Paragon City Stories: Death Becomes Her
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act II, Scene 2
Place: Dark Astoria
The Tsoo base in Romero Heights is lavish in a manner that befits the gang’s Asian roots. Set in an abandoned office building, calligraphic banners festoon the walls and sweet smelling incense burns in braziers carved with serpentine brass dragons. All in all, it gives the place an opium den like atmosphere.
But despite the fact that the Tsoo in other parts of Paragon City partake in the drug trade, there’s no sign of usage here. All the gang’s members are intently focused and deadly serious, especially once the Sorcerer delivers news of their lost comrades.
A meeting is called in what used to be a large conference room. Under the unblinking eyes of a massive Daoist statue depicting some ancient monk, the Tsoo and the Heroes sit down to discuss their next course of action.
Seated comfortably in a plush leather office chair, Devereaux places his phone on the table. On the screen is the high resolution photograph he took of the Banished Pantheon implements in Moth Cemetery.
After clearing his throat, he addresses the entire room. “I’m no expert on magic but I’ve seen something like this before. It’s a summoning circle. Kinda like what you’d get at a seance.”
He looks to the man at the head of the table, a Boss he’s come to understand is called Golden Fist, for confirmation.
When the gangster nods, he continues. “I found it inside a mausoleum right after the…unfortunate incident with your men. I’d bet it’s how the Pantheon managed to ambush us. They stayed hidden in some corner of the place, then summoned their forces in when we were divided. Very Sun Tzu.”
Golden Fist eyes him from under the brim of his conical sedge hat and for a moment there’s a nervous edge to the conversation. Sensing this, Devereaux prepares to apologize for the slight but the Tsoo leader speaks first.
“Sun Tzu, indeed. We have been fighting these do khon for so long it seems they have learned from our tactics.”
A murmur of assent begins to build among the other Tsoo but Golden Fist silences them with a slight gesture. “Tell me then, nguoi nuoc ngoài, what do you make of this? Just what game are they attempting to play?”
Nyghtshade, seated primly on the edge of another chair, stirs at that.
“We think we know the name of the Shaman causing this, but his power seems to have grown enormously, if he can now strike someone down and raise them back up as walkin’ dead, all practically in the blink of an eye. Last Ah knew, that sort of thing took a much longeh ritual. This isn’t…” She hesitates, discarding “natural” and “right” as being too ironic, before settling on, “…normal. Foah what Ah know of the Banished Pantheon.”
“Nothing they do is…normal,” Golden Fist replies. “But you are correct. This is beyond even their capacity. This shaman, you say you know his name? How is that?”
Though his voice is calm and his face betrays no expression, there’s a definitive note of suspicion in the man’s question.
Nyght hunches her shoulders, somewhat defensively, but responds honestly, “His name is Akpan. And Ah know that, because he’s the Death Shaman who struck me down dead, and raised me back up to serve someone else.”
One hand drifting down to cup the front of her belt, she lifts her chin and adds flatly, “But Ah had otheh ideahs. So Ah came heah instead, and learned to be a hero.”
Golden Fist raises his eyebrows at the revelation. “A creation that defied it’s master’s will? Interesting.”
Leaning to one side, he confers with the Sorcerer who’s seated to his right in hushed tones. “My associate tells me you used a common shotgun during the battle in the street and at the cemetery. The Pantheon’s thây ma use such weapons but you do not seem to be one of them. This Akpan must have imbued you with considerable power for you to have broken free of him. Why resort to something so…unsophisticated?”
Though the question is addressed to Nyghtshade, Golden Fist casts his gaze around the table as if seeking a broader answer.
Linuial bows her head slightly toward Golden Fist. “As the leader of our group, that was my decision. Since her,” she indicates Nyghtshade namelessly by nodding in her direction, “powers were given to her by the Pantheon, I suspected they might be distorted or redirected in unexpected ways, perhaps even turned against our friend, or all of us. Since I did not want to leave her entirely defenseless, it seemed to me to be far safer to provide her with a weapon that could not be re-purposed by the Pantheon.
“The shotgun is quite ordinary, the shells have been blessed and have a doubled affect on the undead, but other than that are also quite ordinary.”
“A very sensible decision.” Golden Fist replies. “But ultimately fruitless.”
“We, too, can command some power over death.” He spreads his arms to indicate his men. “Among us, there are masters of a style we call Death Moon. In all my years fighting these lo dít, I have never seen them bend the power of such warriors. I doubt they could even if they wanted to.”
As Golden Fist speaks to Linuial, Devereaux reaches out to take his phone from the table. Just as his fingertips make contact with the device, a jolt of electricity leaps the gap, bursting into blinding blue sparks.
“Damn!” he curses. Quickly pulling his hand away.
Golden Fist, ever unaffected, doesn’t even react. “Are you all right?” he asks simply.
“Devereaux…” The Ring Mistress’ alluring voice fills his mind again, rising on the last syllable of his name as if in warning.
With the pain still shooting through his singed fingers, it’s difficult to mask his annoyance. “Claire, please.”
She doesn’t argue. She simply sighs. “Fine, fine.”
“I’m all right,” he says aloud. “Must be something wrong with the battery.” Carefully this time, he picks up the phone. Upon seeing the scorch mark covering part of the screen, he huffs in annoyance. “And now I need a new phone.”
“Most unfortunate,” Golden Fist says in a matter of fact tone. “There was an electronics store not far from here but I believe business has been rather…dead, as of late.”
“Yeah, well with everything going on I-“ The words die on Devereaux’s lips. He looks up from the useless lump of plastic in his hand to find the thinnest whisper of a grin on the Tsoo Boss’ face. “A Tsoo with a sense of humor. Didn’t think you had it in you.”
Golden Fist doesn’t even flinch. “I could say the same of you, shapeshifter. I suppose we all have our secrets.”
Though he can’t be sure, there’s something about the way Golden Fist says the words that makes him bite off a retort.
Nyght regards Golden Fist somewhat skeptically. “Ah’m shoah yoah Death Moon magic fellows are quite skilled, and that in the past the Banished Pantheon couldn’t stand against them…” she says slowly, one eyebrow raised.
“And yet, tonight…. cleahly, tonight has not been like otheh nights. Somethin’ new is goin’ on with Akpan and his bunch, and we need to find out what it is, and how to stop him, befoah he decides to give M…. his god a wake-up call.”
Golden Fist nods in agreement. “The men they defiled were not Death Moon but your point is valid. This Akpan is clearly more powerful than what we have seen before.”
He pauses for a moment, leaving a pregnant silence in the room. “We are not without resources but I would like to hear what plans you have made first.”
Nyght looks to Linuial and Devereaux.
As attention turns to the tiny blonde woman, the remarkable thing is that she doesn’t even seem to notice.
Her hazel green eyes are fixed on some point in the distance.
As seconds tick by, and irritation begins to appear on several faces, the silence continues.
Only Devereaux hears: “Golden Fist feels it, too. I can’t read your mind, but you know damned well I can feel your emotions. Whatever your ‘secret’ is, just how long did you plan to keep it a secret from ‘me’?
“I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume you are trying to keep it from our Tsoo allies. And that you intended to clue me in at the first available opportunity.
“Or am I to assume instead that you are being controlled? I don’t want to go through that entire ‘guess the shapeshifter’ paradox again.“
“That only happened because you decided to make it an issue. By now I’m sure you know better than to go digging around in my business but I’ll remind you anyway. The client-contractor relationship entitles you to my professional services only. Anything past that’s gonna cost extra. By the way, now’s not a good time to get distracted.”
“The plan was to investigate Moth Cemetery and make sure this sleeping god was still knocked out,” Devereaux says aloud, clearing the awkward stoppage in conversation. “From what I gather, it is but we could be looking at a wake up call any minute.”
Golden Fist puts his elbows on the table and steeples his fingers. “So it would seem. And how do you plan to go about preventing that?”
“Well,” Devereaux begins, recalling the truncated explanation Paige gave him when he first met with the team. “I’ve heard something about a sword that was used to seal this thing. We may have a similar item.”
“Oh?” Though his response is clipped, Golden Fist’s men betray the general sentiment among the Tsoo. Another round of murmuring breaks out but this time there’s clear excitement in the conversation.
Again, the Tsoo Boss silences them with a simple wave of his hand. “And what item would that be?”
“You’d do best to ask the owner,” Devereaux replies, casting a pointed look in Nyghtshade’s direction.
Nyghtshade looks torn about discussing this with the Tsoo, but realizes they are, at least for the moment, allies. Resignedly, she explains, “This belt Ah’m wearin’ is magically warded to prevent mah Curse, the Banished Pantheon curse, from ovehwhelmin’ me and makin’ me do things… that Ah choose not to succumb to.”
Picking her words carefully, she adds, “So… well, it’s possible that some of the magic involved in wardin’ this belt is the same… kind of magic… that was used in the sword Mr. Devereaux was talkin’ about.”
“That sword, the God-Killer, was forged from a piece of the goddess Tielekku, herself,” Golden Fist says, his face and voice deadly serious.
“We Tsoo spent much time and blood in bringing its power to bear in this place. If your belt truly carries the same blessing, you must surrender it to us at once.”
Nyght claps both hands to her belt as she jumps to her feet.
“No! Absolutely not, you don’t undehstand, An cannot remove it!” she warns, tense and defensive.
“Beloved Star Queen…How COULD you?!“
It is just shy of a mental scream. “Revealing that to the Tsoo? Forcing Monique to give up that kind of information to men who are only barely and temporarily friendly to us?!
Devereaux is no empath, but the impact of the elven woman’s emotion along the telepathic channel is so powerful it strikes like a physical blow. “There is no coming back from that. I hope you have a complete plan to follow that up…I no longer recognize you. I have no plan to salvage this.
“You are on your own to save whatever…and whoever…you can. As soon as you endanger Starfire, I am pulling them out.“
Jade has been sitting off to the side, letting the others steer the conversation, but as Nyght leaps up in alarm, Jade surges to her feet as well and swiftly moves to take up a defensive stance by Nyght’s side, clearly ready to defend her if necessary.
“Y’know, for an empath, you suck at reading people.”
“That’s not gonna happen,” Devereaux says firmly.
To his credit, Golden Fist is as cool and collected as ever. Some of his men react to Jade’s sudden movement, making to leap from their own chairs by reflex. He calms them with a look. “And why not? It’s not as if we lack the power to simply take it from you.”
“As you said, it took you quite a bit of time and lives to get the sword to do whatever it does and that was a gift from this goddess Tie-whatever. That belt was custom built by MAGI. How much time and blood do you think it would cost for you to figure out how it works? Could you do it before this god we’re all after wakes up and plunges the world into chaos or whatever it is he likes to do?”
There’s a challenge in Devereaux’s words. One that’s not lost on the Tsoo. Golden Fist considers the situation before him. After another tense moment, he speaks. “‘On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem.’ It seems you’ve learned Sun Tzu’s teachings well, shapeshifter.”
Devereaux says nothing.
Looking to Nyghtshade, the Tsoo makes his case. “Very well. I will allow you to keep the belt but there is something I would ask you to do for me in return.”
