Paragon City Stories: Death Becomes Her
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act III, Scene 1
Place: Dark Astoria
The Tsoo warehouse is just as the Heroes left it. Dilapidated and hastily fortified on the outside, a jarring mix of opulence and practicality on the inside.
Even in a place as warped as Dark Astoria, news travels even faster than metahumans. An account of what happened at First Light has already reached the Tsoo. The team is greeted with something that straddles the line between fear and grudging admiration from the gang.
Golden Fist himself waits for them in a storage area that’s been converted into a training ground for his men. As the group enters, he offers a noncommittal inclination of his head as if to say, “Well done, but I’m still not impressed.”
What he actually says is, “Thank you for your work. I trust that it was only a minor inconvenience. Now that you’ve returned, shall we discuss what our next move will be?”
Devereaux stands with a few of the Tsoo, watching as the gang goes about its training regimen. A Dragon Enforcer, his bright red hood pulled back to reveal a surprisingly youthful face, tells a joke and the shapeshifter laughs dutifully.
He’s still laughing when he senses the team of Heroes come into the room. Clapping his companions on the back, he goes over to join the group and arrives just in time to overhear Golden Fist’s comment.
He says nothing, choosing instead to see how the conversation plays out.
Linuial inclines her head to Golden Fist. “Yes, please.
“However, while we are talking, would it be possible for my people to rest, get some water? Minor it might have been, but I want them to be at their best for our next action.”
She turns her head briefly, nodding to Devereaux, before returning her attention to the Tsoo leader.
“So…“ she projects at the Praetorian, “how did your ‘negotiations’ go? Finished, now?“
It only took an hour.
After he woke up, Tahquitz met the business end of several of the remaining Defenders, as he held his hands up.
“Yeah, sorry about the last little bit there… ready for a story?” He never got to tell it because Stray asked the Defenders to allow Starfire to ‘arrest’ him to bring him before the Steel Canyon Courthouse to answer for what he’s done.
Tahq put up a false fight to keep the Defenders believing he’s under arrest. After returning to the warehouse, his restraints were removed, and a stern warning that he was being kept in observation for the rest of the task force and not to leave the team under any circumstances without Stray or Linuial’s explicit permission. Strict, but doable.
So, here he stands, next to Paige, who has been ice cold to him since leaving First Light. The normally cheerful girl doesn’t even laugh or smile at his jokes.
“How much you want to bet they’re going to arm wrestle, Cricket?” Tahquitz asks, jocularly.
Paige is watching Linuial talk to Golden Fist as she goes over what just happened in the last few hours… from hunting down a sword artifact from a tomb to stealing a scroll from a lizard woman. Then trying to rescue Tahquitz from a Banished Pantheon invasion of a hero sanctuary, to running from Tahquitz after he turned. Watching her adoptive brother attack Starfire, Banished Pantheon, and then some of the Defenders of First Light, only to be knocked out by Nyghtshade…
And if that isn’t enough, he’s standing right next to her. Right now. He should be in a hospital. Or under arrest, after seeing what he did.
Either Nyghtshade’s powers aren’t as dangerous as she lets on, or something is seriously wrong… he should be dead, but he’s walking around like nothing happened. Paige is fearful of him now, seeing what she saw at First Light.
So, she’s watching Linuial address Golden Fist. And ignoring Tahquitz until she gets more info on what is going on.
Nyghtshade remains near the back of the group, subdued and more than willing to let the others negotiate with Golden Fist and his crew.
She has retrieved the shotgun, although she doubts it will be useful much longer, with only 8 or 10 blessed shells left in the ammo belts.
Jade remains near Nyghtshade, to protect if need be, with her attention warily focused on the Tsoo.
She keeps a grip on her mystical axe. So long as the group remains here in Dark Astoria, she’s pretty sure she’ll need it again.
“They went well. I’ve even got the bruises to prove it. Golden Fist’s no joke and his people aren’t half bad either. They still don’t like the idea of working with Capes but getting them their scroll went a long way toward making an impression. Just don’t get all sanctimonious like you usually do and they’ll be willing to see this thing through.”
Golden Fist, unaware of the psychic conversation between Devereaux and Linuial, answers the healer’s question. “You’re welcome to rest for a while but I’m afraid our time is short.”
“First Light wasn’t a target of opportunity. The runes there are a major inhibition to the Pantheon’s power here in Astoria. Had they been successful in destroying them, their god would have had a much easier time in reasserting himself.”
The Tsoo boss looks Linuial in the eye and an expression of finality comes to the surface of his face. “Up to now, we’ve focused on preventing that by keeping them engaged. Our constant harassment has kept them from marshaling enough power to break his bonds. That is no longer sufficient. After what took place…”
He trails off and makes no attempt to conceal the way his gaze sweeps over Tahquitz. “It’s clear that they are becoming dangerously creative in their efforts. We must put an end to them, once and for all.”
“Amen to that,” Nyghtshade mutters.
“To that end,” Golden Fist continues. “Tell me what you know of this shaman, Akpan. If I understand correctly, he’s the one who led you to come here. Battling the Pantheon’s ambitions was more of an afterthought than it was a true goal.”
There’s no spite in his voice and he remains stoically sober as he waits for a reply.
Nyghtshade raises her chin, and meets Golden Fist’s gaze levelly. “How much do you want to know about him?”
“Whatever you deem to be important,” the Tsoo replies. “Strategic information is my primary concern but if you know of some personal habit or weakness that could be exploited, that will be helpful too.”
Nyght considers that thoughtfully, and then nods. “He’s a Death Shaman, but he screwed around with the Banished Pantheon’s normal magic rituals when he created me.”
“Akpan made it plain, last time we… met… that he considehed me an abomination. But he made me anyway, and freely admitted he did so foah the money. Because he liked livin’ well.”
“Ah was ‘made to ordeh’, by a someone willin’ to pay Akpan a great deal of money to make somethin’ out of the ordinary way. To kill and raise back up someone who still retained theah sense of self. To make someone who could drain away life same as the Shaman, and give it to someone else… his client.”
“And to have me and what Ah can do totally enslaved to that client. But Akpan’s hodge-podge spell went wrong on that count. At least… well, Ah left and came heah instead, Ah got away.”
“When Akpan and his client finally tracked me down and came foah me, mah group stopped them and broke the triggeh foah controllin’ me. And Akpan doesn’t seem to have a back-up foah that, or else he’d have just summoned me, instead of doin’ all this the hard way.”
“So now he wants me back. No ideah why, unless maybe he’s havin’ second thoughts about what he did.”
“I should say so,” Golden Fist says, a bit more of the Oxford accent bleeding into his speech.
“We’ve been fighting the Pantheon for many years. In all that time, I have never heard of a shaman breaking from their traditions. Their god’s word is law. Whether or not something so simple as money could drive one of them to do such a thing is beyond me but if what you say is true, it may be that Akpan is working against his comrades rather than alongside them.”
As the suggestion ripples outward, Golden Fist can feel the puzzlement and growing disbelief among the Heroes and those of his own men who are within earshot.
He pitches his voice to carry. “You certainly know how debased they are with their victims. I wonder if they would spare a traitor such savagery.”
“That thought has crossed mah mind,” Nyghtshade admits uncomfortably. “Maybe he’s trying to redeem himself somehow. Maybe this is supposed to be some kind of mystical “repo” job.”
She pauses,obviously wrestling with one last bit, and finally admits, “Ah had reason to go back in time, the Mendehs, you know? To go back to witness the ritual. And… well, Ah have a feelin’ that in the end, Ah may have messed it up. Ah’m Catholic. And it was ovehwhelmin’ watchin’ somebody cursin’ me… the younger me. So… Ah know, Ah know we’ah not supposed to meddle with the past, but… Ah prayed. Foah an intervention, and….”
She stares down at her hands, clenched around the shotgun.
“And theah kind of was. A bolt of lightning, right at what Ah can only assume was the climax, tore up his little altar and scattehed things. So… Ah don’t know what use you can make of that, but…”
Nyghtshade sighs and shrugs. “Ah neveh told anyone else that.”
Linuial stands silently, listening to Nyghtshade’s story. She stares off into the distance for a moment before speaking.
“So…Akpan’s crime is that he accepted money in exchange for corrupting one of their sacred rituals…but he might have been a completely innocent victim of its ultimate failure.” She looks directly at Nyghtshade. “Does that sound right to you?”
Monique shakes her head. “Ah wouldn’t say he was innocent. He still perverted the ritual, even if he didn’t get it to altogetheh complete the way he wanted. He still killed and raised back up a thinkin’, reasonin’ creat…. person…. one that, moreover, can steal life same as a Shaman, and use it or give it to anotheh. None of the dead husks can do that. Ah don’t think even Adamastor can do that.”
She pauses, considering a moment, then adds, “It’s like… he gave away some of the Death Shaman’s powers… to me.”
One eyebrow lifts. “Ah neveh quite thought of it that way. He really perverted things…”
“Monique, I never said Akpan was ‘innocent’…I said he was guilty of perversion, but if the final result was caused by that lightning strike, natural or spiritual, then he might have been just as much a victim as you are. A victim of the prayer you offered up.
“If you received some of Akpan’s Shaman powers…then he might also have been bereft of them, some of them at least. He might have lost just as much as you ‘gained’.
“I’m wondering if we can somehow turn that to our advantage. He might not be anywhere near as dangerous as you’ve been assuming all this time, Monique. He might have been seriously crippled since your change. Maybe that’s why he waited so long to pursue you.
“It might behoove us to try to find out what might have recently changed to send him after you again.”
“Yoah guess is as good as mine,” Monique admits glumly. “Maybe it’s just revenge, foah him gettin’ sent to prison all those yeahs.”
The empathic healer turns to Golden Fist.
“You know far more than we do about our situation,” she points out. “You have far more information about the Banished. I’m inclined to follow your lead.
“What do you suggest we do, to put a stop to the Pantheon’s god’s resurrection?”
“Protection,” Devereaux says before Golden Fist can reply. “He needs you, or at least the power he gave you, to protect him from the rest of the Pantheon.”
“Trust me, I’ve seen this happen plenty of times. Someone gets greedy and pisses off whatever organization they’ve been working with. Now that they’re alone in the world, the first thing they look for is protection. Sometimes it’s joining up with whoever’s stupid enough to have them, sometimes they try to grab enough power to make their former friends think twice about revenge. Either way, they’ll do anything to keep from paying the price for betrayal.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” he adds. “There’s a reason nooses used to be reserved for traitors. It’s an ugly way to die.”
“How could Ah protect Akpan?” Nyght demands. “Why in the good Lord’s name would he even think Ah’d consideh it??”
“Xavier has a point, Monique,” Linuial chimes in. “I doubt Akpan thinks he can get your help voluntarily…he probably would think that he can force you to protect him. Or perhaps he thinks he can drain some of his power from you and take it back.”
