Paragon City Stories: Death Becomes Her
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act III, Scene 3
Place: Talos Island
Two days have passed since the battle against Mot and the Banished Pantheon, giving the Heroes an opportunity to take some much needed rest. In many ways, the fighting in Dark Astoria pushed them to their limits and exposed weaknesses many would have preferred to keep hidden.
Though the brownstone owned by Fen Monique still shows the scars of the Pantheon’s initial attack, repairs are underway and moving quickly. She, Jade Dancer, Tahquitz, Paige Pirillo, and Adamant have gathered there. Ostensibly, they’ve come to discuss Adam Master’s official induction as a Hero of Paragon City but there’s no telling what will ultimately come of this reunion.
Monique hums as she bustles around the kitchen in a loose shirt and shorts. She’s just brewed coffee and made a pot of hot water for tea, and is setting out cookies and sliced danish on the coffee table, along with little plates.
Opening the refrigerator, she takes out fresh cream and sets it on the counter by the sugar and a stack of mugs and spoons. The fridge, she reflects, hadn’t been so well stocked, at least with snacks, in… well, years.
She looks up at a knock on the door, then cheerfully calls, “Come in, it’s open!”
Paige walks through the front door, “Hi Monique!” With her is a backpack with a few books and her cell phone in the other hand. Paige walks to Monique and hugs her. She cranes her neck around looking and only sees her hostess in the kitchen, “Have the others arrived yet? Am I early?”
Monique returns the hug with a smile. “Yoah the first, Shugah. Theah’s sodas in the fridge, and snacks on the coffee table.”
She trots a stack of napkins out to the coffee table and then settles one of the dining room chairs that have been pulled out into the living room to augment the seating there.
“So, how are you feelin’, afteh ev’ry’thin’ that happened? Are you recoverin’ OK now we’ah back home again?”
“I’m much better… Rested up, caught up with homework. My counselor was right, online classes are better for a practicing hero.” She puts the backpack on a wallhook in the hallway and pockets her phone.
“I don’t know… for the last couple of days after you and Tahquitz revived me, my mental abilities were much more sensitive and easier to use, but yesterday it wore off… I’m back to being just me. How about you?”
“Well…” Monique breaks off to pet the fat Siamese cat who’s jumped off the couch to wind around the legs of her chair. “Odd as it may sound, Ah feel… pretty good. Liberated, Ah suppose you could say.”
The cat crouches and leaps up into Monique’s lap, the better to be scratched behind the ears. She obliges, smiling.
“Fatheh Brannigan says it’s the gift of forgiveness. Heaven knows, Ah neveh expected to be foahgivin’ Akpan…. But truthfully, Ah’m glad to have put that behind me.”
“I’m happy for you!” Paige smiles back, “You’re so kind and thoughtful, Monique, you deserve some good to come back your way.”
“Ammit was rough on Devereaux… I can’t imagine what you guys went through with him.” Paige thinks back to her own encounter with him, that moment she can’t recall anymore, but the feelings she had when she could… she’s holding on to those with all of her will. It’s the only connection to the weak spot.
“This is actually more than a ‘commencement party’ for Adam… I didn’t say anything yet, but I’m going to be taking a trip. This weekend I’m leaving for Mona–”
A knock is heard on the door.
“–co. It’s Tim, isn’t it?”
Jade pushes the door open without further ado, and steps in. She’s wearing jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt sporting the latest superhero movie cast. She’s also sporting a healing split-lip and a fading bruise around one eye.
“Hope I’m not late, am I late?” she asks. “I had to shower and change after my run.”
Monique assures Jade she’s not late, and Jade drops a wrapped package on the end of the coffee table, and wanders off to make a mug of tea. “Hey, Paige, good to see you, how’s it going?”
“Not bad…” Paige says, smiling at Jade.
“We’ll talk later about that.” Paige sends to Monique.
“How’s the eye, Terry?”
Terry grins, returning to the living room with a cup of tea and settling cross-legged on the floor. “Healing. You should have seen it yesterday, it was a beaut.”
“I bet. I don’t know how you go through that… do your dance students ask questions? Do the guys get extra protective when you tell them it was from a fight?” Paige asks her.
Terry snorts a laugh, nearly spilling her tea. “I just tell them you should have seen the other guy!”
There is a tap at the door, which then opens. Adam Masters peeks through the door, then opens it wide enough to enter.
He has one hand behind his back.
Looking around the room, he spots Jade, and gives her a wide grin.
Walking up to her, he brings his hand forward with a flourish…and a deep bow. He is clutching what appears to be a huge bouquet of…tea bags? It has all the appearance of a bouquet of flowers, the transparent green plastic wrapping, the bows and ribbons and bits of greenery, but at the end of every green wire stem is a different type of tea bag, like squared off buds.
