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Title:  "Chapter 1: Merry-go-Round"

I must have dreamed a thousand dreams,
Been haunted by a million screams,
But I can hear the marching feet,
They're moving into the street.

Sheets of pounding rain did nothing to dampen the sounds of studded boots marching out of the boiling red Arachnos portal into the Paragon street below, and even less to silence the asphalt-crushing impact of spider-drone feet mechanically following suit in their wake.  

Arachnos forces were moving fast, and Arborealis saw the whole array of them pour forth.  Her allies, only a scant two blocks away, would never be finished with those Carnies in time to handle this.    

They wouldn't be finished, and she could hear their ongoing battle from here, which made it clear that they didn't need even more nasty bastards like these to crash their party.  Worse, if she could hear their battle from here, so could those foot-soldiers, spider drones, Fortunata and that hulking webmaster overseer.

She leaned just a little too far over the edge of the fifteen story building, tipping over into a falling, somersaulting spiral down towards the center of the marching throng, a wreathing mass of envenomed, steel-hard crystal spines wreathing her as she fell.

Time was what her allies needed, and time was what she would buy them.  

Now, did you read the news today?
They say the danger has gone away
But I can see the fire's still alight
They're burning into the night

The first spray of venom-slick crystal spines was unleashed even as she slammed to the ground.  She'd placed her freefall well, and the seven Fortunata she'd landed in the midst of learned an immediate, painful lesson about agony as they were torn into by hurtling myriads of nerve-toxin-coated crystal shards, blades and spikes.  

Still, they were more than capable of returning fire on a moment's notice, and they turned the burning fire in their bodies to mental screams of agony, all aimed at their abrupt assailant.

It had far, far less effect than they'd hoped, and their unexpected attacker leaped backwards over theirs and the soldiers' heads.  Landing with distressing easy, Arborealis lashed her wings back and unleashed an even more devastatingly focused cone of scything crystaline missiles, spraying them from her mouth and body in a hurricane of flesh-evisceration.

The seven Fortunata couldn't withstand this degree of punishment and fell, torn to bloody ribbons, along with the six grunt-grade footsoldiers that found themselves in the path of flesh-tearing storm.

All eight of the spider-bots lept for her even as she did this, and the Webmaster, it's vaguely masculine remnant of a face grinning viciously, arched it's back-borne, abruptly red-glowing pseudo-mechanical limbs.

"General Ulsewyr sends her regards, Arborealis." the hulking Webmaster darkly leered as the woman so named ripped and shredded at the skittering, dancing bots.

It picked it's moment, aiming with self-assured slowness before letting fly with it's own volley of photon blasts.

There's too many men, too many people
Making too many problems
And there's not much love to go around
Can't you see this is a land of confusion?

Pain tore through her even as the Webmaster's well-aimed photonic blasts burned holes in her body, but it wasn't enough.   This was nothing but physical pain, and it energized her as much as it wounded her. 
She ripped the face off the last spider-bot with spine-covered fingers and threw it at the Webmaster in response, leaving the 'bot to skitter frantically in it's final, blind moments.

"You'll have to do better than that, you aberrative pile of scrap." she spat in a hissing duo-tone, then lept, bounced off a nearby building's wall and shot across the street while followed by a air-ripping hail of laser blasts from the Webmaster.

"I have no need to do better." The webmaster eagerly retorted, all at once ceasing it's photonic volley.    "You see, miss Ulsewyr...we knew you would be here tonight.    But enough talk.   I want to test your legendary strength myself."

Even as the Webmaster spoke these words, it beckoned her forth with all it's mechanical limbs.

She knew it was a trap; spiders always wanted you to join them in their parlor before pulling the big unveil of your ignoble demise.

Pity for this webmaster that she'd fought a thousand others like it, and knew well their every trick.

Her answer came in the form of a single mammoth crystal spike disgorging itself from her mouth and hurtling into the hulking cyborg's remnant of a face.

And -then- she pounced upon it.

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we're given
Use them and let's start trying
To make it a place worth living in

She'd fought at least a thousand of these things before, but they never got any weaker.   Nanites worked swiftly to repair it's damaged face and ocular capabilities, and though she'd torn all of it's back-born limbs off in the meantime, it had answered in kind with a pair of bone-crushing swats to her wiry abdomen.

She healed fast, but crushed ribs on both sides would take even her a good minute to regenerate, and a full minute in a pitched melee like this was an eternity.

"Reality does not live up to the legend." the damaged behemoth mockingly chided, as if utterly unconcerned that as it spoke, she'd rammed a crystal blade through one of his arms and broke it off therein.   "Is this truly the best you can do, Arborealis?    I have not only survived exchanging blows with you, but I have wounded you.    Such a pity.  I expected to be felled in one blow by one so lauded as you."

Narrowly ducking a swipe of it's other, as-yet unwounded arm, and then rolling out of the way of a stomp of one of it's heavy cyborg feet, Arborealis didn't give herself a single moment to let it's taunting get to her.

She'd heard it all before.  It was the way of Recluse and his spiderlings to try to convince you of your own weakness, and at day's end...

Oh, superman, where are you now?
When everything's gone wrong somehow?
The men of steel, these men of power
Are losing control by the hour

...the only thing that mattered was who was left standing to claim victory, and as she'd rolled into a perfect crouch, she unfurled herself violently, her arms having become crystal blades with which she scythed at the cyborg's legs with vicious swiftness enough for a little sonic boom to erupt in their furious wake.

Any less well-made creature would have found themselves without any legs left at all, though that her outburst halfway ripped the Webmasters' off and send it toppling was just as well, to her.

It struggled to rise, though it's mechanized legs were no longer capable of obeying it, and so it fell onto it's back, wreathed in the sparks of it's failing critical systems, surrounded on all sides by the shredded remains of it's decimated strike-team...and there, in the pounding rain, it laughed gutturally.

" will soon learn just how weak you are, Jadia Ulsewyr.   Defeating me and my single, lonely little strike something my betters could do without ever even trying.  And you barely succeed, even at this simple task.  So weak, you weak..."

The blazing, baleful red in it's eyes sputtered, dimmed and flickered out with the final rasp of it's chortle, though the mocking leer on it's dead remnant of a face was fixed into place, held there by the machinery underlying the flesh.

Arborealis drove a crystal spike through it's chest, and the computerized control center hidden behind the thick, reinforced steel plating thereupon, just to be sure.

It's taunting meant nothing to her.  She knew better.

All that mattered at battle's end was who was alive to worry of the future, and she was, for the moment, the one left standing and alive...and there would be a less-than-desirable future to worry of if her allies didn't finish with those bedamned Carnival freaks soon.

