a second, Jon sighs, standing from his crouch, his claws retracting with a ka-shack!
He shakes his head, turns his attention back to the Tsoo and Banished combatants.
“Can anyone else pull targets?” Nyght mutters. “Ah would, but…”
She grits her teeth and tightens her grip on the shotgun, waiting for the chance to use it.
Tahquitz aims carefully with his Ice-covered right fist, charging it only so much and firing an ice spike that is very thin and fast moving at the Dry Husk that spotted them.
The ice needle pierced his upper arm, causing it to make the Dry Husk lunge forward, along with three other companions. Fortunately, the Death Shaman is still working on the melee with the Tsoo.
“That’s a start,” Tahq says, then asks Jade “…ready for the opening number?”
“So ready!” she agrees, shifting further to the side to be sure none get around her. As they shuffle closer, Jade springs forward to attack the nearest zombie, swinging the axe with deadly precision, decapitating it neatly and using the backswing to bury the axe-head into the glowing rune on its chest.
As the rune winks out and the body topples, Jade pivots, axe already swinging up to the ready again as she makes certain she’s not in any teammate’s line of attack.
Tahquitz runs behind Jade and targets a Dry Husk next to her that is running up on the two. He lowers his flaming dagger to stab into the Dry Husk’s chest as he prepares a short attack with his right fist to freeze his lower joints and slow him down as the dagger goes to work. This is while dodging a lunge from the Husk as Tahq runs off.
The fire that came with the dagger doesn’t go out, but becomes stronger and burns the dry husk’s torso as he is prevented from moving quickly enough to put himself out. In minutes, the body is burning rapidly.
He then aims his fists at the other two Dry Chambers hobble to their position, and readies his next attack.
The action has drawn the attention of a few of the outlying Tsoo. As they pivot and move toward Jade’s group, Jade snaps out a comment in Mandarin, and repeats it in Cantonese. They pause, and she gestures toward her group and then the Death Shaman.
There is a second of hasty consult between the Tsoo, and then they turn and sprint back toward the battle with the zombies.
But this, in turn, has drawn the attention of the Death Shaman. Jade grits her teeth, focusing her chi to strengthen her mind over body.
“DIBS on the Shaman!!” she reiterates loudly as she summons her Indomitable Will and springs forward, lofting high in the air like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, arcing up and down again towards the Death Shaman.
The red-and-green giant Blood Nut reaches forward, gesturing toward the Shaman…but remains in place. “Hey, you…Ugly!” he shouts in his deep and far-reaching baritone. He begins slamming one fist into the other in a regular rhythm, becoming more and more of a distraction to the lethal summoner.
As the remaining group of zombie husks shamble closer, Nyghtshade raises her shotgun and carefully aims at the hated Banished Pantheon runes glowing from their chests.
She ceases to breathe, eyes narrowing as she carefully squeezes the trigger. The blast is loud and sends the barrel jerking up into the air. But the shot is good, and the shell hits its mark, knocking the zombie back off its feet, the rune vanishing in a spray of gore.
“Good shot!” Jon praises.
“Dumb luck,” she corrects, lifting the rifle to the ready again.
Glad for Blood Nut’s distraction, Jade lands behind the Death Shaman, starting to swing the Undead Slaying Axe upwards as he belatedly spins, stumbling back. He shouts a curse as he clenches his hand into a fist and yanks it back, attempting to draw away life-force from her, but the axe interrupts his chant by taking off the hand at the wrist.
“Heya, Feather-Boy, did I break your concentration?” Jade snarls, as the Shaman stumbles back.
In answer, the Shaman uses his other hand to draw a wicked knife and circles, looking for an opening.
“Really??” Jade scoffs. “Guy, never bring a knife to an axe fight.” She hefts the axe-blade, and as his eyes follow it, she hammers him in the chest with a Crippling Axe kick.
Paige springs forward to join Tahq and Jade. She sees them working on two monsters, with Jade concentrating on the Death Shaman. She focuses on the lesser ones to keep the field clear.
She runs down a Desiccated Chamber and throws a shockwave to separate him from the melee. She then with several shrieks, she breaks every joint of the Chamber before using a Shout to the Chamber’s entire body, causing the weakened joints to separate all at once. The rune flickers on the severed torso, then goes out.
She then runs to the Death Shaman and warns telepathically, “Cover your ears!” to the party before a charged Screech is sounded to the Death Shaman to disorient him for the others to make quick work of him.
Most of the Tsoo manage to clasp their hands to their ears in time and the Pantheon’s zombies are devoid of the cognition necessary to register the sonic blast. As the echo of the assault fades, there’s a moment of stillness.
That quiet is shattered by the cracking report of gunfire.
Gore blossoms over the battlefield as bullets slice through the air. The shooting is precise, each round landing squarely in the head or chest of one of the Pantheon’s unholy soldiers. The barrage continues unabated for several minutes, forcing everyone to scramble for cover. Then, as if something out of a fever dream, a lone figure strolls into the killing zone.
A Mistress of the Carnival of Shadows walks casually through the hail of gunfire. Dressed in the full garish regalia that the group is famous for, she looks around as if taking stock of the situation before holding up a hand. Immediately, the bullets cease to fly.
As the Death Shaman turns, stunned by the sudden destruction of his minions, the Mistress lashes out with telekinetic power that lifts him into the air. He floats there, struggling vainly to break free. The Mistress, her face concealed behind an exquisitely decorated mask, moves to stand before him. She brushes a lock of ebony hair away from her face but says nothing.
“What…what are you doing here?” the Shaman asks, incredulous at her interference.
For her part, the Mistress keeps her silence.
“You fool! I do not fear death as you do! I welcome it!” the Shaman cries, his face contorted in anger.
Cocking her head to one side, the Mistress regards him for a moment. Then, in a soft and honeyed voice, she says, “Tell it I say hello.”
In a fluid, almost gentle motion, she turns her hand palm up and curls her fingers into a fist. The Shaman makes a guttural sound as his head wrenches to one side and an audible pop rings out.
She releases him then, letting his body drop ignominiously to the ground.
The street is utterly silent. The Pantheon’s forces lie broken and the Tsoo stare warily at the new arrival.
“And you,” the Mistress says, turning to face the group of heroes.
Suddenly, her image becomes distorted, growing cloudy like flour dissolving in a bowl of water. It wavers for a moment before it resolves again.
In that moment the Mistress is gone. Xavier Devereaux stands in her place.
“I leave you alone for five minutes and this is what you get yourselves into?” Devereaux asks. Dressed in a navy blue vest and crisply pressed white shirt, he looks for all the world like a casino high roller.
“You know I don’t do this magic crap and I certainly don’t do it for free.” Even in the dim red light of Dark Astoria, the shapeshifter’s ever present sunglasses are fixed in place.