He presents the bouquet to her, and maintains the bow, waiting for her to accept.
“Hey, Jade,” he grins. “You forgot to come by for your tea.”
“Oh, but I didn’t get you anything,” she quips, but accepts the gift and sets it on the floor beside her. “Thanks.”
Adam grins, looks over at Nyghtshade. “Hey, Ms. Fen, you got any beer around here?”
“Ah didn’t think to, and heah it’s yoah celebration!”Monique replies ruefully, chagrined that as a hostess she didn’t think of that. “Sorry, Shugah, next time?”
“Yah, it’s all good,” he gives her his rapidly-becoming-familiar grin. “Energy drink? Soft drink? I’d take water if it’s cold. I’m not much for fussy stuff.” He reaches for a cookie, munches on it as he seats himself on the floor next to Jade, stretching out his legs and leaning back on one elbow.
Monique rises to her feet and hurries into the kitchen. Opening the fridge door, she calls back to him, “Ah’ve got sweet tea, several kinds of juice, and some sodas.”
She pulls out a selection and carries them to the counter holding the coffee and tea pots, then pulls some large glasses out of the cupboard above, and fills a bowl with icecubes and a large spoon to scoop them.
“Theah you go, Adam, help yoahself.”
Monique smiles and steps back, but hovers a moment, in case he needs anything else.
The young swordsman immediately jumps up, and hurries to Nyghtshade’s side.
“Oh, here, Ms. Fen, let me help you with that,” he says, belatedly. Arriving a bit too late to actually help the very efficient Nyghtshade, he gives her a lopsided grin, murmurs a quiet “…thank you!” and starts helping himself, returning with his glass to the spot on the floor by Jade.
Monique smiles fondly as she follows him back into the living room and takes a seat again. “You know, Adam, it’s actually Mrs. Fen…” she says gently, “…or you could just call me Monique.”
She shifts her gaze to the others. “Do we have any ideah when Linuial, Tahquitz and Mr. Devereaux are plannin’ to arrive?”
“I’ve texted all three, but no replies.” Paige shrugs, “Devereaux as usual hasn’t said anything when he left other than ‘I’m going to get out of here… with all this praise and worship, you Capes will start giving me either a bloated head, or diabetes, I can’t tell which.’ So, no idea where he is.”
“Tahquitz stayed behind with the Midnighters Squad to re-make leylines or landlines or whatever. I haven’t heard from him in a few days… As for Linuial… my best guess is she’s with Jon for his recovery. Kip Cantorum had his work cut out for him. I hope he’s able to…” Paige searches for the words… “Get back to health? Repaired? Back to normal?” She nods in agreement, “Normal works.”
Paige scoops a few ice cubes and pours a ginger ale into a champagne flute. She sips it like its champagne with her pinkie out, and says “I can dream, can’t I?”
Tim climbs the stairs and checks his phone in front of Nyght’s apartment for new messages. Sure enough, Paige, Jade, and Nyght have sent texts that have gone unanswered. He just arrived from the Superbase after a shower and change of clothes, as well as spending the last 46 hours laying wards and constructing plinths in Dark Astoria under Castanella’s oversight. It was hard work, but having 25-30 mages, apprentices, and acolytes helped greatly.
His ears perk up… He overhears Paige tell everyone where he’s at and smiles at the landline comment before he waits for silence on the other side of the door before he knocks.
“Greetings, I am a lineman for the county. Just drivin’ the main road. Searching in the sun for another overl– Is that Root Bear?” Tim interrupts his bad Glen Campbell joke when he eyes the drinks, “Root Bear is the best root beer I’ve had!”
Monique calls to him to come on in, and once he does, gives him a rundown on drinks and snacks. “It’s good to see you again, Tim. Welcome.”
She swallows back questions about whether things are good now, or as good as they can ever get, back in Dark Astoria. This is Adam’s party, and she won’t dredge up bad memories here.
Adam swivels his head, waves his glass in Taquitz’ direction. “Hey, man, take a load off, you look bushed.” He grins, before looking back at Nyghtshade. “Sorry, Ms…uhh…Missus Fen,” he enunciates. “We just call all ladies ‘miz’ all the time where I come from. Not disrespectful, or anythin’, it covers all bases without having to be prying.” The grin turns bashful.
“Thanks, Adam… If I have to draw one more chalk line or ash circle,” Tim laughs as he takes a glass and pours ice and root beer into a mug, “It’ll be too soon.”
“Ya know what you guys should do,” Adam tells the horizon, his gaze unfocused. “Spray ‘em with a clear plastic sealant. Fix ‘em to the pavement. Somethin’ permanent. Maybe etch ‘em into the concrete so they can’t be disturbed.” He grins, returns to the present, slurps his drink.
