The Cult of Midnight: Lights, Camera, Music

Black ops weren’t what they used to be, mused Emi as she sat. Not that she had a problem with that, but… it was a bit of an adjustment to make.

 

Nat was already there, floating gently behind Emi on blurry, gossamer, incorporeal wings. Ey had eschewed eir normal showy attire for a matte black catsuit, complete with matching gloves and moccasins. Even eir orange head of hair was obscured with a bandanna.

 

Pandora sprinted into the briefing room, sliding on the ground for a couple feet before finally coming to a halt. She was decked out in her usual attire: heavy headphones atop her head, MP3 player at her side, a neon-blue cross-top covering a decent portion of her upper body whilst her worn and baggy jeans fell around her hips to reveal the pair of neon-pink dance nylons below. Her platinum-blonde and purple-highlighted hair was slick with water from the shower and her cheeks were flushed a faint shade of crimson. [We… I mean… Ummm… Uhhh… I hope I am not late. Did I miss anything?] She signed hurriedly, waving to Nat and Elliot when she spots them.

 

Alex was running at a much slower pace than pandora, and his boots thumped into the briefing room right after her. He was in a tight but wrinkled under armor legion logo shirt as well as some wrinkled grey cargo pants. “Uh. Hey. We came as fast as we could.” He said a bit quietly with a bashful shade of red on his face as his mess of black hair hung wetly over his face. He eased from one leg to another uncomfortably. “How can we help?”

 

Elliot was already there in the meeting room when those two arrived, grinning and waving at Pandora.  He was in what looked like motorcycle gear with strange reflective panels up the jacket and the sides of the legs.  He didn’t look uncomfortable, though, helmet under his arm.  It was taking all of his will not to bounce up and down out of excitement– he’d already been told to please stop once.

 

“No one is late.” Emi said, favouring the Neon Ops team with a smile. “I have an important duty for the Neon Ops team, and I’m glad you could arrive. This is a mission of monumental importance, and we cannot afford any mistakes. Anathema is the most powerful psychic we know about on Earth, and she has been building a web of mind control for what looks like two decades now. We are going to attempt to break all of that down in a matter of days.” Emi pauses, dark eyes scanning the crew. “No pressure.”

“So hype. I am so hype right now.”

 

Alex straightens up,saluting. “You can count on us!”

 

Vin nods eagerly and gives a two-handed thumbs-up before realizing that the fly of her pants were not currently zipped up and doing that with an even brighter blush.

 

Normally, Nat would be as rambunctious as anyone else, but ey closed eir eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded. “I’m ready.”

 

Emi nodded. “I’m going to be frank. I don’t want any of you engaging with Anathema herself. None of you are ready, and I won’t risk any of you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have an important job to do. I hope that won’t cause any issues. There’s no room for glory hounds, here.”

Alex nods. “Keeping innocent lives safe is glory enough for me ma’am.” His stance was still uncomfortable, but he forced himself to stay focused.

 

[How will we be breaking her enchantment?] Vin asked after a short period of silence, looking over to Nat with a small look of worry. It was not like her to be so reserved. The new hero’s hands were shaking a little with nervous energy. ((Tag~!))

 

Elliot gives his helmet a little twirl and pops it on his head just in time to hide that he’s pouting at the HAVE NO EPIC HERO MOMENTS commentary.  He’s willing to play but the rules but but but– okay fine.  Helmet clicks into place, and all those lights on his helmet and suit light up, warming up more like.

 

“Check, check, and check. Also, I don’t know if sick beats are enough to like, jog their brains a bit? I mean, I don’t wanna give them a concussion to snap them outta it?”

 

“I’m capable of restraining them until the spell can be broken if necessary.” Alex said hopefully, thick branches growing from his wrists, wrapping around one another in demonstration.

 

“The last time we faced Anathema in such a manner, we learned that defeating her, taking her in, was enough to break the enchantment. I’m not sure why, or the details behind it, but she’s the root of the problem. That’s not to say that you won’t be playing an important role.” Emi taps her fingers against her chin. “The last time we faced her, we were also woefully unprepared. She was able to use her mind controlled assets against us. We need to keep them distracted and unable to act on their master’s orders.” Emi smiles again, a small and wry one. “Lights Show, Pandora, Alex. You’re going on tour.”

LED Hearts literally EXPLODE on the screen on Lights Show’s helmet. “YASSSSSSSSSS.” And he strikes the success kid pose, because he is SO DOWN for this.

 

Vin could not help but grin widely at this. She turned to watch Elliot and chuckled silently as she began to think more about what it was they would be attempting. [I have a feeling that this show is going to get a little wild. Cannot wait to try out my moves in that mosh pit.]

 

Alex smiles. He didn’t have as much show business experience, but he’d make a good stage hand. “You got it! We won’t let you or the legion down!”

 

Nat offered the rest of the team a tight smile. “You’re all going to do an amazing job. Emi put a lot of trust in me when she agreed to scout all of you, but… I’m so confident it was the right call. Please stay safe. We can’t lose any of you.”

 

Wait wait wait a MINUTE here, HOLD THE FRONT DOOR. “Nat. Bae. Um… You okay?  I mean. You’re comin’ with us, right…. OH NO NO NO, YOU ARE NOT USING HER AS BAIT, W-T-F!!!” And W-T-F is displayed on his mask, all big, red, and angry.

 

A similar anger blossomed in Vin, her teeth clenching and one of her hands becoming a fist. She does not sign anything, however, not wanting to get on the boss’ bad side so soon. Pandora does look to Nat though, even more concern showing.

 

Emi stared at Lights Show for a long minute, smile gone and replaced with a cold mask. “Did I say that, Elliot?”

“It’s okay.” Nat held up one hand, then fixed eir eyes on Elliot. “I asked for this. This mission is more important and personal to me than any other we’ve had so far, and… I have connections to the people we’re dealing with that no one else has. I have to do everything I can here. Please understand. I’ll… do everything I can to make it back alive.”

 

Emi turned her gaze onto Nat next. “Did I say I was bringing you as bait, Bug?” She shakes her head. “We have bait already. She’s eight feet tall in a suit of golden armour. I’m bringing you as my apprentice, Nat. I’m teaching you. And I will die before I let anything happen to you.”

Alex listened in, a determined look growing on his face. “You are both going to come back though. We all know you will.” He smiled to the rest of his group reassuringly. This wasn’t a time for anger. It was one for support. “And we are going to do our best to make sure you both come back.”

 

“No, I– I know, I’m not there as bait. I just recognize that I’m gonna be in the thick of it, and I can’t turn my Lure off, and just–“

 

Vin let Alex’s words calm her. She closed her eyes and nodded as she took in a series of deep breaths. When she next opens her eyes, she turned to her first friend in this new world of hers and gives em a hug.

 

Lights Show just couldn’t stand there anymore.  He walked up– bounced up, semantics— and threw his arms around Nat, hugging eir tight. “Hey, I believe in you, you Sexy Damselfly, so knock ‘em all a good one.” His helmet winked at eir, since his face was covered and all. “Love ya and see ya soon.”

 

“Yeah,” Nat’s voice was a little thick. “Be seeing you all. Real soon.”

 

Emi smiled at the Neon Ops crew.


She had a feeling everyone was gonna be alright.

 

The Cult of Midnight: The Sound of Freedom

DELTA, COLORADO

 

The call came in the evening, right around the time that a civilized person should be winding down their day, spending time with their family and getting ready to rest their heads. Emma Roberts should not have needed to watch her flock that night, should not have had to tend to their loyalty, should not have had to preach the word of midnight.

 

But then a call came. “Begging your pardon, Miss Roberts,” came the voice of one of her most loyal children.

 

“It’s all right, Andy. What is it?”

 

“There’s… something I think you’d better see. In person.”

 

Emma gaped at the colorful concert stage, a panicked note rising in her heart upon seeing the crowd gathering to watch. “How… how did this happen? In our town!”

 

“They set up real quiet, Miss Roberts, in only a couple hours,” Andy said meekly. “At the edge of town, we didn’t notice until they’d turned that bus into a… a–“

 

“A platform of sin,” Emma hissed. “We’re going to go up there and let them know they’re not welcome here, before the–“

 

–music started.

 

<Intro Track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUILQOVt4vU Astronaut – Feronia>

 

Standing atop the bus and augmented by its embedded amplification and systems, Lights Show blew imaginary kisses at the audience, then lit up the night with sound and light.

 

Pandora already stood near the front of the stage, facing out towards the audience as she closed her eyes and let the beat move through her. She started out by tapping her foot and bobbing her head in time to the groove and then, opening her bright yellow eyes to see the gathering crowd began to dance in full. Her headphones rested around her neck, this being one of the few times in which she removed them. As she danced she moved through the crowd to take people’s hands in her own as she moved with them a little so as get them into the beat as well, working her hardest to snap them out of whatever trance they might have been dragged into.

 

A few people were already moving a little bit to the beat, bobbing their heads or swaying. Almost all of them were teens, standing near the front of the crowd and listening as if a bit confused but liking what they were hearing. The faces of the adults further back showed mostly confusion as well, but some disgust and anger.

 

Pandora had no trouble drawing in some of the kids near the front of the near-ground-level modular ‘stage’, who gaped at the colorful, beautiful, fascinating woman moving near them.

 

Knowing full-well that the best way to get people dancing was to start with something simple, Pandora dashed with remarkable speed back to stand atop the stage. She jumped, throwin a single fist up into the air with a wide smile as she led the crowd to fist pump in time to the beat. Her eyes were gazing over the group near the back, however, knowing full well that if trouble were to arise, it would come from back there.

 

Sure enough, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. A woman with long brown hair in a simple, puritan, buttoned dress was speaking in an agitated fashion to a younger man who wore a mullet and a stricken expression. Several adults walked up to her and said something, jerking a thumb toward Vin and her crew. The woman shook her head, holding up a palm, and the adults who had approached her reluctantly backed away. She was in charge.

 

Meanwhile, the younger crowd had caught the infectious energy, bouncing on the balls of their feet, some of them pumping their fists along with Vin and a few dancing on their own. Those on the edge of the crowd were drawn back by parents or older friends, but a few of the adults were starting to feel the energy, smiling, nodding their heads.

 

Alex had hopped out of the bus with a big friendly smile and a giant bucket full of glow sticks, glow bracelets, glow just about anything under the sun. He jumped and pumped his fist to the music as he made his way through the crowd, chatting the kids up and handing them out liberally, going through looking for just the people who weren’t quite into it yet. Encouraging them with a friendly face, making sure they knew there was nothing wrong with a little music in your life!

 

Pandora chuckled silently as Alex stepped out and began to pump his fist in time to the music, raising two fingers to her lips and blowing a sharp whistle to get his attention. She waved her hands and pointed to the glow bracelets, clearly asking for him to toss her a couple to wear as she began to liven up her dancing to include far more intricate moves.

 

The woman in the back was stalking around the edge of the crowd. Her only follower seemed to be the mullet-bearing young man; she seemed to think that she could stop this herself, somehow. She kept a berth from the stage as she reached the front of the crowd, turned, and started to shout back at the audience, catching the attention of some of the kids dancing at the edge.

 

Seeing the stalking woman approach the front, Alex quickly tossed the glow sticks to Vin with a wide grin before searching through the bucket, throwing more into the crowd until finally…he found what he needed.

 

Taking his giant megaphone he pushed to the front of the crowd, standing right next to the shouting woman.

 

“Delta Colorado let’s hear it for the dj who brings the Dazzle, man who’s a meistro! The one, the only, Dj lightshow!” His voice roared over the woman as he motioned to the DJ behind him, who brought the beats with a BOOM.

 

Lights Show responded by launching the next song even louder than the first, drowning out the woman’s words.

 

<Next Song: https://youtu.be/nnAy1906EHg Aero Chord: Break Them (feat. Anna Yvette)>

 

Pandora’s eyes burst into a fiery red as the newest song came on and she grinned as she felt a flame of power stir in the soles of her feet. Flipping onto her hands, the expert dancer began to spin and twirl as trails of multicolored fire painted the air behind her feet so as to light up the stage even more than it had before. Rolling through moves and break dancing in ways that very few had seen before, the woman was putting on quite the show to match the beat which Lights Show blasted over the crowd.

 

The woman realized quickly that she was being drowned out in both sound and spectacle; Vin’s special effects had caught the attention of even many of the adults who’d stayed detached until now. She turned to glare at Vin, her eyes blazing a bright amethyst.

 

Alex hopped right back into the crowd, this time using his powers to grow bright and colorful bioluminescent flowers all along his forearms and fingers, handing them this way and that, sticking them in girls hair, tying them into bracelets. He even managed to slip some on Vins ankles with a swift move of his hands as she break danced. He flashed her a wink, turning to the approaching…huh. Looked like a stereotypical principle from those TV shows. “Looks like we made somebody angry.”

 

Holding herself upside-down with one arm, Vin blew Alex a kiss from where she danced on the stage before turning her gaze to the amethyst-eyed woman. She grinned a grin which basically read “I DARE YOU” in all-capital letters before turning her attention back onto the crowd and flipping onto her feet with a backwards twirl which colored the air with two bright arcs of flame over her head.

 

Eyes blazing, the woman started to shout something at Vin, but realized that she wouldn’t be heard. Scowling, she rummaged in a purse at her side, turning up a marker and notebook. She scribbled furiously for a moment and held up a page:

What are you DOING

More scribbling, then:

Who sent you???

 

While the principal was busy, Alex snuck back into the bus. He had drinks to prep!

 

Pandora chuckled and knelt by the edge of the stage, plucking the woman’s notepad and marker from her fingers before scribbling her own message down and flipping it over for the woman to see.

Dancing and throwing a party, DUH!

We are here as a part of Light Show’s “Blow Your Mind” Tour.

She then tossed the notepad and marker back to the woman with an eyebrow raised and her arms crossed as if to say “can I get back to my job now?”

 

The woman wrote as quickly as she could, which was admittedly not as quickly as Vin wrote, but she eventually turned the notepad around, reading:

We did not hire a light show. You are here to tempt my children to sin.

Give me one good reason that I should not break this party up at once.

 

Vin took the notepad and marker back, scribbling on the pad of paper and revealing it.

  1. Because everyone is having a great time
  2. Because I have gotten into the groove and do not want to stop
  3. Because THEY have gotten into the groove and do not want to stop
  4. Because, deep down, you honestly want to join in on the fun
  5. Because you know you cannot break up this party anyway

She grinned a devilish smile and politely handed the pen and paper back to their owner.

 

“Free sodas and drinks in front of the party bus!  First come first serve!” Turning around there was a wooden, very natural looking stand as the beefcake hype man gladly passed out drinks of choice to anyone and everyone. He did not ask for IDs, and everyone who got a drink got their own bioluminescent something. Folks were really starting to let loose now.

 

Stricken, the woman turned away, staring at Alex, then taking a halting step forward, then stopping. She turned back to Vin, who’d already gone back to dancing and hyping the crowd. She seemed unsure of what she could or should do, paralyzed with indecision and helplessness. A few of her loyal followers stepped forward as if to help her, but she was unable to come up with a command, so they stood as still and helpless as she.

 

Vin had taken note of this, of course, and lept down from the stage to grab the woman’s hand. She pulled her gently towards the stage and then eagerly helped her up onto it. The woman now stood in front of a sea of party-goers who were all having a fantastic time as the music and spectacle washed over them like a cleansing wave. Pandora bumped her hip with the once-upon-a-time leader and gave her a thumbs up as she grooved in time to the music and gestured out to the crowd. The motion was clear: “They are having fun. Why don’t you?”

 

Before she could reply, Alex took note of what Vin was doing and added “And let’s not forget to give a roaring round of applause for the lovely pandora, and the woman who graciously welcomed us all here tonight!”  He motioned at the two on stage grandly. He bet she’d never heard applause like that as an oppressive cult leader.

 

The woman held up her hands as if to object, but halted as she saw the reaction of the crowd. Upon the announcement that she had supported this performance– though a clear lie –had been the step that most of the crowd needed to let go of the last of their reservations. Emma nearly flinched at the intensity of the cheer.

 

She turned to Vin, and for a moment that amethyst light in her eyes guttered like a candleflame in the wind. She said something that Vin couldn’t hear, but it was easy to read her lips:

 

“How?”

 

Pandora chuckled and pointed to the speakers, the lights, and the crowd of dancers with a wide sweep of her arm. She then pointed to the woman’s her ears before drawing a faint line from them to the woman’s heart. When she had reached the approximate area over the vital organ, Pandora gave it a gentle poke as if to emphasize her point. Music touches the heart.

 

She then grabbed the Emma’s hand in her own and raised it above their heads, gesturing to her with a flourish to inspire a chorus of cheering from the crowd. This, she thought, this would be the sound that brought change tonight.

 

She could see Alex beaming up at her, glad to see their plan was working. He let out a cheer and rallied with the crowd. “Now let’s get this party pumping!” He gave LS a thumbs up and large explosions of light blasted in the skies along the beat.

 

<Neon Ops Coup de Grace Track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0h2u87JwyA Madeon – Finale>

 

Emma looked over the cheering crowd, felt the music thrumming in her chest, stared into the middle distance, thinking about Pandora’s words. Gradually, the mask of indignant horror on her face began to melt, and Vin could almost feel a sensation like crystal breaking.

 

As Emma Roberts blinked away tears, the purple light in her eyes flickered, then flared, then died forever.

 

She fell to her knees and wept.

 

Pandora went to Emma’s side, wrapping an arm around her in a comforting manner as she smiled. She opened a palm in front of the woman, dazzling lights dancing through her fingertips as the music continued to pump its power into her. Lifting Emma’s gaze to her own, magenta eyes blazing, Vin smiled and gave her a hug before helping her back onto her feet and providing her with as much support as she needed before raising a single hand into the air and giving a thumbs up which created a dazzling explosion over her head in a show of triumph.

 

They had freed another town from Anathema’s control. They were winning.

 

When in Rome

P-MART GAS STATION

ROMULUS, MICHIGAN

 

They’d been driving on Route 94 for way longer than Vin felt was appropriate. She didn’t even know particularly where they were, only that when Alex had pulled off the highway to gas up the van in a town called ‘Romulus’, Vin had immediately begged off to ‘stretch her legs’, anything to get out of the stuffy vehicle interior for a little while.

 

The trip was still lots of fun, but a person can only take that kind of travel for so long. So she walked along the sidewalk, doing a lap around the building, when something caught her eye: a bit of graffiti. It looked like.. an eye with a horizontal line drawn through it, in pinkish spray paint. Then, over that, someone had put an X through it and written the word ‘MURDERER’ above. Odd.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glmBscKJ530 Stonebank – Eagle Eyes>

 

Vin tilted her head to the side as she examined the odd graffiti, walking up to it and running her fingers lightly over its outline. She shrugged, deciding that this must have been some kind of an inside joke between two taggers and turned to continue her walk as she bobbed her head in time to the song echoing through her headphones.

 

“Scuse me, miss,” an authoritative voice said behind her.

 

When she turned, she saw a tall man and an even taller woman in standard police uniforms and sunglasses. A cop car was parked not far away; had they been staking out the graffiti?

 

“Mind if we ask you a few questions?” The male cop asked.

 

She raised an eyebrow at the pair, looking between them before shrugging and nodding. The mute woman pointed over her shoulder at the graffiti with her thumb before shaking her head in a manner to say that that was not her doing.

 

“Oh, we know,” the woman growled. “We know exactly who’s responsible for that.”

 

“Mighty fancy bus you got there, miss. What brings you into town?” The other cop asked.

 

Vin pointed to her headphones and MP3 player. She then opened up her palm, pointed to a specific spot on it, and drew a line through it in an attempt to say “just passing through.”

 

“Good,” the woman nodded, then lowered her sunglasses and peered over them at Vin. “We heard about your little band, yeah? We don’t need that kind of show around here. So once your little stooge gets done gassing up your freak van, just drive on out and don’t come back. This is Jorja’s turf.”

 

CODEX UNLOCKED: Jorja Stevenson

Human. Villain. Stevenson is a Human Rights Activist, extremist, and terrorist who believes in human supremacy and the end of Paranormals. She’s unafraid to throw a Molotov or assault a Paranormal in order to achieve her goals. She’s taken over a fair amount of Detroit, and has been working to purge the city of those who would threaten her goals.

 

“We’re not looking for trouble any more than you are,” the man smiled, clearly playing ‘good cop’ out of the pair. “We just want a nice peaceful town. Get me?”

 

Man, what on Earth crawled up her ass and died? Vin thought grumpily to herself as the woman insulted her and her friends. The new superhero crossed her arms and looked more than a little displeased. She had done nothing wrong that she could think of and yet was getting harangued by some uppity policewoman. Turning to look at the kinder of the pair, Vin nodded and made to leave as she ground her teeth together.

 

“Fuckin’ Para scum,” the woman muttered under her breath, and then there was a heavy thud and a cry of pain, and a small spatter of blood appeared on the pavement at the peripheral of Vin’s vision.

 

When she turned, she saw the female officer stumbling up from the ground, clutching at a long cut on her forehead that was bleeding freely. The male officer had already drawn his pistol, and was casting frantic glances about, searching for a target.

 

“You!” The woman on the ground growled, struggling to stand and draw her gun with a bloodied hand. “You brought her here! Are you working with her??”

 

Vin turned quickly, her bright eyes scanning the environment for whatever had attacked the female officer as she drew power from the song in her ears to heighten her senses to perceive the auras of those around her. She was not certain whether she wanted to thank them for doing what she wished she could have done or chew them out for attacking an innocent bystander, but she did know that this individual had just made things considerably more difficult for the band of superheroes traveling through the town. Even if she denied bringing… whoever it was the female officer was referring to, they probably would not believe her. She shook her head regardless. Might as well TRY to keep the peace, right?