“Oh, and by the way.” He casts his gaze on Linuial. “Your cryptography sucks.”
Paige is elated as to part of her, it has been months since she’s seen Devereaux in person. But she holds back from running up and hugging the stoic mercenary. They are still very much iceskating uphill and now isn’t the time to forget their surroundings.
“I’m new to all of this too,” Paige says, then replies, “And I’m glad you’re here.”
The empathic healer hovers to the ground at the front of the protective group, and walks casually up to the shapeshifter, smiling her open and easy smile.
“Apparently not,” she teases. “You got the message, loud and clear.” A wry twist crosses her lips. “I didn’t have time to work on it, and we never thought to work out a code…it had to be as obvious as a slap in the face. I’m just glad you were, however briefly, available. And don’t worry…I know a patron who can meet your price.” She doesn’t bother with a wink, she doesn’t need it.
“So…” she continues, “…are you just here as a walkon, or are you open to a bit more paid work?”
Jade has been conferring with the Tsoo, and more particularly the Sorcerer. There’s some angry gesticulating from a few, but more seem to be listening.
After a few moments, Jade jogs back to the group. “I don’t think we’ve made any BFF’s over there, but it looks like they’re accepting - well, some of them are accepting - that we’re fighting for the same thing right now, at least for the moment. The Sorcerer says he can gives us a guide to where they think the runes binding You Know Who are weakening.
She turns to Devereaux, with a grin. “I’m guessing you’re a Friendly, given your reception. Welcome to the party.”
“Jade, this is Xavier Devereaux, ex-Praetorian, mercenary, Rogue, bon vivant, shapeshifter, and who knows what else? Xavier, Jade is a friend of Monique’s, and there are probably a host of others who have never met you, but I think introductions and catching up will have to wait until later…assuming, of course, you are even remotely interested.
“We’re here partly on Monique’s behalf, and partly because we have reason to believe that our unnameable friend is trying to wake up, and it seems Jade just confirmed that part of it.
“So…are you in, or are you out? I can promise you a fun time, decent pay, and you might even get another steak dinner out of it. Are you game?”
Adam’s eyes grow big and he stares at the Praetorian, but says nothing. Next to him, Jon glances at the 18-year-old’s expression, and chuckles under his breath.
“Hey there, Xavier, any friend of Monique’s and all that.” Jade offers a hand, and a surprisingly strong grip.
Good to see you again, Mr. Devereaux, ” Nyght greets him solemnly, as she busies herself reloading the shotgun.
With a swift look around the group, she adds, “Hate to be a party-pooper, but we’ah not done yet, and Ah’m bettin’ the clock is tickin’.”
“That’s a good bet.” Tahquitz said, recovering his dagger from the corpse and wiping the soot off before returning it to his belt. “Dev, it’s been too long.”
“Consider me neutral for now,” Devereaux says coolly as he shakes Jade’s hand. “Like Blondie said, I’m-“
He’s suddenly interrupted by a new voice. “Hey! What’s goin’ on here?”
“Yeah!” another speaker exclaims. “What’s the deal with all these capes and where’d that hot broad go?”
Sighing, Devereaux turns to face the voices. Emerging from a concealed position is a group of street toughs. Heavily tattooed and wearing brightly colored bandannas on both their heads and faces, they appear to be little more than common thugs. Sturdy pistols and the odd automatic rifle are clutched in practiced hands.
“Forgot about them,” Devereaux mumbles. “You’re dismissed.” He accompanies the words with a flick of his wrist and a powerful mental command. Instantly, every face in the group goes slack. Without a word, the gangsters turn and simply walk away.
“As I was saying, I’m not in or out until I get the full story. Something about a god with no name who’s coming after Georgia Peach over there?”
“…oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention ‘telepath’,” the tiny woman adds as an afterthought.
“Okay, so we were at Monique’s place. Terry over there and Tim…” Paige points at Jade and Tahq, “were practicing Martial Arts, Adam was moving in,” Paige points at Adamant, “and I was doing homework. Then Nyght’s brownstone was overrun with Banished Pantheon. Adam and I fought them out of the building while Terry and Tim ran upstairt, and sure enough a Shaman was trying to kidnap Monique. Something about she’s their creation and she belongs to the Pantheon. So they stopped the abduction. Some giant monster called Adamastor was summoned and damaged Monique’s lobby. We drove it out, only to see it vanish.”
“So we recover at Starfire’s base, and go out on patrol with Monique to keep her health up, as she needs to drain from crooks to stay alive. When we defeated a group of Warriors, the leader was possessed by Akpan, the shaman that cursed Monique in the first place and tried to threaten her.”
“Based on how they’re attacking Monique, Tim surmised that it’s not Akpan who is doing this alone, it’s rather the nameless god you’re referring to. We’re calling him ‘Ammit.’ As in ‘damn it.’ Tim came to this conclusion based on a coalition effort headed of by the Midnighter’s Club almost three years ago, some secret society he’s been a part of all along which I just learned about today. So we have come here to make sure that he is still sealed. He has to be sealed, since he can’t really die, just sleep for 1,000’s of years. Which sucks.”
Paige catches her breath, “So that’s basically it. Starfire and Linuial are here with us to protect Monique, but they also found out that Monique’s belt may be fashioned in the same manner as a sword that was used to stab him to put him to sleep. We’re trying to get to the Cemetery to see if he’s still sleeping.”
“Let’s not go into too much detail about mah belt,” Nyght interjects hastily. “No tellin’ who else might be listenin’.”
“Right… sorry.” Paige says. “It’s been a long 24 hours.”
Linuial’s smile turns sly…she raises her eyebrows but says nothing, merely crossing her arms and looking back at Devereaux.
Nyght is uncharacteristically quiet, seemingly preoccupied with the shotgun.
Devereaux sighs as Paige finishes recounting the events of the last twenty-four hours. “And this is why I don’t do magic.”
“First of all, damn it is right. I was halfway to Monaco when I got your messages. You know how hard it is to switch an international flight?”
He pauses for a moment before turning back to Linuial. “So you all thought it would be a good idea to just pop over here and make sure this god is still safely tucked in. On top of that, you figured I’d be the perfect guy to bring along on this hot mess of a suicide mission. That the gist of it?”
Linuial’s expression goes deadly serious.
She speaks to her mental image of Devereaux. “I wasn’t sure if you would even be available. What Paige left out is that Akpan, or whoever was speaking through that corpse, challenged Monique, asking where you and I were. Not by name, but ‘the healer’ and ‘the shapeshifter’, and, of course, she doesn’t know any other shapeshifters.
“He…it…implied that her then-current escort was insufficient…’children’ was the term…and asked why we weren’t there.
