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Reflections on Shadow
by Warpstone

The phone jangled loudly on the cluttered desk, the bells clanging with the old-fashioned, bulky device.  Old-fashioned, so appropriate to the owner.  “Paragon Times, Care and Comments Desk, Mary Singleton.”  Mary *felt* old-fashioned, small town girl next door moved to the big city, 5’6”, blonde hair and fair complexion, blue eyes framed by sensible glasses, followed with sensible sweater, faded denim jeans, sensible shoes.  Working the ‘parahuman interest’ desk for the past five years, not ruthless enough to advance in the paper business. 

“Hey Mary, it’s Amanda, I need a big favor,” Amanda, Amanda Yates, part-time criminal defense attorney and full-time activist for criminal rehabilitation, one of Mary’s closest friends here in the P.  Amanda rushed on to a sales pitch, trying to push her enthusiasm through the phone to soften up any defenses, “I’m working some numbers on vocation rehab programs from the Zig and need a second set of eyes.  We’re trying for expanded funding in city chambers next week so I figured a breakdown of parolee re-book rates would help showcase the success of the programs, but it’s not adding up right.”

Mary sighed, she hated to disappoint her friends, but sometimes Amanda was too blinded by humanitarian effort to understand the darker sides of the city.  “Look, I know the vocational program is your pet project and you think the justice system could use more humanity, but sometimes the bad apples just don’t want to turn their lives around . . . “  Amanda cut in, “that’s not what I mean.  It’s just . . . well . . . the numbers are too good and I don’t want people to think I’ve mucked the data to get the extra funding.”

Mary stopped short, “too good?  How so?”  Amanda dropped her voice conspiratorially, “all the long term studies show that prisoners with a three year or less sentence in the Zig have a return rate to criminal court of 43% within two years of release.  That’s pretty much been documented and accepted across the board.  Well I’ve pulled some numbers on a limited sample of folks in Zig voc-rehab from two years ago and the return rate was only 21%.  All our projections showed that the program as it stands should have had a target of perhaps 37%.  That’s three times the effect we expected, it’s an anomaly that just doesn’t make sense.  I’m thinking maybe I’m looking at the data wrong, I need someone else to verify it or maybe take a broader sample.  Could you?  I can email you the spreadsheet, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long, and I’d be in your debt forever, please?”

Mary considered the implications; she didn’t actually have much to do of late, the column she was currently working on was just so much brainless fluff, perhaps this situation at the Zig could make a more interesting piece to springboard her into better assignments.  “All right, send it over.”  Amanda was thrilled, “you’re a lifesaver!”

Mary rubbed her eyes and snapped a glance at the clock near the edge of her cubicle, 2:18am.  Lord what a long night.  The data Amanda had sent was almost overwhelming, it wasn’t simply a spreadsheet of the voc-rehab group, but a complete prison record of the individuals in it, 250 inmates in the sample group.  A control group of 250 was also provided to compare.  The initial results were exactly as Amanda had said, of the inmates in voc-rehab, only 51 had been arrested again in the two years since.  The control group had 112.  Unfortunately, Mary didn’t see any patterns that would help explain it.  There were two voc-rehab programs, completely different in scope and structure, but the results were even across them.

She let her mind wander, rearranging the data through different filters to try to figure out the hidden pattern, steering away from the program specific info that Amanda would have focused on.  Sometimes just allowing her thoughts to drift provoked insight, and at this late a night her thoughts were fairly random anyhow.  Coffee, she thought muzzily, need caffeine, she was about to turn away from the screen to fetch a cup when some realigned column caught her eye; a small block of one name repeated, perhaps two dozen times.  She re-focused on the spreadsheet.  “Arresting Hero: Warpstone.”

Strange.  Why would one super show up so often in this representative sample.  There must be a thousand inmates in the Zig at any one time and hundreds of heroes in the city busting bad guys.  She looked up and down that column, the next highest number of inmates from any one specific hero totaled four.  She then looked sideways along the records of specific inmates and discovered something very interesting; those arrested by Warpstone were not apprehended again.  She turned to the control group, finding three more arrests by him and scanned through those records; again, no return to crime.  Almost 30 criminals and not one went back to illegal activities after release.  Astounded, she looked more closely at the information on those specific inmates.  It seemed the three in the control group had applied to be part of the voc-rehab but were turned down, having been deemed “too skilled”.  Further, most of the inmates arrested were members of the Freakshow gang, their cybertech removed upon entering the prison system, the remaining were Fifth Column initiates.

Now it was getting interesting.  Mary sat lost in thought, perhaps she had stumbled on something interesting after all.  Taking another glance at the clock, she decided to play a hunch.  She reached for the phone and called Amanda back, knowing the other woman would still be up working.  Mary asked for a larger batch of records to be emailed, suggesting that perhaps there was a flaw in the data collection and a much larger group might help.  Amanda agreed, making the reporter swear to secrecy about them, Amada could be fired for the breach of privacy on prison records.  Hanging up, Mary felt a little bad about misleading her friend, but technically there was a strange flaw in the data that had nothing to do with the program itself.

The new batch of data was staggering, almost eleven thousand entries from a six month period two years ago.  She had no idea crime was that bad in Paragon City and mentally cringed at the amount of work it would take to organize that much raw data.  Luckily, now that she knew what to look for, it was childlike in simplicity.  A few taps on the keyboard and those records were filtered down to 426.  A very respectable chunk of law enforcement.  The largest number were arrested during a week long period; an appended note suggested the arrests were in conjunction with a special taskforce set up by Sister Psyche to root out some large-scale bomb plot using sonic disruptors or something.  Warpstone had been one member of an eight hero team to break up several full Freakshow cells, Fifth Column bases, and generally send almost a thousand criminals to the Zig. 

Again she saw the same pattern with those inmates apprehended by Warpstone or with his help; mostly Freaks and Column, a few Skulls and Hellions.  Only four were arrested on later charges.  Examining those individual entries, she noticed with a wry amusement that they were for previous offenses held off til the current term at the Zig was done.  Behavior codex listings showed the group as being model prisoners; no fighting, no in-prison gang activity, almost blind adherence to the rules of the Zig.  There was a strange amount of activity in the medical fields though; all seemed prone to illness.  Most of them were in and out of the medical ward for respiratory infections, constant colds and fungal outbreaks.  There were notes of diminishing body weight, lack of appetite, disinterest in physical activity, one even had a complete renal failure for no particular reason (the doctor attributed it to a side-effect of the anti-rejection drugs the Freakshow took to offset their cybertech).

I’ve hit paydirt, she thought to herself.  Nobody will ever believe this.  She frowned, actually, nobody *would* ever believe it.  She needed some more proof about what she’d stumbled upon.  And what exactly had she stumbled upon?  A hero doing something right?  More research, gonna need more research.  Well, mama always said that if you want to know something about a body, go ask them.

Saving the data to her private network account, she pulled up the specialized web software the Times had and began plunking in search terms.  Let’s see who you are Mr. Warpstone.  Surprisingly, the results were few and far between, it seemed that the man avoided the press like the plague.  Only two pictures on file, the second useless since it was long-range and only marginally involving the hero.  She looked at the first, a full profile shot, probably taken from the Hero Assignment desk at city hall.  A man, perhaps 5’8”, thick build but impossible to see in a suit of what must only be full plate armor.  How terribly ren-faire, dull black plates with strange whorls of purple and bronze trim.  A full helmet covering his head, no face visible, only darkness shown through the visor, and sweeping bronze wings flaring up from the temple.  Very ‘ride of the Valkyrie’ from the Ring trilogy.  Bronze gauntlets, bronze articulated boots, and the most interesting feature; a purple gem set into the chestplate.  She zoomed in, taking in the fist sized stone; it had strange angles to it, asymmetrical, and there was a glow in the center, like some dancing candle flame.