 

Something glowed at the edge of her vision as she scanned the area: an aura, something alive, pulsing with protean strength and wound tight like a coiled spring. The shape… was distinctly not human, crawling along the roof of the P-mart store. Stalking them.

 

“Fuck you!” The officer struggled to her feet, drawing her pistol and pointing it straight at Vin. “Fuck this, and fuck you, and fuck your freak mascot! I’d gone months without getting marked, and this is how it happens? This?”

 

“Calm down, Deborah!” The male officer barked, still scanning the area. “She’s still here somewhere.”

 

<Current Song: https://youtu.be/ddFAIkUb7A0 Varien – Valkyrie>

 

As the song changed, the auras the woman had once been able to see faded away into nothing and her eyes turned to a bright-silver hue as a shimmering sword of frozen energy appeared in the woman’s hand. Sprinting past the female officer and shoving the weapon into the side of the building as she used it as a mobile hand-hold to help her scale the rough wall.

 

“Hey!” The male officer shouted, as his partner cursed and tried to wipe the blood dripping down into her eyes. “Stop!”

 

Vin reached the roof of the stubby building in moments, and the creature atop it wheeled to face her. It was a repulsive thing, spiky mottled fur all over with patches of scales showing through, long forelimbs and curved back ones that allowed it to crawl on four wicked claws.

 

Its face, however, was mostly human, save for the slavering maw full of fangs. Its eyes widened and it tensed, ready to lunge.

 

“Legionnaire!” The beast snarled. “Stand down! I am not your enemy.”

 

Not entirely certain of that fact, Pandora continued to face down the creature. She bounced on the balls of her feet in time to the music pumping through her headphones, testing the grip on her new weapon to find one that suited her best. Then, with a flourish, she pointed down at where the woman below had been injured and shakes her head in a disappointed fashion.

 

“Don’t pass judgment on what you don’t understand,” the beast growled, its eyes straying toward the frozen blade, “those people down there serve and protect humans only, and only some humans. They’re the rot making this city sick.”

 

Pandora shrugged, pointed to the pair of cops on the ground floor with her blade, and then gestured between herself and the creature standing before her. Sure, it was not her place to judge anyone or anything, but it totally was her place to protect those who could not effectively protect themselves. Even if they were dicks.

 

Still, she did not want to fight. Her powers wore her out and she did not want to use them any more than she necessarily had to. As such, she extended a hand to the creature.

 

The creature eyed the extended hand and growled, “I need to mark the other one and escape, before they call for backup. Just… get out of the way and let me do my job. Please.”

 

Pandora shook her head and extended her hand again. It was clear that she was not going to let this creature pass to harm another individual. It was also clear that she did not want to fight. Come on… Just take my hand and leave. Then I can let you go. She continued to bounce on the balls of her feet just in case.

 

“You fucking Legionnaires,” the beast snarled, circling her, “this is why they’re winning. This is why I’m fighting this war alone. Damn you. Now I have to do this the messy way.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMokMQ8Bu7Y Pegboard Nerds & Tristam – Razor Sharp>

 

Before Vin could react, the creature was a streak of fur and scales, leaping from one side of the roof to the other, far faster than a human. At first it seemed like the beast was zig-zagging its way toward Vin, but she quickly realized by its trajectory that it was aiming past her, to the edge of the roof. Toward the crooked cops.

 

She leapt off the roof with the creature, facing it in the air with vibrant-blue eyes as she spun to plant a kick straight into its abdomen with as much force as she could muster; the sword in her hand dissipating into thin air. The aim for her kick was exceptional as it hit the mark as perfectly as she could have imagined. Pandora landed with a cloud of dust kicking up from her feet as she skidded to stand over the police officers.

 

The creature, completely caught off guard by the sudden accuracy and calculation, caught Vin’s kick right to the midsection, and Vin felt a rib crack under the force of the kick. It tumbled to the pavement headfirst and landed hard enough to kill a human, bouncing and rolling before coming to rest in a heap, vainly struggling to stand and making high-pitched whines of pain.

 

At once, four men leapt out of a black sedan that had pulled up nearby, each one wielding a high-powered combat rifle. They aimed their weapons squarely at the beast on the ground, just as Vin felt a cold metal barrel press against the back of her neck.

 

“Good going, hero,” there was a smirk in the male policeman’s voice. “Maybe you filthy paras are good for a few things. As thanks, I’ll let you walk away. Leave the Pariah to us. We’ll fini–“

 

Pandora’s eyes flared up with sudden anger as she reached behind her back and grabbed the gun without even needing to look. Once the cool metal was in her hands, she spun quickly and clocked the policeman right in the temple with a loud thud of impact. I JUST FUCKING SAVED YOUR ASS, DOUCHE CANOE! A GUN TO THE BACK IS NOT HOW YOU REPAY SOMEONE!

 

Not knowing how to fire a gun in the slightest, Pandora looked at the weapon in her hand and hurled the hunk of metal at one of the gunmen in the van as she sprinted as fast as she could towards the creature on the ground.

 

Vin realized her mistake before the pistol even connected with its original target. Calculations she could never otherwise make flashed in her head as the end of the song approached, feeding her the facts of her imminent demise like some kind of morbid, slow-motion commentator.

  • These people are all trained killers.
  • Those guns are fully automatic assault rifles.
  • They are already pointed at me.
  • I’ve only knocked out one.
  • By the time I’m three feet away, I will have taken a minimum of thirteen high-caliber rifle rounds.

 

Then, a variable raised its head and howlscreamed. The creature that the cop had referred to as ‘The Pariah’ was still awake, and it was angry. Almost as quickly as Vin’s eye could track it, the creature’s claws wrapped around one of the assault rifles and tore it from its owners hands, then used it as a bludgeon to knock the wind out of the man behind, then a sharp crack as the beast brought its stock up in a nasty uppercut to the jaw of the fourth.

 

The Pariah gave the battered rifle an easy toss to Pandora, who caught it without thinking, and then there were four more quick movements from the creature and four spatters of blood. The Pariah had put a mark on each gun-toting thug: a bloody, horizontal line across the forehead, a move so quick and easy that it must have done it a thousand times.

 

Pandora skidded to a halt and the Pariah looked up at her as the men surrounding her struggled to grab their weapons.

 

“I’ll keep them busy. Go,” the creature growled, “and if it makes you feel any better… I don’t kill. No matter what the news says.”

 

Blinking with shock, Pandora could not do much but nod as her feet began to carry her away from the scene. Her body screamed with exhaustion as adrenaline carried her back towards the party bus. Realizing that she still had a rifle in her hands, she turned one final time to face the scene, aimed it, and hurled the weapon like a javelin towards where she remembered the female cop had been. If she was going to run away with her tail between her legs, she was going to give that lady one hell of a headache to wake up to.

 

As she reached the bus, she blew on two fingers sharply to signal that they needed to get out of there pronto and hopped her way onboard. Whoever was sitting in the driver’s seat, Pandora shoved them out of the way and, making sure everyone was onboard, slammed her foot into the gas as she drove them the fuck out of Romulus.

 

“Get the fuck out? With armed men in the streets?” Alex asked haughtily. “Sure. But I think we need to make a delivery first. Lightshow! Plug in! It’s time to turn it up to eleven.” Alex grinned devilishly, panels along the sides of the bus opening up to reveal massive amplifiers. The jets roared to life, bringing them just above car level. He flicked through their music selection. “Something ranged for you baby.” He flicked the radio on full blast.

 

“Let’s show these guys Team Neon won’t just stand there and take their shit.”

 

The bus began speeding towards the street Vin was at, screaming just above normal traffic.

 

Elliot mumbled, an arm flailing up from a pile of blankets and curly blond hair sticking up at every wrong angle.  It took a moment for him to realize–OH SHIT STUFF WAS HAPPENING! And he was up, in a whirlwind of a blanket covering up and black motorcycle suit parts getting pulled on, until he was stumbling, bleary eyed, out to the DJ station with a cup of coffee in one hand and his helmet in the other.

 

He set his helmet down on the DJ dashboard, plugged it in, and knocked back the coffee like a shot while the system was initiating.

 

“Prepare for blastoff in 10… 9…” He still sounded like he wasn’t awake yet.

Outside of the van, some kind of horrible hairy beast thing with multiple nasty-looking bullet wounds seemed to be in the midst of pitched battle with about half a dozen shouting, armed humans… and they all looked up as the bus started bearing down on them.

 

Alex rolled down a window for Pandora to shoot out of, and then his passenger window…the only problem being that they were both on the wrong side. His booming voice roared through the van “hang tight!”  Before he gripped the wheel and pulled hard, swerving the bus mid air, almost flipping them, but just barely avoiding it as their back slammed against the gunmen’s escape vehicle. He timed it perfectly so Lightshows boom would go off now, right in front of them while the buses momentum was still shifting.

 

And boom  did it go. Right as Elliot finished his countdown, he slammed the helmet on over his head, and let the beat drop.

<The song: https://youtu.be/R5N7JaURMxQ?t=53s>

 

A concussion wave burst around the bus, waves of lights flying out like it was suddenly 2001 and they were on a Space Odyssey.  It was enough to knock most normal people flat on their asses– though Elliot hadn’t tried the whole, AOE effect before.  It was kinda cool. Like really freakin cool.

 

The shockwave hit the combatants hard, sending the humans tumbling to the ground, and the Pariah’s lighter-than-human frame flying ass over teakettle against the escape car, caroming off of it, and slamming into the exterior wall of the building behind. She crumpled to the ground, but the humans were too busy cringing and cowering from the kinetic assault to take advantage of the opening.

 

Alex, not being the showman Lightshow was, simply leaned out the window and threw a full can of Ebcoil Cola at one of the fleeing supremacists, at speeds rivaling or even surpassing most professional baseball players it hit the back of their head with a fizzy splash before they crumpled to the ground. He then proceeded to show all of them the middle finger, shouting “Don’t fuck with the legion!” Before speeding off. He thought that went well.

 

Behind them, they heard a catastrophic roar, and a glance in the rear view mirrors showed humans falling over each other to pile into their vehicles and escape, as some kind of ten-foot-tall lumbering monstrosity appeared, four tree-trunk arms raised and ready to fight.

 

It’d probably be fine.

 

The Cult of Midnight: Bliss Is It

Bliss is It

 

INTERSTATE 84 SOUTH

JUST OUTSIDE BLISS, IDAHO

 

“All right, Nops,” Nat’s voice over the radio was deadly serious. “Bliss is the last compound we need you to hit, and time is of the essence here. This is the closest enclave to Twin Falls that we’ve found, and it’s likely that nearly everyone you meet is going to be a puppet and very hard to break. That said, don’t kill ’em unless you absolutely have to. Distract, confound, disable. Don’t count on being able to convert them. If y’all pull this off, you’re preventing an entire backup regiment from getting to Rooster and Wastey. Good luck.”

 

The lights of Bliss, Idaho shone in the distance as the party bus sped toward it.

 

Alex was going slow with the bus, cautious. Giving them some time to see what all was around them. Giving them time to make a plan. “So…doubt I will be able to be as ah…generous as I have been with past shows. You guys think I should just go full security? Might be better to just wait it out.” He muttered. He had a feeling in the pit of his gut about this one. A bad feeling.

 

Lights Show is a bit surprised when he hears Nat’s voice, but is also super happy too, and a big 😀 appears on the dome of his helmet in neon rainbow colors.

“Nat, bae, we got this. Like. Wow. WE SO GOT THIS.” He did a little spin, then moonwalked back to his console, “Hearts and kisses, butwegotthis.” And he’s totes not trying to convince himself of this more than trying to convince eir. Of course not!

Instead of thinking about it, he starts up his own brand of LET’S RIDE INTO THIS PLACE IN STYLE (AND STUFF) music, to set off the, um, set right.

 

<MUSIC: https://youtu.be/ps7VHOJLOfc>

 

“I know you got it, E. You all do. I’m so psyched to be on this team with all of you, and it’s just killin’ me that I can’t be there. All y’all best survive for victory makeouts. That’s an order.””WHOO!”

 

“That’s not actually an order,” Emi cut in on the radio. “The makeouts. Surviving is an order. Not the makeouts.””awwwwwww”

 

“It’sanorder,” Nat whispered. “Damselfly out.””WHOO!”

 

Pandora was stretching again, making sure she was loose enough to pull off whatever moves would be necessary. Even though Nat and Emi could not see her response, the mute woman flashed a nervous smile and a thumbs up to both present members of Neon Ops before placing her headphones over her ears once more and tuning her MP3 in to catch Elliot’s signal. Her pale-white eyes instantly shifted color to a bright golden hue.

 

As the bus approached the town, Alex took note of several flashes of color appearing in the distance… blue and red. Police. A blockade. The cops had blocked both sides of the road, and several well-armed troopers stood by the cars.

 

Alex turned the bus on very slow autopilot before jumping from his seat, hopping up and down taking in deep breaths, getting his adrenaline pumping. He went over to his teammates. “Alright guys we got this. Just a little blockade.” He gave them high fives as he jumped around peering back at it. “Nothing we can’t handle.” They could tell in his voice he was nervous. “We got this. We got his. Ok. Hands in.” He gave a marker to Vin so she could write on his hand as they huddled up. “Stop at the barricade, or go over it? Thoughts?”

 

Go over them, Pandora writes on the back of Alex’s hand with a small smile. Set us up as close to the center of the compound as possible so that we can have as big of an impact as possible. Turn this bus into a fucking musical fortress in the middle of their town.

 

Lights Show chewed on his lip, a loading wheel popping up on his helmet as he thought about it. “Hmm… Fortress? I… I uh think I can do fortress. I got some ideas? I mean, for songs. Not like. Viable plan ideas.” He lets out a nervous laugh, music a bit quieter as he muses on things.  After he shrugs (and an emoji shrugs on his helmet), the music turns back up again, leading their epic charge.

“Over it is.” Alex gives off as confident a grin as he can given the circumstances, rushing over to the wheel. “Hold on to your lunch and plug in! It’s gonna be a rocky ride!” He pushed the pedal to the floor hard, making sure they would reach top speed by the time they reached the barricade and he grabbed the wheel to pull them up and over at the exact last second, hoping with his eyes shut that it would be enough!

 

The cultist troopers brought their weapons to bear and started firing! Bullets, slugs, and buckshot glanced off the armored exterior of the party van until nearly the last moment, and several of the troopers dove out of the way as the van barely cleared the cop cars, knocking the lights clean off of one of them.

 

Pandora stuck her head out of the passenger-side window as they go over the barricade and spat on top of one of the cultist’s head, making a face at the rest of them so as to rile them up a little. She then settled back into the passenger’s seat and put her legs up on the dashboard as she chuckled silently as the adrenaline pumping through her veins helped her to relax a little more.

 

OH shiiiiiiiiii was that gunfire? Lights Show rapidly switched the beat to one of the songs he’d been practicing for Pandora, hoping that he did it in time.

<Music: https://youtu.be/dSFrHi7z_ag Maor Levi – Reflect>

 

Alex opened his eyes just in time to hit the ground running, swerving the hover-bus this way and that, keeping damage to a minimum as much as possible. “Going to be reaching the compound any minute now, we probably need to take out those gunmen first!” Alex shouted over the roar of the bus and the fire and the music blasting.

 

Mercifully, Nat had anticipated this problem, making sure that everyone was fitted with a comm device that mimicked the one ey had implanted against eir jaw—the Neon Ops agents could all hear each other perfectly well, even over the loudest din.

 

Well. Except Vin. Nobody could hear her.

 

As the party bus caromed off the road on the other side of the blockade, the troopers who’d dived for their lives stood up and fumbled for their weapons while those on the sides kept firing, having little effect on the armored bus, which careened off the exit into town.

 

Route 30, the road cutting through the town itself, seemed clear enough going in, and mostly deserted… but Alex spotted people darting into buildings, barely managing to get out of sight. Nat had said to keep an eye out for the Bliss Community Church as a possible base. Said church had been renovated a few years before and was therefore the most modern and spacious building in town.

 

Alex saw the structure almost immediately, looming overhead and silhouetted by bright moonlight.

 

Alex brought the van into a skid, parking it right infront of the entrance with a horrible groan as it tilted juuuuuuust enough to not tip over, before slamming against the ground. He had taken all the handicapped parking. “Like a glove!” Alex shouted before popping the door open and jumping out. Seemed like they had some time before the police got to them. “Best we incapacitate these goons first.” He added, Alex’s arms and fists growing thick branch muscles and tough bark skin, he slammed them quickly into the concrete in search for dirt.

 

Dirt was easy to find; the pavement of the parking lot was only a few inches deep, with dry packed earth below. It wasn’t easy to get through, but Alex was plenty strong enough.

 

A high-caliber bullet smacked the pavement from a steep angle. Someone was in the church tower with a rifle.

 

Pandora spun in her chair before sprinting outside, her eyes a solid shade of grey as dust flew up from the ground in front of her from where the bullet had collided. With a grin, she moved directly into the path of where the sniper had aimed and pointed to her heart with a wide smile. Come on, buddy. Shoot me right here. I dare you.

 

Power-slide complete! Lights Show unplugged his helmet and sprinted outside–

 

“AH!”

 

He gave out an undignified yelp and jumped at the sound of the bullet, glancing quickly between Alex and Vin to make sure they were okay!  And he patted himself down. He was good. All epic leather motorcycle suit and shiny helmet. Phew!

 

Thankfully, he got that music going again, same song, figuring that, um, a barrier might be a good idea vs bullets and stuff. Maybe.

 

Alex was already on it, unflinching when faced with close bullet fire he called out “Vin! Cover my back from the watchtower!” Meanwhile the earth rumbled as a thick wall of heavy trees began forcing their way out of the ground, surrounding them and the bus from the oncoming police force and providing plenty of cover for both sides to use. It’d take a moment to complete though, he needed his team to keep him safe during the process.

 

A shot rang out again, and a bullet pierced Vin’s hand and chest, passing directly through her with what would normally have been a painful and debilitating wound. Instead, her flesh closed up behind the bullet’s path, and there were a few seconds of silence… and then a sniper rifle hit the ground, dropped from far above.

 

Alex’s shield started to rise just as a half a dozen armed cultists poured from the doors to the church, shouting. They fired wildly, some of them dropping to the ground after shooting Vin.

 

Pandora patted the spots where she had been shot with some form of shock as she seemed perfectly okay. She gave her two compatriots a thumbs-up to show that she was okay and moved to make herself a more appealing target for the goons to shoot at, moving as best she could to take shots to non-vital limbs so as to mitigate damage on her opponents. She did not want them to kill themselves, after all.

 

“Ignore the slattern!” Someone shouted. “She turns our bullets against us. Shoot the abomination and the robot!”

 

The gunfire shifted, aiming more toward Lights Show and Alex.

 

Slattern!? Pandora thinks to herself incredulously. I do not even know what that MEANS and I know that it is insulting! Whoever said that, you are the first on my nad-kicking jamboree! With that, Vin books it into the crowd. They may not be able to attack her, but she could certainly knock their weapons away.

 

As Pandora waded into battle, the cultists didn’t quite know what to do. This woman was charging them, attacking them, and they couldn’t hit back? Pandora was able to disarm several of them before some were able to get by, shoving her but not striking to get past her blockade.

 

After the reached a certain height, Alex began curving the trees, making them thinner, faster, going for the group behind Vin, flanking the back of the bus. The leafy flora tips began slapping them around their faces, making it extremely difficult to aim properly. He let out a grunt in pain though, as a bullet grazed his hip. “No your an A-BOB-NATION!” One of the tendrils shook a goon around angrily till he dropped his gun.

 

With the sound of impact, Pandora danced her way back through the crowd of goons and blew three short whistles to signal a change in song as she moved to Alex’s side to protect him from any more stray bullets.

 

Duuuuuude they totes thought he was a robot?! That was cool. A neon thumbs up appeared on the dome screen on his helmet, and he did a little spin, keeping himself as well shielded as he could while still playing.  

 

And of course, since they were changing their attention, it was time to switch songs!

<Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf6LD2B_kDQ>

 

Lights Show was quickly surrounded with rainbow pulsing light, small cloud of sonic bursts around him like a shield as he spun the song for Pandora.

As Lights Show beatmatched the song transition, bringing the trance backbeat into a halftime dubstep rhythm, the brainwashed troops fell back. A barely-audible shout came from behind Alex’s shield, and the troops near the periphery fell back further. Some stayed to try to fight or recover their weapons, but it was clear that they were losing ground.

 

Alex, being satisfied with his tree wall, shook his arms out of the ground, pointing at the fleeing troops. “Time to go on the offensive! Let’s round them up and cuff them up for the time being.” And with that he sprinted after the baddies trying to regain their weapons, kicking them away and clocking one in the face so hard he spun. Then Alex grabbed his arm behind his back and a heavy wood covering locked it there as he let the bad guy fall to the ground. “Were doing good team let’s keep it up!” He cheered, then pursuing the other troops with much vigor.

 

Clink. Clink. Two grenades sailed over the tree wall and bounced off of the asphalt.

 

“Shit! Get behind the bus!” Alex grabbed his captive and dived on top of him, hoping his body would at least somewhat protect the innocent.

 

On the playlist’s transition, Pandora lost her reflective immunity as her eyes changed hue; a swirl of rainbow replacing the simple grey. Lifting her hands, colorful light began to swirl above her palms as she turned towards a charging assailant and, twirling to the side to avoid a second attack from her flank, let loose a barrage of frozen energy towards her original target’s legs before turning to another cultists and blasting him against the tree wall with a beam of purest force.