“Yeah, making them into plastic-coated statues, good plan, Adam,” Jade laughs, but with rather than at him.
“Good to see you, Tim,” Jade grins. “So, seriously, have all the boogeymen been laid to rest? Or do we need to clear our calendars for the next round?”
Adam frowns for a second, then lets out a belly laugh. “The leylines, Jade, the leylines, not the…well…monsters, or whatever.” He seems to find this incredibly funny, and continues chuckling to himself.
“…but, seriously…at least a little, anyway,” he adds, “…if I never see another zombie, walking dead, decomposing giant, or tattooed Sue, it’ll be too soon. Don’t you guys have any real bad guys around here? You know, thieves, robbers, drug dealers, that kind of thing?”
Jade grimaces as Adam explains, and retorts, “Leylines, sure, sure, I knew that!”
But honesty gets the better of her, and she adds sheepishly, “No, I didn’t. But you have to admit that the image of all those hard-shellacked zombies decorating the park would have been kind of funny…”
Adam grins at Jade, then turns back to Tahquitz. “That’s a good question, Tahk…Tahk…Tahkees? Sorry, too many new names at one time. I’ll get it eventually.” He actually blushes beet red.
“Since you were the last one out there, what’s going on in Dark Historia now? I mean, did those guys we killed keep getting up again? Did we do any good at all? It’s all starting to blur together…and it wasn’t even a real ‘mission’ for me, I was just along for the ride, and I still don’t know for certain what was going on, or if I was any help at all.” His grin fades…for a moment, he almost looks sad.
“Tonight, just call me Tim,” Tim offers to Adam, “All my friends do.”
“No, the wards are in place and holding. First Light’s stronger than ever. The Banished Pantheon is still there and attacking anything with a pulse, but they’re scattered and disorganized. When I left there, Dark Astoria has been very quiet compared to when we were all there. And it will be for a few years to come.”
Tim takes a deep breath, and then says, “But I’d be lying if I told you all that it’s over and we won. Like zombies, the Pantheon take forever to re-organize and begin another front. Like the one we just faced. The Midnighters learned that they will need to be there on a regular basis to suppress that front when it appears. They can’t just passively ignore Dark Astoria and expect Mot to stay down. As anywhere else, freedom means vigilance.”
Tim looks around the room to see every eye on him at the moment… “But tonight, we’re here to relax.” He smiles and takes a draw from his mug, then sets it down to reveal a foamy mustache. “Oops…” He clears it with his forearm.
Paige giggles at the sight of Tim wiping the mustache off, “You dork.”
Adam’s smile returns quickly. “Ms…er…Missus Fen…do you have a supergroup? Or are you in Ms. Linoo…um…Starfire?”
“Ah do. Ah belong to the Dauntless Reverie, but only a few of its membehs are still around. It was… is… a Supergroup for heroes touched by magic in one way or anotheh. Our base is huge, but pretty empty right now.”
“Oh…” he replies, “…that’s kinda sad. I was just kinda wondering if I should be looking for a supergroup I want to join, or do I wait until someone asks me? Silly question, I know…”
“It probably depends on the group, but we weah fine with having people apply, and interviewin’ them to see if they’d be a good fit foah the group. Neveh hurts to ask.”
“How’s heroin’ goin’ foah you, Adam? Have you increased yoah security level? How are you likin’ patrollin’ in Atlas Park?”
“And what did they say when you showed up for orientation? Did you tell them about Dark Astoria?” she adds, interested.
“Well, you see, M…Missus Fen, I went to my orientation that day after we all went on patrol with you, while you were sleeping. Before we went to Dark Has…His…Astoria? I had to get their permission to go along with you and Starfire, but Ms. Lin got that all fixed up with my trainer.
“I did tell them about it when we got back, and they were pretty much okay with it, they got Ms. Lin’s report on my performance and all, and seemed pretty happy about it.” He adds a grin to that.
“Yeah, I’m up to…I think it was security level…seven? Seems that whole Dark As…astoria thing was really good experience, even with all the other Heroes helping me along.
“…and I love patrolling!” He laughs, slaps the inert laser sword handle clipped to his belt. “Now that I’m starting to get the hang of it, I’m liking Paragon City even more than I imagined I would before I got here.
“You guys just have no idea how great your jobs are, and your town. To somebody from the outside, it’s just unimaginable. You try, but the reality is just so much greater than anything that someone could imagine, it’s like night and day.
“I am so glad I came here. And that I met you guys. You’ve all been terrific to the kid that just fell off the turnip truck.”
He stands, turns in place, holding his glass up in salute.
“Here’s to Paragon City, and the Heroes that have suddenly become real Heroes to this dumb kid from the sticks of Alabama. I hope that one day I can think of myself as one of you. There’s nothing in the whole wide world that I’druther be.”