The official records she could access were monumentally unhelpful.  He was assigned through MAGI, seeming to take an interest in the more mystical threats to the city.  It looked as though he’d been in Paragon since right after the Ritki invasion.  His security clearance was impressive, the city had allowed him access to every part of the city, even the open warzones in the skirmishes with the Rogue Isles.  There were a large number of commendations and awards from the city for meritorious service, but it seemed he never actually showed up for the ceremonies.  The only other item of note she saw was a current supergroup affiliation, the Solo Avengers.  Well, time to pound the pavement.  I guess I’ll need to talk to some folks who actually know him.

Azuria smiled at the reporter as they talked in the MAGI office in City Hall, trying to put the younger woman at ease.  Mary was a bit taken aback at how busy the office was.  The décor was a strange mash of old world mystic and modern tech, she wasn’t sure what she expected, but this certainly wasn’t it.  Cubicles to the left held desks, computers, filing cabinets and harried looking office staff dealing with the constant traffic of heroes coming in and out looking for assignments or returning with paperwork, items or people.  Along the opposite wall were star charts, large shelves of strange objects, glowing crystals, even a flashing red diagram cut into the floor.  Azuria handed the reporter a cup of herbal tea while apologizing, “I’m sorry I can’t give you more time.  A group of college students seem to have been taken by the Circle of Thorns and we’re a bit stretched trying to get leads on where they’ve gone.”

“I appreciate any time you can give me.  I’m not sure I can be really frank about why I’m researching him, but some of the records I’ve seen about inmates in the Zig arrested by Warpstone have me confused.  As far as I can tell, his collars are better able to keep to a civilian life than those of other heroes.  Is there some personal touch he’s putting on?  Keeping track of the inmates after release?  Something?”  Azuria blew on her tea and appraised the young reporter. 

“I’m afraid I don’t know.  My contact with him was rather limited, he wasn’t one to hang around gossiping.  He was almost brutally effective in his assignments.  Most of the time he seemed to get right to the center of whatever problem he was working on and dealt with it.  I seem to recall a few times I’d sent him out to break up gang hangouts.  He moved directly to the leader of the gang and dispatched them, sending the minions into disorganized chaos and easy pickings for the police.  I’ve never really known another hero who left as small a trail of collateral in his path to whatever goal he had at the time.  We never had to worry about excessive damage or undue violence in arresting thugs, in my assignments he was methodical, level headed, and quick.  It never mattered what time of day or night, he was always available to help out and once on a case was never distracted.  He cleared up all the missions I had available and moved on to other contacts.  He’s come in a few times as follow-up on other cases, or to get more specific information, but I don’t really work with him now.”

Mary was disappointed but pressed for more information.  “Do you know anything about him personally?  My research has him showing up in Paragon shortly after the Ritki, but there’s nothing out there about him.  Where’d he come from?  Is he a local?  Why does he avoid the public so much?  I can’t even find any information about what sort of powers or skills he has, I’ve never run into such a mystery about a hero before.”  Azuria frowned at the energetic reporter, her attitude turning slightly frosty, “all personal information about licensed heroes is strictly confidential.  I cannot help you there and it’s impolite to ask.”  Azuria softened up at the wounded expression flitting across Mary’s face, “I really am sorry, but I can’t help you.  We do have contact information about his supergroup though, perhaps he might allow an interview.”

The answering service for the Solo Avengers was a computer generated, generic and placid synthesized AI program.  Undoubtedly, it was bounced along several relay points to prevent hacking and tracing, most groups were almost religious about keeping their bases secret.  Mary was surprised to get a response less than a minute after leaving a message explaining who she was and what she was looking for.  The woman who called her back arranged a meeting at a small diner near Atlas city hall.  “How will I know you?” she asked, “don’t worry, I’ll be able to figure out who you are, no problem.”  Now sitting at the table, sipping her third tea, Mary felt a bit silly and paranoid.  Why should she feel so nervous about meeting a hero out in the open?  She turned to scan the street again when there was a whoosh of displaced air and popping sound.  Turning back to the table, she found a woman about as young as herself now sitting in the opposite chair.

The new arrival had black hair, slightly angular features and electric blue eyes, almost shocking in contrast to her pale skin, there was also a rather tight black body stocking that left nothing to the imagination.  Topping off the ensemble was a large floppy witch’s hat.  Undoubtedly a witch’s hat; black, tall and crooked, even the small tattered brim.  It looked exactly like the wicked witches hat from the Wizard of Oz . . . except for the neon blue trim accents.  “ummmm . . . “ Mary was a bit taken aback, after five years of working at the Times she’d never actually met a hero before.  “Hi there, name’s Mercury’s Child, I’m the one who called you,” the heroine held out a delicate hand swathed in black lace, “I happened to be working front desk duty today and got your call.  Things have been so terribly dull, everyone running around trying to put out fires, nothing at all happening at the base so I figured I’d pop out and chat.  And besides, the auto turrets and defense grids are all up, and the Advisor is running to ping me if something comes up.  I just had to come when you said you’re looking into short and spooky himself.  Our very own man of mystery, if he’s actually a man under all that tin and attitude.” 

Child leaned forward and lowered her voice, “creepy kind of guy, and that’s coming from a witch, so I guess I should know.  All moody and dark, skulking around, I mean, sure he does a lot for the group and dumps all the neat gizmos and toys and stuff he finds in the base for anyone to use, but he’s so caught up in the ‘lone gunman’ thing, very 80’s.  We almost never see him, only time he ever talks to anyone is to ask if folks need help.  I think I can count on one hand the number of times he asked for a hand himself.  I mean, he might be one of the old-timers, but the least he could do is offer a bit of encouragement or something to the new guys.  Sure, we might be ‘the Solo Avengers’, but sheesh, he really takes it too seriously.  Yeah, he gives the group a lot of money, but it would be nice if he was a little more friendly.”

Mary was a bit confused and struggled to keep up with the rapid chatter of the heroine, “so, he’s not a team player?  I thought he did some major taskforces?”  Child seemed to be nodding and shaking her head at the same time, “not really, he doesn’t join mission teams unless he’s asked, but he works good with a group, tends to run in, scout the area and pop the group to the trouble spot.  Pretty slick, he just does the whole ninja thing and runs like lightning so the crooks don’t see him, heads to where it’s all happening and ‘bam’ teleports us on top of the baddies.  Then it’s all hack and slash with that sword of his, bouncing around and carving up thugs.”