Nyght scowls at that explanation, but grudgingly nods. “Maybe. So…. if that’s true, is theah any way we could, Ah don’t know, use that to ouh advantage?”
“Monique, if Akpan is that desperate…he may not even be a danger to you. As long as you remain close to a large group of defenders, so that he can’t get you alone…it might be safe enough for us to concentrate on putting the Pantheon’s god down, once and for all…and worry about Akpan after that is finished.”
She turns back to Golden Fist.
“Do you have a plan?” she asks.
Having watched the exchange of theories with no small amount of interest, the Tsoo is reluctant to change the subject. After a silent moment, he speaks.
“As you know, gods cannot be killed in the traditional sense. Their essence can be sealed or even scattered but there is nothing to prevent them from returning to the world. If they’re given enough time and worship, of course.”
“The Pantheon’s gods are no different. As of this moment, the one that sleeps beneath Astoria is sealed by a combination of Tielekku’s sword and the various runes that tap the leylines running through this place. That they attacked First Light means they are attempting to weaken the defenses. That being said, even powerful practitioners cannot simply undo what’s been done here. The spells are difficult to weave and they require great sources of power.”
He thinks for a moment. “How many shaman did you face at First Light? Were they alone save for the husks or were those cursed spirits with them?”
“Two Shaman, and four Spirit Masks,” Nyght replies quietly, “although when Tahquitz… broke free…. 2 of the masks weah destroyed, Ah think.”
“Destroyed?” Golden Fist repeats quizzically. “Destroyed how?”
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m… “ Tahquitz reconsiders saying that, “It’s complicated.”
“Just know it’s not going to happen twice.”
To everyone’s surprise, Golden Fist laughs. “No, I don’t think I would. Xolotol is not the kind of entity that takes well to our world. Don’t worry, releasing him again is the last thing I’d ask of you.”
“No, I have something different in mind but I must know if it’s even feasible. So tell me, how the spirits were destroyed?”
The blonde healer turns to the boy. “Tim? Do you have any idea how that happened?”
She glances in the Tsoo leader’s direction. “If Tim doesn’t know, I might have a guess, at least.”
Tahquitz considers for a second what sharing his curse means. The decision to be a hero with such a terrible and destructive power is his, and sharing the burden with others would change his relationships with his friends.
He knows what Linuial would say. No question. And even less of a question would be Paige. She’s clearly upset at him, but if he told her everytime he faced an impossible situation more and more of his life is drained, she’d tell him to stop. But it’s not that simple…
“I’m an avatar, not a reincarnation. His ways are beyond me. Lin, by all means.” Tahquitz says, giving her carte blanche.
Starfire’s leader turns to the Tsoo leader. “The corrupted spirits…Masks…four of them…were draining Tim,” she nods to Taquitz, “of power. Tim himself doesn’t have any power, or didn’t, until he formed a pact to share his body with an ancient protector demon. They must have been draining the demon’s power, I assume to gain the power needed to break the First Light wards by sheer force alone.
“Tim lost control, the demon emerged, and two of the four Masks were destroyed as that happened. My guess is that there was some kind of feedback as the demon emerged, a power surge that was too great for some of the Masks to absorb safely.”
Paige, as a complete neophyte to magic, is listening. And she is doing so very puzzled.
Runes, wards, menders, gods, swords… it’s like being stuck in one of her fantasy novels she read as a little girl. She knows magic is real, but it’s never really interested her as much as science or physics.
She does, however, roll her eyes when Tahquitz tried to make a Hulk reference. She’s never even seen him crack open a comic book, let alone watch a movie on superheroes.
“Excellent,” Golden Fist says.
When he sees the look of confusion that meets his exclamation, he elaborates. “The spirits are the true source of the Pantheon’s power. They serve as conduits, channeling all the energy that the shaman draw upon to cast their spells. We have always suspected that there was an upper limit to their capacity but few things seem to carry the volume of power necessary to exceed it.”
“In order to siphon enough energy into the sleeping god, the Pantheon will need a massive power source. It would have to be more than any number of victims could produce no matter how badly the shaman tortured them. To do it in any kind of timely manner, they would need to draw on a much larger well of emotion. Unfortunately, Dark Astoria has many nexuses of such energy. People suffered here in their hundreds and thousands when the fog descended so many years ago. If we’re to stop these animals, we must first determine where they will go.”
“Wheah’s the biggest nexus of laylines in Astoria?” Nyght asks. “If the Banished Pantheon need mystical power, seems like that would be someplace to check.”
“The cemetery?” the healer guesses. “The hospital? I don’t know enough of Astoria’s history to have a clear idea of where the greatest gathering of emotional energy might be.”
“You hit the nose right on the head the first time, Linuial.” Tahquitz says, “The Cemetery doesn’t have one particular nexus that’s larger than another, but the concentration of lay-lines radiates out of the Cemetery to the various neighborhoods. It’s how the Banished Pantheon are able to control countless bodies from such great distances.”
Starfire’s leader gazes into the distance, before commenting to the Tsoo leader.
“If we are ‘who’, the cemetery is ‘where’, and ‘immediately’ is ‘when’…the final question is ‘what’?
“What do we do when we return there? Or do we just show up and hope all will become clear?”
“The ‘what’ seems clear to me. I might be wrong here, but would it make sense to use the laylines against the Banished Pantheon to weaken their grip on the Cemetery? To make Akpan vulnerable?”
“But this is where science fails me. I’m out of my depth here.” Paige says, “How are we to go about doing this?”
“You’re correct in saying that Moth Cemetery holds much of the strength the Pantheon needs,” Golden Fist says. “But they have already devoted it to their purpose. One cannot use what has already been expended.”
Devereaux cuts in. “I’m no more of a spell caster than Paige,” he says, giving a nod to the teenager. “But information is my specialty. I’ll do some digging into the history of this place. See if I can’t come up with a list of potential targets.”
“If the’ah lookin’ foah a source of strong emotions, especially fear, Linuial’s second choice might be it. Could the hospital be a target?” Nyght asks.
“Zombies and death cults in a hospital? Very Silent Hill.” Chuckling at his own joke, Devereaux adds, “But the hospital’s still up and running. I’m guessing that’s got some magical reason behind it too.”
He looks to Golden Fist, who nods in confirmation. “That’s correct. The Pantheon cannot breach the safeguards around the hospital. It would be impossible for them to harvest energy there.”
That revelation leaves Nyght nodding slightly with relief as she thinks of Jon at the hospital, not to mention the dedicated doctors and medical staff, not to mention those First Light fighters who were overcome today.
This leads her to wonder if the ones Tahquitz took down have been revived at the hospital. She decides that’s worth checking out, once all of this is over.
She frowns, and then addresses the others. “Theah’s something Ah don’t undehstand heah, though. Why, if Akpan’s made three separate attempts to ‘get’ me…. why has he suddenly stopped? Why has he dropped off the radar all of the sudden?”
“Maybe the pressure’s just too high. If I’m right and he’s been running from his ex-buddies, he’s gotta be taking some serious pains to keep them off his back. Especially here in the middle of their home turf. Or maybe he’s just decided you’re not worth the trouble.”
Devereaux ruminates on the thought for a moment. Then he shrugs. “Either way, I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You said the guy can summon Adamastor, right? That’s not the kind of person I’d be keen to have hiding around every corner.”
“Hmmm…” The blonde woman reaches into a pocket and pulls out her smartphone, begins tapping at the screen. She looks up briefly and says, “…give me a minute…” although it’s not really clear who she is talking to.
“…I see two other possibilities,” she finally says, still focused on her phone. “A warehouse, sometimes referred to as ‘Astoria’s Last Stand’. A group of survivors fled there waiting for help that never came, and were able to hold the attackers at bay for some hours.
“Then there’s McCraughly Park. It had a bad reputation even before the dark fell on Astoria, and has become a focal point for Pantheon rituals since.”
She looks up at Golden Fist, and raises her eyebrows quizzically.
The Tsoo’s response is as thoughtful as always. “Yes, I know ‘The Stand’,” he says, using the colloquial name for the site. “As you said, a group of survivors fled there in the hope of rescue. That hope turned out to be false and they were slaughtered despite their bravery. The spirits there were put to rest, though. They have joined a cadre led by one of our Ancestor Spirits at the Palace of Stone.”
“McCraughly Park, on the other hand, has been untouched for many years. Too much sinister mystery has taken place there. Suicides, disappearances, murders, and more.”
He pauses and lowers his chin in thought. “Yes, a place like that would be filled with emotion. What’s more, it lies in a corner of Astoria that’s far from the convergence of the ley lines. The Pantheon would have no trouble getting there.”
“McCraughly wouldn’t be a bad choice… it’s where I first landed when I was swallowed up by Mot and landed here.” Tahquitz says.
“Very well, then. McCraughly Park it is.” She locks eyes with Golden Fist. “My people will go there and scope it out. Will you come with us? Depending on what we find, there might not be time for backup to get to us.”
Golden Fist’s answer is immediate. “In this place, waiting for backup usually means you’re already dead. My men are ready but were you not interested in giving your own people time to rest? The threat the Pantheon poses is great but you won’t be of much use if you’re exhausted.”
In reply, Starfire’s leader turns to her team.
“Who is ready to move on, and who needs a rest? Speak up, this is not a rhetorical question.”
“I’m ready!” the 18-year-old calls out, a grin spreading across his face. Backing up, he switches on his shield and laser sword, and gives a few gratuitous passes, with an unnecessary flourish.
“Ah am ready, but then, Ah have good reason to be, on many counts.” Nyght cuts a brief glance toward Tahquitz, but doesn’t elaborate.
Looking again toward Linuial, she adds, “Ah follow yoah lead, Linuial. If yoah people need moah rest, Ah’m content to wait. And if they are ready to move out, then so am Ah.”
“I’m all right,” Stray adds. “You sure you don’t want to check up on Jon?”
“He’s safer where he is, and I’m sure he’s getting the best of care. Our job now is to make sure he has something to come ‘home’ to. Well?”
“I… need some time. If I go on at full tilt like this for another three hours, I might snap at the silliest thing.” Paige admits to Linuial. “I don’t need a full night’s sleep, but a couple hours and I’ll be much better.”
Behind Nyght, Jade raises an eager hand. “Ready to go any time you say, Boss Lady,” she says almost cheerfully, and spins the axe in a flourish before settling again.
One by one, the members of Starfire check in. Thunderbird is ready…as is Mardi Gras, and Stray, Steel Water, and Bubastis. Linuial nods acknowledgement to Jade, then turns her attention to Paige and Tahquitz.
“I think that’s wise, Paige.