 

Wait was that a– oh no, worse. It was two.  Lights Show stared up for a moment. It felt like a million moments, but they were grenades.  And then he acted, keeping the beat, but swinging his arms, launching into full dance.  A concussive arc hit the first grenade, launching it back towards the building, and then a second– okay, that one missed, but no one was looking.

The third (technically) concussive arc hit the second grenade, flinging it back as well.

Appropriately, there was a big red exclamation mark on his helmet at the moment. He was only screaming internally, though.

..and both grenades struck the wooden shield, bouncing back. Lights Show caught them both with another pair of arcs, and they bounced again. This time he’d get them over the top. This time–

 

Kneeing another thug hard in the side of the head to force him into the ground whilst her beam cycled harmlessly through its gamma form, Pandora’s eyes go wide as she sees the grenades being juggled between Lights Show and the wooden barricade. Beginning to sign something before realizing it would likely be lost in the chaos around them, she scrambled up one of the trees and, using a beam of concentrated water, used the combined blast and her own weight to try and move the trunk out of the way partially.

 

The grenades both exploded in midair, shrapnel pelting the bus, LS’s armor, and the tree behind which Vin was hiding. Nobody seemed to be too badly injured from the detonation, though the cultists were scrambling even more frantically, some of whom were bleeding from small shrapnel cuts. The smoke from the grenades mixed with the already increasingly-hazy night air as there was a brief lull in the action.

 

Alex jumped up from atop the cultist. “That was freaking awesome!” He shouted at LS and Pandora, beaming, before jumping right back into the action. He clotheslined another baddie right in the neck and downwards so they hit the ground hard, roots immobilizing any and every goon he took down as he waded through the enemy lines.

 

Oh no. Oh NO NO NO NO. His ears were ringing. He could hear the EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE and that was terrible because that meant bad things and he tries switching into the next song but what he’s playing is slightly off key.

<Music: https://youtu.be/WXrdYwG17PE>

 

Using the blast of the grenade to catapult her backwards a bit, Pandora slammed her feet straight into the face of a cultist. Springboarding off of this goon with a flip, the woman made a pair of finger guns and pointed them at the center mass of another goon. With a pair of BANGS that could barely be heard over the cacophony, she fired a stream of force bullets straight into this individual before landing. Stuck on the opposite side of the barrier from her compatriots, Pandora ran horizontal as she twirled and dove above and below strikes aimed her way, firing shots into the crowd with concussive shots of her own as she worked her way back around and into the fortress.

 

The yellowish lamps in the parking lot bathed the thickening fog covering the area in light, creating a haze that was getting harder and harder to see through. Luckily, this worked in Pandora’s favor: the brainwashed troopers couldn’t see her to hit her, and she heard bullets thunking against the wood all around her as she ran.

 

Alex was undeterred by the fog, growing two massive wooden plows on his arms and running through the enemy ranks like a football player, shouting out his position for his friends. ((Tag))

 

The screech of his ears was still there, but Pandora was running around, and now he was running out of cover into the fog, and he may have just panic switched songs. But, like, it fit. Right?

<Music: https://youtu.be/IJKolWUVcuA>

Lights Show dove out from behind the tree wall, tucking and rolling.  He came up in a sprint, flinging a sonic wave at the closest person right as the drop hit.

Not only did Vin’s eyes change to shadowy-purple, but soon she had vanished from sight completely as the dancer dove into a shadow. Moving slowly from one pool of darkness to another, Pandora soon leapt straight out of a goon’s shadow who was sneaking up behind Lights Show and swiftly plants her foot straight into his groin. She pats her companion on the shoulder three times to let it know it was her and that she had his back before diving into the darkness under a nearby tree.

 

There seemed to be… fewer soldiers. Had they gotten through all of them? And was that a burning smell in the air? Was something on fire? It didn’t look like there was the light of a fire anywhere nearby. Odd.

 

Lights Show sniffs, nose wrinkling. Did he singe some hairs in that explosion? He patted himself down, breathing a sigh of relief when he felt his helmet was still in place. Okay, good– WHAT ABOUT THE TREE WALL?!?!?! He whipped around, trying to keep the beat and multitask and HOLY SHIT was this more difficult than he realized it would be.

“Let go, little sinners.” A woman’s voice, somehow audible over all the music and violence. “There is more for you in heaven and earth.”

 

Pandora steps out of the shadow of a goon she had just taken down, eyes scanning the dark surrounding them as she tried to work out where the voice was coming from. Her muscles screamed with exhaustion, her powers draining her each second they were being used, but there was so much adrenaline pumping through her veins that she hardly even noticed. That would be something she would worry about later when everything had passed.

 

“I was like you in so many ways,” the voice said. Where was it coming from? Was that a dark shape moving in the suddenly-smoggy air above the tree shield? “Letting go, giving myself to her… it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

Alex busted through the smog to stand next to his friends once again. He didn’t pay mind to the figure above yet. “Hey, guys, you all good? Nobody hurt? Just throw an OK Pan.” He was bleeding from a cut on his leg, torn right through the pants. But other than that and his hip he was fine.

 

The mute superheroine flashes a thumbs-up to her partner and then points up into the air towards the woman with the same motion. Muscles tensed, body still as plans flashed through Pandora’s head. Their adversary could fly, that much was clear. In order to stand the best chance at success, therefore, they would have to get her onto the ground and pummel her to a pulp before she pulled out of range. That would probably be up to Lights Show and her as she knew that Alex was best on the ground. The smell, however, concerned her. It was that of an open flame. Could she use fire? Was that another ability of hers? No way to tell at the moment. Best to assume yes and avoid giving her more kindling to pump herself up.

 

Pandora turned to Alex and then pointed to the trees before drawing a slice across her throat. Cut them down for now. Trust me on this one. I think I have an idea. She then looked to Lights Show, pointed to the woman above as if she were drawing back the string on a bow, and blew three whistles on two fingers to signal a change in song.

 

“Ah… I…” Lights Show saw the signal, and he had no clue what song she could possibly be referring to.  He really didn’t have enough time to study them all (no, partying time was not time he should have been studying, shush).  And now…

 

“Do you trust me?” He gave her a weak look, which was thankfully hidden by the shiny black dome of his helmet. “I… I really hope this works.”

And he started playing another song.

<Music: https://youtu.be/502xxCTRfxo>

 

“Defiance,” the voice said. “You don’t take this seriously. Very well.”

 

Multiple dark shapes moved in the smoke, above and behind them.

 

“You got it love!” Alex saluted and shoved his hands in the ground, his trees bending down backwards, flat on the ground. He jumped up onto one of the flattened flora, looking back and up at the shapes trying to make sense of things.

 

A silent chuckle ran through Vin’s body as this new song came on, her eyes shifting to that multi-colored rainbow hue from earlier as she pointed two finger guns up into the sky. Bright and colorful energy swirled up her arms and gathered in her fingertips as she closed one eye to focus on the targets in the air in front of her. This was going to be epic.

 

Still audible over the music, the woman kept speaking. “Once you are subdued, hollowed out, free, you will understand as I came to understand. I no longer obsess over the gadfly I failed to kill. It will be hollowed out too.”

 

Cultists poured from the smoke in a unified wave, weapons raised.

 

“Oh no, that’s Smokescreen!” The alert exclamation flashed on his helmet again, replaced by the image of a light bulb turning on. “HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A MOMENT!” And he kept up the obnoxious music, crouching down to try to make sonic waves around them.  He was shaking, he was sweating way too much in his leather suit (yeah, his bad for choosing black leather, oops), and he was sure he was missing a beat now and then on the song, but, he HAD to get that smoke away from them.

 

Vin stood stoic despite being the closest to the smoke in front of her, taking a deep breath and holding it in as she continued to charge her attack with her one open eye still focused on those in front of her. Come on lungs, don’t fail me now. I cannot move or else this thing will not fire…

 

“Yes. Hello, Lights Show. It’s good to see you again. I look forward to you becoming part of the family. The gadfly is already defeated, did you know? Shadow Mask’s legs are broken. The gadfly is immobilized. The Oathkeeper is on the brink of surrender. You have lost. Give up now.”

CODEX UNLOCKED: Smokescreen

Once a stoic Legionnaire with a troubled past, Smokescreen was a versatile hero with the ability to create hundreds of kinds of specialized gas with uses ranging from deadly neurotoxin to healing. Sadly, when she was caught by the Lure of the Damselfly, the Legion found themselves having to hunt her down to retrieve their black ops agent from certain death. She was last seen unconscious over the shoulder of Callister Rayne, and is assumed to have been captured by Anathema.

 

DON’T YOU DARE TALK ABOUT MY FRIENDS LIKE THAT!” Lights Show kept crouched, teeth gritted, pulses of sheer beat swirling the smoke away in slow wafts. That wasn’t going to be enough.  He knew it wasn’t going to be enough. And if what she was saying…

Elliot closed his eyes, concentrating. He’d never tried this outside his bedroom before, but… Now or never.

He focused the bass down, like jets beneath his feet, coming from his palms, determined that he was gonna soar up there and uppercut that traitor!

 

Alex pointed a finger at the cultist battalion behind them and shouted “fire!”  The wall of trees that was flattened all rose up at the same time at high speed, like a tidal wave, and crashed towards the enemy, blowing a massive amount of the gas away from them.

 

With the command, Vin finally let loose her attack as a flurry of rainbow-blasts rocketed out from her fingers towards her enemies. Each one shaped like a cat for some odd reason, the barrage of concussive missiles would explode into shining fireworks as they struck their targets. Even those who tried to flee were not entirely safe as the trail of this barrage followed the path of the single, rainbow-colored eye Pandora had kept open as she continued to hold her breath.

 

At first Elliot was worried he wasn’t going to get off the ground, and he was just going to look like this sad little idiot in an anime pose on the ground but– oh shoot. He wasn’t on the ground anymore!!!!  He wobbled at first, panicking, and the beat skipped for a moment, but then he stabilized himself enough and pushed the bass even harder, shooting straight for Smokescreen.

 

The smog parted before him in a ring, pushed away by the pressure waves wreathing Lights Show. For one moment, they cleared completely around his opponent, her amethyst-tinted eyes wide with shock. They almost seemed to hang there for a moment, but then Lights Show slammed into her and they both plummeted to the ground, his fall broken by hers. Elliot heard and felt Smokescreen’s bones buckle under him as the shock of their impact with the ground jarred him.

 

As the last of her missiles collided with their targets or exploded, Vin jumped backwards into the clearing of air made by Lights Show’s takeoff. She took a couple deep breaths before managing to blow three whistles again, coughing a little afterwards as she let her body rest by Alex’s side for a few moments.

 

Alex held her gently as she let the coughs out, wondering slightly why he wasn’t getting affected by it to bad. He patted her shoulder and then got in a back to back position, scanning the area for more enemies…and Lightshow.

 

“Ah…” Smokescreen managed to gasp, blood trickling from her mouth and nose. “I can’t… feel. Pity. If I don’t … counteract it… this—this haze. Will end us all. It has been… good to serve.”

 

Despite her exhaustion and shortness of breath, Pandora blew out three whistles once more even as her legs shook with overuse. Her entire body was threatening to keel over.

 

Lights Show could feel his skin itching, and that couldn’t be good at all– he could hear Pandora coughing too.  And then it dawned on him.  First thing first: new experiment in songs:

<Music: https://youtu.be/yp3UeCguVVI>

 

Second, he ripped off his helmet– immediately his eyes started to water, and breathing felt like sandpaper, but it was easier to appeal to a person when you could see faces and stuff. Or something.  He grabbed her face, staring down at her, and pleaded.

“Look, I know you didn’t want to hurt Nat back there. It was just a lot of stuff gone wrong. Come on. You don’t have to do this.”

As the new song struck, crackling black energy shot through Pandora’s headset as her eyes turned a shade of pitch black. With a groan of pain, she collapsed to the ground and the energy rocketed into the air before clouds started to billow up above. The mute clenched her teeth with concentration as she tried to control the discordant song as rain began to fall and a great gust of wind began to sweep through the area. Lightning crackled and struck the top of the church’s steeple close-by as Vin grabbed her headphones and threw them off. The song was not coming from them this time, however, and so the power continued to build stronger and stronger as a tooth actually cracked from how hard she clenched her jaw.

 

“Ha… beautiful…” tears shone at the edges of Smokescreen’s eyes. “God, I can’t remember… the last time… I… I…”

 

Her breath hitched for a moment, and the amethyst light flickered in her eyes. “Oh God,” she murmured. “I … what have I done… what have I done!”

 

Alex grabbed Vin. “Hey! Hang in there!” His eyes were starting to water from the gas. There were the effects. He managed to lift the larger than him woman in his arms with ease. “We need to get out of here. Lightshow! We can’t stay here!” He put up an arm to brace himself from the wind, moving against it, hoping it’d blow the gas behind them, he went as fast as his failing and wounded legs would allow. He winced. He wasn’t going to make it at this rate. Not with the two of them.

 

Rain poured from the billowing storm up above as black energy continued to crackle through Pandora, her headphones dragging across the ground behind her and Alex as she opened her mouth in completely silent screams. Lighting struck the steeple again and then struck the ground close to its entrance, the strikes becoming more and more common as the wind continued to gust.

 

Elliot let his head drop, forehead resting against hers.  His eyes were stinging and he kept blinking, but he couldn’t tell if it was the smoke or something else. Dammit, he had something in his eye. That was the story he was– there wasn’t time for this.

“Hey. Hey, you can still fix this, okay? Just… stop the smoke. Please. Then we can get out of here together. Whatdya say?”

 

“Your… your friend blew the smoke away,” she choked. “It’s already inside you. But—”

 

She coughed out a thick white vapor, and Lights Show inhaled it before he could react. Suddenly his airways felt clear, his lungs stopped burning. He felt… almost refreshed.

 

“I can’t move…” Smokescreen whispered hoarsely. “…them… here… hurry…”

 

Alex was holding Vin tight. Looking her in the eyes. “I’m here for you love. Stay in there. I’m here.” He was already making his way to Lightshow. He would drag all three of them out of here if he had to. Even though he wouldn’t make it. They were in this together. “We need to leave before the smoke comes back!” He shouted over the storm to no avail, clutching Vin tightly. “The music…you’re hurting her!”

 

Vin “Pandora” Peter’s eyes focused upon Alex’s, pain clear in them despite how pitch-black they were as thin tears of blood leaked from their edges. If she would just pass out, this discordant power would finally come to an end. The song would not let her fade though, it kept her going and going as that black energy ripped at her. She reached a hand up to Alex’s cheek and gave him a pained smile. Hey, at least she had something nice to look at…

 

Lightning struck more fiercely, thunder booming in time to the beat as dirt was thrown up into the air around them all. Dust was moving at such speed that it could slice the skin thinly as rain came down like a hail of bullets. This song was not getting any better. It was getting worse.

 

“…them to me…!” Smokescreen was visibly struggling to stay conscious, reaching out her one movable arm toward Alex and Vin.

 

“Come on…stay with my Vin. Focus on my voice. Uh.” God damn it. There was desperation in his voice. He needed to do…something. Something fast. He began humming. “Twinkle twinkle…” He didn’t know the words. His fist clenched, water distorting his vision. Warm. He shook his head, continuing the song, pushing forward at any cost.

 

Huh. That was… weird and good. Okay, cool. Now– Elliot glanced up. Oh. Alex was carrying Vin away. And– OH SHIT THAT IS A BIG STORM. Lightning struck mere yards away as if in agreement.

 

All color dropped from Elliot’s face as his eyes widened as he immediately stopped the song, switching to one Vin had actually prepped with him.

 

<Music: https://youtu.be/c33DbNoVtAU >

 

Worried, but determined not to fuck this up any worse, Elliot reached down, wrapping his arms around Smokescreen as best as he could.  He struggled to stand, straining, then used a little bass to help him get up.  Wow that was a– whoa, off balance, gotta sway a bit, then he was firmer on his feet, and charging after Alex and Vin.

Smokescreen cried out in pain as Elliot lifted her, broken limbs dangling at angles they really shouldn’t.


“HEY COME BACK WECANFIXTHISOMGYOURUNTOOFAST!”

 

The black energy around Vin’s body fades away as the discordant song died. Her eyes cleared, a bright-blue shade shining through the darkness as the growing pain in her body began to lessen. A gentle breeze wrapped around her and Alex, the man’s wounded leg beginning to knit itself together even as the blackened scorches that colored Pandora’s veins remained. Continuing to look up at Alex, she reached a weak hand up to his eyes and brushed a tear away. She only had seconds of consciousness left in her.

 

Alex stopped at the end of the storm, the end of the song, and the end of Vins pain. He sniffled a bit, squeezing her to him, but with the end of his momentum…he let the poison take hold. No more adrenaline to keep him going. He fell to his knees, turning his head at the approaching Lights Show. He couldn’t really understand what he was saying, but at this point he wasn’t sure it mattered. His eyes were growing heavy.

 

Seeing Alex fade terrified Pandora, her eyes shooting open with sudden adrenaline. There was no more energy left in her body, the storm had seen to that, but she still focused intently upon the song that was echoing through the air as she begged it to help her. With her last remaining strength, she leaned up and kissed Alex, breathing a healing wind into his lungs to clear away the effects of the gas before her eyes turned that blank shade of white she had when there was no music and passed out.

 

Finally, Elliot dropped to his knees and powerslid over to them, right in time to see Pandora pass out and PANIC A LITTLE MORE.  Yes, internally, he was screeching.  Externally, he was doing things. Like gently putting Smokescreen down next to Vin, and hoping it wasn’t too late.

“Friends,” Smokescreen murmured, a white mist coming from her mouth, nose, hands, eyes, even skin. As they breathed it in, the burning in the air went away, their lungs felt clearer. “I betrayed you. I betrayed myself. Please… tell the Damselfly…

 

I’m s .. s o

    r

                   rr

                       …  —”

 

Her head lolled, and she was still.

 

Alex was dazed by the kiss, his eyes du for a few moments before finally snapping back into it. “Vin. Vin!” He shook her gently. “No! Don’t go!” He didn’t know about the white gas, and so he just looked at Lightshow desperately, red eyed. Helpless as tears streamed down his face.

 

“Hey, dude, breathe deep and shotgun that shit to her.”

 

Alex looked confused for a moment, but finally he caught on. He moved as quick as he could, breathing in as much as he could before desperately breathing it into Vins lungs. He didn’t care if it was some kind of trap. Didn’t stop to consider it as a possibility. Nothing else mattered.

 

“Neon Ops, come in,” a familiar voice came in over their comms. “Anathema has been apprehended. We’re alive over here. Is… are you guys okay?”

 

For a moment, Lights Show looked really excited to hear Nat on the com, and he pressed his own earpiece to ring in. “Hey, Nat, it’s Lights. We have Smokescreen–” He glanced down, and realized there was a dead woman in his arms.

He promptly fainted.

As the mist was breathed into Vin’s lungs, her eyelids fluttered a little bit and she opened them for a second. There was a moment of shock that she was waking up to a kiss, but soon realized that it was with Alex and thus was completely cool with it. The burns across her body healed slowly as dead nerves began to rewire themselves. It was… It was actually quite painful, really.

 

She made a small sound and then turned her eyes slightly to see the limp woman on the ground beside Lights Show who seemed to have collapsed. Breaking the kiss suddenly, Vin slapped Alex’s shoulder and pointed to her with some desperation before pointing to her eyes. There was still a tiny bit of blue in them as Elliot’s song drew to its conclusion.

 

Alex looked at the corpse, and back at Vin with a shameful, somber look before shaking his head. He clicked his earpiece. “We’re all safe Nat…only. Only one casualty.” His voice was breaking a bit as he called it in, his eyes still wet. “Not one of us…but.” He shook his head trying to think up how to word it.

 

The mute superhero immediately understood what Alex meant when he shook his head, some tears springing to her eyes as well. She may not have known this woman, but it still hurt to see someone they tried to save pass away. With whatever remaining strength she had, she wrapped her arms around Alex to give him all of the support she could muster before falling into another bout of unconsciousness; this time from sheer exhaustion rather than pain.

 

“Hang tight, gang,” Nat said, “a crew’s on their way. Good work, and um. Thank you. For staying alive. See you soon, kids. Love you.”

 

“Smokescreen is dead.” Alex said bluntly, after mustering his courage. “They said…that they were sorry.” He gripped Vin in his arms. Unsure how he felt about it. Conflicted.

 

“…oh.” There was a long silence on the other end of the connection. “Thank you. D-damselfly out.”

 

Alex moved Vin and Lightshow to the grass, making them comfortable until transport arrived. He looked at Smokescreens body. She could have killed them. His fist tightened, his lips forming a scowl, but it softened. “But she didn’t.” He let out a long sigh, letting his muscles relax. He lifted her up delicately, laying her a good distance away. He made her look respectable. “Thank you. I’m sorry you didn’t realize before. You had the potential for good. Everyone does.” He said quietly, before folding her arms over her stomach. It was time he got back to his friends.

 

The Anteater: Waiting at the Edges

 

The Anteater changed decor only slowly and subtly. Qun was the kind of enby who favoured playing with the environment, maintaining the same feel and style, but subtly shifting things to play with the regulars. That one big Nighthawks homage under the sign was the only really obvious thing – they changed that when they’d already changed every other sign or poster around the place. Some movie posters were out of line, and there probably never was a movie called Queer and Pleasant Stranger featuring a pair of boys in ruffled shirts, but it didn’t matter.

 

Place still did food, drink, and late night atmosphere whether you’d started a shift, or finished one.

 

Silvered had had a long day.

