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Riot Force Reports: The Darkness of Kingsmouth
Riot Force Reports: The Darkness of Kingsmouth
Freedom Corps HQ, New Galaxy City.
June 16, 2015
“Solomon Island, up in Maine. Ever heard of it?”
Leaning back in her chair, Purrfect Archer considered her coffee for a moment. “I’ve heard some stories about it. The kind the older Midnighters tell to scare the newer generation. Native magics dating back almost as long as Orenbaga. It drew the attention of one of the Illuminati groups after the Templars chased them out of Europe, and they founded the town of Kingsmouth. Black magic, group sacrifices, witch hunts, everything you’d expect out of them. Although supposedly the Innsmouth Academy’s become a quality school for magic in recent generations. I’m guessing something’s happened there?” she added with a faint frown.
“We believe so, but we can’t confirm it,” Ms. Liberty replied, her own frown much deeper. “All contact with the island has been lost, I’ve gotten unconfirmed reports of military deployments, and the Department of Homeland Security seems to have issued a media blackout. And as a final, wonderful touch,” she added, frown deepening into a scowl, “I’ve heard that the Orochi Group has sent a team from Advanced Sciences and at least a few platoons of of their Corporate Security Division into the area.”
Alice W’Tin couldn’t quite suppress a scowl at the last comment. She’d had little experience with the Japanese Megacorp, Crey having put a lot of effort into keeping their rivals out of Paragon over the years. But there were still rumors, and they’d brought a few too many of Creys more questionable components during that Megacorps collapse for any hero to truly trust them. If something on Solomon Island had their attention, there could be a very big problem. “So, if there is a crisis there, why call me?” she asked. “Why not just send in Longbow?” Even as she asked the question however, her eyes narrowed in understanding. “Politics,” she muttered.
“I received a call from Homeland Security this morning,” Liberty confirmed. “They were very insistent that, for the time being, the Freedom Corps focus their attention on the Isles, and that any action on American soil outside Paragon would not be encouraged. And, just in case I decided to ignore that advice, they just ‘happened’ to mention that they would be reviewing the Scirocco case at the end of the week.”
That comment earned a scowl from the catgirl. Sciroccos defection from Arachnos was a constant political nightmare for everyone involved. A lot of people felt that, regardless of his good intentions, his past actions with Arachnos were simply too much to allow a parole system like the one offered to the New Praetorians. Alice wasn’t sure where she stood on the issue, but the fact that Homeland Security was so willing to play that card to try and ground Longbow... “Charming. Someone in Washington isn’t a big believer in subtlety today,” she muttered.
“Indeed. I’ve got too many issues they could disrupt to risk starting a fight with them now,” Liberty admitted. “But if there is trouble on Solomon Island, I want someone on the scene whose skills and judgement I can trust, and who has the resources to get there quickly.” She smiled slightly. “I understand that Riot Force has recently acquired the hardware and equipment to do that?”
“You understand correctly.” Alice replied, finishing her coffee and placing the cup back on its saucer. It didn’t surprise her that Longbow knew about the advanced transports they’d managed to acquire from their other-dimensional allies. Portal Corp often seemed to run on gossip. “I’ll pull a task force together and see about getting up there unnoticed.”
Standing up, Liberty sighed in relief. “Thank you Alice, I appreciate it. I know what I said about not wanting to start a political fight,” she noted, “but if you need Longbow backup, just call. I’ll just have to put up with the political nonsense.” Her smile became somewhat lopsided. “It’s something of an ongoing job hazard, after all.”
Shaking the older womans hand, Alice couldn’t resist a playful smirk. “Megan, you’re an inspiration to those of us wanting to stay in the field with things we’re allowed to punch.”
As she’d hoped, it drew a laugh from the older woman, who made shooing gestures towards the door. “Yes yes, now off you go to do that punching. I have equipment requisition forms to authorize, and perhaps I’ll go wild and use a black pen.” Grinning as the catwoman left her office, she turned her attention to the pile of paperwork in the corner of her desk. “That could be me right now, but no, I had to go and be all ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’...”
"Well, they're definitely up to something," Mackie Stingray commented, studying one of the panels in the cockpit of the Quinjet as it flew towards Solomon Island, hidden under every stealth technology Riot Force had access to. "Civilian flights are being redirected around the region, officially due to bad weather conditions." She turned and looked at Purrfect Archer, smirking slightly. "It doesn't take your mothers software to confirm the weather programs are lying."
"They've been hacked?" Leon McNicol called across from where he was checking his rifle.
Mackie giggled, shaking her head. "No, it's just lying. The people that made it lie didn't need to hack it. They already had access."
"That fits with what Liberty was saying," Alice mused. "Keep an eye out. If Homeland Security's gone to this much trouble, they're certain to have brought in the Air Force to patrol the skies."
"Yeah, I'd rather not have to run from F-22's," the pilot replied with a slight wince. "Definitely flying careful."
Nodding, Alice patted her on the shoulder before turning towards the rear of the craft, finding Leon and the other two members of the team, Knight of the Peace and Street Sabre, performing checks on the two suits of power armour they'd brought along. "So, what're the odds we're looking at a clash with Homeland Security?" Leon asked. Given his dual status as a registered hero and an officer of the Paragon Police Department, it was hardly surprising that he asked the question, although he was far less concerned about it then Alice would have expected.
"Sylia's looking into it," Priss Stingray answered, unplugging a notepad computer from the hardsuit in front of her and putting the device away in a storage locker. "Until we know better, I figure we'll just have to watch our step, try not to punch the wrong people."
"I still can't help but laugh when you say something like that," Robin Barnes pointed out. The werecat was in her near human form, having decided to bring along her armour, just in case, and she was clearly enjoying the chance to torment her boyfriend with a demonstration of how her armours undersuit moulded to her currently furless body. She put her own extra equipment away in a locker, stretching to do so and drawing a slightly wide-eyed and approving look from Leon (And as usual, completely failing to notice similar expressions from the two heroines in the cabin). "Priss Stingray, suggesting the subtle approach."
The Sabre met the other woman's comment with an amused smirk. "What can I say. I've grown as an individual."
"I remember Mama Nenes stories," Alice mused. "About the days when your idea of subtle was to kick the door down as opposed to blowing up the wall."
Robin giggled, Leon didn't quite suppress a bark of laughter, and Priss shook her head in mock sadness. "I swear, I get no respect from you people," she commented.
"We respect you just fine. Now shut up and punch things," Alice replied, earning an amused snort from the Sabre.
Suppressing a giggle at the discussion, Mackie blinked and leaned forward in her chair. "Hey guys," she said after a moment, concern in her voice. "We're getting close to Solomon Island, and you might want to come take a look at this." Alice twitched an ear at the girls voice, turning back, then paused and tilted her head to the side. In the distance, from the ground to as high as she could see, was a massive cloud bank... No, that wasn't entirely the right term. It was too consistent, too flat. It was the finest example of Fog she'd ever seen. And to someone with the right senses, it was almost woven from magic. Old, inhuman magics.
“What the hell is that?” Leon muttered from behind her.
Mackie shrugged. “Reminds me of old Astoria, before things got even worse there,” she replied, glancing at a side display and tapping it a few times. “And it’s screwing with my systems something fierce. I can’t even locate the ground in there.”
“Take us over it,” Priss ordered, and something in her voice made Alice turn back to her in faint surprise. The other woman's face was slightly pale, with an element of what was the closest to fear Alice had seen on the Sabres face since the Battle of the Hive. The rest of her expression was the slightly distant look she gained when she was tapping into the instinctive knowledge granted to her by her Incarnation. “Anything that goes into that should never come out,” she whispered.
Studying her for a second, Mackie nodded slightly. “Right. Going up,” she said, pulling back on the stick. Frowning, she glanced at the altimeter, watching it climb. “If we have to get too high up, there is no way we’re coming back down unnoticed.”
Alice shrugged, her eyes still on the Fog. “If we have to get that high, we really have to get in there. And if we do get noticed…” Ears twitching, she considered that for a moment longer, then smiled to herself, turning to the team. “We might have to jump.”
“And that’s why I have a jetpack,” Leon pointed out, picking up his rifle as Priss and Robin walked towards their hardsuits. Both suits opened up as they approached, countless sections unfolding in an elaborate pattern, allowing both women to simply step inside and let the armor seal itself around them. “And Robin has flight systems,” the detective added, watching the hardsuits work their magic, as impressed as ever. “You two though…”
Smirking, Alice picked up her quiver and slung it over her shoulder. “I can get down,” she assured the man. “And I’m pretty sure in a fight between Street and the ground, the ground will chicken out first.” Feeling the Quinjet began to level out, she turned her attention forward, ignoring the Sabre cheerfully flipping her off.
Outside the Quinjet, the Fog simply stopped, leaving clear skies ahead of them. “Not as high as I was expecting, if they were going for containment,” Mackie commented. Glancing at the radar, she frowned slightly. “I’m seeing what looks like a pair of 22’s, twenty miles out. Not heading our way, so I’m guessing it’s a border patrol-” Her voice cut off and she made a surprised noise as they flew past the Fogs inner wall, revealing Solomon Island far below, as if in the eye of an unnaturally calm hurricane. “Well, that’s disturbing,” she muttered. “Taking us down.”
As the jets nose dipped, Alice considered the view. From this high up, to the naked eye, Solomon Island looked like any other island, patterns of green and brown around a moderately sized mountain. This high up, Kingsmouth was just a series of blurs and shapes, impossible to properly identify without a map.
Moving up on the other side of the pilots seat, Leon considered one of the side displays. “Looks like the lights are still on down there,” he commented after a minute. “Power’s getting in at least.” Bringing up a map, he considered it for a moment, comparing it to what power sources he could see. “Right, I’d say that fancy magic school might still have people, there’s the construction site for-” he blinked at the name on the map. “Golden Wigwam Casino, are you shitting me with that?” Shaking his head, he continued on. “Kingsmouth town looks like it’s got some life in it. I figure that’s our first stop.”
Looking at the map, Alice nodded in agreement. “Right. What about that bridge?” she asked, tapping at the very top of the image. “There’s some odd signals coming from there.”
“Military barricade, I’ll bet,” Leon replied. “Only land route off the island, after all. Won’t hurt to check it out later, but I really don’t think we should just try and land there.”
Behind them, Knight of the Peace raised an eyebrow. “If they’re as paranoid as Megan fears, you think they’ll shoot first and not bother with questions?”
Her lover looked back at her and shrugged. "That's if it's not the wrong kinda military to start with," he pointed out.
Sighing, she conceded the point. "We do seem to encounter that sort of thing a lot, don’t we?” Leaning past Leon, she tapped a label on the north-east edge of Kingsmouth. “Sheriff's office. Assuming that the local authorities are still active, if we land there-”
Before she could finish, the wail of alarms filled the jet, and Mackie cursed under her breath. “Well, something down there saw us,” she growled. “Trying to shake it, but landing doesn’t look like an option anymore.”
Glancing at the altimeter, Purrfect Archer turned and walked towards the rear hatch. “Drop the sheriff's office as a nav point for the suits,” she ordered as the other heroes followed behind her, the two armored women sealing their helmets. “We’ll fall the rest of the way.”
Entering a command on a side panel, Mackie had to yell to be heard over the sudden roar of wind as the hatch opened. “Be careful down there! Whatever burned through my stealth doesn’t look like any military system I’ve seen.”
“Well get out of here, and don’t blow up anyone you don’t have to!” Archer yelled back, before turning and taking a running leap off the ramp and into the evening sky. Despite the situation, she couldn’t keep a brief grin off her face at the familiar sensation of freefall, the sudden chill after the quinjets heated interior, and she couldn’t resist letting herself flip a few times before levelling out.
As she fell towards Solomon Island, the hero studied the view, watching as it became easier to make out the details. Not just comparing the town of Kingsmouth to the map she’d memorised, but more recent developments. Cars left abandoned and forgotten in the middle of the street, tiny flickers of unnatural blue flame along the shoreline to the south-west of town, shadows moving in the water and along the beach.
And around the Sheriff's office, there was a barricade, hastily built from whatever could be found. Chain-link fencing, razor wire, scaffolding, cars. A dozen figures could be seen manning those barricades, and it took only moments for all four heroes to recognise that the makeshift fortress was under attack by what looked like a rampaging horde, charging down two streets to try and bury the defenders under sheer numbers… and that the attackers were a familiar problem for any experienced superhero.
“Oh. Great. Zombies. This is just what I needed,” Street Sabre muttered over the teams comms. “This better not be the damn Pantheon again…”
Ignoring the Sabres grumbling, Archer unhooked her Vanguard bow from her hip, the weapon completing in a faint crackle of energy. After taking another heartbeat to assess the ground situation, and dodging a rather surprised raven in her way, she began issuing orders. “Street, take the southern force. Knight, you’re on the east wall. Leon, you and I are overwatch.” The other three acknowledged instantly, and both armoured woman took the lead, thrusters roaring to life.
Drawing several arrows from her quiver, she picked the running corpses that seemed like the most immediate problem below, and took aim.
Leveling her shotgun, Sheriff Helen Bannerman blew apart the zombies head, the creature falling back off the barricade. Connor Travers, a part of her mind noted. He'd worked at the airport before all this, both on the tours and as a flight instructor. Married, although he and Sarah had been going through a rough patch. She'd killed him three times now that she knew of, and Andy had mentioned him at least twice.
Turning, she down Robert Douglas before he could manage to climb over the fence, ignoring the sights and smells. Besides the part of her mind that was still insisting on identifying the undead townspeople, the bulk of her mind was on just how much ammunition she had left. Her count was coming up worryingly low. No matter what, she was going to be fighting hand to hand in this swarm.
"More coming from the east!" Andy called out suddenly, and Bannerman turned, seeing a wave of the undead charging down the Arkham Avenue. A hunting rifle cracked several times, and three of the monsters fell from head wounds, targets of John Morris's expert marksmanship, but even more were running still, and the sheriffs face tightened in a brief burst of fear. If there was still more coming after this, she wasn't sure if-
Snarling, Pauline Samsons rotting corpse vaulted over the barricade, launching itself at Bannerman and tackling her to the ground before she could respond. Gasping from the impact, she tried to shove the creature off, but it had the leverage, and she was forced to use her shotgun as a shield to hold it back enough to stop it from biting her face off. All she could do was try and hold it back and hope one of the others managed to get to her in time.
Without warning, a two foot long arrow suddenly punched through Paulines skull, the creature going limp. Gasping in surprise, the woman shoved it off of her and scrambled to her feet, looking around. More zombies were hanging over the edges of the barricades, many of them with similar arrows through their heads or torsos. Baffled, Bannerman stared at them for a moment. “Where the hell,” she began, before her attention was seized by the sound of gunshots coming from, as impossible as it seemed, the sky above them.
Looking up, she caught sight of a blue and red blur, flames stretching behind it like a missile, a moment before it crashed into a pack of zombies fifty feet down Elm Street, sending a shockwave of dust, gravel and mangled remains racing out in every direction. Another blur, this one black and gold, pulled out of a similar dive, revealing itself to be a feminine figure in winged power armor. As Bannerman watched, she flew down Arkham Avenue, bolts of white energy burning down the monsters below her.
As Helen watched, a third figure appeared, this one a man in simple jeans, shirt and a leather jacket. Jetpack roaring, he came to a halt almost fifty feet directly above the station, raised a large red rifle and began picking off targets the first two arrivals had missed. “Heroes,” the Sheriff whispered, before her voice rose into a delighted laugh. “Well I’ll be damned,” she yelled. “We’ve got superheroes in Kingsmouth!”
Another trio of arrows flew overhead, skewering several zombies that had managed to escape whatever had hit Elm Street. “Don’t celebrate just yet,” warned a womans voice from the roof of the Sheriff's office. “There’s still some on their feet! Take them down fast!” The order grabbed the attention of all the defenders, and they were returning to the barricades, weapons raised, long before any of them realized that they had no idea who had just taken charge.
It took less than thirty seconds for the last remaining zombie to fall, cut down by the woman in black and gold armor. For a moment, a silence settled across the area, before a number of the defenders began to laugh or cheer. The noise was unsteady, disbelieving, but after days of constant battles of slow attrition against the horde, the sudden shift in fortune was almost physically painful.
Forcing down her own cheer as she felt the hysteria trying to rise up, Bannerman watched as both flying heroes descended, landing in front of her patrol car. Something about the armored woman looked familiar, but right now, Helen was simply too tired to make the connection, and decided to just assume she’d seen her on television at some point. Down Elm Street, a second power armored woman, this suit a mix of dark blues and reds, emerged from the settling dust cloud, walking towards the barricade with confident ease.
“I’m seeing movement out in the forest,” called out the mystery woman on the roof, “but it doesn’t seem like any of it’s interested in coming this way.” Looking up, Helen blinked at the sight of what she could only describe as an Amazonian catwoman. Even more then the power armors, it was so out of place in Kingsmouth that the Sheriff had to stare for a moment.
Then her brain started working again, and as the catwoman jumped down from the roof, Helen realized she recognized her from news reports. With that, the identities of the other heroes began to emerge from the depths of her mind, and the woman fought the urge to collapse in relief. They weren’t just being saved by any random capes. They were being saved by legends.
Taking the lead, Helen stepped out of the crowd, approaching the taller woman. “I gotta say, you folks have some damn good timing,” she commented, holding out her hand. “I'm Sheriff Bannerman. And this down-home little state of emergency is what's left of my jurisdiction,” she added with a bitter smile.
Taking the hand, the catwoman shook it, her own smile almost as bitter. “I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to make sure word of your situation didn’t get out. Purrfect Archer, of the Paragon superhero group Riot Force,” she said, confirming Helen’s theory.
Glancing to the side, the hero gestured towards the blue armored woman as she jumped over the barricade. “Street Sabre, also of Riot Force.” Street gave the locals a casual wave, almost looking bored. “Knight of the Peace, from the Legendary,” Archer continued, nodding in the direction of the woman in black armor, who’d removed her helmet to reveal a rather pretty young woman that Helen guessed was in her early twenties. She smiled and bowed slightly. “And lastly, Detective Leon McNicols, of Paragon Special Investigations.”
“Sheriff,” McNicols said, shaking Helens hand. “How’re you holding out?”
Sighing, Helen ran a hand through her hair. “We tried to hold as much of the town as we could, at first. More out of nostalgia than any civil defense plan,” she admitted, looking out past the barricades and at the town beyond. “I won't tell you Kingsmouth was a slice of heaven in a snow globe... but it was ours. Now it ain't.” She took a breath, before turning back to the heroes.
“It’s a heck of a thing. Three years without firing a shot, other than putting down some animal got itself hit by a truck. These past nights we've gone through bullets like candy at Halloween. I used the jail cell to dry out old paperwork, mostly, or Bill Dexter when he'd had a bad one,” she chuckled, giving the man in question a weak smile to show she was teasing. For his part, Bill merely scowled, before turning his attention back towards the streets. “Now I've got all these good folks good as locked in here, and no sleeping it off for the morning either. The way things are headed, I'm seeing us outlasting our supplies. Not by much, if it comes to that,” she noted, voice and expression much more serious. “If you’ve got a way out of here, I think we’d all be darn grateful.”
Stepping past Helen, Purrfect Archer knelt down next to Pauline Samson, studying the body. “Right now, that’s not an option,” she admitted. “Like I said, someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to suppress this. Our ride in couldn’t stay, unless she wanted fighter jets dropping on top of her.” Snarls in the distance caught her attention, and she looked up to see five more zombies emerging from the mist and running up Elm Street towards the barricades. Several gunshots cut off the snarls, and Archer turned her attention back to the first corpse.
Climbing up onto the patrol car, Detective McNicol raised his rifle, looking down Elm Street. “So, if we can’t get people out,” he muttered, “we’ll just have to figure out what’s behind all this crap and deal with it.”
“Mysterious fog, zombie hordes,” Street Sabre grumbled, folding her arms over her chest. “I almost hope it’s some dumb asshole screwing around with old magics.”
Knight of the Peace rolled her eyes. “You just want someone you can punch,” she teased.
Smirking, the blue-armored woman shrugged, seemingly unaware that most of the locals were watching them in a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and amusement. “I like having a problem I can punch. Punching solves a lot of problems. Besides, I’d be fair about it. Drag him back here, let these guys do whatever they want to him,” she added, waving a hand towards the locals.
Laughter, bitter and tired, but genuine, rippled across the barricades, and Helen couldn’t keep a smile of her own off her face. She had to admit, the Knight Sabres suggestion was certainly appealing, and just the concept, being presented in such a cheerful fashion, seemed to lift the spirits of everyone listening in. The laughter was broken by snarls, as another four zombies charged up Elm Street. With the whine of servos and the sudden growl of rockets, Knight of the Peace took to the air, spun to face the creatures, and raised a hand.
A beam of pure white light connected her palm and one of the zombies for a moment, and then the animated corpse was gone, only a few chunks of smoking flesh left behind. She repeated the process several more times, then dropped back to the ground, wings folding up again. “Is it just me,” she commented, “or are those groups of zombies a little too consistent?”
Up on the roof of the Sheriff’s Office, Andy coughed lightly. “I don’t reckon it’s just you miss,” the deputy said politely. “I’ve been working as lookout, well, the best I can with all that fog still drifting ‘round. Those zombies aren’t coming from between the houses and such. They’re runnin’ up here all the way from the shore.”
Rubbing her hands together, Street Sabre walked towards the barricade. “Well, sounds to me like someone’s sending them this way. I think I’ll go and have a word with them. You guys wait here.”
Frowning, Helen gave the armored woman a skeptical look. “You sure about that?” she asked. “Back when we tried to hold the town, we... saw things out in the water. No one got a good look, least, no one that’s willing to talk about it, but they didn’t look right. Going out there might not be the best idea.”
Street waved a hand dismissively. “Eh, don’t worry about me. I’ve got experience at kicking the asses of the things that go bump in the night,” she assured her, before jumping over the barricade and setting off down the street at a light jog.
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow and glanced at Archer, who smiled wryly and shrugged. “She’s not kidding. For about three years now, she’s been one of the our teams experts on things like that.” She snickered slightly. “Not entirely willingly, and often through really bad luck, or someone with a grudge against her, but still, she knows what she’s doing.”
Laughing, McNicols pulled back the sleeve of his jacket, revealing an arm bracer with what looked like some sort of touchscreen built in. “I’m betting she ends up slimed,” he commented, tapping a command on the touchscreen, his jetpack vanishing into thin air as he did so.
“No bet,” Archer said with a smirk, before her expression turned serious. “Now then Sheriff… how exactly did all this start?”
Scowling, Helen turned to where someone had left a box of shotgun shells, grabbing a handful and starting to reload her weapon. “That fog out there,” she muttered. “Few days ago, maybe a week now, it swept on in from the ocean, covered nearly the whole darn island. Almost everyone it touched, we just… stopped.” She forced herself not to look up at the roof, where her deputy was watching the conversation. Might not be best to bring up his ‘immunity’ with outsiders just yet, even if they were heroes. “After a little while, it went on back out to sea. And most of us went with it.” Slinging the weapon over her shoulder, she turned back to the heroes, eyes filled with pain. “We’re the ‘lucky’ folk. We were all somewhere we couldn’t get out, not when our brains weren’t workin’.” Gesturing at Pauline's corpse, she added sadly, “they weren’t.”
Kneeling down next to the ravaged body, Archer studied it, her expression unreadable. “And then they came back.” As she said that, the zombie exploded into motion, lunging up at the catwoman. Helen shouted a warning, going for her shotgun, McNicols brought his own rifle up, but Archer simply raised a hand, eyes glowing purple, and the creature froze in place. “And they don’t stay still,” she added, her tone thoughtful. “No traces of life. This body is completely dead. Not a possession or some kind of mind control. This woman’s soul has gone on to whatever lies next for her. Thank God for small mercies,” she muttered.
“...Does, does that happen often?” Andy asked nervously.
“Not as often as you’d fear, but more often than you’d like,” Knight replied. “So, if they are just corpses, what’s animating them?”
Climbing to her feet, Archer gestured, and the zombie floated up to hover in front of her. “It’s magic of some sort,” she confirmed. “I don’t recognize it though. Not Pantheon, certainly not Thorns…” Her ears twitched thoughtfully. “Looks like physical damage weakens the magic, but it regenerates in time.”
“Shooting them does at least give us time to think,” Sandy ‘Moose’ Jansen commented. The biker rubbed at his goatee thoughtfully. “Although, even in pieces, I’ve noticed these things keep on twitching.”
“You know, the last time we were able to send anyone out for supplies, old Norma Creed was sitting on her porch with a bonfire in her yard,” Helen mused. “Ain’t nothin’ crawling out of that blaze to mess with her again. Mind you,” she added with a wry smile, “that might have somethin’ to do with the twelve-gauge she keeps next to her chair.”
Archer laughed lightly, but never looked away from the zombie, her expression bleak. “Well, if nothing else, it gives me an idea of what to do here. Miss, if you’re listening wherever you are, I apologise if you don’t like cremations,” she said quietly. Before the Sheriff could ask the heroine what she meant by that, flickers of flame began appearing around the catwomans body. Backing up, the locals watched as the flames grew in intensity, before gathering in the palm of her hand. She twitched her hand, and the fire burst outwards, completely covering Paulines body and hiding it from view. The zombies snarls stopped instantly, and in seconds, the flames went from human shaped, to a large sphere, to fading flickers of light and smoke. Of the body of Pauline Samson, only ash remained.
“Woah…” Andy managed.
“Easy there Alice,” Knight said gently. “I can much get the same result with my armor, remember?”
Panting slightly, the catwoman ran a hand down her face. “I know,” she admitted. “I just really hate zombies.”
Raising an eyebrow, Helen considered the briefly exhausted heroine. “I hope you’re not going to need to do that for everything running around out there,” she said dryly. “That might be just a little bit time consuming.” Laughter, weak but genuine, ran around the barricade for a moment, before it was broken by a loud, inhuman roar echoing down Elm Street. “Okay, the hell was that?”
“That,” Detective McNicols said with a grim smile, “was Street Sabre getting to properly punch someone.”
Heh. I see whoever named the streets and subdivisions in Paragon was at work here, too... Good stuff, Matrix. Looking forward to the next installment.
-- Bob
Then the horns kicked in...
...and my shoes began to squeak.
Our Wisdom flows so sweet. Taste and see...
TRANSMIT -  Initiate the Paragon signal - RECEIVE - Initiate the Divine frequency - KONYA WA HURRICANE - The Power of Rock Compels You - WITNESS - Priss Stingray, the Reluctant Goddess.
Five degrees negative-left on the Zorth axis, there is a city of Steel and Chrome. Flawed robots and broken people, living in the shadow of a Corporate God-Mountain. Against the shadows, faint light shines. Mercenary vigilantes, brave women with incredible technology. Knights of Hope in armored high heels.
Follow the one in blue. Priss Asagiri, Siren of the streets. A survivor convinced by circumstance that it’s safer to be alone. A lost girl, angry at those that tried to use her, to hurt her. Anger at those she came to trust and love, but could not survive the violence and death that was the religion of the City. She fights alongside her fellow Knights, but knows soon, she will be alone again. She kills that which she loves, and balances on the edge of oblivion.
Witness the Secret Agenda. The Knights, injured and divided, are taken. No one sees, no one hears. No one wants to hear. A flawed experiment that thinks himself a God uses the technology of his birth on them. Cybernetic twins, his planned Angels of Justice and Wrath, are born. Everything that makes you who you are, ready for download. Is that all we are Sweetling? Lines of code in an organic machine?
See the wounds in reality! Corporate espionage between dimensions! The perfect theft, gone without a trace. The story continues without the Angels. The Knights prevail, the sun rises again. A universe away, the Angels awaken, one by one. Prisoners of a corrupt corporation, sacrificing innocents to the almighty Dollar. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Initiate the inevitable response. The Angels escape, into a new world and new lives. Sister-Daughters of the people they remember, reflections in a mirror. Who will they be? For Priss Asagiri, there is denial, anger, hatred. She is now that which she hated. She is now the same as the woman she loved, who she had to kill.
We have seen so many fail in this test Sweetling. Some fall to anger, others to fear. It is not your fault, it is your nature. But Priss did not fail. She rose to the challenge and embraced her new life. Keep what you want, get rid of the rest. The garage sale of the soul.
Witness the eternal conflict. Good vs Evil, Hero vs Villain. She walks that path. Costumes and masks, secret identities. Technology origin. Street fighting brute. Tick boxes on paperwork. Name: Street Sabre.
Time passes. Pain fades. Wounds heal. The girl becomes a woman. Hero, mentor, friend, sister, wife. Love in the arms of a woman she never dared to imagine a lifetime before. Listen to the songs of celebration.
But this is the end of the Third Age. Countless schemes collide in a symphony of violence. Walls between dimensions fade, broken reflections peeking through the cracks. Sleeping gods begin to wake, their death chants consuming all. The ambitions of the broken experiment rise again. And the stars are moving closer.
Read the tales of her enemies. Tyrant. Mot. Mason. Rularuu. Shiva. Nemesis. Ta’aurc. Prometheus. Gr’ai. She defied gods and demons, standing unbroken and smiling. A good story? Plot hole! The cold math is clear. Technology has limits. Skill meets a point of diminishing returns. In the end, a mortal should have broken. Street Sabre should have failed, and the Age should have ended. Incarnation was not enough, no matter what Silos wants to believe and the Well would claim. They do not the the How or Why, but they know the truth.
Behold! The birth of a new Goddess. Domain... unknown. Power… undefined. Undefined! Even we cannot see her limits! Her very presence should spawn religion-thought, memetic infection creating the faithful. Her steps should shake the land, her words should deafen the unbelievers. Her eyes should see as we do, time and space becoming clear, her mind passing beyond the linear three dimensions you embrace to true understanding.
Instead, she remains almost mortal in her behaviour. Sleep. Food. Physical form. Music. Motorcycles. Cause and effect. She could shape the Fourth Age into her dream world, but it seems she simply isn’t interested...
Now that she was outside the barricades, Priss was getting her first look at what Kingsmouth must have been, before all this. Old houses with white picket fences and the American flag hanging over doorways. An old, but clearly lovingly maintained scooter parked on the sidewalk, unchained but safe. It seemed like a nice enough place. Of course, under normal circumstances, it was likely Priss would be uncomfortable and bored, but that was hardly the towns fault.