After letting her ribcage pop and twist back into it's proper place in the moment that followed, she took single powerful leap that rocketed her high into the air, and she hurtled toward the last locale, two blocks away, that she knew her allies to have been at. 

The sounds of battle from that direction had ceased somewhere in the fray of her own, and she was far more interested in finding out how their own fight had gone than in dwelling on the words of the enemy.

They were words she'd already poured over on her own volition's merit anyway.  There was nothing even Recluse himself could say to her that she had not already said to herself.

Not about herself, anyway.

This is the time, this is the place
So we look for the future
But there's not much love to go around
Tell me why this is a land of confusion

"Something's driving these Carnies, and for what Arborealis found sneaking up on us, it looks like Recluse's forces are at least using their freakish outbursts as a smokescreen for their own movements."  Talonhawk muttered over his mug of beer.

The six companions of convenience, assembled on a moment's warning on the street in front of Talos Island's train-station, had done what they'd set out to do; they'd repelled the errant Carnies in their assault on the hospital, though it all seemed terribly contrived to them.

Especially Hellmane, who was boredly burning odd little eldritch symbols into the table's surface.  "No shit.  We didn't find anything resembling an explanation though, so what did we actually accomplish?"   She wiped a palm across the last burnt symbol, leaving a patch of ash in it's wake.

"We saved the hospital, and uncovered a possible connection between the Carnies' frantic activities and Arachnos." the shadow-wreathed Nexus Nine helpfully suggested, then took his beer mug in-hand, raised a toast and quaffed the swiftly blackening drink. 

Nexus' tendency to turn whatever he touched black as night was something that he'd earlier said vexed many, though no one present seemed to care, and by all appraisals, this was just fine by him.

"A possible connection, but correlation does not equal causation." 

Four of those sitting around the table looked over at Jack, who talked only slightly more often than Arborealis, which was next to never.  

 Despite having the appearance of a pretty normal human, Jack was quite talented with his gadgets, and they all owed him at least a few respectful nods for his expert battle applications of area-range bio-nanite healing tech, which was remarkably more versatile than even Hellmane's ripping life-essence out of foes and pouring it into her allies...somehow.

Even if the man didn't have a single superhuman ability to his credit, which he didn't comment on and couldn't be proven or disproven, most ladies seemed to find his colorfully Australian accent charming, and he'd kept the team standing, both medically and tactically.   With him, Hellmane and Arborealis directing an assault, their forays against the Carnies had been very one-sided, as their tactical brilliance combined was staggering.

So it was that, when he talked (which had proven thus-far to indeed be quite rarely), they elected to listen, Hellmane for far less overtly practical reasons than others.

Jack, of course, took a full minute of silence to swirl, then swig, his beer before speaking again.  "Tonight's incident of Arachnos moving a strike team through the fringe of a hot-zone created by the Carnies may have been orchestrated by them, and thus be a causative occurrence, but there stands no evidence to justify this conclusion.    And, as it could just as readily be entirely correlative; coincidental, if ya prefer; we'd do well to assume nothing until we have information sufficiently available via which to arrive at a correct conclusion."

"Yeah." Talonhawk acquiesced, as did Nexus and Yachiru.  Hellmane winked at him, undeterred entirely by the fact that Jack had been blatantly ignoring her random advances all night.   Only Arborealis failed to at least nod, though this didn't seem to perturb him or surprise anyone what-so-ever.

Jack then mimicked Nexus' raising of a toast and drained his mug, a bemused smirk dancing across his rugged, wiry features afterwards.   "I say we hold our little team together a little longer and see if any whales of evidence are left beached for us when the tide rolls out on this."

"That's fricken disgusting, Jack." Talonhawk said sourly, though Hellmane's amusement at his peculiar metaphor was apparent in her smirk.  "What are we, carrion crows?"

Jack only grinned in response.

Yachiru bocked like a chicken, which got everyone looking at her oddly, even Arborealis...and so it was that she giggled.

"That's not the sound a crow makes." Talonhawk said a bit flatly.

"Just like a hawk to be a nit-picker about birdy noises." Yachiru flippantly wagged back, at which most everyone shook their heads.

Everyone except Talonhawk, who looked a bit like a hawk with it's prideful feather's ruffled more than was comfortable, anyway.

This is the world we live in.
And these are the hands we're given.
Use them and let's start trying...
To make it a place worth living in

Dawn approached, and while many supers and normals alike across Paragon City would be noting it's arrival for any number of reasons, Arborealis was sitting on a skyscraper's uppermost balcony edge, to watch it for herself.

This was a habit of hers, a tendency that she'd rarely explained to anyone and perhaps only barely put reason to for her own benefit.

"You still don't talk very much, I notice." Yachiru spoke, shimmering into visibility as she spoke.   Once upon a time, the very diminutive girl's appearances as such startled Arborealis so much that, on one occasion, she'd outright attacked the much smaller girl.

Yachiru had simply giggled about it, as the much larger Arborealis had both missed entirely with her every adrenaline-propelled swipe and had apparently posed far more as a factor of amusement in such a doing than any risk.

This time, as with all such times more recently, Arborealis simply nodded in response.

Yachiru flopped down to sit beside her.  "Not even to me?"

"I don't usually have much to say, Yachiru." the larger woman spoke in her preternaturally duo-tone voice; one tone that normal to a woman, the other feral and hissing.     "I mean no insult by it."

The tiny magician giggled and poked Arborealis' right knee.  "I know you don't, silly, but you're still so very serious all the time.  So very stoic and prickly.  You remind me of Statesman when you're like this, you know."

Arborealis face screwed up in distaste, which, if the grin on Yachiru's face were to be considered, was exactly what the tiny powerhouse intended.

"I am nothing like Statesman, Yachiru." Arborealis answered a bit tartly, which got another sniggering giggle from her small mentor. 

"I know you're not, but you act like him sometimes.  So grim and determined, so focused and intent on an objective only you can see, hear, feel and know."

Abruptly, Yachiru's tone became serious in it's own right. "There is danger in such obsessions.  Are you intent on making the same mistakes that he has repeatedly made and failed to learn from?"

Arborealis slowly shook her head, her black-pupilled gaze still unblinkingly aimed at the horizon.  "No...I do not wish to repeat mistakes so easily avoided.  It is not for pride that I am like this."

"It isn't for him either." Yachiru commented, and Arborealis looked skeptically at her.  "Well? It isn't!" her tiny mentor lilted, then started kicking her legs over the skyscraper's edge nonchalantly, like a child might do.

"If it is not pride, then what is it?" Arborealis inquired after several silent moments.

"Hmm." Yachiru closed one eye, stuck her tongue out a bit as if in dire thought and then shook her head.  "Nope!  I won't tell you.  But I'll tell you what it isn't; it isn't pride.  Neither is it hubris, arrogance or conceit."