 

Benny was just finishing up a shift, sure, but as usual he was dressed kinda nice in the way that he mysteriously always did when he was gonna hang out with Silvered. He had a paper handlebag dangling from one hand as he used the other to shove the door open.

 

He let the little silver charm drop out from his lips – Silver always had that little spot on the middle of the bar, his elbows against the countertop, hands folded together, chewing a little on that thing like it was a charm. The door rattled and he tilted his head, because it always unnerved Benny when Silver just reacted like he already knew he was there. “Hey there, Benny. Waking up or going down?” He asked, as he waved Qun over.

 

Silvered how do you have me blushing when I’m only three steps into the fucking— “G-going— home after this. To sleep.”

 

“Hey Qun. Benny wants, y’know. Tea.” he waved a hand. “Silvered no”

 

“What kind of tea, Benny?” Qun said, reaching across the counter to put their hand on Silvered’s forehead, resting it there as if they were dismissing him.

 

“S’jus fgn tea,” Silver murmured into that hand. Silvered no”

 

“I’m going to pretend for your friend’s sake he didn’t just say that.” Qun went on, smiling brightly at Benny.

 

“I’ll have—” and then Benny nearly leapt out of his skin as someone entered the shop behind him.

 

The door rattled again, and in peeked a red head. Satisfied that she hadn’t accidentally opened a door that should have remained closed, she meandered up to the counter and plopped down. She looked around with a faint, not-quite-demure mile on her face, eyes bright. And then she stared at the menu like it contained at least six of the seven secrets of the universe.

 

“I’ll um. Have a double-strength Dublin Fog, Qun, please. You still have that super strong irish breakfast, right?” He glanced nervously at the oddly-dressed woman who’d come in behind him and scurried to the bar, taking a seat next to Silvered. And she looked right at Benny.

 

That party trick.

 

Benny had known Silver for a – god, was it years now? Holy shit. And he had that trick he did. That trick when he saw someone for the first time and he just knew something about them. Something. And he got this look on his face, almost smug, almost curious – it was something like the expression you saw on the face of Sherlock Holmes in one of the really good productions, you know, the ones where – where Sherlock Holmes was kinda dreamy, but also had like, a really dangerous smile and –

fffuck

Look the point was, Silver had that look.

 

But he wasn’t saying anything. A little grin… and then he nudged Benny. “You had a rough day or…?”

 

Qun finally took their hand off his head and walked over to the redhead. “Evening there. Welcome to the Anteater. You looking for something in particular, or just here for the quiet and the-” they looked over at the pair of boys. “Atmosphere?” “what, what was that about.”

 

Qun’s saying you’re cute. Told you they dug ya.“w-what”

 

“Oh, I very much want something. I just don’t know what something is, yet. I will let you know when I have figured it out,” she said with a smile. Then again, look at her. Maybe that smile never goes away. And who wears a long, flowing dress like that to a coffee shop? Weird red-heads. That’s who.

 

Qun was quite good at Maintaining The Professionalism in the Face Of Thirst, which really, when you were a weird ethereal redhead with that accent, I mean, come on. But they smiled brightly, and tugged on the edge of the menu. “Well, this is a fine place to come, when you want but don’t know how to find. The Anteater is a place on the edges between places…” they smiled. Then they leant over to look at Silvered and Benny. “You two, be nice.” then a pause. “Okay, Silver, you be nice.” beat. “Benny, you’re an angel, as always.”

 

Benny beamed. “I’m an angel,” he told Silvered.

 

Then Sil put his finger on Benniel’s lips, gesturing with his head over to Chrys. “You gunna be sittin’ for a while, Miss?”

 

Qun gave him just the faintest look of irritation. After all, he didn’t know Miss was the right word. Ah well, retail bored some habits into you.

 

She glanced at Silvered. She glanced at Qun, and Benny, and then the large window. She stared at the ceiling as though it would respond for her. Or to her. One of those. Finally, she nodded. Once. Decisively. “I believe so – yes. Nothing springs to mind as needing doing. That may change. But it hasn’t.”

 

Then Sil – slipping his arm around Benny’s shoulder and pulling him into one of the seats, like he was fixing the other boy in place – held up three fingers to Qun. “Okay, Qun – you good for three Neo-British breakfasts? It’ll be my dinner, Benny likes the muffins, and one for the lady down the row – all on me.”

 

For a boy who whined about poverty, he paid for people’s food a lot.

 

Qun leant back and looked down at Chrys. “Are you alright with that?”

 

“I do not know what that is. But it sounds lovely. How did you make Britain new, I wonder?” Despite the question almost seeming snarky, it sounded completely genuine and honestly curious.

 

“Oh! Speaking of liking stuff,” Benny set the bag in front of Silvered. “I got you some of those roast beast sammies with the horseradish cream that you’re always complaining are out of stock.”

 

A child in a fitted leather coat and stylish cap pushed the door open and strode into the pub. Oh wait, it’s not a child, it’s just a really really short person with a freckly baby face.

 

Qun visibly started sweating.

 

“Hey Chrys, I thought I lost you—”

 

“How would you do that. I walked. In a straight line. After pointing.”

 

“I got distracted, okay? Hey! Benny!”

 

Benny whirled on the barstool. “Nat!”

 

Silver held out his hand, trying to hold Chrys’ attention, watching it flit back and forth, not out of any kind of entitlement, but because he felt he’d been asked a question- “It’s a big platter breakfast.” beat interrupt, “Neo-British because instead of uh, black pudding? Which is kind of gross? It’s got other stuff from around the world, and served with-” he looked up at Qun. “Tea?”

 

Three Teas, and a shortbread cookie,” Qun said, expression knotting slightly – but they had their eyes on the endlessly effervescent Damselfly. First impressions… lasted.

 

Taking off eir cap and smoothing down bright orange hair, Nat looked around until eir eyes lit upon the They is usually okay sign. “Oh, I like this place,” ey murmured.

 

“Oh. Black pudding is quite frightening. Yes.” She nods (She does that a lot). “… I am not entirely sure I would like to eat it again. Perhaps it is different, now. Or maybe it is the place that makes it different. The company? Stars?

 

“I’ve had worse, I guess?”

 

“I find that suspect.”

 

“Nat!” Benny chided. “Hug?”

 

The Damselfly grinned and took to the air, and two pairs of eyebrows rose, zipping past Chrys. Ey wrapped Benny in a hug, in the process filling the air around Qun and Silvered with sweet, musky pheromones. “Big bro!”

 

“Baby sib!” Benny laughed. “Welcome to my haunt. Oh, and that must be Chrys! I thought she seemed like someone I should know. This is Silvered, and that’s Qun, who will hook you up.”

 

“Who else might I be? I know who I have been. … Oh. Yes. I see, now.”

 

Silvered wasn’t really seeming to pay attention in that moment – that fanglike expression, that I-know-something grin he normally wore when he met someone new was not showing up – and instead he was resting his elbow on the countertop, his nose against his fingertips like he may have had a sinus headache – though none of the clear exhaustion you saw with that. On the other hand, Qun leant forward with such a proud smile.

 

“Why, hello there – you here to enjoy Silvered’s generosity hour, pretty thing? Or are you – ahah, friends of friends?” They leant back, grinning at Benny. “Ohoh! The infamous Damselfly?”

 

There were three books in Qun’s bedroom with puns on ‘Damselfly’ over a Smut Grenade logo. You could almost taste the tangible air of Keeping It Cool.

 

“Oh, well,” Nat smiled, eyelashes unconsciously fluttering, “aren’t you a gentleone.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y_KJAg8bHI

Avicii: Wake Me Up>

 

With a deep yawn, a tall woman with platinum blonde hair and purple highlights wandered into the coffee shop. Bulky headphones already secured atop her head, Vin “Pandora” Peters stumbled up to the counter without seeming to realize that anyone else was even in the shop at the moment. [Could I get a coffee?] She signed rather hopelessly to the barista. [Whichever one has the most caffeine, that is the one I want.]

 

Was that a giant snake that went by outside the window just a second ago?

 

Alex waddled in behind her in a big hoodie and a huge amount of bedhead, blinking about lazily behind his girlfriend. His eyes had small bags above his tired smile as he let out a giant yawn. Vin snuggled close to Alex when he walked up behind her with a smile of her own.

 

Nat hadn’t yet noticed eir partners walking in, and Benny was too busy being puzzled at Silvered’s odd and out-of-character reaction.

 

“Usually I’m the one bringing the generosity hour,” Nat smiled over to Silvered, “and hey, I may yet. But if my brother is speaking highly of a coffee shop, well. I’ve got to try something. He’s very picky.”

 

“Discerning tastes,” Silvered croaked. “Bit of a snob.” Even as he said it, though, he flipped the little metal coin around his neck up, catching it between his lips – shooting a wink at Benny, and waggling the coin at Qun. Then a moment, and they started.

 

“Oh, right, the food.” they laughed, heading to the kitchen momentarily to place the order.

 

Chrys seemed to have disengaged, just a bit, staring at something that only she could see, if, indeed, there was anything to be staring at. Her smile had finally vanished, leaving in its place a contemplative expression, and something that may be a frown, or maybe she just looks disappointed by comparison. “Now that wasn’ very polite.” “it’s a fair cop tho”

 

Alex hugged Vin back, saying “I will take something sweet if you’ve got it please.” In the cheeriest voice he could muster, before turning slightly. “Hey. Is that Nat?” He squinted through drowsy eyes.

 

Vin blinked a couple times to get some of the sleep out of her eyes and then followed Alex’s gaze over to where Nat, Benny, Chrys, and Silvered were. Not exactly believing that so many people she knew could be in the same place at the same time, Vin rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and then looked once more. [Yeah. That’s em alright.]

 

With two fingers raised to her lips, Vin blew a distinctive and recognizable whistle which anyone on the Neon Ops team had now come to recognize as their dancing teammate’s. When Nat looked over to see who made that sound, Vin waved and grinned back.

 

“Oh! Dang~!” Nat zipped over to Alex and Vin, kissing them both on the cheek. “I’m being a coincidence magnet again today. These are my partners Vin and Alex!”

 

“Hi again Vin! It’s nice to meet you, Alex!” Benny visibly struggled to avoid looking his sibling’s partner up and down appreciatively.

 

“Careful, Callister would crush him like a fistful of rose petals.” Silvered muttered, sotto voce, looking over his shoulder at Benny, before looking back across to the kitchen window, lips tugged to the side. Still with his hand by his nose. Weird.

 

Alex wasn’t really in the moment enough to hear that bit, and so just beamed at Benny. “Hi! It’s nice to meet you too!” He was smiling from ear to ear from the kisses on his cheeks, and almost always blushed meeting new people anyway. “What’s your name?”

 

“B-Benny,” he stammered, flushing or blushing or both. It wasn’t clear whether his nervousness was in response to Alex’s effusive attention or Silvered’s warning. “I’m Nat’s older brother.” Vin looked up at Alex with a chuckle as she signed [I think he likes you.]

 

Nat giggled. “Benny oh my god.”

 

A blink, and Silvered – who still hadn’t turned around, as if perhaps the cloud of Affection And Contact And People was sliiightly disconnected, or if he was just focusing on something else – gave a snort of surprise. “Wait, older?”

 

yes almost seven years older what is that supposed to mean”

 

I have a hard time seeing you as -” and Silvered trailed off, as if the conclusion of that line was… dirty? No, not quite. But he smirked.

 

[Hey Nat, could you translate for me? I just realized that I forgot my notebook back at the apartment. Probably is stuffed in the pocket of the pants I wore yesterday.] Vin scratched at the side of her neck with a small and hopeful smile despite already knowing Nat’s response.

 

“Absolutely, love! Hey, um, Qun?” Nat looked around. “Oh, they’re in the back. I’ll order when they get back out. Lots of caffeine, right?”

 

Silvered called from his seat towards the back. “Double god-ender.”

 

“I was just gonna order a blackeye, but that sounds ominous so it’s probably better.”

 

Alex rested his cheek on Vins shoulder as she signed. “It’s great to meet you Benny! Nat has told me about you…I have to say you are just as adorable in person.” He said it with a happy and sincere smile, like he wasn’t trying to tease him at all. But he was.

 

Benny reeled, looking slightly faint. [Yep. He has the hots for you, Alex.]

 

[As much caffeine as could physically be put into a cup.] Vin signed to Nat with a loving smile before turning back to Benny and Silvered. [How have you two been since we last met? Keeping out of trouble?]

 

“Vin wants to know if you boys have been keeping out of trouble. Or how you’ve been. Whichever.”

 

“I will take some hot coco please.” Alex seemed to be content with resting his head right where it was for the moment, humming in Vins ear. “Yeah he might.”

 

[To be fair, I can completely understand why he would have the hots for you.] She turned her head to place a small, but loving kiss upon Alex’s lips before rubbing noses with him. [You’re pretty darn amazing, after all.]

 

“I don’t get into trouble!” Benny gathered his wits enough to reply. “My friends do it for me. They don’t need help.”

 

Silvered, still not turning wholly around, said. “Hey, remember that time you wound up having rough sex with…” he paused. “You know, legit, I cannot remember that fuckin’ rat’s nest of what happened. So, Callister and noise complaints?” he smiled at Benny.

 

It was a winning smile.

 

It was a pyrrhic victory of a smile. BLUSH.

 

“Oh so that kind of trouble.” Alex laughed cheerily. “I’m fine with that.” Of course Alex was thinking in the “so I don’t need to arrest you” way. But you couldn’t tell it from his voice. He smiled innocently.

 

“Me, I just deliver like… baked goods.” Silvered shrugged, turning back away, rubbing his face again.

 

“Are you okay, Sil? You seem, I dunno. Are you having allergies?” Benny’s voice had real concern in it as the blush faded from his cheeks. Seemed he recovered relatively quickly, at least.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0W1c_qH9sQ

Alexisonfire: To A Friend (Adventure Club Remix)>

 

Vin’s eyes were looking Silvered over as well. It was not the look of one who was necessarily concerned, however, as she had seen that kind of exasperation on many people’s faces from when she had worked in the labor force herself. No… This was more the look of someone who was enjoying the view and Vin made no attempt to hide it whatsoever.

 

He waggled the metal coin between his teeth again, before flipping it – with his lips! – and letting it fall down to the end of its little leather strap down into his shirt again. “Ah, probably just a long day.” he lifted up on one thigh, fishing from his pants his wallet, folding out some bills. “Ey, Benny, if I have to bounce, you gunna hang around and pay Qun for the party?”

 

Suddenly, Nat was next to Silvered, and that scent was in his nose and mouth and lungs. “Don’t even,” ey placed a hand on his, pushing the money back toward his wallet. “I’m the obscenely wealthy person here. Let me.”

 

Then, murmured too quietly for anyone else to hear: “You know that my brother has it worse for you than for anyone else here, yeah?”

 

Then came back – weird, it was almost like a growl. “Sorta. But he has it for most boys who push him into lockers. And his life’s pretty complicated already.”

 

That thing with the coin and the lips made Vin’s eyes sparkle a little more with impressed interest at this guy. Cool? Check. Kind? Check. Cute? Check. Under normal circumstances, Vin would have asked this guy out in a heartbeat to see what kind of luck she might have… But this was not normal circumstances.

 

She looked to Benny, knowing from their previous encounter that Nat’s elder sibling had quite the massive crush on Silvered. With a sigh she scratched at the hair underneath the band of her headphones. It would probably be rude to ask Silvered out when Benny had yet to even attempt asking the guy out. So… With that in mind… Vin did it for him.

 

[Nat, please ask Silvered if he would like to go out to dinner and a movie with Benny sometime this upcoming week. Nothing formal, mind you, but emphasize that it is a date.]

 

Alex brought his hot chocolate up to his lips carefully with both hands, his eyes shifting from Vin, to Nat, to Benny, to Silvered. This was gonna be good.

 

“My girlfriend suggests that you take him on a date, if you’re interested,” Nat continued in a low voice, “a movie or something. Trust me, he won’t mind the complication. But if you’re not interested—tell him. Don’t string my brother along. Please.” It wasn’t a threat, or upset, but a decidedly firm request rested in the Damselfly’s voice.

 

And then the scent abated and Nat was swooping away.

 

Vin had gotten quite adept at reading lips and reading Nat’s lips was no different. She grinned her thanks and blew em a kiss before extending an arm to em as if to ask if ey wanted to come in for a hug. Ey did, of course. She snuggled Nat close, nuzzling their cheeks together before placing a loving kiss upon eir ear.

 

Benny looked… confused, and vaguely alarmed.

 

Out back, frying, cooking – a panopaly of scents and flavours – Qun emerging with –

 

“Qun is that a different tie?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

– a grin on their face and arms spread wide. “Good news, everyone. We’ve got a bit of a spread going, so your orders will be ready in a moment. Now I understand someone here wanted a double god-ender?” they said, stepping to the counter.

 

The cup was ceramic – stout, pale grey, and looked weirdly like a double-height shotglass. The surface of it was black, inky. No bubbles on the surface, and it didn’t even seem to reflect the light. “Now, all marketing hooey aside, this is a strong drink – I just wanna make sure you sweeties are comfortable with what you’re getting into.”

 

A pause.

 

Qun looked at Silvered. “What, nothing?”

 

“I said nothing.” he shrugged.

 

“… You feeling okay?”

 

He looked ruffled at that.

 

“I’m worried too! He’s been acting kinda off since—” realization dawned on Benny’s face, glancing between Nat and Silvered. “OH.”

 

“Some bozo at work shot Axe bodyspray in my face, I’m fine.” Silvered lied at Benny.

 

Snapping out of the tense moment for a second, Vin turned and grabbed her drink before downing it in a single chug. It wasn’t a drug trip but it was close. She grinned afterwards, a massive buzz of caffeine rushing through her body with such strength that both Nat and Alex could probably feel it in her muscles. Shit, Nat seemed to be feeling it through sheer receptive empathy.

 

Alex squeezed the both of them, Nat and Vin. He was pretty clueless about what was going on. “Hey…I’m kind of clueless? What’s going on?” He asked quietly.

 

Qun held out their hand. “Take a seat there, petal,” odd word choice, “And join us in enjoying the finest midnight hospitality Rock City has, here at the Anteater.” They stopped at the countertop, glancing quickly to Silvered. A moment, and money didn’t change hands, just a few short words. Then they turned back. “C’mon, it’s a lovely night, and there’s plenty to have.” they smiled broadly.

 

Nat leaned toward Qun in a way that would not be possible for a person with… weight. “Seems like you might have a secret menu.

 

Silvered was – it wasn’t that he slunk away or hit the door. There was just a moment in the conversation where he was there… then a moment when he wasn’t.

 

Benny frowned, but gave Silvered his space.

 

Alex blushed bright red at being called petal by someone he had just met. “Oh…uh…play…heheh…” He ran a hand through his hair and followed Qun to his seat, sipping his coco with a soft sigh of satisfaction. “This stuff is really good.”

 

[Holy fucking shit,] Vin signed with a silent chuckle as she shook her head to clear it a little. [Really have got to learn how to drink things without chugging them. Damn that stuff is strong.] She looked to Qun and gave them a thumbs up.

 

Nat leaned in toward Alex and said, “my brother is really into Silvered. Vin and I were encouraging him to… make a decision one way or the other.”

 

“Awwww.” Alex said, pout of a frown on his lips as he looked over at Benny. “Poor guy. He seems really nice Nat. I guess I didn’t realize I might have…ah. Made things worse.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Still getting used to when to flirt or not to flirt.”

 

Now far more energized than before, Vin wrapped her arms around her two loves a little more and gave them both kisses on the cheek. She then rubbed her nose with Alex as a calm smile spread across her lips so as to let him know that he did fine.

 

Alex smiled and kissed her back, holding her hands as he looked at the two of them. “You think he wants to talk about it?” There was genuine concern in his eyes.

 

Glancing over at Benny, who appeared confused and a little hurt, Nat nodded. “It probably wouldn’t hurt. Besides, you should get to know him. He’s one of the few people who’s almost as sweet as you are.”

 

Alex nodded, taking his hot coco with him and gently sitting down across from the confused man. “Hey Benny, I know I just met you and all but…you look a little down.” He glanced towards the door Silvered left from. “Is there anything you want to talk about? Could I get you some coffee maybe, or some hot chocolate? It’s really good.” He finished that with a happy smile.

 

“What?” Shocked out of his reverie, Benny fell over himself apologizing. “Oh, no, I’m so sorry! I was just worried about Silvered, that’s all. I didn’t mean to concern you.”

 

Alex smiled. “Hey it’s all good. No need to apologize, I worry about people’s well being for a living.” He grinned warmly. “You think he’s going to be ok?”

 

Vin motioned for Benny to come and sit with them with a comforting smile, taking her arm from around Alex’s shoulders for just a second to pat the stool at the counter beside them before snuggling her boyfriend close once more.

 

“I think so? He’s sort of hard to read,” Benny admitted, moving over to the seat near the two as Nat hovered behind. “I’m sure he’ll be fine at some point, it’s just clear that something was bugging him. And thank you for the offer, but I have my tea latte.”

 

Alex walked with him, happily getting snuggled as he walked by Vin. “Yeah…I think he’ll get better too. Not sure what was bothering him but…I think I can relate. I was really nervous when Vin asked me out.” He beamed as he kissed her cheek. She blushed and returned the kiss with one of her own. “But after I took some time to think…well. I realized that she was awesome and kind and really really great. And you seem like a pretty awesome guy yourself. I bet that guy just needs some time to realize that.” He said, giving Benny a small and hopeful smile.

 

“Wh-what? I mean, like. I’m—” Benny slumped a little. “I really am that obvious, huh.”

 

“Mm-hmm,” Nat confirmed.