Monique lifted her tea-cup in turn, with a warm smile for the young hero. “
“And here’s to you, Adam, as you embark on yoah new life heah in Paragon. Ah already think of you as one of us, and Ah’m glad you came to stay heah.”
“Hear, hear!” Paige raises her champagne flute.
Tim, standing at the counter, raises his mug to Adam and takes a deep draw from it. A less foamier mustache is back.
Jade lifts her glass as well. “Here’s to Paragon’s new Hero!! Huzzah !!”
She gives Adam a grin, and sips from the glass.
As the Heroes celebrate their new comrade in arms, a far more somber scene is playing out in Steel Canyon. Having been moved from Dark Astoria’s hospital to the high tech facility in the heart of downtown Paragon City, Jon Smith is fighting for his life.
The 7-foot-tall cyborg lies on his back in the hospital bed, tubes and wires taped all over his chest and neck. A light blanket is draped over his still form, more for modesty than warmth.
Every surface in the room bears a burden of flowers, plants, and cards, and a slightly deflated Mylar “Get Well!” balloon floats lazily against the ceiling in a corner.
Against the window there is a caramel-colored high back chair where Linuial, in her ubiquitous pastel blue mini-dress, is curled like a cat. Doll-like, she appears even tinier than before. Her eyes are closed, her forehead wrinkled with worry even in her sleep.
For some reason, she looks very old.
Dressed casually in fitted blue jeans and an evergreen collared shirt with its tails hanging free, Devereaux hesitates outside the door.
“This is not a good idea,” he thinks to himself.
Then the image of Jon Smith charging into battle leaps unbidden into his mind.
The scene plays itself out in slow motion. Jon, his one organic eye focused, mechanical limbs propelling him forward, the long blades built into his robotic arms poised to strike. Suddenly, there’s a crackling roar as lightning leaps from the enemy’s fingertips. The big man screams piteously, goes into a series of convulsions, and finally falls to the cold cement floor where he lies ominously still.
“Gotta pay your debts,” Devereaux chides himself and gingerly turns the knob.
The door opens without a sound. He knows that to be a product of his training and experience more than anything. He glides into the room and his eyes dart from corner to corner reflexively. Then, satisfied that no threats are present, he moves to stand beside the chair where Linuial is sleeping.
“Blondie,” he calls in a hushed tone. “Blondie, time to wake up.”
Her eyelids flutter, she takes a quick breath, opens her eyes slowly, and looks up.
“Oh,” she begins to roll stiffly to a sitting position, then stands. “Xavier…”
“Yes…” she glances at the hospital bed, walks slowly to lean over the still cyborg, touches her palm to his chest…then turns back to the Praetorian.
“Yes…Xavier…what do you need?” Her voice is quiet, tired, the furrows in her brow remain, but she tries to smile at him.
“It never changes with you, does it?” He laughs in spite of himself and the sound is bitter.
“How long have you been in here?” he asks, taking notice of the fatigue in her voice and the weakness of her smile.
“Since Kip finished with Jon’s repairs. What time is it?”
“Almost five-thirty,” he says, recalling the time on the massive clock in the hospital’s main ward.
“I figured Kip would still be here. Is he close by?”
“No, he’s done everything he can for Jon. Headed back to his office in Galaxy yesterday. You can catch him there…no, wait, if it’s five-thirty then he’s probably headed for home by now. You’ll probably have to see him tomorrow…unless it’s an emergency, I could call him for you.”
Her brow wrinkles further. “Five-thirty…I guess they’re having Adam’s celebratory party about now.”
“I think so. Didn’t check the start time too closely. Obi-wan seems decent but he’s way too green for my taste.”
Realizing he’s letting himself be distracted by small talk, Devereaux changes the subject. “I’ve gotta ask. What’s the prognosis?”
She shrugs. “Unchanged. Just like before. Kip managed to repair all his cybernetic damage, and I and the hospital staff have healed all his organic damage. The problem is that his wiring conducted the full voltage he was exposed to directly through his brain stem and into his brain. We can heal and replace damaged and dead brain tissue, but we can’t put back what was stored there.
“Either he’ll wake up, or he won’t. If he wakes up, he could be unchanged, or he could be a vegetable.
“While he was under Crey’s control they wiped his memories with drugs, the same drugs they used on Kellerman, only in his case the effects were permanent. They erased his conscious memories, but not his memories of how to walk, to talk, to even read. This is random. We have no way of knowing what was destroyed, what he retains.
“If he survives another couple of days, he’ll be out of the woods as far as physical death is concerned, but we won’t know until he wakes up…if he wakes up…what has been erased.”
She adjusts the sheet an inch, then turns back to the chair and begins to curl herself into it, then looks up belatedly. “Oh, did you want me to call Kip for you?”
“No. It’s not urgent…all things considered. Just give him this as soon as you can.”
He reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and produces a small vial. In it is a silvery liquid that looks oddly similar to mercury. In place of a cork, the container is sealed with a decidedly strange looking cap. A black dome crowns the stopper and bands of gold filigree run around its circumference.
“Back when you were in his position, Jon and I came to an arrangement. We never finalized it but the gist was that I’d make some introductions in Praetoria so he and Kip could get their hands on some nanotech. I guess you could say I’m here to make good on that deal.”
With some of her old grace, the blonde woman stands and holds out a hand. “What should I tell Kip to do with this?” she asks.
“Just tell him to hold the capped end up to his eye until it clicks. He can manage the rest on his own.”
He drops the vial into her outstretched palm. “I can’t guarantee you anything but if Kip’s as good as Jon claimed, it should help.”
“Sounds like a great way to lose an eye,” she replies. She grimaces, sighs, then smiles ruefully. “I’m sorry…I’m tired and a bit cross, I guess.”
She places the vial into a hidden pocket in her tunic. “Thank you on Jon’s behalf, and Kip’s, too.”
She glances up sideways at the Praetorian. “And what about you?”
He raises an eyebrow at her question. “What about me?”
“How are you doing?’
“No,” Devereaux says firmly. “We’re not doing this today.”
He holds up a hand to forestall whatever comment he knows is coming. “We both know how it goes. You ask me if I’m okay, I say I’m fine. You don’t believe me so you start probing and trying to create the illusion of a safe space.”
“When that doesn’t work because I’m not a weepy teenager, you’ll try to be pithy instead. We’ll go back and forth for a while before you get self-deprecating, probably about something that happened before I was even born, and I’ll tell you to get over it. You’ll smile and claim you will but then we’ll have come full circle and you’ll start asking about me again.”
He takes in a lungful of air, then blows it out. “If it’s all the same to you, let’s just skip the foreplay and you can ask me about whatever it is you really want to know.”
She chuckles. “I ask you how you are, to see what you will say. I have to admit, that was unusual, to say the least.
“Very well, then.” She frowns, an expression rarely seen on her face. “I sent you a message. I called it ‘coded’ for the benefit of the children, but you and I both know better. There was no code, or rather the ‘code’ was as obvious as the nose on a clown’s face.
“I started by referring to myself as ‘Linda’. That was your first clue that something was terribly wrong. I talked about missing you, I said I love you. That emphasized the wrongness even further.
“I referred to Jon as your brother. I talked about you buying me steak, well done, at some place called the Underground Steakhouse, instead of the Airship Lounge. Everything I referred to, I reversed in some way. The message was clear and consistent: ‘something is terribly wrong’.
“When properly reversed, I gave you enough information to understand that this was indeed a message from me, because only you and I were privy to some of those things. However, if the message had been intercepted by anyone else, they would have had no idea how to interpret it. The message: this must be kept a secret between the two of us.
“Then I spoke of Jon having a dream about an unnamed god, who was painting targets on people’s backs. The message, which you obviously did not interpret correctly, was that you should look up information on ‘the nameless god,’ so as to prepare yourself, and that ‘people’ had targets painted on their backs, namely you, and me.
“I mentioned the Hotel Astoria, on Dark Lantern Lane. That was to direct your attention to Dark Astoria. I hoped that if you saw the connection between Dark Astoria and the nameless god Mot, you’d get the message to stay away at all costs.
“I was trying to warn you that someone might be coming after you, wherever you were, and to watch your back, and not come anywhere near us or Dark Astoria.
“Next thing I know, there you are, bigger than life. Frustrating, not the least because, knowing you, you’ll have to take over and run things, and the children will follow you to Hell and back. What was I to do? You haven’t done your homework, you didn’t research Mot before you showed up, and now I have to battle you in addition to Mot, the Tsoo, and your adoring fan club.”
She sighs deeply, closes her eyes, continues without giving him a chance to reply.
“I’m not just chewing you out, Xavier, I want answers from you that I know damn well you will refuse to give me. Put it down to frustration.
“You show up, without any knowledge of Mot or the crisis in Dark Astoria so long ago, and yet despite that, you have somehow magically acquired the very Tsoo artifact that is needed to put Mot down again, and which they with all their resources have been unable to find. Coincidence? I hoped so…until you showed up with that…” she opens her eyes and points at the tattooed arm that is now completely concealed by his clothing. “Quite a deal, Xavier. You told us that it was the artifact in trade for the Tsoo’s cooperation, but that wasn’t the deal at all, was it? It was the artifact for the tattoo, and all the power that went with it.
“And you will not convince me that was not your intention all along, Mot, or no Mot. This wasn’t about being paid to do a job by the mysterious benefactor Lady Clerik, or saving a bunch of ‘capes’ from themselves, it was about you acquiring that tattoo, and the god’s power behind it.”