After thinking for a few silent moments more, Arborealis spoke quietly, "If it is none of those things, then perhaps he does it out of love for those he protects, and desire to not burden them with that which he sees that many do not."

Yachiru again giggled.  "Could be!  But is that your reason, or his?   How to know!?  Maybe you should ask him!"

Again, Arborealis made a face that Yachiru couldn't help but giggle at, and as she giggled, the comparatively miniscule illusionist hopped to her feet to kiss Arborealis on the side of her lowered head.

"I'll leave you to think on it, my friend.   Just don't think too hard about it.  Thinking too hard makes you very prickly for days and days, and then you're just no fun to be around."

Even as her tiny mentor turned to leave, Arborealis shifted her head about slightly and stuck her tongue out at her, at which Yachiru whirled and pointed, as if amazed.

"AHA! I saw that!  I seen you!   You're starting to get it!"

And that said, a proud grin firmly fixed on her adolescent face, Yachiru simply vanished.

Arborealis turned her gaze back to the sunrise, not at all certain that she'd gotten anything at all except a bit of Yachiru's glitter on the side of her face, which she swiped at a few times before settling into silent vigil once more, gaze fixed on the rising, nourishing sun.

I remember long ago...
When the sun was shining...
And all the stars were bright all through the night...
In the wake of this madness, as I held you tight,
So long ago...

"Sonnuva bitch, but you're strong." Nexus Nine gasped, tried to wriggle out of Hellmane's grasp, failed and then gave up.   The lilting chortle she emitted in response was followed by a thoroughly naughty lick delivered to one of his ears; a lick that turned her tongue black.

" win.  I suck at wrestling.  Can't believe I lost to a girl though..." he faux-grumbled, and was, for his trouble, licked again. 

"Woman, you know that your tongue is now black as a starless night and won't ever go back to normal, yes?" he inquired as if genuinely curious as to whether or not she knew this or, in so knowing, was bothered by it.

She purred into his ear, "I'm already as black as a starless night, just don't know it yet."

He grinned, being entirely too much a man at heart not to enjoy the sensuous attention and not giving a single moment's worth of a damn that this little wrestling match was occurring in plain view of all creation, in the middle of a city street, with onlookers warily watching as if uncertain as to whether or not they were seeing yet another battle between a hero and a villain or something that should be on very late-night Cinemax.

"I like you." He said quite amusedly, "Now could you let me up, please?  I'm starting to loose feeling in my legs."

Grinning ever on, she relented in her grip on the somewhat smaller, much less physically strong male, who made a big show of picking himself up, groaning, stretching and popping his back and shoulders.

"Are you two about finished?" Talonhawk asked as he descended from above.  He'd been hovering above the wrestling match, not at all sure what to make of it, and his general distaste for Hellmane was only more firmly cemented when she purringly inquired, "Why, Talon?  Would you like to have a go at lil' ol' me now?"

He was pretty sure that most men wouldn't find much offense at what it was that she meant, precisely, as he wasn't at all sure that most men would note it.

But he knew quite well what this 'woman' was, and if being a succubus weren't bad enough, she was a mistress of flames to his lordship of elemental cold, the former of which being offensive to his senses of good and evil, the latter of which offending his senses period.

 "No, demon.  I do not want to wrestle you, or have a 'go' at you in any other fashion.  I have a wife."

Only encouraged by his stoic recalcitrance, Hellmane pouted and purred on, "Surely we could invite her to join us.  You're not a selfish man, are you Talon? Not afraid of a little...steam...I hope?"

"Bah! Enough of this." Talonhawk growled, dismissing the entire vector of unlikable discourse before it could be drug further into the obscene. 

"Jack is just returned from Steel Canyon, and by the smug look on his face, I'm guessing he's found something useful to our mission objective.   We are to meet him in Pocket D, at that....tiki-bar...thing."

"Dude, I love that bar!" Nexus interjected. "You should see the girls the DJ gets in there to dance, man.  Seriously, even a frosty-ass married man like you could have some fun with that."

Talonhawk looked utterly blankly at the grinning shadow-wight, then shook his head in exasperation.

"Pocket D, one hour.  I'm out of here." he muttered, and was off like a rocket a moment after so saying, a trail of rimed frost patched on the ground where he'd stood.

Nexus and Hellmane watched him fly off, then shrugged in unison.   

"Say...Hellmane, you seen Arborealis or Yachiru today?" Nexus asked, and it was Hellmane's turn to make a bit of a distasteful face.  "The giggling magician and the towering spike-bitch, you mean?" she reciprocated, at which Nexus simply nodded, not caring a whit to debate her tongue-in-cheek 'correction' of address.

"Wasn't my day to watch them." she boredly responded, suddenly becoming very distracted by some unapparent flaw with one of her finger talons.

"Well..." Nexus began, then paused to think for a moment, "We should proooobably...find them and tell them this, d'ya figger?"

Hellmane blew an imaginary dust speck off said talon.  "You can if you like.   I don't like those two very much.   They're great to have around in a fight, and I'd hate to be on the wrong side of their ire...but, personally, I prefer to keep enjoyable company...and..." she mused, her voice growing more and more quiet as she spoke.

This compelled Nexus to lean further and further in, which, by the subtle look in her predatory eyes, was exactly her intent.

"...I don't care to play with sparkles like Yach does, and if Arborealis got any fun on her, I think she'd melt."

She brushed her lips against Nexus', who'd inadvertently drawn in close enough for her to do so, then turned and flippantly swatted him with her tail and one wing as she sashayed off down the street.  

Nexus' shadowy aura billowed and swirled as if reflecting his giddy enjoyment of the brazen naughtiness, and the shadowman himself grinned.

 "What a woman." he exclaimed to no one in particular, and then darted off after her, faster than most mortal eyes could follow.

I won't be coming home tonight
My generation will put it right
We're not just making promises
That we know we'll never keep

Pocket D.  Neutral territory by any measure, enforced by DJ Zero and his many sympathizers on all sides of many fences, who universally agree on nearly nothing except for that Pocket D is the swingingest, sexiest, craziest place for anyone who's anyone to be and where every night is Friday night.

Jack sat at the upstairs bar, drinking something that would look alcoholic to any observer, both waiting and thinking.

DJ Zero might've intended this place to be neutral ground, and technically it was, but it was far more than that.    Heroes and villains, as with those he considered to be more "in-between" like himself, knew this place to be a goldmine for the information trade, and that was his business of choice; information. 

After all, when you literally couldn't beat, shoot, stab, poison or even magic an enemy to death here, you had to resort to more refined methods of waging your battles, if such was your concern...and everyone here was concerned with battle in one form or another.

The good DJ had even brought the Cage about for that precise reason; if people wanted to fight so bad, they'd have a little 'coliseum' to do it in...with a small admission fee for participants and eager spectators, of course.