At the same time however, she could see signs of the current crisis. A car that had run up onto the sidewalk and crashed into a lamppost. A collection of shopping bags dropped and forgotten. And of course, another pack of zombies charging up the hill towards her.

The Knight Sabre didn’t even bother powering up her ranged weapons. Six undead puppets, armed with nothing more than their fingernails and teeth wouldn’t even scratch her hardsuits paint. Assuming they even managed to touch her. Smirking, she sped up slightly, meeting their charge with a wide punch that sent two of the zombies flying, one of them outright decapitated. Without slowing down, she followed through into a spin kick, ripping another two apart and scattering their remains across the road. The last two zombies, completely unaware that their ‘friends’ were gone, turned and lunged at her as she came to a stop behind them. Turning back towards them, Priss took the first one down with an open palm strike that caved in its chest and threw it backwards, bouncing it off the crashed car, then ducked the last zombies wild grab and brought her right fist up in an uppercut that caught the corpse in the jaw, sending it flying.

Shaking bits of rotting flesh off her hand, Priss sighed in irritation. “Freaking zombies,” she muttered. “God damned brainless meat puppets…” Starting down the street again, she muttered various curses about zombies and the people that raised them under her breath. Pausing, she tilted her head thoughtfully. “System: Access mission data,” she instructed her suit computer. “Give me Solomon Islands total population.”

“Latest census records place total population at 1,822,” her suit replied. The heroine tapped her fingers against her thigh thoughtfully as she walked along, considering the matter. Hopefully, the Sheriff's Office wasn’t the only place on the island still holding out against the undead, but even in a best case scenario, there could be over one and a half thousand zombies wandering the island. Trying to make a sweep of the island wasn’t really feasible. Even if they called in reinforcements, it would take forever, and if they missed any, sooner or later, some poor soul would find them. And of course, there was the issue of who or what had caused this disaster in the first place, and the question of just what the military and Orochi were up to.

Grumbling about Necromancers and Megacorps, Priss approached the bottom of the hill. On her left, there was the town's post office. To the right was a gas station, a pair of zombies standing next to the dumpster behind it. Between them lay what little remained of their latest meal, some sort of animal, maybe a raccoon, that hadn’t been quick enough to avoid them. Having indulged their instincts, the pair simply stood there, staring into space, waiting for something to get their attention. It appeared these weren’t the kind of zombies that would charge up a dark street just to satisfy their hunger for human flesh, which helped to support Robins theory that someone was sending them at the barricades.

Priss kept walking, approaching the intersection of Elm Street and Belmont Avenue, her eyes narrowing behind her visor. She could see the outline of a building on the far side of the road, but now she could see something else in front of it, standing on the street. A massive humanoid figure, still obscured by the mists, but as she got closer, details started to become visible. Twenty feet tall and misshapen, with arms that reached the ground and appeared to have claws instead of hands. And it appeared to have no head.

Coming to a stop about thirty feet short of the intersection, Priss considered the sight. She could see now that it actually did have a head. It was just receeded into the body, a mass of bone, muscle and coral growing above it. “What the hell…” she muttered under her breath. Once, it might have been human, and the center still showed traces of that origin, before it had changed, grown in unnatural ways. The skin and flesh was grey, rotten and water damaged. Its torso had split open, revealing a vertical mouth running down its ribcage. Its original right arm stuck out underneath the massive claw arm, twitching occasionally.

As she stared at the beast, and the small collection of zombies gathering obediently around it, something in the depths of the woman's soul stirred slightly. For a heartbeat, Priss could see ancient battles, a hole in the world, and a damned victory, those that had triumphed condemned to the hands of their enemy. The moment passed, that part of her soul returned to its comfortable slumber, and she whispered a single word. “Draug.”

Twitching, the Draug turned towards her, milk-white eyes staring at nothing. "Hvað er þetta? A lítil stúlka að spila á að vera riddari... " he said at last, his voice gurgling like a drowning man. His claws snapped together, ringing like steel as he laughed. "Ert þú hér að skora mig? Til að reyna að keyra okkur aftur í sjóinn? Þessi eyja er okkar nú, litla stúlku. Við erum það verð sem þú borgar fyrir græðgi þeirra. Faðma þinn endir. Látum dauða kröfu þér, og finna nýja heimurinn við munum gera frá leifar þínum."

The Knight Sabre stared at him for a moment, the visible part of her face thoughtful. “Yeah… I got no idea what you’re saying,” she said at last. “Lemme guess though. Threats of violence and murder?” she added with a grin.

Growling, the creature waved a claw at her. “Rífa hana frá skel og rífa hana!” he roared. Snarling, the zombies obeyed, running up the street towards her.

Rolling her eyes, Priss powered up her suits weapons. Instantly, her right forearm began to transform, panels sliding out of the way to reveal several components that unfolded and locked together into a small cannon about the length of her forearm. The zombies were about ten feet away when she raised her arm and fired, the air rippling as the concussion wave races outwards. All five of the animated corpses ran face first into the shockwave and were sent flying backwards, past the Draug and into the building behind him.

Turning, the monster considered the broken corpses for a moment, then turned back towards Street Sabre. “Svo, það er einhver kraftur í þér eftir allt saman, litla stúlkan,” he rumbled, eyes narrowing. “Hvað ertu?”

As the concussion blaster folded away, Priss smirked slightly. “No puppets this time,” she said. “Now, are you going to cooperate, or are you going to be an ass-” With a roar loud enough to be heard at the barricades, the Draug charged. “You’re gonna be an asshole,” she finished, breaking into a run of her own. Right before they collided, she dodged to the left, avoiding one of the Draugs massive claws as it came down hard enough to crater the concrete. Jumping, she drove a fist into his stomach, then fired her suit thrusters for a bit of a boost and proceeded to punch him in the face for good measure.

Stumbling back, the creature regained his footing faster than Priss was expecting. The moment her feet touched the ground, she had to duck to avoid a claw as it swung through where she was standing, glancing off one of her arms with a shriek of metal against stone. Gritting her teeth, Priss braced herself, then attacked again, this time with a uppercut that had a lot more power behind it. Her first blows would have driven a War Wolf to its knees, but this one would put an IDF Commander flat on his back.

It seemed to at least have some effect on the Draug, getting a roar of pain from the creature and driving him back several feet. Priss landed, crouched slightly, then lunged forward. A heartbeat later, she realised her mistake. A massive claw as big as she was slammed into her chest, throwing her back across the intersection and into the Post Office’s parking lot.

“OwFUCK!” Priss yelled as she collided with the front of the postal van and was promptly buried in the engine. As the dust began to settle, the Draug laughed in triumph, snapping its claws together. Then his laugh trailed off, a baffled expression slipping onto his face as Street Sabre climbed to her feet and stepped out of the ruined vehicle. As he stared at her in disbelief, she tested her left shoulder, wincing slightly, then smirked at him. “So… looks like I get to actually cut loose a little on you.”

And with that said, she threw the van at him. Eyes widening, the Draug braced himself, bringing his arms up to shield his face. The impact still sent him reeling, knocking him back across the street until he skidded to a halt in front of the gas station. Before he could recover, Street Sabre charged in, thrusters roaring. Using the postal van as a springboard, she dived on the monster from above, the knuckles on her left gauntlet glowing with energy as she slammed it into the Draugs right forearm.

The resulting explosion blasted the Draugs claw open, spraying coral, bone and rotting flesh across the street. Roaring in agony, he lashed out with his other arm, claw open in an attempt to grab her. But the woman was faster than him, and she was underneath the swing and closing in again before he realised it. She didn’t use the knuckle bombers this time, but the Draug bellowed in pain as his left kneecap shattered.

As he dropped into a crouch, leaning on his uninjured arm, he glared at Street Sabre. “ég drep þig,” he snarled. “Dauðinn verður efni í martraðir! Daga, vikur sársauka og kvöl! Ég lofa þér-” Whatever he was saying, the heroine ended it with a booster assisted spin kick that slammed into the Draugs face and threw him back, over the fence and onto the beach beyond.

“And that’s you down for a while,” Street said in a tone of profound satisfaction. “Now then, I need rope. Or maybe some cable...” Her musing was interrupted by a series of gurgling growls from the direction of the beach, and her shoulders slumped as understanding set in. “There’s more of you, isn’t there? Of course there is,” she muttered, stalking towards the fence.

Her previous opponent was out cold, half buried in the sand at the end of a short trench his body had dug. Gathered around him was about half a dozen smaller creatures, mostly human in size and shape, but with the beginnings of similar mutations, coral growing out of their arms into crude weapons. Beyond them, Street Sabre could see the shoreline, several dozen zombies and Draug emerging from the Fog. Several of the Draug, seemingly the females of the species, were particularly disgusting, a nest of tentacles having burst from the remains of their intestines, probing at the air in front of them. And past them, somewhere in the sea…

For several long moments, Priss considered the gathering army and what lurked in the grey waters beyond. Then she turned to look at that first Draug again, smirking bitterly at how the smaller monsters backed away slightly. “I should’ve guessed you bastards wouldn’t be the end of it,” she growled, before turning away and starting the walk back to the Sheriff's Office.