 

“Well if I am being honest, Nat helped me out.” He averted his gaze, blushing a little. “I can be kind if oblivious sometimes.”

 

“I like helping. Oh, speaking of which:” ey leaned in and whispered to Alex. “He’s not off-limits.”

 

Vin chuckled a little, clearly overhearing Nat’s whisper as she ordered a croissant to act as her breakfast for the day.

 

Alex blushed a bit more. “But yeah…anyways. Being obvious isn’t that bad a thing. At least I don’t think so.” He said, looking down into his sweet drink as he nervously messed with his hair. He had never been the one to go out of his way to ask someone out before. Oh god.

 

With a very firm smile, Vin pulled Alex close once more so as to place a kiss on his cheek. [You are so adorable, sweetheart.]

 

“Hey, it seems like you all might be kind of preoccupied too?” Benny laughed a little nervously, clearly assuming that he was the problem. “I can give you space. But hey it’s been really nice to meet you in person, Alex, and to see you again, Vin. And it’s always awesome to see my enster.”

 

Alex’s look became one with confusion when it was said he was preoccupied. “Oh…uh. Yeah. It was pretty great to meet you too. Have a great day out there today. And like, if you need to talk….I wouldn’t mind it.” He gave a small wink before bashfully retreating into his coco.

 

Nat slapped eir forehead. So close. Ey looked over at Vin and signed (slightly behind Alex so he didn’t see): [We’re going to have to mash them together, aren’t we.]

 

[Probably.] Vin chuckled a little. [Still… I have to admit that that was freaking adorable.]

 

Clearing eir throat, Nat spoke up. “Alex, Benny is like you. If you want to ask him out, you sort of have to hit him over the head with it.”

 

Benny, midway through a sip of his tea latte, spilled about half of the remaining liquid on himself.

 

“Oh my gosh!” Alex jumped for the napkins and quickly went to work cleaning the tea off his lap, kneeling next to him. “You got it everywhere…”

 

Benny’s intake of breath was silent, but his eyes went wide, his cheeks very red.

 

Alex realized what he was doing and where his hands were about 15 or so seconds into it and his body froze. Like he thought if he did not move people would forget he was even there. Blushing a deep rose, he slowly looked up at Benny, who stared back down, blushing just as fiercely. “Haha….haaaa. Um.” His hand slowly raised out of Benny’s lap, taking the napkin with it. A short pause.

 

“So…would you like. To. Like. Go out. Sometime. Maybe.”

 

“Oh wow um I mean that kind of sounds amazing? I’d really love that but I mean I’m not as like attractive or talented as my enster or your girlfriend and I don’t want to like disappoint you?”

 

[You are plenty attractive, Benny.] Vin commented, letting Nat translate as she rolled her eyes. [Heck, if it seemed like you were into girls then I might have asked you out myself.] With a chuckle, she wrapped her arm around Alex’s waist in an affectionate manner.

 

“I think if I was going to be disappointed it would have already happened.” Alex said a little quietly, leaning back into Vins arms. “Nat really talks you up. And I like your vest.” He said it like it had some deep, reassuring meaning. You know. Like a dork.

 

“Oh,” Benny said, face still flushed and wide-eyed. “Um. Then yes. You’re really cute and I’d totally go out with you.”

 

Vin clapped her hands together excitedly for Alex and Benny. [Oh! You two are going to have such a great time out, I can tell.] She pulled them both into a hug.

“Oh! Miss Vin, please don’t get coffee on your nice outfit!”

She made a ‘pffffft’ sound before signing. [My outfits get covered in sweat when I go out dancing anyway. Coffee is no big deal.]

 

Alex made a =D face as he was pulled into the hug, not wanting to shout in the coffee shop he let out a drawn out and loud for a whisper “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaay.”

 

Grinning broadly, Nat nodded a few times, gears turning. “We need to find you two a Dom.”

“I know a guy named Dom…”

 

[Nat, I hardly think these two are going to fuck on their first date.] “You haven’t met Benny.” Blush explosion. Make it double. She chuckled and gave her two loves a look.  [What I am now thinking, however, is that I need to find a second Schuster of my own to take out on a date to even things out.] She was clearly joking… You think… Maybe… Who knows?

 

“Buster,” Nat and Benny said at the same time. Nat continued. “You’d like her. She’s hot. She’d be into you. Should I not be doing this? Is this weird?”

[Not at all, oh glorious matchmaker!] Vin chuckled and leaned in to give Nat a kiss. [Do they dance?]

 

“I dunno. Does Buster dance, Benny?”

 

“She’s not that great at it but she at least knows how to move to the beat,” he offered.

 

[That’s good enough for me!] Vin replied with a wide smile.

 

“Buster is a cool name I like it.” Alex’s head was clearly in the clouds now as he thought about boys and how to date them.

 

“Buster’s very cool. She drives tanks and lives on the moon.”

 

“My boyfriend is dominant,” Benny chimed in a little quietly, also clearly thinking about other things.

 

“I think that dating Callister might be a little bit too intense for Alex to start off with, buddy,” Nat ruffled Benny’s hair.

 

[Buster lives on the moon?] Vin’s eyes seemed to light up at that, mind starting to wander as she considered the many possibilities that opened up. [Okay. Yeah. When can I meet her?]

 

“I like the moon.” Alex said, his face taking the form you would expect of somebody thinking about a nice butt. [You certainly seem to appreciate mine.]

 

“Benny, when’s your twin on earth leave next?”

 

“She’s supposed to be on it now,” he said, face suddenly sobering, “but she’s waiting for authorization for some kind of rescue mission. Apparently her boyfriend went missing? Sorry, her friend with benefits went missing. She’s very clear on him not being her boyfriend.”

 

[Well… If she ever needs someone to relax or hang out with, I can certainly clear some time in my schedule for her.] Vin smiled a little, nodding her understanding to Benny.

 

“Hey Vin,” Nat turned eir phone around. Ey’d fullscreened a picture of what appeared to be a female bodybuilder grinning brightly and flexing for the camera, clad in pink camo BDUs and a sports bra. She had a floppy mohawk dyed blue and pink and white, the signature Schuster freckles, and some of the most defined abs Vin had ever seen. “That’s Buster.”

 

Vin whistled, rather impressed with the woman’s physique. [Wow! That is one Hell of a unique look she has got going on there and I love it. All of those muscles too. Wow!]

 

“Us trans Schusters like to stand out, I guess,” Nat laughed.

 

Alex stared at the picture and blushed a little redder. “Woah”

 

[Give her a call sometime. Tell her that I am 110% interested in meeting her.] Vin’s eyes sparkled a little more, a wry smile spreading across her lips that Alex and Nat recognized.

 

“Yeah, Buster’s my identical twin, but she somehow inherited all the, like. Motivation. I could never stay in that kinda shape,” Benny admitted sheepishly.

 

“Well if you ever want to try working out…I will give you something to look at while you do.” Alex giggled a bit as he rested his head against Nats floating body. “Also lots of help and motivation.” He didn’t wink but that was because he did not need to. His blush said most of what he needed to say.

Family: You, Me, and the Scalpel

DeLeary’s

New Orleans, Louisiana

 

DeLeary’s Bar in New Orleans was just as terrible a location as it always was. Not only was the barroom floor covered in a layer of caked-on grime but the door the the bar had not yet been fixed either, a blue tarp having been put up in its place. The grizzled, old, nonverbal bartender which the regulars simply assumed was DeLeary stood behind his countertop with a dirty rag as he “cleaned” an even dirtier mug. If there was to be pride in coming in last place, this man surely did not show it in his deep frown.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrPe5ekHL4Q

Forgotten Sounds – Funkies>

 

Vin “Pandora” Peters skipped her way happily into the bar in her hero’s attire as she gave the bartender a cheery wave. It had been a while since she had last visited her favorite bar on the planet and she was excited to be back. With some flair, the tall woman moved to sit at the bar and flicked her notebook from a pocket as she scribbled something down within it.

 

Hey there, Bobby! Did you miss me?

 

The bartender looked at the words and then shook his head. Vin had been trying to guess his name for years and had not once figured it out. He did, however, go to pour her a tall glass of terrible beer before going back to cleaning that dirty mug of his.

 

“Hi Lear-dear~!” Alex cheered, skipping in behind his girl and wrapping his arms around her. “Whaaat, Bobby? Last time it was Larry.” He seemed SO confused.

 

“I know this is shocking, petal,” Nat floated in behind the other two, “but most bars have more than one employee. Oh no wait, that’s the same guy. Huh.”

 

[It’s always the same guy. No one else works here, I think.] Vin smiled as she turned in her chair to grin up at Alex and Nat. [This guy seems to be as mute as I am though and will not tell anyone his name, so I’ve been trying to guess it every single time I come here. One day I shall figure it out. One day!]

 

“Hey, mystery bar-person! I’ll have a cuba libre, please!” Nat called over. “With… I dunno, whatever your best available rum is today. Captain? Bacardi? I’d take Castillo, just… not rail. Anything but rail.”

 

The bartender rolled his eyes and grabbed a glass for the Damselfly’s drink.

 

Vin took a sip from her beer, made a pained face at the terrible taste, and then continued to drink as her old resistance to the world’s worst brew returned to her. She let out a contented sigh as she slammed her now empty glass back down onto the bar. [Just like old times. Some things will never change and that flavor of dirty-socks-beer is certainly one of them.]

 

Alex stole a sip from her beer before it was all gone. His face scrunched, like a flower wilting, before returning to it’s normal happy demeanor. “That tasted terrible!” He cheered.

 

“I love you both dearly but I do not understand why you subject yourself to this place’s beer,” Nat shook eir head, accepting the cocktail. Ey took the wedge of lime perched on the glass’s rim and squeezed it, then stuck the lime wedge in the drink.

 

[It’s a part of the ritual of coming to a place like this,] Vin signed back in reply as she grinned happily at her two loves. [You come here because it is cheap and terrible, not because they serve anything decent.]

 

Alex just assumed it was part of what you were supposed to do to be nice here. “Yeah but it’s like. Amazingly terrible.” There was a sparkle in his eye.

 

Vin nodded her agreement and smiled as if this were the perfect explanation for why she drank here despite how awful it always was.

 

“Can I taste tho?” Alex asked Nat with those big blue eyes, leaning in close. “Pleeeeaaaaase~”

 

“It’s not nearly as good as the margaritas we had last night, just warning you.” Nat pushed the drink toward Alex. “Hey, um. Can I talk to you two about something important real quick?”

 

[Of course, Sweetie Fly.] Vin grabbed the tall glass of beer the bartender had refilled and took a long sip from it, this time without any negative reaction. [What’s up?]

 

Alex plopped a straw in it, taking a sip and looking up to em. The drink wasn’t good, but it was certainly more palatable than the beer. “Of course Nat.” He nodded encouragingly as he squeezed Vins free hand.

 

Nat took a deep breath and let it out, then smiled. “…I’ve scheduled my bottom surgery. It’s next week.”

 

A mixed expression of excitement and worry appeared upon Vin’s face as her fingers entwined with Alex’s. [That… Wow, that is so much sooner than I thought it would be.] She bit her lower-lip a little nervously and then smiled confidently. [Congratulations are in order then! I mean, I’m nervous about you going under the knife, of course, but this is what you want and I am happy to hear that you are getting what you want!]

 

Alex squeezed Vins hand with a look of extreme worry at first, but as Vin spoke that switched to one of confusion. “So…um.” He blushed a bit, playing with Vins fingers. “Your. Uh. Your butt is ok? It’s not getting surgery cuz it’s sick?”

 

“Oh gosh, petal, I’m so sorry. I never explained to you what’s happening, did I? This stuff is just. So hard to talk about. Um. You know how… I don’t like to have my underwear all the way off?” Nat lowered eir voice enough that the other two could hear, but even the bartender would have to lean in to eavesdrop.

 

Alex nodded quietly, leaking in so ey didn’t have to raise eir voice. “Oh. Mhm.” He nodded. “I understand. Is it…something to do with? Oh…ok.” He seemed to at the very least vaguely get the idea. “I will love you and support you no matter what.” He told em with that big smile. “Surgery can be scary.”

 

Long arms wrapped around both Alex and Nat to pull them into a hug as Vin snuggled her two lovers close, nuzzling her cheek against Nat in particular to let em know that she supported em.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y6smkh6c-0

Swedish House Mafia (Feat. John Martin) – Don’t You Worry Child>

 

“When it’s over, I’ll be able to be… naked, with both of you. Without feeling bad or gross. It’d mean a lot to me. But also… I’m going to need help while I’m recovering. I’d really like that help to be the two of you. The last time I was in the infirmary, I’d nearly been killed. I’m a little scared about being in recovery there again.”

 

Alex nodded. “I would be so happy to take care of you for once!” Alex teased, wholeheartedly in the hug. “You can count me in cutie-fly. I’m here for you till the end.” He wrapped em and Vin up tight.

 

Vin nodded emphatically and placed a small kiss upon Nat’s lips before taking eir hand in her own and giving it a light squeeze. She would be there for em as well. Of course she would.

 

Nat squealed happily. “You two are the best.

 

The Tribunal: Neon Signs

Neon Signs

Perhaps driven by their preoccupation with and agitation about the recent celebrity visit, Qun had started changing the Anteater’s decor again, starting with the Nighthawks poster, moving to a wall scroll for a fantasy action anime apparently called Gayers, and moving on from there.

 

The enby behind the bar this evening wasn’t Qun, however; the current barista was significantly shorter and a fair bit less broad than their boss. They were Logan, a part time worker who also attended the Rock City Polytechnic Institute, learning “to make robots and shit,” in their words. They had dark skin, cornrows, an average build and a dress style that could best be described as ‘1990s-era cyberpunk’. Today they wore a pair of welding goggles on their forehead, a black sleeveless t-shirt, and an LED-lit choker modeled, to those who would recognize it, off of the explosive collars from Battle Royale.

 

It was exactly when Nat had asked eir polycule to meet em at the Anteater, but ey wasn’t yet there. There were only a few patrons, one of whom was a muscular woman with south-asian features and a quarter of her body replaced with ancient-looking cyberware seated alone in the corner of the shop. She prodded at a tablet with her left hand while her lower right robot arm held the tablet and the upper right one held her coffee cup aloft.

 

Alex, after a long day of garbage duty, had gone over to Vins to change. He was in a tight fitting sweater made from thin material. He had a small white and gold Lilly adorned in his hair too, a very feminine look today. But hey, it was the Anteater, so there was no better spot to test it out. He looked at his drink options with one long sleeve covering his hand, biting the fabric softly.

 

“Hey friend,” Logan said, “hit me up if you got questions.”

 

For how feminine Alex looked, Vin looked that much more masculine. She had decided to dress in her more comfortable street dancing attire today which meant a baggy hoodie, baggy sweatpants, and her hair done up in a ponytail. All in all, she looked very tomboyish and did not seem to care one bit. While she waited beside Alex for Nat to arrive, she was scribbling down some notes on each of the songs that came over headphones.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9tH-UOG3iA

Gotan Project – Whatever Lola Wants>

 

Alex bumped his hip against Vin. “I’ve only had hot coco here before….do you know any sweet drinks?” He turned to the barista after, with a big smile after realizing it was him they were talking too. “Oh! Yes do you have any drinks that are sweet? I’m clueless when it comes to coffee and frap and…um. Stuff.” He put a hand behind his head with an apologetic expression.

 

“Comrade, we got drinks that will give you a sugar high like you wouldn’t believe. But if you liked the cocoa and you want something a bit more like that gilded lily you rockin’, I’ll make you a White Gold. That’s steamed milk, vanilla, and caramel. You in?”

 

Vin looked up from her notebook and turned to Alex, lifting one headphone from her ear before signing [Could you repeat that, love? I was a little too deep into that song to notice much of anything.] She blushed apologetically and signed her own order, a cocoa latte.

 

Alex went wide eyed. “Oh gosh that sounds lovely! One of those please.” He jumped up and down in a few short hops of excitement. “Vin Vin I’m getting a drink that matches my hair thing this is so cool~!” He squeezed her hand, still a bit hyper from icecream.

Vin grinned and snuggled her boyfriend close. [Hopefully it matches your mood as well~!]

 

“Damn, I wish all my customers were that enthusiastic. And, uh, fraid I don’t know sign, sorry. Can you write your order down?”

 

The woman in the far booth looked vaguely weirded out by the expression of raw joy, but soon went back to sipping coffee and reading her tablet.

 

[Oh! Sorry about that! I forget sometimes… Like now…] She blushed and began to scribble down her order in her notebook before showing it to the barista.

Cocoa latte. Heavy on the cream and with whipped cream on top of it as well, if that would be alright?

 

“Round here we call that a breve mocha. The ‘breve’ means short, which means I’m steaming you up some light cream rather than milk. It’ll be like drinking velvet. You kids take a seat and I’ll bring you out your drinks. Pay whenever—oh holy shit, is that—”

 

Logan looked out the front window, wide-eyed. Nat floated there, checking eir phone before coming into the café.

 

“Holy shit that’s the actual Damselfly,” Logan whispered.

 

“Yay Nat is here~!” Alex cheered, somehow managing more excitement than he had managed for the drink. Clearly he knew em.

 

With a casual air to her movements, Vin turned down the volume on her MP3 player and turned to face Nat as ey floated in through the door. [Hey Nat~! How has your day been?] From the way in which the mute woman signed, it was clear that she too knew the Damselfly personally and held some great amount of affection for em.

 

“Oh!” Nat blinked. “Oh, sorry! I was going over this Freelancer paperwork, the contracts are really—anyway hiiii!”

 

Ey bodily lifted the woman, who had a foot and a half of height on em, spun her around, set her down, kissed her, then wound around Alex’s body before kissing him too. “Sorry I’m late, darlings. Did you order? I should order.”

 

The barista gaped.

 

[Yeah. We both have ordered already.] Vin accepted her hug and kiss jovially, nuzzling close to Nat before taking her seat again. [If I had known what you wanted, I would have put your order in as well, but I wasn’t sure what you might be in the mood for. Drinks are on me today though. Got my first paycheck today.] Vin looked rather pleased with herself.

 

“And I’m getting a drink that matches my hair~!” So darn excited. “Because this Beareesta is awesome!” He pointed an enthusiastic finger to Logan. He then turned to Vin with a look of shock. “You got your first paycheck today? Whaaaaaaat?!” His brain couldn’t process so much hype in one day.

 

“Normally I’d object, but I just signed a contract that commits me to spend tens of thousands of dollars so I’m actually gonna let you treat me.” Nat smiled sheepishly, then turned to the barista. “Anyway, I’ll have the vanilla latte frappe, please. Extra sweet, like you apparently are.”

 

“I—yeah, absolutely, uh right away Mx. Damselfly—”

 

“Thanks! Oh, and tell Qun I’m sorry I missed them.”

 

“That’ll be mutual,” Logan said.

 

“Okay cuties, come with me, I’ll fill you in on all the shit that’s been going on.”

 

<Current Song: https://youtu.be/D55jBSU19Ds

Emancipator – Soon It Will Be Cold Enough to Build Fires>

 

[Tens of thousands of… Holy shit, Nat! What the fuck kind of contract is that for?] Vin scratched at the back of her neck as she stood to follow Nat, having trouble even fathoming that amount of money. [Does it have to deal with that thing you and your siblings are dealing with?]

 

“Yeah. I hired a Freelancer.” Shrug. “Siddown, I’ll tell you both more.”

 

Ey ‘sat’ on the booth table, cross-legged.

 

Alex followed. “Yeah that does sound like a lot…but I mean. Nats really good with eir money.” He nodded with confidence in em. “What’s up love? Why was Benny so freaked out last night?” He asked, sliding into his seat and playing with his sleeves. Thinking about the possibilities made him nervous.

 

Vin took her seat beside Alex, wrapping an arm around him as she pulled him a touch closer to her whilst she waited and listened.

 

Nat looked at each of them in turn. “Now, this isn’t exactly classified, but I need you both to promise—promise—that you won’t let Alice know about this. Of all the people who need to not know about it, Alice is at the very top of that list. Okay?”

 

“I’ve never even met Alice.” Alex said with a shrug and a small frown. “So shouldn’t be that hard.”

 

[My lips are sealed,] Vin signed with a tiny chuckle before coughing and concentrating a bit more so as to give the topic the seriousness that it deserved. [Sorry. Yeah. What we talk about here will stay between us.]

 

“Okay.” Nat took a deep breath. “My brother Paul has inherited the Avatar of Dominance from Anathema. He thinks he’s going to replace the Oathkeeper, and has started a cult in my hometown.”

 

[Avatar of… What?] Vin blinked, clearly shocked at what she was hearing. [I… I don’t know what that is, but it does not sound good at all.  Ummm… Can we… Like… Exorcise it from him or something? I mean… Going around starting cults is rarely ever a good thing.]

 

“Don’t suppose this one could be solved by a trip in the bus and some good music?” Alex asked hopefully, but already thought he knew the answer. “Nobody has told me about Avatars though.”

 

“The theory is that there are these spirits that imbue people with power, and they can leave one person to inhabit another. We… think that Alice is the current avatar of Faith, and Helen Havelock was the one before her. It seems like Dominance and Faith have been at war for, um. At least a century.”

 

[Wow… Ummm… So, yeah… Sounds like this ‘Avatar of Dominance’ thingamajig is not a good thing to have inhabiting anyone.] Vin let out a stressed out sigh. [All of this after we put so much time and effort into dealing with Anathema too. Is there no way we could convince your brother to give up the power he has been given?]