“It was no coincidence. This was a message to you and to me, through Monique. Which means whoever is trying to awaken this nameless god already knows both of us, and is calling us out.
“Even if you couldn’t come, I wanted to warn you to watch your back.“
“Whoeveh’s coordinatin’ all this, they already know about you,” Nyght puts in apologetically, not realizing Linuial has already covered the bases. “The dead Warrior, they weah speakin’ to us - me - through him, and asked wheah you weah, wheah the ‘shapeshifteh’ was. Ah told Linuial we should warn you away, but, well… heah you are.”
Turning to his telepathy, Devereaux replies to Linuial’s warning. “What? Why would…never mind.”
“Guess I shouldn’t really be surprised,” he says aloud, exasperation in his tone. “It’s not like I made my reputation on the easy jobs.”
He shakes his head, causing the aluminum bindings at the ends of his dreadlocks to jingle softly. “Fine. As long as your money’s good, I’m in. It’s not like I can get another flight out today, anyway. But if we’re gonna do this, we’ll need intel. I assume you have some idea of where the target is.”
Linuial turns and waves a hand to Taquitz, inviting him to explain what he knows.
Tahquitz looks at Dev then says, “We’re looking at Moth Cemetary, about a mile north from here and 6 miles east. Once there, the Sleeper’s Crypt has been demolished when Ammit reawakened, so Ammit’s final resting place is going to be obvious. It’s a giant likeness of him.”
“As for the whereabouts of Akpan, that’s a complete blank. He could be here, still in Talos Island stalking us, or somewhere else.”
“Akpan’s the Shaman who killed me and raised me back up,” Nyght clarifies. “Ah and mah SG weah responsible for catchin’ him and sendin’ him to the Zig about 7 yeahs back. But we just found out he escaped a yeah ago. So he’s got reason to hold a grudge.”
Devereaux ponders the new information. “And this is what we’ve got to work with?” he asks, gesturing toward the group.
“Tell me you’ve got some spare capes at the gate in case this goes south. And what about contingencies? I’m no mage but I doubt tackling something like this is a one take kinda deal.”
“I have the Midnight Squad on speed dial, more specifically Montague Castanella. That includes Azuria from MAGI, Percy Winkley from Paragon City University’s College of Antiquities and Relics, not to mention a list of folks who were part of the first coalition,” Tahquitz says.
“The hope is that we succeed and not have to involve them. The more people involved, the more powerful he becomes, and it’s an obscene war of the wills at that point.”
“Tim insists that even mentioning the name of this so-called god gives it power…apparently lots of power,“ Linuial elaborates. “The facts are; the last time Mot awoke, it took practically all the Heroes in Paragon City to put him back down again. And, no, I don’t have all of Paragon waiting outside Dark Astoria as backup."
She returns to speaking aloud. “My thought was that the fewer people involved, the less ‘power’ we’d be feeding him. It’s a matter of enough to do the job, without overkill. Apparently, much of the creature’s power is in the form of hallucinations, emotional attacks, and deep depression leading to an utter surrender to its will, and subsequent death at its hands.
“The point of this sortie is fact finding. We aren’t even sure that Ammit is waking. First things first: make certain that the problem actually exists. Then you can finalize your plans to address it.”
The leader of Starfire looks around. “Jade, our potential allies seem to be becoming restive. Please talk to their leader, explain our goal and how it dovetails with theirs, and ask if they are willing to assist us in any way, from accompanying us part way, right up to inspecting the body. They might actually know more about what we’ll be looking at than we will.”
She turns back to the Praetorian, her brows knitting. “Xavier…apparently you did not understand the part about the god painting targets on people’s backs…yours, specifically. That being so…what are you doing here?”
She addresses her mental image. “You told me that the mission always came first, even if you had to carry out bodies to do it. Always.
“Why did you interrupt a mission, lose a commission, even spend money to take a flight back, if it wasn’t to fight for your own survival? It certainly isn’t because you thought any of us might die.
“What exactly is going on with you?“
“Job’s done. Monaco was pleasure, not business. The only thing I interrupted was a well deserved vacation.”
The telepathic reply sent, Devereaux addresses the healer’s audible question. “Apparently, I’m here to help you make sure this Ammit doesn’t wake up and give us all PTSD. You’re promising to compensate me upon services rendered so let’s get this show on the road.”
“Which still doesn’t explain why you flew back at your own expense without so much as a suggestion of payment, to show up now,“ Linuial muses. “There’s still something you aren’t telling me…“
But she keeps her thoughts to herself, knowing that unless she actually projects her thoughts at him, the ethical Rogue telepath won’t hear them.
In fact, a good number of the Tsoo had by this time vanished, although fortunately Jade had been persuasive enough that the Sorcerer and some of his guards were still there, hanging back and watching this motley crew of heroes warily.
With a nod to Linuial, Jade trots over to the remaining Tsoo, bows respectfully and is gratified to see the bow returned by at least some of them, and launches into a short conversation.
Eventually, she returns, leading the Sorcerer and his handful of guards. “So, Sorcerer here - and no names, not in this place - Sorcerer here says there’ve been, um, ‘stirrings’ in the magic binding You Know Who. They sent out scouts, who didn’t return, so this bunch were working on getting into the cemetery to see what’s up, but got waylaid by the Zombie Hoard. Which is when we showed up.”
“Go ahead and ask what you like. No guarantee he’ll answer, but I think he believes now that we’re on the same page.”
“And thanks, by the way,” Jade adds with a nod to Devereaux, “for making sure none of your guys were shooting any of his guys. That went a good way toward convincing them we’re not hunting Tsoo today.”
Linuial muses over this information, then turns to the Sorcerer and performs gassho as well.
“Then I, as well, will not give my name, out of deference to your decision,” she says. “Do you speak English? I am the leader of these people.”
“…and don’t you dare make me look like a liar,“ she projects at Devereaux. “You may not be Starfire, but from this moment on, you are a paid mercenary, so I am, technically, your leader, even though we both know you won’t do a single thing you don’t already want to.“
She follows it up with a mental laugh, teasing, without sarcasm or scorn.
“You don’t seem to understand, Blondie,” Devereaux responds without humor. “You can say mercenary as many times as you want but I’m a contractor. You’re not my leader, technically or otherwise. If anything, you’re my client. You give me the objective but the methods are up to me. Do what you want with your own people but that’s non-negotiable.”
He turns to regard the Tsoo, imitating Jade’s bow. “You can tell him no thanks are necessary. In my experience, when one side’s alive and the other one isn’t, it’s a pretty linear choice of targets.”