None of the undead had the courage to follow.


Throughout his long career, both as a police officer in the madness that was Paragon, and as a registered hero, Leon had dealt with situations like this more than he was really comfortable thinking about. He had seen countless people thrown into nightmare situations, and he had seen many, quite understandably, break under the strain.

Helen Bannerman wasn’t at that point yet. But as she turned back to the rough map of Solomon someone had drawn on the the whiteboard, Leon could see the exhaustion and grief starting to slip through. She’d held it at bay for days, letting the constant danger, the adrenaline, and the need to save as many of her people as she could distract her. It was instinct, rather than any deliberate act, but it had kept her moving.

But grief could be relentless. Now that there were others here that could take the burden off her shoulders, her mind was starting to wander off down dangerous paths. Letting her mind linger on that was inviting trouble. Glancing over at Purrfect Archer, he wasn’t surprised when the tigress met his eyes and nodded slightly in agreement. He’d clearly been thinking loud enough to catch her attention.

“Phones are out, and the radio’s spotty as heck,” Helen grumbled, “but last I heard, the Wabanaki Trailer Park, up by the casino, was still lit up. Folks were still holding out even after the dead came marching back in. Sent one of my Deputies, young Sam Thompson, to check the roads, see if we could move people there, try and regroup in one place.” She sighed, shaking her head . “That was yesterday, and according to Red-” she tapped a spot on the map well south of the trailer park, “he never even made it there to check in.”

“And what about the school?” Robin asked.

Scowling, Helen rubbed at her neck. “I wasn’t that far from there when this all kicked off. I was up at the old lighthouse, checkin’ in on that fool Sam Krieg.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. “The horror writer?”

“Maine’s number one export, to hear him tell it,” the Sheriff replied dryly. “He was in town for a book signing last week. Never much cared for horror stories, or the man himself.” She snorted in disgust. “Wavin’ a rifle around in a dressing gown, juiced up, heck of a disturbance of the peace.” The annoyance faded, replaced by pain. “That was the last of the peace… I went by the school right after the Fog left, before the dead came back. A few people are still there, saved one way or another, hiding behind magic wards. Everyone else took the same walk.”

“Dammit,” Alice growed, closing her eyes for a moment. “What about the lights to the north of here?” she asked. “There wasn’t anything about them on the maps.”

“Ayuh, there wouldn’t be,” Andy replied, clearly surprised. “That ain’t what one would call a permanent settlement, you know?” Rubbing at his jaw, the young man shook his head. “Jeez, wouldn’t have thought they’d still be up there. Fog went and got everyone outside, after all, and after Jack didn’t come back from up there…” the youth's voice trailed off, his expression thoughtful.

Helen took over the explanation. “It’s a camp site. Spiritual retreat, least that’s what the residents call it. They set up there about a month back, without the permission of the landowner, I should note,” she added, rolling her eyes. “We would have just kicked them out, but they went and called in their lawyers even before old Tom filed his first complaint.” Reaching over her desk, she picked up an old clipboard that was barely holding onto the mass of crumpled paperwork on it. “So instead, we had him coming in two, three times a day, filing complaints and giving us grief over not dealing with the ‘dang Morninglight hippies.’”

The heroes very carefully didn’t react to the word ‘Morninglight’. All three of them had experience with the religious organisation, very little of it pleasant. The fact that they were here, now, was not welcoming news.

Shrugging slightly, Leon stepped closer to the whiteboard, considering the map. “Might not hurt to check it out,” he mused, keeping his tone relatively casual. “If they’re alive, we at least should make sure they’re alright.” Helen nodded in agreement, her own expression thoughtful. Turning towards her, the man put his hands in his pockets. “What about the bridge?”

Grumbling slightly, Helen waved a hand. “Not a dang clue,” she admitted. “We know there’s someone up there, and they’ve got aircraft, parked there or at the airport. They’ve flown over us a few times, but not once have they even tried to contact us," she added with a near-snarl, throwing the clipboard back onto her desk.

“That’s where Jack was going,” Andy explained. “To see what was going on up there, right? That was three days ago.” The young mans shoulders slumped and he shook his head.

Ears and tail twitching as she considered, Purrfect Archer folded her arms under her breasts. “One or two of us might have a better chance of getting up there,” she offered, earning a thoughtful look from the Sheriff. “It wouldn’t be the first forest full of monsters I’ve had to sneak through,” she added with a grin.

For a moment, Helen grinned back, the stress vanishing from her face. Then it grabbed her again, and she frowned. "If they're the ones that chased off your plane, they probably won't be happy to see you," she warned.

Cracking his knuckles, Leon gave the woman a smile that was all teeth. "From what you're saying, they left you to fend off a zombie invasion while they dicked around doing God knows what," he growled. "Trust me, they're going to be very unhappy by the time we're done with them."

The soft sound of hydraulics caught everyone's attention, and they turned to see Street Sabre enter the building, a playful grin on the visible half of her face, her hardsuit showing some minor damage. "Whose ass are we kicking now?" she asked.

"One of your favorites. Men in Black helicopters watching from the shadows," Alice replied dryly. Street laughed lightly, rubbing her hands together in anticipation, and the tigress shook her head in amusement. "Brute."

"Eyup," the Knight Sabre replied, unconcerned.

Suppressing a laugh, Andy held up a thermos. "Care for some coffee? It's not exactly the best brew around, in fact it’s kinda foul…”

“Coffee is coffee,” she replied cheerfully, grabbing a mug from the table. As the deputy poured her drink, she glanced over at the others, expression turning more serious. “So, I found the asshole that was sending zombies this way. Pretty sure he was just a lackey. Still, beat the shit out of him on general principles.”

Leon snorted, looking her over. “Looks to me like he got a few good hits in himself,” he noted.

Accepting the coffee with a polite nod, Priss shrugged. “Guy’s the size of a war walker. Hits almost as hard, and he’s faster. Anyhow, my suits battlecomp called him a Draug.” Which, Leon knew, was her preferred cover story for when the knowledge came from her odd, mystic side. “It didn’t have any real details on them though,” she added, downing a mouthful of coffee. Wincing, she glanced over at Leon. “Almost as bad as your brew.”

“I’ll have mother look into it when I call her,” Alice said. “There might be something on them in the base computers, or the Midnight Archives.”

Priss nodded, then sighed. “Like I said, I beat the crap out of him, but he’s not the only freak down there. The beach has Draug all over it. I dunno why they’re not moving into town, but… I saw a lot more movement out in the water. I got the impression that if I pushed my luck too much down there, they’d start marching on in.”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Alice growled slightly in frustration. “This isn’t just some spell gone wrong or would-be necromancer. It’s sounding a lot like an invasion.” Opening her eyes, she looked over at the Sheriff. “I know we need to get out there, but I don’t like the idea of leaving you guys here without some heavy backup. Not if we’ve got monsters camping a few blocks away.”

Dropping into her chair, Helen leaned forward and rested her elbows on the desk. “I reckon you might have a point there,” she admitted, taking a moment to think. “Back outside, you said you didn’t think you could get people out. What about getting people in?” Alice twitched one ear, curious, and the Sheriff gave her a lopsided grin. “Four people, even folk with reputations like yours, are gonna have a lot of ground to cover. Maybe we should try calling in backup.”

Smirking, Purrfect Archer held up a hand, her phone appearing out of thin air. “Works for me,” she said. “Lemme make some calls.”

“In the meantime,” Helen said to the other heroes, “if you’re planning on heading out into town, how about we start planning...” she paused, then smirked, picking up a phone book and opening it to show the town map on the inside of the cover. “Let’s call it ‘requisitioning’, shall we?”

Chuckling, Robin leaned in to take a closer look. “Nice choice of words. Ideas on where we should start?”

Riot Force Headquarters, Kallisti Wharf, Paragon City
Ifrit Romanova frowned slightly as she made her way down the hallway to the teleporter bay, phone pressed against her ear. “I’m sorry to say that flying backup in may not be an option,” she told her daughter. “Typhoon made it out safely, but only because our Quinjets can climb higher than F-22s. They’re on alert for us now.”
“Figures,” Alice grumbled. “What’re they playing at? They’ve got plenty of firepower around the island, but the civilians are saying they’ve been left to fend for themselves. And trying to blackmail Liberty into not getting involved? ”
“Not exactly the most subtle of methods,” Ifrit agreed. Entering the teleporter bay, she paused in the doorway, watching as Katy Kaboom and Dark Glass meddled with the innards of one of the massive machines. “Or effective. We’ve got people looking into it. In the meantime, Katy and your aunt are modifying one of the spare teleporters.” Miranda glanced over and waved, then returned to her work as Ifrit continued, “They’re planning to use your signal as a homing beacon to send a team in.”
“And from there, we can set up an array to get the folks here out,” Alice finished. “It’ll take time, but I think the locals could use that good news.”
Nodding to herself, Ifrit walked into the room and went up the steps to the small rest area, turning her attention to the water cooler. “As for the Draug, the name sounds familiar to me as well, although I have to admit, I’m not sure from where. If Street could upload her helmet camera footage, it might be helpful.”
“I’ll remind her,” Alice promised.
Behind Ifrit, Katy made one last adjustment with her hydrospanner, then nodded in satisfaction and closed the panel. “All set here,” she called out.
Turning back to the control panel in front of her, Miranda Barnes checked the readouts again. “Looking good,” she murmured. “Clean signal, projectors are aligned, Heisenberg denial fields set… We’re ready. Powering it up, starting tests.” Flipping open a plastic cover, she pressed the large green button underneath. The rooms ever-present background hum shifted slightly as the array powered up, turbines spinning. Then the hum shifted in pitch, becoming an ear-piercing shriek, and the Warshade slammed her hand down on the abort button before it got any worse. “Okay, what was that?” she grumbled, giving the readouts a disgusted look. “That was just a test pulse, how… Ah.”
Catching the sudden alarm in her coworkers voice, Katy began to back away from the teleporter array. “Mir?” she asked, before the panel she’d closed a minute before began to rattle. The engineer blinked, then she dove for cover as the panel blasted off the machine and flew across the room. In the space beyond, circuits and cables began to deform as a black mass grew around them, absorbing the materials. Several misshapen eyes began to open, looking around eagerly. “Oh, just wonderful,” she growled.
Before it could ooze its way out of the array, Miranda stepped forward, twin beams of nictus energy shooting from her eyes and burning into the mutating flesh. “I think we just voided the warranty,” she said dryly.
Unhooking the Hair Dryer of Doom from her belt, Katy smirked slightly “I was involved. It was void by default,” she pointed out, before raising her weapon and sending a small hailstorm into the creature's ‘face’.
Considering the sight for a moment, Ifrit sighed. “I’m going to have to call you back,” she told her daughter before hanging up. Putting the phone away, she placed her drink on top of the water cooler and walked towards the fight, flames dancing around her body. As the creature extended several tentacles, trying to drag itself out of the narrow space it had spawned in, Lady of the Peace raised a hand, and the flames flowed outwards, burning the creature and driving it back. “Miranda, what did you do?” she asked, giving her sister a glare. “Do I need to revoke your teleporter privileges again?”
“Whoa, hey, this isn’t my fault!” the Kheldian protested, jumping over another flailing tendril. Darkness flowed around her, and gravity increased around the array, pulling the now-sagging machinery towards the floor. A moment later, Katy blasted the creature with the Thug-A-Pault, an invisible force grabbing dragging it in yet another direction, drawing an unpleasant gurgle of pain from several forming mouths. “I was doing exactly what I was told to do!”
Katy shrugged reluctantly. “That’s a fair point. I mean, no one really expects this sort of thing,” she noted, then dived out of the way of another tentacle. “Someone lock the doors!” she added. “If this is what I think it is, it is way above securities pay grade!” Summoning a trio of particle clouds to try and distract the creature, Miranda dropped back towards the closest door. Growling, the black flesh ignored her ‘pets’ and tried to grab at her, only to have one of the clouds swarm over the outstretched tentacle, stripping the flesh away in large chunks.
As Miranda sealed the doors, Ifrit took to the air, firing a beam of focused flame onto the creature from above. “Katherine, I would really appreciate it if you actually told me what this is,” she growled, before more of the teleporter array began to warp and deform into another limb, forcing her back.
Reaching into one of her compression pouches, Katy pulled out a small quadcopter drone that showed all the usual signs of her modifications. “Point defense plan Kappa,” she told it, letting it float into the air next to her, the custom tazer built into its underbelly crackling. “Doctor Tesla called it the Shadow From Beyond Time,” she explained, jumping over a control panel and crouching down behind one of the uninfected teleporter stations. “He and Charles Fort ran into it back in the nineteen twenties.” Tearing the panel off the side of the array, she shrugged slightly. “He came up with a few tricks for fighting it.”
“I remember that story,” Miranda commented as she rejoined the fight, crafting a singularity inside the Shadows main body, crushing it inward. “I seem to recall him describing it as something along the lines of ‘nesting in the present and growing into the past.’”
“And trying to establish a teleporter link to Kingsmouth somehow let it back in,” Katy mused as she pulled more equipment from her pouches. “Not a good sign.” Above her, the drone opened fire with its tazer, frying flesh but not really slowing the Shadow down. “Could you guys try and keep it off me? I’m pretty sure I can get rid of it, but I’m going to need some time.”
The two sisters glanced at each other. Miranda shrugged, and then Ifrit grinned, flames that seemed almost solid forming around her body. "We can do that."
Growling from several mouths, the Shadow pulled free of the singularity and began to reshape its form, the lower section of its body splitting into legs, while the tendrils took on the role of arms, joints forming under pulsing flesh. Lady of the Peace and Dark Glass charged before it could finish, the Kheldian pinning the legs in place with a gravitic snare, letting the fae slam a glowing fist into the deformed mass that served as its face.
Maneuvering around the large, clumsy creature, the pair quickly settled into a pattern, with one of them distracting or slowing the Shadow, while the other moved in to strike. Keeping it away from Katy as she worked proved to be rather simple, its attention span seemingly limited to whatever had hit it last. Actually hurting it was a different matter however.
Twisting around one of the creature's limbs, Ifrit dropped to the ground, spun on one heel, and sent a wave of fire over her opponent's torso. “I hate to sound pessimistic, but it appears to be healing faster than we can kill it,” she pointed out.
Miranda's body language shifted, taking on a lighter, more agile stance as her alien partner took control of their body. “No, not healing,” Jade Barnes disagreed, carving a chunk out of the Shadows thigh with her beam eyes. “This isn’t regeneration, it’s just still growing.” Ifrit raised an eyebrow, then conceded the point as, rather than repairing the burns she’d inflicted, deformed flesh simply grew over the top of the damaged tissue. “Katherine darling, we’re fighting a losing battle here!”
“Almost done!” came the reply. “Just keep its attention a little longer!”
Sighing, Ifrit prepared for another charge, only to pause as the Shadow’s behaviour changed. Gurgling, it dropped to its knees, chest heaving and tendrils flailing. The sisters glanced at each other, confused, before the Shadow vomited, blackness spilling out from half a dozen mouths. Jade shrieked , jumping back and nearly tripping over the steps behind her, bringing up a shield to protect herself from the liquid.
Rising higher into the air, Ifrit gathered flames in both her hands and unleashed it on the Shadow’s back, trying to take advantage of the opening. A moment later however, she was forced back on the defensive, evading several tentacles emerging from the blackness spreading over the floor to try and grab at her. Flipping backwards, she threw a fireball into the mouth that was forming on the tip of one of the tentacles, burning it away clean to the floor, only to have another one clip her left wing, drawing a gasp of pain from her. “Katy!” she yelled as a third tentacle wrapped around her leg, dragging her down towards the darkness.
Emerging from behind her cover, Katy Kaboom held up her new weapon. It looked like a collection of random computer parts and equipment in the general shape of a rifle, a collection of thick industrial power cables connecting it to the teleporter array she’d spent the last few minutes modifying. “Doctor Sagan, be with me now,” she muttered, squeezing the trigger. A burst of gold-white lighting flowed out from the emitters mounted on the tip of her weapon, washing over the Shadow. While Ifrit and Mirandas attacks had cut and burnt the creature, as the light faded, they all saw that the parts of the creature hit by the attack were simply gone, as if it had never existed.
Regaining her footing, Dark Glass blasted the tentacle that had grabbed her sister, then they both backed away as the Shadow turned towards Katy, who was now grinning a savage smile as she turned a dial on the side of the gun up to its maximum setting. “Shadow from Beyond Time, meet the pure light of Science!” she declared, firing again. This time, the light filled the room completely, briefly blinding all three women.
When it cleared, the Shadow was completely gone. Every drop of the corrupted black had vanished from existence, leaving only the burnt and warped remains of the ruined teleporter, scattered across the room. Blinking spots out of her eyes, Katy lowered her weapon and gave the room a surprised look. “Well,” she mused. “I certainly wasn’t expecting that.”
“I think you got him,” Miranda commented, taking a scanner from her tool belt. “I dunno how exactly… I mean, you just zapped it once,” she muttered, holding the device up to where the Shadow had been, frowning at the readouts. “It shouldn’t just… disappear like that, should it?”