This conversation was giving Mary more information in five minutes then she’d gotten in the past 24 hours.  It seemed Warpstone had some degree of stealth and super speed, could teleport his teammates, and was an up-close fighter.  “Sword?  None of the folks he arrested had cuts or severe injury.”  Child paused, rather a feat given the almost non-stop dialogue so far, “oh yeah, big sword, almost four feet long, dark colored.  He’s good with it, seems to cut right through armor and flashes a really pretty purple.  One mission we were on together, he jumped about fifteen feet and stuck it right into the head of an Outcast brick, boom, just like that.  Guess now that you mention it there was no blood or anything, kinda strange.  Knocked the guy clean out, only seems to have it when he needs it, probably magic.  That would explain why it’s always kinda twitchy around him with the force lines.  He’s tough too, that armor must be good protection which is funny as quiet and sneaky as he is, he’s almost never really hurt and never slows down, doesn’t get tired not sure if he sleeps, find him at weird hours patrolling or doing stuff, he only stops in the base to drop things off, but his log is all over the place. Pretty much he keeps to himself so we tend to leave him alone.  I guess only one who knew him much was Binary Fire, he invited him to the group but Bin retired a while back, said he had more important things to do in ‘real life’, whatever that means.  Well, if you want, I can leave him a message that you’d like to talk to him, he always picks up his messages a few times a day.  Although if you find out anything interesting you have to promise to tell me, I would love to be the one to be all answering questions about the mystery man at our next pot-luck, which he never goes to anyhow.”

Now Mary sat on a bench near the elevated rail station in Atlas Park, waiting with nervous anticipation for a meeting with the object of her scrutiny.  Mercury’s Child had been correct, roughly an hour after the heroine had vanished with a popping sound promising to leave a message for Warpstone, Mary had received a call wherein a synthesized voice had simply stated a location and time.  She looked around her surroundings and tried to calm herself.  It was now early evening, the shadows stretching and the light filtering through the war walls gave the area a strange cast.  Movement near one of the support brackets for the platform caught her eye.  The shadows there seemed to coalesce, growing larger and budding out like some demented fruit.  Stepping from the darkness came Warpstone, he walked directly to her, soundlessly and fluid. 

“What is the mission?”  his voice was odd, quiet and un-inflected, hollow, like someone from a great distance was shouting down a hallway and the distorted echo came back just above a whisper.  There was a cadence as well, a stretching of tone neither male nor female, like a small choir.  Mary tried to see past the slitted visor to make out the person underneath and failed.  Mary noticed almost as an afterthought that the armor wasn’t actually metal, but looked more like polished stone.  The strange whorls of purple were veins of some mineral in the black rock.  The gem at his chest was alive with light and energy, the flame glowing at the center pulsed and moved.  Occasional flickers of purple flame danced outward from the gem along his skin.  There was no sword right now, not even a sheath for a sword.  He seemed to blend into the shadows of approaching dusk, no, it’s like the shadows are being drawn to him, being pulled in.  Mary shivered with the realization and also the light chill that seemed to accompany him.

“I’m Mary Singleton, I’m a reporter for the Paragon Times and I . . . no wait!”  Warpstone had turned to leave, dismissing her utterly.  “Why don’t the crooks you catch go back to crime?” she said loudly in desperation, “there’s a strange pattern there, they all become so tame, almost meek.  I just need to know.”  The hero stopped and turned to regard her, she hurried on, trying to keep his attention, “I’m not out to make a name for myself or blow the lid off your secrets, I just want to know the truth, I need to understand.”

The hero was as still as a statue, “Truth.  Understanding cannot be given.”  This was not a question, nor a challenge, it was a statement.  Understanding cannot be given, as in, it must be earned.  “I’m not out to use you or anything, I’m willing to prove that I can be trusted with the truth.”  The moment stretched uncomfortable as Warpstone regarded her, she tried to keep from flinching under the intense scrutiny.  Finally, the hero spoke, “Punkupine, Infernal Frost, Mindblight, Chillbug, Whisper in Shadow.”  With that, he walked back to be absorbed in the pool of shadow under the platform and was gone.

Mary sat down before her shaking knees gave out completely, she’d just stared down a recalcitrant hero and managed to come away with further steps into mystery.  A test, undoubtedly, but what did five other supers have to do with Warpstone and the strange pattern of those he arrested?  She jotted down a quick email to her account with the details of the meeting and whisked it off through her wireless, then it was back to the Times to do some research on new names.

She started with the first name given to her, Punkupine.  He was a younger hero, in his mid twenties and a native to Paragon.  His registration at City Hall was barely six months old, his picture showed a short but incredibly muscular man.  Though only 5’3” he was built like an Olympic weightlifter.  His black hair was lacquered up into an insanely high Mohawk, and a closely trimmed beard was sculpted in muttonchops fashion, a style not popular since the early 1890’s.  She counted six ear piercings, an eyebrow ring, a labret spike at his chin, tattered jeans, combat boots, muscle shirt with anarchy symbol and thinline razor sunglasses completed the outfit.  The hero was posed casually for his picture, a wild grin on his face.  It also seemed that he was only part-time in the hero business and was better known as a DJ at some of the local dance clubs.  He was a media hound who loved to be in the spotlight.  The articles she could find suggested he fought with spikes that protruded from his skin  He had no secret identity as such, using his fame in crime fighting to boost his career in music.  There was no information about how he’d developed his powers.  He seemed to be a loner, no supergroup affiliation but she found recent contact information for him which she copied to talk to him later and moved on to the next name.

Infernal Frost was from London and had moved to Paragon after the invasion.  He also had no secret identity; she understood in looking at his picture.  He looked to be in his late twenties, stood almost 8’ tall and was likewise built like a powerlifter.  His black hair was also in a Mohawk, but shorter and thicker.  His beard was full and bristly.  He also seemed to prefer a casual look, stripped to the waist, blue jeans, combat boots and a black weightlifters belt.  Red stripes were painted down his sides to follow down the legs of the jeans, other red lines down his arms and under thick black arm wraps.  There were black metal plates affixed to his shoulders, like football pads, though she couldn’t see how they stayed on, and a vivid tattoo in the center of his chest of red flames with a blue center.  He was a full time hero, with a large number of articles about his good works.  He seemed a little reserved, probably the British mindset at work, but didn’t avoid the press.  He was very frank about being a mutant and was committed to helping bridge the gap between the para-community and normals.  There were many articles talking about his powers over ice and fire, using them to protect himself while punishing his foes.  He didn’t seem to be a member of any specific group, but joined any team that had need of him.  She jotted down his current address and continued down the list.

Strangely, she found almost no information about Mindblight.  He was registered to the Hero Desk in city hall, but his registration was almost ten years old and no current information available.  A photo displayed a man in some form of high-tech armor, the green surface smooth with what she guessed were sensors dotting key points.  The blank helmet and ribbed metal boots were black, dark circuitry traced random paths through the material, and enormous articulated black gloves offset the slightly menacing outfit.  She gathered that he had been a rather active hero, but had dropped off the radar.  There was nothing for at least six years.  There was an old address, but she wondered if it would yield anything.

The Chillbug was another full time hero who had no choice in the matter.  She felt sorry for the man, if he was actually a man.  The photos showed a creature perhaps 5’8” covered in a chitinous shell of dark blue and white, feathery antennae sprouted from the forehead, while thicker antennae swept back from the side where ears should be.  His eyes were the lifeless, multi-segmented of an insect, as were the mandible mouthparts.  The hands had only three fingers and a thumb each, the feet only two toes, and a thick tail, almost reptilian to completely divorce the man from the rest of humanity.  She was surprised to read that he was a native of Paragon, born during the Ritki invasion at a field hospital.  Though only a pre-teen, he seemed to be already an adult.  He was a loner, keeping to himself and only grouping with a small cadre of other heroes.  His mutant powers were ice based, though there were some notes about toxic chemicals he extruded, possibly a by-product of his unusual physiology.  There was a message service he used for contact.