 

“I doubt it,” Nat shook eir head. “He’s a perfect candidate. Domineering, arrogant, abusive. He was already a fucking monster when I ran away from home. I imagine he’s worse now… and that’s not even the most complicated part. My sister Esther has powers too. They’re exactly like Callister’s, but she’s a white knight rather than red. And the worst part—my youngest sister Drew. She’s… stuck there.”

 

“It sounds like he needs to be stopped then.” Alex said, filled with determination. “Why is Esther helping him? It sounds like she’s pretty powerful. Maybe not like…Oathkeeper powerful. But if she can teleport she could probably take Drew to safety right?” Alex had been reading Hero files again.

 

“Getting Drew to safety is about more than just getting some space between them. We need proof of wrongdoing or abuse to legally take her out of that household. And we don’t know what Paul can do, and maybe Esther doesn’t either. But it’s hard to tell with her. She… tends to play both sides.”

 

“Your drinks, my friends,” Logan expertly balanced a tray on one hand and set the lovingly crafted and plated drinks in front of each of them, and then set a plate with six petit fours displayed on it down too. “And some hand-crafted pastries from a local bakery, on the house. Enjoy.”

 

Vin nodded her thanks to the barista and gave em a warm smile before taking up her drink and turning to face Nat. [Okay, then we should send someone in to get evidence. Hire a private investigator, one who won’t get caught and…] The dancer put two and two together and chuckled a little as she gave Nat a wry look. [And you spent tens of thousands of dollars today doing just that… Didn’t you?]

 

Nat smirked and nodded. “I hired a Freelancer who used to go by ‘Throwaway’. Now she’s ‘Everyperson’. One of the best shapeshifters in the business, as I hear it—she can imitate anyone and she’s a good liar. Also she saved my ass once.”

 

“I hope she stays safe.” Alex said with obvious concern. “That’s not the kind of person we want…Anathema’d. Taken over to their side. I…hate that. Forcing others to do your work for you.” His frown deepened as he looked down at his drink. Thinking about Smokescreen.

 

[Yeah. I would hope that this Everyperson…] Vin paused for a moment and shook her head before continuing. [I would hope that this Everyperson person would go in with a plan on how not to get mind controlled or whatever. If they aren’t, then they would not nearly be worth the amount of money that Nat is spending on them.]

 

“We don’t think that Paul can mind control, at least not yet. Everyperson will be careful, I’m sure. She’s been doing this for a while, and I’ve told her that it’s okay to evac if things look bad.”

 

Vin ran her fingers over her MP3 player and then looked up at Nat. [Is there anything Alex and I could do to help? You know that we would do anything and everything to help you and your family.]

 

“Thank you, loves. You’re both really wonderful. I… don’t know what I need yet. What this mission needs. I’d hoped that I left Glenwood Springs behind, but I guess I’ll accept closure as an alternative.”

 

Alex squeezed eir hand. “Well whenever you think up something, we are going to be here for you alright?” His other fingers found themselves curled up between Vins. “I’m not losing any of you. Ever. To anything.”

 

With Alex’s fingers twined with one hand, Vin raised her other hand to take Nat’s. While she could not sign while doing this, the gesture was warm, confident, and radiated affection. She nodded her head to Nat in agreement with Alex’s statement, eyes shining with the power of the music still booming in her ears.

 

“Thanks, you two. I love you.”

 

“Damn, y’all’re cute,” Logan remarked as they walked by.

The Tribunal: Disco Infiltrators

BRIEFING ROOM
THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

“Fuck,” Nat paced the room in a silent figure eight. “Fuck.”

 

“Calm down, Bug,” Emi tapped on her tablet, arranging the briefing documents as the two of them waited for the others to arrive.

 

“I can’t calm down!”

 

“You can and you have to.”

 

The Damselfly clenched eir jaw.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7Ve8ExE8YY

Black Coast (Feat. M. Maggie) – TRNDSTTR (Lucian Remix)>

 

Eyes a flaming red as she walked casually into the room, Vin “Pandora” Peters bobbed her head and occasionally wiggled her hips in time to the beat which was echoing through the bulky LED headphones on her ears. There was a deep confidence to her steps, her training earlier that day having gone very well as she had shattered her previous record on the course she’d been struggling with for weeks. She had not changed since then, however, and her bra-top, elbow-length gloves, and torn jeans showed the wear and tear of her earlier workout.

 

[Hey Emi~! Hey Nat~!] She signed cheerfully as she fell back into a chair and draped her legs over one of the armrests. [How’s it going? Everyone having a good day so far?]

 

“Not… really, no,” Nat said.

 

“We’ll say more once Alex gets here,” Emi nodded to Vin. “Hang tight, Miss Vin.”

 

Vin frowned a touch with worry at Nat’s response and then noticed that, stranger still, ey were walking instead of floating. Two feet on the ground instead of hanging in the air. That was not normal at all for Nat. She looked to em with an expression which seemed to ask far too many questions at once. Are you okay? How about your family? Oh no, did Benny get hurt or rejected? Is there something I can do to help?

 

Alex walked in not long after her, looking physically exhausted from training. Lots of bruises, cuts, scrapes, you name it. Still he gave the room a small wave, a salute, and took his seat. “Things sounded pretty urgent.” His gaze traveled over Emi, Nat, and Vin. “Does this have to do with Nat’s sister?”

 

Emi nodded. “Yes it does. Paul Schuster made a video effectively declaring war with the Oathkeeper and it’s gone viral. People are flocking to Glenwood Springs in droves, and we’re seeing a spike in violence across the country. He’s calling it ‘The Tribunal’, and our timeline just shortened by a lot.”

 

“The two of you are here because we have to get Drew out of there immediately. Paul’s not safe any more. He apparently murdered his father in cold blood, which… if I know the two of them, means that he considers himself the new patriarch.”

 

[Holy… Fuck…] Pandora looked between Emi and Nat with an expression of worry before shaking herself out of her stupor and nodding. [Okay. Yeah. When do we depart to kick this douchebag in his shiny, metal nads? I’ve got a couple choice words for him.]

 

“You don’t.” Vin looked as if she were about to argue the matter but Emi cut her off, voice steely. “Paul Schuster is not to be engaged under any circumstances. If he has even a fraction of the Oathkeeper’s power, he’ll wipe the floor with both of you without breaking a sweat. Your mission is to extract Drusilla Schuster and any of the other family members who are willing to go, and to do so quietly if possible. You’ll be working together with the Freelancer codenamed Everyperson, who is undercover as a college student named Amber.”

 

Alex listened closely, his fist clenched a little as Nat told eir tale. “Sounds like we need to act fast then. If what I have read about Oathkeeper is true then….well. I doubt that we have much time before the two of them start fighting. After Drusilla and other willing family members are extracted, are we allowed to go back for any other innocents who may want escape?” He asked Emi hopefully, and dutifully.

 

[Yeah,] Vin signed her agreement with Alex’s question. [Upon the successful completion of this mission, would it at all be possible for us to stay behind to assist in whatever ways we can? I do not wish to leave anyone behind who could be at risk if they do not want to be there.]

 

Emi nodded. “After successful extraction of whichever Schusters are willing to leave, the two of you and Everyperson will begin extracting anyone who is afraid to leave or being held. But again: do not fight Paul. If he comes after you, you run. Do we understand?”

 

Alex gave a solid nod of understanding. “Save who we can, don’t die trying. Understood.”

 

Pandora once again looked as if she were about to argue. She did not like running away. Not even a little bit. It was one of the things Emi constantly was on her case about whenever she was set up against a training scenario that was above her current power level. [But… What if… I mean… This guy is dangerous, right? We cannot just let him—]

“I don’t think I stuttered, Vin!” Emi barked.

 

Pandora retreated further back into her chair at the shouting, flinching as she got the response from Emi that she knew would be coming. Alex squeezed her hand reassuringly, letting her know he was there. That he understood. And he waited his turn to speak.

 

“Look, I know,” Nat cut in. “I know, so intimately. I want to beat the shit out of my brother just as much as you do. But he’s the Avatar of Dominance, and there’s only one force we know of that can face an Avatar down.”

 

“I’m sorry to be so harsh,” Emi shook her head, “I don’t want to be. But I have to be uncompromising, because losing either of you would be unacceptable. And if you fought Paul, we would lose you.”

 

“More importantly, fighting him would come into conflict with the mission objective.” Alex said a little quietly. “If he is as strong as the Oathkeeper, the last thing we want to do is fight him somewhere filled with the civilians we are trying to save.” He turned to Emi a bit expectantly. “I assume that, should we run, there will be some sort of contingency after we get far enough out? Neither I or Vin can fly after all. Otherwise it seems running would just delay our inevitable capture.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPD8VbQh-oI

Jenaux (Feat. Pia Toscano) – Renegades>

 

[Also!] Vin interjected before either Nat or Emi could respond. [We have to consider the possibility that Paul will get in our way over the course of our extraction of Drew. There may even be the chance that… well… It comes down to us running or Drew getting hurt.] This was not exactly the kind of hypothetical that Pandora enjoyed bringing up, but she felt it had to be done. [Who are we to save in that kind of situation? Ourselves… Or Drew?]

 

Emi sighed. “Yourselves first.”

 

Nat frowned and nodded reluctantly.

 

Pandora closed her eyes. She neither nodded or shook her head. Instead, she looked to be deep in thought.

 

“Retreat, regroup, and report. In most situations where Paul is in the way, you can likely choose a better time to act.” Alex nodded in understanding. “If not, call me. As for evacuations, we’ll have teleport markers for you. Try to get as far out of the area as you can before you use them, but they’re not location-specific.”

 

“So we have teleporter access for means of escape. Will try to refrain from using them in front of the enemy. Understood.”

 

[I don’t… I don’t know if I could leave a child behind to get hurt.] Pandora replied after a few moments of silence. [Even if the child was not Nat’s little sister, I don’t think I could leave her behind in the arms of a monster. Please… I ask permission to engage and provide escape for Alex and the girl if necessary. I promise that, upon their successful escape, I shall then flee as well. I know I would not be able to beat someone on Oathkeeper’s level, but I might be able to outmaneuver and outthink him enough to buy us a minute or two and get out.]

 

“That’s not going to happen.” Alex’s voice was solid despite his exhausted state. “Because we are all getting out together. You. Me. Druscilla. Anyone else. No splitting up.” He squeezed Vins hand tight. He didn’t show it, but she could feel the faintest shake in them. Fear. “We are all going to do our jobs, and we are all coming home. That is the plan.” He looked to Emi for some backup.

 

Emi nodded. “It should be possible for you to get Drusilla a marker or spirit her from the house without having to face the Inquisitor. Plan so that the contingency just doesn’t occur. Be careful. Be black ops. But to answer your question, Pandora…

 

… permission denied.”

 

Pandora closed her eyes once more and gave Alex’s hand a squeeze. There was a shake to it as well, but it was not from fear. It was from anger. Not at Emi, of course, but at this whole situation that Nat’s family had been put into.

 

Emi only let one beat pass before she continued. “I’m gonna outfit the two of you with bugout teleport markers, easily hidden under clothing. You’re not to remove them, no matter what. If things get too bad, we will ‘port you out. If you fail to adhere to the mission directives, we will ‘port you out. Scanner is going to be watching. If you want to avoid having to choose between yourself and Drew, and forcing us to choose you for you… don’t mess up.”

 

[We won’t…] She signed back with one hand as her crimson eyes met Emi’s with determination filling them. [No one is going to get hurt on my watch. Promise.]

 

“Good,” Emi nodded. “We’ll send you down first thing tomorrow morning. Eat well and get some rest tonight. Okay?”

 

“Please be careful, you two,” Nat pleaded. “I want my little sister back, but… I need the two of you back.”

 

Pandora looked to Alex and gave him a nod and a smile, squeezing his hand tightly within her own as she worked to instill him with the same confidence she had. They would do this.

Alex looked  Nat deep in the eyes with conviction. “I made my promise. Nobody gets left behind. They won’t have to be.” He squeezed Vin back, his thoughts mirroring her own.  I’ll be sure we get plenty of rest tonight Emi. Have our gear prepped.” He stood up, gently helping Vin with him. “Is there anything else we need to know?”

 

“My sister, Esther,” Nat added, “the White Knight. You’ll find her in the briefing docs. She’s a potential ally, but be please be careful; she’s not trustworthy. Love you two. Good luck out there.”

 

GLENWOOD SPRINGS

LEGION SAFEHOUSE

THE NEXT DAY

 

“This is bullshit.” Vera was staring into a mirror, wearing the face of ‘Amber’. The days of wearing someone else’s face was wearing her down; it required effort to keep the facade up. She rubbed her cheeks as if stretching the muscles. “Damselfly better pay me double. God damn fuckin’ religious cult piece of -”

There was a knock on the door, and the Freelancer moved to the door hesitantly to peer through the peephole. Hopefully this was Nat’s people.


It probably was. Paul didn’t knock.

 

Standing on the opposite side of the peephole was a tall woman wearing the ragged attire of a rather poor college student. She had a pair of headphones slung across her slender neck and an MP3 player strapped to her hip that looked to be the only thing of value that she owned. Other than that, she was wearing a loose t-shirt that showed off the strap of a bright-blue sports bra and the colorful tattoo of a songbird made out of music notes on her collarbone. Her denim pants were also too big for her, seeming to cling to even this curvaceous woman’s hips through sheer willpower alone. Slung across her back was a worn hiker’s backpack with a bedroll on it. According to her cover, she was supposed to be a poor college girl named ‘Chastity Stevens’ – God… What an ironic name for Pandora – from the city who had hitchhiked to this “holy place” as pilgrimage.

 

She waved at the peephole and made a sign with her hands that was supposed to be her and Alex’s keyphrase to say they were friends.

 

Next to her was a dark haired boy in sweats and a rosary, hands in pockets, slouched the way a lot of college students did. “Hey Amber, it’s us. Ya know. From the camping trip. It’s been a while, mind if we come in?”

 

“Oh, that camping trip. Yeah, come in.” Vera let them both enter, then closed the door. “You mind if I let my face down? Seriously, it aches.”

Alex glanced at Vin and shrugged. “Go ahead. You would know better than us if it’s safe.” He leaned over one of the chairs, letting his eyes get a good look of the place. “How long have they been making you wear that?”

 

Pandora glanced around the room they had walked into as well, setting her heavy pack down against a wall as she took a seat and let out a tired breath. That thing was far heavier than it appeared to be.

 

Amber shifted into a green haired, long faced girl and sighed in relief, rubbing her cheeks and forehead. “Just part of deep recon, bud. Alright, what do you know about the situation?”

“Paul is turning the town into his army and his hostage.” Alex says frankly. “And Drusilla is the main thing keeping us from sending in Oathkeeper and Nat and other legionnaires. Apparently Esther is also a bit of a…problem. But not as much of one. Trust issues.” He looked to Vin, willing to translate incase he missed something.

 

Vin nodded and gave Alex a thumbs-up to indicate that that seemed like everything. She then turned to rifle through her backpack until she pulled out a leather notebook. After she had fished out a pen as well, she began to scribble some notes down hurriedly.

From what I recall, Drew is also a paranormal and Paul seems to think her some kind of demon which he can keep locked up. That is not only fucked up, but makes getting her out something of a problem. I cannot imagine that Paul is the type of person who likes people going to see his “demonic sibling.”

 

“You’d be surprised. He likes to trot her out as proof of what happens if you reject him and his path.” Vera scoffed. “The good news is, Esther and I are the ones watching over Drew. I think we can bust her out, especially since Scott McGowan is going to be lending us an assist.”

You already have a plan? Wonderful! Care to clue us in on it?

Pandora wrote the words with a wide grin.

 

“Yeah.” Vera said, and sighed. “I’m going to be the distraction duty, and you guys watch over Esther and Drew. Make sure that you get both kids out of there, but Drew’s the priority. I don’t trust Esther as far as I can throw her.”

Alex nodded in understanding. “Keep an eye on Esther, get Drew out. Mr. McGowan will be helping us?” He added curiously.

 

Yeah… How is that supposed to work? Also… I thought we weren’t supposed to trust Esther…

She quirked an eyebrow as if she were not sure whether that last bit was especially wise.

 

“Just ‘cause we don’t trust her doesn’t mean we leave her to die.” Vera said, pulling on her chin and raising her eyebrows to stretch the muscles. “My orders from the Damselfly are to try and get her out if we can.”

Alex nods. “Do the best we can, be aware of complications. Where is Drew usually held? And is Esther locked with her?”

 

“No, Esther’s free. She’s either with Paul or Drew. If she’s not there, then just get Drew out, okay? Drew’s held in a reinforced shed in the middle of town. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with three layers of metal grafted on.”

How tough do you think that shit would be to crack? Any obvious weaknesses to the building that we could exploit in order to break her out right-quick?

 

“Oh yeah.” Alex grimaced. “That piece of work. Wonder if I could dig under it…” He raised his hands to his lips, deep in thought.

 

“You guys are lucky that as “Amber”, Paul’s trusted college convert, I have a key to the front door. Breaking Drew out though… that’s on you guys.” Vera produced the key and gave her cheeks a few more circular rubs. “Any more questions? I want to get moving, ‘cause the more I think about this, the more I get worried, and the more worried I get the worse I do in the field.”

Pandora took in a deep breath and placed the headphones around her neck over her ears before flicking it on.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJbdMqspODQ

Zedd (Feat. Foxes) – Clarity (Vicetone Remix)>

 

Music began to pump through the bulky speakers and Vin’s pale-white eyes shifted to a light shade of emerald. She then looked to Alex and gave him a thumbs-up to signal that she was ready when he was, feet and head bouncing in time to the music.

 

“Let’s do this shit.” Alex said with a confident grin. Hoping to lift their spirits a little.

 

Vera nodded and shifted back into “Amber”. “Alright, let’s go.”

Glenwood Springs was packed, but people parted ways for Amber and her college friends. The crowds were generally streaming away from the center of town — Paul was having one of his many services in the Church again. The national broadcast and flood of converts had only emboldened him.

 

Amber slipped Pandora the key to the shed that lay ahead. Sure enough, it was an eyesore of a building covered in metal and barriers. Someone had painted SINNER on the sheet metal in red paint.


“Better get moving,” Amber said. “Time to be a distraction.”

The plump college student strode away, shifting into an older man as she went.


Vin’s eyes flicked around to watch those moving around them. Strangely, her eyes were not looking directly at where people currently, but instead seemed to watch where people would be in a couple seconds. In her mind, she saw the possible actions of those around her and predicted their movements in ways the human mind should not have been capable of.

 

She took the key, nodded to the disguised Vera, and then began to lead Alex through the crowds in a way that would keep the pair of them relatively out of sight and mind.

 

Alex followed Vin closely, gazing around lazily like a college student might, seeing if anyone noticed. Was keeping tabs. Anything like that. When they finally got to the shed, he stood watch while Pandora opened it. “Not sure how long this distraction is supposed to last. Let’s get this done quick so we can start saving others too.”

 

The shed door swung open, surprisingly heavy. The girl inside squinted as light hit her face. Drusilla Schuster was chained to the wall, left with a bowl of water and nothing else. She stared at the heroes as they entered, silent and wide eyed.

Pandora smiled at the small child and walked inside. Her stance was completely non-threatening as she made her way over to Drew, leaned down, and extended a hand to her. Once more, the music-based heroine wished that she were able to speak. Able to explain who she was. Able to explain why she was there. She instead relied upon Alex for that.

 

Alex walked up next to Pan, his friendly smile ever present. “Hey. We’re friends with your sibling.” He extended a hand, letting a small white flower grow from it so Drew could see he was a para. “Pandora can’t speak, but we came to get you out of here. Is it ok for us to try and get you out of those chains?”

“…I don’t think it’s safe for you.” Drew finally squeaked. “You’ll get in trouble.”

Vin chuckled silently and shook her head as she pulled a notebook from her back pocket.

We’re heroes. It’s our job to get into trouble for the sake of getting others out of trouble. Drew, we are here to get you out of here. To get you out of the trouble you’ve been forced into. To bring you somewhere safer. We won’t let anything bad happen, promise.

 

Alex nodded. “You’re right. It’s not safe, but if we hurry, and do this quickly….we are all going to get out of here just fine.” He gave them a confident wink. “I’m going to start getting your chains undone, and then I am going to give you this.” He showed them the legion teleporter. “If we get held up, make a run for the most open space you can and then use it. It will take you to Nat, somewhere Paul can’t hurt you. Do you understand?” He spoke quickly and clearly as he made his way to where the chain connected to the shed.

 

“Okay.” Drew said, quietly. The chain was encased in a block of concrete. There was no key or point that seemed breakable.

 

Alex, you take care of the chains. I’ll watch the door and look for a way out. This song is about to end and I think that getting a route planned ahead of time with it would be useful.

Pandora gave Alex and Drew a thumbs up as she moved to stand guard by the door, keeping out of sight as she examined the area for a route out of the town.

 

Alex looked the concrete block over with a bit of a frown. “Punching it won’t do much good. Hmmm.” He hopped over to inspect Drews wrists or legs, where the chain cuffed them.

 

“Hurry!” Drew whispered. Her hands were both changed, cuffs around her wrist. A third chain was around her neck.

 

Alex shook his head. Should have came more prepared. “Here goes nothing.” His fists both became huge tangles of wooden branches, thick bark coating them. Larger than the ones he usually used in combat, heavier. He raised them both up over his head, and smashed them into the concrete with all his force. His entire body, every ounce of muscle he could muster. And then he did it again. And again. And again.

 

The concrete chipped first, then cracked, and finally crumbled  Drew sprang free, the chains rattling behind her. “We have to go, we have to go.”