“It wants to eat the Omniverse,” Katy muttered, looking around the room as if she expected the black to emerge from the shadows. “I really don’t like it just wandering off.”
Behind them, the doors slid open to admit a security team, Nene Romanova and Sachie Hanagawa leading them in. “It’s alright,” Ifrit said, smiling gently at the concerned expression on her wifes face. “I think it’s over.”
Lowering her sidearm, Nene looked around the room, considering the damage. “What in the hell happened here?”
Nudging the burnt remains of the infected teleporter array with her foot, Sachie turned towards Miranda, the amazonian ninjas expression gently mocking. “Really?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Again?”
Grinding her teeth, the Kheldian gave the taller woman a glare. “You can all just go to hell.” Ignoring Nene’s snickering, she focused her attention on her scanner.
Resting her beam rifle on her shoulder, Katy smiled slightly. “I have to admit, this one really isn’t her fault.”
“I don’t suppose you could give us a bit more of an explanation now?” Ifrit asked. “Why exactly did some sort of mutant flesh monster grow out of one of our teleporters?”
“Okay, that’s not listed in the potential hazards section of the manual,” Nene muttered.
Not looking up from her scanner, Miranda shrugged. “Like Kat said, Robo called it the Shadow From Beyond Time. It might have other names too, but I’ve only ever heard of the run-ins he and his dad had.”
“The way he described it,” Katy continued, carefully reducing the power flowing through her weapon, “the Shadow is some kind of… reality virus, for lack of a better term.” One of the cables sparked, and she winced, adjusting a dial. “It slips into our Omniverse through weak points and starts trying to eat reality. If it ever got a proper foothold, we’d probably be looking at a Hamidon scale threat at the very least.” As she began to flip switches on a nearby control panel, she shrugged. “Given that the first time Doctor Tesla ran into it, it was clawing its way into reality through H.P. Lovecrafts head, I think we can safely say there’s a connection to the Cthulhu mythos as well.”
Holstering her sidearm, Nene turned her attention from Miranda, to Katy and her death ray, and finally to the destroyed teleporter systems. “Cthulhu is summoned by teleporting,” she said flatly. “This would have been good to know before.”
Miranda snorted, before her Nictus partner took control again. “Speaking as someone with centuries of experience in the field,” Jade commented, gesturing at herself, “if teleportation twisted reality in such a way that it invited that… creature in, my people would have died out long before we made that foolish deal with Romulus.” Brushing her hair back behind her ear, she frowned thoughtfully. “No, the Shadow was already in our universe, as worrying as such a concept is. We were just unfortunate enough to get its attention, most likely by attempting to teleport through it.”
Pausing before disconnecting the last cable attaching her weapon to the teleporters, Katy groaned in understanding. “Which means it’s probably on Solomon Island somewhere. Hell, maybe it’s the source of the zombies. Doctor Tesla mentioned it had a fondness for possession.” Sighing, she removed the cable and leaned the rifle against the wall before looking at Ifrit. “These teleporters are out of commission. We’re gonna have to give the entire system a once over before we even start cleaning up that mess,” she grumbled, waving a hand at the remains of array the Shadow had taken over. “And call me crazy-”
“You’re crazy,” Miranda said instantly.
Paying absolutely no attention to her friend, Katy continued, “But I don’t think we should try anyone else's teleporters either. Legendary, Beacon, it doesn’t matter. Until we can locate and destroy the original incursion point, any teleportation through Solomon Island runs the risk of the Shadow spreading.”
Shoulders slumping, Ifrit sighed in profound irritation. “Which means that air travel might be our only option after all. Which probably means we’re going to be picking a fight with the Air Force. I can’t wait to see how that goes for us…”
Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Sachie smirked slightly. “Maybe not. I might have something.” Leaning down to give Nene a quick kiss on the cheek, she turned and walked towards the doors. “Back soon.”
Watching her go, Miranda frowned. “She’s not going to tell us what it is?” she asked.
Her sister smiled, although it was somewhat forced. “No point in revealing a secret if it turns out we can’t use it,” she noted wryly as she took her phone back out, tapping Alice’s speed dial.
“Also, she might just not want you to break it,” Nene added. Scowling, Mir threw a melted circuit board at her.
Kingsmouth, Solomon Island
As Leon and Robin stepped out past the barricades, Priss walked around to the back of the patrol car. Placing one hand on the boot, she pushed the vehicle back into position, blocking off the makeshift gates. “Dang,” Andy commented as he put the handbrake on and climbed out of the vehicle. “You didn’t even have to try. That’s one impressive suit of armor you have there miss.”
“It has its uses,” Street Sabre agreed with a grin. Glancing out past the barricade, she watched the other two heroes make their way down Arkham Avenue, forms already fading into the darkness. “It’s gotten me out of more trouble than I care to imagine, that's for damn sure."
Shaking his head, the deputy chuckled lightly. "And here all I ever had was a nightstick and a pistol," he mused. "Heck, never even used the gun on the job before all this..." The young man's smile faded as his eyes lost focus. "It was a nice, quiet place, you know?" he said quietly. “Nothing stronger on the streets than a hot cup of coffee and chocolate glazed donuts from Suzie’s.” Closing the car door, he looked out at Arkham Avenue, losing himself in memory for a moment. “The occasional DUI, domestic disturbance… human sacrifice,” he murmured under his breath. Leaning against the hood of the vehicle, he watched as the pair in the distance vanished completely, seemingly unaware he was still talking. “I guess all towns have a dark side. And now this. Instead of bacon and maple syrup, we’re waking up to the smell of rotten flesh… And I don’t need another thing to remind me of my dad.” Sighing again, he straightened and walked away, lost in his thoughts.
Watching him go, Street Sabre blinked in confusion. “Well, okay. Glad we had this talk,” she said to herself, before turning and jumping up to the roof of the Sheriff's Office. On the far side of the building, Purrfect Archer considered the phone in her hand, clearly frustrated. Sighing, she turned the screen off, before it vanished into thin air. “I know that look,” Street commented as she walked towards the taller woman. “What just went wrong?”
Unhooking her bow and powering it up, Alice sighed again. “Teleporting isn’t an option,” she muttered, looking out across the forest to the east of town. “Apparently, when Aunt Mir and Katy Kaboom tried to aim a teleporter here…” she paused, considering her next words carefully. “The teleporter was possessed by a non-euclidian tentacle monster that tried to eat everyone.”
There was a long moment of silence as Street considered that, giving Archer time to take an arrow from her quiver, nock it and take aim at something only she could see. “Right,” the armored woman said at last. “That’s new.”
Snickering, the purple haired woman nodded. “And before you say it, Mama Nene and Sachie have already given Aunt Mir grief over it,” she said, before drawing the bowstring back and holding her breath.
Priss waited patiently for the catwoman to release the arrow, sending it flying off into the night, before replying. “Well, at least that’s consistent. Course, now we need to find another way to get in and out. Again.” Frowning thoughtfully, she glanced out into the darkness, switching her visor to night vision mode. “The hell are you even shooting at?”
“Zombies,” Archer replied with a grin, drawing another arrow. “Even if it’s not killing them, it’s kinda hard to shamble over here when you’re pinned to a tree.” That got a laugh from the smaller woman, and Alice's grin widened as she she took aim again. “No sign of any of your Draug,” she noted, then sighed and lowered her bow. “Behind a tree… Either they’re still only on the beach, or they’re staying out of sight.” Turning towards her friend, the catwomans ears twitched. “So, Kaboom had heard of that thing before. Apparently, it’s called the Shadow from Beyond Time.”
“Dramatic name,” Street Sabre mused, considering the odd, familiar tingle in the back of her brain at that title. Knowledge that wasn’t quite hers flickered across her awareness, but it was gone again before she could grab it.
“Yeah,” Alice agreed. “So, you think that thing’s the reason you decided to not just kick the Draugs heads in?” Street snorted slightly, and the catwoman grinned. “Come on Priss, it’s you. Your reaction to an army is girlish giggles of excitement at more things to punch.”
Pausing, Street raised a hand. “Girlish giggles?” she asked.
“Mama Nene claims to have audio.”
“Yeah, well, she’s a damn liar,” Street replied, before she leaned against the stations air conditioning unit. “It’s close to what I said, actually. I was worried about escalation. Just not from the naked crab zombie men,” she said, folding her arms across her stomach and grinning at the face Alice made over that particular mental image. The grin faded quickly however. “Do you remember, after you Incarnated, how there was always this weird feeling when you were fighting Hamidons Devoured, or the Echoes of the Well?”
Nodding, Alice considered that. “Like you could almost see the power,” she replied. “And follow it back to its source…” Eyes glowing purple for a moment, she took aim again and drew the bowstring back. “You think they’re empowered,” the catwoman realized. Her voice was low, barely above a whisper, the heroine suddenly concerned one of the locals might overhear.
“Oh, I know they are,” Street Sabre grumbled as Purrfect Archer sent another arrow into the night. “I can almost taste it. The Draug have their own God, and it’s rewarding their worship with a fragment of its power. And the trail ain’t long. It stops right out there in that crap,” she muttered, pointing a thumb in the direction of the bay. “This freaking Shadow sounds like as good a suspect as any,” she added with a thoughtful frown. Sighing, she reached up to run a hand through her hair, only to be reminded of her helmet by the sound of metal striking metal. After giving her gauntlet an irritated look, she turned her attention back towards the other woman. “Whatever the hell it is, it’s damn powerful. If it decided to come in out of the Fog and just start breaking shit, well. We might be able to take it down, but there probably wouldn’t be much left of Kingsmouth when the smoke cleared.”
Lowering her bow, Purrfect Archer turned to look towards the bay, eyes glowing brighter as she reached out with her telepathy. After a moment, she frowned and shook her head, the light fading away. “Can’t track it,” she admitted. “There’s too much magic in the air for me to see that far. It’s probably residual energy from when the Fog rolled in… Which was probably the Shadow’s doing, now that I think about it.” Ears twitching, she considered that for a moment. “If you’re right, and it’s a God for these Draug, that would suggest it’s at least an Ascended level threat, right?” Street shrugged and nodded, and Alice's frown deepened. “When something’s that powerful, it doesn’t just wander in and attack some random town, just because it felt like it.”
Snorting, Priss nodded. “Yeah, it’s the sorta shit that gets noticed. So you figure it chose this place for a reason. Any idea what?”
“Not yet… but this place was founded by an old Illuminati faction,” she mused. “Who knows what they left buried around here.”
“You’re probably right… crap,” Street muttered, shaking her head. “Just once, I’d like a simple problem, ya know?” she complained. “Find the bad guy, punch the bad guy, go home.”
Drawing two more arrows, Purrfect Archer nocked both of them at the same time and took aim. “Please. You’d only end up complaining to your wife about how bored you are without something to punch.”
“No, I’d use the free time to cuddle,” she replied. “Same as you and Inyme.”
“That’s true.”
Landing on a white fence post, the raven ruffled his feathers and looked around, beady eyes considering his surroundings. A moment later, he screeched in outrage and took to the air again, barely avoiding the lunge from a hungry zombie that had been lurking in the shadows. The animated corpse proceeded to trip over the fence and fall face first onto the footpath with the horrible noise of bones breaking. Unconcerned by its new injury, it scrambled to its feet, all its attention on the bird circling overhead. Before it could try and jump after the raven however, a bolt of pure white light caught it in the back of the neck, vaporizing most of its head.
Lowering her hand, Knight of the Peace gave the body a satisfied look. “And that is why you leave hunting birds to the cats,” she commented. “We actually know what we’re doing.” Next to her, Leon chuckled lightly, earning himself a playful smile, before she looked up to where the raven had landed on a rooftop. “And you are lucky I’m busy,” she told him, getting an almost amused sounding caw in reply.
As she started walking again, Leon shook his head in amusement. As always, he found it utterly adorable when Robins catgirl side came out to play. Giving the zombie corpse one last check, he followed after her. Behind them, several more ravens landed on the edge of the roof, watching the pair with intense, thoughtful eyes.
“Maybe you should have brought your Scrapper gear,” Leon commented as he brought his rifle up, sweeping it across the buildings on the other side of the street.
“Hmm, maybe. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of hunting I could do here,” she mused, almost purring at the idea, despite being in a form that was supposedly completely human. After a moment, she pouted slightly and shook her head. “But I’ve tried hunting undead before, and it’s just no fun. Most of the time, you don’t even have to try to sneak up on them. And let’s not even start on getting rotten flesh under your claws.” Shuddering at the thought, Robin shook her head sadly. “Such a shame. There’s not as much good hunting in Paragon these days.”
Before Leon could reply to that, the woman came to a halt again, a frown visible under her visor. Following her gaze, Leon saw their first destination, the simple yet instantly recognizable design of the town's Church. According to Sheriff Bannerman, Kingsmouth Congregational Church remained a safe haven, with the Minister and several other people taking shelter inside its walls. She’d been a little vague on exactly how they were protected however, and the sight of the buildings front doors standing wide open did not exactly inspire confidence. “I wouldn’t exactly call that secure,” Robin said at last, matching the detectives unspoken opinion.
As if summoned by her words, two more zombies emerged from behind an abandoned pickup truck in the parking lot, running up the steps towards the Church. Swearing under his breath, Leon brought his rifle up, trying to get a shot off before they were obscured by the white picket fence. Next to him, the wings on Knights armor sprang open as she took to the air, energy gathering around her hands.
However, before either of the heroes could fire, the zombies reached the top of the steps. In the blink of an eye, whatever was animating the corpses vanished, gravity and momentum dragging both bodies to the ground in what would have been a painful impact for a living being. “...Well, okay,” Knight said, powering her gauntlets back down. “I guess I was wrong.”
“Looks like,” Leon agreed, walking towards the Church, keeping his weapon aimed at the bodies. “What the hell did it though? Holy ground or something?”
Landing next to the corpses, Robin shrugged slightly. “Maybe. We’d need Alice or Street to come and confirm it though.” The sound of footsteps from inside the church made her turn, raising her hand, only to pause halfway up. In front of her, a man in what appeared to be his mid-forties came to a halt, eyes widening behind his glasses as he took in the sight in front of him. “Oh, um, hello!” she said, waving slightly.
“Good Lord,” the man murmured, rubbing at his mustache with his left hand, while his right reset the safety on the .44 he was holding, putting it away in his sweater. “Superheroes! I assume you had something to do with that racket I heard coming from down the street earlier…” Realizing where they were all standing, he shook his head slightly, dismissing the topic. “Well, never mind that now. Please, come in, come in. The house of the Lord is always open, especially to those that are fighting the eternal battle against the darkness.”
Following the older man into the Church, Leon smiled politely as he looked around. In contrast to the chaotic war zone that was the Sheriff's Office, the Church remained calm and tidy, supplies neatly stacked in one corner, while several people slept in between the pews. “Well, we certainly appreciate the generosity,” he said, keeping his voice relatively low. Behind them, Knight knelt down and picked up the bodies, throwing them out into the street, safely away from the Church. “I’m Detective Leon McNicols, Paragon Special Investigations, and this is Knight of the Peace, from the Legendary,” he continued, gesturing to the woman behind him as she stepped inside.
“Well, it’s truly a pleasure to meet you, both of you.” His smile faded as he reached up to adjust his glasses. “Despite the rather… troubling circumstances that have brought you here.” Sighing softly, he pressed on, as a tired smile began to form on his face. “I am Reverend Henry Hawthorne. I assume Helen asked you to check up on us? Even with the Churches protection, she does tend to worry about us. I can’t really blame her I suppose,” he admitted. “She has always been a woman that takes her responsibilities very seriously.”
Removing her helmet, Robin nodded. “She did say that she’d appreciate it if we could look in on you while we were out collecting supplies,” she confirmed with a smile. Resting her helmet on a pew, she raised an eyebrow. “Also, she asked if we could check up on a Mister Dufrense?”
The comment earned a quiet laugh from the Pastor, even as he took his pistol out of his pocket and placed it on the lectern at the far end of the room, next to a well used copy of the bible. “Ah yes, I thought she’d be worried about him. Not to worry,” he said, nodding to one of the pews, where a teenage boy could be seen curled up in a sleeping bag, sound asleep. “Young Daniel made it here before sunset, but it was late enough I convinced him to remain.” Shaking his head, he considered the young man, expression a mixture of amusement and frustration. “I’d be much happier if he would stay here permanently, where it’s safe, but… Boys will be boys, I suppose, even in times like this. And at least he’s willing to follow some of the rules Helen and I have laid down. Besides,” he added, giving them a lopsided smile, “He’s better at getting around town safely than anyone else.”
Putting his rifle down on a pew, Leon shook his head, a slightly bitter smile flickering across his features. “Kids tend to be durable like that,” he agreed, thinking back to places like First Ward or the Cosmodrome, and the children that had survived, even thrived, under the nightmarish conditions. “Even if we’d prefer to keep them where it’s safe,” he grumbled, before gesturing at the walls around them. “Speaking of safe…”
Henry could only shrug. “Oh, I wish I could explain it Detective. As it is, we only discovered the Church's protections two days ago, when we came here to find supplies. We’re not even sure of its limits. It could be the entire building, or it could just be those doors.” He waved a hand towards the entrance, covering a yawn with his other hand. “Any of the walking dead that get too close to that door lose whatever it is that animates them. But only while they’re near the Church. If you move the bodies, well…” As if summoned by his words, the pair of zombies Robin had thrown back into the street came into view, snarling. A moment later they crossed the threshold, and repeated their earlier collision with the pavement. “That happens,” he finished.
“Well, that’s something,” Leon said. “Although it does explain why Helen was kind of vague about how you were protected.”
Nodding, the pastor sat down on one of the seats near the organ. “She doesn’t really trust it,” he said. “And to be honest, I can’t blame her. While I would like to believe that this protection is the work of the Lord, I am familiar with Kingsmouths… unspoken history.” The two heroes glanced at him, and he gave them a slightly bitter smile in return. “Depressingly few people here on Solomon Island remember our… Illuminated ancestors, and most of those that do, try to imagine them as enlightened, noble souls, who dreamt only of making a better world. But I’ve spent years studying them. The official history, the parts the history books neglect to mention, and the details that don’t appear on any google searches. They were simply men, with a lot of ambition and a lot of enemies. The Templars, Nemesis, why, they’d even angered the Church,” he noted, looking at their surroundings. “They fled Europe because they feared for their lives, and rightly so. But distance would hardly have been their only method of protecting themselves.” Sighing to himself, he rested his head against the wall, staring up at the stained glass windows, and the Eye of Providence each window contained. “And given what they’ve brought down on us now, one could argue those protections were more than justified,” he muttered.
Raising one eyebrow, Robin gave him a thoughtful look. “You believe that all this has something to do with your ‘Illuminated Ancestors?’” she asked.
Henry sat up, eyes gleaming with the excitement of a man and his favorite topic. “Indeed I do. Despite their many achievements, they often meddled in things that were better left alone. There is quite a bit of evidence that they built Innsmouth Academy to bury more than a few of their mistakes, quite literally.” Standing up, he began to pace back and forth. “The modern version of the organisation has very little contact with Solomon Island, even through the Academy. Although there are claims, unverified of course, that a number of the school's financial backers maintain clandestine membership…” His voice trailed off as it occurred to him he was starting to ramble, and he coughed slightly. “In any case, given their involvement in this town’s history, it’s almost certain that recent events are the consequence of their actions. Something they did, something they stole… history has shown that many occult beings and organisations operate with what we mere humans would consider a distorted perspective of time. Whoever or whatever is responsible for that fog may not even realize that their enemy has moved on. Mark my words, this attack is the sins of Solomon Islands past, returning to torment us now.”
Considering that, and remembering some of the monsters and villains he’d faced down in his career, Leon couldn’t help but nod slowly. Without even trying, he could think of perhaps half a dozen incidents he’d heard of where the events fit the pastors theory. And if the Illuminati were as connected to the towns history as Henry was suggesting... “You may be right,” he admitted reluctantly. “At the same time, it doesn’t really narrow down the list of suspects, does it? Asking who your ‘Illuminated Ancestors’ managed to piss off is like asking who’s sick of Nemesis claiming he meant to do that.”
Before anyone could reply to that, a series of growls and snarling echoed through the back wall of the Church, catching their attention. “Well, that’s cliche,” Robin muttered as she consulted her mental map of the town. “Zombies in the town cemetery.”
Coughing again, Henry scowled at the wall and whatever lurked beyond it. “It’s most likely more of the dearly departed, managing to dig their way out of their graves,” he said bitterly, before gesturing at his sidearm. “I’ve tried to contain them, even tried to rebury them and try blessing the graves, in the hope that might have some effect. But it seems that my Ancestors protections have a very limited range. Even going out there and attempting it is… rather dangerous.”
Her face paling, Knight of the Peace took an instinctive step in the direction of the cemetery. “Digging out of their graves,” she said at last, turning back to the Pastor. “As in, dead and buried for a long time?”
Blinking, Henry glanced between the pair, before understanding flickered across his features. “Oh, of course, Helen doesn’t know yet,” he realized. “I only saw it for myself last night. But yes, this darkness isn’t just afflicting those who were alive when the attack began. Many of the graves I’ve seen unearthed, well, it’s safe to say that they’re older than I am.”
Running a hand down his face, Leon sighed in frustration. “Which means we’ve probably got even more undead running around than we’d feared. Dammit, I hate this voodoo shit.” Glancing over at his girlfriend, she gave her a lopsided smile. “We’re probably going to be here a while.”
“I think we already knew that…” She paused, eyebrows rising, as growls and voices could be heard through the wall again. Where the zombies had been random noise, barely at the level of aggressive animals, this sounded almost like coherent speech of some sort. “Hello now,” Knight said quietly, retrieving her helmet and walking towards the door.
Grabbing his rifle, Leon turned to the pastor, who was now looking rather alarmed. “Wait here,” he said, before following Knight towards the exit. “Stay quiet,” he told her. “I want to see what they’re doing.”
“You got it,” she said, suits wings popping open. By the time she took to the air, her suits stealth systems were powering, leaving nothing but a faint ripple in the air. Stepping over the corpses at the threshold, Leon quickly made his way around the Church, sticking close to the wall. Nothing emerged from the shadows to try and eat him, and in moments, he was able to get his first look at Kingsmouth Cemetery.
A long career that had required him to fight zombies, necromancers, mad scientists and death cultists meant that Detective McNicols had spent far more time in cemeteries than he liked to consider. As his experienced eyes looked over the rows of well-maintained gravestones and a rather nice looking war memorial statue, he frowned slightly. “Picket fence exterior, no sign of defences, conventional or magical,” he grumbled. Maybe he’d lived in Paragon City too long, but all he could think of right now was, based off everything he’d heard about the seventeenth-century Illuminati, they damn well should have known to build a cemetery better than this.
Nearly a dozen undead wandered aimlessly around the grounds, growling and moaning at random. Another zombie could be seen, trying to climb out of the disturbed soil in the nearest row of gravestones, one decayed arm and a head sticking out of the ground it had likely been clawing at for days. And at the far end of the cemetery, emerging from the treeline, three deformed, rotten creatures approached. Well over six feet tall, flesh grey and swollen, coral growing from old wounds. Curiously, there seemed to be some consistency to the coral growth across all three creatures, with their left arms almost completely covered by the substance. As Leon looked closer, he realised that the coral had been polished and sharpened, forming crude melee weapons.
“So these are Street’s Draug,” Knights voice said over the comm. “Rather ugly, even by zombie standards.” The trio paused, looking around the gravestones, and the woman made a thoughtful noise. “They’re smarter than the average zombies too. It looks like they’re aware of their surroundings… One more, back by the treeline,” she added.
“What’s it doing?” Leon asked, keeping his voice low.
“From the look of things, serving as a lookout. Darn. They’ve got brains,” she grumbled.
Smirking slightly, the Detective adjusted his grip on his rifle. “It’s been known to happen, even with zombies. Hopefully they don’t get their intelligence by eating other people's brains.”
“Ewewewww…” the girl said, clearly shuddering in disgust even over audio.
“Sorry,” he whispered. Robin didn’t reply, and instead they both got comfortable and watched as the Draug moved through the cemetery. The three monsters moved with a worrying efficiency, gathering up the various zombies. One of them, taller than the other two, his left hand still free of the coral growing around it, inspected each of the animated corpses as they worked. Those that met whatever his criteria was were gently guided towards the other two Draug. Five of the zombies, including the one that was still mostly buried, seemed to fail the test, and were quickly knocked aside and ignored.
Less than five minutes after they’d entered the cemetery, the Draug had departed, taking their small collection of zombies with them. Those that had not met the creatures standards continued to wander around aimlessly, likely unaware the Draug had even been there. “Well,” Knight said. “That was interesting.”
“Very interesting,” the Detective agreed, stepping out of the shadows and bringing his rifle up. None of the undead even noticed him before he opened fire, and he quickly decapitated three of them with explosive rounds, while Knight vaporised two more with bolts of light from a seemingly empty sky. Frowning thoughtfully, the man turned and walked back around to the front of the Church.
Just inside the threshold, Henry Hawthorne was waiting, with as much patience as he could manage under the circumstances. “You… didn’t run into any trouble, I hope?” he asked, then jumped slightly as Knight of the Peace appeared out of thin air, landing next to him.
“I’m not sure,” the woman admitted. “We saw the Draug. Creatures that came with the Fog,” she explained as she saw his blank look. “I’m just not entirely sure what they were doing.”
“Harvesting,” Leon said as he walked inside. “They’re gathering up all the zombies they’ve created. The ones that meet their standards, they keep. The rest they leave behind.” Reloading his rifle, he frowned thoughtfully. “I’d bet good money the ones they’re throwing at the Sheriff's Office are their failures.”
“That might be the reason for his invasion,” Robin mused, following him inside. “Turn the island into zombies, collect the ones that meet some mysterious requirements, and use the failures to kill off the survivors. Brutal, but effective.”
“Or it’s a side benefit for them,” the Detective said. “Either way, I really don’t like it. Especially if their magic works on long dead corpses as well. They could have a lot more zombies than we thought.”
Coughing slightly to get their attention, Henry winced slightly. “Actually, it might be even worse than that,” he said. “I didn’t think of it until you pointed it out, but… As I was saying earlier, our Illuminated Ancestors made mistakes. And for the most part, their response to such mistakes was to bury them, quite literally.” He gestured to the north, and the forest just beyond the town limits. “Several of those mistakes had, well, quite a high body count. And out there, somewhere under the trees…” His voice trailed off for a moment, before he gathered his composure and finished the sentence. “Somewhere out there, there are mass graves.”
“Mass graves,” Robin said quietly. “Wonderful.”
This is pretty amazing MD! The blending of all the groups and the story of Kingsmouth is turning out to be very interesting.
Was... was the Shadow From Beyond Time spewing Filth around?
I... don't want to think about Filth-infested superhero tech.  That'd be bad.  Bad, mm'kay?