“Tim…I’m going to ask you to stay behind as well. Never mind any trust issues, after what you’ve just been through, I think you desperately need some rest, even just sitting down for a few minutes. I’d like to send you to the hospital…in fact, if you would be willing to volunteer to do so, check up on Jon and keep an eye on him…I’d be very grateful. You, too, Paige.”
“No problem, although I’m fit as a fiddle. I don’t mind a checkup, though.” Tahquitz says, “I’ll let you know how Jon is doing as well.”
“No problem, Linuial.” Paige said with a smile, “Thanks… I didn’t know when the right time to ask would be”, then briskly walked away towards the back of the room, ignoring Tahquitz.
Tahquitz tries to say something to Paige, but sees her look away from him and walk right past before he can even speak.
“And this gives me a chance to figure out what the heck THIS” Tahquitz says with a low voice to Linuial, waving at Paige walking away, “is all about. Wish me luck.”
Linuial reaches out a hand, laying it softly on the boy’s shoulder.
“Tim…Let it be.”
She smiles gently at the boy’s puzzled and surprised look. “Paige has a lot to absorb right now, and not all of it has to do with you. Give her a chance to think…to feel…things through. There’ll be plenty of time later to talk, after we’ve saved the Universe.” Her smile turns into a grin, before she turns away.
For his part, Devereaux says a few quiet words to Golden Fist. The Tsoo boss nods before going to oversee preparations for the move to McCraughly Park.
“And here we are on the edge of yet another climactic battle,” he jokes, a wry grin on his face. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. A few more like this and I might have to invest in a cape for myself.”
Jade can see that Monique is uncharacteristically withdrawn, and realizes that bears watching.
But the little martial artist, not much bigger than the axe she’s carrying, still tosses Devereaux a cocky grin. “Capes can be overrated,” she cautions mischievously. “You won’t see me wearing one. There’s a reason Edna Mode says, ‘No capes!”
Linuial chuckles under her breath. “A cape just isn’t your style, Xavier,” she teases. “You’re much too je ne sais quoi.”
“I’m definitely too rich,” he says with an earnest laugh. “I’ll never understand why you’re all willing to take store credit instead of cash. There’s no substitute for the real thing, y’know.”
Still grinning, he says, “Well, I guess we better relax while we can. If this is anything like our last few jobs, it’s sure to be a bumpy ride.”
Since it seems the group will be resting for a time before the action begins, Monique settles cross-legged in a corner of the room, the nearly-emptied ammo belt slung over her shoulder and shotgun across her knees.
She sits unmoving, although her gaze remains watchful, especially where it rests on the Tsoo.
Being still is not a natural state for Jade, but she does understand the need to approach a fight fresh. She settles as well, but passes the time with periodic stretches and a few occasional low-key movement combinations, to keep her muscles warm and limber.
Linuial moves among all of her team, speaking to each one, checking their status, offering her ubiquitous smile. It’s been hours since they left the safety of the Starfire base, and she finally manages to talk the Tsoo leader out of some of their provisions, which she shares around. It’s rough fare, dry and rather tasteless combat rations, but at least they won’t be fighting on an empty stomach.
She speaks into her cell phone, and a few minutes later Recalls Maggot Man into the Tsoo stronghold, toting an over sized backpack. Opening it reveals that it is stuffed full of more palatable foods and snacks, which Linuial shares around with both her team and the Tsoo.
She speaks into her cell phone again, and Maggot Man gives a waves as he vanishes, Recalled back to the hospital by Quake.
It takes a few hours, but the mismatched alliance of heroes and the Tsoo are eventually prepared for the incursion into McCraughly Park. Time is difficult to tell. The ever present red tinge in the atmosphere seems to subsume the light itself, making day indistinguishable from night.
They set out in a state somewhere between nervous excitement and foreboding. None of them knows exactly what they’ll find in Dark Astoria’s most forgotten corner. It could be that the Banished Pantheon isn’t even there but, given the foul cult’s presence across the rest of the zone, that seems an unlikely possibility.
The cadre pauses at the park gate, readying themselves for whatever they might encounter.
Taking stock of the situation, Devereaux shakes his head almost imperceptibly. The Tsoo are well trained and he knows something of Starfire’s strength but the fact remains that these people have never really fought together. Their earlier experience in Moth Cemetery was an exercise in tactical errors that he’s not eager to repeat.
“So, do we go in guns blazing and see what we find or try something a little more subtle?” He doesn’t direct the question to anyone in particular. Instead, he simply waits to see who will put their cards on the table first.
“Well, Ah do have a gun, and it’s good for about 8 moah shots,” Nyght jokes weakly, holding up the shotgun.
“Yeah…about that. Get rid of it.”
He waits patiently for Nyghtshade to discard the shotgun, giving no credence to the quizzical looks that are cast his way.
Using his telepathic link so as to keep the conversation private, Linuial speaks to Devereaux without looking in his direction.
“You know something?“
Nyghtshade shrugs, and discards the nearly spent ammo belt and the shotgun. She actually looks relieved to be rid of them.
“Only that we’re going into the unknown,” Devereaux sends back. “Which means we’ll need scouts. It’s my ass that’ll be on the line if she’s handicapped.”
Having explained himself as thoroughly as he feels is necessary, he turns his focus back to the verbal conversation. “No offense to anyone else but I’d rather not just storm the gates. Any opposition to letting Nyghtshade and I check things out first?”
Linuial turns to peruse the Praetorian’s expression before she answers. “That’s up to Monique.”
“Honestly, the only way Ah could hit anything with the shotgun was at point-blank range. Ah’d feel a lot moah confident usin’ mah own powers. If, as you suggested, Linuial, Akpan’s own powers are reduced, then he and his may not be the threat we weah fearin’.”
Monique hesitates, drawing a breath and releasing it in a slow sigh, before adding, “But if they are… Ah feel a lot moah competent usin’ mah own abilities against them.”
“I’m good with it,” Jade nods.
“Excellent!” Devereaux exclaims. He claps his hands and paints a sarcastic smile on his face. It only lingers for a moment before he gets back to business. “We’ll get in touch with you the usual way once we figure out what it is we’re up against.”
In a mere fraction of a moment, he’s donned the form of a Basilisk Ninja again. Clad in sleeveless blue shozoku, slate gray sash, and equipped with the traditional short sword and bow, he cuts an appropriately mysterious figure.
The Tsoo’s appreciation for his choice of form isn’t lost on him and he nods respectfully, the hood and mask obscuring any expression on his face.
“Let’s get to work,” he says in a voice that’s no longer his own before leaping into the air and vaulting over the fence into the park.
With a wave to the others, Nyghtshade concentrates, establishing her mental no-see-me effect and leaps over the fence to follow the Ninja.
Telepathically reaching out to Xavier, she asks, “What’s the plan, Mr. Devereaux?”
“You tell me,” he replies with measured humor.
“My money’s still on your guy, Akpan, to be behind all this. You know him a lot better than I do. What would he do in a situation like this? Divide his forces for another ambush like the one in the cemetery, concentrate them for some hocus pocus ritual, or something else entirely?”
There’s a slight pause as she considers that, then replies, "If he’s been weakened at all - and that’s pure supposition, you undehstand - but if he has, Ah can’t see him splittin’ up his forces. Seems to me he’d want to keep as much protection around him as possible while he does whateveh he’s meanin’ to do…”
“So far, he’s not even shown his face. Sent out agents to try and grab me, talked to me through a newly dead gang membeh… although that’s no mean feat, that does seem to me to speak of poweh… and taunted us from afar in the Cemetary, with that last ambush.”
“He wasn’t even with the shaman attackin’ the First Light. It’s almost like… like he’s leadin’ us on some sort of chase, like a series of diversions?”
“If he’s lookin’ foah some way to build his power, some way to enhance what he’s already got… mah guess is that he would be up theah wheah Mo… the sucky god who shall be nameless… wheah the remains of that god still are. You know wheah Ah mean?”
“My specialties are espionage and small group tactics, remember? This whole magic thing is all Greek to me.”
He gestures, sweeping his arm outwards in a semicircle. “Lead on.”
“Are you familiah with the cemetary at all? Because we should probably split up and come at things from different sides. If Akpan is trackin’ me, we don’t want them spottin’ you too.”
Sighing in exasperation, Devereaux shakes his head. “You and Blondie with your damn paranoid theories. If he’s tracking you, why have we been able to haul our asses all the way from Hell to bloody ruin without him coming down on us? Why let us get more than ten steps into this shit-hole of a zone at all?”
“Trust me, I’ve tailed a lot of people in my life and I’ve been tailed by almost as many. Short of dumb luck, he hasn’t known where you are since he attacked your brownstone.”
“Maybe because he wants us to come in heah. Maybe because comin’ to him is just what he wants. And maybe not. Let’s scout out this park first, Ah’ll take the West side, you take the East, and see what we come across.”
“Linuial may be right, this might be the power source Akpan needs, heah in McCraughey Park. It’s not that big, we should know soon enough.”
“And if you’re right, what if getting you alone is exactly what he’s planning for?” Devereaux asks.
“See? I can play the what if game too. It goes nowhere. I wanted you along so we could work together on this. Intel is always easier to gather when you’ve got more than one set of eyes. Pick a direction and we’ll go that way but let’s not do the old Scooby Doo routine when there’s a creepy old guy in a mask out there looking for us.”
“Start on the West side, then, and work ouh way East," she agrees, and slowly begins to work her way into the park, staying close to Xavier, and concentrating on making sure she is not seen, that anything nearby will be encouraged to simply look elsewhere as she passes through.
Once over the wall, Nyght can see that the park is small, only about 2 blocks long, and seems be divided into a couple of sections by brick walls eight or nine feet tall, with an occasional arch between the two sections, and on an outer wall here and there, leading out to the street.
The park is strewn with massive stone outcroppings and boulders, and trees both scraggly and flat-out dead, their massive trunks and twisted branches clawing skyward. There is no direct light here, and yet there are shadows, disturbing in that they run off in widely different directions, as if they have some life of their own.
She moves quietly, stealthily, but finds no sign of life - or the undead - here.
And yet, on one rocky outcrop shaped much like a massive table, there are arcane markings scrawled in reds and yellows, and stubs of candles, tips blackened.
Nyght circles this outcropping slowly, and finds a small pyramid of skulls tucked away into the base facing toward the cemetery some blocks away.
She touches nothing, but sends, “Mr. Devereaux, you might want to look at this. Could be an altar, and used not too long ago. The candle wax is still soft.”
The shinobi’s finely honed agility and acute senses make moving over the broken ground at high speed a trivial thing. Even with Nyghtshade’s ability to leap great distances, Devereaux has little trouble keeping up. He arrives at the rocky outcrop shortly after her telepathic message reaches him.
Like her, he circles the site and carefully logs every detail into his memory. Then he uses the ninja’s ability to detect chi in an attempt to catch some echo of whoever was using the site.