Alex gave her the teleporter marker and ripped out her chains with bloodied hands. He nodded to Vin. “Let’s go!”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGk-dVHKj1o

Singularity – Alone>

 

Pandora shot Alex and Drew another thumbs-up as she crouched low and began to lead them along the path she had drawn out in her mind moments earlier. Her eyes were a deep purple with swirls of orange in them now as she set a quick pace for those following behind her. She did not want to give anyone the opportunity to parse what they were seeing.

 

Lucky enough, the crowd didn’t seem to be paying much in the way of attention to anything but the Roaring Fork Church, where Paul delivered most of his sermons. There was quite a crowd around it, folks murmuring to each other. It seemed like there’d been some kind of disturbance.

 

Alex shoved his bloody hands into his sweat pockets as he moved, not trying to make a scene. Keeping an eye out for anyone who might recognize Drew and cause a disturbance. “Keep following Pandora.” He told them in a hushed tone. “She knows where she’s going.” He also tried to spot their distraction in case they needed help. So far he couldn’t see much though.

 

Looking behind her, Vin took the small child’s hand gently in her own. She gave Drew a confident smile and a nod as they cut their way through the compound as quickly as they could without drawing much attention to themselves.

 

Drew kept her head down, stumbling after Pandora. Her shoulders were hunched down, and even with the chains rattling behind her, her total lack of confidence rendered her nearly invisible.

 

Alex took up a position near the back, so Drew was in between them. Remaining ever vigilant. “Any chance you know where Esther is?” He murmured.

 

Suddenly, someone was up in their face; an out-of-towner with short dark hair, come to join the cult, or just for the spectacle, but no one Drew recognized.

 

“Did you hear what just happened?” The man asked.

 

Standing upright and making certain to keep Drew out of sight behind her, Pandora shook her head slowly from side to side. If she could, she would have pushed past this man and hurried them along as quickly as could be, but that would likely be something of a spectacle and so she simply stood there for the time being to listen.

 

“Don’t think so. What happened?” Alex said, walking up and squeezing Vins shoulder, a look of concern donned on his face.

 

“The Inquisitor’s father appeared in the middle of a sermon,” the man’s eyes were wild, “in a flash of light! And then he accused the Inquisitor of murdering him—the father, I mean—and then he ascended into heaven! Right there!”

 

Drew immediately burst into noisy tears.

 

Vin gives Drew’s hand a small squeeze, running her thumb over the back of it soothingly since she could not simply hug the girl right then and there.

 

“Quite the omen.” Alex said, rather grimly. “The devil’s work no doubt. Best we get on with our business…leaving this place before angel fights demon. The Inquisitor will be within our prayers.” Man, reading the bible before coming here was really paying off.

 

“Wait! If—” the man’s attention was suddenly drawn away by a brawl breaking out between Inquisitor loyalists and freshly-minted doubters nearby, allowing the small party to break away and creep out of range.

 

Before long, they were out of sight and safe for the moment, as far as they could tell.

 

When they were most certainly out of sight, Pandora would crouch and turn to face Drew before drawing out a remote teleporter. She began to enter in coordinates for the device and then handed it to the child, pointing to the button she had to press in order to activate it. The woman then pulled the girl into a comforting hug and looked up to Alex to explain.

 

“It will take you to the flying fortress. You will be safe there. I know it’s going to be hard…but we need to go now. Before anyone else comes up to us ok? We will be right behind you.”

 

“Okay.” Drew whispered, clutching the teleporter. “Thank you.”

Drew pressed something on the teleporter, and she shimmered for a moment, and then the girl disappeared.

 

Alex called in on the radio. “Drew should be arriving any moment. We are going to go and try to find Esther now. Wish us luck.”

 

[That… That went a heck of a lot better than I thought it was going to.] Vin signed to Alex with a chuckle as she turned back towards the compound. [Any ideas on where me might find Nat’s other sister around here?]

 

“Not out of the frying pan yet.” Alex said, turning his gaze towards the church. “My guess is with Paul.”

 

[Well… That fucking sucks.] Vin sighed as she turned towards the commotion near the center of the compound. [Think Paul is somewhere in the middle of that?]

 

“Probably….probably trying to figure out what the deal was with his dead dad. Hopefully Scott and Everyday got out alright. Anyway, it’s worth checking out at the very least. Our covers not blown yet after all.” He squeezed Vins hand and gave them a smile. “Come on.”

 

Pandora nodded, giving Alex’s hand a light squeeze in response as they began to walk into the center of town where all the commotion was.

The Tribunal: The Big Schuster Bugout

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

<Current Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlhzoJPmGZw

Basement Jaxx – Red Alert>

 

It was hard to move through the crowd at all. Chaos and fighting were breaking out everywhere, as the Tribunal supporters grew more fevered and those who had lost their nerve tried to fight or flee. Emi’s voice spoke in Alex and Vin’s ears, coming in clear and calm in sharp contrast to the chaos.

 

“The two of you are going to have to wait on extracting Esther. She’s right next to Paul, and they’re in the thick of a defensive wall of Tribunal cultists. We’re sending more Legionnaires down and setting up teleport markers on the perimeter: get people out of there, willing or un-!”

 

“You got it Emi, we’ll do our best.” Alex said, hand on ear as he looked about. Wouldn’t have to worry too much about those already fleeing to the perimeter. Best to start by focusing on the in-fighters.

 

Pandora looked into the fray that was still boiling over at the center of the compound and sighed as she rubbed at the back of her neck. [Any ideas on how to convince those folks to come with us peacefully?]

 

Nearby, a group of ex-Tribunal dissenters found themselves outnumbered by improvised-weapon-toting cultists. Violence seemed ready to spread quickly.

 

“Taking someone’s weapon away tends to go a long way.” Alex said, his bloody knuckles growing over with branch and bark. “You have three seconds to drop your weapons.” His voice was pretty experienced with things like this by now. Clear and sure, hands clasped together as he popped his joints. Already prepared for those who wouldn’t surrender as he stepped forward.

 

Rolling her shoulders a bit to loosen them up, Pandora walked forward towards the crowd alongside Alex as her steel-grey eyes scanned the crowd for those who looked as if they were in the most need of aid. If they could, she would like to get them out of there first.

 

“Ha ha, now hang on!” A woman’s voice said. The menacing cultists turned as the heroes did, beholding three strangers, each one wearing all-black BDUs and domino masks. Each one had a bulky, elaborate-looking pistol, but they were holstered. A woman with light brown skin and a black ponytail had the bearing of their leader, and she strolled toward the hostile group casually. “Can’t we talk this over?”

 

One of the cultists replied by shoving a pitchfork into her head. Weirdly, it diverted at the last moment and the cultist stumbled forward.

 

“Rude,” the woman said, tripping the man and sending him sprawling.

 

And as long as those pistols remained holstered, they weren’t Alex’s main concern. A hand darted out, grabbing the lunged pitchfork. It exploded. Chips of wood flying into the air. “I. Said. Drop them.” He ripped the broken piece out of their hand and threw it behind him, smacking another cultist who was trying to sneak up on them. “One second left.”

 

There was something about the trio that reminded Pandora of something, but this was not her primary concern at the moment as a group of weapon-wielding cultists began to move towards her and the dancer began to bounce and bob in time to the beat in her ears. Then, moving in time to the rhythm, the heroine pushed her way into the crowd and began to strike. Her attacks started off fairly normal for a muscled woman of her size, but they seemed to get more and more powerful with each consecutive hit.

 

As Alex and Vin joined the fray, the cultists surged toward them, sending the dissenters fleeing for their lives. Soon the Legionnaires were practically swimming in cultists, dodging blows and knocking down combatants with debilitating but nonlethal strikes. It became clear after a moment, though, that there were blows from the enemy that weren’t landing even though they should have, and a few cultists started mysteriously wearing compact syringe rounds and becoming groggy and nonviolent.

 

The cause became apparent in a moment: the three masked strangers had their weird pistols drawn, and were peppering the cultists flanking their new allies with sedative darts.

 

Alex gave them an appreciative nod after an impressive takedown, happy to see the ammunition being used was non lethal. Each movement he did was solid, following a steady rhythm as cultists went flying into the air or were forced to the ground. He was bleeding a little more now, the cuts on his knuckles re opened under the bark and a few scratched making their way onto his body as he waded through. But soon it became very clear that average cultists stood little chance against him, that while he still bled, he did not slow down. Not a beat.

 

Narrowly slipping between blows from all sides as she continued to knock out and disable those around her, Pandora began to smile as she made her way to Alex’s side so that they could fight back to back. Her knuckles were starting to bleed once more again as well, her muscles screaming with growing exhaustion from her earlier usage of powers in combination with this one. It was no matter to her in this moment, however, as she knew she still had about two or three more songs left in her before she started to fall into that zone where unconsciousness and temporary paralysis lurked in the shadows.

 

Mercifully, it took less than a minute for the cultists to realize how badly outmatched they were. With a few unconscious and most wounded, some fled, some surrendered, many simply fell over and made sad noises.

 

With the conflict defused for the moment, the ponytailed woman holstered her pistol (and the boys behind her did the same), then stepped forward and gave a cheeky salute.

 

“Hey there, headphones, nice to see you again. Remember me? Erin the Arrow. We boughtcha a dress one time.”

 

Vin knew she had recognized that voice and her smile perked up as she took a seat on the ground to let her muscles rest without channeling her current power through them. Rather than taking out her notebook, she looked to Alex and asked him if he could translate for her before facing Erin once more. [Good to see you again! Arrow, Tortoise, and Achilles, right? The Paradox Crew?] She gave the three of them a thumbs-up. [Did not expect to see you three hanging around here of all places.]

 

Alex was juuuust finishing up cuffing another cultist before heading on over to them. “Hey there, thanks for the help.” He tilted his head over at Vin with a surprised smile. “You guys know each other? Cool!” He happily translated for her.

 

“Aw, Pandora bailed us out of a sticky situ involving the Family and then we all went dress shoppin’ together. Anyway, we’re heeeere… because, if you’d believe it, Tort here has family in Glenwood Springs and he was kinda worried about ’em.”

 

“Yeah,” Tortoise smiled sheepishly, scratching at his mess of blond hair.

 

Alex grinned. “Well hey, if we can help you find them? Just point us in the right direction. Any friend of Vins is a friend of mine.” He extended handshakes to each of them. “I’m Alex by the way.”

 

Pandora nodded and pushed herself back onto her feet as she walked over to place a kiss on Alex’s cheek and took his arm in her own. She was about a head taller than her boyfriend, but they still seemed like a perfect match for each other.

 

[Any ideas where we might start looking, Tortoise?]

 

“Um.” Tortoise shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Maybe.”

 

“I’m sure we’ll run into ’em!” Erin smiled. “In the meantime, we wanna help get folks to safety. We may be crooks, but we ain’t heartless. Feel free to send us into the fray, we’re just about indestructible, as I think you know.”

 

Alex rolled his shoulder, stretching out, taking a deep breath. Rallying his power a bit for more action, the green grass at his feet grew a bit taller before he hugged Vins hip closer to him. “Well you can bet there are plenty of cultists to share. I think it’d probably be smart to secure the police station before they get to the armory, don’t you?” He asked his love, then turned to the group.

 

She nodded and looked towards the police station with an air of excitement. Cracking her knuckles and adjusting the volume on her MP3 player a little bit, she prepared herself to enter into the fray once more.

 

“Tell ya what,” Erin shot a pair of finger guns at Vin. “We’ll wade in there first, get to the guns, and hold ’em safe while yinz clear the place out. Then we’ll go help with the evacuation, since it looks like more of your Legion buddies are showing up to do the same.”

 

“Working with the Legion,” Achilles marveled. “Dang.”

 

“We’re big damn heroes, A. You ready?”

 

“Sounds like a plan.” Alex grinned. “And yes, you are.” He turned to the police station, raising a hand as a tree sprouted near the entrance, tangling up as many cultists as he could, giving Erin and them a clear shot to run on in. “Give em hell.”

 

And so the Paradox Crew took off running at top speed, hands on their tranq pistols.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHIej9j7xyM

Shawn Wasabi – Pizza Rolls>

 

Eyes transitioning to a shade of deep purple with orange swirls, Vin suddenly disappeared and then reappeared with her knee in the face of a cultist who had tried to get in the Paradox Crew’s way. With a grin, she gave the team of heroic crooks a thumbs-up and a smile as they ran by her and into the building.

The Tribunal: The Prodigal

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLORADO

 

The Inquisitor stood tall and proud in shining armor of platinum, eyes aglow, luminous greatsword resting on his pauldrons. Glorious violence in the name of the Lord stretched to the horizon, and it all served to make him stronger. He could feel the conviction of his flock flowing into him from near and far, for as the doubters fell away, the faithful grew emboldened. What would be setbacks for a softer shepherd— excommunication, condemnation, vendettas and global outrage—all served only to raise his power.

 

Paul Schuster watched blood stain the soil of his lifelong hometown, and he smiled.

 

“Paul,” his White Knight said from behind him. “This is too much, too… out there, too fast, too…” She shook her head. Her blade was unstained; she had stood back and watched the carnage.

 

“Suddenly hesitant, faithful sister?” Paul’s voice seemed calm enough. “Squeamish? It is too late to reverse our course, surely you understand that.”

 

“For you, maybe.” Esther’s voice was low. “I’m getting out. There’s no way you can win this. And you know what? The piles of bodies and endless carnage is… boring. No, I’m done.”

Esther turned away and took a few steps, then raised her voice — nice and loud, so it’d carry to the onlookers. “Just stay away from me, Paul!”

Paul’s glowing eyes narrowed, thin slits of light cutting across Esther’s shiny plate armor. The clumps of cultists nearby turned to stare.

 

“Betraying me will not absolve you, Esther. You have supported the Tribunal. It is too late to wash your hands clean of the blood already on them.”

 

Esther laughed softly, shaking her head. “You don’t get it, do you, Inquisitor? It’s not about clean hands, not really. You know what? Have fun with your little freak show. I’m going to bounce.”

She turned and took a few steps, a pool of solid light appearing next to her.

 

“Inquisitor! Inquisitor!” A bloodied woman in a sundress limped toward them, a triumphant grin on her face. “We found the Prodigal! It took twenty of us and several hostages, but we caught him!”

 

The cheering crowd parted as several cultists dragged a beaten and bleeding form, bound in heavy chains, before the Inquisitor and his Knight. The figure’s orange hair was matted and filthy, clothes torn and stained with blood.

 

But when the Damselfly raised eir head, those emerald eyes were clear and filled with rage.

 

“Well,” Paul said softly, “an opportunity for your redemption appears, sister.”

 

“It does.” Esther agreed, turning and drawing that long blade. There was a pause in which the only sound was the soft scuff of her white armour against the ground, and then she turned with grace and arced the blade towards Paul’s eye, stabbing through the lightly armoured helm.

 

That unnaturally sharp blade hit its mark immediately, piercing through Paul’s eye and deep into his head. The Tribunal cultists lapsed into a shocked silence.

 

The seconds stretched on like ages, the silence finally broken by the Inquisitor’s clarion-bell chuckle. “I see.”

 

In a flash, that platinum gauntlet rose and clamped like a vise over Esther’s gauntlet and the sword it held, crumpling the sword’s basket hilt and her hand.

 

Esther screamed – half from pain, and half from surprise. She clearly thought her armour unbreakable and herself invulnerable.  She wrenched away to the best of her ability, unable to quite escape from Paul’s grasp. The blade broke, snapped, the white blade vanishing before it hit the ground. “Paul, stop!”

“Just like you, little Judas,” Paul laughed, lifting his platinum greatsword in one hand, “to strike first and then ask for clemency.”

 

Paul released her just as he struck with the flat of his sword, swatting her away like a beetle. Before she could even fall, he appeared behind her and struck with the sword’s flat again, sending her sprawling the other way.

 

Esther was a masterful actress, but she couldn’t fake the impact of those blows. She lay sprawled against the floor, and her white armour flickered and then died. Her hands grasped in the dirt briefly, and then she groaned in pain and curled up, lying still.

 

“Esther!” Nat yelled, struggling to fly toward her in spite of injury and restraint.

 

Lily broke from the crowd and rushed to Esther’s side, cradling her body. Only then did she seem to notice the restrained Damselfly.

 

“Oh Peter,” she sobbed. “Oh no. I thought—I  thought at least you—”

 

“On this day,” Paul took slow strides toward Nat, reversing the greatsword in his hand. He reached down and grabbed Nat by the head, lifting em effortlessly. “My first and last betrayers fall together.”

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G15btlaZR_k

Ryos (Feat. Allisa Rose) – Eclipse>

 

At that moment, Pandora burst from the crowd with a look of absolute rage burning within her eyes as she blew three sharp whistles upon her fingers to get Paul’s attention. How dare he! How dare this asshole even think to raise a weapon with the intent to harm Nat. Pandora knew she was probably going to lose… But she did not care. She did not care that she was outmatched in terms of power. She did not care that she was exhausted. She did not care that he had armor and she did not. No… She cared too much for Nat to care about any of that.

 

She stared the Inquisitor straight in the eyes as she bounced back and forth on the balls of her feet in time to the beat echoing through her ears. There were bruises all over her exposed abdomen as she raised up arms that were covered in scrapes where the elbow-length gloves had not protected her skin. Her expression was one of pure defiance.

 

Alex walked up next to her, his face grim. Serious. Sad. “What’s the point of all of this Paul?” His voice was not defiant, though it did demand an answer. “I read the bible yesterday, before I came here. I knew nothing about christianity before then. If this is what that is? People murdering each other in the streets for a man who killed his own father…well. I have to be honest. You make your religion look like a sham.” His fists grew wooden, branches tangling about them as he took a defensive stance. “I’ve killed no-one on my path here today. And now that I am here, I’m not going to let you murder anyone else. No more deaths Paul Schuster. You can still put your sword down.” There was conviction in his eyes that a man like Paul should recognize. Heroics were Alex’s religion. His belief. Too bad Paul was more of a tyrant than a man of faith.

 

Paul turned to face them. The eye that had taken a wound spilled a glowing ichor, luminous fluid running down his face that he didn’t even seem to notice. The other eye still glowed brightly all on its own, and it fixed on the two Legionnaires.

 

“Is this all?” He asked. “Are these profligate misfits the best that the Legion could send against me? I expected to snuff some candles before I put out the Oathkeeper’s flame, but this… is disappointing. Come. I will kill you both while holding my filthy brother in one hand.”

 

Alex turned to the mob of cultists. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” He told them quietly, sternly. Without fear. And he walked right up to Paul, slowly and non-violently. Unphased by the threat. “Do your worst.” As he reached for the hand gripping Nat, his fingertips and body already beginning to grow out into as massive a tree as Alex could manage. He knew they didn’t stand a chance. The least he could do was buy Nat as much time as possible.

 

Pandora’s fists soon had a glowing aura of black and red flame swirling around them as she turned to look at Alex. A tiny smile formed on her lips as she gave him a thumbs-up. Fear was plain in her scarlet eyes but there was a fire burning there as well. If they were going to die, at least it would be alongside the man she loved. With a nod, she turned back to face Paul and began to think of how to hold him off for as long as possible.

 

“Guys… no…” Nat croaked between Paul’s fingers. “You can’t… beat him. Please run…”

 

“Silence.”  Paul squeezed the Damselfly’s head, eliciting a cry of pain from Nat as he stared Alex down. He hadn’t yet moved to strike or otherwise hurt him. “Do you recall chapter three of the book of Exodus, profligate?”

 

There was pain in Alex’s eyes as he saw Nat gasp for air, but his face remained stoic. He didn’t look at Paul when he answered. “When god appeared to Moses. To tell him of a paradise. A place free of problems. Milk and honey.” His fingers pressed against Paul’s gauntlet, little tendrils of vine seeping between the cracks. Pulling softly but to no avail. The bark had grown over his arms now, encroaching over his neck and down his chest as his feet began to root into the ground. “Did god tell you to do this?” He kept his voice unnervingly neutral, his eyes telling Nat everything they needed to know. He was there for em. Till the end.

 

Pandora was strafing along the outside of the crowd whilst Alex distracted their powerful opponent, looking for an opening through which to strike. She had no idea how fast or how powerful Paul really was and that was worrying to her. All she knew was what others had told her to do and what she was ignoring right now. All she knew was that she was supposed to run but there was no way that would happen now.

 

“Please…” Nat’s voice cracked. “Please…”

 

“Yes he did, little bush. And he has a message for me to pass along—”

 

A blinding light suddenly wreathed the inquisitor, white flames leaping up his body, down his arm. Nat screamed in pain and Alex felt an intense heat roar around his wood-wrapped hands. Paul turned and swung his greatsword in a long arc around his body, straight at Vin.

 

Alex gritted his teeth through the intense pain, but did not move. He stood his ground, bark growing around him more rapidly now. Vin felt vines growing and burning simultaneously, helping open the vice just enough to keep them from passing out from asphyxiation. His body was growing thicker, heavier as his coating spread over his chin. He almost looked like a statue now. He knew Vin knew how to handle herself. He believed in them. “If this is your god’s will, he’s no better than a common villain. No better than you Paul Schuster. An abusive, hateful, tyrant of a creature.” The bark began covering his face, but before it did. “You will be stopped.” Suddenly the vines, the bark, the branches. Everything began growing much quicker. The vines in his gauntlet hand expanded quickly, surprisingly, with great force. It was beginning to be hard to make out Alex’s form at all, as it grew and grew and grew, fighting against Paul’s grip. He would not let this monster have the satisfaction. If it was the last thing he did, he would free Nat. He had to.