(Nice stuff, MD, looking forward to more.)

--"Listening to your kid is the audio equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, Spud." --OpMegs
Why yes, yes it was. After all, same thing, different name Smile
Independence Port, Paragon City
It was a tribute to Sachie Hanagawas skills that a six foot seven Amazon jumping off a rooftop to the street below went completely unnoticed by everyone around. Even in Paragon City, that was the sort of sight that should have drawn attention. Instead, she merely stood up, brushed some dust off the sleeve of her jacket, and started walking down the street, mingling with the late night crowd.
Reaching her final destination, Sachie paused to consider the sign at the front of the construction site. The South Independence Port Tram station, the first major step in the planned expansion of Paragons public transport network. It was months away from completion, but she could already see the familiar frame of the city's tram stations taking shape in the central building. The walkways and railings, identical to every other station across Paragon City’s zones. She was sure there was some logical reason for that design approach, but in the grand scheme of things, she really didn’t care. Like every other vigilante in Paragon, she’d lost count of how many times she’d had to make the long march across Independence Port because every transport system in the area had been set up by a government official who’d clearly never visited the zone. She couldn’t wait for it to be done.
Walking onto the site, and showing her Riot Force identification to the police drones on station, Sachie looked around the construction site. Her contact said to meet her here, and given the usual travel times in Independence, she seriously doubted she’d gotten here first… Pausing, she looked back at a forklift her eyes had glossed over the first time. “Really?”
Between one eyeblink and the next, a redheaded japanese woman in her early twenties appeared, sitting on the roof of the forklift. “Sorry, habit,” she said, green eyes gleaming with an inner light. “Good to see you again Hanagawa.”
“Ito,” Sachie replied, lips twitching ever so slightly. “It’s here?”
Dropping off the forklift, Mika Ito grinned at her fellow ninja. “I confirmed before I called you back,” she assured her, walking towards the back of the station and gesturing for Sachie to follow.
“Your girlfriend?” Sachie asked as they approached what had once been the entrance to an old basement, the interior lit up by a soft, golden light.
“Bonding session with her siblings and a White Court people smuggling ring trying to move into town,” Mika replied as she led the way down the steps. Suppressing a snort of amusement at that mental image, Sachie followed, considering the tree roots that had taken hold in the basement walls. They had chewed through plaster and paint, but somehow avoided electrical cables and pipes, one root wrapping decoratively around a light fixture.
Both women stopped at the bottom of the steps, looking at the light source on the far end of the room. The tree roots had torn through the wall and grown into a wide arch, perhaps ten feet wide and the height of the basement. In that arch, liquid light floated, rippling like water as dozens of glowing bees dived in and out of it. Sachie considered it for a moment, expression thoughtful. “Agartha.”
“The Hollow Earth, according to some legends,” Mika replied, voice low, respectful. “Others say it’s the World Tree, or Gaia’s Bones, or the path to Avalon. But one thing they all agree on is that it’ll take you anywhere on Earth… If you can convince the guardians to let you in.” Expression thoughtful, she considered the gateway, before looking at Sachie again. “Nearly twenty years since a new gateway was discovered,” she commented. “And more than a few of the older ones withered away. And now, this one makes, what, eight in six months?”
Sachie made a noise that could be taken as agreement as she folded her arms under her considerable chest, watching the bees fly around in precise, regular patterns. She neglected to mention that she knew of a ninth gateway, discovered less than two weeks ago in Kyoto. No need to share that little detail just yet. Instead, she took one step forward, pausing to watch as the bees altered their patterns, ever so slightly. More of the glowing insects emerged from the portal, spreading out to cover more of the room.
“The Bees have a reputation for being territorial,” the redhead commented. “If they decide you’re not welcome… well, even you would have a hard time escaping their temper.” Glancing at Sachie, she frowned. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked.
“Mmm,” Sachie replied. “There’s a gate on Solomon Island. Every other path is blocked.” Shrugging slightly, she turned to look at the other woman. “You should go.”
Chuckling lightly, Mika stepped up next to the other woman. “Yeah, I probably should,” she agreed, making no attempt to turn and leave.
Rolling her eyes, Sachie tried not to smile. She’d had to try, but she’d still expected this response. It was like the girl was physically incapable of letting a friend walk into potential danger. “Soft,” she noted, her voice soft, almost teasing.
“Eh, I get by,” Mika replied with a grin, before turning serious again. “We gonna do this?”
Nodding, Sachie took another step forward, then closed her eyes and clasped her hands together. Behind her, Mika repeated the motion. For almost a minute, nothing seemed to happen, the Bees continuing to fly in consistent patterns, while the two women remained motionless, breathing slowing down. Then, with a buzzing noise that sounded like the grinding of high-pitched gears, the pattern shifted again, expanding outwards to surround the two women.
The noise increased in pitch, becoming almost painful, even as the smell of honey and engine oil filled the room. And behind the buzzing, woven into the grinding of gears, there were words. “Our wisdom flows so sweet. Taste and see. TRANSMIT - initiate anima signal - RECEIVE - initiate the all-in-one-one-in-all frequency - THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS - initiate transportation prerogative - MIND THE GAP - initiate geomantic protocols - WITNESS - Agartha.”
Clenching her teeth together, Sachie forced her eyes open, staring into the light, as even more Bees emerged. “I seek passage,” she managed to say.
“Passage to the subterranean realm, the pathways to all space and time, and the doors, the doors, the doors!” the noize sang, seemingly delighted. The buzzing intensified around her right ear, and the ninja tried not to flinch at the pain as her eardrum nearly ruptured. “You remember the stories, those written, and those supposedly forgotten, buried deep in the depths of what you blindly call linear time.” The Bees pulled away from Sachie, moving on to study her companion. “Query the Diagonal Stepping Prerogative,” they mused. “If you could walk the anywhere paths, where would your feet take you?”
“Solomon Island,” Sachie replied. Instantly, the Bees returned to her, and the woman felt the pressure against her ki intensify. “Other paths are blocked.”
“By the Fog.” Drifting in closer, the Bees considered her, several landing on her face and neck. Remaining still, Sachie tried not to think about what would happen if they stung her, what lorekeepers of the Hanagawa clan simply called a ‘messy discord’. “Some attempted to flee. By sea or land, there is no escape. The fog chokes all who try to leave - electronics failure...inevitable - nervous system failure...inevitable - suffocation...inevitable. Others, men in uniform, watch the air. Top. Men. They talk of containment, of burying the nightmare and hoping no one looks. They are doomed to fail, but to those within, it means nothing. Flight is impossible. Fight is possible. For a while.”
There was laughter, alien and inhuman, in between the buzzing of clockwork gears. Before Sachie could speak, the laughter cut off, and the Bees took to the air again. “What of the fog? Some say it is a bio-chemical weapon, being tested by the government. Some say it is divine punishment for Kingsmouth's many hidden sins. Some say it is an assault on Illuminati interests. A few individuals of the Wabanaki tribe say the fog is the tool of a hidden malevolence in Solomon County - a name their ancestors knew but they have forgotten. They claim hope lies in the Wabanaki warding circle that has protected the area for centuries, but they do not know what it protects. Did the circle hold back the fog? What do you say?”

“We don’t know,” Mika said, keeping her voice level. “Yet.”
“Yet. Investigation. Cause and Effect. You walk a straight line in four dimensions. It is not your fault sweetling. You simply can not see. Yet.” The last word matched Mikas voice almost perfectly, and the womans eyes narrowed slightly. Regardless of what is believed, the fog will end all life should it swallow Kingsmouth again,” the Bees sang, before shrieking, the noise staggering both women. “WARNING! Cleansing efficiency compromised. Engine 92D not responding. The Filth leaks. It flows up alien gravities. Initiate diagnostic protocols…”
Sachies left foot slid back slightly, preparing to move if needed, but even as her muscles tensed, the Bees calmed again, settling back into consistent patterns. Tilting her head slightly, and trying to ignore how that made her ears ring, Sachie considered them. “Can we help?” she said at last.
The Bees paused. “You help we help you,” they replied. “Bring your champions, Incarnates, defiers of the Well. Step beyond, into the Tree. The connection between all points. It grew before the First Age, branches and roots burrowing into all possibilities. The multidimensional paths will take you to Kingsmouth. Alone, they are doomed, and us with them. With you… Tracking your path has always been difficult,” they mused, almost thoughtful. “Mot, Rularuu, Battalion. The Age should have ended a hundred times over, and here we stand. You make your own destiny, don’t you sweetling?” And with that parting comment, the Bees fell silent, retreating back to the gateway.
As the lights faded and night slipped back into the room, both ninja fell to their knees, gasping. “Gods.. damn,” Mika muttered, wiping at her face, smearing the results of a bloody nose across her hand. “They’re as bad as the stories say.”
Groaning in agreement, Sachie closed her eyes, trying not to throw up. “You could have left,” she reminded the younger woman.
“Yeah, currently regretting that,” Mika agreed. “Did I get that right?” she continued, trying to stand up, only to give up halfway and lean against the wall for support. “Something on Kingsmouth has the Bees scared?” Sighing, she glanced towards the stairs out of the basement. “We should probably get moving on this.”
Nodding, Sachie pulled herself into a sitting position. “Just.. give me a moment.”
“Oh, definitely,” Mika said, making no effort to move either. The two just lingered there for several minutes, bathed in the light of the World Tree, waiting for the pain to fade away.
Once again, Sachie does something that seems stupid to the squishy blapper types. and once again, it is GLORIOUS
Hear that thunder rolling till it seems to split the sky?
That's every ship in Grayson's Navy taking up the cry-

-- "No Quarter", by Echo's Children
Kingsmouth, Solomon Island

The ravens gathered on the edge of the diners roof stirred slightly, ruffling their feathers and hopping backwards as the air next to them seemed to ripple. After a moment, a figure faded into view for a moment, Knight of the Peace giving the birds a playful smirk before vanishing again. “Another time,” she said regretfully. The birds looked at each other for a moment, seemingly debating the matter, then dismissed the issue and returned to watching the shoreline below.

Crouching down, Knight considered the view as well. As Street Sabre had warned them earlier, the beach was disturbingly crowded. Small packs of zombies stumbled around, herded into groups by Draug similar to the creatures she and Leon had seen at the church. More Draug of that type patrolled along the edge of the beach, while out in the water, dark, bulky figures that looked to be the size of a War Walker moved around. “If these things marched into town, they’d have taken the Sheriff's office in minutes,” she muttered.

Below, Leon entered the diner, sweeping his rifle across the room. Two zombies behind the counter quickly fell victim to headshots from his suppressed rifle, and he turned to look out the windows, even as he dropped a duffel bag onto a table and unzipped it. “Instead they just throw packs of shitty zombies at it,” he mused as he stepped around the counter and started looting the cupboards. “Has to be a reason for it, right?” Pausing to consider a can of instant coffee, he frowned. “Might be connected to whatever was protecting the church.”

“Those Draug we saw earlier got pretty close,” Robin pointed out, having her visor zoom in for a closer look at the beach.

“But they never actually entered the town,” Leon countered, putting the coffee in the bag and crouching down again. “Lots of magical barriers are based around well-defined borders. I’d bet good money the church is just the focus point.” Making a face at the smell coming from a carton of milk that had been left out when the Fog struck, he reached past it for the bread. “But the zombies, well, they’re the bodies of locals. Whatever magic is in the defenses takes a look at them and thinks they’re supposed to be there.”

Purrfect Archer’s voice came over their comms, sounding thoughtful. “Until they get close enough to the church. Then the wards are strong enough, or smart enough, to do something about them. That sounds plausible.”

There was an amused snort, and then Street Sabre spoke up. “Listen to you. Talking ‘bout magic wards like you’re an expert.”

Chuckling, Leon continued his looting with the ease of a man that had done such things more often than one liked to consider. “Eh, you spend enough time working with Alec Kazam, you pick up a bit.”


As she walked along Kingsmouths western border, the Knight Sabre frowned thoughtfully, looking out at the forest that ran up almost to the houses to her left. “Well, as much as I love to give you shit,” she commented, “I have to admit, you might have something.” In the distance, she could see deformed figures moving, the fact they weren’t tripping over every branch and rock they passed demonstrating they weren’t just mindless corpses. “There’s a lot of Draug wandering around out here,” she continued. “Pretty damn sure they’ve seen me, but none of them wanna come over and try their luck. Kinda disappointing. I’m a little bored here.”

“Well, you did beat the crap out of one of her bosses,” Leon pointed out. “Maybe they’re smart enough to not want their teeth kicked in.”

“As much as I love any idea that starts with me being awesome… eh,” she replied. “I’m not counting numbers, but there’s enough I’d expect them to try and swarm me at least.” As if reinforcing her comment, a pair of Draug stopped at the treeline, looking towards her, then past her towards the town. After a moments consideration, they turned and vanished. Watching them go, Priss frowned and shook her head. “So, who’s thinking the Illuminati were hiding something important in the Church?”

“You don’t believe it was intended to protect the town?” Robin inquired.

The question got a laugh from Priss as she jumped over a fence. “Come on Barnes,” she said as she punched a zombie in the chest, throwing it backwards into a barbeque. “It’s the Illuminati, the bastard understudies of Nemesis. I’m pretty sure their official business policy is ‘fuck or be fucked’.” Marching over to the zombie, she slammed her armoured boot down onto the creature's head. “Protecting Kingsmouth? That’s a side effect. This is about protecting their crap.”


In the diner, Leon paused in collecting cans of food, bringing his rifle up and putting another round in the head of one of the zombies as it began to reanimate. “Well, whatever it’s for, Hawthorne’s sure not gonna be able to tell us,” he mused.

“You don’t think he knows?” Purrfect Archer asked.

Chuckling, Leon knelt down to retrieve a can that had rolled away. “Not a chance in hell,” he said. “He’s a conspiracy nut. The kinda nut that needs to tell everyone every amazing thing he’s discovered. If the Illuminati left anything lying around for him to find, he’d have put it on display. With signs and everything.”

“Let’s be fair,” Robin commented, “Whatever reason the Illuminati had for placing our mystery wards, I don’t think it really matters. All that’s really important is that it’s there, and it seems to be protecting the town. We can work with that… hmm.”

Leon paused in his looting, moving towards the windows. “Problem?” he asked, bringing his rifle up.

“To the south-east, just past the pier,” she replied. “What do you make of it?”

Looking through his scope, Leon quickly found what had caught his partners attention. A group of Draug had gathered around a collection of large, fleshy pods that reminded Leon of some sort of deformed, unopened flowers. Some of the Draug were crouched down, inspecting the pods, while others faced outwards, almost as if they were standing guard. Frowning, the detective considered the sight, before his eyes widened. “Aw hell…” he muttered to himself as understanding set in.

“Some of us can’t see the show McNicols,” Street Sabre grumbled. “What?”

“It’s a fucking nest,” he growled. As if triggered by his comment, one of the pods began to move, squirming and pulsing as something inside struggled to get free. Several of the Draug tending to the nest moved closer, but didn’t interfere as the pod began to deform. Eventually, pushed to its limits, the pod split open in a shower of blood and gore, allowing the creature inside to stand up. Humanoid, with grey, dead flesh and covered in a thin layer of coral and barnacles, the newborn Draug was certainly a disturbing sight.