She pins him with her gaze. “Which I would have been happy to let go and pretend I didn’t put two and two together…but, Xavier, you cannot in your wildest dreams think that I didn’t notice what was going on when you first showed up. The electrical sparks. You wincing from pain. Your very obvious, at least to me, struggle within yourself with an entity that was not you. Or maybe more than one, I can’t be sure, but your frustration and alarm whenever you started losing control was like a supernova to me.
“Did you think I’d suddenly stopped being an empath? Just when it would be most convenient for you? You’re not that blind, Xavier, nor are you stupid, you’re one of the smartest individuals I’ve met in a while. You knew I’d know something was up…and I asked you how you were to find out if you were going to continue playing this game with me, pretending that I, for one, am either stupid, or struck empathically blind.”
She crosses her arms, and turns to face the window. “So, don’t talk to me about playing games and not being honest. You could run rings around me any day that would look good on Saturn.”
Her shoulders drop, as does her voice. “And all I really want to know, is the very question you reject in its entirety.”
She turns back to him, and there is moisture in her eyes. “Are you all right? I don’t feel you struggling within yourself any more, but will that return? What have you done to yourself with that tattoo? Will you lose control of that, too? How and when did you acquire the copy of the Imperial Guard, I’m certain you didn’t have it before, or you would have used it.
“And now, since you won’t answer any of that, I guess that’s all I have to say. I’m tired, Xavier, bone tired, a century’s worth of exhaustion. I’m staying by Jon’s side in case he dies, I want to be here to help ease his passing. It’s the one part of the job that all empaths hate and fear the most, the one that is most likely to drive them out of the profession entirely. And you want to play 20 questions, and I don’t have the strength.”
She returns to the chair, drops into it, and drops her head into her hands.
Her voice comes muffled from behind her hands. “Oh…and what you killed wasn’t the nameless god, it was just one of his servants. So you should do that research now, because sometime in the future he might decide to come after you.”
The old impulse to say something in anger claws at him and resisting it takes no small amount of effort. It would be easy, he knows, to toss out a vicious series of barbs. But something about the slump of Linuial’s shoulders convinces him to do otherwise.
“As I’ve mentioned plenty of times,” he begins. “I don’t do magic. In fact, I avoid it like the plague.”
Then, remembering the tattoo on his arm, he adds, “Whenever I possibly can.”
“Listen Blondie, I’m sorry if it bothers you that I kept the new look a secret but what do you think you could’ve done about it?” Though the question is accusatory, he’s careful to keep his tone neutral.
“Empath or not, you wouldn’t have been any help so what good would it have done to tell you? I had enough going on without you literally hovering over my shoulder, trying to take my emotional temperature every five minutes.”
He turns and looks out the window, admiring the view that gave Steel Canyon its name as he speaks. “I know you’ve seen a lot and that makes you think you have to save everyone from themselves. And I know you’re convinced that I’d be so much better off if I’d just see things from your perspective.”
“But I’m not some pathetic mortal, blindly groping his way through life. You don’t have to understand it and I’ve never asked you to. In fact, all I’ve ever asked you to do was get off my ass about it.” He laughs involuntarily at the last bit.
“As for what is or isn’t Mot, I’ll leave it to the experts. If a bunch of zombies ever come looking for me in the night, I’m pretty sure I can handle them. Now, I came to drop off those nanos and that’s what I did. When Jon wakes up, tell him he’s welcome and that I’ll be expecting my broker’s fee as soon as I get back.”
Turning away from the window, he begins striding back toward the door but something stops him short.
“He will wake up,” he says with stoic confidence. “You can count on that at least.”
She looks up from her hands.
“And all I asked of you is whether you were all right or not. Knowing that you wouldn’t answer truthfully even if you weren’t. You ask me what I want to know, and then when I tell you, you’re offended that I even ask. You call it ‘getting on your ass’.”
She glances at the comatose cyborg, then stands and pulls out her cell phone.
“Stray? Could you please come and sit with Jon for a while? …yes, just call me if anything changes. …Thanks.”
She puts the phone away, walks past the Praetorian; halfway to the door, she turns and holds out a hand to him.
“Come with me,” she says. When he fails to respond, she takes hold of his wrist with a surprisingly strong grip, and begins pulling him out into the hall.
“And we’re going…where exactly?” Devereaux asks and contemplates just how much he trusts the healer in her current state.
“I thought you didn’t want me talking your ear off,” she replies.
“Some things are better seen than heard,” she continues, and begins walking down the hall, still clutching his wrist.
“Touche. Lead on, Blondie.” Now resigned, he doesn’t even bother to break her grip.
Linuial all but drags Devereaux down the hall, into the elevator, and out the front door of the hospital.