Whisper in Shadow held to the pattern of loner.  It was unknown if she was a Paragon native or not, her registration at City Hall was a few years before the invasion.  She was an average woman or indeterminate middle age, 5’6”, slight build, pale skin, dark brown hair, dressed in normal jeans and shirt but with an empty expression on her face and dead black eyes.  Reports from the war said she used darkness based powers for concealment and to weaken or disorient her foes.  She’d had an active but undistinguished part in driving the Ritki back, mostly used as a scout and information gathering.  She did not talk to the press or attend public functions.  She had no secret identity, there was a current street address listed.

Curious and playing a hunch, Mary ran the names through the Zig list provided and wasn’t surprised to see that these heroes also had an impossible record of their arrests not going back to a life of crime.  No information was available for Mindblight, but she suspected the same held true for him while he was an active hero.  Six heroes, seemingly unconnected, different ages and backgrounds, different powers and origins, yet still there was that tantalizing sense of pattern.  She could feel a tenuous link already, these loners.  This story was getting more amazing by the moment.  Time to go see a DJ.

It was almost disappointing how easily she set up an interview with Punkupine the next morning.  She merely had to say she was a reporter and the young man was hooked.  He had asked they meet in a cyber café he favored and she was a bit dismayed at the amount of noise, speakers pumped dance music through the large room as customers sat isolated, engrossed in their laptops and virtual life, unnoticing the wash of humanity around them.  The young hero had difficulty sitting still, he fidgeted and bounced, his speech quick while flitting from one subject to the next.  His favorite topic was himself of course, recounting his recent arrests, talking about upcoming live music events, an album contract in the works.  She had to work hard to get him back to the topic she cared about.  “I’m doing a story on heroes and have found a strange lead, have you ever heard of a hero called Warpstone?”  The effect was interesting, Punkupine actually sat still and his eyes became a bit distant as he thought, Mary was sure he wasn’t aware of his own hesitation.  “No, not really . . . but the name sounds familiar somehow.  Not someone I’ve worked with . . . . . huh, that’s weird.”  The young man snapped back to reality, “well, must not be important.  I’m the one you’re here interviewing babe.”  Punkupine flashed a bright and shallow smile at the reporter.

Mary sighed at the dead end, but since she was here she might as well follow through on the ruse.  “Of course you’re right.  So tell me about yourself, why Punkupine?  I’m guessing it ties into the music, but I don’t see any spikes.”  The young hero nodded his head in approval, “yep, yep, punk music isn’t dead like people think, it just had trouble going from vinyl to digital.  As to the spikes, well I keep em hidden til I need em.”  With that the hero flexed his arm, dozens of spikes popped from his skin, forming a ridge down his forearm and cresting his fist.  Mary stood transfixed by the 6” spikes, each was a purple crystal, flashing the same inner fire as she had seen in the center of Warpstone’s chest.  She stammered, shaken, “but, crystal?  But how?”

Punkupine seemed amused and tapped the spike of his labret piercing, a spike which Mary only just now noticed was also crystal.  “This little baby, magic of some sort, did wild things to me when I started using it as a piece of jewelry.  I picked it up in Mexico . . . somewhere,” there was a mild frown, as if he couldn’t remember exactly, “on vacation.  I thought it was tacky and would look great as body jewelry.  It fit perfect, didn’t need to modify it at all, but wasn’t sure I really liked it.  But it grew on me, literally!  Looks like it fused with my body, went under the skin, into the muscle and bone.  Now I got crystals can pup up outta anywhere.  Made me stronger too, faster, tougher, I never get tired, heal really quick.  It even grew my appendix back.  The magic of the crystal let’s me blend with shadows to sneak around, and I can do this side-stepping thing through darkness that is totally kickass.  Only bad thing is now my body doesn’t react at all with drugs, er, I mean alcohol.  Pretty much only caffeine works now, and never for long, don’t need to eat or sleep much anymore either.  I don’t mind, the crystal keeps me plenty juiced.”  Mary reached for his hand to feel the spikes there, but with another flex Punkupine pulled them back in.  “Uh uh, no touchy, they’re really sharp and I think they’re toxic to other people.  Anyone gets cut by one becomes kinda sick.”

Mary was in shock and had to struggle to stay focused, “sick how?”  “Dunno, makes em weak, tired, slow, like they got a bad flu or something, the eggheads can’t figure it out cause the crystals don’t last long outside my body.  Here, watch this.”  Punkupine held his hand over the table, Mary watched, fascinated as a crystal formed on his palm then dropped to the table.  The shard sat sparkling for a minute, then its color faded and it dissolved, breaking into dust and dwindling to nothing.  “Pretty cool, huh?  Very ‘eco friendly’, never leaves behind something for landfill.  And since it don’t kill anyone the eggheads aren’t that worried.”

The rest of the interview was a blur, Punkupine was content to trumpet his own successes and promote his upcoming work, but couldn’t give any more information about the crystals.  He simply didn’t remember where he’d gotten the first shard.  The trip to Mexico had been full of parties, drinking and carousing, he’d acquired it during a two day “hazy period” of extra heavy binging (and a suggestion of some recreational pharmaceuticals).  The only clue he had was a tourist postcard from near the Maya temples.  The young hero was self-centered, but judging from the write-ups, he was basically a good guy at heart.

There were no responses from Chillbug and the café was not far from the address she had on Mindblight so she decided to stop off.  This was a poor section of town, Kings Row had become a sad wasteland in the heart of Paragon.  She was lucky that the tenement house was on a well lit and frequently traveled street.  The fourth floor walkup was a sagging reflection of the despair around it.  The crumbling paint on the door peeled off in flakes as she knocked.  A man’s voice from inside gave a muffled reply, “go away!  I don’t have anything you want!”  “I’m here to talk about Mindblight.”  There was a pause, then the voice came back louder, he was looking at her through the spyglass, “you vultures took everything I had!  There’s nothing left!  Go away!”  Mary held up her press pass, “I’m Mary Singleton, I work with the Paragon Times, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I just have some questions.”  There was a longer pause as the man on the other side of the door looked at her credentials, then the clacking sound of multiple locks being undone.

The door opened to reveal an older man, thin and haggard, his grey hair unkempt.  This was a man life had not been kind to and it showed in every line and the weight of despair that hung about his movements.  “A reporter?  What’s a young girl like you asking about a washed up old man like me?”  Mary tried to imagine what had happened to this poor man who must have been a hero once, “you’re Mindblight?  I’d like to ask you a few things if you don’t mind.”  The man sighed his sadness, “I haven’t used that name in years miss, it was taken along with everything else.  Well, come on in.”  He lead her into a surprisingly well kept small apartment, there was very little furniture, but gadgets and electronics were piled deep onto shelves and workbenches.  She saw a lot of appliances in varying states of repair (or disrepair?) alongside unidentifiable contraptions.