“Ohmygodewww,” Robin moaned, sounding like she was trying not to vomit. “It’s like the Chryssalids all over again…”

Lowering his rifle, Leon took a breath, forcing back his own nausea. “That’s what they’re collecting bodies for,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair. “Raw material to make bigger, stronger, smarter zombies. Shit.”

A low, frustrated sigh could be heard over the comms. “That’d explain why they’re here,” Purrfect Archer said, anger tainting her voice. “Sick bastards. An entire damn town...”

Outside the diner, the air rippled as Knight of the Peace jumped down to the ground. “It might sound somewhat bloodthirsty of me,” she commented, her voice still shaky, “but I’m very tempted to turn that beach to glass right now.”

Retrieving the bag of supplies, Leon exited the diner, walking up next to the faint blur that was his girlfriend and placing a hand on her arm. “Let’s not go there just yet, okay?” he said quietly. “There might still be a better way.” The air rippled, Robins face appearing, and she smiled weakly and nodded. “Alice, we’re moving on. We’ll hit the gas station, then head on back up to the Sheriff's Office.” Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he started down the road, Knight at his side.

South of Fletcher Bay, on the very edge of Kingsmouth, a large bonfire burned in the front yard of an old, well loved house, which had been hastily fortified with whatever the houses remaining resident could find. Now, that resident, an elderly woman, tired but unbroken, stood in front of the fire, axe in hand. Taking a breath, she swung the axe over and down, splitting her target with the ease of experience. Adjusting her grip, she repeated the action, slightly to the left. Then, a third time.
Before she could strike a fourth time, her ears caught the sound of footsteps, backed up by the faint whine of servomotors. Lowering her axe, she turned to the west, raising an eyebrow at the woman in blue and red power armour walking towards her. Even after recent events, the sight of a superhero in her yard was still rather strange. She recovered quickly enough however, giving the heroine a wry smirk. “I’m guessing you were the one making that godawful racket down the street a few hours ago?”
Returning the smirk with the visible lower half of her face, the woman shrugged. “Guilty as charged,” she admitted. “Met something that needed its face punched in. If I’d known you were over here, I’d have come and apologised about it. Name’s Street Sabre,” she added, holding out a hand.
“Norma,” the older woman replied, returning the handshake. “Norma Creed.” Turning back towards the fire, she raised her axe again. “Helen sent you over to check on me, I reckon,” she mused, swinging the axe down.
“Pretty much,” Street said, seeing no reason to dance around the topic. “Can’t really blame her for worrying about you. Hell, everyone else in town is hiding behind fences and thick walls, but you…” Snorting, she waved a hand at their open surroundings.
Chuckling lightly, Norma rested the axe next to the timber pile. “Well, your concern is wicked kind, but you don’t need to worry. I’ve got my shotgun, I’ve got… what’s left of my wits,” she continued, picking up the weapon in question. “I’ll manage.”
Kneeling down next to the zombies Norma had been chopping apart, Street nodded thoughtfully. “So I see,” she said. “Any problems with these things?” she added, considering the completely dessicated, naked corpses, trying to determine just how long they’d been dead.
Picking up an arm, the old woman laughed bitterly, throwing it onto the fire. “Not so much. You’d think these wet bits would just fizzle on the bonfire, but no, they sparkle like kindling wood,” she mused, watching as the arm burst into flames, skin quickly burning away. “It’s heartening, almost. Dirty work really, but I’m used to it.” Glancing over at the hero, she shrugged slightly. “Fish guts, childbirth, sutures… The dead ain’t as different as you’d think.”
Grabbing a pair of legs, Street Sabre threw them onto the fire, watching them ignite. “Always thought they should be,” she noted, “But yeah, you’re not wrong.” A sudden snarl by her feet caught her attention, and she glanced down to see a decapitated head reanimating, jaw snapping at midair. Grumbling to herself, the woman kicked the head into the fire, where it continued to snarl, even as the flames reduced it to bones.
“So I kill and I chop and I burn,” Norma sighed, glancing towards the street as yet another zombie, this one waterlogged and swollen, stumbled towards the house. “But they never stop coming.” Raising her shotgun, she fired a shot that almost decapitated the creature. “And there’s more of ‘em every day,” she added, pumping the action and taking a breath, her exhaustion showing through for a second. “The old gal ain’t a match for everything that turns up on my doorstep, seems she’s too much for most of it.”
“Makes a hell of a mess of most of them,” the younger woman agreed, kneeling down and picking up a human torso. Pausing, she turned slightly, letting the light from the bonfire illuminate the exposed ribcage, and the smooth wooden thorn that was lodged in the remains of the heart. Frowning thoughtfully, she threw the body onto the fire, watching as, like all the others, it burst into flames. This time however, the flames were a brilliant, unnatural blue.
Looking back in time to see the blue flames, Norma frowned. “Seen that happen a couple times now,” she admitted. “Oddly pretty to watch, but I dunno why they do it.”
Tapping her fingers against the side of her helmet, Street Sabre considered that. “Might have a theory or two… when we flew in, I saw some other fires like that. East of here, on, what’s it called, Pyramid Point?” Norma nodded, and she shrugged slightly. “I figure I’ll head over, see what’s going on.”
Collecting another arm, Norma threw it into the fire, watching as it burned with the same blue flames. “You and yours, you’re looking to find what did all this, I’m thinking?” she asked, not looking away from the bonfire. “I’d say you should start at the pier, with the Lady Margaret. All this hullabaloo started when she came back.” Closing her eyes for a moment, she let out a breath, grief and loss flowing out of her. “My husband Larry, the others… We all thought we’d lost them out there, that the sea took ‘em.” The blue flames died away, leaving only the natural fire of burning timber. “Day they came back, whole town could finally breathe again. Never did ask Larry what happened out there, in the weeks they were gone… Been around gift horses long enough not to look ‘em in the mouth. Thought life would go on the way life goes on... “ she said quietly. “But then came that Fog, like it was following them back to shore…”
Turning towards the bay, Street Sabre stared through the Fog, trying to see the fishing trawler, even as Norma stepped up next to her. “When the sun comes out, and the Fog lifts, you can just see her, covered in all that red seaweed,” the local woman said, fighting back tears. “Every time I see her, I wonder, if I’d asked…” Taking a breath, she turned away, returning to the bonfire. “Guess we’ll never know,” she muttered, throwing another head into the inferno.
Riot Force Headquarters, Kallisti Wharf, Paragon City
Rubbing at her eyes, Lady of the Peace leaned back in her chair, considering the speakerphone on her desk. Taking a moment for the concept to work its way through her sleep-deprived brain, she closed her eyes. “You want to take a team to Solomon Island, through Agartha,” she said slowly.
“Pretty much,” Sache Hanagawa replied.
From where she was resting on the office couch, Nene Romanova frowned slightly. “Sachie my love, I don’t mean to sound skeptical, but I’ve heard a bit about Agatha. Even if the Bees gave you permission,” she made a face at that oddity, “You can’t just wander the paths and hope for street signs. Even if you found a way back out, which is a big if, there’s no telling where you’d actually be.”
Mika Itos voice came over the phone, clearly amused. “Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I’ve arranged for a guide. She’ll meet us inside, get us where we need to go.”
Sitting up, Nene gave the phone a Look. “You have a guide that knows her way around Agartha,” she said, irritation slipping into her voice.
“Yeah,” the younger ninja replied. “She’s as close to a local as you can get without having six legs and a stinger.”
“If she’s a ‘local’,” the Sabre continued, “Why didn’t you ask her to talk to the Bees for you? It sounds like she had less chance of them giving her a stroke.”
“They’re not talking to each other,” Sachie answered.
“All I know is it has something to do with the Bees, Transbelvia and an Egyptian Mummy crime boss,” Mika added, chuckling lightly. “I’m not getting involved in that argument.”
The two Romanova’s looked at each other, before Ifrit sighed and rubbed at her eyes again, nodding at her wife. “All right,” Nene said. “We’ll try and follow up on what they told you. Neko and her team will meet you at the Gateway as soon as they can.” She frowned, concern slipping into her expression. “Just be careful in there.”
“As much as possible,” Sachie replied. “Love you.” And with that, the line went dead.
Groaning, Nene dropped back onto the couch, head bouncing on a cushion. “I love her, but sometimes, I just want to…” she made a strangling motion with her hands, then sighed. “Agartha! You might as well just jump into what’s left of Ouroboros!”
“Now now,” Ifrit chided her, “Even at its worst, the Hollow Earth isn’t nearly as bad as that.” They both fell silent for a moment, remembering Ouroboros, the strange little realm that didn’t quite fit into reality, and the impossibly ancient, guilt driven man that had been its master. Then the Fae shook her head slightly, pulling herself back to the present. “If they do have a guide that can lead them to Solomon Island safely, Agartha should work,” she admitted, long ears twitching thoughtfully. Before she could continue, the intercom on her desk buzzed for attention. “Yes Friday?”
“Boss, General Ironwood is here to see you,” her secretary said. “He says it’s urgent.”
Nene sat up, eyes widening in surprise, while Ifrit raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, send him in,” she said. “And could you let Neko know that they need to meet with Sachie at the Southern IP tram station?”
“Sure thing,” she replied. A moment later, the office door opened to admit a tall, broad-shouldered, middle aged man in a well tailored white suit. The office lights reflected off the small strip of metal above his right eyebrow as he came to a halt in front of the desk and slipped instinctively into parade rest.
“James, what are you doing about at this hour?” Ifrit asked with a smile, standing up to shake his hand.
Taking the hand, General James Ironwood, Commander in Chief of Vanguard, visibly relaxed as he returned the smile. “I’m making an early start,” he admitted. “As always, I’ve simply got too much to do. Besides,” he added thoughtfully, considering his friend for a moment. “At least I’ve managed to get some sleep tonight.”
Standing up from the couch she’d been napping on before Sachies call had woken her, Nene grinned at her wife. “He’s got you there,” she teased, before turning her attention back to Ironwood. “Still, you could have just called. After all, I’m pretty sure you know how to use a phone.” Looking him over for a moment, she smirked. “Hoping for some of Ifrit’s tea?”
“That would be a side benefit,” he replied. Ifrit laughed lightly, walking over to a side table and setting up three tea cups, while the Vanguard Commanders expression become more serious. “Actually, I’m here in response to an information request you filed,” he told the Sabre. Nene blinked slightly, before gesturing for him to take a seat by the coffee table. “Earlier tonight, you requested any information Vanguard might have on creatures called the Draug,” he continued. “Undead, mutated, possibly magic based.” He considered the pair for a moment, even as he took a flash drive out of his pocket. “I’m familiar with them, from my previous command.”
“Vanguards European operations,” Ifrit said with a frown, pouring tea.
Nodding, James placed the flash drive on the table. “To the best of my knowledge, the Draug have never crossed the Atlantic ocean. They’re an occasional problem in places like Iceland, Norway and so on.” His thoughtful scowl faded, replaced by a more thoughtful smile. “Now, while some supergroups can prove forgetful of little details such as informing the appropriate authorities of overseas operations, that has never been Riot Force’s approach. Which suggests the situation with the Draug has changed, considerably.”
The Romanovas glanced at each other for a moment, silently debating the issue, before Ifrit handed the man his tea. “If it is the Draug,” she said, taking a seat. “Right now, we’re still attempting to confirm that. Earlier today, we received a request from Longbow, concerning a possible situation on Solomon Island…”
Kingsmouth, Solomon Island

Standing a safe distance from the treeline, the blue and red armoured woman tilted her head to the side thoughtfully, considering the flickers of movement her suit was detecting ahead of her, along with the distinct lack of heat signatures. “Yeah. Fuck that,” Priss decided, loading the local map on her suits HUD and setting a ‘flight path’.

That done, she turned slightly, crouched down, and then jumped into the air, her own impossible strength, along with the suits, launching her at a velocity far greater than an observer would expect. A moment later, her suits thrusters fired, altering her course ever so slightly, letting her simply bypass the forest completely as she soared towards the shoreline.

Beneath her, she could see the far side of the forest, and beyond that, a rocky beach, lit up by a number of campfires, all of which burned with the same mystical blue flames she’d seen in Norma Creed’s bonfire. Illuminated by that unnatural light, over a dozen figures could be seen, some remaining close to the fires, while others were wandering around.

Her arrival caught the attention of every single creature on the beach, the impact kicking up a cloud of dirt and rocks that swept over those closest to her. As she stood up however, she paused, listening to their reactions. She’d expected the almost animalistic snarling from the conventional zombies, but there were other voices, much more intelligent. And unlike the giant Draug that had been yelling at her earlier, they seemed to be speaking English.

As the dust began to settle, Street Sabre activated the light built into the side of her helmet and stepped forward, sweeping her gaze across the area. As she did so, her eyebrows rose in surprise. Every figure she could see, either from the light of the fires or from her helmet, was still human, lacking the mutations and coral that seemed to define those monsters. But at the same time, they weren’t more of the locals, killed and reanimated by the Fog. They were far older, skin stretched tight over their bones, the flesh underneath long since rotted away. Their clothes were just as old as they were, patched and repaired a thousand times.

But more than that, their body language was human. They were alert, clearly aware of their surroundings in a way most of the undead weren’t, and there were clear, defined emotions on what remained of their faces. One of them even seemed to be tending a pot hanging over one of the fires, although he was clearly distracted by the new arrival.

Taking in the sight of the living dead, Priss grinned as the pieces came together in her mind. “Am I interrupting breakfast?” she asked.

Her voice echoed in the near-silence that covered the beach, and several of the zombies glanced at each other in confusion. After a moment, one of them pulled his gaze away from her to consider the people around him. “Well?” he growled in frustration, waving a hand in Street Sabre’s direction. “Get her!”

Backing up a step, the heroine raised her hands towards the approaching zombies. “Come on guys,” she laughed. “I love a good brawl as much as the next girl, but how about we save it for-” Her attempt at making peace came to a sudden and painful end, as one of the ‘healthier’ zombies raised a hand, fingers twisting in strange patterns as it growled in a language better left forgotten. Priss felt the familiar sensation of reality twisting in unnatural ways, like oil sliding over her skin, and then a bolt of lightning arced out from the mans hand, striking her in the chest before she’d even realized she should move.

Enough of the electricity made it through her suits insulating layers that, even with her superhuman level of durability, Street Sabre was knocked back to her knees, nearly blinded by the sudden pain. It vanished almost as quickly as it began, the caster lacking the strength to create continuous lighting, and Priss gasped, even as her faceplate automatically sealed up. Before she managed to recover however, flames washed over her from two separate directions. Two other zombies, both of them moving to flank her, were conjuring steady streams of fire, trying to bury her inside a small inferno.

Despite the situation, and the alarms screaming in her helmet, Priss laughed lightly, hands clenching into fists as she rose to her feet. Her theory about these zombies had been all but confirmed, and she’d even tried to make peace with them.

So, as usual, it was time to to make them want peace.

Emerging from the flames in a high speed charge, the Knight Sabre blasted past a pair of feral zombies that had been stumbling towards the bright light, sprinting towards the lightning mage. His reflexes were better than she’d hoped, and he clearly was smart enough to recognize that the fire wouldn’t be enough to take her down. Despite that, he didn’t realize that she wasn’t aiming herself directly at him, and the lightning he summoned went wide, cutting down one of the ferals instead.

Sliding past the mage, Street Sabre drove an elbow into the back of his head, sending him flying into the sand, seemingly out cold. Not even pausing, she leapt forward again, barely avoiding a salvo of ice blades that formed out of thin air. Behind her, the sand began to bubble and churn, trying to grab at her feet. Turning her dodge into a roll, Street came to a stop, deflecting several of the ice blades off her gauntlet, and wincing slightly at the discovery they were able to leave scars in the armour plating. “Fire, ice, lightning… Yeah, I called it,” she muttered, even as the mages moved forward and attacked again.

Over the next few minutes, a pattern began to form as the heroine and undead mages danced around each other. The mages tried to surround her and wear her down, trying to chip away at her armour with their magics. At the same time, Priss kept moving, trying to stay ahead of the onslaught as best she could, seeking out openings where she could move in and strike, with sharp, brutal punches that left her targets on the ground, gasping in pain.

Had there been an outside observer watching the fight, they would quickly come to the conclusion that Street Sabre was losing the fight. Despite her best efforts, the Sabre was still taking a number of hits, and while she seemed to shrug off the flames, the shards of ice and rock tore at her armour, many of them leaving gleaming scars. To make matters worse, while she was incredibly durable, it seemed her striking power was limited. Besides the lightning mage she’d hit first, none of the other mages she’d hit were seriously injured, a number of them already back on their feet and rejoining the fight. The mages, clearly battle-hardened and experienced, pressed their advantage, pushing Street Sabre back towards the shoreline.

Tearing a large boulder from the ground with a gesture and a growled incantation, one of the mages stepped forward, what was left of his face twisting into a sickening grin. As a storm of ice blades forced Street Sabre to dodge to the side, he pointed at her, and the floating rock obeyed his commands, shooting towards the seemingly off-balance hero with incredible speed. However, a moment before it would have hit, Street adjusted her stance, bracing herself and raising her right arm, which had already reconfigured into its concussion blaster form. The resulting shockwave shattered the boulder into dust, then continued on to send the mage and several others flying backwards, crying out in surprise and pain.

Hardsuit thrusters roaring to life, Street Sabre went on the offensive, her sudden speed catching her opponents by surprise, their spells going wide as she intercepted the single fire mage currently standing. Dropping into a slide, she crashed through the zombies legs, continuing on past him even as he hit the ground screaming, clutching at his knee. Another burst of thrusters launched Street back onto her feet, and she skidded to a halt, turning towards the treeline and raising her left arm. There was a flicker of light from just behind her wrist, and then another mage was howling in pain, one of her hands pinned to a tree by a long, thin metal spike.

Despite the sudden change in the flow of the battle, the mages were already regaining their balance, moving closer together and combining their spells into a heavier and more powerful attack. This time, Priss didn’t even bother trying to evade the massive wave of ice and rock they summoned. Instead, she launched herself directly at the approaching barrier, left hand crackling with energy as the weapons array built into it charged up. Before the mages could try to alter their summoned elements, Street Sabre drove her fist into the ice with superhuman strength, and the knuckle bomber roared.

The resulting explosion tore the target apart, shards of ice flying in every direction, and several of the mages cried out in agony as debris sliced into them. A moment later, Priss landed in the middle of the group and, without slowing down, grabbed one of the mages by the neck before continuing on to slam the man against a nearby rock. The man, the one that had given the order to attack Street several minutes ago, winced in pain, then his eyes widened in horror as the armoured womans right hand began to glow like the left had just before she’d shattered the ice. Several of the other mages cried out in fear as the fist flashed forward… only to suddenly stop, less than an inch from his face.

Eyes still unnaturally wide, the man stared at the gauntlet for several seconds, watching tiny arcs of energy crackle across the emitters built into the knuckles, then forced himself to turn his head as best he could, looking at the gleaming visor and faceplate that hid the woman behind them. “Do ya get it now?” she growled. “Because I’m done being patient. If you assholes don’t want to talk…” Her voice trailed off, the promise unspoken but impossible to ignore.

“Ah,” he replied, the noise more of a gasp than anything else, and she loosened her grip. Slightly. “Yes, yes. You’ve made your point very clear. We shall talk. All of you, calm yourselves.” The other mages glanced at each other, then reluctantly stepped back and lowered their hands, as Priss felt the magic fade slightly and reality return to as close to normal as Kingsmouth seemed to manage. After a moment, Street nodded in satisfaction and released the man, stepping back as he coughed and rubbed at his throat. “My apologies,” he said, starting to smile, before pausing as he realized just how that expression looked on his rotting face. “It has been… well, a very long time since we met anyone willing to talk. We have found that it is safer to simply defend ourselves.”