"Well, if it isn't my dear old friend Jack." a rumbled, guttural voice rather ominously rolled like a sickening cloud from a nearby shadow.  

Jack knew that voice.  He knew it only too well.  He sipped his drink, not letting his vague surprise show in the slightest, or responding for that matter.

"Gone deaf in your dotage, old man?" the deep male voice rumbled again, this time as a truly hulking, chain-wreathed male formed out of that darkness.

"Not at all, Widowmaker." Jack replied nonchalantly.  "I just don't talk to people who've sold their souls to the Night Mistresses."

Widowmaker, despite being of a hunched back, was even more massive than he remembered, and this he noted.   His once-ally of decades ago had grown, literally and likely in more ways than merely physical.

"Always on the cutting edge of wit, you are." Widowmaker rumbled gratingly, the floor thumping softly for both his massive footfalls, peculiarly light though they were, and the heavy dubstep pounding away on the nearby dancefloor.

"A pity that your classic wit still doesn't avail you of reason." Widowmaker, in all his mammoth bulk, stood beside Jack, his own gaze looking out over the dancefloor below, along with Jack's.

"We've had this discussion before." Jack said curtly into another sip of his drink, and at this, Widowmaker snorted. 

"Yes, we have, Jack.  I seem to recall that the last time we discussed your penultimate failing of reason, you had two of your more capable friends cut my throat and leave me for dead.   Took my boyish singing voice away from me, that did."

Jack smirked at this. "You seem to enjoy the asynchronicity, Widowmaker.  Perhaps you should thank me for...matching your voice to the truth you've made for yourself."

At this, one of Widowmakers' massive, chain-wrapped hands clenched at Jack's shoulder.   Jack knew that, if it weren't for the many suppression fields at work in this place, his shoulder would just now be crushed to uselessness under the sheer strength of that grip, and even for those fields' work, Widowmakers' titan grasp on his shoulder was still sufficient to turn him about and make him look at his once-ally.

And so this he did, looking directly up and into the baleful, black void-eyes of the towering shadowbrute. 

"Trust me, Jack.  I will deliver my thanks at a time and place of my choosing."

This dire, calmly delivered promise was responded to by Jack wiping a bit of imaginary spittle from his face, at which point Widowmaker released his shoulder.

"Your latest batch of...friends..." Widowmaker continued a moment later, "...I wonder if they know your past."

Jack smirked at this, then shrugged. "Does it matter, Widowmaker?  You know how true-blooded heroes are.  They'll give second chances to anyone.  Even you, I'd wager."

Widowmaker laughed outright at this.  "Far be it from me, Little Jack Hill, to remonstrate you for playing the foolish for fools. bear in mind that you are quite an unremarkable man without your toys and gadgets.   And they are, of this present batch, all quite remarkable without any all."

Jack feigned a frown at this; he'd been taking jabs at being a "tech-cripple" ever since he'd taken to a life of being surrounded most every day by superhumans, and it was only for that he had left many superhumans dead, crippled or worse in his wake for their underestimations that he was able, anymore, to take it all in stride.

He had, to himself more importantly than anyone else in the world, proven everything he'd needed to prove, and so it was that Widowmaker's jabbing only mildly vexed him.

"So says the man who sold his soul to be anything except normal.   We've got too much in the bank to resort to jabbing eachothers' sore spots, Widowmaker, and I think yours are far more vulnerable than mine."

Widowmaker leered at him.  "You'd have been right ten years ago, Little Jack, but you do not know the tender mercies of the Night Mistresses as I do.   You do not know how strong they have taught me to be."

"And you, Widowmaker, have clearly forgotten how painful photonic detonators are." Jack quipped back, at which point Widowmaker scowled.

"You're losing your touch, old man.   That was a very poor excuse for a veiled threat.   Surely you have not gotten so addled as all that" Widowmaker retorted in an almost jovial tone, though when Jack glanced to the hand that had been placed on his shoulder, Widowmaker knew before even looking that the smaller man's statement had been made in earnest.

"Clever, Jack. Clever" he rumblingly mused, then plucked the photonic detonator off one of the chains wrapped around his gauntleted wrists.  

He dropped it into Jack's drink, grinning as he did so.

"Always so very clever.  But, I do tire of the posturing.  I am, in fact, here for a reason...and you are, with all apologies, not pertinent to it."

Jack feigned a disappointed expression, though it was very deliberately void of any real concern.  "Such a pity.  And here I was hoping that everyone was here to celebrate me tonight."

Widowmaker made no response save that of a vague snort as he dissipated back into shadowy essence and flitted off through a nearby shadow, to who knows where.

After a moment more, Jack fished the photonic detonator out of his drink, stuck it back in the little hidden pocket he kept such things in on the inside of a sleeve and, not wanting to let a good drink go to waste, quaffed the rest of it.

He hoped, therein, that Talonhawk was able to find the others.   If what he'd learned earlier that day in Steel Canyon was correct, there was a lot more going on than merely more craziness from the Carnie sideshow, or even more insidious scheming from Arachnos' end.

Something much more dire and considerably more peculiar was afoot...and, as he'd often done in the past, he hoped he was, in fact, dead wrong about it all.

Unfortunately, whenever he found himself wishing that, he was almost always dead right.

There's too many men, too many people
Making too many problems
And there's not much love to go round
Can't you see this is a land of confusion?

"You cannot be fricken serious." Nexus muttered.

   They'd all met in Pocket D as Talonhawk said they should.   No one had found Arborealis or Yachiru, but they showed up anyway, and nobody was about to ask just how or why they knew to do so.

"Well, I am." Jack answered, drawling in his rich Aussie accent over his latest cuppa.  "This is, if my contact is right, something that we're all pretty much screwed for even knowing if we let word get around that we've figured it out."

"Hurrah." Hellmane said a bit boredly.  "Another world-shattering secret.   Forgive me if I'm not gasping with amazement over here."

"I'm sure, you being the resident expert on gasping, would be the one to make such discernments." Jack shot back, at which Hellmane grinned and nodded.

"Anyway..." Talonhawk interjected with a slight scowl, "What the hell do we do about this, if it's true?   The Freedom Phalanx and Vindicators will be out for our necks as much as Arachnos and pretty much any sane person on this or any planet if we try to stop it."

Yachiru giggled and grabbed a soft pretzel out of the basket, leaning a bit into her short-armed reach to grab the thing.  "Maybe!" she said after nomming it once.

"You're fucking weird." Nexus said after watching her do this, which got another giggle out of her, and by the time he'd averted his gaze, he found a very real-looking tiny version of himself dancing on his own knee.