“There was definitely someone here,” he informs her. “And not long ago. I can’t tell who but, judging by the bones, I’d bet they’re Pantheon. Any idea what all this crap might do? Like I said before, I can barely tell eye of newt from wing of bat but if we can figure out what they’re trying to accomplish we’ll have a much better chance of stopping it.”
“Ah’m no expert in magic, but if Ah was to guess, Ah’m thinkin’ the red markin’s theah might be blood. And blood magic is most likely death magic. Could be someone, one of the Shaman, Ah’d guess, was tryin’ to focus power, or siphon power, foah themself or foah theah god. A sacrifice, perhaps. Or… theah own blood, paid foah power?”
“Eitheh way, Ah’d guess it was a way to strengthen theah power. But Golden Fist or some of his people might have a betteh idea.”
Nyght edges back from the altar for a better look, and does not notice when her foot clips the edge of a shadow.
She stiffens abuptly as the shadow sends tendrils twining up her leg, around her hip, her torso, tightening like a cold shock, like clammy arms. Her vision darkens, and she sees the altar, but there seem to be figures around it…
“Well that’s just great,” Devereaux grumbles aloud.
Gathering a portion of his own chi, he channels it into the tips of his index and middle fingers. Then he points them outward from his palm side by side and places his thumb parallel. To the uninitiated eye, it looks similar to the gesture one would make when pantomiming a gun.
“Death magic, life energy. Worth a shot.” He chuckles dryly to himself before aiming and delivering a Spear Finger Strike to the inky black tentacle that’s climbing Nyghtshade’s body. He knows all too well that it’s a gamble. Even if the opposing forces do successfully nullify one another, there’s still the risk that the blow will cause serious internal injury. Whether or not the undead heroine will be affected by or even notice it, there’s no way to be certain.
At his touch, the dark tendril hisses and spits like hot grease. It writhes furiously before finally bursting into a cloud of oily black smoke. To his relief, Nyghtshade is still standing when it dissipates. To his dismay, her eyes look haunted.
“Hey,” he calls in a hushed but urgent tone. “You all right? I didn’t rupture anything vital, did I?”
Nyght sways slightly, eyes unfocussed, as the shadow’s hold is blasted away. For a second she doesn’t respond to Devereaux’s question, but finally her gaze sharpens and moves from the stone altar to his face.
“It was one of the Tsoo,” she says, voice pitched low. “He was so young… and they killed him, right heah. Sucked away his life, carved a rune in his chest and dragged away his body. He’s so angry, he wants to live again, he wants a body….”
“Ah saw it, through his eyes. Ah saw Akpan. Right up theah…” Nyght shivers.
“Don’t touch the shadows. The’ah the dead, and the’ah angry…”
“Oookay,” he says, drawing out the syllables. “I think it’s time we called the experts.”
Returning to his natural form and taking care to heed Nyghtshade’s warning, Devereaux sends a psychic message to Linuial. “Blondie, we’ve got confirmation on Akpan. We found a…let’s call it an altar. Nyghtshade had a close encounter with one of his victims, a Tsoo kid. Now she’s saying the shadows here are really the vengeful dead. Bring the team in but make sure you warn Golden Fist first. Maybe his Sorcerers can do something to keep them off our backs. We’re on the West side, not too far from you. Look for a rock formation that looks like a table. It’s covered in runes. You shouldn’t miss it.”
“They’re on their way here. You good to keep moving?” he asks. “We’re gonna need a lot more information than that. You and I are still the best ones to get it.”
“Ah can keep goin’,” she agrees quietly. She pauses to concentrate again, struggling to reactivate her mental ‘no-see-me’, and moves off slowly, hoping she’s shielded enough from the eyes of others to hide her limping gait.
Using a Ninjutsu technique to weaken his physical presence, Devereaux follows closely behind Nyghtshade.
“So tell me more about Akpan. I get that he created you to be a weapon and all that but why the subterfuge? Why not keep coming after you in Talos or wherever else? If he’s at war with the rest of these freaks it’d probably be a lot easier to secure you before coming back here into the heart of things.”
“Ah’ve never read his mind, to be honest. He’s always scared the wee out of me, the ideah of someone havin’ the power to take me oveh, make me some kind of killin’ puppet. Yes, Carmine Valente paid him to do it, and paid him to corrupt his own magic to make me… special. But the tool they used foah controllin’ me is long-broken, so Ah’m really hopin’ Akpan can’t do that to me again. And now Carmine’s dead, and Akpan spent 5 yeahs in the Zig - which was supposed to be a good deal longeh, but he escaped.”
“What’s his motivation foah huntin’ me down now? Why’s he tryin’ to drag me heah to Dark Astoria? Honestly, Ah have no ideah. He hasn’t been especially forthcomin’ on the why. But he has made a point of tryin’ to undehmine mah confidence, to try and make me… well, despair. And that… that is very like what Mo… that stupid little god… tried to do to people, last time it broke free.”
“So, is this all connected to that? Or does Akpan just have an axe to grind and wants to get a little personal satisfaction out of tormentin’ befoah he tries to… well, it seems silly to say ‘kill’ someone who’s already dead, but you know what Ah mean.”
“Trust me, it’s somethin’ Ah mean to ask, once we catch up to him.”
It’s the Tsoo that appear first, moving cautiously over a nearby hill, Golden Fist and Linuial oddly enough almost side-by-side in the lead. After the Tsoo have surrounded the table/altar, leaving a wide open area between it and themselves, the Starfire fighters also appear, using their various modes of transportation, taking posts inside the circle of Tsoo, facing outward, while the Tsoo in their turn face inward.
The two leaders approach the table, the blonde woman passing her hands over the various marks without touching them. She nods, and speaks quietly to Golden Fist.
“…if this is their power center, why abandon it? Have they finished what they meant to do? The power nexus is tied to this location, the further they get from it, the less power they can draw from it.”
She concentrates on the Praetorian. “Xavier, assume this is a trap. Assume it’s a big trap, like a magic atomic bomb. Assume we are not the target, or it would have triggered already.
“How far are we from the bound god? Can you tell?“
Inside Chiron Medical Center, Tahquitz is sitting in the waiting room, next to Paige who has been quiet for 45 minutes. When they first arrived, his attempts to ask what’s going on has been stymied by her… once by opening a magazine when he tried to start a conversation and clearing her throat when he tried to talk anyway. Ten minutes later, another by asking the Nurses’ Desk where the restroom is and leaving him alone before returning 10 minutes later, with reddened eyes.
“So, you’re mad at me? Is that it?” Tahquitz asked during a moment where the bustle of the waiting room had her disarmed for a moment.
Paige looked away, letting him talk to her without eye contact.
“I know you saw me when I was at First Light. Or rather, Tahquitz, the monster. I could see you look at me.”
“The look on your face when you saw me kill those innocent men. Then when I charged at Nyghtshade like I did at them. I’ll never forget it.”
Paige shudders a little as a tear escapes her eye. She wicks it away with her finger and remains quiet.
“I need to talk to you about that. Because if I don’t, it’ll make this mission more difficult the closer we get to the end. It will be harder to talk about the longer we wait. And it’ll eat away at our friendship later. I don’t want that, Paige. You have meant so much to me the last several months. I can’t imagine being here without having met you now.”
“Cricket, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the extent of what happens when I lose control. I don’t have any excuse for what you’ve seen… I could explain why, or how, if it helps to un–…”
“Shut up.” Paige said, frustrated, “Do you think I don’t know for a moment what it FEELS like to lose control of yourself? What it feels like to have someone or something else pulling your strings?”
“What I’m upset about ISN’T that. What I AM upset with is you. How uninterested you are about all of this! ‘I’m Tim, and I killed two people, back to jokes and being a hero!’ Does it even faze you about what happened? Are you even upset at all?”
Paige gets up, “Look at you, you’ve got half of a smile on your face as it is! What are you?” She storms off back to the Nurse’s Desk and asks, “I’m sorry, we’ve been waiting for the OK for almost an hour… am I able to visit Jon Smith or not?” The clerk asks for Paige’s wrist as she attaches a Visitor ID Bracelet, and points her to the elevators. She looks down at the Nurse’s Monitor as the display said “PAGE Tim Verne to Exam Room 3C.”
Tim gets up to walk to the desk to get a bracelet and join her. Paige walked off without looking back, then said “You’re not coming with me.” Tim’s mind goes dark for a second, as he finds himself outside of Dark Astoria…
…and back at Agua Caliente, his grandmother is at the campfire singing as the night skies show a cathedral of stars and shadow covered rocks, as she stops suddenly, asking in her gravelled voice “Tim? Are you there, Tim?” He replies, “Yes, yes I am.” Once more, she asks “Tim?”
“TIM VERNE? PLEASE REPORT TO THE NURSES’ STATION. LAST CHANCE.” The PA blurts out as Tim is standing outside at the entrance to Chiron Medical Center looking up at the night skies. Paige used her Domination on him to keep him from following her instead of getting checked up on as Linuial ordered him to. Checking his watch, he sees its an hour since he arrived, and 15 minutes since Paige left him in the waiting room to wander outside the doors, staring at the night skies like an idiot.
Sighing, Tim looked down, and finished his retort anyway, even if Paige already left.
“It does faze me. Every time it happens… and so much more than you think.” He says, as he is torn that much more on keeping his biggest secret from her.
He turns back to the entrance and heads to the Nurse’s Station. “I’m Tim.” He gets his ID Bracelet and heads to the Exam Room. Another 30 minute wait, and the doctor comes in…
“Hi, Taukwitch? Taq-witz? I’m so bad at these…” the Doctor says nonplussed, “Let’s stick to first names. Tim!” He extends his hand out… “Dr. Carlos Sandberg. Yup, I know what you are thinking, curly hair, brown skin, big nose. That isn’t my real name, you’re thinking, but you’d be wrong… oldest son of my parents, a Jewish abba and a Cuban madre.”
“Heh. Haven’t heard that combination before.” Tim said, smiling a little more.
“Good, then you met your first ‘Cubish.’ We’re a passionate people who love bland foods and drive cars from the 60’s. You’ll get to love us…” He rifles through Tim’s file, “So, your prior state of residence… what’s a birdman like you doing in a place like this California-boy?”
“I could ask the same. Miami seems so much more promising for a man like you… instead of a pit of despair.”
“Take it from me, Student Loans are a bitch. And the real secret? I don’t LIVE here. I’m actually off Harper Street in Talos Island. I work here two weeks a month from a TUNNEL Pass by the Vanguard. I do my clinical hours on the Island. Speaking of work, how can I help you today?”
“Interesting. Well, my leader sent me here for a checkup.”
“Cool! Let’s start with breathing…” Dr. Sandberg grabs his stethoscope and palpates his chest as Tim breathes in and out…
The blonde cyborg known as Jon Smith might be asleep.