Retracting her faceplate, Street couldn’t quite suppress a smirk. “Eh, don’t feel too bad. Damn near none of your buddies back in Paragon are ever willing to talk these days, even if we give them a chance.” The mage blinked at that comment, and Street Sabre’s expression became more serious. “I found a body out there, one I figure belonged to your lot,” she continued, waving a hand in the direction of Kingsmouth. “I’m guessing there wasn’t much of his mind left even before one of the locals took a shotgun to it, honestly. But his chest was blown wide open, which let me see the magic stick going right through his heart.” She turned, considering the men and women that were currently trying to stay a safe distance away from her, without looking like they were doing so. “You’re all members of the Circle of Thorns, the ancient cult of body-stealing ghosts that live in what’s left of Orenbagel.”

“Orenbaga,” the mages leader automatically corrected her, looking irritated. “And… yes, we are of the Circle.” Eyes narrowing, he considered the heroine. “Although I am not sure what you mean by ghosts. Even with the changes the Ur-Draug inflicted upon us-”

“Yeah, been a while since you lot were in Paragon, ain’t it?” Street Sabre interrupted, trying to hold back a laugh. “That dirty little secret of yours came out, damn, least a decade back. Still, explains why you didn’t recognize me.” Grinning, she started brushing sand off her armour. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty well known back in the City of Heroes. That strategy you guys were trying on me, the old ‘Death of a thousand cuts’ nonsense? Your buddies in the local Thorn chapter tried that same one, damn near seven years ago.” Pausing in her attempt to make herself a little more presentable, she looked back up at the mage, lips curling up in a cold smile that inspired instinctive fear in anyone that saw it. “It didn’t go well for them. At all.”

Taking a moment to consider that, the man nodded slowly. “I can believe that,” he admitted, trying to keep his voice and expression level. “You are an interesting individual, Miss…”

“Street Sabre.”

Sighing, he shook his head in understanding. “So, the tradition of ‘Mystery Men’ continues to today it seems,” he muttered. “Well then, Street Sabre. I am Toland. Once, Arch-mage of the Circle of Thorns and Orenbaga. Now, I am simply the leader of this group of survivors.” Gesturing at the gathered men and women, he sighed again, and for a moment, his body slumped with an exhaustion millennia old. “And as for the tale of how we came from Paragon City to here, in such a sorry state... “ A well-worn layer of determination and control slipped over the exhaustion as he brushed at his sleeves. “Well, it almost certainly has something to do with what has brought you to this unfortunate town.”

Nodding in agreement, Street waved a hand towards one of the campfires, and the log someone had dragged over to serve as a makeshift seat. “Well then Toland, if you’re willing to tell the tale, I’m willing to listen. Who knows, instead of finishing that little brawl, maybe we can help each other.”


Riot Force Headquarters, Kallisti Wharf, Paragon City

By the time Ifrit and Nene had finished bringing General Ironwood up to date on events on Solomon Island, the man was finishing up his second cup of tea, and his already serious expression had developed into a full-blown scowl. The office was silent for almost a minute as the Vanguard Commander considered the matter, not looking up from the teacup in his gloved right hand. Eventually, he nodded slightly, placing the cup back on its saucer. “Officially, I don’t believe Vanguard can intervene in this situation as it stands,” he said, regret flickering over his face. “Our charter is very clear on this. We can not deploy in member nations without permission from the local government, or confirmation of a planetary level threat. At the moment, the evidence doesn’t appear to support a threat of that magnitude.”

Standing up, James walked over to where Ifrit had a number of photos hanging on the wall. Clasping his hands behind his back, he looked through the photos, eventually settling on the group shot from the W’Tin wedding. “The Draug are dangerous, but have only ever been a regional scale problem, limited to raids on coastal towns and missing ships,” he continued, smiling faintly at memories of the day that marked the end of the Rikti Wars. “Their appearance in America is unusual, yes, but it could easily be argued it’s not a Vanguard level threat. As for the other elements in this scenario…” Shaking his head, he turned back to the women. “The dimensional incursion happened here, not in Kingsmouth.”

Finishing her own tea, Nene put the cup down and leaned back into her seat. “It’s unlikely that we’d be able to prove that the Shadow was already present in Kingsmouth in some form,” she agreed, her own expression irritated. “Especially not with the mess it made of our teleporter bay.”

“And the Bees of Agartha are not what one would considered a credible source of information to those unfamiliar with them,” her wife sighed.

James nodded in agreement. “In all honesty, the Bees are…” he paused for a moment, considering. “I wouldn’t necessarily call them unreliable, but their perspective is too alien to be entirely useful. A threat to them may not be a threat to Earth, or humanity. I’ll take note of their comments, but until I can receive verification from a more reliable source…” He shrugged, very slightly.

Glancing at each other, the Romanova’s held a silent conversation, before Nene turned back to their friend. “That’s Vanguard’s official stance,” she noted. “And unofficially?”

“Unofficially,” James replied, “Riot Force, as always, has access to quite a lot of our files and resources, and I’m sure a number of our independent contractors would be very interested in you sending some work their way.” His smile at that comment was slightly lopsided. James Ironwood was a military man at heart, and had never been entirely comfortable with some of his predecessors methods. Even with all the changes he’d implemented since Lady Greys retirement, some things were simply too hard-coded into the Vanguard tradition to ever disappear. However, he would hardly let that unease stop him from exploiting it.

“In addition, I think I’ll speak to some of my contacts in Washington, and see if I can’t discover just who is in command of the military response on Solomon Island.” Walking back over to the two women, his expression darkened. “Besides the attempts to keep this situation hidden, the failure to secure and protect civilians trapped in what should clearly be declared a Hazard Zone…” Pausing, he made himself take a breath.

Nene nodded slightly, her own expression serious. “Hey, you’ll get no argument from us on that,” she assured him. “But that’s for later. You said earlier that you had experience with the Draug back in Europe.” Leaning forward, she raised an eyebrow. “What’s their story, anyway?”

Reaching over, James picked up the flash drive he’d placed on the table earlier, plugging it into a USB slot built into the table. A moment later, the holographic projector powered up and a menu screen appeared in midair. The Vanguard Commander quickly found and loaded the relevant file, and the menu vanished, replaced by the image of a bloated, rotting corpse half destroyed by salt water. This one showed further signs of injury, its left leg missing below the knee in what both women recognised as the disintegration effect of a Vanguard fusion rifle, while the left arm, already twisted and deformed by the coral growing out of it, showed similar signs of energy weapons fire.

“Animated undead species E-023, common name Draug,” General Ironwood said, slipping into what his subordinates called his Instructor stance. “Encountered by Hero groups and military forces in Greenland, Iceland and Norway. They are believed to be animated by an unknown Necromantic magic, although this remains unconfirmed. All known attempts to capture prisoners for questioning have failed, either because the animation process depends on an outside source, or some sort of suicide protocol. My analysis of the evidence suggests the former, but it could easily be argued either way.”

Sipping at her tea, Ifrit considered the autopsy photo with the ease of experience. “That arm looks an awful lot like some of the images Street Sabre has sent us,” she commented thoughtfully. “I assume it’s a common element among them?”

James nodded, fingers brushing over the holographic controls and skimming through the images, stopping on what looked like a still frame image from a helmet camera, showing several Draug, one of them clearly injured despite the image quality, engaged in combat with soldiers the notes alongside the image identified as the Hunter Corps of the Royal Danish Army. “Based off reconnaissance gathered by the Jægerkorpset in 2009, it’s a part of their ‘reproduction’ process,” he explained. The next image showed several Draug, along with two more conventional zombies and another, unique figure. Clearly female, but rotting and decayed, with a lot of the decomposition hidden by a layer of seaweed that covered much of her body. What couldn’t be hidden was the giant wound that had been torn into her stomach, from which a number of massive tentacles reached out towards the zombies.

“Whenever the Draug raid a town or village, their magic reanimates the bodies of their victims. Those undead that meet whatever requirements the Draug have are collected and taken to this… thing. The mystics call it a Feigr Broodwitch,” he noted, pausing only briefly in pronouncing the creature's name. “Each of those tendrils can be used to implant some form of coral inside the zombies-”

Groaning in a mixture of pain and disgust, Nene interrupted him. “And the coral grows through the corpse and around it, transforming it into a Draug.” James raised an eyebrow, and she sighed. “Leon and Robin saw something like it on Solomon,” she explained. Shuddering, she shook her head. “So, those raids you mentioned. I’m guessing it’s to make, er, baby Draug?”

Shrugging, James sat back down. “It’s the best theory anyone has. And given the lack of success at taking prisoners alive for questioning, theories are all anyone has,” he admitted. “The raids aren’t for more conventional supplies. It’s possible that some of the ships that go missing in the Arctic Ocean are their doing, but again, there’s nothing we can confirm.” Frowning, he adjusted his glove. “Really, unconfirmed seems to be the standard with them. Even their possible origins are speculation based off old folklore and myth.”

“If there is one thing we have learnt over the years,” Ifrit pointed out with a faint smile, “It’s that stories often have more fact in them than we realize.”

Considering the woman, and remembering her own mystical origins, James had to chuckle, some of his foul mood fading as he did so. “That’s very true. Still, while there’s the usual variation between different versions of the myths, and quite a few details missing from some recovered writings, there is still some consistency. Enough that we were able to develop a basic timeline. So, once upon a time…”

“Nice use of the classics,” Nene said.

“Thank you. Once upon a time, during the Viking Age to be precise, the god Heimdallr came down from Asgard, with a warning for the Jarls that ruled over Scandinavia. In a distant land, far beyond seas even the bravest Viking sailors had never dared to cross, was the base of the the world-tree Yggdrasil. There, the serpent Níðhöggr had awoken, and his venom was killing the tree that held up the world. For whatever reason - which, naturally, varied wildly from story to story,” he noted with a slight shrug, “the Gods themselves couldn’t intervene. And as is so often the case, the problem was handed off to mortals. The bravest warriors from across the lands answered the call and set sail.”

Familiar with the nature of such tales, Ifrit couldn’t help but chuckle lightly, despite the current mood. “And what followed was an epic journey, with grand adventure and glorious battle, as is required in all the finest warrior traditions?” she asked.

Nodding in agreement, Ironwood’s lips twitched with a faint grin. “There’s quite a lot of variety in the stories,” he noted. “Names, battles, every version follows its own path, as the various ships were apparently separated by weather and tides. But eventually, they all come back to a single point. A distant land under siege by inhuman monsters, led by a beast of pure darkness. The locals and the Vikings join forces, driving the monsters back, slaughtering most of them and forcing the survivors to flee to a hiding place outside the Nine Worlds.”

As they listened to the story, both Ifrit and Nene couldn’t keep the unease from their faces. While Ironwood’s attempts to summarize the stories was talking away a lot of the impact, both women had more than enough experience and imagination to fill in the blanks. “Honestly, a summary doesn’t give them the respect they deserve,” the Vanguard Commander admitted, leaning back into his chair and folding his hands over his stomach. “They fought for days, lost most of their number to the beasts, and even then, it took the weapons and magics the Gods had gifted them with to triumph. And most of the versions of the myth that remain agree it was a very close victory.”

Considering that for a moment, and remembering the time she’d spent in ancient Cimerora, Nene couldn’t quite keep the pained expression off her face. Like many of Paragon City's heroes, she’d had unpleasant lessons in just what happened when unenhanced Iron Age humans clashed with aliens and demons. The mental image of that happening again, without the help of time travelling superheroes to even the odds, sent a wave of horror flowing through her. “They drove the monsters off,” she said, trying to move the conversation along. “But things like that always come back, sooner or later…” Her voice trailed off as Ironwood shook his head sadly. “No?”

Next to her, Ifrit sighed sadly, closing her eyes for a moment. “The Vikings,” she whispered. “They struck down something even Gods feared.” Opening her eyes, she glanced over at Nene, who began to pale as understanding set in. “There are always consequences to such actions.”

Ironwood nodded, his own expression darkening. “Common consensus is that they suffered some form of death curse,” he said regretfully. “It wasn’t immediate. The warriors had already celebrated their victory and set sail for home before the first signs began to appear. It began with a wasting sickness, starting with the wounded and spreading. Flesh rotted away, but the infected didn’t die. Then, a madness began to take hold. They turned violent, attacking their comrades, devouring the flesh of their victims. The survivors were forced to abandon several of the ships, sinking them when they could. But by the time they returned to their homeland, most of them were beginning to show symptoms as well.” He closed his eyes for a moment, sighing. “And those that had been abandoned managed to follow them anyway.”

Shivering slightly, Ifrit glanced over at Nene. “I can’t help but be reminded of the Knives of Artemis,” she commented.

Her wife chuckled bitterly, remembering the order of assassins, and their destruction during the Dark Astoria crisis. Captured by the otherworldly Talons of Vengeance, the survivors had been transformed into deformed monstrosities, their humanity and sanity destroyed beyond repair in the process. “Wow. There’s some unpleasant nostalgia for you,” she muttered. At the same time, Ironwood nodded slightly, acknowledging the similarity. “Cursed into undead torment, probably worshipping whatever it was they drove off,” the redhead mused. “Constantly attacking their old homes and their descendants for good measure… Yeah, someone’s getting some really twisted revenge there.”

As he considered the image still floating above the table, Ironwood frowned thoughtfully, rubbing at his chin. “The Draug are, for lack of a better term, rather predictable. If they’ve broken from tradition and travelled across the Atlantic, there must be a reason. If you can find that, I might be able to justify a Vanguard deployment to the Oversight Committee.”

Nene sighed. “And if what you said earlier is true, it’s not like we can try interrogating them.” Sighing again, she leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “I’ll pass it on to Alice and the others on-site, and get some of our analysts working on it when they get in this morning. Who knows, maybe they’ll find an angle we weren't expecting.”

So I'm a bit late, I know (sorry about that), but I just want to say, niiiiice job, I was honestly wondering how you were going to marry some of these elements, and frankly?  I was not expecting the tie-in you came up with.
Really looking forward to the next bit, now. Smile

--"Listening to your kid is the audio equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, Spud." --OpMegs
Pyramid Point, Solomon Island

“Two thousand and fifteen.” Tollands voice was low, barely above a whisper. Considering that for a moment, he sighed heavily, reaching across and picking up a piece of firewood. “Eternity can be deceiving,” he said thoughtfully, throwing the timber on the campfire and watching it burn. “With no reliable way to mark the passing of time, it just… blurs together.”

Standing on the other side of the fire, Street Sabre folded her arms over her chest. “So, I suppose the question is, when did things start blurring?” she asked.

“Nineteen forty,” the undead mage replied. “Although I suppose that really, the story begins the year before, in Europe. There was a war going on, a messy, complicated affair, even by the standards of such things,” he said dryly. “With every day that passed, it grew larger, dragging more people, more nations into its chaos.”

Street chuckled, earning a raised eyebrow (or what was left of his forehead) from the man. “These days, it’s called world war two,” she noted, a hint of bitterness in her voice. “Which’ll probably tell you how well it all went for everyone.”

“Indeed,” Tolland said dryly. “We suspected it would be like that. In part, because such things can be depressingly predictable to those that have watched humanity for as long as we have… but mostly because the Circle of Thorns has a number of talented Seers among our ranks,” he admitted with a lopsided smile that showed far too many blackened and chipped teeth. Picking up a branch, he stirred the campfires ashes, kicking up a shower of blue sparks that drifted in the air. “They saw the death and chaos that was approaching, and in it, we saw opportunity. Scared and greedy men on all sides of the conflict, seeking power for a hundred different reasons. To destroy their enemies, to protect their loved ones, to reshape the world as they dreamed… the reasons didn’t really matter.”

Tilting her head to the side, Street considered the man. “Just a guess here, but I’m thinking your method of giving them that power would’ve involved those damn magical thorns.” Tolland nodded, grinning at her, and the heroine snorted. “You guys can be real assholes, you know that?”

Glancing over from where he was sitting on a large rock, a safe distance from Street, the group's Lightning Mage let slip a harsh laugh, before wincing and holding the block of ice one of his friends had summoned against the back of his head. “She’s crude, but she makes a fair point,” he noted.

“Thank you Isaiah.” Suppressing a chuckle, Tolland tried to keep on topic. “We set sail for England in, March I believe it was. A number of the Circles acolytes had remained in London when the majority of us returned to Orenbaga decades before. They had no public connections with the Circle of Thorns, and as such, had been spared the difficulties the Circle proper had faced after the Dream Doctors clashes with us.” He paused, glancing at Street Sabre to consider her reaction. After a moment, satisfied she either didn't recognise, or wasn’t going to comment on that particular bit of history, the man continued, shoulders slumping slightly. “We never reached London.”

“On the third day,” one of the ice mages said, taking up the story, “a fog came out of nowhere, swallowing the ship before the crew could turn us away. They thought it was nothing more than the weather being unpredictable. But those of us that could sense such things…” She gestured towards the ocean, and the Fog barrier that surrounded the island. “You can feel it, can’t you?” she asked as Street Sabre turned to consider the Fog again. “The power sleeping within the mists?”

“Damn near taste it,” the armoured woman muttered. Facing towards where the sky was lightening from the approaching sunrise, she missed the thoughtful looks several of the mages shared with each other. “It’s old, probably older than you lot. And the world… bends around it,” she mused, struggling to find a better description. Turning back to the gathered mages, she frowned. “I’m guessing it didn’t take you to Narnia.”

Pausing for a moment to wonder just where Narnia could be, Tolland shook his head. “Even at reduced speeds, we should have reached England in a matter of days. Instead, we drifted on a dead sea for over a week, the Fog blinding us to everything beyond the edge of the ship. The other passengers began to panic, and the crew could no longer keep them calm. After all, fear was claiming them as well...” Staring into the fire, he seemed to lose himself to the memory, voice growing quieter, more haunted, as he relived those days. “We tried to separate ourselves from the growing chaos as best we could, but more than anyone else aboard, we understood what was happening. Perhaps it was our presence, mystics of the Circle of Thorns, our own power catching the attention of something far worse. Perhaps it was simple misfortune that our ship was the one it chose that day. Whatever the reasons, the Darkness reached out, and we were taken from this world, dragged into a cold, wet hell.”

Tolland fell silent again, his attention on the flames, and it was Isaiah that continued on his behalf. “On the thirteenth day, we made landfall. It wasn’t deliberate, and it certainly wasn’t gentle. One moment, we were still pushing forward, the captain determined to escape the Fog, and the next, we were running aground on an impossible island.” Dropping the ice block, the Lightning Mage stood up and walked over to the campfire, keeping it between himself and Street Sabre. Looking at her over the blue flames, he chuckled. “As spirits, we drifted the abandoned halls of Orenbaga for thousands of years, so when I say that island was a truly miserable place, I speak from experience,” he noted. “Eternally grey skies, the land nothing but jagged rocks covered in a toxic red weed. And we were far from the first unfortunate souls to wash ashore. The entire damn shoreline was covered in shipwrecks. Some were almost as new as our liner, others were piles of rotten timber so far gone you could barely tell they were once boats.” Kneeling down, he picked up another log and threw it on the fire. “Mind you, we didn’t get the chance to explore the island for quite some time. You see, the Draug knew we were coming, and were waiting. The moment the liner came to a stop, they attacked.”

Glancing towards Kingsmouth, Street Sabre frowned thoughtfully. “I’ve seen the Draug on the beach,” the heroine noted, folding her arms under her breasts. “There’s a lot of the ugly bastards. One of ‘em was a lot bigger than the rest. Looked like some sort of leader. So, did the minions just swarm you, or do they get even bigger?”