"Damn illusionists." he swatted at it and missed for it puffing into a black cloud like he himself so often did, which got another giggle out of Yachiru, though Jack had since turned his gaze and attention onto Arborealis.

"You're silent as a tomb, which I'm starting to think is par for the course.   Let's break par and hear what it is you think." he drawled, and couldn't help but shudder a bit inwardly for meeting her gaze as he did so.

He'd seen a lot of superhumans in his day.  He'd looked into the eyes of things unfit for description, beings of power, of majesty, of terror and death alike, but Arborealis' eyes shook him terribly...because, despite being black as death, they were a young woman's eyes and nothing more.

He wasn't sure why this disturbed him so much, and he had adequate moments to contemplate it before she deigned reply.

"I think that I am reminded of the Luddites of Rogue Isle."

Nexus coiled a snaking tendril of shadow around the mini-him on his knee and absorbed it, then, after Arborealis had spoken, he immediately asked, "What? How does this have anything to do with anti-tech psychos?"

Arborealis shook her head slightly.  "In root concept, not in detail.   What you have described, sounds like an organization of normals that wants nothing so much as the destruction of superhumans, quite possibly backed by clandestine superhumans who would like very much to...thin the population of their contemporaries."

Nobody else at the table seemed to note whatever it was that made Jack loft a brow at Arborealis, though Hellmane saw fit to ask, "Why the befuddled expression, Jackie?"

Jack glowered at her for that.  "Don't ever call me that again, succubus, or what M.A.G.I did to you will seem like a blessing to the curse I'll be in your eternal existence."

Piqued and somewhat incensed by his reference to that, Hellmane glowered right back.  "Answer the damn question, jerk-ass."

"You can call me jerk-ass all you like. At least it's true." He plucked a cigarette out of a pocket, then tucked it between his lips and leaned over slightly to light it on the table candle.  "Just don't ever call me Jackie."

He took a drag off his cigarette before continuing, though continue he did.

"I'm wondering why it is that Arborealis drew that contrast.  Nothing more."

Hellmane snorted at this whilst Yachiru clucked her tongue in her mouth.  "Liar liar, pants on fire." Yachiru chided.  "You were wondering something else!"

Jack eyes Yachiru evenly.  "You a mindreader too then, little magician?"

"Maybe!" was Yachiru's answer, delivered with a cute little grin that made everyone at the table shudder like they'd just taken a dram of pure saccharine into their mouths via their eyes.

All at once, Yachiru's expression went from disgustingly sweet to rather somber.  "But that aside, it is an observation I too make.   This organization, if such it can even as-yet be called, may indeed be bent on the idea of using the seemings of charity, good-will and masquerades of innocence as lures for the wicked, knowing that the wicked will draw heroes to combat them, and that all, in weakened, distracted states, may be more susceptible to attacks from things like the Rikti.   Are we sure that this is not, in fact, a Rikti scheme?"

"Hey, hey hey..." Nexus piped up.  "The Rikti aren't really that clever, are they?    I'm not a history buff, but haven't nations right here at home done that sort of thing to draw other nations into war and give themselves a publicly acceptable martyr-excuse to do whatever they liked?   The answer might be a lot 'closer to home', so to say, than we might like."

Yachiru nodded, as did Jack. 

Hellmane, however, was the first to respond.  "Big deal?  Maybe when the last hero is hung by the neck until dead on the entrails of the last villain, things can return to something resembling a state of normalcy."

"Sounds like you're a sympathizer to their cause already." Talonhawk broodingly growled.  "Of course, in that state of normalcy, what would there be to stop demons like you from running rampant like you did in the dark ages?"

Hellmane rolled her eyes, "Buddy, you got a lot to learn about demons.   Don't count on me to educate you though."

"I won't.  Trust me on that." he shot back, and they were all summarily stunned to silence when Arborealis silently picked the table up and flung it end-over-end across the room.  

Nexus and Yachiru both fell over backwards off their stools for the abruptness of it, Hellmane yiped and dove for cover, Talonhawk shot up into the air with an exclamation of "What the hell?!", and only Jack kept his seat, leaning back as if he'd expected it and only needed to move sufficiently to avoid being clipped across the face by a speeding table.

Standing at her full height of nearly eight feet in the silent moment that followed, Arborealis was clearly seething.

She didn't say a word.  Instead, she simply stalked off like a frustrated feline, her barbed tail lashing even as her frayed, bonespiked wings quivered with pent-up fury.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Hellmane muttered, "Bitch.  There went my drink."

"That woman has issues." Nexus acquiesced, having already shifted his corporeal form to it's feet.  "I'll go get you another drink, Hellmane.  Same as before?"

Mollified by this, Hellmane nodded.    Talonhawk rather grimly alighted on the floor and cast his gaze on Yachiru, who seemed to have found lying on her back on the floor to her liking, as she was batting at little balls of glittering light.

"This is the most messed-up team I've ever been part of." he commented after watching Yachiru swat her balls of colored light as if nothing at all remarkable had happened.  

Jack blew a smoke ring in Talonhawk's direction, and then said, "That may be true, Talon...but when we're getting along, we seem to compliment eachothers' talents absurdly well."

"Aha!" Yachiru exclaimed from the floor, then kicked up to her feet and pointed at Jack.  "And THAT is what Arborealis would like for you all to focus on rather than nit-picking eachother to death.  Well done, sir."

Jack eyed the diminutive girl-magician for a long moment, then flicked ash onto the floor, his ashtray having been tossed with the table.  

"Why do you think I'm not at all surprised that she did that?" he asked after a moment, at which point Yachiru shrugged.  "I know you know, but these others, they don't know, y'know? she quipped.

"I know" Jack replied.

"...Ooookay...I'm going to the bar." Talonhawk said with a shake of his head.  "When you two figure out how to get miss Spikeroni back here without the passive-aggressive outbursts, I'd seriously like to discuss options.  Until then...whatever."

"Miss Spikeroni." Hellmane snerked.  "I'm going to remember that one. That's funny."

Talonhawk ignored her as he roamed off, though Yachiru looked thoughtful.

"I don't think she'd like being called that very much." Yachiru mused thoughtfully, at which Hellmane nodded entirely too happily. 

"I know.  That's why I'm going to remember it."

Yachiru eyed Hellmane for a moment, then giggled, and said not a word more.

Nothing else needed saying about it.

Now, this is the world we live in.
And these are the hands we're given.
Use them, and let's start trying...
To make it a place worth fighting for.

It was rare for Nexus to sleep.   Ever since the accident that had merged him with something that called itself a 'Warshade Kheldian', sleep just didn't seem to be a need of his anymore.

Or eating.  Or drinking.     Sure, he could do all of these things, and he often did eat and drink, in fact, but when he was alone like he was now... was apparent just how alone he never was or ever would be again.