Linuial’s lips curve upward in a smile. “Very well, ‘contractor’ it is,“ she agrees. “But don’t out me as a liar anyway. It’ll keep things simple with this Sorcerer if he thinks he only has one ‘leader’ to deal with. We can definitely use their help, and our goals seem to be the same. As your ‘client’, I respectfully request that you follow my lead on this one, Sir.“
“I speak English,” the Sorcerer answers Linuial, with a clipped Oxford accent, as he returns gassho with the exact same depth as hers, no more, no less.
Straightening, he adds for Devreaux’s benefit, “A sensible choice.”
Turning his attention back to Linuial, he continues, with a slight flick of fingers in Jade’s direction, “Honored Enemy tells me tonight our goals are the same. If you are her leader, I will hear it from you.”
The Sorcerer straightens, crossing his arms and regarding Linuial coolly.
“Excuse me a moment.” Cutting another respectful bow, Devereaux turns away from the ad-hoc diplomatic meeting.
As he walks back to the group of Heroes, he sends another telepathic missive to Linuial. “Enjoy yourself, Blondie. Just don’t make him any promises you can’t keep. That’s a big no-no for the Hmong.”
Approaching the larger gathering, he raises a hand in greeting to Tahquitz. “Good to see you, Tahq. I’ve gotta say, I thought you’d be smart enough not to get mixed up with these fools again.” Laughing genuinely, he claps the young Hero on the shoulder. “Guess I gave you too much credit.”
“You, on the other hand,” he says, addressing Paige. “I should’ve known better than to leave you alone with Blondie and Mauve Avenger. At least you brought the belt.”
Gesturing to her waist, he asks, “How’s it holding up?”
“Amazing. Put it to work yesterday on patrol, and one of the Warriors tried to sneak up on me with an sword. The belt’s energy field stopped him cold. I’m definitely liking it.” Paige smiles.
“Good,” Devereaux says simply. “Remember, the power cells run on kinetic energy. As long as you keep moving, it’ll keep working. Just don’t get reckless. The shield’s pretty solid but a hard enough hit will overload it. That happens and it’ll just be you versus whatever’s trying to pulverize that over achieving brain of yours.”
“And what about you?” he asks, gesturing in Nyghtshade’s direction. “The Pantheon’s coming after you specifically. Guess they just don’t appreciate your dulcet tones.” Another chuckle, then, “Seriously though, you’re clutching that shotgun like it’s made of gold. You gonna be able to see this thing through?”
“Ah’ll do the needful,” Nyght nods shortly. “Linuial thinks it best Ah avoid usin’ mah abilities as much as possible heah, seein’ as how the Pantheon’s been dogging mah ev’ry move. Thus, the shotgun and some ‘holy’ ammo. No Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch, though.”
A grin crosses Devereaux’s face at the reference. “Too bad. You did some good work on that last run-in with Crey. Honestly, it was nice having someone else who could handle covert work for a change.”
He nods subconsciously at the wisdom of Linuial’s decision. “I guess it can’t be helped. Just do me a favor and don’t point that thing my way. I’m pretty sure those shells will do as much damage to the living as the undead.”
“My Honored Ally spoke correctly, and with my authority,” Linuial replies. “Tonight is a night to lay aside all grievances, for the living to rally as they did once before, against the forces of Death. We have a common Enemy, a common goal. May it help us build bridges that last longer than a single night.”
She once again performs gassho as punctuation to the solemnity of this speech, also matching the Tsoo leader’s gesture precisely.
“All right, I’m about to make a very risky move. Please back me up. I think this will work better than trying it the other direction,“ she projects to Devereaux, out of sight behind her…she can’t see his expression to determine if he will accede to her request.
“Powerful Sorcerer, a house divided will inevitably fall. If we are to work as one, there should be only one leader. This is your claimed land, and I will not dispute it with you. You know far more about what we face than we do.”
She performs gassho again, but this time, makes it an inch lower than his. “Honored Enemy, will you do me the honor of being the leader of all of us?”
While neither Jade nor the Sorcerer betray what they really think of the likelihood of sharing common goals for longer than a day, Linuial offer obviously surprises them both. The Sorcerer regards Linuial speculatively, then lets his gaze sweep the rest of her group. “They will all agree to this?” he asks neutrally.
“They will all agree to it, because I am their leader, and because they are Heroes, and because they all know what is at stake.
“The One-That-Must-Not-Be-Named must NOT awaken. All have already pledged their lives to this goal. To follow the lead of an August Sorcerer such as yourself will be a rare opportunity for them.”
“Go ahead and laugh, but do not screw this up,“ she projects at Devereaux. “Yes, I know that you’re not a Hero, but let’s not make things complicated for him, shall we? I assume that your usual commitment applies…once you accept a contract, the mission comes before any lives…even your own. Am I right?“
The Sorcerer’s gaze snaps back to Nyghtshade, and his eyes narrow. “This one,” he says, fingers flicking in Ngyht’s direction as his voice chills, “reeks of the Undead magic. And yet…. something else… Not your prisoner, she is armed. You have compelled her somehow to help you?”
“Well, Ah like that!” Nyght sputters. “The nerve!”
“I’m perfectly fine but if you want to impress this guy, drop the Big Trouble in Little China routine. You’re no Kurt Russel and that’s not Lo Pan. He’s keeping it even out of respect but I don’t need telepathy to know he wants to laugh in your face.”
Without so much as turning around to look, he carries on, moving to greet Blood Nut and Jon Smith. The latter receiving a decidedly chillier reception.
“He started it, with that ‘Honored Enemy’ bit,“ she tells the Praetorian. “ ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ Not everybody has your refined sense of sarcasm. Now, let me do what I can to make this mission a success, and stop jiggling my elbow.“
Linuial twists her head to glance back at Nyghtshade. “Monique, mind your manners,“ she projects at the undead telepath. “At the moment, we have a truce, a potential alliance, a tour guide, and an encyclopedia of Ammit knowledge. If Xavier can control his tongue, you should be able to, as well.“
“That One is a victim of their magic, yes, and a friend and ally to us,” she replies to the Sorcerer. “She is here under our protection, nothing more. As you can see, she is armed with a weapon that is not of ‘their’ making, and I’ve given her instructions not to use her undead powers unless absolutely necessary. She is as much an enemy of our Enemy, as any of us, even more, as she has a reason to want vengeance.”
Monique opens her mouth to make some retort to the “vengeance” comment, but wisely closes it again, with a sigh, and a nod in deferment to Linuial.
To their surprise, the Sorcerer suddenly chuckles, and his accent flattens and broadens. “Like we’ve never heard of the hero who wears so much purple but shows no skin. I was just having you on.”
Behind him there is general smirking amongst his men, but they settle as he squares his shoulders and straightens, wrapping himself in his stiff Oxford veneer again.