“The’ahs no allowin’ involved heah, Shugah,” Nyght replies coldly to the Golden Fist, and the menace in her voice is barely contained.
“But… if yoah ‘favor’ has to do with defeatin’ Akpan… Ah’m listenin’.”
Surprisingly, Golden Fist’s lips twist into a smile. “I can appreciate your boldness. To challenge me here, in a place where we are your only allies. You will need that kind of courage to accomplish this task.”
Before the Tsoo can say more, Devereaux interjects. “Girls, girls, you’re both pretty. Now what is it you need done?”
“There is something I would like you to retrieve for me. A very important scroll, to be specific. It contains information that I believe will be critical in stopping this Pantheon shaman from becoming anymore troublesome.”
Looking from Nyghtshade to Devereaux and finally Linuial, Golden Fist continues, “I will forewarn you, though. It is guarded by mercenaries of some sort. At least, that is what we believe them to be. Do this for me, and I will not trouble you about the belt again.”
“Then that is what we will do,” Linuial says, abruptly.
Her expression has not changed one iota. “Where will we find this scroll? Or is our task to discover its whereabouts, as well?”
Golden Fist pays no mind to the healer’s stony demeanor. “It is in a warehouse not far from here. We once used it as a base of operations but we were forced out by…whoever these mercenaries are. My men will guide you there but they will offer no assistance once you’re inside.”
Nyghtshade nods shortly. “Fine. Let’s get movin’, sooneh begun, sooneh done.”
Nyght turns to stride away, but Jade picks up the forgotten shotgun and hands it to her. With a sigh, Nyght accepts the weapon and stalks toward the exit, with Jade close behind.
Linuial performs gassho to the head Tsoo, stands and follows Nyghtshade and Jade, beckoning to the remaining Starfire members who were waiting outside the conference room.
She addresses her mental image of the telepathic Nyghtshade. “Monique, can you hear me?“
“Ah heah you fine,” Monique replies, shortly. Linuial has no trouble sensing her anger, although it would be hard to say towards whom it’s directed.
“Xavier’s emotional state is not consistent with what is going on around him. There is something he sees, or hears, or otherwise senses, that we do not.
“I have no understanding of why he would reveal every secret we have to the Tsoo. I cannot see any advantage, and I fear for your safety, as well as everyone else’s.
“I’m not playing ‘guess the shapeshifter’ with him again. I have no idea if he can be trusted, not because I think he might be someone else, but because I think his judgment might be impaired.
“There may come a moment when I decide to pull Starfire out, even if it means people get killed, even if it means abandoning Xavier. You are not part of Starfire, but you are welcome to withdraw with us if we do so.
“There is a wise saying, most likely disseminated by way of animated films: ‘He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.’ I don’t want today to turn into a catastrophic loss and an awakened god for someone else to have to deal with. If that means running away and leaving others to die, I will do so.
“By the way, I think from here on out we should not share any information with Xavier, or with Paige or Tim either, for that matter, since they will simply pass it on to him. Adam I don’t know about, but I suggest he not be in the know, either.“
There is a brief pause, as Nyght considers all of that. At last, she replies, more calmly, Ah don’t know why Mr. Deveraux had me spill the beans about the belt eitheh. It’s odd, but most of the time Ah can’t fathom what he’s thinkin’ anyway. If - if - he’s compromised somehow… if the time comes that you feel you need to pull yoah people out, Ah understand. Thank you foah lettin’ me know. But Ah have neveh bailed on a team, and so long as Mr. Devereaux needs help - whateveh that help may be - Ah’ll stay and give it to him. Just so you know.”
"But take Adam with you when… if… you leave. With most of the group gone, he’s goin’ to be in oveh his head heah.”
“Very well. I won’t feel duty bound to give you a heads up before we leave, then. And I’ll take Adam out with us.“
As the group walks, Linuial falls behind and begins chatting with the young swordsman.
“You and I should talk, shapeshifter,” Golden Fist says, entirely unbidden.
“We will,” Devereaux replies. “But not now. I need to go make sure those fools don’t get themselves killed for your damn scroll.”
Golden Fist laughs. It’s not the carefully measured expression he’s employed up to now. Rather, it’s a true outpouring of amusement. “You do what you must, I suppose. But is it really worth the price you’re paying?”
Devereaux’s gaze is steely behind his sunglasses but he matches the Tsoo’s lighthearted tone. “You tell me.”
Not waiting for a reply, he turns and follows the others out.
The trek from the Tsoo base to the warehouse where the scroll is stored takes less time than one would expect. The Tsoo Inkmen assigned to be guides have mastered the high flying acrobatics made famous by a host of martial arts films. They’re able to leap vast distances and move at speeds no normal person could ever hope for. Thankfully for the Heroes, they have their own superhuman powers of locomotion.
As the warehouse comes into view, the Tsoo stop short and refuse to go any further. They bow but whether the gesture is a show of respect for the group’s courage or a final send off is unclear. The tusked demon masks the Inkmen wear hide their faces and they certainly aren’t talking.
The building itself seems fairly benign. Save for the unusual silhouettes standing in the long shadows just outside the main entrance, that is.
“Want me to let mah mental shields down and see if Ah can figure out who -or what- is guardin’ that warehouse?” Nyght sends to Linuial and Devereaux.
Hearing Nyghtshade’s voice in his mind, Devereaux sends back, “Works for me but you’d better ask Blondie. She didn’t take very well to my negotiating tactics and she’s never been fond of my strategic planning.”
He hesitates to continue the message but eventually decides to press on. “You know she’s got something drastic in mind, don’t you?”
There is a pause, before Nyght replies to Devereaux, “Ah’m not exactly cleah on her plan except that we’ah supposed to be tryin’ to determine if Akpan is close to waking, um… his god heah. And she also was pretty insistant that Ah do mah best not to use my Banished Pantheon-created powers… which, come to think of it, telepathy is one of them… Ah’ll wait to see what she says.”
“Except… Ah’m using it right now, so….“ Her sigh is almost audible.
Jade, who is not privy to the telepathic discussion, whispers to Nyght, “Want me to get closer, take a look and see what we’re up against?”
Nyght shakes her head slightly. “Best wait to see what Linuial wants done, she’s leadin’,” she replies, also in a whisper.
Despite himself, Devereaux laughs. “Secrets never were your strong suit.”
“Listen, I know that look she had back there. Blondie puts in on whenever she’s convinced there’s a greater threat and she alone must be responsible for saving the innocent.”
Another bout of laughter, then he sobers. “She makes mistakes that way; starts trusting her own assumptions and ignoring everything else. Normally I write it off as her mother hen complex but we’re not in a position to have a wide margin of error. If you know something about what she’s planning, and I know she’s planning something, you’d be doing us all a favor by telling me.”
Nyghtshade shakes her head, although in the gloom it may be hard to see. The tone of her answer leaves no doubt, though.
“Misteh Devereaux, best if you ask Linuial yoahself. Playin’ the telephone-game rarely works out well, and Ah am not gettin’ into the middle between you two.”
“Why would I bother asking if I thought that was an option?” Though the question is rhetorical, there’s no malice in his voice.
Closing the telepathic channel, he opens a new one with Paige. “Hey, kid. Think you could do me a favor?”
Paige arrives as one of the last of the group, making sonic assisted leaps to get to the warehouse, but she is towards the back of the team. She arrives listening to the murmurs of everyone about the scroll, as Tahquitz is up in the sky keeping watch.
She hears Devereaux and replies, “Sure! What’s up?”
“Blondie’s up to something. She’s got that look, y’know? I’m not sure what we’re about to face but if it’s anything like what we’ve been seeing, I won’t have time to watch her. Just keep an eye on her for me. The last thing I need is a repeat of what happened on our last job.”
Paige’s enthusiasm is as refreshing as ever but Devereaux can’t help but notice the naivete behind her eagerness. He knows she’s come far since they first met; been pushed all the way to her limit, stared into the abyss, and balked at what she saw. He hopes all of that hard won experience will make her up to this new task.
“Linuial? Of course!” Paige replies as she walks up to the warehouse with the rest of the group.
Linuial summons her mental image of Nyghtshade. “I’d prefer if Xavier or Paige do that, Monique. Since your telepathy is also Banished Pantheon created.
“Xavier seems to think that you’re not in any danger from the BP, and it’s possible he’s right. I much prefer to err on the side of caution, particularly in your case, as we still don’t know exactly what the Pantheon wants with you.
“However, if I think Starfire is in too much danger and have to have them cut and run, you may wind up with Xavier as your leader, so perhaps it would be best if you ask him, and follow his lead…as long as you believe you can trust his judgment. I’ve already given you my best suggestion…if you feel you can’t follow it, you’ll have to make your own decisions.“
Nyght turns and walks over to Linuial, to reply in a whisper, “Just to be clear, if Ah understand you correctly, that means Ah cannot respond to anything you send to me telepathically, is that what yo’ah sayin’?”
“If so, Ah understand yoah concerns, but then how am Ah supposed to let you - or anyone else - know if Ah see a problem? Or if Ah run into one? Shoutin’ feels like tippin’ mah hand.”
A slow smile begins to spread across the blonde woman’s lips. It’s been so long since she wore her characteristic smile.
She responds in kind. “No, dear, I just don’t want you trying to read people in a building that might be full of Pantheon. Why run the risk of drawing their attention, when we have two other telepaths who can do exactly the same thing?
“Had I any fear about you reading us, I wouldn’t have tried to contact you that way. But, again, I think you should start following Xavier’s orders, if that is what you intend to do from now on. I’ll be happy to offer advice, but as long as you aren’t ready to take it, then you’re probably better off keeping Xavier happy. You know how he loves to be in charge…and hates to have me ‘second guessing’ him.
“If he thinks you’re taking my ‘orders’, or even advice, he could bust a blood vessel.” She winks at the undead woman.
She actually breaks into soft laughter, her hazel green eyes crinkling.
Nyght nods, unsmiling, and turns to move away and join Devereaux.
Jade sidles up to Linuial, asking if the martial artist should do any scouting.
“Jade, check with Xavier…Devereaux, I mean. At this point, I’m leading Starfire, you should look to him for your instructions, if you mean to stay with Monique.”
Something is brewing. The hushed tones and stiff, unnatural movements make that painfully obvious. But with his appeal to Nyghtshade having proved fruitless, Devereaux feels a keen desire to be away from Linuial, her people, and whatever scheme she’s sure to be cooking up. Good intentions be damned, the healer has proven herself to be devious before and this situation has all the hallmarks of her presumptuous arrogance.
“Scanning the building,” he calls to the group, being careful not to let his voice carry.
“Let’s see how far gone she is this time,” he thinks to himself, knowing that the blonde’s commitment to keeping people, especially her own, safe usually takes precedence over anything else. If she hesitates in a fight, he’ll know that it’s time to cut his losses.
Reaching out with his telepathy, he finds the warehouse has plenty of occupants. In the starscape-like image his mind creates of the world, lights blaze within the structure. Each point flares with indignation and fury. Singling one out, he reaches for it in the hopes of discovering more.