Lying on his back, bed flat, no pillow. An IV hanging from a hook attached to the bed ends in surgical tape on his neck. Wires lead from various points on his chest to a monitor that beeps fitfully if softly.
A sheet is draped across his torso; the person who put it there left his feet uncovered. It doesn’t matter…he has no temperature sensors in the elegant metallic constructs, revealed now that his boots are missing.
His right shoulder ends in a metal cap. Sitting at a bedtable in the corner of the room is another man with even lighter blonde hair, who looks up from peering at what must be Jon’s arm, now separated into several distinct pieces, a tiny screwdriver in one hand. He glances at Paige with some curiosity.
“Hello?” he asks in greeting. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Paige. Linuial sent me here to check on Jon on Starfire’s behalf, and I’m here to rest up myself. The nurse said he’s available for visitors, but if this is a bad time, I can wait in the hall… I can hit up the chairs outside and try later. I sleep like a cat.”
Paige looks at Jon and says with a bit of concern in her voice, “I was worried about him after that last fight… I hope he’s alright.”
The young blonde man sighs, drops the screwdriver onto the table, leans back in his chair, and turns to face the teenager.
“Kip Cantorum,” he says, by way of introduction. “Nice to meet you, Paige. Wish it was under better circumstances.”
He continues his turn to look at the supine cyborg, hesitating for a moment as if weighing what he should say to the girl.
“You can tell Lin that he’s no worse.” He grimaces slightly at the minimalism of the statement, then glances up at Paige as if to gauge her reaction.
“I’m working on replacing his fried components so they’ll be ready for…” He stops. “I’m an electrical engineer,” he continues by way of explanation. “Jon’s electronics have a lot of Rikti components and technology, and I’m probably the best engineer around for working on his…arms…and legs.”
His expression becomes sad…and worried. “I wish I could tell you more, Paige. The doctors say that until he wakes up…” he hesitates, then doesn’t state “…if he wakes up…” out loud, “…they really won’t have any idea how much brain damage was done.
“So!” he continues, in a cheerful voice, “we’ll just wait and let ole Jon here tell us how he’s doing when he wakes, right?” He grins at the girl.
Turning his gaze full on the big cyborg: “I just wish I knew where that Praetorian mercenary was…” he continues softly, as if to himself.
Paige reaches out to Devereaux’s mind and tries to ask him, but the distance between her and him is too great.
“I can’t reach him from here… dang it.” Paige mutters to herself. “Right. When Jon wakes, I’ll be here waiting for him. Can I get you anything?” Paige looks at Kip, who shakes his head and continues working. “I’ll catch some Z’s in the hallway, then. Let me know.”
As Linuial’s warning reaches him, Devereaux stops. He raises a hand to signal for Nyghtshade to do the same and curses the sacrifice of his own telepathy for the shinobi’s speed and stealth.
“Blondie’s worried about a trap,” he thinks, trusting Nyghtshade to be able to hear him. “Call me crazy but I’m not convinced. If Akpan wanted to, he could’ve picked us off piecemeal a dozen times by now. Why wait until we’re all together in this sorry excuse for a park?”
Before the heroine can answer, a voice reaches Devereaux’s ears. His head snaps in the direction of the sound and he pauses just long enough to motion for Nyghtshade to follow before he races off, flitting from cover to cover in pursuit.
Nyght had picked up Devereaux’s thoughts, opting to relax her mental shields enough to stay in touch with him, since Paige is no longer nearby.
Now she follows swiftly, refraining from her usual lofting leaps to instead follow Devereaux’s example, hugging ground cover and advancing with stealth.
As she moves, she reinforces her mental ‘shields’ of encouraging any nearby minds to simply not look her way as she passes.
Devereaux comes to an abrupt stop and tucks himself into the shadow of a copse of elm trees. A shiver passes through him and the thought crosses his mind that he may have just felt the touch of one of the murdered Tsoo. Knowing there are more pressing matters to attend, he pushes the discomforting feeling aside and peers out carefully.
What he sees makes him curse silently.
Five shaman are gathered around a flat slab of gray stone, chanting fervently. Sweat runs from their bodies in rivulets and their eyes are lifted skyward. Several corpses are piled on the altar, the blood leaking from their numerous wounds disguised by the lurid red of Dark Astoria’s atmosphere. An icy wind swirls around the site and the earth under the shaman’s bare feet churns with the grating sound of stone grinding against stone.
In the center of it all, the fifth shaman stands calmly. His mouth moves along with the others but he shows no sign of fatigue. A black mist pours from his hands and wafts slowly toward the altar where it seeps into the cadavers. The entire scene is framed by the floating masks that house the Pantheon’s twisted spirits. They circle the shaman and the altar in silence, vividly colored clouds of arcane power trailing behind them.
“Hurry, you fools!” the fifth shaman berates. “We are running out of time!”
“Yes, master Akpan,” another answers quickly before resuming the chant.
Drawing back into cover, Devereaux relays what he’s seen to Nyghtshade. “Looks like we found your friend,” he thinks, a grim sarcasm in his voice. “You need to see this for yourself.”
Having ‘heard’ Devereaux’s message, Nyghtshade catches up to him and stops within the copse of trees, taking care to touch no shadow.
“Damn!" she chokes out, barely managing not to say it aloud. With an effort, she collects herself, before adding, “We need to let the othehs know! We need to put a stop to whateveh it is Akpan’s doin’, and right now!”
The force of Nyghtshade’s thought is enough to make Devereaux give his head a shake. “Hang on a minute. You said this guy had a Giant Monster dancing on his strings right? We just run over there, capes flapping in the wind and we’re likely to end up in body bags. Get word to Blondie. Tell her what’s going on and that everybody needs to come in fast but quiet.”
He pauses, looking Nyghtshade up and down with undisguised appraisal. “And try not to do anything stupid while we wait for them. You look like a rabbit that’s had too much caffeine.”
Nyghtshade huffs an irritable breath at the last comment, and mentally retorts, “Shugah, you have no idea what Ah’d look like as a rabbit. And trust me, you don’t want to.”
She turns her back on him, and focuses on reaching out, trying to find Linuial’s mind. It’s not easy, Nyght’s telepathy has always been largely line of sight, but she knows Linuial’s unique mental signature well enough by now to try and find it.
The effort requires that Nyght totally drop her mental shields, a risk in this place, but she does eventually find the familiar glimmer of the elfin woman’s mind.
“Linuial, we’ve found Akpan and his group. They’ve slaughtered several people, and are workin’ a ritual. We need to stop it as soon as we can - Mr. Devereaux says foah you all to come in fast but quiet. And don’t let anyone touch any of the shadows heah, the’ah dangerous.”
Nyght finishes by passing along their location.
“Understood,“ the elfin woman replies in the same fashion.
There is nothing more to be said.
The young swordsman known as Adamant shifts from one foot to the other, trying to calm his excitement through the subtle movement.
Never before has he been required to exercise so much self-control. It doesn’t come naturally, but he’s intelligent enough to realize that there is still a lot he needs to learn before he can consider himself a full-fledged Hero, the one thing he wants more than anything else.
His near-worship of the man known as Devereaux makes it easier: even in the short period he had to observe the man, he noticed his calmness and ease of movement, even in the heat of battle, and formed a desire to emulate that. Practice, he tells himself …you have to practice like with the sword…
His respect for the leader of Starfire also helps. She had gathered all of the non-Tsoo fighters and explained to them what they must do next, and he had listened intently, determined to put in a Star Pupil performance. The healer’s supergroup already appealed to him, and he wanted to make his best impression on her.
Linuial’s group had gone to ground, traveling solely on foot, and separated before approaching the ongoing ritual from the east, while the Tsoo had performed a similar maneuver from the west, the ends of the two forces curving towards each other, so that the ritual site was completely surrounded. Now Adamant crouches behind a briary thicket, and performs his self-calming sway, waiting for the moment when his sword could sing and dance for him once again.
“Tell Xavier we’re all in place, Tsoo and Starfire, under cover and encircling the ritual site,“ Linuial projects at her mental image of Nyghtshade.
Jade has easily paced the Starfire group, staying relatively close to Adam. She’s moved with considerable grace and stealth, and taken up her own position under cover on the Starfire side of the action.
After one swift tactical visual sweep of the grisly scene before them, she settles, waiting for Linuial’s signal to move in.
“Stay here. I don’t think Blondie’s right about this whole tracking you deal but if she is, the last thing I wanna do is get burned because you got too close.”
Devereaux turns and breaks from cover without waiting to determine if Nyghtshade’s even heard him. He sprints, making full use of the Basilisk Ninja’s superhuman speed to race from the overgrowth and make his way into the concealment of a large upturned boulder near the ritual site.
Now dangerously close to Akpan and his acolytes, the shapeshifter doesn’t dare expose himself to see what the mystics are doing. Instead, he calls upon his form’s enhanced sense of hearing.
“Master,” one of the shaman says from behind tightly gritted teeth. “I am sorry. We…we require rest.”
Akpan’s response is not sympathetic. “Silence, you fool! I did not come this far to fail because of your feeble sensibilities! You’ll rest when I command it and not before!”
“Damn,” Devereaux exclaims, no longer concerned with whether anyone detects his thoughts or not. “This guy makes me look like a pushover.”
“Want me to shift around to the far side? If they are tracking me, it’ll draw attention away from you,” Nyght sends back to him.
“If I wanted you to go anywhere I would’ve said so,” Devereaux replies, a bit more tersely than he intended. He sighs inwardly. “What I mean to say is, drawing any attention before we know what’s going on would be a very bad idea.”
For all Nyghtshade’s seemingly overzealous desire to do something, he recognizes her motives all too well. “Listen, I know you wanna get this guy. I’m just trying to make sure we don’t have to die to do it. That whole heroic sacrifice deal just isn’t my thing, y’know?”
“It is nearly ready, master!” one of the shaman calls, his voice strained. “Now is the time we shall become one with the god!”
“Yes…” Akpan agrees. Devereaux can detect something odd in the man’s voice but he’s unable to identify exactly what it is.
“What’s it look like from where you are?” he asks Nyghtshade, hoping she can provide enough detail to supplement his limited perception of the unfolding events.
There is a pause while she studies the tableaux, before answering slowly, “Ah don’t know, theah’s somethin’ sort of…. off… about Akpan tonight. Maybe it’s just the ritual, but… he’s kind of… well, maybe it’s just religious fervor, but he seems kind of not quite… himself…”
She adds conscientiously, “Based, of course, on the whole two times Ah’ve seen him in person…”
“Not himself how?” he asks. “Is he taller, fatter, a little less well dressed than usual? Remember, I don’t know this guy from Adam. You’ve gotta describe it all to me like I’m blind.”