So it was that he laid in his hotel bed beside the dozing Hellmane, whom he'd...joined for a night of Talonhawk-disapproved fun, as they'd called it, staring at the digital clock's display.

3:34 AM

He'd been staring at it since it said 2:22, and in the time that'd passed since, he'd come to despise this particular clock.  

It was counting down to nothing anymore.   Nothing for him, anyway.   Whatever this alien thing was that had replaced his body, it assured him that he would never thirst, never hunger, never age...and never die unless by some rather extraordinary means.

Granted, given whom his chosen enemies were, those extraordinary means were entirely too ordinary for his liking, but still. 

"I could lay here until this entire city was dust, and then lay here until that dust congealed into stone and that stone was used to build another city in this same place..." he muttered to himself.  

He then rolled over and tried to distract himself in Hellmane's scent.    He knew what she was.

That was part of why she attracted him so much.   She was a demon, a succubus; an eternal being of temptation, torment and domination.

He didn't know or care why she was fighting on the side of the 'good guys', but neither did such things matter to him.   He wasn't exactly a very 'good' guy himself, despite the urgings of his 'other half'.

She stirred in her sleep when he rolled over and buried his face in her mane of fiery hair, but nothing more. 

She smelled, to him, of brimstone and some sort of perfect perfume, and he knew that it was just how she smelled.    A woman like this didn't need to buy fake scents to smell like this. 

That, too, was part of why she attracted him so much.   She was real.  In her every step, action and word, she was precisely who she was, and damn anyone who didn't like it.  

"I wonder what you would think of me if this damned alien virus hadn't humped my leg." he whispered to himself while gazing upon her.  "Would I be interesting enough for you to notice for even one second if I were just a video game addict working at a department store again?"

At this, a curled little smile took her lips and she opened one eye lazily.  "Only if you were still willing to have fun, boy-childe."

He startled a bit, mostly at the realization that she quite possibly hadn't been asleep at all.  "Well..uh...shit.  Nevermind.  I'm just talking to myself." he stammered, flopping onto his back embarrassedly.

Though her wings were folded around herself, Hellmane turned easily in the bed and smirked at him, then trailed a talon down his chest and stomach.

"Demons are evil, you know." She lilted in a quietly thoughtful tone.  "Evil and wicked, just like darkness.  Everyone knows that darkness is just terrible, right?"

He grimaced at this.  "...That's a damn lie." he said, to which she chuckled beautifully.  

"Of course it is, Nexus.   We demons are no more evil than darkness is.  We are incarnations of lust, desire, passion, and aye, sometimes even fury.   We are no more evil than those very feelings...but oh, inspire such feelings in others, and it's like you've taken their birthdays away, murdered their mother and fornicated with their favorite teddy bear."

Nexus couldn't help but chuckle at this.  "Fornication with a teddy bear.  That's some awful mental imagery right there.   Imagine the rugburn."

They both laughed at this, though Nexus then sat up and looked meaningfully at her.

"I understand that, though." he said.  "All I have to do is whisp around like a black vapor-ghost and people run screaming, like it's a sure sign of impending evil."

At this, Hellmane looked thoughtful.   "But surely it must be!    Isn't everything that is not bright, shiny and immediately comfortable wicked?"

"Yeah, I think we can both say a big 'fuck that' to that." he said with a bit of a snerk.  "I'm not bright and frackin' shiny.    Fact is though...I don't even rightly know just what the hell it is I am, apart from host to something I never asked for."

"A Kheldian, right?" Hellmane inquired, her fingers toying along his thighs all the while.

"Yeah.   I used to be a video game junkie that daydreamed about someday learning that I was special, had superpowers and everyone would love me for how awesome I'd be.   Then, one day, I was at the department store I worked at...and the whole damn place seemed to explode.   I never did know why."

The fiery haired succubus encouraged him silently to speak on when he paused by kissing his cheek, and so speak he did.

"...well, that's not entirely true.  I never did know why, but my other did. there.   Was en'route to someplace where he was to fuse with someone way more important than me, but got shot out of hyperspace or some weird-ass Star Trek thing like that by Rikti.    Just happened to crash-land on the department store."

He shifted a bit when her tickling of his ear with her tongue got to be more than he could concentrate through, and she leaned back to let him continue speaking, though not without a bit of a smirk of her own.

"Of all the people there, I guess I was the only one compatible with it, and it had to merge when it's capsule broke, or it would die.  He, I guess...he gets annoyed when I call him 'it', though I do it just to annoy him."

Hellmane chuckled at his, but otherwise just listened on, and was rewarded by his continuance.

"At first, it was the most amazing thing ever, to me.   I'd gotten my wish.  I was finally special.  I was finally somebody important.    But...then he wanted me to go to Peregrine Island, to Portal Corp, and report in to them, which I did...and I got yelled at by high-up mucket-mucks like it was somehow my fault that he'd crashed into my store."

Shifting onto his side, he looked again at her.  "They tried suckering me into training under them, which he wanted to do...but I didn't.   I wanted to do what I wanted to do, y'know?  I didn't at all want to be some weird-ass peoples' puppet on a string, being used every day as a weapon against Rikti until something finally managed to kill me."

Hellmane scowled slightly, though when he asked "What?", she shook her head and said, "'s got nothing to do with your story.  Go on."

He shrugged and did so.

"Anyway, they wound up keeping me there for a while, and I learned enough from them to get away, which I did as soon as I could.    He's tried talking me into going back there.  Even refuses to let me sleep unless I listen to him, but...whatever.  I don't need to sleep anyway, thanks to his having replaced my body and all.  I'd just like to once in a while, y'know."

"Tell him to piss off." Hellmane suggested, and Nexus sighed.

"Telling him to piss off doesn't work.  It's like telling an itchy, bitchy limb to stop itching, and this particular sort of itch isn't one I want to scratch.  I don't want to be anyone's wartoy, and I don't give a shit why he was coming here.    I'll fight the Rikti, but I'll do it on my terms, not theirs, and not his."

At this, she grinned and kissed him quite passionately, which seemed to shock him a bit.

"I'm not one to complain, but what was that for?" he asked.

"Just 'cause.  I like you." She said with a shrug, and he contented himself with this.

"What does he think of me?" She asked after a moment, at which Nexus snorted.  "He doesn't think much of you.  He's just certain that you'll be out to kill him, and is having fits in my head about me telling you all about this."

Hellmane laughed in utter amusement.  "Kill him?  Why?   I couldn't hardly care any less.  I'm here to have fun and kill idiots no one'll miss and no one wanted around in the first place.  Perfect arrangement for a bitch like me, really.   Who's going to yell at you for killing the people that everyone seems to want dead anyway?"

"Heh, well...the people everyone wants dead would yell about it, but, fuck 'em." he chuckled.  "I like your style, Hellmane.  Seriously.   But...would you tell me something?"