Looking up from the fire, Tolland nodded. “Both, actually. The older, more powerful Draug reach that state by discarding their humanity, carving it out of their souls and offering it to their God as tribute. The end result is a creature that is very large, incredibly powerful, and utterly inhuman. We fought back as best we could, but really? Trapped in their realm, outnumbered, with the power of their Lords behind them?” Sighing, the man closed his eyes. “It was a lost cause from the start. And then it got worse.” Opening his eyes, the undead mage rose to his feet and walked around the fire towards Street. “You know of the Thorns, of their true purpose. How we manipulated power hungry fools into surrendering their bodies to us.”

“Yeah, we rescued the real Zoria years ago. He and his buddies are in the ghost equivalent of an asylum now,” she replied dryly.

Tolland took a moment to process that detail, then pressed on. “Before we crafted the Thorns, we took certain precautions. The spells woven into it were carefully planned out, to ensure that a number of unpleasant fates would be avoided. In the event of the death of our physical form, our spirits should return to the halls Orenbaga, safe and unharmed.” Pausing, he waited as Street Sabre looked him over, then glanced towards the other mages. “Exactly. Somehow, perhaps the Fog, perhaps the magics the Draug used against, perhaps some other mystery I’ve never been able to discover, something corrupted the spells woven into the Thorns.”

“When you died, and the Draug reanimated you, the bodies weren’t soulless shells,” she replied, horror slipping into her voice despite her best efforts. “Christ…”

“At first, the Draug were confused,” Tolland continued, sounding almost amused. “While we couldn’t understand their language, it was clear that we were something they’d never experienced before. Then, they were afraid, and angry.” Laughing, he gestured at his companions. “For us, the true burden of immortality was a horrible boredom. Anything new, anything different, was a welcome blessing. But the Draug embraced that boredom. When the unpredictable happened, it terrified them. And their response to fear is anger and violence.” Considering that for a moment, his expression became more thoughtful, like one would expect from a teacher. “Actually, their response to almost anything is violence. They’re a rather simple people, once you get to know them.”

Snorting, Isaiah rolled his eyes. “What he’s saying is that they tried to tear us apart,” he told Street Sabre. Reaching up to touch the back of his head, he gave her a wry grin. “I’m sure you noticed when you were trying to crack my skull open earlier, but while we can’t completely succumb to death, we do still feel pain. And so, naturally, we fought back. And lost, for the same reasons as the first time. And then we got back up again. And they tried to rip us apart, again. And we fought back, again. And I think you see the pattern.” She nodded in reply, the humor his words might have inspired kept in check by the images her experience and imagination conjured up. “They started enjoying it. I don’t know where they were from when they were still human, but their culture clearly loved fighting. Apparently, carving up their souls to feed their dark and soggy masters didn’t change that little fact.”

“And so, a rather painful routine developed,” Tolland said, voice tainted by painful memories. “When the Draug wished to make a tribute to their gods, when they needed to hone their skills in battle, when what few stars we could see were in the right place, or simply when they were bored…” Pausing, he took a deep breath, shaking off the memories. “Well, I’m sure you can imagine.” Street nodded, and he sighed, turning back towards the ocean. “That’s when time began to blur. An hour here, a day there, more, all lost to the jagged coral. After a while, we stopped counting. It just didn’t seem important.” Chuckling softly in bitter amusement, he shook his head. “It might be for the best that it happened. After all, if I’d realized how much time had passed, I think we might have given up on trying to escape.”

A weak giggle caught everyone's attention, and they turned to where one of the Ice Mages was sitting by the fire, nervously rubbing his hands together and shivering despite the warmth. “Seventy years,” he whispered, voice wavering unsteadily. “Always fighting, always running. So much pain, so much blood. We tried to escape, so many times… seventy years… But you can’t go into the Fog…” Closing his eyes, he seemed to shrink in on himself, whimpering.

Before anyone else could speak, Street Sabre stepped forward, kneeling down in front of the man. “But you did escape,” she said to him, her voice surprisingly gentle. “You got off that island, and you’re not alone.” As he opened his eyes and looked at her, she gave him a confident smile. “Used to be, there was no way past the Fog, but times change. When my team and I came here, we flew over it, never even went near the damn thing. And the reinforcements we’ve got heading this way? They’re doing the same thing.”

“Reinforcements?” one of the other mages asked, hope flickering across his ruined face. “More mystery men?”

Giving the Ice Mage a reassuring pat on the shoulder, the heroine stood back up. “Oh yes,” she said. “The Draug might be nice and safe on their hidden island, but here, it’s very different. You were all there at the beginning, even if you were on the other side. The legacy the Freedom Phalanx started? It’s endured wars, gods, demons, aliens, and it’s only gotten stronger.” Pausing, she chuckled and shook her head. “So many goddamn aliens...” Turning serious again, she looked at the people around her. “These bastards have no idea about the kind of firepower we’re gonna be dropping on their heads.”

“And what of us?” Tolland asked, raising an eyebrow. Street turned towards him, and he shrugged slightly. “Given the way you spoke of the Circle of Thorns, I doubt our companions back in Paragon City have done much to earn your goodwill over the decades.”

“Yeah, but you’ve been away from home pretty much all that time,” Street Sabre replied. “I figure if you don’t start shit, we can help each other out. Sound fair?”

Considering that for a moment, Tolland had to laugh quietly. “More than fair, really. Thank you.”

“So, you know how we got to the island,” Isaiah said. “And you can guess what happened for most of our time there.” Adjusting the sleeves of his tattered shirt, he glanced at the hero. “I doubt you want those details any more than we want to talk about them. Which brings us to the last part of the story.”

Nodding, Street folded her arms under her breastplate. “How you got off the island, and what you know about why the Draug came here.”

Grinning his horrible, broken teeth smile at her, the Lightning Mage leaned against a rock. “Every now and then, the Draug sent out raiding parties. They’d grab whichever wreck on the shore was still intact enough to sail, and drift on out into the Fog. Eventually, they’d come back with whatever they’d decided to steal, some freshly hatched Draug, and the bodies of some of their victims. But the Fog still surrounded the island, so we were still trapped.” His smile faded, his expression becoming more thoughtful. “Except it seems the Fog wasn’t tied to the actual island. There was something else, maybe a mystical artifact of some sort, maybe one of the Draugs masters. That was the source of the Fog. And where it went, the mists followed.”

Pondering that, Street frowned. “And it, or they, came here. The Fog came with them, and you lot figured out a way to tag along.” Grinning his broken smile, Isiah nodded. “So, what got the Draug so worked up they broke from tradition?” she asked.

Tolland took over the story, his own voice as thoughtful as hers. “Several weeks ago, a boat, a fishing trawler, came out of the Fog. On its own, that wasn’t really unusual. As Isaiah mentioned before, the entire shoreline was covered in shipwrecks. Unfortunately, the Draug always knew when more victims were arriving, and they were always on the beach, waiting. We’d found that drawing the creatures attentions at those moments was unproductive and really, quite painful. So we stayed well clear.” Sighing in irritation, he ran a hand through his hair. “Of course, if we hadn’t kept our distance, we might have discovered sooner that they hadn’t been summoned by the Draug. It was simple horrible chance that had brought them into the Draugs realm. By the time we realized the opportunity, the crew had come ashore, tried to find out where they were, and then…” Pausing for a moment, he considered the matter, then sighed again and shook his head. “I don’t know what they did. Just that it angered the Draug in a way we had never managed.”

Isaiah laughed, drawing Street Sabre’s gaze. Noticing her attention, he grinned at her. “The Ur-Draug. All those years we’d been trapped there, and we’d never even gotten close to it. All we had were whispers and theories. It was the Draug’s king, or perhaps their high priest. Every last piece of its humanity was gone, the remains of its soul growing into something that had no place in a rational world. Well, while the crew of that little trawler ran for their lives, we finally got to see the monster.” His good mood vanished as quickly as it arrived, and he turned towards the Fog, eyes narrowed. “Imagine a beast so large that buildings would only be a minor obstacle, one it could simply walk through without even slowing down. Deformed hands the size of automobiles, massive wings, and the dark remains of its soul are so powerful, so rotten, that the world around it is pulled towards it, twisting and warping. It exploded from its dark shrine, screaming. Gods, the screaming…” Wincing, he unconsciously rubbed at his ear. “I was at least two miles away from it, and my ears bled for hours. Any poor bastard unlucky enough to be between it and the shore was crushed. Draug, zombie, us, didn’t matter. But it wasn’t fast enough,” he noted with a touch of satisfaction in his voice. “By the time that thing reached the shore, the boat was vanishing into the Fog. While they haves of controlling it, protecting themselves from it, it seems even the Ur-Draug won’t just fly on into it. No. It’s insane and inhuman, but it’s still smart enough to know when to take caution.”

“It took them days to prepare,” Tolland said. “They gathered as many Draug as possible and packed them into one of the larger, newer wrecks, a massive cargo ship that put our old liner to shame. They cast their spells, performed their rituals, and set sail, the Fog moving around their ship, but never entering it.” He gave Street a playful smile, eyes gleaming with amusement. “We hid in the lower decks, in old shipping containers and maintenance rooms. It was quite a risk, but it worked. Once the ship made landfall, we waited for the Draug to swarm out, then followed along behind.” He nodded his head in the direction of the ocean. “It’s out there, on a small uninhabited island, just inside the Fog barrier. Once we realized there was land and civilisation here, we ‘borrowed’ one of the lifeboats. And…” Smiling softly, he gestured to his companions. “Here we are.”

For a long moment, Street Sabre was silent, looking out towards the Fog as she considered everything she’d been told, comparing it to what little she already knew. Eventually, she turned back to the mages, tilting her head to the side curiously. “The trawler. Do you know what it was called?” she asked, the tone of voice suggesting she already knew the answer.

“I saw a name on the side of the boat as it fled,” one of the Fire Mages replied. “I think it was called the Lady Margaret.”


Several hundred feet above the Kingsmouth shoreline, hidden by her armours cloaking system, Knight of the Peace scowled, glaring at the figures on the pier below her. “This is taking too long,” she grumbled, watching as a pack of Draug worked to untangle a zombie from the fishing nets it had caught itself in. Thanks to the coral growths that had taken over their right arms, this was proving to be a much more difficult than one would have expected.

Taking shelter behind a car that had been abandoned on the pier, Leon suppressed a laugh. “You’re not usually this impatient on an investigation,” he noted quietly. Shifting slightly, he glanced over the car hood, watching the Draug for a moment, then looked past them towards his goal, the fishing trawler tied up at the end of the pier.

Her scowl deepening, Robin glanced out across the ocean. “Dawn is almost here,” she pointed out, watching as the Fog barrier slowly shifted from black to a miserable grey. “I really don’t like the thought of you being on that pier once the sun comes up.” As she looked back down, the Draug started using the jagged edges of their coral to try and cut through the nets. “Especially if we don’t want to provoke them before we’re ready.”

“Okay, yeah, makes sense,” Leon agreed. “Four of us against all of them… Doable. Maybe. But not with Kingsmouth in the line of fire. At least, not until the survivors are safe.” Frowning thoughtfully, he considered that for a moment, watching as one of the Draug growled in frustration and pinned one of the zombies flailing arms under its foot before the mindless creature could wrap itself in netting again. ”When did that sort of crap become normal for us?”

“Either the Rikti, or the time Praetoria invaded Kings Row,” Robin replied, then paused for a moment to consider that. “So, nearly five years? At least? Huh.”

“Where did the time go?” Leon said, smirking, then his eyes widened slightly and he ducked back down behind his cover as the Draug finally managed to free the zombie. Before the creature could try to trap itself a second time, one of the Draug reached down and grabbed it by the ankle, pulling it away from the netting. Pausing to say something to its companion in a language the detective didn’t recognize, it started down the pier, the zombie being dragged along behind.

While Leon kept out of sight, Knight of the Peace watched the Draug carefully, waiting for them to walk past the car and down down the pier, away from Leon and the Lady Margaret. Once she was confident they wouldn’t turn around, she looked over the area again. After a moment, she nodded in satisfaction. “You’re clear.”

Climbing to his feet, Leon sprinted across the open pier as quickly as he could without making too much noise. Reaching the edge of the pier, he jumped over the railing and onto the deck of the Lady Margaret, bringing his rifle up and sweeping for any threats his girlfriend might have missed. “Made it,” he said as he crouched down, hiding from anything outside the boat. “Anyone see me?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Robin replied. “I think you’re clear.”

Nodding in faint satisfaction, Leon lowered his rifle, looking at his surroundings with a critical eye, comparing it to other fishing boats he’d dealt with over the years. “Streets new zombie friends said the Draug island had some sort of red weed all over it, right?” he asked.

“That’s what I remember hearing,” Purrfect Archer commented. “I’m guessing some of it got onto the boat?”

Taking an evidence bag out of a pocket, Leon looked up at the trawlers rigging, frowning thoughtfully at the patches of red he could see across it. “More than a little,” he said, crouching down next to an ice chest and collecting a sample of the weed. Holding up the bag for a closer inspection, his frown deepened into a scowl as he watched the piece of weed, almost the size of his thumb, twitch and squirm. “And I’m pretty sure it’s still alive and growing.”

The sigh that comment drew was long and profound. Leon took the moment to take a deep breath, tasting the air. He’d expected the salt, and the rotten flesh, be it fish or human. But there was something else lingering behind it the man couldn’t quite identify. “Please tell me I’m not going to have to kill it with fire,” Archer said at last.

“Yeah, I’m not making promises,” the detective replied. Watching his step, careful to avoid any of the seaweed, he started towards the steps leading up to the cockpit. “I don’t think it’s as bad as either of them were, but I’m getting serious Hamidon and Mot vibes from this crap.”

“Oh wonderful,” Robin grumbled. “We really needed that sort of nonsense back in our lives.”

“Hold up, I said it’s not as bad as them. It’s only twitching a bit,” he clarified, reaching the top of the stairs and walking over to the cockpit door. “It’s not actually trying to eat anything-” As he turned the handle, Leons attempts to reassure his girlfriend about the nature of his observations was rather violently interrupted by the door being slammed open from the inside, and a humanoid mix of rotten flesh and coral lunged towards him, snarling.

Despite his surprise, Leons reflexes proved up to the sudden challenge. Backing up a step, he blocked a wildly flailing arm with his rifle, wincing at the sound of the coral shards carving gouges into the weapon. When the beast swung at him again however, his attempt to step back pushed him into a railing, and the blow slammed into the rifle far harder than the man expected. Hard enough, in fact, that it knocked the police officer over the railing and down to the deck below, his weapon flying from his grip and sliding towards the aft of the boat.

Wincing at the pain shooting down his back from the fall, Leon rolled onto his side and started to climb to his feet. “Move left!” Robin's voice snapped through his earpiece, and the man obeyed almost instinctively, barely avoiding the monster as it leapt down from the top deck, its fists slamming into the deckplate hard enough to dent it slightly. Leon responded with a boot in the creature's side, knocking it to the other side of the boat, giving him just enough time to get to his feet before it lunged at him again.

Holding position high above the Lady Margaret, Knight of the Peace watched the pair fight, hand raised and ready to fire. “Ohhhh crap. Leon, I haven’t got a clean shot!” she said, even as her partner ducked under another swing, slamming an elbow into the back of the monster's neck.

“You guys need backup?” Street Sabre asked over the comms, sounding concerned.

“Not yet. I’ve got this prick handled,” Leon replied, spinning to face his opponent as the creature stumbled. “Rob, you just take care of the others.”

“Others?” Robin asked, right before her suits motion trackers began demanding attention. “Oh, I see.” All the noise from the trawler had not gone unnoticed, and now nearly a dozen Draug were running towards the pier, while even more were gathering around the nests she’d seen earlier. Grinning to herself, she targeted an area of the pier, waited several seconds for the first wave of monsters to reach it, and sent a command to her suits weapons array. Panels on her thighs and shoulders flipped open, revealing clusters of micro-missiles. A moment later, the sound of rockets launching grabbed the Draugs attention, and they looked up just in time to see the first salvo detonate directly above them.

While the concussion warheads threw the surprised Draug in every direction, Leon was still moving around the boat, trying to stay ahead of the monster trying to get its hands on him. It helped that this thing seemed to be about as smart as an average zombie, relying on wild lunges and swings. Jumping over an icebox, he spun and kicked it into the creature's legs, sending it to the deck again. As it tried to stand up, Leon slammed a boot down onto the back of its head, driving it back down again.

Keeping his weight pressed down on the creature, the detective took the opportunity to consider its appearance. After a moment, his scowl grew worse, as the details he saw became a horrible understanding. This thing wasn’t like the Draug he’d seen across the shoreline. There was coral growing out of its body, but it was random, tearing through flesh in an uncoordinated mess, unlike the organic weapons most of the Draug soldiers had. Where the Draug were bald, this one still had hair on its head, at least where the decaying skin hadn’t fallen off.

However, the most worrying difference between this creature and the other Draug, even the newly hatched ones, was the fact that this one wasn’t naked. While Leon would have preferred all the undead monstrosities were at least partially dressed, this was the only one he’d seen in any kind of clothing. The coat, flannel shirt and denim jeans were barely more than rags at this point, but their very presence was the final detail he needed.

This thing wasn’t a zombie that had been deliberately altered into a Draug. It had been a man, most likely one of the Lady Margaret's crew, who had gotten the coral inside his body somehow, and it had grown from there. He might have even been alive when the transformation began.

Swearing under his breath at the implications of that, Leon looked around, trying to see where his rifle had landed. In that moment of distraction, his weight shifted, and the creature seized the opportunity, lunging to its feet and throwing the detective backwards. Grunting in mild pain as he hit the the decking, Leon looked up to see the corpse snarling as it moved towards him again. “Hell with this,” he muttered, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a massive, gold plated revolver. Before the creature could charge again, the gun roared, Leon fanning the hammer and emptying the weapon in seconds. The heavy slugs slammed into the monster's chest and head,ripping flesh and coral apart in a shower of gore. For a moment, the zombie stood there, wavering slightly, then dropped like a bag of rocks.

Climbing to his feet, Leon took a fresh ammo cell from his jacket and reloaded the hand cannon, aiming it at what remained of the creature's head. After several seconds, when the corpse failed to move, he lowered the gun and looked around. Once more, he was alone on the boat, with no sign of any more surprises ready to leap at him from the shadows. “Well, my trouble’s down,” he reported.

“I suppose that’s something,” Robin muttered, the crack of her energy blasts echoing through both Leons earpiece and across the pier. Looking in that direction, he frowned, watching bolts of light rain down from the sky towards the Draug. At the same time, a number of the Draug were returning fire, some launching coral spikes from their bodies, while others were making odd gestures that Leon suspected was some form of spell, directing streams of filthy black water from the ocean and into the sky.

With Knight of the Peace hidden behind her suits stealth systems, the Draug weren’t having much success at actually hitting the heroine as she darted around. But sooner or later, the sheer quantity of firepower being sent into the sky was going to get lucky. “Dammit. So much for searching this place properly,” Leon grumbled, taking out another evidence bag and collecting a coral fragment. Pausing, he considered the corpse for a moment, then carefully searched into the coat pockets, finding a wallet and large notebook. Putting those away, he looked around the deck again, finding his rifle behind a pile of nets. Retrieving it, he slid his sleeve up and tapped a button on his arm bracer, summoning his jetpack. “Falling back now,” he reported, taking to the air.

After throwing a few explosive bolts intended to force the Draug to keep their heads down, Knight of the Peace joined him. A moment later, the Draug spellcasters fell silent, looking around in confusion, as they realized that their enemies had simply vanished.


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