“Betrayers!” The thought he gleans is overflowing with venom and malice. So much, in fact, that he’s unable to look into the mind properly. If he could, he’d be able to access the owner’s parietal lobe and use them as a sort of living surveillance camera. As it stands, the intensity of emotion has blocked those avenues and created a kind of blind rage.
“Well,” he says with a shake of his head. “Whoever’s in there is pretty pissed off. I can’t get much more than that. We’re gonna have to do this the old fashioned way.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, his image becomes distorted and cloudy. A moment later, he’s transformed into an Arachnos Night Widow.
“Know anything about infiltration?” he asks Jade in the femme fatale’s voice. “Normally, I’d take Nyghtshade but apparently she’s forbidden to use her powers and that shotgun is anything but stealthy.”
Her own voice pitched low to carry, Jade replies quietly, “Don’t have any kind of invisi-spell, if that’s what your talking about. But I’m quiet and good at sneaking, and tough in a fight.”
“And oh, by the way, Linuial told me to look to you for orders, since I’m sticking with Monique. Looks like Linuial’s staying focused on leading Starfire.”
Nyghtshade, who has taken up a place beside Jade, nods. “Linuial told me pretty much the same,” she agrees, voice barely a whisper.
“She said she’s focusing on Starfire, and if I am working with you, Mr. Devereaux, to look to you for orders. So… not sure how much use Ah am here or anywhere, if Ah can’t use any of mah abilities, not even respondin’ with telepathy, and you should know that even with the shotgun, Ah have to be pretty much at point-blank range. So, that’s all Ah’ve got to offeh.”
“But Ah do have a question, Mr. Devereaux, befoah we get into any kind of fight.”
“Why did you have me tell the Tsoo - especially these Tsoo - about mah belt? You have to know the’ah not goin’ to stop till they get it. And Ah can’t let them have it.”
“Did you have a different bargaining chip that would’ve kept us in the game?”
His transformed face is hidden behind the Night Widow’s opaque flattop helmet, all the better for keeping anyone from reading a stray expression. “See, this is what you capes don’t seem to understand. You do things out of the goodness of your hearts so you expect everyone else to be that way too. The Tsoo are transactional, even in a place like this. It’s why I offered them the ashes when I first got here and it’s why I had you tell them about the belt. You want a seat at the table? You’ve gotta be able to show there’s money to burn.”
He starts to move on to the subject of how best to handle reconnaissance when something about Jade’s comment stops him. “I thought we were all sticking with Monique. Blondie knows I’m a telepath. We could communicate with each other directly. Why break up the command structure like that?”
“Mah belt is not ‘money to burn’. It’s not any kind of bargainin’ chip. If it weah given away, that would throw the door wide open to me becomin’ a monsteh even worse than Death Shamans!” Nyghtshade retorts heatedly.
“Get this straight, Devereaux. No one gets this belt off of me. No one!”
“No idea about breakin’ up any ‘command structures,” Jade offers hastily. “But if you’re a telepath, why not just ask her directly?”
“Right, so you didn’t have anything to barter with,” Devereaux replies coolly. “I take it your plan was to go solo, then? No powers, no real allies except for her.”
He raises a hand palm up to indicate he’s referring to Jade. “Just you and that shotgun against a bunch of guys who, from what I gather, you’ve spent the last few years hoping were extinct. Can’t say I like those odds. Thankfully, your friend’s a lot more creative than I give you credit for.”
He doesn’t elaborate further. Instead, he makes use of his new form’s psychic abilities and reaches out to Linuial. “Blondie, as long as Nyghtshade’s grounded, she should have someone watching her back. I need Jade for recon or else I’d have her do it. Mind sending Jon up?”
“I can do that…“ the blonde woman replies along the same mental channel, “…but I’ve been trying to think through alternative measures, and I’d like to mention a different approach…and you let me know which you prefer.
“I did want to get the Starfire families out of harm’s way, and I wasn’t sure just sending the parents across the cemetery and Astoria alone would be doable, so I was going to take all of Starfire. However…as an alternative…
“I know time is precious…but if I can have a few minutes, I can ask Quake to enter the Astoria gate area and Recall them out…and he can bring further reinforcements to replace them, and I can Recall them to us.
“We both get what we want, you have a strike force you can rely on, and I’m not being distracted by worrying about casualties after that, in exchange for, say, ten minutes.
“Let me know what you prefer. In the meantime, I can send Jon to you.“
She turns and beckons to the blonde cyborg.
Hearing Linuial’s proposal, everything suddenly clicks into place. Devereaux sighs inwardly. “Of course they’ve got families. Why wouldn’t they? These capes are anything but professional.”
Peering out from their hiding place at the other end of the block, he visually scans the front of the warehouse. Seeing no sign that the group’s been detected, he gives the petite woman his answer.
“That works for me. On retrieval jobs like this it’s better to go lean, anyway. Too many people, too much attention. Makes for a bad time. Just make sure you do it quietly and get it done fast. The longer we stand around here, the better chance something unfriendly will come shambling along.”
Jade shifts position near Devereaux, and asks quietly, “So, Xavier, if we are splitting into two groups and you’re the boss for this one, what’s the plan?”
Nyghtshade, who already knows she’s virtually hamstrung by the restrictions being placed on her, merely tightens her grip on the shotgun and refuses to be baited by Devereaux.
Instead, she keeps a steady watch around them for any suspicious movement, any possible attempts to waylay the smaller group.
Linuial nods Jon Smith in Devereaux’s direction, already tapping her cell phone.
Jon Smith strides forward to Devereaux’s side, just within his peripheral vision. He nods slightly, as a sly smile creeps across his lips.
“Devereaux,” he says in greeting.
Within the promised ten minutes, Blood Nut, Maggot Man, Brother Mathias, Pangea, and Anya begin disappearing, one by one, and Linuial begins making snatching motions, to the sound of a low underground train and a whistle, as Stray, Bubastis, Marti Gras, Thunderbird, and Steel Water appear at her side, each in their turn. Already known to Starfire, Linuial makes introductions between the final three and the Praetorian, and quickly fills the newcomers in on the current status.
“Ah can put out a call to a few othehs as well, if you want,” Nyght offers to Linuial and Devereaux. “Ah know anotheh Healeh, and Mrs. Leyton, she works with electrical powehs.”
Linuial shakes her head. “Thank you, Monique, but I had Quake under strict orders to take the families back to our base. He’s only about 12 years old, and I didn’t want to have him hanging about waiting for any reason, any more than I wanted the parents to stay here any longer.”
Her smile is pleasant, but she can’t help the stray thought …and I didn’t want them close to Xavier any longer than could be helped…
“Jon,” Devereaux replies without humor.
“Now that we’ve dealt with the extra weight, here’s the plan. We’re gonna break this up into three teams; advanced, secondary, and cleaners. I’m the only one who’s guaranteed not to get spotted so advanced is my job. Jade will follow at a distance. Think of her as the tip of the spear. I call the targets, she makes the hit.”
He nods to the martial artist as both a check for understanding and acknowledgement of the skill she’s displayed so far.
“Everybody else is the cleaning crew. You’re responsible for finishing whatever she starts. Once we get going this has to be fast. You get bogged down and we’re likely to end up on the wrong end of something painful.”
Turning his attention to the big cyborg, he continues to delegate. “Congratulations, Jon, you get to be special. Your job is to make sure anyone who gets within slicing distance of Nyghtshade has a bad time. That’s it.”
“Again,” he says in a clipped tone. “Do not get distracted. Doesn’t matter if Recluse himself strolls by wanting to turn himself in. You stay on mission no matter what. I’ll be in touch with Blondie the whole time so if adjustments need to be made, she’ll be the one to let you know.”
Orders given, he finally takes a breath. “Any questions?”
“Understood,” Jade grins. “You paint the targets, I take ‘em down.:
“And just so you know, I usually go for the Bosses first. But it’s your call, of course.”
“I’ll be honest. I can’t tell heads from asses in there. Something’s blocking me from getting a read so I won’t know what’s a Boss and what isn’t until I see it. I’ll judge as best as I can but don’t expect a dossier before you start swinging.”
Remembering why they’ve come, Devereaux adds, “Don’t forget, we’re here for that Tsoo scroll. Beating on these guys is just a bonus. If I can, I’ll get it while you’re all busy fighting but I wanna be clear. There are no guarantees on this one.”
He takes a moment to look over the group. Unaware of all but a few of their powers and, more importantly, their usefulness, a distinct feeling of unease starts to work its way through his system. “God hates a coward.”
“Anyone else or are we ready to get started?”
Jon nods his head once. “Got it.” The grin is gone, but he looks relaxed, easy.
He walks over to Nyghtshade, nods his head to her deferentially. “Ma’am. If you don’t mind, I’d like to have you in front of me. That way, anything I don’t see first will have to strike me before they can get to you. No matter what you hear, don’t look back at me.” There is a sshhhnnnkkkttt! sound, and blades a foot long snap out of his curled fists, glittering even in the dim light of Dark Astoria. “That’s a sample of what you’ll hear,” he explains. Stepping a foot back, he spins around his own center of gravity, the blades singing softly in the air they cut through.
“Even if you think I might be in trouble, do not look around at me. It is much more likely to be an enemy in trouble, but it’s not your job to help me, it’s my job to protect you, and yours to stay alive and unharmed.”
“That’s a hard thing to ask, Jon,” Nyght replies quietly. “But Ah’ll not interfere, or turn around. Eyes… and shotgun… to the front. Got it. And thank you, Jon.”
“Okay then,” Devereaux says, a tinge of cautious excitement in his voice. “Let’s get to work.”
The Night Widow’s waist cape swishing silently in the darkness, he turns and starts the short trek toward the unknown.
“Believe him,” Linuial says over her shoulder to Nyghtshade. “Jon has regen abilities, and combat experience that would make your eyes bug out. Even if he gets in trouble, I and the rest of Starfire will be watching him for you. Just think of him as your guardian angel.”
She launches herself into the air, hovering over and behind Devereaux and Jade. As the group begins to move, she begins chanting, running through her series of “buffs”.
Jade gives Devereaux a little lead in distance, then silently follows.
For all the unknowable danger, the plan is a solid one. A basic distraction play at its core, the strategy hangs on both the ability of the Heroes to do their assigned jobs and no small amount of shock and awe.
As the team moves into position, two wayward figures skulk through the shadows near the warehouse entrance. The darkness hides their forms but there’s the distinct sound of metal scraping on stone coming from their direction. It’s joined by something akin to a hiss. Taken together, they create a distinctive clamor that disrupts Dark Astoria’s usual stillness.
Moving forward in a shallow crouch, Devereaux offers silent gratitude for the Night Widow’s Mask Presence ability. The psionic equivalent of simply being inconspicuous, it allows him to influence the minds of anyone within a fairly large radius and convince them that, rather than seeing one of Arachnos’ premiere covert operatives, they instead see nothing at all.
“Taking these two out. Once they’re down I’ll make sure the entry’s clear. Don’t move until I signal you.”
Extending his right arm straight ahead and steadying it with his left, he takes careful aim at the first of the dark figures against an almost equally dark backdrop. There’s an almost imperceptible sound as a dart flies from his wrist and into the waiting shadows. It makes no further sound. The only indication that he’s managed to strike the target is a sudden gasp followed by a soft rustling as the victim collapses.