“Are you a scientist?” she asked, taking in the amount of technology surrounding her.  “Not anymore miss, not anymore.”  He waved her to a chair while he settled into one next to a table jammed with instruments and parts.  He absently began assembling as he talked, “I used to work for Crey, very hush hush stuff, I can’t tell you anything specifically or I’ll get sued . . . again.  Let’s just say I did research in things that most people dream about, it was a good job, I helped put some really important products out on the market that help folks.  Of course, I loved to tinker, pull things apart, figure out how to make them better, put them back together.  It was my downfall ultimately.”  He laughed, a sorrowful cough of remembrance, “I used to tinker stuff here at home in my own time, had some grand notion about saving the world.  Foolish, only children go off to save the world, not old men.  I managed to scrounge enough scrap from after the invasion to make a suit of power armor.  My own design, brilliant, a little of this, little of that, some Ritki tech I found in a gutter, some electronic parts from a junkpile.  I was amazed it actually worked.  I stumbled across a sonic frequency that interferes with brain activity, nothing serious or life-threatening, just bending thoughts a bit so the target would be confused, distracted, maybe hallucinate, unlocking the nightmares in their head.  A little tweaking of the biorhythms and they felt sick, nauseous, weakened and easy to take down, like siphoning off their strength.  I couldn’t really do much by myself, but in groups I was invaluable.”

“Oh I had a great time of it as a hero, you can’t imagine what it’s like to save the day, have some kid you just saved from a pack of Hellions ask for your autograph.  It was amazing.  But, of course, it couldn’t last.  Somehow Crey figured out it was me behind the mask.  I didn’t notice that little sub-clause of my employment contract, anything I made, my time or theirs, belonged to them.  Intellectual property, they said.  Crushed my career, took everything I had and every cent I owned.  So here I am.  I guess in the end they got what they deserved, looks like the suit wouldn’t work for them.  I heard through the grapevine that there was some kind of accident when they tried to figure it out, blew up one of the labs.  They tried to pin that on me as well, but there was nothing left for them to squeeze from me.  Now I get by doing fixit jobs for folks in the neighborhood, I’ll never be able to get a real job, not with Crey making sure I stay down.”

The man trailed off into silence, Mary noticed he had finished assembling the parts into a toy truck, her heart almost broke with the pathos of his situation.  “Why not rebuild?  I’m sure you could make another suit, and there have been a lot of advances since then . . . “, he waved her off.  “No, they’d just take it all away again.  They still keep an eye on me to make sure I don’t get in the way.  Besides, I don’t think I could.  The power crystal was unique, even Crey didn’t have anything like it. I think that’s what they wanted all along.”  Mary sat up, “crystal?”  The man put down the truck and moved on to another project, “oh yes,” he answered, distracted, “never seen anything like it, I got it from another hero, never got his name.  Met him one night coming home from work, saved me from a mugging actually.  I was fighting back like a fool and was about to really suffer for it before he jumped in.  Afterwards he looked me up and down and handed it to me.  He said the crystal held a lot of power, if I was judged strong of heart and able to use it.  Or something like that, I don’t really remember.  The crystal had the right resonance to make the weapons array work, the suit itself had a rather generic power system, but only the crystal had the right matrix for the sonic discharger.  Never find something like that again, things like that just don’t happen more than once.”  He turned his full attention to the next project, immersing himself in the small victories and joys left to him.  Mary let herself out, unwilling to disturb the precious little happiness he still had.

She had written up a more extensive file documenting the evidence she’d collected so far, several hours of typing, attaching photos, listing names and dates.  ‘The Project’ (as she labeled it to herself) was coming along at an amazing pace.  She was proofreading the initial framework when the phone rang.  The messenger service was relaying a note that Chillbug had agreed to see her.  She found it odd that he was using a relay system much similar to the one deaf people used, but on retrospect it made sense.  He might not even be able to speak with the strange configuration of his mouth.  He’d asked for a later meeting, with three hours to go she might as well get an early dinner and relax.  After updating the Project with the new development, she left for a leisurely sushi special with no thoughts at all about work. 

Unfortunately, when she returned to the Times her cubicle was already occupied.  Bill Thatch “just call me Billy”, the sleaziest of the gossip column slugs on the payroll was at her computer, looking through her files, looking at the Project!  She reached over and switched off the computer in a rage, “what are you doing!  Get out of my cubicle!”  Billy swiveled the chair with nonchalance and eyed her with smug satisfaction, “now Mary, why be so rude with your new partner, people will think you’re not a team player.”  She almost spit in his face with fury, “you are not my partner you dirtbag!  I want nothing to do with you.”  He put on a theatrical pout and lowered his voice to a whisper, “oh my, how very sad, I guess it will be just my name on the byline about this horrible business with Warpstone.  Well I suppose the people have a right to know.”  She had to grab the desk to keep from dropping, he had read the entire report, he knew everything!  Billy slowly stood, smirking, “I mean, right now it’s just details about how he’s poisoning the criminals he’s caught and somehow tricked some other folks into doing the same.  But since you don’t want to play, I guess we’ll just have to run with that.”  She blocked him from leaving and gritted her teeth, “that’s not what I was writing and you know it.  What are you angling for?”

Bill leaned against her desk, still smiling his oily grin, “oh, just the full story, there’s still three heroes named here that haven’t been talked to yet.  Maybe they’ll have something more . . . pleasant . . . to add to the story, something that will make me reconsider what I was going to say about Warpstone.  Who knows?  This is a great story, so naughty of you to sit on it, I think a story this important will get me a promotion.  Oh, pardon, will get *us* a promotion.”  He looked around the cubicle and fingered the tired fabric of her chair, “I’d imagine after this long you’d want one.”  Mary considered her options.  Billy was a sleaze, she had no doubts he’d bend and twist everything she’d uncovered in the worst possible way, anything to advance his career.  If she brought him onboard fully, maybe she could convince him to downplay any negative publicity, for the sake of the heroes she’d talked to.  Mindblight had suffered enough already, and Punkupine was just trying to build a life.  As to Warpstone, there wasn’t anything criminal or evil she’d uncovered so far, just a little disturbing.  Billy was watching her expression and knew her answer before she spoke, “there’s a good girl.  Let’s go see this bug freak of yours then.”  Mary gritted her teeth and led on.

Chillbug had asked to meet under the statue of Atlas, she guessed he felt more comfortable in a center where there were many heroes and his features wouldn’t cause undue alarm.  As Mary had guessed, he was incapable of human speech and had a middle-aged female translator with him to relay the specialized sign language he used to communicate, though he could hear better than an average human  He had a faint chill about him, but there was also an earthy scent of some sort which Mary found oddly comforting.  His thinner antennae wavered and moved, obviously taking in some sense of his surroundings.  Although covered in thick organic scales, his movements were surprisingly fluid and graceful, like a dancer.  After introductions, they sat on a bench to speak.   Mary was grateful that Billy had decided to keep his mouth shut, he had a look of distaste at the mutant, but seemed content to let Mary lead the discussion.  The hero was surprisingly open and friendly, and seemed to have a humor about his situation.  “Go ahead, ask,” the translator relayed, “everyone want to know, so ask.”  Mary was a little confused but Chillbug continued, “Ritki experiment.  Very rare, not talked about.  Good thing I have sense of humor, grow one same time as tail.  Poor mom, freak out in hospital.  They say I mostly human.  Funny.  52% base human DNA, rest don’t know.  Mom gave me, raised Hero Corps.  What else do?  Just hero work.”

Mary got to the point, “have you ever heard of a hero called Warpstone?”  Chillbug shook his head, “no.  No hear, no work.  Why?”  Mary fudged a little, “I thought there might be a connection between you.”  Chillbug took out a very sophisticated pda device from a small pouch glued to his thigh and consulted it, he turned the screen so the group could see the display.  It showed a Hero Corps assessment of Warpstone; known powers (Stealth, Super Speed, Teleportation, Regeneration, Enhanced Armor, Skill Set- magic broadsword), supergroup affiliation, known hospital stays: 2 (Dr. Lestrange), and any projects he’d done for the group.  Again Chillbug shook his head, “no know, no work, no meet.”  Chillbug put the device away.