He chuckles to himself at the last line, unable to ignore the irony of the fact that, from his position, he may as well be just that.
Hidden in the darkness, Nyght frowns, trying to put a finger on the difference, even as she keeps her gaze focused on Akpan and the ritual.
“He seems… Ah’m not sure how to put it. Stiff, imperious… the otheh times Ah’ve seen him, he seemed really urbane, self-confident, ‘smooth’ is what we’d call it back home.”
“Even when he was doing the Curse ritual, he was…” She pauses, searching for the word, “he was smooth… like he knew the world was his oysteh, and he was the man on top of it.”
“Heah, it’s like he’s all demandin’ and arrogant, but… nervous? And Ah have to tell you, Ah’m not at all likin’ this talk of becomin’ one with theah god. We really don’t want that happenin’…”
“Then let’s do something about it.”
Without so much as shifting positions, Devereaux abandons the Basilisk and takes on his well worn Night Widow form. He inhales a deep, involuntarily draft of air as he feels his extra sensory perception return. The Widow’s telepathic abilities are badly stunted compared to his own natural talent but they’re still a far cry from the total dearth he had been experiencing.
“Blondie, it looks like Akpan’s getting ready to make a big move. I’m close enough to deal with him before he can pull it off but I’ll need some cover to make sure his buddies don’t wreck my shit. Think you can manage that?”
He’s still unable to move without risking exposure but the strategic part of his brain is screaming for an accurate picture of what’s going on. He smiles behind the Widow’s helmet, knowing that he can get exactly that with some creative use of telepathy.
Cautiously, he reaches out for one of the shaman’s minds. As expected, the man is thoroughly distracted by whatever ritual is taking place. He doesn’t even notice as Devereaux slips into his consciousness and taps the nerves running to and from his eyes.
Looking from the shaman’s perspective, he can see the true span of the stone slab. It’s larger than he’d first thought, with enough space to hold the mutilated corpses and still provide plenty of room for the glowing runes that line its perimeter.
Akpan stands on the opposite side of the flat rock, his expression focused but calm. The dark miasma pouring from his hands seems to gather itself before it floats gently across the space to be absorbed into the stack of bodies.
Most striking, though, are the spirit masks. They spin around the outside of the circle like planets revolving around a star. The mystical energy that trails behind them streams out in voluminous clouds. They keep a fair distance from the stone table and the shaman, always gravitating inward but never coming closer than several arm lengths.
As Devereaux snatches a glance of the surroundings, a largely empty field with a few sporadically placed trees and large boulders dotted about, another presence brushes against his mind.
“YoU aRE aLREaDy DEaD, liTtlE bUG…”
Without warning, a wave of hopelessness and despair roars up to accompany the voice. Instantly, he snatches himself backward, retreating into his own mind and slamming the mental walls up behind him.
“Hey!” he snaps at Linuial and Nyghtshade. “Pretty sure I just found this god you’ve been going on about…”
Devereaux’s final warning makes up the elven woman’s mind.
She turns and throws out her arms toward the Talos Island gate, muttering softly under her breath, clenches her fists and jerks back. A very startled Tim Verne appears before her…she reaches forward to clap a hand over his mouth before he can cry out, placing a finger against her own lips to warn him to silence.
When he nods understanding, she concentrates on the Praetorian’s image in her mind.
“You concentrate on Akpan, we’ll make the others think their god has just turned on them…“ She smiles, a strange gleam in her eye.
She reaches again, and performs the same maneuver on Paige. Once the sleepy girl nods understanding, Linuial projects to her, “Paige, I need you to be my switchboard, again. Send my thoughts to Golden Fist and as many of Starfire as you can…we’re going to be Ammit’s Second Coming…“
“Good, I wasn’t in the mood to go over my ‘results’ anyway.” Tim thinks to himself.
“Yes, Doctor?” the Security detail asks him. Two orderlies in scrubs covered in light blood, yellow humours, and oddly enough… purple. Best not to ask, Tim thought.
“Code Black. Him,” Dr. Sandberg said, “Nothing personal.”
“Come with me, sir.” One of the orderlies said, reaching for Tim’s elbow. Tim resists, not knowing what’s going on.
“What is this?” Tim asks.
“You know where we are. Supernatural heroes and the possessed are not allowed in this facility. Even if you’re not Banished Pantheon, we’ve had too many incidents. You understand, son. If you really need a checkup, go back to the mainland on the next Vanguard Escort.”
“What? I’m not Ban–” Tim said, struggling with the two men who have him under control.
“It doesn’t matter. Too many close calls, too many shamans, witch doctors, and ‘Insert Thing Here’-Mancers who fall under influence. We can’t take that risk.” Dr. Sandberg says, followed by “You seem like a nice kid. Someday we’ll laugh about this, but not today. Get him out of here.”
It was when the two orderlies were about to throw him out of the lobby onto the street when Linuial’s teleport took hold and sent the two Security guards stumbling forward into a heap from the sudden loss of weight in their grasp.
Tim crouches next to Linuial to wait for the next play, when he sees her pull Paige into her arms like she did him.
“Twelve minutes of sleep? Really?” Paige thinks while looking at her phone, weary and getting her bearings. She’s dizzy from the change from sitting to standing in Linuial’s grasp, which prevents her from moving much at all, except for an occasional sway.
She reaches into the skies behind her, looking for Golden Fist, when a dark gloaming overtakes her perspective.
“YoU aRe So ClOsE tO bEcOmInG mY pErFeCt NeW sEnTiNeL… ClOsE yOuR eYeS… yIeLd To SlEeP, mY sIrEN…”
The voice is like gravel, but so hypnotic… like Tom Waits if he became a Sandman. She is so very tired… it wouldn’t be that bad to sleep for a little moment. She’s done it so many times on all-nighters. Just 30 little minutes, and everything would be fine, she thinks to herself.
Paige then suffers a myoclonic jerk at the right possible moment, snapping her out of her elegy. “Whatever THAT was… If that’s who I think it was, I can’t do that again.”Paige sent to Linuial, looking at her with a tear falling out of her eye. “It’s who’s near us or nothing, unless you want me to get another passenger in my head.”
“Damn!“ the elven woman’s face shows her chagrin.
She pauses a moment, looks up to see Nyghtshade watching her, and waves her closer, before addressing her mental image of the undead woman.
“Monique, I need Paige to act as a telepathic switchboard in order to pull this off,“ she thinks. “Both of you are vulnerable to Ammit if you open your telepathic channels too far.
“Is there any chance that you can ‘cover’ her telepathically, shield her from Ammit’s notice, while she projects my instructions to our fighters? If she only projects outward, and you only project at her, can we pull this off?“
From her position hidden in a thin group of trees and overlooking Akpan’s ritual, Nyght bites her lip as she considers the possibility, but finally, ruefully, admits, Ah don’t see how, Linuial. Ah have mental shields, but it took me yeahs to learn to build them, and Ah don’t know a way to extend to them Paige. And Ah can do direct telepathy, but Ah’ve neveh been able to do so foah multiple people, so that’s no help, eitheh.
Tahquitz eyes the situation beneath him, then thinks if it’s possible someone around would be on the way or are watching them.
He slowly steps back in his bare feet through the chapparal until he’s out of eyeshot of the ritual and the three heroes, then reforms his wings and takes off. Turning himself completely black and changing his eyes to those of a raven, he’s attained as much stealth as he can get in the night skies.
In a circular glide, he maintains watch over the scene and gazes downwards, noticing nothing more than the ritual ring and the three heroes in darkness watching over them. The closest group of bodies… if you could call them that as they’re cold as the ground they walk upon… are 20 yards off to the south between trees and walking perpendicular to the gathering. On one end, he sees the Starfire team gathered in waiting, the other, Golden Fist’s Tsoo foot soldiers walk briskly during random moments between groups of trees to avoid detection.
Tahquitz lands where he took off, restoring his tribal markings and white hair, then returns to where he was perched. Nyghtshade’s worried gaze meet his still changed eyes, as he thinks, “Okay, what’s going on?” hoping she is listening to his thoughts.
Given the disrupted communications between the group, Nyght has cautiously lowered her shields, and manages to pick up Tahquitz’s thought.
“Tahquitz, Linuial says Paige needs to be mentally shielded from That Stupid Little ‘god’ if she’s goin’ to switchboard foah us, but Ah can’t help with that. And Ah can do direct telepathy to a specific person, but not multiple people, and only ones Ah’ve contacted befoah… so theah’s no way right now to contact the Tsoo, and we need to do somethin’ soon, befoah that ritual completes.”
“So we’ah kind of bottlenecked foah getting the word out, or coordinatin’ any attack…”
“What? He’s here?”
“I’ve been working on a theory. Nyght, after you and I left First Light, have you heard Mot at all?”
In the pregnant night, elfin face creased with worry, Linuial approaches a very young Tsoo, directs him closer with a crooked finger to whisper in his ear. He nods understanding and abandons his post, to skirt around the outside of the Tsoo half-circle, vanishing from sight.
“Ah haven’t, Tahquitz, but it sounds like Mr. Devereaux may have just done, and if that’s so, we need to be movin’ now!”
She belatedly but hastily adds, “And if you heah Mot, you just remember, he’s a big fat liar. You do NOT listen to him, you heah?”
“You haven’t because I’m a familiar of a trickster. Mot and my sponsor are cut of the same cloth. He can’t stop the weather any more than I can stop death. We’re a bit stalemated.”
“Granted, I’m a familiar. I’m still mortal, he could rip me apart with his claws without a second thought, but when I’m like this, I feel normal. You should be free of his influence for a while after our run in. I was affected when I was in human form out away from the wards for sure… crying over soccer practice like any other kid with dead parents. Why the hell didn’t I didn’t pick up on that last time I was here?”
Tahquitz thinks for a moment, then returns with “But I’m going to ask you to do something you’re going to hate…”
“Shugah, we don’t have time to dance around things heah. Ask whateveh it is you need to.”
“I saw you siphon energy from others to heal people when my ‘sponsor’ took over… Could…” Tahquitz asks with hesitation, “Could you siphon me to feed Paige the same energy?”
“Think about it. She spent months with that Carnie in her head. If she could use her powers without fear of Mot affecting her… well, I don’t have to tell you. I don’t think it would need to be much… I’d give up a month to have her back.”
The young Tsoo reappears at a trot, Golden Fist close behind him. The Tsoo leader dismisses the young warrior to return to his post, as Linuial gathers him, Paige, Jade, and Stray into a huddle. Her lips move as she speaks so quietly that no one outside the huddle can hear. She emphasizes her words with quick gesticulations.
Still huddled behind cover, Devereaux cautiously lowers his mental shields. When no looming presence moves to swallow him up, he fires off a tightly focused message.
“I do hate to rush you,” he projects with an exaggerated gentility. “But I’m squatting behind a rock waiting for you to give me an opening. Sometime before those of us who can, die of old age would be great.”