“Pick a form that can fly, and follow me.”
She tugs on his wrist again, releases it, and leaps into the night sky.
He stands and stares at her for a moment, then finally shrugs and reaches into the veritable armory inside his mind.
The transition into a Longbow Warden is almost instantaneous and he rises into the air, arms crossed over his chest.
“I hope this isn’t some existential journey into nothing important.”
The golden hair is silver, the pastel blue dress is white in the moonlight. She flies at her best speed, leaving the Praetorian to follow as best he can.
Alighting next to a swirling target of bluish light, she beckons to him as he lands, then steps against the vertical oval and disappears.
When he follows suit, he finds himself inside the Starfire base. She has already darted across the entryway, down the hall in front of the med bay, and tapped some keys in front of a teleport unit.
“It’ll only take one at a time,” she tells him, then makes a mock bow. “Gentlemen first.”
When he steps into the unit, he finds himself standing on Talos Island. She once again grips his wrist and tugs on it, before soaring into the sky, flying straight for the gate to Dark Astoria.
Dropping to the ground, she produces her Hero ID, shows it to the guards in front of the gate.
“You first,” she insists, and when he shows signs of hanging back, she gives him a shove that causes him to bump up against the membrane.
She follows, pushing him aside, and springs into the air.
“Come. This way.” And off she soars, a rapidly receding figure of white and silver in the red-black night.
“Did you seriously just drag me halfway across the city just so we could revisit this hell hole?” he calls from her wake.
Indeed, Dark Astoria hasn’t changed in the two days since their battle against the Banished Pantheon. The same blood red hue still tinges the light, buildings are still abandoned, and down below, unknown things flit from shadow to shadow.
“Honestly, the city should just demolish the place and be done with it. Roving bands of zombies can’t be good for tourism.”
“I can’t hear you…“
“Come on, keep up, I don’t have all night…“
She flies to the northeast, growing closer and closer to the red-tinged war walls. Finally she begins to drop lower and lower, coming to a stop hovering over a neat, if apparently abandoned, cemetery backed by a huge mausoleum.
She descends even lower toward an elaborate marble staircase winding up through rocky boulders. Hovering her way just above the stairs, sight now cut off by the jumble of rock, she leads him onward, until the marble cracks, breaks, and finally surrenders to wildly overgrown grass and weeds. She descends to the ground, waving him to join her.
“From here, we walk,” she tells him, before setting the example.
As she begins the climb up the hill, to their left Devereaux can see leafless trees…draped by something…spotted? like a great spangled sheet so large that it covers the top of the tallest tree.
There is a faint roar in the background, like wind sighing through trees, but no wind ruffles the grass.
She walks on.
Always wary of hidden threats, he brings the image of the Night Widow to the edge of his consciousness. With it hovering there, the slightest mental twitch will trigger a transformation.
He ignores the unusual sound. “Still don’t have the first clue what you’re getting at with this.”
“Now you’re the chatty one,” she smiles, speaking softly, as if someone might be listening in.
Crossing a grassy meadow, she leads the way to another…staircase?
But this one is not marble. It looks…organic. As if the leafless trees had been bent to either side to form supports for more of the spotted fabric, the fabric itself the sides of the stairs, the floor being packed dirt.
She sprints up the ramp, calling “come on, lazy bones…”
Over the top of the ramp, the packed earth suddenly slopes down, revealing another cemetery. She takes no notice, but walks around a boulder to her right, to another of the organic stair/ramps. Following it, there are more of the draped trees, Spanish moss hanging from…no…it almost looks like…veins hanging from the barren trees…
She comes to the edge of a cliff. “Here, we jump,” she tells him, suiting action to word.
As they pass yet more of the spotted fabric, it takes on a three dimensional texture…and then…are those scales?
Still trailing behind, Devereaux takes his time to examine the strange construct they’re traveling through.
“Definitely not artificial” he thinks but keeps the conclusion to himself.
When Linuial jumps over the cliff, he follows suit. Unlike her, however, he takes on the Longbow Warden’s form again and begins a slow, measured descent.
She winds her way around, and then climbs a steep slope to a level area.
She looks around. “Yes,” she says softly, satisfaction in her voice. “This is it.”
She turns in place, and as Devereaux follows her eyes, he sees to the right a long road-like structure….
Those aren’t skeletal trees jutting out of the ground on either side of the road…they’re…bones. Huge ones. The fabric that appears to be glued to them…
That couldn’t be snake skin…could it? The scales alone are the size of…dinner plates…
She turns and looks in the opposite direction, at yet another flat open area.
“This way.” She speaks in a whisper, now.
The bones behind them, when taken all together, begin to take on the appearance of…ribs. But they are a good thirty feet in length.