“Perhaps some connection to your powers?”  Mary suggested.  Again Chillbug shook his head, “no.  Mutant.  Have toxic spit, make ice,” the relay stopped and had a short discussion with Chillbug before addressing Mary directly.  “I’m sorry, he wants me to clarify.  He says he doesn’t actually make ice but takes away heat.  I’m not sure I understand what the difference is but he says it’s completely different.  It’s not my place, but I’d also like to say that his spittle isn’t actually poisonous, it interferes with neurotransmitters to weaken criminals.  His DNA is just so different from ours.  He’s not dangerous and I don’t want people to think so.”  Mary was a little suspicious about this new development, translators had a strict code of neutrality when dealing with the conversations they relayed.  “Why should you care?  And why would his DNA be in his spittle?”

The woman was clearly flustered that she’d said something she shouldn’t, “well his spit actually contains some of his blood.”  Billy chose that point to leap into the conversation, “oh gross!  I’m out of here.”  He turned to Mary, “I’ll see you at the Times when you’re finished with the freak patrol.”  Mary flushed with embarrassment as the man turned and stomped off.  There was a pregnant silence which was broken when the translator relayed some movements from Chillbug.  “Your friend jerk.”  Mary flushed deeper crimson, “he’s not my friend and he’s a bigger jerk than you can possibly imagine.  He’s not on my assignment by choice I can tell you.”  The translator patted Mary’s hand.  “Don’t worry, so long as you’re not going to publish anything nasty I don’t think we’ll hold it against you.”  The translator reached out to lightly stroke the mutants thinner antennae, he responded by tilting his head and making a series of light clicking noises, Mary guessed it was a sound of contentment.  Again there was too much a sense of familiarity between the two for Mary to miss.  “We?”

The other woman appraised Mary before answering, “I’m all he has.  His birth mother gave him away to Hero Corps as soon as she laid eyes on him then crawled into a bottle for the last decade.  I know it’s hard to imagine, but he’s only eleven years old, he’s matured at such an incredible rate.  He’s so smart, he’s had to learn everything faster than the rest of us.  Poor guy doesn’t even sleep, so he doesn’t have the luxury of escaping this world of ours into something more pleasant.  The scientists at the Corps think he’s burning through his lifespan at an accelerated rate.”  The translator regarded Mary with sad eyes, “can you imagine being eleven years old and knowing that you’ve probably gone through a third of your total life?  I’ve been with him from the start, I know him better than anyone.”  Chillbug made a small, delicate gesture and the translator blushed.  “What was that?  What did that mean?”  Mary asked.  The woman smiled as she continued giving the mutant some small comfort with her touch, “mother real”.

The grace with which the pair took the unpleasant turn of interview was surprising.  They’d even given Mary a sample of Chillbugs toxin to take with her, a small glass vial containing a thick and glowing purple fluid.  Mary had no doubts that if she were to look at the goo under a microscope it would contain small crystals, but she couldn’t see the connection with Warpstone or the others.  How did a kid mutated by the Ritki tie into this?  She mulled over the possibilities while returning to the Times.  Billy was at her cubicle, doing a search when she entered.  “You are such a jerk,” she told him.  He seemed completely nonplussed.  “You get anything else from the freak patrol?”  She decided to keep the relationship and toxin sample from him, he’d just twist it up anyhow.  “No, the interview hit a bit of a snag when you decided to completely insult him.”

Billy didn’t seem to care, “ah well, more than one way to skin a cat.  I’ve called in a few favors and have an address for his birth mother, I think we can pump her some.”  Mary was shocked, such information would be classified and not available even to a reporter.  Billy must have blackmailed someone hard to get it.  Again she had deep regrets about teaming up with the unscrupulous man.  “So, where do we go?”  Billy smiled his feral grin at her, “not we sweetcheeks, it seems the lady in question is a lush of high magnitude, she mostly lives at a bar outside Galaxy City.  I don’t think she’s going to talk to a fresh-faced munchkin like yourself.  I know how to handle barflies.  You make busy with the other two and I’ll see what dear old mom has to say.”  Mary felt impending disaster signaling it’s intent, but couldn’t come up with a suitable excuse to join him.

The woman staggering at the barstool was probably in her mid thirties, but she looked to be in her early fifties.  A hard life, with hard choices, and hard liquor all mixed up in a cocktail of ruin.  Billy had dressed up for the occasion, changed his shirt, even thrown on a splash of some cheap cologne he’d gotten as a gift last Christmas in the secret Santa exchange at the Times.  She’d been easy to make out at the bar, shrilly arguing with the bartender about how much money she still had on her tab and how many scotches that would get her.  Billy had swept in like some shining knight to plunk a fifty on the counter and demand the bartender serve this lovely woman whatever she wanted.  After checking to make sure the fifty wasn’t counterfeit and a long look at Billy the bartender decided not to look gift money in the mouth.  It only took two more drinks to loosen up the old bats tongue about all the “freaks and weirdos” running loose in the city.

Billy moved her to a booth in the corner and pumped her with more booze while trying to get her to talk.  In no time at all he was the father confessor she’d never had and all the fetid details of her life were rolled out for him.  He cooed and tsked in the right places, gave her forgiveness where it seemed she wanted it and pulled more of her story out.  It seems that she’d been a college girl in love with a hero, madly passionately insanely in love.  They’d hit it off well when she’d been interviewing him for the college paper, how ironic he thought, and one thing naturally led to another.  They broke with tradition, not bothering to actually get married, figuring that when he’d shared his secret identity to her they didn’t need the formalization and ritual of it all.  And so a kid was on the way, two months into the pregnancy when the world came crashing down.  Or rather, a different world.  Daddy turned to so much of a greasy smear during the initial attack, mommy dragged away and used as a guinea pig.  Vivisected, screaming as they poked and prodded, and did *things* to her body and mind.  Seems she took a moment of confusion during a counter-attack to get away.  When she went into labor, four months early and in the middle of a war for humanity, things just got worse.

Ah, the first time she saw her baby, a wiggly pale freak, clicking and whistling, not crying the way a baby should.  No umbilical cord even, just a sack like jello surrounding it.  She’d snapped, and who could blame her.  The last piece of her love, her life, everything normal in the world, turned into some nightmare by those creatures from some other place.  Little wonder she left the screeching monster in the hands of the authorities and devoted the rest of her life to wiping out her mind and memories with drink.  And all this time, all this time, never forgetting the color of his eyes, that startling crystal purple like the headband he drew power from.  He’d managed to get the name out of her before her head hit the table, Pulse Midnight. 

He laughed out loud and called Mary, telling her to research the name.  Might as well let her do the grunt work. He took a swig of his beer to celebrate, ah things were really going his way.  He contemplated a bit and then poked the ruined woman awake.  “Come on sweetheart, let’s get you home.”  He pushed and manhandled her to her feet and slowly walked the barely aware woman out to his car, a short drive and they were in a secluded spot.  Oh yes, time to celebrate.

Mary had done the search on Pulse Midnight and was saddened by the response.  He was a well known, well liked hero who’d died in the Ritki invasion.  There was no mention of his unmarried spouse or their unborn child, but she wasn’t surprised.  The war had destroyed many things.  Pulse was a hero who claimed a magic talisman was the source for his blasts of liquid night and ability to fly.  The picture hardly surprised her, the gold headband was very ornate, a purple crystal set in the front glowing with inner fire.  She wondered what Chillbug might have been had not the Ritki conducted their experiments.  Had they simply enhanced the traits that were already given him by his father, the traits affected from the crystal?