Nyghtshade cringes at Tahquitz’s suggestion, but realizes things are coming to a head here, and time is running out.
But she knows all too well how terribly vulnerable Paige is right now, with all that’s happened to her… and with the terrible power Mot can wield against them.
With gritted teeth, she reluctantly agrees, sending to Tahquitz, “Ah can try… But we need to do it now. NOW.”
“Alright… but warn her first, though. Don’t want her ‘surprised’ and giving us away.” Tahquitz thinks, imagining what would happen.
“Linuial, I’m comin’ oveh theah,” Nyghtshade mentally warns the elfin woman, as she stealthily moves back from the ritual and toward Linuial’s position, using her supernaturally enhanced vision to guide her through the gloom.
Arriving, she finds Linuial in a huddle with Paige and the others. Without preamble, Nyght shares to the group, voice low, “Tahquitz has an idea how to help Paige, usin’ me to share some of his energy with her, to give Paige some kind of immunity to Mot. The minute he gets heah, we’ll try.”
With a pointed look to Linuial, she adds, “And if Ah lose control, you have yoah people take me down. Fast.”
Paige feels her consciousness slipping from her more and more. As she wavers between the waking and sleeping world, she’s trying to listen to Linuial’s orders, but more and more of it is falling into Mot’s voice as she tries to focus…
“YoU aRe DeSiGnEd To SeRvE. yOuR dEsTiNy Is NeAr… CoMe To Me. LiVe ThRoUgH mE.” Paige mentally tries to shake off his voice to listen to Linuial, but it keeps coming back stronger. “A pErFeCt WeApOn, GiVeN a HeArT bY aCcIdEnT. yOuR pOwEr Is GrEaTeR tHrOuGh Me. GiVe In.”
Paige is losing to the fight as her eyelids droop… Perfect weapon? Designed to serve?
“YoUr PaSt HaS bEeN lOcKeD aWaY, pAiGe. I cAn UnFoLd It FoR yOu. ClOsE yOuR eYeS aNd LeT mE hElp.”
Tahquitz walks to the huddle and approaches Nyght, who is standing near Paige and nods knowingly.
He stands next to Nyght and blinks, changing his eyes once more to a glowing white light that looks like it’s leaking out like fire.
“Think of this as a transfusion.” He whispers as he grabs Nyght’s hand. “I’m ready.”
Paige is lost in her mind as Mot’s voice fades, and her mind shows the beginning of a strange scene.
… cement walls. A giant mirror on one side. In a room with other little girls…
… one of them in the corner making plants grow from her hand… …another filling a pitcher full of water… from her own hands… …another sadisticly zapping ants in an ant farm with her fingers, giggling…
… a man standing next to her, “Celaeno, it’s time for your test. Are you ready?” … She looks up to his face…
Linuial is about to nod understanding toward Nyghtshade, but a glance to her right reveals Paige’s eyes sliding nearly closed as she begins to weave.
The tiny woman grabs the girl by the shoulders, holding her upright, as she snaps under her breath, “…whatever you’re going to do, do it now!“
“Oh, Fatheh God, help me now,” Nyght whispers as she grabs Paige’s hand, grits her teeth, and draws a burst of energy from Tahquitz. It is not Tim’s addictingly ecstatic energy, but the darker power of his demon, and Nyght funnels it straight from him into Paige in a single powerful jolt.
The man’s face looks to her, and she sees the face of Mot instead of the man she was guessing was her father.
“AlL oF tHiS i CaN sHoW tO yOu… BuT fIrSt I–”
And then everything turned white. A different man, almost as old is looking at her. If she didn’t know better, she’d say it’s…
“Tahq? Is that you?”
Paige’s eyes open and glow with the same white energy as she opens her mouth in a shudder, then collapses further into Linuial as she’s eased into the ground, limp and out cold.
“Well crap!” Nyghtshade exclaims, perhaps a bit more loudly than she’d meant. “That didn’t work at all…”
She shudders, dropping the hands of both young heroes, and stepping back.
And one second later, Paige lurches forward in a deep breath, eyes wide open.
“We done heah?” Nyght demands urgently, glancing back over her shoulder to where the Spirit Masks hover and circle above altar. “We’ve got a ritual to stop!”
Linuial directs her inquiry towards her mental image of the teenager, as she gazes deeply into the girl’s eyes, still holding her upright by the shoulders.
“Paige…can you respond to me?“ she prods.
Paige is breathing heavy, but it’s clearing quickly, and she returns to normal breathing in seconds. Her tiredness… completely gone. Her mind, clear, in fact, she can ‘reach’ with her mind a little further than normal, and with a clarity she couldn’t normally have in a non-hellish zone.
She reaches past the trees to Starfire, one by one reconnecting to their minds. Then to the Tsoo in hiding far the other way. She then feels each of the minds around her and ‘clicks in’ in seconds to each. She looks at Tahquitz, recognizing the long and painful conversation they just had in her mind and smiling, whispering “Thanks.”
“Alright, Linuial, what’s the plan?” She says to Linuial, with everyone listening clearly.
“The plan is get your asses over here and do something,” Devereaux growls, using the reestablished mental network to reach everyone.
Finally tired of being bereft of information, he peers out from his hiding place. What he sees sends a lance of ice down his spine. “That pile of bodies is moving…”
Indeed, the corpses are writhing. Arms and legs bend and flex. Mouths work steadily below open, unseeing eyes. The black mist the cadavers had been absorbing now flows from every orifice, congealing into an opaque mass of shadows.
“It is finished, master,” one of the shaman says weakly as his legs buckle beneath him.
For his part, Akpan barely seems to notice the words. His eyes are locked on the amalgamation of darkness and death.
“Yes,” he mumbles in a voice that sounds far away. “It is.”
He walks calmly to where the younger man is kneeling in the grass. Reaching down, he draws an elaborately decorated knife from his belt.
Without a word, he saws the blade across the shaman’s throat, then stands unflinching as a gout of blood sprays across his chest.
“That’s it,” Nyght sends to Paige, and through her to the others. “Mr. Devereaux’s out theah ready to face off against Akpan, and I’ve not leavin’ Devereaux with his back unguarded. You all do what you need to, but I’m headin’ back to make shoah things don’t get completely out of hand.”
With that, she gathers her self and low-leaps through the darkness, circling around and back toward her original position.
As she arrives, she takes cover again, not all that far at all from Devereaux, sending, “Ah’m bac….”
She breaks off, seeing what’s happening at the altar, and adds faintly, “…..oh crap…..”
“Thanks for taking the time,” Devereaux replies, his voice loaded down with sarcasm. “Any idea what the hell’s happening or should I wait for Blondie? She should be ready sometime around the next ice age, right?”
Tahquitz, hearing Devereaux and Nyghtshade’s comments, takes to the skies once more to survey what’s going on from above, but as he climbs higher in the night skies, the sight he sees is a dumbfounding one.
The mass of corpses at the altar as Akpan sacrifices one of his own men. The dark energy surrounding the plinths of the altar… except for the multitude of bodies, it’s not a dissimilar scene to the altar they tried to sacrifice him on near First Light.
“Looks like I get courtside seats instead of being on stage this time,” Tahquitz says as he opens a pouch and grabs a runestone, charging it with heat energy from his right fist…
“They’d just gotten Paige back up to speed and her mental links re-established. Ah didn’t wait around to see what they come up with, mah place is right heah, givin’ you back up,” she replies tersely to Devereaux.
“You’re as stubborn as you are purple,” he chuckles.
Peeking around the chunk of rock again, he sees Akpan moving toward the next of his shaman. Strangely, the remaining acolytes seem to take no notice of their comrade’s murder. They stand placidly with their eyes closed and their arms crossed tightly over their chests.
“Just looking at this, I’m guessing we don’t want Akpan to kill any more of his own men. I’ll deal with that part. Once I do, you’re gonna have to move fast to keep his guys from coming down on us hard. See if you can siphon some energy from the masks. That should keep them off our backs while we figure out what to do with whatever the hell that thing is on the slab.”
Linuial watches Nyghtshade take off into the darkness.
She faces the teenager. “Paige, send this just to Xavier…”
“Xavier, we’re about to come down on Akpan’s location with your distraction. Don’t allow it to throw you no matter what happens.“
“Now, send this just to Monique…”
“Monique, everyone is going to be concentrating on confusing and distracting the Banished. Xavier is going to try to take out Akpan, but Ammet has already targeted him once. I don’t know if you realize this, but he has already tried to kill himself at least once in the past. You may think of him as bulletproof, but he is actually far more vulnerable to Ammet than anyone who knows him might believe. I need you to keep an eye on him, and if he gets in trouble, you’re going to be his backup.
“Monique, I’m sorry about this, but we got you here, safe, sound, and sane, and now may be the moment when you have to face down your fears and face Akpan once and for all. Starfire and I have done our job. Xavier will try to take down Akpan, but if he fails, or falls, it’s going to all be up to you.“
She looks at Paige and makes a slicing motion across her throat. “All right, Paige, from here on out, project to everyone other than Xavier and Monique. Remember what I was telling you and Golden Fist a few minutes ago? We’re starting….now.”
“Undehstood.” Nyghtshade sends to both Devereaux and Linuial.
To Linuial alone, Nyght adds, “Ah’ve already pretty well figured this to be the now-or-neveh moment. Ah’m finishin’ things with Akpan today, one way or the otheh. And Ah won’t let them destroy Xavieh, Ah sweah it.”
And with that, Nyghtshade reaches out and begins steadily draining the animating force from the nearest Spirit Mask, sending it tumbling back from the shock of being attacked, and disrupting the aerial circle the masks were creating.
Nyght is too far away to ‘benefit’ from the drain and merely discharges the flood of energy taken, with no benefit to anyone around it.
“Devereaux, it’s officially hittin’ the fan time,” she warns him, as she steps out from cover and calls loudly, “Oh, Ak-pan! What, you didn’t wait the party foah me??”
Even as Nyghtshade makes her move…
All of the Tsoo, Starfire, and Nyghtshade’s friends leap into the air simultaneously, jumping toward the ritual altar.
Guided by Paige telepathically, every voice roars out at the same time, a cacophony of blended sound, echoing from all directions, in sync with each other, as of one voice pouring from a hundred throats at once.
“AKPAN, YOU HAVE DEFILED MY RESTING PLACE. YOU HAVE FAILED ME FOR THE FINAL TIME. I CLAIM YOU AS MY OWN, YOU AND ALL WHO DO NOT ABANDON YOU. YOU THOUGHT TO REPLACE ME AND STEAL MY POWER. YOUR DEATH AND ENSLAVEMENT IN DEATH TO MY WILL WILL BE LEGENDARY. I WILL NEVER ALLOW YOU FREEDOM.”