“You’re here about the Death-mongers’activities in the cemetery. Why don’t you offer first what you know, and then we’ll see what need be added.”
“Told ya.” Devereaux’s mental voice swells with laughter.
“…and you’ve never heard of letting someone steal a march on you in order to put them in a good mood?“ she replies, unruffled. “Shame on you…are all your negotiation skills as rusty?“
Her mental laughter is just slightly more distinct than his.
“Is this going to work?“ Paige asks Tahquitz through telepathy, “I’m not terribly familiar with the Tsoo.“
“No idea…” Tahquitz thinks to himself to reply to Paige, “The language barrier kept me from talking to the Tsoo in the past… All I know is they take stuff from others and punch you if you try to stop them.”
Tahquitz looks at the Sorcerer and doesn’t offer anything but a blank expression… “I don’t know the play here, so I’m staying neutral.”
The Sorcerer listens as Tahquitz and Linuial share what they’ve learned, how the Banished Pantheon have targeted Nyghtshade, and what the speculations are as to why.
The Sorcerer mulls that over for a moment, and then offers information of his own.
“Since the Binding some time ago, we have stayed here in Astoria, keeping watch on the Banished Pantheon, fighting them when their numbers grow too strong, and watching that they do not unbind the god.
“But a week ago, there was a quake in the cemetery, and since then we have felt a drain in the binding rituals. It may be that one or more of the binding runes have been broken, or at least defaced.”
“We have tried to locate the source of the weakening, but although we have lost many scouts, so far at best we can give only a general location.”
“What can you offer to make the sharing of this worth the lives we’ve spent?”
Before Linuial can make an offer, Devereaux speaks up. “The ashes of Pha Xiong.”
The Sorcerer raises an eyebrow, controlling himself with an effort. There is, however, a good deal of stir amongst the Tsoo behind him.
“You have the ashes? You can provide them now?” the Sorcerer demands, and there’s no masking the eagerness in his voice.
Reaching into his vest, Devereaux retrieves a small wooden vial. On it are Asian characters painted in a beautiful, flowing hand. Far from mundane, the symbols themselves seem to glide across the surface as if imbued with a life of their own.
Cradling the object in his palm, he holds out his hand for the Sorcerer to examine. “I trust you recognize the calligraphy. This is just a sample to prove authenticity but you can be certain that we will provide you with their location.”
As the Sorcerer examines the vial, Devereaux continues his telepathic conversation with Linuial. “I never play the fool. It’s always better to come in with an offer instead of an ask.”
“You did do your homework!“ Linuial projects. “That steak dinner is yours, at any place of your choosing. Or any other kind of dinner. Or entertainment. Whatever you’d like from Lady Clarik, it’s yours, just name it.“
There is not a hint of humor in her mental voice…she means it, and Devereaux can “hear” it.
The Sorcerer takes a gliding step forward, his eyes riveted to the wooden vial. He cups his hands and passes them over it, never touching, but watching the moving calligraphy with a focused avarice.
Finally he does take the vial, and if it’s not clear whether his reverence is for the pinch of ashes’ owner or their value, it is clear he has no intention of sharing or showing it around. He tucks it very securely into a pouch hidden away beneath his beltflap.
“We can show you to the cemetary corner we suspect has been compromised. We can show you a secret way into the cemetary. Will you act on this tonight, or - like us - do you seek information only for now?”
“That sounds like something our leader should decide.”
He punctuates the deferment with a subtle nod toward the healer.
She duplicates Devereaux’s nod.
“We came seeking information, only, as well. Indeed, as leader that is your decision to make.” She nods also to the Sorcerer. “With one caveat, which I suspect you will agree with: if the opportunity to strike and end this now appears, we intended to carry through, not allow that opportunity pass unanswered.”
“Agreed,” the Sorcerer says, with a short nod.
Linuial turns to address the assembly she has been leading by default.
“Okay, listen up, Starfire,” she intones. Invoking her mental image of Paige, she adds, “Paige, this is for you, Tahq, Adam, Jade, and Monique, as well. Explain it to them for me, please.“
“We have an alliance with these members of the Tsoo. They’re here for the same thing we are. They have more knowledge than we do, and if we should be forced into battle, split second decisions might become a matter of life and death, so I’m putting this Sorcerer in charge. For the remainder of this sortie into the cemetery, he is your leader. Follow his instructions as if they were mine. No argument, no hesitation. I will do the same.
“Any questions? If not, we need to proceed…now.”
“Enough talk. Come.” The Sorcerer leads both groups off at a brisk pace off the road and down an alleyway behind several brownstones near Moth Cemetery’s northwest corner.
He guides them past a row of dumpsters and into a basement entrance to the last brownstone, down the stairs, across the damp dark basement and into a small apartment on the Cemetary side of the building.
It might have been a caretaker’s apartment once. Now the furniture is gone and the walls and floor painted with mystical symbols, including a large one on what appears to be a trapdoor.
At a gesture from the Sorcerer, one of this Inkmen springs forward to haul the trapdoor open, while another passes out flashlights to Linuial’s group.
The Sorcerer turns to face Linuial, one hand pointing to the opening in the floor, where the tip of a ladder leads down into darkness.
“A good leader goes before, inspiring his troops. A wise leader comes last, letting those who serve spring any traps first. This tunnel leads deep and far beneath the cemetary walls and wards.”
With a word, his men swarm down the ladder. “And now you and yours,” the Sorcerer orders, gesturing from Linuial to the ladder.
As the team emerges from the hidden passageway, they’re surprised to find that Moth Cemetery, the hallowed ground within which Mot was sealed, remains largely intact. There are some signs of recent activity. The earth is upturned in places and a few of the mausoleums are missing chunks of their edifices but the expected hordes of undead, along with the dark deity’s more horrifying minions, are conspicuously absent.
Moving cautiously among the gravestones, the group makes its way along a path that’s come to be known as the Profane Ascent. It winds through the cemetery until eventually reaching its terminus on a bluff overlooking the grounds. That is where the mouth of the beast lies.
For their part, the Tsoo range ahead. They move in groups of five, never allowing their comrades to be alone lest the whispering of the sleeper drive any one of them to madness and despair. Every few minutes, one such scouting party circles back to report that they’ve seen nothing unusual.
Aside from the lurid red light that befouls the whole zone, everything seems to be in order.
Linuial climbs to the crest of the bluff, then lies down next to the Sorcerer, scanning the ground below.
“Some of our people have enhanced senses,” she says softly. “If you think it might help, I can offer to send them out with your patrols.”
“Send them out on your own patrols,” he said dismissively. “My people know how to work together. They do not need your people being… disruptive, shall we say?”
“Agreed. My people also have experience working with each other. We’ll try not to overlap your patrols…no need to duplicate effort.”