A ride on the rail brought her to Steel Canyon and in front of the address she had for Infernal Frost.  It was early night, the shadows already deep, but she was more in need of answers.  His name was listed clearly on the doorbell and she hoped he wouldn’t be angry at the intrusion.  She felt his appearance before she saw him through the door, his footsteps thudding as his enormous frame came down the stairs.  He had to stoop to see her through the frame when he opened it, “Hallo love, may I help you?”  She showed her press credentials, “I hope so, I’m working a very complicated story and was wondering if you could answer some questions.  I’m sorry it’s late, I really won’t take up much of your time.”  The large man waved aside her concerns and escorted her inside.  “No worries, no worries.  Just having a bit of tea before I do some patrolling.  Care to join me?”

His furnishings must have been custom built to support his size and weight, Mary felt like a child swamped in the enormous chair and holding the oversize cup.  The room was decorated sparsely, but had a very charming accent to it, light colors, dark woods, lots of cloth to soften things up.  Mary thought it strange that he was dressed exactly like his hero registration picture while at home and commented on it.  “Oh, no oddities there.  It’s easier to have all my clothes the same.  Einstein himself had seven pairs of the same pants and sweaters so he wouldn’t have to worry about what to wear.  And besides love, a man like me just can’t get things off the rack.”  She nodded, then pointed to his shoulder plates.  “But what about those, isn’t it easier to move around without them?”

He gave her a lopsided smile and tapped one, making a clanging noise.  “Oh ‘fraid not, I had them surgically implanted to my collar bones.  I got tired of always throwing my shoulders out of joint when knocking heads.  Took a bit of getting used to, but one manages.”  She put her cup down, frowning, “that seems a bit extreme.”

Infernal gave a hearty laugh, “only to you folks on the outside, love.  I’ve been dealing with stranger things since the Blitz.”  Mary was confounded, “the Blitz?  You’re joking, that was over sixty years ago, that was before you were born.”  Again the large man gave a laugh, “well that’s a compliment ‘en.  I was born before the German bombardment.  Being a mutant can have benefits sometimes.  I only moved here after the Ritki invasion, wasn’t as bad in London, figured I could help out here.  I cut my teeth, in a hero sense, around D-Day.  I was glad mum lived to see it, must have been hard on her, I was a teenager for almost twenty years.”  His smile slipped a little as he was remembering.  “She wasn’t all the happy with me in the business.  That’s how we think dad died, taken out trying to stop a U-boat.”  He pointed to a grainy black and white photo, “that’s ‘im, Twilight Knight.”  Mary took in the details of the man in the photo, the resemblance to Warpstone was uncanny, similar armor, similar helmet, even a similar gem in the center of the helmet.  But while there was only darkness in Warpstone’s visor, there was obviously a man in this one, smiling and confident.

“He was a tough bird, fast, strong, healed up quick.  Had these spikes he could shoot out of his hands.  Said he was the son of a magician.”  Infernal laughed, “could have been.  Mum said she met him at a gypsy camp when she was touring Europe before the war.  Always said he could put a gypsy curse on those what wronged him.  I guess the criminals he bagged could attest to that.  Scared em straight into an honest life.  Personally I think he was actually a mutant like myself, just didn’t know it and used the hokum to keep folks from getting rude.”

Mary carefully put the picture back and faced him, “but your powers are so different.”  Infernal drank more tea while thinking of a reply.  “Not as much as most would think.  It’s like in the picture shows, the special effects change but the result is the same.  I think the spikes dad used were actually a lot like the ice spikes I make.  It’s not so much creating cold, as pulling the heat away.  It worked that way for him because that was the way his mind worked.  When I’m fighting I drain off the heat from the places around my hands and it looks like I’m creating icicles.  Same with my fire shield.  It looks and acts like fire, but it’s more taking something away than putting something there.”  The large man demonstrated, holding out his palm which lit up with an aura of purple flame.  Infernal then held a piece of paper to the flame, which blackened to ash, seeming to burn away.  “Now feel,” he said, passing the embers to her.  She brushed the glowing tip near her hand and was surprised to feel only cold. 

Mary felt the pieces click into place, pulling something away.  Pulling away heat, pulling away light, and thought, and health, and lifeforce, joining the shadows and using them, side-stepping around reality through some other place, some dark place.  Everything she’d seen in those heroes had been the same, just different reflections.  She rose to go, staggered at the sudden understanding, they’re feeding on the people they fight with . . . . no, they’re feeding something else with the people they fight with.  That’s why the criminals get so meek, they’ve lost part of their souls.  The large man was concerned, but she waved him off and left quickly, looking for someplace to think.

She’d barely gone two blocks when she became certain that someone was following her.  She whirled to confront her stalker and came face to face with the last of the heroes on her list.  Whisper in Shadow was floating a little above the sidewalk, staring at Mary with those dead, emotionless eyes.  Wisps of darkness pooled around the heroine and trailed out like smoke, casting a chill on the area.  Mary backed up in fear, simply being near the other woman made her feel woozy and lethargic.  “We are not here to take you,” again a voice like Warpstone, hollow and abstract, “we would like for you to understand.  You have been seeking, we have seen you through many eyes, felt you through many minds.”  Mary tripped on a loose stone and fell on her rump, sitting almost dazed.  “We?” she asked in a small voice.

The dark heroine had not moved nor come closer, “who this was when alive,” she moved an arm across her chest to indicate herself, “no longer matters.  There are fragments of memory, of a furtive and dark existence, of shame and despair, pain and sorrow, longing for dreams which never came.  There was a final humiliation and escape to darkness, stealing of priceless artifacts in some vain attempt to improve life.  But the balance shifted, and punishment dealt.  There was a long descent, falling, falling, endless falling into velvet.  Voices all around, a choir of angelic nurturing, a maelstrom of demonic torment, it was all the same.  There were pleas for mercy, pleas for forgiveness, for oblivion, for more.  And in the end, there was an answer from what this was.  Yes.  Yes to light, yes to life, yes to continuance.  And now we hunt, for there is only loneliness’ in the darkness, and oblivion seeks companionship.”

Mary tried to focus on the conversation, her mind seemed thick and sluggish, “but you are stealing part of their soul.  There’s something wrong about that.”  Expression seemed impossible on Whispers face, but Mary thought there was a shifting of tone in her voice, like a teacher explaining to a child, “there is balance.  For what they try to take, they must lose.  They retain their life, they retain their choices, they lose their darkness.  The weight of darkness taken determines the weight of what is left.  We take only what is not worth keeping.  Sleep now, dream.  Then you must choose.”  Mary watched in slowly dwindling fascination as a third eye opened on the hero’s forehead, a bright crystal eye glowing with fire, then the light flared to encompass her entire vision and she fell into purple slumber.