“Nice shot,” the Ring Mistress, Claire, exclaims. “It’s a good thing you can do that now. You couldn’t before, right?”
“Really?!” Devereaux snaps. “We’re in the middle of something and now you decide to pop in for a chat?”
Her mental voice carries a note of shock and sadness, like a puppy who’s just been reprimanded. “Sorry. I thought you might like some company since you’re going solo.”
He sighs, the exasperation seeming to echo in the mental space. “Right now just isn’t a good time, okay?”
“Okay,” Claire replies sulkily. “You know y-“
“I swear to God, if you say I should ‘mention it’ right now I’ll-“
The second dart lances out and he’s rewarded by an identical sequence of sounds.
Trusting the poisoned projectiles to do their work, he quickly crosses the remaining stretch of ground between his position and the warehouse. Taking a gamble, he tries the main door and finds it unlocked.
Slipping inside, he’s surprised to find no one. The small lobby area, complete with uncomfortable looking, threadbare chairs and a few old newspapers, is deserted.
Not wanting to lose the momentum of his good luck, he fires off a quick telepathic message to Linuial. “You’re good to enter. I’m moving on ahead.”
Linuial hovers to the front and alights on the ground, silently waving the rest of the party forward and inside. She enters behind Nyghtshade and Jon, and resumes her usual position above and toward the middle of the group as they reassemble and begin to follow Jade, disappearing around a corner.
Jade prowls noiselessly ahead into the warehouse, advancing cautiously and on the alert for any movement, any sound.
Keeping his movements carefully measured, Devereaux slinks through a corridor. The Widow’s form is lithe and agile, allowing him to hug corners effortlessly and and keep away from the much more visible center of the passage.
The warehouse itself is dimly lit. Combined with the multitude of abandoned crates litering the floor, it’s practically an obstacle course. As he comes to a “T” shaped intersection, he freezes. Voices radiate from one of the adjacent hallways.
“They continue to resist the true way,” a feminine voice exclaims. “They must join or be purged!”
“No,” another woman counters. “Slaughtering them will not help our cause.”
Redoubling his focus to ensure Mask Presence keeps him concealed, Devereaux leans around the corner. Behind the Widow’s featureless violet helmet, his transformed eyebrows arc skyward.
Standing in the hallway, engaged in heated debate, are three women dressed in the olive drab, skintight jumpsuits of the Knives of Artemis.
“Looks like the Tsoo were right,” Devereaux says across the infinite span of the psychic plane. “The Knives are here but why is beyond me. As far as I know, the Greek goddess thing is just symbolic. Either way, you’ve got three of them at the first intersection. Just take a left at the wall. You can’t miss ‘em.”
As the report echoes out into the ether, he moves on. He knows that, for all its usefulness, Mask Presence is really just a mind trick and he has no desire to pause to test the assassins’ clarity of thought. Keeping to the shadows as best he can, Devereaux slinks by and makes his way deeper into the warehouse.
Jade is still not used to the whole telepathy thing, but tries takes the news about the Knives of Artemis as a ‘go’ for attacking them.
Accordingly, she moves forward, hugging cover among the scattered crates, till she’s as close as cover will allow. Taking a second to focus her mind over body and channel an indomitable will, she gathers and leaps around the corner, arcing overhead to drop smack in the middle of the trio of Knives.
Instantly Jade drops low, spinning into a Dragon’s tail sweep and knocking two of the three off their feet.
The sounds of a scuffle ahead draw the catgirl Stray and Mardi Gras like a magnet. The cheetah-like Bubastis twists her head to an impossible angle to look up at the hovering empathic healer, getting a nod in response.
Stray launches herself forward, flying, Mardi Gras and the feline woman Bubastis hard on her heels. As Stray breaks cover around the left-hand corner, there is a concussive blast of expanding air, so powerful as to rock all the witnesses as if the floor had shaken under their feet, and the tiny catgirl vanishes, replaced by the hovering squid-like Nova form of the Peacebringer. She fires Luminous Detonation at the most distant of the Knives, while Bubastis drops to all fours to spring on another, and Mardi Gras, with a quick swing of his head to check the others’ movements, brings Eagle’s Claw to bear against the third.
Jade springs back up and follows up after the others, throwing in Thunder kicks here and Cobra strikes there with neat efficiency. Before long, two of the Knives are down, leaving the third badly outnumbered.
The hovering Kheldian releases Gleaming Blast against the still-standing Knife, slamming her into a twisted metal shelving unit and toppling both to the ground, the woman as twisted as the metal.
Bubastis growls low in her throat, her teeth bared. The woman lying supine beneath her quite reasonably raises her hands in a gesture of surrender.
Mardi stands grinning behind Jade, tossing a throwing knife up…and down. Up…and down.
“Can’t be leaving people behind us to raise an alarm,” Jade reasons, kneeling beside the still-conscious Knife. “Nothing personal,” she adds, as with a short focused punch she knocks the woman out.
Keeping a brisk pace, Devereaux scans for any signs of the Tsoo artifact. It’s a difficult task with so many identical crates strewn about. Rounding another bend, he comes across more Knives.
Masked and wearing the group’s iconic combat headsets, the women appear fairly standard. What’s unusual is their choice of weaponry. He knows the Knives are feared for their prolific skill with the broadsword but the massive length of sharpened metal one of the assassins has slung over her shoulder has more in common with a steel girder, at least as far as size is concerned.
The others in the group are armed with similarly unconventional weapons. Several of them wear pistols at their belts. Thinking back to what he knows about the Knives, Devereaux remembers they disdain firearms. For a stealthy organization like theirs, guns are far too noisy and don’t require the skill and dedication of their usual wrist mounted crossbows.
One woman carries no weapons at all. She stands apart from the others, cracking her knuckles restlessly.
“Take a right at the next corner,” he instructs. “And watch yourselves. These girls don’t have their usual gear. A few of them are packing heat. There’s definitely something weird going on.”
The warning sent, he continues on his way, being careful not to draw too close to the unsuspecting warrior women.
Jade stealthily makes her to a vantage point and scopes out the situation, then drops back to the rest of the group. Tapping a forefinger against her forehead, she hopes someone gets the message to ‘read’ what she’s thinking as she relays the number of opponents she’s seen, their positions in relation to one another, and the weapons.
“And I’m guessing Knuckle-Cracker’s probably the Boss, so dibs on her. Everyone got it? Anyone got it?” she thinks, and waits for any affirmative reaction from the others.
Paige takes Jade’s thought and spreads it across the party. She watches the party handily dispatch the Knives and is on guard for any stragglers who try to run past them to escape.
Linuial nods to Jade, drifts to the ground. She waves Solar Storm forward.
The gravity controller peeks around the corner, raises her hands, there are a series of high pitched whistles, and several of the Knives begin struggling, jerking their feet as if glued to the ground.
Mardi Gras, Stray, and Bubastis leap past her, along with several more of Starfire. The room erupts in a swirl of chaos, sounds, shouting, screams of rage and pain, and gunshots, as Linuial returns to her hovering, spamming buffs and heals over the entire team.
Solar Storm gestures again with one hand, and a rusty blue Cadillac, minus tires, appears out of nowhere in mid air, and sails into the center of the melee.
“Gotta love grav controllers,” Jade laughs, flinging herself into the frey and dodging the rusty Cadillac as she springs and dances forward toward the Knife woman on the far side of the melee.
A handful of razor-tipped darts fly out toward Jade as she closes, but she scissor-sweeps her arms, catching the darts in the loose folds of her sleeves, and lands off to one side, already pivoting with fluid grace to throw a kick at the “Hand”.
A stun grenade flies toward Jade, but she shifts, using the momentum of the kick to connect a kick and send the grenade flying off down the corridor.
The diversion gives the Hand a chance to whip out a nasty sword, though, and score a shallow gash down one of Jade’s forearms before the green-clad martial artist dances back out of reach.
Devereaux’s head snaps around as an almighty crash sounds behind him.
“Definitely not the stealthiest approach,” he thinks to himself as a wry grin makes its way to his face.
As the cacophony goes on, he hears shouts and the bustle of footsteps. He presses himself against a wall as more Knives rush toward the sound of battle. As they pass, he begins to notice that these, too, are not typical members of the group. Focusing on one in particular, he sees that her bodysuit has been altered. The sleeves have been cut away and replaced with armor that bares more than a passing resemblance to the polished bronze worn by the ancient Greeks. As she dashes by, he notices something even more unusual.
The thought makes him feel foolish and he gives his head a shake. Then, remembering that he’s been fighting reanimated corpses for the last few hours, he looks again.
Though the assassin is making her way out of sight, he’s still able to hone in on a section of her bare arm as she rounds a corner. “Yeah…those are definitely scales.”
Turning his focus outward, he sends another warning to the team. “You’ve got more incoming and they get weirder the longer you look. I’m back tracing them. Shouldn’t be much longer.”
“Damnit…” Jon Smith breathes behind Nyghtshade. He grits his teeth, then swivels his head, surveying the corridor behind them.
Too easy to get caught up in the fight, he tells himself. Must stay on alert.
Adam Masters swings both electricity shield and laser sword in a pincer move. He grins as his opponent screams, suddenly finding herself without crossbow or forearm.
As Bubastis wraps herself around a gun wielding Knife, teeth and claws deeply sunk into muscle and bone and rendering the gun hand useless, Adam glances over at her, and whistles in appreciation. “Hey, Beautiful,” he calls, “want to go out sometime?”
As she hears the cadillac crash into the ground, Nyghtshade shakes her head and hefts the shotgun. “Don’t think Ah can really make moah noise than that, so might as well go help out.”
“Comin’, Jon?” she asks as she moves toward the battle, shotgun at the ready.
Jon sighs deeply. Always harder to protect a combatant. He shakes his head as he follows, but only murmurs, “…I’m with you, Nyghtshade.”
Jade is hard-pressed by the woman she’s set herself against, and has to keep an awareness not only of her foe but also the fight raging behind her.
The woman leaps forward, closing to sword-range and striking. Jade blocks, the blade glancing off her arm braces, but staggers as she takes a shot to the shoulder from somewhere behind her.
Instantly her foe closes, blades blurring, and Jade reluctantly retreats, blocking furiously until she backs up into a wall. Hastily she slides down it, leaving a smear of blood from the freely bleeding shoulder wound, and throws herself upwards, scrambling to the top of a massive set of shelves.
From her vantage point above, the tiny blonde woman casts Heal Other directly at Jade. “Adam!” she calls at the same time, and as he looks up at her, nods in Jade’s direction.
One glance, and he charges towards the shelving unit where Jade has found sanctuary, Bubastis hard on his heels. The feline woman launches herself bodily at the sword wielder, wrapping all four sets of claws around her weapon arm, while Adam continues his charge toward the woman with the pistols. Bullets scatter dangerously off the surface of the shield, until he crashes into her at full gallop.
The impact drives them both back through the entryway into the corridor, narrowly missing Nyghtshade and her cyborg shadow. Adam is grinning as he swings the sword and beheads the Knife, then turns back towards the larger room and the battle.