Linuial steps forward…and in front of her, the plain is ringed by what appears to be giant claws protruding from the ground. The size of trees, trunks ten to twenty feet across, all covered with the scaly “skin”, with bare bones….no, talons…extruding through the skin…
…and the one on the left contains at its center an eye.
Surrounded by the talon-like objects, it must be at least five feet across…
…and it moves to look at them as Linuial crosses in front of it, completely unperturbed, heading for yet another scaly ramp.
She continues to the top of the serpentine ramp. As Devereaux walks up to meet her, he gets his first glimpse of what lies beyond.
“This is Mot,” she whispers. “Or at least part of him…of one of his forms…bodies.”
They are looking on an alien, insectoid skull, flutes of bone extending to the sides and above, rearing to at least a hundred feet in the air. Tusks jut upward from the soil as if the head is half buried in the hillock. The crest of the brow bone is at least forty feet high, and the gaping mouth with its multiple rows of teeth could accommodate a half-dozen men walking side-by-side.
Just the main part of the skull itself is twice the height of the Sentinel.
“That,” she says quietly, “is what is coming after you, if it awakes again.”
She turns to the Longbow Warden, points to her forehead, then to his. “Telepathy”, she whispers.
The sight of the sleeping god in its true form gives Devereaux pause. He swings his gaze from side to side before finally settling it on the massive skull. Staring into the mummified maw of the creature, he hears the rumble of distant thunder and feels his tattoo come alive with slowly rising heat.
Then, following Linuial’s instructions he reverts again. “So this is what you were so afraid of. Can’t say it’s not impressive.”
The sight of the malefic deity is indeed dreadful but the persistent reverberation in his head seems to take something away from the spectacle.
It feels as if he’s looking at a rival rather than an insurmountable opponent.
“Monique brought me here. I wanted to see the body. This entire hill structure we have been walking on since the first set of stairs are all part of this particular corpse of Mot. All those bones behind us. The paths we walked.
“Starfire was on assignment outside of Paragon City when the actual war took place, so I never saw this. We were pulled in to fight Mot in San Francisco. Mot had materializations, not illusions, mind you, but actual bodies, in cities around the world, all at the same time.“
She turns to look at him. “Xavier, there was a reason that Paragon and the Rogue Isles joined forces to fight Mot, and they very nearly didn’t win even then. There was no one hero, no one city of heroes, that had a chance at conquering Mot, and even with everyone fighting together for survival, they couldn’t put him down, they could only bind him and put him to sleep.
“It doesn’t matter how strong you are…how much power you gather…one man alone cannot bring this thing down.
“It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you from the very beginning, and you would never believe me: you can’t do it alone. I know that you prefer to be alone, to work alone, to fight alone, to use money as a means of holding others at bay. But there is going to come a day when you will need others beside you, however much you might hate it. It will be a matter of survival, and you will be forced to make the decision to trust someone…or die.
“I would not attempt to tell you which choice to make. I can only point out to you that this is a choice you will have to make one day, and give you the chance to think about it before your hand, and your choice, becomes a forced one.
“Know this, and then I will leave you to your self-imposed isolation: If and when the time comes that you need someone to trust, I will be there for you, all you have to do is call on me.“
Without warning, she places a hand on his shoulder, rises up on her toes, leans forward, and brushes her lips against the angle of his jaw. She then steps back, turns, takes two steps forward, and leaps into the air, disappearing rapidly into the night.
In the wake of Linuial’s passing, Devereaux stands silently before Mot’s corpse. The moment seems to stretch as he gazes at the fallen god. Something inside him coils and tenses, preparing to hear the voice, overflowing with venom, deliver a taunt or a grandiose insult.
When neither comes, he grins and shakes his head.
“No, Blondie, I won’t.” He projects the thought outwards but whether or not it reaches the healer doesn’t truly matter to him. “Because I’m not interested in saving the world.”
Then he shifts back into the Warden’s red and white spandex clad form and takes to the sky himself, following an antithetical course.
And so ends the trilogy. I’m breaking character here (Because I’m the narrator and I think it’s better that way. So there :p) This has been an extraordinary journey. We’ve come from stumbling our way through the first game, “The Carnival Without,” to really getting to grips with some drama in “Darkness, Digitized,” and finally delivering on a powerful conclusion with “Death Becomes Her.”
It’s funny to think that we started out as just a bunch of former City of Heroes players looking to recapture something of that home we all miss. Not only did we challenge each other’s perceptions and ideas for our characters, we even managed to become friends along the way. Weird, right?
I don’t know if we’ll ever reprise these roles (I certainly hope to once we’ve all had time to take a break) but I’m certain this won’t be our last adventure as a team. Until then, I’d like to thank everyone who took part. Linuial, Nyghtshade, Tahquitz, and Steelhelm, thank you all for putting your time and energy into this little project. It wouldn’t have been the same without you.