She awoke slowly, becoming aware that she was not in her own bed.  She bolted upright and found herself in hospital room, still dressed.  Noticing her awake, a doctor came to check up on her.  “You’re lucky, you were out for a short while before Infernal found you when he went on patrol.  He said you’d only left his house a few minutes before.  Are you feeling ok?  Any bruises or bumps?  We couldn’t find anything wrong with you, were you attacked?”  Mary considered the question, she hadn’t actually been attacked, just made to go to sleep.  “No, just overworked I guess, Doctor . . . ?”  The man smiled, “Lestrange, glad to hear it.  I guess we should take a look at you anyhow.  Better safe than sorry.  I’m happy it’s nothing serious, we get more than our fair share of that on a daily basis, it’s a nice change of pace.”  Lestrange, Lestrange, where had she heard that name.  The memory struck her while he was checking her blood pressure.  “I’ve heard of you, Warpstone was telling me you did a great job with him last time I interviewed him.”  The doctor frowned, “I’m sorry, you must be mistaken, he came into the hospital twice, but that was to see friends of his.  Sad really, to lose heroes like that. They do so much for us but sometimes there’s nothing we can do in return.  Still, it was good that they could have someone close to them as they passed.  To be honest he gave me quite a scare first time I saw him, but he was so gentle with them at the end, holding their hands and promising them that they would never be forgotten.  Told them they had been judged well and a reward of light was waiting for all the darkness they had endured.  Quite touching, I wouldn’t have expected it from someone so menacing looking.”

All her vitals checked normal, her condition was fine, Mary left the hospital and wandered back to the Times.  It was very late now, she was the only person in the office.  She sat in her cubicle and considered the matter.  It was clear that the crystals were some sort of conduit, a channel by which energy flowed into some dark place, feeding whatever dwelled there.  In return, the people wielding those crystals (in whatever fashion) were given power.  The individual powers varied depending on the minds of those using them, but all were aspects of the same core ability.  The darkness, and ice, the mind sapping, teleporting, generating weakness; it was about draining away bits of soul.  Whisper in Shadow had hinted that only the darkest parts of human behavior were pulled away, the worst evils of men.  If true, then why stop it?  Mary couldn’t bring herself to believe that Whisper had lied, there was no reason to.  History had shown that there was never a shortage of evil in the world.  If by feeding it to a greater darkness gave some light to the world, so be it.

Mary accepted her new course of action and jumped into motion.  She erased all record of her investigation from the computer, shredded all the papers.  She left a message on Amanda’s phone saying that the results were a statistical quirk and a larger sample would give better results (thus limiting the impact from Warpstone’s arrests).  She then went to check Billy’s office to make certain he didn’t have any evidence of his own.  She’d worry about how to keep his mouth shut later.  It turned out her hunch was correct, he had a full article of the Project on his computer, minus her name of course.  She erased it, and the hard drive for good measure,   She had shredded his papers and was in the process of pulling his computer apart to destroy the drive when he burst in upon her.  “You bitch!” he screamed, “you’re not stealing this story!”  Mary was amazed at the man, his story, his story?

“I’m not letting this story get out you jerk!  I’m not letting you wreck these folks.”  Billy was incensed, this was his ticket, it was a goldmine, not one, but six heroes with major dirt.  He backhanded her across the desk and grabbed the lamp to bludgeon her with.  A strange voice from the door stopped him, “No.”  a hollow, echoing voice that made his flesh creep.  He grabbed Mary, holding her in front as a shield and pointed the lamp forward.  Warpstone stood in the doorway, sword in hand and purple flames dancing across his armor.  Billy sized up the sword, some dull substance that gleamed in the light like dark crystal, his escape route was cut off and it didn’t look good.  “Get the fuck out you freak!  I know all about you, you’re a vampire.  You’re not gonna suck out my lifeforce or whatever.  And when I’m done, the whole world is gonna be hunting you down with a stake in one hand and Uzi in the other.”  Warpstone stepped closer and held his sword aloft.  Billy got desperate and wrapped the phone cord around Mary’s neck.  “I mean it, not one step closer!”  Mary solved the dilemma by slamming him in the face with the vial Chillbug had given her.  The shards of glass cut both of them and the toxin mixed freely with the blood of the two. 

Mary felt a tingling sensation, like her arm had gone to sleep as the numb cooling spread up her arm.  Billy apparently was worse off, he screamed as though the ooze was acid.  Warpstone took the moment to jab at Billy with the sword, but Billy tripped in pain, pulling Mary into the path of it.  It pierced her chest and she felt it slide completely through, out the back.  Billy stiffened as the swordpoint got him in the guts.  Oddly, Mary felt no pain, just the continuation of the numbing sensation.  She looked down with astonishment as the blade was pulled out, noting with detachment that it was also purple crystal, but dark and lifeless without the inner flame.  They both fell in a heap, Billy screaming his head off and Mary with her bemused tingling.    She noticed that the place where Billy had been stabbed was now scabbing over with a plate of ever-spreading crystal.  He grabbed her frantically and held her tight, she was only mildly concerned when the crystal began to cover her as well, her mind dulled as the cocoon of shards encompassed her.  Warpstone stood, watching the unfolding drama.  His sword melted away, seemingly pulled into his palm.  In a few minutes, the process on the journalists was complete, they were entirely covered in a crystal lattice.  A few more moments passed, during which there were bright flashes of fire that began in one side, then flowing to the other.  Eventually, one half of the large lump was completely lit with inner light, the other dull and lifeless.  That side began to splinter and fracture, dissolving to dust and nothingness, leaving no trace of Billy Thatch.  The glowing half split, opening like some rare flower to display the reborn person inside.  Warpstone held out a hand to help this new creature of light and shadow up, “Welcome.  You are judged.  We weep with sadness at the darkness you must take, we weep with joy at the light you will find.”

The note left at the editors desk was short and to the point.  Mary Singleton was quitting her job and moving back to the small town she’d come from.  She said that Billy Thatch had attacked her the previous evening and she couldn’t bear it.  She wasn’t going to press charges, she was just moving on with her life.  Judging from the mess in Billy’s office, the editor thought she’d put up quite a fight, coupled with an assault and rape charge from some lady at a bar in Galaxy City, and apparent blackmail that Billy had been holding on a clerk in City Hall that had gone too far, was enough to cinch his immediate termination.  The police were looking for him, but it seemed the man had decided to skip town.  It was too bad really, Mary had been such a nice girl, but perhaps it was for the best.  After all, nice girls usually didn’t last in Paragon.

Across town the hero registration desk at city hall was just opening.  The young clerk was trying to unlock the door with one hand while holding a brown bag lunch and juice in the other.  He was almost losing the lot when a delicate hand took the packages to allow him both hands free to work the door.  The clerk stared in fascination, the delicate hand was made entirely of a purple crystal.  His gaze traced the arm back to the person who had rescued lunch, a beautiful woman spun entirely of glass, brilliant purple fires burning within.  “Wow, you’re beautiful!” he blurted, then blushed with the juvenile sounding response.  The woman only laughed, an echoing, whispering chime like bells in winter, “Well thank you, how charming.  I’m here to register”, her voice was low and made him feel like a teenager.

The young man opened shop quickly and turned to face her, “well, um, first things first I guess, do you have a name?”  The woman smiled at him, “I’m thinking Amythys Miss, and I think you forgot these.”  With a remarkable grace and fluidity she put the bag and juice on the counter.  She noticed the logo on the cup and turned to him, “isn’t that a Vegan café?  I think they only serve pesticide free and completely organic product.  They’ve got a great reputation for paying good wages and treating people right.”  The man was thrilled, “oh yeah, you know about that?  I think everyone can help the greater good somehow.  I know that sounds kind of stupid.  But anyway, you know what they say ‘you are what you eat’”  The woman laughed again, and he blushed with delight, “oh yes,” she responded, “I think I can understand that.”

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