Retracing the Knives’ steps, Devereaux finally comes to a door with a placard that reads, “Main Floor.” Underneath is a message in much smaller font about wearing appropriate safety equipment at all times.
“Good to know the company cares about the working man,” he scoffs as he eases the door open.
The warehouse floor is modest in size for a building of its kind. Even so, it covers thousands of square footage, most of it littered with the ubiquitous wooden crates and the detritus common to all abandoned places. A few forklifts sit languishing in a corner. Though clearly old, the still intact roof has kept them from falling to rust.
Scanning the room, he’s pleased to find far fewer enemies than he’d expected. There are several groups of Knives scattered across the floor but he’d entered fully expecting an army.
“I’m here. Two lefts and a right after that first turn you made. How’s it going over there, anyway?”
“A little busy here!” Jade grunts, feeling the shoulder beginning to heal already. She vaults down from the shelving, throwing herself into the general melee still taking place below, especially now that reinforcements for their opponents are arriving, and is soon back to ducking and weaving, blocking and striking for all she’s worth.
Nyghtshade checks, appalled as she watches Adam behead an opponent.
Staring from the all-too-human combatants to the shotgun in her hands, Nyght reverses her grip and uses the butt of the gun to face-strike any Knife who comes within range. They are fast, but she is faster, and does what damage she can without killing.
Linuial addresses her mental image of the Praetorian. “Difficult, but holding our own. No significant casualties yet, on our side, anyway.“
She glances around the room. “I can’t say the same for the Knives, sorry to say.“ There is no humor in her mental remark.
“Damnit,“ Jon Smith mutters to himself yet again. “Nyghtshade, that shotgun isn’t a melee weapon,” he points out. “I’d be grateful if you’d avoid hand-to-hand…?”
He turns to slash across the face of a Knife that Mardi Gras drop-kicked in their direction, then with his other hand skewers the woman’s chest. Her eyes glaze over as he retracts his claws, letting her limp body slide to the floor.
“Ah’m forbidden to use my powers,” Nyght grimaces, “and Ah’m not going around murderin’ people with this thing. What else do you suggest, that Ah just go home and wait while you all do all the work foah me?”
The blonde cyborg shakes his head. “You’re safer with…”
He whirls, crossing the blades that extend from his knuckles just in time to catch an extraordinarily large sword descending at an angle towards Nyghtshade’s neck. He grunts with the effort of stopping the blow, then struggles with the sword wielding woman, neither one giving way. Finally, he twists and rams a metal shoulder into his antagonist, knocking her back, but not before the sword blade drops, scoring a red diagonal line across his chest.
Retracting his claws, he balls his left hand into a fist, taking advantage of her momentary proximity to knock her out with one metal jab.
Nyght leaps forward to intercept another assailant before the woman can take a swing at Jon, clinging to her sword-arm to deflect the cut. The force of the impact knocks the woman backwards, and Nyght rides her body to the floor and uses her free hand to grab a handful of the woman’s hair and smack her head back down on the concrete, hard enough to knock the Knife out.
She rises swiftly to her feet again, having collected the fallen shotgun, and looks about for another target.
Paige is facing the Knives, but finds herself out of her element. The combatants are very fast, skilled and adept at melee combat, and it’s taxing her to keep up.
A Blade of Artemis is engaged with her, who is trying to get Paige onto the floor and vulnerable, but her physical prowess is just enough to dodge the sweep kicks and her sonic attacks are enough to divert the throwing blades whizzing past her. But clearly if another mercenary joins in, Paige has had it.
She decides to end this quickly by using the same frequency she does when making a sonic cage, but increasing the hertz to compress the ‘safe’ place into a smaller and smaller sphere, making the Blade grab her head in extreme pain cowering down, until Paige is able to stop… the Blade’s ears were bleeding at that point. She is in too much pain to get up, and passes out from shock.
“I’m sorry for that, but I can’t risk diving into your head to come out of it worshipping Scarecrows and junk, either,” Paige says, resigned to using sonic attacks only for now.
Jade finds herself facing a Talon with a titanic sword, and works hard to dodge the massive blade and throw kicks and strikes during the backswings.
“Lady, that thing looks crazy anywhere outside of anime’ or cosplay!” she jibes, working hard to stay within the sword’s arc as she delivers an underarm nerve strike that causes the Talon to fumble the next swing, struggling to hold on to her weapon with a suddenly numbed arm.
Jade feels someone closing in behind and sidesteps swiftly, causing the Talon behind to inadvertently shoot her Sister instead of the martial artist.
Moving at speed now, Jade ducks in for an reversal and throw, landing the shooter on her back and taking her out with a chin-strike, then rounding on the titan-sword Talon, sweeping feet from beneath her and cobra striking her on the way down.
For the moment, it seems the area around her has cleared, and Jade uses it to catch her breath and look for any more opponents.
Devereaux prowls across the warehouse floor, being careful to keep to the plentiful shadows. He knows the Widow’s mental concealment is nearly always passable but when he considers just how out of the ordinary this job has been so far, caution becomes the obvious choice.
A shout from up ahead catches his attention. “Whatever’s happening, you must drive them off! They cannot be allowed to take the artifacts!”
“Sounds about right.”
Moving in the direction of the sound, he reaches out to Jade and Linuial once again. “I think I’ve got a lead on what we’re looking for. How soon can you be here?”
Then, just to satisfy his suspicions, he sends a message to Paige. “Hey, kid. What’s Blondie up to? Is she doing anything unusual?”
Jon Smith whirls in time to see Nyghtshade physically knock one of the Knives unconscious, rolls his eyes, but says nothing. He leaps past her to intercept yet another, this one unarmed.
The kick against his chest opens the wound even further, but by the time Linuial can extend a hand in his direction, it has already begun to seal itself, leaving only blood behind as a reminder.
He finishes the martial artist, spins 360 to make certain Nyghtshade is unharmed, and to check on the status of the other team members.
From her aerial vantage point, Linuial has been keeping tabs on all the combatants, both friend and foe. She conjures a few more balls of colored light, casts Heal Other on Bubastis, and pauses to survey the surroundings.
Silence descends over the scene, as Linuial’s team pauses, signs of their exertions evident. There are no further surprises, no recovering Knife to spring back into the fray…
She hovers back to ground level, walks among the Heroes, checking their health, speaking with each one, offering congratulations on a job well done here, a smile of camaraderie there.
“We just finished, Xavier,“ she projects. “We’ll be with you as soon as everyone catches their collective breath.“
Jade, satisfied that the bullet to the shoulder went cleanly through and that the wound is healing quite satisfactorily, gives Linuial a nod of thanks and moves off to the group’s edge.
There, she settles to keep careful watch against anyone else trying to sneak up on the group.
Nyghtshade shifts the shotgun back into a more normal position, tucked under one arm with the barrel pointed toward the floor, and turns back to her cyborg protector.
“Ah owe you an apology, Jon,” she says quietly. “Ah should not have tried to jump in to the fight. You all told me not to, and Ah just made yoah job harder. Ah’ll try mah best to stay well to the rear from now on, the way Linuial said.”
The blonde-haired cyborg looks surprised, then the worry lines creasing his forehead begin to fade.
He heaves a sigh, glances down at his chest, brushes at rapidly drying chips of blood, making more of a mess than before.
He gives Nyghtshade a rueful grin. “I appreciate that, Nyghtshade, I really do. I know how hard it is to sit out a fight…but we’re really trying to make you safe enough so that you can go back to fighting, long term. I wouldn’t want Lin fighting if she had the flu…and right now, you’ve got the Hero’s equivalent of the flu. You’re impaired as a fighter, because you’re also a target.”
He turns to congratulate Adam on his latest kill.
“These ladies are no pushovers,” Paige says, checking herself for injuries. Short of a near miss that sliced her sleeve a little and a bruise on her midsection from a body blow that connected, she’s alright, “…and I don’t think I need to make up for missing yesterday’s workout anymore.”
“Close quarters melee is still really hard on me. How are you holding up, Birdman?” Paige sends out to him, but she realizes a silence she hasn’t been paying attention to since entering the warehouse. “…Tahq? Tahq? Are you there?” She hears nothing from the skies above where Tahq was flying. Fearing that the building interferes, she paces to the back of the party.
She sees Jade keeping watch, and says “Terry, Tim is gone. Can you come with me? I can’t get a hold of him. I need to go outside to see if I can reach further. I’m going to stay at the warehouse, but I don’t want to alert the others unless I know he’s gone.”
“Uh… sure,” Jade agrees slowly, falling into place alongside Paige as they retrace their steps toward the entry. Better, she reasons, to stay close and guard Paige if something happens. And yet…
Under her breath, Jade mutters, “‘Cause breaking up the party, that never goes wrong…”
Maneuvering through the shelves and hallways, the two ladies make it to the entrance, as Paige walks out to the sidewalk and looks at the sky frantically.
“Tahq? Tahquitz? Say something! Please!” she sends out in different directions. Nothing for 30 seconds. No different than when she was indoors. She doesn’t try to ‘reach’ using telepathy, as that might draw attention to the party. After her experience with Shiara, she knows her mental powers aren’t really an attack, but a bridge that someone else who is psionically attuned can use to get to her just as easily as she can get to them. Her audio link with others being established before the encounter was safe to maintain, that is, as long as she didn’t have to reestablish it. Looking for Tahq’s mind out in the skies would be foolish to try.
“Please…” Paige is visibly worried. “Tim, are you there?”
“Nothing?” Jade asks, concerned now as well. “Paige, if you can’t reach him, we need to go back in right now and let the others know.”
Paige wipes off a tear that falls on her cheek, and clears her eyes. She takes a deep breath and nods to Jade, “Let’s head back inside.”
“Bad news, everyone…” Paige says over her link to everyone, “Tahquitz is missing. Last known location of him was before we entered the warehouse… airborne.”
Jade follows Paige back inside, staying right behind her and watching warily in all directions now, in case whatever got to Tahquitz is on the hunt for them as well.
>“He’s what?” Devereaux asks, incredulous. “How could that even happen? I thought he was on overwatch. Don’t tell me something reached up and plucked him out of the sky.”
Surprised by his own visceral reaction to Tahquitz’s sudden disappearance, he takes a minute to refocus on the task at hand. “There’s no time to worry about it now. If we don’t bring this scroll back to the Tsoo it’ll all have been for nothing. Hurry and get in here.”
“Don’t have to say that twice. We’re doubling back now,” Paige says, with Jade next to her. She’s mentally trying to retrace what happened the last few hours for hints or clues on what happened to him, but she’s coming up with nothing.
No time to worry about it now….?? Jade thinks incredulously to herself. She bites back any retort, though, and follows Paige back to the others.
Nyght watches Jade and Paige walk back past Jon and herself, and does not miss the tension of Jade’s body language. Having heard the mental exchange, Nyght’s body language is grimly withdrawn as well.
She cannot comprehend, despite all Linuial’s warnings, how Devereaux could so casually dismiss the loss of one of their group.
Devereaux’s reaction seems beyond cold to Nyght, and she silently vows to herself that when they are done here, when the precious scroll has been acquired, that she will hunt for Tahquitz even if no one else does.