She backs down the incline before standing. Beckoning, she calls Devereaux, Maggot Man, and Blood Nut together. “The Sorcerer is okay with us running our own patrols, as long as we stay out of their way. Xavier…do you want to chose a team and do so? Chris, Blood, pick a few Starfire members and do the same, I’ll stay back here to keep an eye on things and coordinate with the Sorcerer.”
“What about me?” Jon Smith says softly, from the side.
“I want you to stay by me, Jon, I might have need of you.”
“Since we’re keeping things in the family, I’ll take the usual suspects. Tahq can fill me in on exactly what it is we’re looking for.”
He starts to turn and gather up the Heroes he’s become familiar with over the past several months when a question strikes him. “Who’s the rookie you brought along? Pony tail, t-shirt, eyes that say, ‘Am I doing this right?’ You know the one.”
Adam glances at Nyghtshade, then looks at Devereaux, a bit shyly.
“Name’s Adamant, sir. Adam Masters. Just got my Hero card and moved to the city…like 2 days ago, so, yes, sir, I am a rookie. But ready to learn.”
Stepping back suddenly, he grabs the laser sword and snaps it and his electricity shield on, makes a few figure-8 passes with the sword to his right, left, and in front, and finishes with a lunge, before snapping both off and standing again. The entire performance takes less than a full second.
“…oh…but I did make my first two kills last night…” he adds, without a shred of bravado.
He waits, his eyes wide, for Devereaux’s reaction.
Devereaux watches the display with an impassive expression. “Your first kills? Didn’t know you capes were in the murder business.”
He shrugs. “Guess it had to happen eventually. Well, Padawan, you’re with me on this one. I assume you can do more with that thing than just twirl it around. If not, do us all a favor and tell me now. Blondie usually takes care of the support role and she’s staying here. I won’t be able to do anything about it if you poke your eye out.”
As he waits to gauge Adam’s answer, Devereaux projects a message to Paige and Tahquitz. “You’ve dealt with this guy before, right? Is he for real?”
“He wanted to run screaming into the hills a few times already before we talked him out of it. And the dude can fight. He seems sincere in wanting to do this.” Tahquitz thinks to himself.
Jade slips over to stand beside Nyght, who stands near Linuial. “The Tsoo are scouting, shall I go out and see what I can find?” she asks, voice low, but not so low as to be impossible for their group to hear.
It doesn’t take an empath to see that Jade is anxious to be moving, doing something.
Nyght’s frustration, her sense of near impotence in this of all places, is well hidden but no less real. She frowns, and inclines her head toward Linuial. “Best to ask her, Shugah.”
Linuial turns and smiles at Jade, before waving to Blood Nut. “Hey, Blood, take Jade with you. She’s getting antsy.”
To Jade: “The Sorcerer has his men patrolling in groups of five, and I agree with his assessment. Go with Blood, and don’t get separated. As a Tank, he can always use more damage.” She smiles again, and returns to watching Adam.
Jade tosses Linuial a jaunty salute and a nod of thanks, before bouncing off to join Blood Nut.
Nyght watches Jade go, with a hint of a smile, before turning back to Linuial and waiting to see what is required of her.
“Not murder, sir, just killed a couple of criminals while I was fighting them,” Adam explains. “But I wanted you to know that I won’t flinch from it, when necessary. I understand Ms. Fen doesn’t kill and doesn’t like it, but my trainer said it does sometime happen, so I’m good with it.
“I haven’t been in Paragon for long, but I’ve been training to wield ancient weapons, particularly sword and shield, for many years. It’s kinda my hobby, my sport…I don’t play football or baseball, they just seem pretty pointless to me.
“If I can come along with you, I’ll do my best for you, sir. Just tell me what to do.”
Shaking his head at Adam’s earnest demeanor, Devereaux tries and fails to keep a bit of amusement out of his voice. “That’ll do, Padawan. That’ll do.”
He sobers quickly. “But drop the ‘sir.’ I’m Devereaux. Just Devereaux. No ‘mister,’ no ‘sir,’ no excuses. Paige will get you linked up to the rest of us so we can all stay in contact. She, Tahquitz, and I have been around the bend together a few times. They should be able to keep you from ending up like those two criminals you accidentally killed.”
Making a final check of his squad, he moves to make the short descent from the bluff and back into the larger cemetery.
“Adam, if you want to talk to Devereaux or Tahquitz and they’re out of earshot, just think about talking to them in your mind, say it mentally and I’ll forward it along.” Paige says to Adam’s mind. “And I don’t see what you see, so if you want to tell me something you’re looking at, you’ll need to describe it.”
“Thankfully, we’re not facing down a lot of humans out here. Adam, you should be fine.” Tahquitz reassures him. Then he turns to Devereaux to inform him on the plan, but he’s already in motion, so he uses Paige’s link to get him up to speed.
“So, I take it from the prior speech back on the street that you have never been here. Well, to cut to the quick, we’re headed to the final resting place to make sure the place is still sealed. If it’s not, we’re going to go in and see if the corpse has been disturbed, or worse, the ‘God Killer’ sword has been stolen. If it has, then we have a new mission. If not, we ‘re-seal’ the place without losing our minds, and we fight off those who try to stop us.”
Adam swings his head around, looking for the source of the voice. When he fails to find anyone moving their mouth, he tentatively thinks, “…hello?…okay, so, like this? I mean, I don’t know who you are…this is going to work? You don’t sound like Mist…umm…Devereaux, am I not going to see you?“
Paige walks up to Adam, and says plainly “I’m right here. Look at me.”
Her mouth doesn’t move as she tells him, “It’s like a walkie talkie. Just picture who you want to talk to and think of what to say to them. That’s it. It’ll get easier once you get the hang of it.” She smiles at Adam. “Try it with me,” she says out loud.
Jade cat-foots around with Blood Nut, searching for some hint of anything zombie-ish, or monster-ish, or just wrong and out of place for a cemetery. But so far, nothing. And that bothers her far more than wading into an ambush.
He nearly jumps…nearly. “Oh, okay, hi, Paige, I didn’t know that was just you. Okay, let me see…”
He squeezes his eyes shut, and screws up his face. “Okay, is this right?“
“Yes, I hear you!” Paige says back, “but relax… you don’t have to close your eyes.” She suppresses a giggle as she checks in with Tahquitz, who took off flying to survey what’s ahead. “Got Adam linked up, Tahq, Dev, you both alright?”
“Looking good, Cricket. And you too, Highlander.” Tahquitz says to the two of them below.
“Dev, I’ll keep within 1000 ft. of you.” Tahq says as he rises into dark skies.
Devereaux responds with a thumbs up raised to the sky and a mental broadcast. “Sounds good, Tahq.”