She shrugged.  "Maybe.  Depends on what you ask."

"Fair enough" he answered amiably, "What is it like to live a really long time?   He's been trying to scare me into being a good little stooge by telling me all about how horrible it'll be if I'm not trained for it...and I'm kind've afraid that he might be right."

Hellmane sucked a tooth at this, then hrmed.  "Well...that's hard to answer.   It's like living period, I think, no matter how long that turns out being.   You either live, or you drift around existing like an idiot.   Me, I prefer to do what I want, deny myself nothing, explore every opportunity and whatever else it is I want to do."

Nexus contemplated this for a while, then rolled out of the bed and went to get a glass of water.   When he came back, he held said glass of water up.

"I don't need to drink anything anymore.   If I don't drink anything, or eat anything...I feel just fine.   I do it because it helps me feel like I'm still me."

That said, he drank the glass dry, then tossed it onto the floor. 

"Well...that won't work for long." the succubus observed.  "You can only lie to yourself for so long before the little holes turn into big holes, and then it all just falls apart like a cheap shirt."

"I know.  I just don't know what else to do about it." he answered a bit grimly.   "That's why I'm afraid he might be right.  I, teaching, something I don't have and can't yet imagine, else I'd chase it down myself.   Would you help me?"

Hellmane looked a bit surprised, but mostly thoughtful, in response. 

"Are you sure you should be asking a succubus to help you?" She inquired bemusedly.  "I might enslave you and torment you with sex for the rest of your potentially immortal existence."

At this, he flat-out grinned.  "I fail to see a downside.  If that's slavery, chain me to the gods-damned wall. Though...I can see how some stick-ass like Arborealis would freak out over something like that."

At the mention of the grim death-dealer, Hellmane snorted slightly.   "I'd prefer not to talk about her.   Like I said earlier today...if she got any fun on her, I think she'd melt like a certain wicked witch out of a little movie called "Wizard of Oz".  You may've heard of it."

Nexus laughed outright at this.   "That's awesome.  Think we should see about locating some fun and a bucket?"

Hellmane screwed up her face and shook her head. "Nope.   I'd pay pretty good money to watch someone do it, but I am not fucking with that one.   I know what she is.   You should probably avoid pissing in her oatmeal too.   It is well within her power to kill both of us, technically immortal or not."

Necus grimaced.  "Sheesh.  I knew she was a tough bitch, but I didn't know that little detail.   What, she got some sort of mega-crystal-spiney-shooty-bomb thing up her ass I haven't seen?"

Hellmane sighed and, in a rare display, actually looked a bit like a concerned woman more than anything else.

"No,'s far more than that.  I know what she is because I've seen others like her before.   She used to be a normal human like you, but she died...and the spirit of this world had other plans for her besides mere reincarnation."

Nexus looked a bit blankly at her.  "Reincarnation instant breakfast what-the-hoohuh?"

Hellmane couldn't help but laugh at the look on his face.  He, in turn, couldn't help but snicker as well.

"I kinda know what reincarnation is, but isn't that some sort've religious gimick?" he continued, at which Hellmane shook her head.  "It's not a gimick,'s just not what people, religious or not, tend to think it is.   It has a lot more to do with the energies that make you 'you' than anything to do with your sense of self.   Your identity is pretty meaningful to you, but pretty meaningless to 'you'."

"Uh..." he clearly didn't follow, "I'll just pretend I get that and stare at your boobs.  You go right ahead and tell me all about it though.  Maybe I'll actually learn something."

Hellmane, being a succubus, couldn't resist unfurling her wings from around herself and lying there in full nude display for him to ogle, but continue she did just the same.

"The idea that souls exist independently is false.   In that, the hindu sorts are pretty up to speed, though they've done some real fancy artwork with the needless details of it all.  The buddhists are pretty close, but again, they got themselves lost in the details.     Again, even the crazy, batshit monotheistic religions like christianity have got some parts of it right, but those in particular are very, very lost in their own details, and the truth of it...the simple, factual simplicity of it..."

She wriggled around a bit, knowing that when a man's higher mental functions are distracted by things such as naked women, they learn better than when they try to, typically.

" that the spirit of this world is the body of all the energies of life that were, are or will yet be on this world.    It, as such, is in fact a 'she'...and she is the mother of earthly life, no matter it's form, function or intent."

At this, and despite the captivating display, Nexus frowned in confusion.  "Waitterminute...what?  So you're saying that there's like...some over-goddess thingy that is all life, period?"

"...I don't know if I'd say 'over-goddess thingy', or even 'goddess', truthfully.   The idea of deity is a mortal construction of concept that mortals, with their very small minds, tend to need in order to make any sense, even wrong-sense, out of anything at all."

"Well, don't I just feel so much better now." he quipped.  "But, I suppose I understand that bit at least.   I think.  Just the same the flying hell does that work?  In simple terms, please.   I'm gonna go back to my boobie-vigil now, so don't make me think too hard."

Hellmane obliged him by sitting up and posing luxuriantly, all the while continuing her lilting semi-monologue.

"In the simplest of terms...when something that is alive dies, the energies that made it alive in the first place go back to their source.   Who they were in life didn't matter to begin with; only that they lived.  I don't know why that is true.  If I did, I suspect I'd be a lot bigger a demon than I am, or perhaps something else entirely."

"Mmhm" Was Nexus' only comment, and it was a comment that Hellmane found quite likeable.

Then, he startled and rubbed his head a bit.

"Holy shitkicking cowbarns, batman...I think my other just punched me on the inside of my forehead." he muttered.

"Does he do that often?" the succubus inquired, shifting her pose slightly if only for her own enjoyment, though Nexus shook his head.

"No...never before, actually.   He's telling me that what you're saying is true...and that that is why I need training...'cause I am no longer entirely of this world."

Nexus' scowl, just then, could only be called vitriolic.  It was even enough to get Hellmane's attention away from her own statuesque curves and back onto him.

"...and now he's telling me that if we; he and I; die without this training, if we are killed...we will each go nowhere at all, for this world will reject us, and his is in no shape to accept even him."

Hellmane clucked her tongue thoughtfully, then shrugged.  "Does he ever lie to you?"

Nexus shook his head. "He can't.  He's just as much me as I am him now.   You can't very well lie to yourself like that, can you?"

The look on her face was answer enough, though the answer she spoke after giving him that particular look summarized it nicely.

"Lying to yourself, in any mortal or once-mortal's case, is perhaps the strongest, most proficient talent you will ever possess.  Mark it well, or it will mark you unrelentingly."

He didn't like the sinking feeling that came with either the look or the comment, and he knew that no amount of staring at even her perfect, nude body would rid him of that sensation for the rest of the night.