Linuial watches as Jade and Paige rejoin the group, noting Jade’s anger, Paige’s fear, and Nyghtshade’s exasperation.
Turning away from the three, she moves off to one side, then beckons to Stray, who has returned to her catgirl form. She speaks softly to the Kheldian, who nods briefly, takes to the air, and flies back in the direction of the building entrance.
The tiny woman walks over to Paige. “Stray has gone to look for Taquitz,” she says softly, just as the concussive explosion of air echoes down the hallway. “Don’t worry, Paige, she’ll find him.”
Taking to the air again, Linuial uses her hands to signal to the recovering Heroes to regroup and reform into their previous arrangement, then start down the corridor once again, following Devereaux’s path.
“We’re coming to you now,“ she projects at her mental image of the Praetorian.
“Wait! Stray shouldn’t go alone! That’s how Tahquitz disappeared!” Paige calls out to Linuial, “I’m going with her!”
Paige starts to turn back around and run out the same way Stray went.
Jade arrests Paige’s dash with a firm hand on her arm. “Unless you can fly too, Paige, how are you even going to find them, much less fight whatever took them down?”
“Much as I hate to say it, we need to stick together and finish this, and then all go looking for Tim.”
Still smarting at the loss of one of their own, the team regroups.
The warehouse floor is dilapidated after years of disuse; first when the fog moved in to claim Astoria, then the uprising of Mot drove the workers away long ago. Packages and merchandise have been left abandoned and many of the lights have stopped working entirely. Combined, they make for a shadowy and discomforting atmosphere, just the kind of thing one would want when trying to remain undetected.
As the heroes take their positions, they’re confronted by the daunting challenge of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. That will have to wait though. The Knives haven’t been entirely defeated. Rather, they’ve changed tactics, consolidating their forces on the main floor.
It’s clear that they’ll have to be dispatched before a search can begin.
“What the hell is that?” Devereaux asks, projecting the question outwards.
From his vantage point on top of a shelving unit, he looks down on a group of Knives. Fourteen in all, they carry the same weird assortment of weapons he saw earlier. Three of them are armored in bronze, the glossy scales on their arms glimmering in the dim light.
But none of that is what catches his attention. Rather, his eyes are locked on the hooded woman in the center of the group. Clad in strips of cloth that barely cover the essentials, her scales are far more pronounced, reaching from her lower thighs all the way up to her stomach. More striking, still, are her feet. Covered in yellow, leathery skin with wickedly hooked talons sprouting from each of three toes, she bares little resemblance to the mercenaries standing guard over her.
Taking the Praetorian’s exclamation as a warning rather than a request for information, Linuial drops to the floor just ahead of Jade, holds up one hand for silence and to halt the group.
“Xavier, with your kind permission, I’m going to select a group of three to guard Monique, while I send Jon to you. He’s the only stealther we have at the moment…he should be able to join you without alerting the enemy.“
She waits on his reply, while pointing at Jade, Adam, and Bubastis, and directing them to stand surrounding the undead Hero.
Devereaux’s ears perk up at the message. He doesn’t know much about the cyborg but stealth definitely wasn’t mentioned as being part of Jon’s skill set.
“Sounds good. I’m above and behind them. Tell him to stay on the ground. These shelves are old and all that metal must weigh a ton. Last thing I need is for us to fall and blow the whole thing.”
A sudden movement below catches his eye and every muscle in his body coils at once. Instantly, he’s ready to launch himself into a fight or leap away to safety.
He soon discovers there’s no cause for alarm. Rather than being focused on him, the Knives are arguing with one another.
“Absolutely not! We will not flee from these intruders!”
The avian woman is incensed, screaming at her retinue. “The artifacts here are far too important to abandon! Especially the cu?n c?u d?!”
Though he doesn’t speak Vietnamese, the language has a distinct sound that he’s familiar with after too many painful mornings spent slurping down pho in the hopes of curing a hangover.
“Jackpot,” he thinks to himself as he begins to analyze the group, plotting the best method of attack.
Since no one has countered Linuial’s directions, Jade moves back to take up a position by Nyghtshade, who gives her a nod but says nothing about the changing of the guard.
Linuial walks over to Paige. “Paige, dear,” she says softly, “please alert everyone that Xavier has agreed to a change of plans…Bubastis, Adam, and Jade will guard Monique from now on, Jon is going to join Xavier.
“Oh, and by the way…don’t worry about Stray. She is one of our most powerful fighters, and the first person I recruited to Starfire. Her Kheldian half is almost as old as I am. She needed to be able to move swiftly and quietly, and a team wouldn’t have been able to do that, they would only have hampered her.
She laughs. “I suppose you could say that Stray IS an entire team, all by herself. She’ll be fine, and if she has any trouble, she knows to send you a message, so you’ll be the first to know.”
She smiles reassuringly at the teenager, then turns to speak softly with the blonde cyborg, who nods understanding. There is the sound of a small jet engine warming up, gold sparks begin to shower from his boots, settling into a nearly silent golden glow.
With another nod to the empathic healer, he disappears around the next corner in Devereaux’s direction, moving at speed.
Using the Widow’s power of Foresight, Devereaux peers a few seconds into the future. He sees a snippet of the Knives’ initial reaction to his plan and smiles.
Casting outward with telepathy, he locates Jon Smith. “Testing, testing. Earth to Jon Smith. Come back Jon Smith.”
Jon Smith has entered the room with the group of Knives. Keeping his hyperstride running for its stealth component, he doubles down on caution by slipping behind some shelves, and peeping through some jumbled cardboard boxes.
He blinks at the Praetorian’s mental message, wondering how to respond. With a shrug, he thinks, silently: “…Can you hear me like this?“
“Just fine,” Devereaux replies as he completes the mental link. “And now I can find you too.”
“Here’s the plan, Jon. I’m going to take out their pistoleros from up here. Once I do, you come in hard. Doesn’t matter to me which ones you take. Hell, fight ‘em all if you want. Just make sure you keep an eye on the half naked one. If she gets away, it’s gonna be a long night digging through crates.”
Checking the events that are about to unfold with the Widow’s precognition one more time, he settles into a comfortable crouch. “I’m ready when you are. Oil up your joints or whatever and let me know.”
“Got it.“ The cyborg’s reply is brief, but relaxed. He adjusts his position to check the location of each of the Knives, studies the taloned woman carefully, then steps cautiously from behind the shelving to make certain there are no other combatants hidden from his view.
Returning to his hiding place, he makes certain that he is now fully hidden. He leaves hyperstride running in preparation for his final dash into the midst of the enemy group.
Paige is left to do the only thing she can in this encounter. Run communications for those who are around her. She repeats Lin’s instructions to the team, and stands with the others not on Nyght’s detail or on Devereaux’s.
She’s putting on a brave face, but Linuial’s words didn’t reassure her. Tahquitz is a bit of a fool, but she knows that after cautioning all of us to stay together, that he wouldn’t wander off in a place like this. Something got to him or simply ‘got’ him. And now, she thinks Stray will be next.
She wants to bolt out of the building and look for Tahquitz… it was her job to keep track of everyone and she slipped up. If she was paying attention, the second Tahq lost contact they could have been out there to investigate. But for now everyone thinks the best thing for her to do is to just concentrate on her job.
And she’s doing that, but it’s not easy for her. She knows this is her fault.
All preparations made, to the best of her ability, Linuial waves her team to silence, and to stay where they are.
She is no stealther…but she removes her heels and balances on her toes, stepping forward with all the lightness of foot of her species. She creeps forward, almost soundlessly, around the first corner, then the second…a few more turns, and she is able to see the end of the corridor that feeds into a very large room.
She listens intently, her larger-than-human ears twitching slightly…and is rewarded by catching a faint echo from Jon Smith’s hyperstride power…followed by what sounds like the tail end of a rather heated argument, coming from somewhere ahead.
Returning the way she came, she explains what she has seen, reforms her team in a new configuration with Nyghtshade and her defenders at the rear, everyone else up front. Warning them all to be completely silent, she leads them up to, but not around, the final turn in front of the large warehouse room where Jon is waiting.
“We are just around the corner from your location,“ she informs Devereaux. “We’re ready to join you as soon as you need us.“
Devereaux levels his arm and balls his fingers into a fist. In true sharpshooter fashion, he empties his lungs in a slow breath and takes careful aim at one of the pistol toting Knives.
“Jon, you’re green to go in three, two, one.” A controlled squeeze sends a poisoned dart flying from the gauntlet on his wrist. It streaks through the air, silent and barely visible in the gloom.
Below, the Knives are so engrossed in their argument over whether or not to leave that they completely fail to notice when one of their number gasps in pain.
When she collapses in a heap, they notice.
“We are under attack!” the harpy shrieks. “Defend me with your lives!”
“Yes, mistress!” the others shout in unison as they reach for their weapons.
Thinking just a fraction faster than he’s able to move, Devereaux scrambles to the other end of the shelf he’s on and fires another shot. “Two down, two to go. Stand by.”
The last two shots are made more difficult by the Knives fighting pattern. Rather than form a circle around their charge, they spread out into what appear to be predetermined positions that enable them to cover each other. It takes some doing, but he’s able to pick off the remaining gun-wielders before they can draw a bead on his position.
“Now’s the time, big guy. Show ‘em what those blenders that pass for arms can do.”
The blonde cyborg makes no effort to respond.
Using all the speed that hyperstride gives him, he charges across the room and through the surrounding ranks of minions, straight at their leader. In passing he slices through the neck of one woman, the upper arm of another wielding one of the Titan weapons. He drops hyperstride as he reaches his goal, and spins around his own center of gravity, foot-long metal claws fully extended, with a leap followed by an ending crouch. The taloned woman almost manages to leap out of his way, incurring nothing more than a deep scratch across one thigh, but her nearest minion is not so lucky, and screams with pain before backing up, clutching one wrist with the opposite hand.
The Oracle releases a Thunderclap, and Jon’s crouch transforms into a stumble and fall. She follows up with a Lightning Bolt, and the cyborg screams as the electricity dances along and throughout his metal prostheses and external skin wiring, making his long blonde hair stand on end, arcing between parts of his body, and throwing sparks in every direction.
As the Lightning Bolt begins to falter, the Oracle follows up with Ball Lightning, and Jon Smith screams again, seizures contorting his body in ways no human limbs could manage. Some of the Knives close in on the cyborg, as others tend to their fallen brethren.
“Ouch.” Both impressed and aghast by the Oracle’s power, Devereaux wastes no time. He leaps from his vantage point, arcing into the fray while executing a graceful forward flip. He deploys the Widow’s killing blades while still in free fall.
Though ideally suited for thrusting, the one and a half foot, under-wrist mounted weapons are still formidable in the slash and Devereaux makes full use of them, drawing his arms diagonally across his chest only to force them down and backwards when he lands.
The unfortunate woman on the receiving end of the Eviscerate gurgles as her stomach is opened from rib-cage to hips.
“Now, Blondie!” He packs the message with as much urgency as he can before another Lightning Bolt forces him into a diving leap to avoid the big cyborg’s fate.