 

Paul snarled, and the fire intensified. Alex could feel his arm weakening, becoming brittle, the char spreading outward. It wouldn’t be long before the damage was too much, and his arm would be gone. Paul burned so brightly that Vin could scarcely see him. But his hand did seem to be loosening its deathgrip on Nat’s face, and the fire wasn’t burning the Damselfly the way it burned Alex.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlTspWZOIdA

Lindsey Stirling – Master of Tides>

 

Pandora thanked God for watching over her as she raised her hand and fired a jet of water into the flame roaring towards her. She walked forwards slowly, straining her eyes and clenching her teeth against the heated steam around her as she made it close enough to raise her second hand and direct another stream towards Alex to cool him off a little. There was a part of her mind – a part which sounded a lot like Emi – which was yelling at her for disobeying orders. Once again, the dancer pushed it and the pain aside as she started to come up with a new plan.

 

The steam in the air was so thick, so intense that it wasn’t until the huge gauntlet was right in Vin’s face that she was able to see it. The massive fingers encircled her shoulder and gripped it—hard, painfully—and lifted her off the ground. The wind went out of her as Paul hurled her body against Alex’s wooden frame, smashing and splintering the wood, using her as a human club. She caught glimpses of his face, eyes glowing, teeth clenched in frustration as he did his level best to beat them both to death with one another.

 

He failed. A large patch of leaves, that continued to regrow much faster than Alex could safely manage began forming wherever Paul attempted to hit him, cushioning Vin in as soft an embrace as Alex could manage. Wherever damage was done, the tree was regrowing around him as quickly as he harmed it. Defying him as long as he could manage. His arm was completely gone now, but that was fine. He could grow a new one. Had to. He had to keep trying as he sent wave after wave of his life force against the flames, forcing their way into his grip desperately. He could feel himself slipping, wrapped in a cocoon of his powers. He didn’t know how much more he could manage.

 

Finally realizing that this tactic was doing little, Paul’s grip tightened for a moment, and Vin felt something in her shoulder pop before he threw her to the ground, drawing that hand back. When his hand swung forward again, that platinum greatsword was in it. A single strike hewed enough wood for him to gain some distance, and then he tore the rest of the way back, dropping Nat on the ground. He lunged forward to cleave Alex in two—

 

And his sword bounced off of a great domed shield made of hexagonal panels of energy that now separated Nat and Vin from the tyrant.

 

“I can’t!” Tortoise cried. “I can’t let you! I’m sorry! Petey, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

 

Nat looked up from the ground on the other side of the hex wall. “N… n-noah?”

 

“I’m so sorry, Petey. I wanted to get you in the shield but I fucked it up. I have to save my new friends. I’m sorry!”

 

“Aw,” Nat rasped. “You… look good in that mask, bro.”

 

Roaring, Paul swung his sword again. A crack appeared in the hex wall, but it held firm still.

 

Pandora screamed in primal pain as her shoulder was crushed, her right arm going completely limp as blood pooled from where the gauntlet had cut into her flesh. Despite this, however, Vin crawled forward using her remaining hand and her legs as she kneeled at the edge of the shield in front of her and placed her good hand upon it. She looked to Nat and her eyes were watering as she attempted to push her way through. [I… Won’t leave you behind. Tell him to let me out.] She headbutted the shield in an attempt to break through. [Please. Please tell him to let me out, Nat. He cannot understand me.] Nat weakly lifted one hand and tapped eir index finger, middle finger, and thumb together twice. [No.]

 

The lot cracked on both sides of Paul as two new bundles of branch and vine struggled their way towards him, gripping at his arms desperately, staving off the inevitable. The area behind the shield was slowly growing darker as the huge tree that was Alex slowly wrapped around them and the outside of the shield, making it more of a window. Reinforcing it, protecting Noah and Vin inside. Feebly attempting to cover Nat too, though Alex knew it wouldn’t be enough once Paul decided to redirect his rage. The branches felt weak upon eir skin, holding em as close as they could. Holding out for the inevitable.

 

“Noah!” An inhuman screech split the air. “Not you! My children—my children!!”

 

Lily Schuster was changing as she charged Paul. Her skin grew shiny and red, blackened wings bursting through the back of her dress and her hands turning to wicked chitinous claws. Her eyes burned with an orange fire as she screamed from her newly-fanged maw.

 

“You are no son of mine! Leave my children alone!!!”

 

She leapt upon Paul, rending and tearing with her claws as best she could. Paul snarled and struggled, hindered by the vines and branches gripping him, but finally tore both them and his mother off of his body, throwing her to the ground.

 

Lily tumbled and leapt again, wings wide, claws extended—

 

And Paul beheaded her with a single strike.

 

“Moooooooom!” Noah screamed, tears streaking his face, even as the hex shield glowed more fiercely, the cracks in it pulling away and in. “Mooooooom! Noooooo!”

 

[No…] Pandora watched as the woman’s body fell limply to the ground in front of her and her eyes were wide with a mix of rage and horror. [No… ] She looked up at Paul and her eyes were filled with pure disgust. [You are a monster. A heartless monster.] The dancer pushed herself shakily onto her feet as she made certain Paul’s eyes met hers. Even if he couldn’t understand sign language, that look said it all. There was no way Vin was going to let him hurt anyone else. There was no way she would stay inside while others got hurt. Not again. Never again.

 

The frail branches pulled at Nat futilely. Trying to drag them away from the death that was her brother. To do anything to give em a little more time. A minute. Half a minute. Even a few more seconds before the person he loved was snuffed out forever. This man killed his own mother. His own father. Two things Alex had never even had the choice to experience, and he erased them forever. The twigs snapped against Nat with the effort, little pieces falling to the asphalt as he tried. Ey had barely moved an inch. He had nothing left. Tears streaked down his face for nobody to see inside his wooden coffin, he curled up tightly. Feeling cold, and empty. “I’m sorry.”

 

Paul turned and met Vin’s eyes, then smiled a little. “So angry. You are not just a Legionnaire, are you? This is… personal, for you. One of my degenerate brother’s consorts, perhaps.”  He lifted the sword, point toward the ground, and positioned it directly above Nat’s prone form. “Well, watch what happens next—”

 

“Stop.” The voice was clear and familiar.

 

Paul turned and smiled broadly. “At last. It’s you.”

 

The Oathkeeper’s golden armor glinted in the sunlight, her jaw set, deep rage already dancing in her eyes as in Vin’s. She held that huge golden hammer aloft as she strode toward Paul, menacing.

 

“Are you sure you want to come closer?” Paul warned, glancing down at Nat.

 

Alice hesitated.

 

“Ffffuck you,” Nat managed a hacking laugh. “She made a promise to me. If… this ever happened again. She’d let me die. I’m not your hostage.”

 

“And yet she hesitates,” Paul observed, eyes fixed on the Oathkeeper, sword point hovering inches above the Damselfly.

 

“Selfish…” The tree ached the words. “Coward.” Nats body reverberated with the sound.

 

“Vin, Alex…” Nat sighed quietly. “I’m sorry. Hey. Paul.”

 

Paul glanced down briefly.

 

“Remember when I was little… and I told you. That someday I was. Gonna be famous and everyone was gonna love me. And you’d… you’d just be. Remembered as a shitty bully.”

 

Ey smiled peacefully. “I was right.”

 

Paul’s face twisted into a snarl, and with a blurry-fast movement, he drove the point of the sword down. It pierced straight through Nat’s body and into the asphalt, and the Damselfly’s eyes went wide as ey felt the blade run em through.

 

There was a moment of stark silence as the blade sunk through. The eyes of a killer, looking into the eyes of a victim. Or rather, that’s what Paul expected. What he saw looking back up at him though, were very different. Alex’s leaves rustled softly as a lone summer wind made its way through Glenwood Springs.

 

Then, everything happened quickly.

 

A blur whirred by. It struck Paul, stuck something to him. There was a flash of blue light, and Paul was gone. With an anguished cry, Alice vanished too. Moments later, two flying figures clashed in silhouette against the moon, at the peak of the Colorado mountains. The battle had been joined, but it had been taken elsewhere.

 

Weeping bitterly, Noah finally dropped the shield and crawled toward the Damselfly, who lay still against the ground, the Inquisitor’s blade still pinning em there.

 

All the branches. The roots. The vines. The tree. They all lay still. Nothing new grew, nothing new moved. Alex wept silently inside that big willow tree. He had tried his hardest. He had tried everything. HIs body was so weak. Emaciated from his efforts. He felt a rib crack as he shuddered. It wasn’t enough. And now nothing he could do would be enough. His leaves withered and began falling in the cool Colorado breeze.

 

<Current Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yv6Gn911uc

The Album Leaf: Twenty Two Fourteen>

 

Pandora fell to her knees and stared at Nat’s limp body as her eyes shifted color to a hazy shade of blue that was like that of a storm. No tears fell from her eyes as she watched the body in silent horror with her useless right arm swinging limply by her side. It had happened again. Just like when Mom died. She was still that weak little girl in the backseat of the car.

 

Looking up into the sky, Pandora’s eyes watched the battle up ahead but no longer felt any desire to fight. Her body hurt. Her head hurt. Her very soul hurt. Despite the beat in her ears, Pandora could have sworn the music died in that moment.

 

Noah crawled forward and put both hands on Nat’s shoulder. “Petey,” he sobbed. “Petey don’t go. Please. I love you. I missed you so much.”

 

Erin limped over, holding a minor wound on her arm. Her face showed helplessness, looking between Nat’s body with Noah over it, looking over to the tree encasing Alex, looking at Vin.

 

“You loved ’em too, didn’t you,” she asked, voice soft.

 

Pandora nodded, her eyes still wide and lost as her brain scrambled to protect itself from what it had just witnessed. It was not working. Vin knew that the pain wouldn’t ever really go away.

 

Something went thump in their chests, collectively, like a single bass beat at a crowded club. Once, at first, then again. Thump.

 

The strange feeling in her chest was what finally caused Vin to break down into tears as the tall woman curled up on the ground and sobbed loudly.

 

Alex curled tighter at the feeling. Wanting nothing more than to just hide there. Where he felt safe. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing it. His eyes felt like they might split from how hard he shut them.

 

There it was again. Thump.

 

“Pull it out”

 

Pandora looked up, certain that her mind was playing tricks on her. Eyes wide and puffy with sorrow, she stared at her lover and rubbed her good arm across her nose as she sniffled.

 

“Pull… the sword out.” Thump thump.

 

“Did…” Noah blinked away his own tears. “Did you…”

 

[Yeah… I think ey did…] Vin shakily stood on her feet and walked over to lean against Alex’s trunk as she placed a hand on the hilt of the Inquisitor’s sword. She tugged but could not seem to muster up enough strength with one arm despite all of her efforts.

 

Alex was too far to hear, but something else did. The branches that clung to Nat tightened, constricting around the blade. Pushing. Pushing it out as Vin pulled. Wrapping tight with all its strength to save the Damselfly, Alex felt its need. The pulse in his heart. And with what strength he had left, he bit down on his teeth and focused all his might to push it.

 

Noah scrambled to his feet and assisted Vin, pushing upward on the hilt of the blade from below. Getting the picture, Erin and Achilles joined in. It was rough; the blade was buried several feet into the asphalt and the hard-packed earth below. But gradually, it was moving. Slowly, it budged. They were making progress, and the thump, thump, thump in their chests became more resonant, starting to feel less unpleasant or painful and more right.

 

Keeping her back against Alex’s trunk, Vin pulled harder and harder on the blade that was stuck within her lover. She grunted with effort before it slowly but surely became a yell as she used Alex’s roots as a means to help remove the vile blade.

 

There’s a shadow that suddenly appears above the group, winged and dark. A mournful roar as it descends, a dragon in pain, the first that anyone’s ever heard of that, as George, wings fully spread, lands near the group.

 

There were cultists, angry and weapons drawn, drawing closer to the group, until the Beast described in the Book descended upon them. The great horned beast, among them at last. Too much for their beliefs. Too much without their Inquisitor to save them. Before the mourning roar, they fled, as George bowed his head, letting a small, petite ginger woman off his back. The dragon’s tail and body curled around the group to protect them from any further harm, a sibilant hiss issuing from the dragon’s mouth as green gold eyes stared at any further possible people with anger and despair.

 

Scrambling down from George’s back was, as mentioned, a red-headed woman who didn’t appear to be able to decide if she was furious, or wanted to cry; both emotions flickered across her face rapidly. She eventually settled on livid, stuffed her hands in her hoodie and glanced around in turn. “Th’ hell happened,” she finally asked – no, demanded, in a way that was very much unlike her. She didn’t appear to be asking anyone in particular, but kept looking expectantly at those present.

 

Lightning flashed overhead in the clear sky. With an earth rattling boom, Jupiter Strike appeared. She sped down from the skies.

 

The retreating cultist screamed as there was a large armoured figure amongst them. They scrambled back, and away from the Red Knight, his two handed sword resting on his shoulder as he moved towards the group. He ignored them.

 

Only a tiny bit later than the rest, a jet of bright black appeared at the front of the fleeing scum, and dismounted, showing itself to be nothing more than a tiny blonde girl in a floral dress. With a gun. And a broomstick. She ignored the scum as well, and silently swore about something as she wandered to the gathering.

 

Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump. It was cresting, so strong that everyone moved with it.

 

“Oh…” Noah only just seemed to realize that more people had arrived. “Oh wow. This is—”

 

And then the sword came free and there was a blinding flash of light that had no color anyone could identify, that you couldn’t get away from even when you looked away, that didn’t hurt your eyes or hurt anything but what was this buzzing in your body and mind, oh my god is this really what I—I’m—

 

When the light cleared, Nat was up, and floating in the center of rings of eir friends. Eir body was the same kind of indistinct color not-light that had pierced the sky moments before, curled into the fetal position in midair.

 

And everyone… could feel everything… that everyone else … felt. The air was saturated with empathic resonance pulsing out from the center, delivering shared feeling and sensation in ripples. Pain from the injured, but combined with relief, and care, and healing light, all blended together into a bittersweet melange. With those feelings came one known fact:

 

The Avatar of Love had chosen a candidate.

 

As the feels rushed into him, Alex let out a soft smile between sniffles and teardrops, eyes closing into a dreamless sleep.

 

<Current Song: None>

 

The sword of the Inquisitor whipping backwards with the force of all those assisting her, Pandora finally fell backwards against the tree behind her that held her boyfriend and a sudden flash of pain ran through everyone’s right shoulder as the woman’s crushed shoulder struck the thick trunk. The dancer planted the massive broadsword in the ground beside her, breathing heavily as her headphones fell off, her eyes faded to pale-white, and she looked as if she were about to pass out as she lay broken, burned, bruised, and exhausted on the ground.

 

Fi’s fury had been interrupted by Nat’s. … Actually, she wasn’t real clear on how to define what just happened. She squinted, though, peering at Nat and trying to figure out what was going on. There’s not a good frame of reference she has for this, after all. Finally, after a few moments, she called out cautiously. “U-..uh. N…Nnnnnat?”

 

“For fuck’s sake.” Callister sounded disgusted. And relieved. He pulled out a phone and held it against his helmeted head. “Babe, Nat’s safe…and you’re not gonna believe this…”

“Believe it or not… I somehow already know??”

 

With feelings of relief pushed upon her, and the clear vision of Nat not having a gigantic fucking sword jammed through her, one might almost forget, or fail to mind, what they just saw. But there was something disconcerting about the whole thing, clear on Lili’s face. It certainly wasn’t an emergence, nor did it fit into any category she had recorded. She was calm, and relieved, but deeply uncomfortable with feeling that way.

 

Nat’s curled form managed to unclench slightly as if waking up from a deep sleep. Eir voice seemed to be coming from all around rather than eir body. “This is… wow… all of you…”

 

Vin looked up at her lover, her gaze not looking entirely relieved as the blood-loss, pain, and trauma of the night seemed to have done her in for the most part. She did, however, managed a tiny thumbs-up before leaning against the flat of the blade planted by her side and looking back down at her blood-covered shoulder, shuddered, and nearly passed out again.

 

“You know, I think I actually was having a heart attack. I feel way too nice to still be not-dead,” Fi mutters to herself. Also, that would probably make sense. She knew first-hand that Other Places were just full of weird shit, and this definitely qualified. …Wait. Where’s the tiny witch fit in? No, no, she’ll figure that out later. She probably has eternity after all. “Unlikely. This does not fit with my present records of death.” “you got a better explanation, Ms. Hogwarts?” “Shockingly not. I said death was unlikely. Not impossible. We’ll need further data.” “This is upsetting. I am upset.” ”Have you tried not being?” “Not very hard, no.”

 

“Babe! Babes!” Jess hovered, trying to stop herself from grabbing all her cuties in a huge hug.

 

George hissed in quiet tones, “Get em to a hospital, now. This is still a combat zone. And there is revenge to be had. Teleporter markers, someone should have them, somewhere.” “Good. They put one of yours in the hospital, you put ten of theirs in the morgue.” George’s tail knocked an ultra brave cultist flying into the air, with a wilhelm scream. His wings stretched, newly formed but still wide and far too massive for anything on this earth to lift a creature like that, and flapped, lifting off slowly.

 

“HEY! Not without me!” Fi sounded mildly offended that the Dragon even considered such a course of action.

 

“I actually… feel perfectly fine,” Nat sounded understandably surprised as ey uncurled the rest of the way, an alpha-channel patch of light hovering over a pool of eir own blood. “But please. Alex and Vin need medical attention immediately. I need to … we. Need to go assist Alice and Faith. Dominance has gone too far.”

 

“Oh my gosh,” Noah whispered.

 

Pandora’s head swam with as she nodded, picked her headphones up, put them atop her head a touch loosely, and hit the play button on the MP3 player at her side.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HAy1U9cziY

Skrux – If You>

 

The heroine pushed herself up very shakily onto her feet and pulled the massive blade out of the ground beside her with a single arm. While this was certainly an impressive feat, the trauma-stricken Pandora took one step forward, stumbled backwards, and then collapsed backwards to hit her head with a sickening thunk on Alex’s trunk as her limp right arm crumpled beneath her while the Inquisitor’s blade remained clutched in her other hand.

 

Silently noting Nat’s… terminology, Lili made her way towards Vin as soon as she saw her trying to get up on her own. She wasn’t particularly strong, but she was probably at least stronger than her right now. She gripped the right wrist firmly, and offered her the other hand to see if she’d be able to take it.

 

The woman’s right hand is completely limp and covered in blood as the arm buckled and swings rather sickeningly as the bones in her shoulder seemed to have been turned to powder. Her left hand continues to clutch the hilt of the blade, however, and she does not seem willing to let it go for some reason. Her gaze is very distant.

 

Callister is half turned away from the group, his head pointed in the direction of the cultists. Even with a phone to his helmet, he’s an imposing and threatening figure. He hasn’t yet noticed what’s going on in the group.

 

Lili drops her weapon to the ground, and crouches down, trying to get an arm under Vin’s back – ultimately, she just isn’t strong enough to lift her for more than a few seconds, and yells out for assistance and a firm, extremely threatening tone.

 

“I need to go,” Nat said, floating upwards, the light clearing enough that eir body started to become visible again, still covered in glowing, mottled color all over eir torso. “Please take care of the people who are hurt, and get people to the teleporters. I’m going to… help end this.”

 

Ey streaked away, leaving a trail of pinkish light behind em.

 

“I AM BLOODY TRYING TO!”

 

[Alex…] The mute woman signed as tears rolled down her cheeks whilst her horrified thousand-yard-stare continued. [He’s in the tree… Nat… Ey died… We failed em… We didn’t even stand a chance…]

 

Lili continues attempting to pull her up and not doing a brilliant job of the whole thing. “I’m really sorry, I know I should’ve learned ASL by now, but I haven’t, so.”

 

[Ey died… I saw em die… Right in front of me…] Pandora did not seem to hear Lili as she continued to sign with her one good hand. [Alex… Oh God… Ey died in his arms…]

 

“Please stop with the hands this is hard enough already.”

 

Jess swooped low and gathered Vin in her arms. “Hey there, cutie. You’re gonna be alright, Nat’s fine, ey’s just’ flown off. We’re gonna get you to the med bay.” It was a little awkward, they were both tall women, but Vin was taller than she was. Jess managed, though.

 

Lili was not very tall. Both of them were bigger than her. She seemed like Vin might even be taller than her lying flat, actually.

 

[Alex!] Vin turned towards the tree she was being flown away from with an even greater look of horror as she continued to hold onto the sword she had pulled from Nat’s body with the help of her love and the Paradox crew. [No! I can’t leave him too! Please! Please! Someone get him!]

 

The withered tree stood silent.

 

Sighing, exhausted from even trying to lift Vin, Lili turned her attention to the tree, and drew her wand, swinging it whilst shouting in pig-latin.

 

Yes she has a dedicated lumberjacking spell.

 

Why would she not?

 

The tree cracked, then splintered, then exploded to reveal the hollowed out center. An infinitely skinny Alex was inside, eyes closed and curled up into a ball. He slooooowly tilted forward and fell to the ground, armless and burnt.

 

If Vin was not scarred already, seeing that image as she was flown away hurt even more as another pang of fear shot through her whole system. “Alex…” She mouthed wordlessly as her vision began to fade to black. “Please be okay, Hero… Please…“ With that, she passed out.

 

Callister turned at the sound of the tree cutting. “Hey, babe, I gotta call you back. There’s this burnt guy that fell from a tree or sumthin. Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine. Yeah, love you, babe.”

 

He put the phone away and wandered up to toe Alex. “So…yeah. Evac out?”

 

He is unconscious so one would assume that’s a yes. He is very light and easy to pick up.

 

Callister shrugged, bent and easily lifted Alex over his shoulder, carrying him to the medics.

 

…Once it seems everything is dealt with, Lili vanishes as quickly as she arrived. To do god knows what.