As he continues wending his way between the scattered graves, he scans the world around him with both his eyes and his extra sensory perception. In his mental landscape, the minds of both the Heroes and the Tsoo appear as vivid points of colored light.
Each one shines in a way that’s distinct to him but none feel unusual or out of place. Linuial and Nyghtshade are perched on the bluff where he last saw them. Nyghtshade’s mind is shrouded as always behind the sort of shielding that all telepaths learn to erect around themselves.
As he muses about the differences between psychics and those without the gift, one of the Tsoo psyches suddenly winks out. He pauses near a gravestone to better focus his senses when the other four around the first disappear as well.
“Heads up,” he blasts his words out, not only to the teenagers he’s brought with him, but back to Linuial as well. “One of the Tsoo teams just went dark. I didn’t feel anything like a struggle from them beforehand. One second they were there, the next nothing.”
Unaware of what has just happened, Nyght turns to Linuial.
“Ah can’t just sit heah doin’ nothin’. Ah don’t have to use mah powehs, mah senses are hypeh-sharp, Ah could just scout around and see what Ah can find.”
“Please, Linuial - afteh all that’s happened, Ah need to be helpin’.”
“No time, Monique, something’s happening,” the blonde woman snaps. “Stay here, stay safe, don’t endanger anyone else by getting yourself in trouble.”
With that, she pelts her way up to the Sorcerer, slowing only as she reaches him, to give him time to acknowledge her approach.
“My psychic reports one of your teams just ‘winked out’, disappeared from his senses. He can tell us where they were.
“What do you want to do?”
“Call your people there, and I will bring mine. We must find out what happened, and gather to fight,” the Sorcerer snaps out. “Tell me where, now.”
Nyghtshade drops to a crouch as Linuial moves off to work her way to the edge of the bluff and join the Sorcerer there.
“Stay heah, stay safe,” Nyght mutters under her breath, one hand on the loaded shotgun. “Ah’m an Incarnate, foah cryin’ out loud.”
But she obeys, however irritably, and stays where she is.
“Xavier, the Sorcerer is calling his people in, and he wants us to do the same. He also wants to know where his team were when they disappeared. What’s the best way for you to share that location with us?“
“That’s where it gets a little complicated,” Devereaux replies. “They were well outside my visual range and I wasn’t connected with their minds to be able to pinpoint them. Best I could manage is to have Tahq do a flyover, then try to guide him in.”
He lowers his chin into one hand, trying to find some way to overcome the disconnect.
That’s when the heavy stone door of a nearby mausoleum bursts open and a group of Dry Chambers begins to shamble out.
“Blondie,” he says, his mental voice calm but colored by a hint of urgency. “I’m gonna have to call you back. Some guys from the Civil War just showed up and they don’t look happy to see me.”
Hearing the grinding of the doors opening ahead, Paige starts into a sprint, “We’re up Adam! Let’s go!” She is trying to close the distance between Devereaux and them.
“Xavier, you have a split second to say no before I start pulling you out,” Linuial snaps. She stands, lowers her hands palm-down towards the ground, and begins chanting.
Seeing Linuial rise and begin to chant, Nyght shifts position, although still low, and begins to focus on hearing, augmented night vision, all her expanded senses, hoping to catch anything that might try to sneak up on them.
“And then what? We’d all be trapped on that hill with you and Nyghtshade. If I were-“
He’s forced to cut the reply short as the Pantheon’s cannon fodder troops draw closer. As he’s done so many times before, Devereaux allows his conscious mind to drift until he seizes on a memory of a time spent in a mind not his own. A scientist, a computer console emblazoned with a warning in bright red script, a single mind still coherent enough to be pulled from an all encompassing darkness.
“Calling me out again so soon, Devereaux?”
He eyes the Dark Ring Mistress standing before him in his mind’s eye. “I’m afraid so, Claire.”
She laughs, a clear and sultry sound. “You told me this would be exciting but I never imagined just how much fun we’d be having.”
“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude but there’s no time for this right now,” he says, growing impatient.
To her credit, the Mistress manages to clasp her hands in front of her chest in a gesture that actually suggests embarrassment. “Right, I’m sorry. But you know, you really should mention it to them.”
“I’ll think about it,” Devereaux replies tersely. “Now let’s go!”
The transformation takes less than an instant. Having metamorphosed into the form of a Dark Ring Mistress, Devereaux wastes no time in using telekinetic might to tear a headstone from the earth and hurl it at the nearest Pantheon zombie, buying himself some time to finish his message to Linuial.
“Like I said, you pull us out now, we’ll all just be stuck up there and probably surrounded. Bring Jon and Blood Nut back if they’re not in the same boat as us but we’re staying.”
The Banished Pantheon has sprung their trap. By dispersing their forces across Moth Cemetery and lying in wait, they’ve managed to divide what was a single unified group of fighters into isolated, bite-sized targets. There’s a very real danger of being picked apart piecemeal.
Strangely though, there’s no sign of the Pantheon’s forces on the cliff at the end of the Profane Ascent. In fact, the entire length of the pathway is free of the enemy’s presence.
That is until a midnight blue mist begins to waft up from the earth. It seeps between the very blades of grass, permeating the air with a sudden chill and a deep feeling of foreboding.
Any doubt that the unease is justified evaporates when a voice rasps out over the bluff.
“I suppose I should thank you. Not only have you saved me the trouble of hunting down Monique. You’ve brought me plenty of sacrifices to strengthen my master.”
As the Heroes and Tsoo swing their heads in search of the speaker, a wooden tribal mask floats into view. Far too large to fit a man’s face, it’s bulbous eyes and sharpened teeth are dabbed red with what might be blood.
“I’ll make you an offer. Since you were kind enough to deliver her to me, I’ll let you escape this place with your bodies and souls intact. Simply leave Monique and these Tsoo fools and you can go about your business.”
The mask turns, revealing a swirling vortex of the same blue mist keeping it aloft. “Of course, if you refuse, I’ll liter this hill with your bones.”
At those last words, a horrible groan cuts through the air. Somewhere just beyond the veil of fog, two points of sickly green light appear and begin advancing up the slope.
The mask speaks again, it’s voice a dry, harsh grating. “You have until Adamastor arrives to make your choice.”
For Monique, enough is enough. Clutching the shotgun with its load of holy ammo, she springs up and forward, to land directly in front of the floating wooden Death-mask. “AKPAN!” she shouts up at it, “Ah walked in heah undeh mah own poweh, and Ah’ll walk out exactly the same way. And I’ll be darned if Ah’m lettin’ anyone else sacrifice theah own lives to save mine! Do you know, Akpan, the downside of big big scary floatin’ Death Spirit masks? The’ah REALLY hard to MISS!”