The Starfire leader has no difficulty identifying the screams as being Jon’s.
She is about to mentally demand of the Praetorian what is happening to the cyborg, when Devereaux’s command reaches her.
There is obviously no need for stealth or caution, only with speed and strength. “Fight!” she cries out to her team, emphasizing the single word with a wide swing of her arm in the direction of the screams. Without waiting for their response, she launches herself into the air, flying at full speed ahead of her team into the large warehouse room, and centering herself over the stricken and writhing man.
Switching to Hover for its defensive component, ignoring her own danger, she begins spamming heals, concentrating on Jon Smith, but keeping an eye on Devereaux as well, for the two seconds it takes for her team to enter and spread themselves out, engaging targets as they reach them.
“Monique, forget about the shotgun and use everything you’ve got,“ she projects at her mental image of the undead Hero, then turns all her attention to her role as empathic defender.
As the Lightning Oracle turns her attention toward the Night Widow, and away from the cyborg, Jon’s screaming stops abruptly, and he falls into an unmoving heap, twisted like a dishrag, his one eye open, staring blankly into the distance.
At Linuial’s command, Nyghtshade shoves the shotgun onto an upper shelf, crammed between haphazardly stacked crates, and springs foward into the main room. She sees Jon crumpled on the floor, and targets his nearest opponent, heavily drawing away the woman’s lifeforce.
Nyght is not close enough to benefit from the drain, but the transfusion washes out across Jon, which suits Nyght just fine. In an instant, his body is bathed with a renewal of strength and burst of healing energy, supplementing the heals with which Linuial is bathing him.
That done, Nyght drops her mental shields and concentrates, bathing as many of the Talons as possible with a confusion of reality that leads many of them to suddenly see their own Sisters as foes. The ones not affected by the confusion must suddenly deal with unexpected attacks by their own.
While they are distracted, Nyght gives Jon an additional jolt of lifeforce, boosting healing, recovery and energy.
Close behind Nyghtshade, Jade leaps forward into the fray. She has no idea which of these women might be leaders, but deciding swiftly on the one with the most deformity stands out, Jade gathers herself and leaps right up to the Oracle, turning the force of her landing into a sweeping Crane kick into the woman’s scantily clad, scaly midriff.
The Harpy is tumbled backwards by the force of the blow, but rolls smoothly back up to her feet and flings ball lightning at the martial artist.
Jade flings herself out of the ball lightning’s path with more urgency than grace, inadvertently putting more distance between the two as she in turn rolls back to her feet and faces the Oracle.
Grinning, Adamant leaps after Jade, waving his laser sword at her in salute. As the Oracle lifts her hands for another lightning cast, he shoves his electricity shield forward between the harpy and her intended target.
As electricity meets electricity, the coruscations join and flare, pulsing greater and greater, until the crackling roar fills the room. Adamant finds himself forced back, and back, step by step, the grin slowly fading…but the shield holds, despite a growing howl from the shield generator.
With the melee in full swing, Devereaux quickly realizes that the Night Widow’s form is no longer ideal. She’s an assassin, meant for silencing single foes with precision strikes.
This calls for something punchier.
He musters his concentration with a speed born from years of practice and delves into his own mind once again.
The vision of a wiry man steps forward out of a shroud of fog. A bright, burnt orange mohawk stands out starkly against the darkness of his skin. He’s dressed entirely in black save for a cobalt blue dress shirt under his finely cut suit. Even the patch that covers his left eye is raven hued.
“Bonsoir, mon amie,” the man says cheerfully. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah,” Devereaux replies hesitantly. Then, in spite of himself, he adds, “Sorry about that, Henri.”
The Frenchman laughs. “Sorry? Come now, Devereaux. It’s not like you to apologize for anything. Even to an old friend like me.” Before Devereaux can respond, Henri continues. “La petite femme is angry with you, mon frère. She says you were very rude to her.”
Devereaux sighs in exasperation. “You know how she can be.”
Henri chuckles again. “And I know how you can be. I knew you before you were such a homme à femmes, remember?”
At last, it’s Devereaux’s turn to laugh. “Don’t remind me.”
“Very well, I won’t.” Henri’s face falls into a serious expression that does nothing to conceal the glimmer of mischief in his one good eye. “There are more important matters that need tending to, oui? There will be time for old friends later.”
“Oui,” Devereaux says, though no less amused than before.
In an instant, Devereaux has dropped his previous guise and taken on a new one, the form of a Praetorian Syndicate Sword Master, complete with a pair of gleaming sabers.
Wasting no time, he strikes out at the nearest enemy, using telekintetically enhanced strength to parry her massive blade before dancing in to whisk the tip of one sword across her cheek. Feeling a trickle of blood run down her face, the Knife holds her weapon out toward him in a defiant challenge.
Twirling one blade absentmindedly, Devereaux retorts. “Try not to bore me, mon amour.“
Paige sees the melee unfold around her.
She watches the women of the Knives of Artemis challenge her friends and knows her attacks can’t aid much in the fight. There’s too many of them, and they’re too powerful for her. But that’s not her fear: If she tries to match them like she did when she lost track of Tahquitz… she wouldn’t forgive herself if she let it happen again.
She won’t let it happen again. Not when she can help in other ways without breaking contact from others psionically to keep communication open. So, she resolves to help… but not in a way she’s used to.
First, Adam and the Oracle, locked in a firefight from the Oracle’s lightning effectively holding him in place. Paige pitches a small wave of sound into Adam’s ears, muting the crackling of the Oracle’s lightning and the whine of the shield from his ears to aid his concentration.
Second, she turns to Devereaux’s sword fighter form and emits a powerful frequency at him directly. Instead of affecting his hearing, the sound waves self-propagate in a simultaneous Barrier of deep bass waves, conflagrated in a flux of sweet, harmonious sounds that seem powerful enough to crack ice and warble fire, yet pleasant to the ears like a Haven of energy.
Next, to Jade, Paige shouts a hard chirp towards the Harpy that cast a ball lightning strike at her, watching the Harpy briefly stumble from the impact, but shaken from it. Her focus is clearly siphoned enough for Jade to take an attack of opportunity.
Finally, she focuses her breathing and prepares herself for helping Nyghtshade, which will be something that Damian Bellerose has been training for her to do, but has yet to master herself. If it works, Nyghtshade will be able to protect Jon without any issue. If it falters, Nyght, Jon, and anyone around them will grasp their ears in pain from a undisciplined squelch of sound that no one should put up with. She concentrates and prepares for her next move.
Mardi Gras races across the room to a woman on the far side, leaping into the air with a Crippling Axe Kick, carrying the woman to the floor with himself on top.
Bubastis leaps straight up into the air and comes down on the shoulders of another woman, sinking her claws deeply as the woman shrieks and begins running towards the exit.
Thunderbird makes a Cobra Strike against his chosen target, then follows up with a Storm Kick.
Steel Water slips under the arm of yet another Knife, her twin katanas whirling, and dispatches the woman without ceremony.
Nyght takes advantage of the distraction being provided by the influx of fighters, and begins spamming everyone on her side with boosts to their energy levels, health and recovery… not to mention vastly if temporarily increasing their reflexes.
That done, she focuses on reinforcing the confusion of their many foes, trying to turn as many as possible against one another rather than the team of heroes.
Paige watches the foes around Nyghtshade lunge at each other in confusion and hesitates, as it appears that her gambit is working.
She waits to see what happens with Nyght and Jon, especially when she tries to concentrate on what she needs to do to get the field to work right.
Jade throws herself back at the disoriented Oracle, taking advantage of Paige’s distraction to wind up and deliver a severely disorienting Eagle’s Claw kick to the Oracle. The blow is focused and powerful enough to send the Oracle flying back into a wall, doubling the impact.
As the Oracle slumps to the floor, out cold, Jade spins and drops into a low stance, guard up and ready to take on the next attack.
“Hey, hey!” Adam cries out, lifting his sword and raising his shield arm, “…it’s me. Just me…!”
He grins at Jade, then swivels his head to look around the room.
One by one the various Heroes begin to take down their foes.
Linuial casts a final Healing Aura, runs through her buffs on each of the Heroes, before dropping her hands.
She hovers to the ground next to Jon Smith’s twisted body, kneels next to him, rolling him onto his back, straightening his limbs, before placing a hand on his chest and beginning her healing chant again. She stops, reaches up and gently closes his one eye, before stroking back his hair from his face, brittle blackened strands breaking off from the touch. Black flakes of skin fall away, as new pink skin appears beneath. The air around him is full of the smell of burned hair, cotton, and roast pork.
She leans forward and brushes her lips across his forehead. “Come back to me, if you can, my love,” she murmurs.
She turns her head, looking for Nyghtshade.
As the odds even out and begin to shift in favor of the heroes’ team, Nyght edges around the room till she’s close to Jon and Linuial, and protectively stands nearby, alternatively draining foes to bathe his body in heals and trying to replace the energy Linuial has burned. Not incidentally, Nyght finally cautiously takes a moment to feed, as well.
She also round-robins the rest of the group with boosts to their speed and recovery, focusing especially on Linuial, whom she is certain must be near exhausted by now.
Worried that Jon isn’t stirring yet, Nyght murmurs to Linuial, “Will he recover? Do we need to get him to a hospital?”
The tiny blonde woman sighs. “Physically, he’ll heal just fine.”
She holds a hand out. “Monique, may I have one of your medi-porters?”
Nyght immediately digs one out of her pouch and hands it to Linuial.
Linuial attaches the tiny device to the cyborg’s chest. She runs her hand across his chest, brushing away pieces of curling skin.
Smoothing his forehead, she runs her fingers through his hair, then leans forward to give him a lingering kiss on the mouth, before sitting back up and triggering the medi-porter.
His unmoving body shimmers and disappears as Medicomm takes him away to the Dark Astoria hospital by the gate.
She glances up, notes Nyghtshade’s expression.
Staring off into the distance: “The human body is really quite resistant to electricity, Monique,” she explains, perhaps unnecessarily. “But most of Jon’s body is metal, and highly conductive. Worse, his prostheses are wired directly into his brain stem, so that his brain can control them. Unfortunately, those wires conduct electricity equally well in both directions.”
She looks up to see if Nyghtshade understands what she is saying.
Nyght nods slowly. “He was affected far worse because of his implants,” she say gravely. “Ah tried to help him, when Ah finally got heah, but it was too late and too little… Ah’m not primarily a healeh like you.”
She bites her lip, as her gaze drifts out over the remnants of the fight, and then snaps her attention back to Linuial. “Lin… are you goin’ to be all right? Do you need to go to the hospital? To be with him?”
Linuial climbs to her feet, slowly. She shakes her head.
“Jon will be fine in a few hours…physically. But how much damage was done to his brain? There’s no way to know. Will he ever wake up again? If he does, will he even be Jon? It might be minutes before we know…or years. I can heal the brain physically…but new brain tissue won’t contain the memories or function of what was lost.”
“There’s nothing I or anyone else can do for him…but wait and see.”
She turns, looking for the Praetorian…or any new member of the team.
Spotting the Sword Master, she walks in his direction, waiting until he has finished with his opponent.