Paige remains under cover, as the Starfire leader joins her other fighters in leaping toward the altar. Where one meets another, either a fight begins, or a member of the Pantheon breaks off to scurry into the darkness. “It’s not perfect,” Linuial thinks to herself, “…but it doesn’t have to be…it just has to shake the determination of the weak-willed and weak-minded. Where one breaks ranks, another will panic and follow, without stopping to ask themself if this is real…“
Akpan, Death Shaman of the Banished Pantheon, starts at the sound of Monique’s voice. He turns to look at her but before he can truly grasp what’s happening, the ritual site erupts into a cacophony of noise and violence.
“You…” he starts to say but the disharmony of a hundred voices calling out at once forces him to silence. He listens to the message, the muscles in his neck bulging as the words ring out.
“You…” he says again, his gaze locked on Monique. “You insufferable little bitch! I made you to serve and even now you think you can defy me! I will-“
Akpan’s voice stops abruptly. He looks puzzled and moves his mouth in an attempt to speak but no words come. Instead, a gurgling sound bubbles up from his throat and a spray of bloody spittle flies from his lips. The confusion in his eyes turns to shock as he reaches up and clasps a hand around the flat, blade shaped dart protruding from his neck.
It’s then that Devereaux steps out from his concealed position, his arm leveled at the shaman and the Widow’s claws extended from the back of his upraised fist.
For a moment, Akpan merely stares at him, looking aghast. Then his expression changes again from horrified surprise to something bordering on amusement. His bare chest quivers in what could be laughter but more gurgling escapes his punctured throat, accompanied by a low whistling sound. He works his mouth again and when he does finally manage to speak, the voice is not his own.
“A sLaVE hE mAy bE, bUT tHiS OnE haS seRvEd mE WelL.”
Hand still clutched around the dart in his neck, Akpan staggers toward the stone altar and the pile of corpses there. Even hobbling, he crosses the short distance quickly and falls to his knees before reaching out to lay a quivering hand on the slab.
With impossible speed, an arm reaches out from the wriggling mass of dead flesh and latches onto Akpan’s own. It’s followed by two more. They begin to drag him up onto the altar.
“I CAnNOt bE sTOpPed. I caNNoT bE THwaRteD.”
As the shaman is hauled up, more limbs take hold of him. They enfold him in a necrotic embrace. All the while his face is twisted into a mocking, satisfied, grin. He reaches out a hand as he begins to disappear into the writhing mass and points a finger at Monique.
“NoT bY yOU, ABoMInaTiOn.” He turns the accusing digit on Devereaux. “AnD nOt bY YOu, fAlSE gOD. NOw, cOMe ANd mEeT YoUr DEaTh!”
With that, Akpan vanishes into the pile of bodies. At the same moment, every dead mouth gapes wide in a silent, petrifying scream. The mass begins to twist and change, flesh pressing in upon flesh with a nauseating series of squelching noises and the sharp crack of what can only be bones snapping. The solidified shadows creep over the entirety of it until it looks to be nothing more than blackness.
Then it stands.
Still wreathed in inky dark, the blob rises from the altar. It continues to lurch and shift until it finally resolves itself into the shape of something vaguely humanoid. With a final rush of air and a deafening boom, the shadows are blasted away.
With their removal, the Sentinnel of Mot is revealed.
The hulking, bipedal insectoid towers above the Heroes, Tsoo, and Banished Pantheon alike. It shakes itself, rattling the massive bone shards on its shoulders and forearms. The multitude of glowing red eyes on either side of its elongated head stare malevolently at those assembled in the park. Finally, it opens its gaping maw, revealing row upon row of needle-like teeth, and screeches with an intensity that tears at their very souls.
Nyght claps gloved hands over hooded ears, gritting out, “This just keeps gettin’ betteh……”
But she gamely holds her ground, even edging off to one side to try and keep the Sentinel distracted, especially from Devereaux. “Hey, Big Guy, it’s the Abomination heah! Just a note about the ‘meet yoah death’ business. Too late, already did!”
As she speaks, she tries draining away its life-energy, or whatever passes for it with this monstrosity.
Paige hears the graveled voice in the altar below and her curiosity causes her to slowly peek over the edge. She gazes on the face of the monstrosity for a brief moment then shies back into the trees. Indeed, it’s the same gaping maw she’s seen from her ‘dream’ moments ago.
“My God! That thing’s REAL?” Paige gasped, stumbling backwards in the darkness.
“Yes. Try not to get it’s attention… I don’t think he’s too pleased with you slipping through his fingers right now.” Tahquitz warns Paige as he draws back and cast his first runestone at the Sentinel, only to watch it absorb the stone into it’s flesh. The Sentinel then takes aim at Tahquitz, casting a column of fire in his direction that the runestone was supposed to drop at it’s feet.
“It’s not very effective,” Tahquitz says as he draws his wings back to dive from the erupting column blazing towards him.
“Star Queen preserve us…”
Linuial’s neck arches as she looks up…and up…
She shakes her self out of her momentary suspension to project in Paige’s direction. “Paige, tell everyone Stage Two is cancelled. No further reason at this point, Akpan is not coming back.“
She frowns, wondering what strategy could possibly be effective against this monstrosity.
Paige regains her footing as a column of flame chases Tahquitz out of the skies. She is considering her move in this fight, now that Linuial’s plan is off.
If she tries to use sonic attacks on a carapace of bone and chitin, only the strongest of her attacks will work. Working with Bellerose, she knows her abilities could be refined to more precise damage, but she’s not ready for that kind of mastery yet.
If she goes the mental route, she knows that Tahquitz’s energy is a temporary gift that protects her from Mot’s influence and despair. Like being near a Radio Transmitter, if she enters his mind, her signal jamming will exhaust itself faster than if she’s only in her own mind. If she were to try such a move, it’s got to be at the end of the fight and only when it can make a difference.
She’s at a loss for the most part, so that leaves her to protect the others as much as possible. Paige tracks Tahquitz’s fall in the sky and from her voice, emits a chirp that prevents him from damage from the elements and hard impacts. The timing was beneficial as the fire was licking Tahq’s wingtips. The temporary shield Paige created dispersed it from them.
As the fighters fall back, and the cacophony dies to near silence as the shocked and awed Heroes and their allies begin to reassess their situation, Linuial frantically searches her millennial memories for some clue, some approach, some strategy that might allow them to seize control of the situation.
It’s not her memories…nor her long experience with warfare…that eventually draws her attention deeper and deeper into herself. With growing awareness, she delves deeper.
She turns and looks full on the Sentinel of Mot. Out in the open, she takes first one step, then another, toward the insectoid giant, as if strolling through a spring speckled parkland. Her posture relaxes, then her expression, becoming almost blank.
She lifts her hands, palms turned toward the Sentinel, breathing shallowly.
She conjures her mental images of Nyghtshade and Devereaux, addresses them simultaneously: “Akpan is still alive in there. And human. And suffering in a way he never has experienced before. And beginning to regret everything he’s ever done.
“That’s the key. We need to reach Akpan…and turn him into our ally.“
“You want… what… forgive that horrible sack of…. make him want to help us??” Nyght mentally sputters across Paige’s open link, clearly flabbergasted and furious.
Linuial stops her slow advance, contemplating the figure looming over her.
“Monique…I didn’t say anything about forgiving Akpan. Using him is more like it. Like so many cowards, dishing out torment is one thing, but taking it is another. He knows Mot will never allow him to die…he’ll just keep milking his suffering, increasing it constantly. He’s probably realizing about now that real death is the only hope he has to stop something he has no idea how to survive.
“His only hope of dying before he goes completely insane is for Mot to be returned to his sleep.
“We now have a common goal…if we can just convince Akpan of that.“
Devereaux gives a rueful shake of his head at hearing Linuial’s plan.
“I’ll leave that to you. In the meantime, this thing’s not gonna stop trying to kill us-“
He ends the message abruptly as the Sentinel surges toward him, swinging a massive forearm and bringing the bony spikes at its end to bear. The Widow’s reflexes and acrobatic prowess allow him to dodge by the narrowest of margins. The claws sail past him, cutting a furrow in the ground.
“Yeah, diplomacy is definitely your job. I’ll handle the shooting part.”
With that, he’s on the move, dashing in an irregular serpentine pattern and spinning mid-stride to loose a few darts. They clatter uselessly off the monster’s armored hide as it pursues but he keeps the feeble assault going anyway.
“Golden Fist! Some help would be nice” he shouts, unwilling to risk using telepathy.
The Tsoo leader stares at him blankly for a moment before visibly shaking himself.
“All of you, with me!” Golden Fist calls to his men. Hearing their leader’s voice seems to bring the other Tsoo back to the crisis at hand. Roaring a battle cry, they join him in a charge.
“Help Akpan… help him!?! Nyght rants furiously, “Afteh what he did… She can’t ask me that, Ah don’t want to! Ah don’t want to, Ah don’t wan….”
She pauses abruptly as a small still inner voice inserts a different litany. Bear with each other and forgive one another. If any of you has a grievance against someone, forgive as the Lord forgave you…. Rid yourself of all bitterness, rage and anger, be kind and compassionate, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you…. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us….
Nyghtshade rocks back on her heels. Is this a direct reminder from God? Is it only an internal monologue from her conscience? Does it really matter?
“Oh Lord,” she breathes, anguished, “Please, no, this is too hard…”
Despite the chaos surrounding Nyght inside and out, the still small voice persists too clearly to ignore. Looking down from the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do… Forgive. Forgive. Forgive…
Monique sinks to her knees, touching the spot where her crucifix rests under her costume. Crossing herself once, she nods sadly.
Knowing that Linuial is in peril, that Devereaux is at risk, that the monstrous Sentinel threatens all of their team and worse, Monique holds her mental shields tight and gathers her faith, pulling it close around her like spiritual armor.
Then, focusing on the raging Sentinel, Nyght dives into its mind, seeking some spark of her chief tormentor.
“AKPAN!” she sends, hugging her shields tighter against the spiritual onslaught of the beast imprisoning him. “Akpan, we’ah heah to help you, to get your free of this, to stop what Mot is tryin’ to do to you and to ev’ry one else! Wheah are you, Akpan? Answeh me, please! Let us help you get free of this!”
The battle against the Banished Pantheon has taken a number of twists and turns but none is more unexpected than this. Whether through Mot’s manipulations or some unforeseen twist of fate, Akpan has become the key to preventing the dark god’s rise.
Now, with the Heroes and their allies divided between trying to reach the shaman and struggling simply to survive their fight against Mot’s avatar, the stakes could not be higher. Whether their attempts to break through to Akpan are successful remains to be seen. Success could still depend on clever stratagems and raw might rather than the milk of human kindness but the overarching objective remains the same.
Break the will of a god, or die in the attempt.