Some things, you just know...and that, he just knew.

This is the world we live in
And these are the names we're given
Stand up and let's start showing
Just where our lives are going to

"I know." Talonhawk said into the payphone.  His tone was one of a weary man, and for good reason.

Being awake for almost thirty-six hours and having to put up with a circus of freaks, death-dealers and a demon in the sideshow arena for most of it took a lot out of a guy.

"I don't know when I'll be home.   There's something really big that's come up over in Steel Canyon, and-", he paused when the speaker on the other end of the line interjected.

" know I don't want that, hun.  What can I do though?   I might be one of the only people that even knows about this...and it's-" again he paused when she, his wife, interjected angrily.

"No, I can't tell them.  I can't even tell Manticore.  Lucille, please...I know I promised to never put this ahead of our son, but if I don't take care of this, there might not even have a future.  Any of us."

He listened for a while longer, casting a glance down both directions of the empty city street.   He only ever used public payphones to call his wife when he was out in costume, or when he suspected that anyone might, for any reason, be following him, taping him or tracing his calls.

His wife and his son meant everything in the world to him, and he'd gone to lengths almost nobody could imagine to protect them from his enemies.

They weren't superhumans like him.  They couldn't hope to fight off so much as an arachnos micro-bot, let alone a Bane Executioner.

"Lucille...please, tell Josh that I love him.  I love you too.  I'll try to be home as soon as I can."

Again, he paused, but this time not because he was interrupted.   This time, he swore he'd heard something.

"I have to go.  I'll call you back as soon as I can." he said quickly and hung up before she could respond.

It was like jamming a knife into his own gut to do this to her and their son.  He knew how much they worried about him, and leaving them hanging like this was something he'd go to his grave regretting, along with every other time he'd done it.

But he had to, didn't he?   No one would protect them if he didn't.  Not out there in the middle of Nowheresville Montana.    Nothing interesting ever happened there.

He didn't want anything interesting to start happening there either, and certainly not on his, as much as he hated being like this, the ends would have to justify the means at least one time more.

"She's going to leave you if you keep doing that, Talonhawk." a lilting woman's voice echoed around him, and he froze.

He didn't know that voice, and though he wasn't psychic, he had sense enough of what was what to know that whomever she was, this was a psychic communique.

"Who are you?" he thought 'aloud' in his mind, and for his trouble, he was abruptly battered by a swirling dervish of wind jagged thickly with razor-sharp shards of ice.

The cold didn't bother him, but the abrupt myriad of cuts suffered brought a cry of agony from his lips. 

"You don't even know who I am?" the psychic voice lilted on, even as he wrestled to break free of the razor-shard cyclone.   "That's a pretty lousy way to greet an old friend, Talonhawk...I'm crushed."

He narrowly managed to break free of the scything cyclone in time to hurtle out of the way of a falling block of ice so dense and heavy that it broke into the pavement and didn't even shatter.

He knew now whom had found him, and no cold in the world would chill him like this woman; this specific woman; knowing about his family.

"What does it matter to you, Mistral, if I'm kind to a whore and her kid?    You going to kill them just to get at me?   Have fun finding them, or getting me to care even if you do." he shot back, hoping to whatever gods might be listening that she'd buy the ruse.

She didn't.

"Your wife is a whore, Ethan?" she inquired back, and even as she did, the huge block of ice exploded, though this time he was free of cyclonic wind and able to zip out of the way of rock-hard ice shrapnel.

This put him at excellent range, in fact, to see the form of his once-mentor, Irena Rudenko...better known as Ice Mistral anymore...form and coalesce out of the frozen wind and ice shards scattered throughout the street.

He sneered as she apparently selected two frozen dollops of his own blood to be her 'eyes' in this incarnation of herself.

"I've learned a little mind-speaking trick from the Mu, Ethan.  Are you proud of me?" she psychically inquired again, drifting nearer even as he backed away.  "The Fortunata have even taught me how to refine it and give a remote form a semblance of my own power, for a short time."

"Leave me alone." was all he could say to her, as his former mentor had always terrified him, and as much as he wished her were over that, and rid of that sorrowful chapter of the, and she, refused to just go away.

"You know I can't do that, Ethan.   You betrayed me, and after all I did for you.  I took you in, Ethan...I made you one of my own.  I gave you a purpose, I taught you strength..."

All the while, she was advancing on him, and he was backing away down the street.  He didn't dare run, even though he knew he could outrun her.

They couldn't outrun her, and he needed to know if she knew anything of his family or if this were just a careful bluff.   

"Did I ever tell you, Ethan, that you weren't one of my better students?   Your mastery of the frozen North Wind is tolerable...but not remarkable.    And I wonder why you have not run away yet..."

"I'm waiting for a chance to blow your face off." he shot back.  "This ice-doll of yours isn't you.  Attacking it would be pointless.   You're a coward, Irena."

She cackled and in so cackling, sent a hurricane of hoary wind down the street for several city blocks, nearly blowing Talon off his feet several times and despite his empowerment of swift flight to steady him.

"A coward, am I?  Or is it wisdom, Ethan...not that you'd know the difference."

A flash-snap of blue-white light dazzled his eyes even as he tried to clear his ears of the gale's roar, and her icy form was upon him, slamming him and battering him without mercy.

He tried to fight back, but she knew his weaknesses well, and he had to let her exploit them.   Up close and personal, he was barely better off than a normal human in a stand-up brawl.  He needed focus and at least a little time to fire off his own attacks, and she was not permitting him either.

The beating was short, but brutal, and she eventually tossed him against a street wall and laughed viciously.   "Not even trying to fight back, fool?   Perhaps you do know something of wisdom, if only enough to know that neither you nor ten thousand of you could ever hope to defeat me."

Through broken teeth and an equally broken jaw, he managed to stammer, "...Kill me if you think it will help, Irena...but you will never have my loyalty."

The hoary incarnation of Ice Mistral loomed over him, then shimmered and was replaced by the woman herself.

She leaned over him and met his gaze; his own stalwart, steadfast gaze that refused to break even under this onslaught.

"That's a fine suggestion, Ethan.   Best one you've ever had."

He opened his broken jaw to speak just in time to have to be impaled through his mouth against the wall by a steely hard, razor sharp shard of ice.

Before the Hospitalization Transfer System of Paragon city could kick in and whisk him away, she grabbed his body and hacked the head off of it with an ice-blade hand.

Then, she watched the body vanish, whisked uselessly away to a hospital that would doubtlessly clone him, but...that, to her, was just as well.

She had a delivery to make, and Montana was a fairly distant jet flight away, and so it was that she clicked her radio communicator on and said into it.  "Ice reporting to Scorp.  Activate the portal at the following coordinates..."

...and a scant minute later, she was gone.

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