What was a mildly entertaining distraction quickly becomes a forgone conclusion with Paige’s sonic barrier in place. Devereaux ends it with a neat finishing blow that severs his opponent’s windpipe and leaves her writhing on the warehouse floor as she chokes out her last breaths.
Sensing Linuial’s approach, he holds out an arm in her direction, his sword held in a tight grip.
“Wait,” he warns in a tone that brooks no argument.
Across the room, the Oracle rises unsteadily. Her hood has been knocked back from the force of Jade’s strike, revealing her finely boned face and a shock of white hair that hangs limp over one eye. When she speaks, her voice is shrill with rage. “You dare deny the will of vengeance?! You have all been judged and found wanting! I will see to your punishment!”
She lifts her arms skyward, electricity racing along the pathway between her chest and fingertips. It builds and builds until her entire upper body is engulfed.
“Now die!” she screams, thrusting her arms forward and loosing a savage bolt.
As the lethal energy races toward him, Devereaux finds himself bereft of control over his own body. It moves entirely of its own accord, raising an arm to receive the attack on the tip of one sword. He fully expects a white hot surge of pain as the concentrated blast makes contact but instead finds that he feels nothing other than an easy confidence.
“These Talons are nothing,” a voice booms across his mental landscape. The sheer power of it nearly driving him to his knees.
“And Cole feared them? How shameful.”
As the arc of electricity surges into his weapon, he reacts without even thinking. He draws back, then sweeps the blade in front of him in a horizontal slash that sends the energy careening back at its source.
“No!” the Oracle cries, a look of shock and horror on her face. When the redirected conflux strikes her, she screams as if she’s on fire. The attack blasts her off her feet with enough force to crack the wall that halts her flight.
In that moment, Devereaux regains control of himself and races across the room on legs bolstered by the swordsman’s telekinetic powers. Ignoring the sickly sweet smell of burnt flesh, he places the cutting edge of one saber against the Oracle’s throat.
“Tell me where the Tsoo scroll is,” he orders in a voice that doesn’t quite sound like it did a few moments ago. There’s something deeper and all too foreign in the undertone as he delivers an ultimatum. “Or I’ll deny you your life.”
Nyghtshade’s attention has followed the Swordsman as he deflects the Oracle’s attack back on her.
Now, as he demands the location of the Tsoo scroll, Nyght lowers her mental shields to try and pick up anything the Oracle thinks in response to his question.
Alone of all the spectators, the elven woman stares, not at the Oracle, but at the Sword Master, her brows deeply knitted, almost a frown painting her face.
She spares but glances at the white haired woman. Her attention remains predominantly on the man.
As the Oracle lifts her chin to meet his gaze, Devereaux can see her struggle against the pain his counterattack has inflicted on her. Her skin is badly scorched and the scant clothing she wears has been incinerated to almost nothing. She makes no move to cover herself, either too weak or simply uncaring who sees her nakedness.
Stifling a grimace, she rasps, “Over there.” She points with a charred finger to a plain looking cardboard box on a nearby shelf.
“I can kill you now, if you want,” Devereaux offers. Both his voice and his stare are unwavering.
The broken woman doesn’t answer. She simply closes her eyes and tilts her head back to expose her neck to his blade.
He does the deed without ceremony. A single, neat slice is all it takes to end her life. She sighs in the way all dying people do, deep and loaded with solemn finality.
That done, he moves to the shelf and retrieves the box, opening it with a cut that looks effortless.
“She wasn’t lying,” he announces flatly, reaching in and retrieving the prize. A red crane carved in some precious stone perches on either end of the holding rod and the parchment is surprisingly warm in his hand.
Turning to face the group, he downshifts, returning to his natural form. “Not the cleanest work but it’s done. Time to go.”
Jade gives Adamant a jaunty salute with the Axe, and trots over to Devereaux. “Where to next, Boss? And… wait, what happened to Jon, where’d he go?”
Nyghtshade nods shortly, and walks back through the crowd of heroes to her original position in the back of the group. She collects the shotgun from the shelves, and waits for Devereaux and the others to head out.
Devereaux shakes his head, grinning in spite of himself. Though he’s only just met Jade, there’s something about her easy disregard for the seriousness of their situation that he can’t help but like.
“What’s next for me is getting this back to the Tsoo.” He tosses the scroll and catches it in one hand for effect. “I assume you’ll all be headed out to look for Tahq.”
Linuial walks up to the Praetorian as well. The earlier frown is gone, her expression is serene…but unsmiling.
“Do you want anyone to accompany you going back to the Tsoo,” she asks softly, “or should we all search for Tim?”
“There’s no point in all of us going for a simple delivery. Besides, nothing in this hellhole strikes me as being very friendly. It’d be best to find him before something else does.”
Devereaux shifts into the blue and gray clad form of a Praetorian Basilisk Ninja, complete with a compact re-curved bow strapped across his back and a shortened katana at his waist. He starts to make his way back across the warehouse floor.
“Meet me at their base,” he calls over his shoulder.
Nyght looks to Linuial. “Any word yet from Stray about findin’ Tahquitz?” she askes quietly. “If not, how do you want us to spread out and hunt foah him?”
“You’d have to ask Paige about that, Monique,” Linuial says quietly. “Stray is no telepath, so she’d have to report back to Paige, and she hasn’t said anything to me yet.”
She turns to watch the ninja.
“Xavier!” she calls after him.
When he fails to respond, moving out of sight around a corner, she addresses her mental image of him. “Xavier, I wasn’t suggesting that we all go with you, but since you mention it, why don’t we send someone else with the scroll to the Tsoo; that way you can help us find Tim. It is, after all, as you say, just a delivery, it hardly requires your abilities and expertise.“
Her eyes narrow as she awaits his reply.
Devereaux pauses as Linuial’s message reaches him. “That’s true but we need the Tsoo to help us beat whatever this thing is we’re looking for. If it’s as world ending as you say and Golden Fist doesn’t get his scroll, finding Tahq will be a moot point. I’m the only one here who’s fast and stealthy enough to make sure it gets done. You know how to reach me if there are any updates.”
“How about this…Thunderbird can fly surveillance high over your head, and watch for ambushes,“ she suggests. “Just as you had Tim doing earlier. He’s ex-military and highly trained, not an unblooded teenager…he’s unlikely to be caught in the same trap Tim was. That should improve your chances of getting back to the Tsoo without hitting one of those ambushes, and as you say, we are talking end-of-the-world.“
This time he doesn’t stop. “I didn’t need surveillance to get to you before. I can always persuade a few allies if I really need to. Keep your team together, Blondie. You’re likely to need them a lot more than me.”
Linuial sighs, shakes her head.
She walks over to Paige. “Dear, have you heard anything from Tim or Stray yet?” she asks.
After witnessing Devereaux kill the Oracle, a small tear leaves Paige’s right eye, but she quickly dries it and looks forward. This is the Devereaux that she never thought she’d see. This is the man who is a realized mercenary. The man who uses people and possessions as leverage to get what he wants. The man who told her killing is just a tool, nothing to take pleasure in or to fear. The man who walked right past Paige and left the warehouse as if he was finished with a routine bank transaction.
She told herself she’d see it one day, and it would be no big deal when it did happen. Well that day is today. She witnessed someone kill. And it’s nothing like she thought it would be.
“I haven’t… heard anything. Anything at all, from Stray or Tim…” the visibly shaken girl says to Linuial, not bawling, but clearly not normal. Her usual cheerful personality to hide her uncertainty behind is now gone.
Linuial searches Paige’s face, then reaches an open hand out to her. When the teenager fails to either take it or turn away, she wraps her arm around the girl’s shoulders, a concerned expression on her face.
“Paige?“ she projects, so that no one else can hear her. “I’m here for you.“ She says nothing more, merely waits for the girl’s reaction.
Paige reaches for Linuial’s hand on her left shoulder and takes a slow breath.
“Adam killed a Warrior on the street and it didn’t phase me in the least. But Xavier kills a snake woman, who is less human than the Warrior, and I’m upset. Why?” she thinks to Linuial.
“That’s perfectly normal, Paige,“ Linuial reassures her. “There is a vast emotional difference between killing in the heat of battle, or in the passion of the moment, and killing merely as an intellectual act, without emotion, and especially without feelings of remorse or regret.
“In a fight, when someone’s life is in danger, it’s easy to understand and accept that one must kill to remain alive, to protect one’s self, and others,“ she continues. “When the fight is over, and there is no longer any danger, anyone to protect, to kill becomes much harder to understand, to forgive.
“You’re most likely asking yourself why Xavier killed that woman, when she was at his mercy, am I right about that? Why didn’t he merely allow her to live? She posed no further threat…“
“Killing her was a mercy.”
Standing in a hallway the team passed through on their way into the warehouse, Devereaux can feel Paige’s shock when he chimes back in on the psychic conversation.
“Don’t be so surprised, kid. My range is a lot longer than yours.”
Before she can respond to that, he continues. “Think about it. How much energy is in a lightning bolt? Five, six billion joules? It’s hotter than the surface of the sun. When that storm hit, everything vital inside her got fried. She was dying, slowly and in pain. Would you have preferred I let her suffer a little longer? Where’s the heroism in that?”
“Honestly, I thought you’d understand. You were on that job in the Crey Lab when I stopped Blondie from healing that Paragon Protector. Sure, I didn’t kill her myself but I kept someone else from saving her. That’s just as good. I did it then for the same reason I did it now.”
There’s no contrition in his tone. He speaks with a matter-of-fact manner, as if he were saying the sky is blue. “Her life was over. Death was coming one way or the other. All I did was shorten the trip. If that gives you some comfort, good. If it doesn’t, well, it might be time to start thinking about retirement.”
Paige clears her eyes and looks to Linuial, “I’m alright.”
“I’m sorry, Xavier. It wasn’t fair of me to think you didn’t do this for a reason. Good luck with handling the Tsoo…” Paige sends back, then shudders a little bit from the revelation before returning to her gentle smile.
Finding new conviction, she looks at Nyghtshade and says, “After all, this place eats up bad feelings for breakfast, and I’ve got a brother to find.”
“We’ve got a brother to find,” Nyght says quietly, and beside her, Jade nods.
“So, what say we go find him?”
Not privy to Dev’s explanation or Paige’s reply, Linuial peruses her face, trying to read the teenager’s expression.
“…all right, then, but talk to me when we get back to the base, okay? We don’t have time now, but I’d like to share something with you later.“
The Starfire leader turns and begins making team assignments for the assembled Heros, as they prepare to head out of the warehouse in search of the prodigal Tahquitz.
“Mission accomplished” hardly sums up the events that have transpired over the last few hours. Though the objective’s been secured, the casualties are worse than anyone would want. With one Hero out of the fight and another missing, it’s more than safe to say that there’s still a long way to go.
As the group prepares to begin the search for their lost brother in arms, everyone is acutely aware of the fact that Mot, the entire reason for this excursion into Dark Astoria, has yet to reveal himself. He could still be sealed, yes, but if that’s true, why does the Banished Pantheon seem to be hiding around every corner? What are their ambitions surrounding Fen Monique and what will it mean for the world if they succeed?