As she shouts the last, she swings up the shotgun and fires both barrels at nearly point-blank range.
As the mask rocks back, bits of it blown clear by the blast, the occult blue light falters and the Mask’s flight becomes highly erratic.
Grimly, Nyght stands her ground and reloads.
“Well, okay!” Tahq sees the scene unfold beneath him as he dives to Monique’s aid.
“Akpan! Nice to meet you! I specialize in making bastards like you kiss oblivion. Here!” Tahquitz uses his fist to charge the magic-infused dagger he took out of the Dry Husk earlier and put enough heat into it to make anything into magma, “I’ll miss you, little guy. There’s no coming back from this one.”
He throws the dagger in a fireball to plant firmly into the mask, causing it to spread across the wood like a charge of napalm, melting the wood as it catches fire.
As the bleached wood of the mask is engulfed in flames, the familiar sound of a crow’s mocking caw emanates from the skull-like visage.
“It seems I must take back what I said before. You’re all fools!“
Even as Akpan’s laughter continues, the murky haze is already beginning to vanish. Like early morning mist burned away by the sun, it simply ceases to be.
“Do not think you’ve won anything today. Go, Heroes, and discover the true depths of your own pointlessness here. I will see you soon…”
Another bout of squawking laughter seizes him as the mask succumbs to the flames. Far from simply dissolving into ashes, it explodes in a mighty rush of air and a bloom of ghastly, pale blue light.
When the blinding nova dissipates, the mask, the mire, and the monster that had been bearing down on the group are all gone.
“Yeah, yeah, talk talk blah blah,” Nyght grumbles as she finishes reloading the shotgun.
“You good, Annie O?” Tahq asks as he lands gently next to her.
“Tahq! Tahq, where’s my air support?!”
Having taken his eyes off the battle to scan for Tahquitz hovering above, Devereaux is surprised when he turns his gaze back to the zombies he had been fighting. The entire lot of them lies face down in the cemetery’s unkempt grass, completely still.
“Scratch that. I think I scared ‘em to death…no pun intended.”
Returning to his true form, he surveys the immediate area for threats and finds none. “Now that’s just plain weird,” he mumbles to no one in particular.
“Ah’m good, Tahquitz,” Nyght nods, rubbing her shoulder where the shotgun recoil had kicked. “Thanks foah finishin’ it off.”
“Anytime. I’m just glad he showed up sooner than later.” Tahquitz said, with a bit of relief.
He heard Devereaux’s communique, and says back, “Sorry about that, Dev. Saw a target of opportunity. Ready to regroup when you are.”
“No need, Tahq. These things aren’t a threat anymore.”
Returning to his natural form, Devereaux confirms the assertion with the toe of his brown, Italian leather boot. When several swift kicks provoke no response from the now inert corpses, he wrinkles his face in disgust. “Magic,” he spits derisively.
“Paige, you and Kenobi can throttle back. Looks like these things ran outta juice.”
With the all-clear sent, he refocuses his attention on Linuial and sends another telepathic message. “Blondie, what’s your status up there? My dance partners just dropped dead…no pun intended. Any insight on why that might’ve happened?”
“Akpan just appeared here, trying to frighten us into handing Monique over. She and Tahquitz defeated him, way too easily. He had summoned Adamastor, who disappeared the same time Akpan was defeated. I’m guessing that’s when you ‘lost’ your enemies, too.
“Everyone there okay? Can you give us the location of the missing Tsoo patrol, now?“
“The kids are fine…” His mental voice trails off.
Propped up against a badly leaning willow tree, its chest staved in by the tombstone Devereaux launched with the Ring Mistress’ borrowed powers, is the corpse of a Tsoo Red Inkman. Though the body is dressed in faded blue rags and a dirt covered kepi, there’s no mistaking the distinctive Asian features of the face or the iconic tattoos peeking out from various holes in the clothing.
A wave of disgust wells up in Devereaux as he looks at the remains. Even from a distance, he recognizes the unfortunate man as one of the warriors who stood with the Sorcerer during their brief negotiations just an hour before.
Moving to the mausoleum from which his attackers had begun their assault, he puts his back to the wall beside the doorway. Readying himself for anything, he cautiously leans around the corner to peer inside.
Two free standing torches are on the floor of the tomb. Extinguished but still smoking, they are arranged in a circle with several small bones, including what appears to be the skull from some kind of rodent. Runes carved into the floor itself are giving off the last rays of frosty blue light.
Thinking quickly, Devereaux photographs the scene. He winces as the flash from his cellphone explodes in the darkness of the burial chamber.
That done, he reestablishes contact with the healer. “Bad news is the patrol’s dead. Worse news is we can’t stay here. The whole damn cemetery is compromised. Pull us back now. We need to get gone.”
The tiny woman turns to the Sorcerer. “Your patrol are all dead. It’s time to pull everyone back and come up with another plan.”
Once again, she drops her hands, palms down, arms spread wide, and begins chanting. She reaches forward, clenches her fists, and jerks them back, and Paige appears in front of her. “I’ll Recall the rest of Xavier’s team, please tell Blood and Chris to come back, too.”
“Alright, Blood, Chris, we’re regrouping. Come back to the rendezvous point.” Paige sends out to her team mates.
“Done.” She nods to Linuial.
As the team regroups on the bluff overlooking the cemetery, chatter breaks out. The death of the Tsoo patrol, along with the ambush by and sudden disappearance of the Banished Pantheon, has everyone on edge.
Opinions on what to do next vary but one thing is abundantly clear. It’s time to fall back and figure out just what the necrophiles are up to.
The Sorcerer has pulled his scouts back, and although reluctant to leave their dead companions here, Devereaux has convinced the Tsoo that the honored dead will not lie easy in this place, will not in fact lie down at all.
Reluctantly, The Tsoo Sorcerer agrees to collect his men, and to withdraw and consider options.
“The rocky park in Romero Heights?” he suggests to the team of heroes, “Unless you feel safer in Talos?”
With the team gathered and a location set, it’s time to move out. There’s some grumbling on the part of the Tsoo. The thought of their own becoming unwilling servants to the Pantheon disgusts them, a feeling that’s shared by the Heroes, but there’s nothing else to be done. In the end, stoicism and expedience win the day and the unlikely allies make the trek out of Moth Cemetery.
Whatever the Pantheon’s game, it’s obvious that they aren’t employing their usual methods. Twice now, the Death Shaman known as Akpan has summoned Adamastor as if on a whim. Normally recalcitrant, the unholy monstrosity has answered his call without a hint of protest. Either Akpan has acquired a depth of power never before seen among the shamans of the Pantheon or something far more sinister is at play. Either way, he must be dealt with before he can further empower his master, Mot, and the world again falls under the sway of the warped and evil god.