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"Chapter 2:  Ring Around the Rosie"

October 3rd, Thursday, 1:18 AM  ...Somewhere in Washington D.C...

He awoke groggily.   The election parties this time of year were crazy, and last night's had been no different.    He wasn't sure how long the phone by his bed had been ringing by the time it registered in his half-besotten brain, and he fumbled the handset off it's cradle in the sudden spiked recollection of how very few people knew the number to this phone, and what it would take for them to call it at this or any hour.

"Talk to me." He slurred into the mouthpiece, cursing inwardly; he was still two and a half sheets to the wind.    It didn't matter though; the voice that came across the line sobered him up immediately.

He listened silently to what the speaker said, thankful that he was alone and in a dark room.   There'd be no way he could ever explain the look he was sure had made it's way to his face by now, both for the message conveyed and the rancid, acrid belch lurking in the back of his mouth. 

"You're sure?" he asked after mentally lurching at the notion that he should at least ask a few questions.   Fumbling for the bedside table lamp's switch, he asked also "How did anyone find out?"

Snapping the light on, he grimaced and turned away from it, eyes closed and quite dazzlingly offended by the lamp's stabbingly bright emissions.  

"No, don't call the Malta rep." he muttered into the speaker, eventually wiping his face with a sweaty palm and reaching, squinting all the while, for a notepad and pen.    "Trust me, just don't call her or so much as fart a whisper of this within six blocks of her.   They still think this is their big secret, remember."

A pause, then he scribbled a name down and said, "Right.  Good.  You call her, and also, call Rupert Miller.  You'll find his number in my files under pizza delivery.    Yeah, he's a pizza delivery guy.   That's all you need to know about him, now get on it."

He hung up before any response could be made to that and sat there, woozily silent for a full minute.

Someone, somewhere, had dropped the ball, and they'd dropped it big-time.

There was going to be hell to pay, and he hoped to God it wasn't somehow going to be put on his tab.

In fact, he was going to make sure it wasn't, and so he dialed a number on the phone.

Half a minute later, he heard the telltale 'click' of an answer, but no voice on the other end.  This was normal.

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?" he asked, hoping he remembered this right in his current state.   

"I haven't the slightest idea." a ID-distorted voice answered, and he puzzled for a moment on what the next line of the password was.

"Have you guessed the riddle yet?" he ventured, just certain he'd got something wrong there, but apparently he hadn't, as the distorted voice replied, "No, I give it up. What is the answer?"

It all checked out.  He didn't know whom it was he was talking to; never had, and if God loved him at all he never would.  He didn't want to; whomever it was, it was a killer and a damn freaky one.  A killer with an unsettling fondness for 'Alice in Wonderland' quotes, no less, as the password phrases were drawn straight from the part of that book in which the Hatter, Alice and some other beasties were having their teaparty.

All he had to do was tell him, her or it who needed to die and whatever information was relative to the task, and it'd get done.  No money, no favors, no identities.   

"Do you know who Jill Baily is?" he asked, and the voice didn't answer, which he'd learned over the past four years meant 'no'.

"She's my new undersecretary and a Malta agent.  A very sensitive call was routed to her, and she just called me to tell me the particulars.  She needs to have an accident."

He swallowed, wishing he had a glass of water just now.  He knew this was total bullshit and that Jill was no Malta agent, but if an assassin took his undersecretary out, the secret service would put him on Top Priority Op-Watch, and he'd be needing that security if what she'd said was accurate.

"Location?" the distorted voice asked, and he drowsily slurred on.  "Right...uh..." he wiped his face again, trying to remember the address.  "She'll be at the Paragon City government center in six hours.  I don't know what flight she's taking in.  Probably taking a government jet."

There was a moment of silence on the other end, during which time the senator rolled out of bed and groaned for the protesting of his alcohol-besotten stomach in being so roughly rolled about. 

"I'll find her." the distorted voice confirmed, and then there was another soft 'click'.

The senator hung the phone up.   This was how his 'friend' communicated, and it didn't really weird him out too much anymore. 

Never-the-less, he was always left with the vague sensation of that it very well should weird him out.

Right now however he needed to get to the bathroom and either drink a whole lot of water or disgorge his stomach into the porcelain god.

It was going to be a long day tomorrow, and he wasn't looking forward to it.

October 4th, Friday, 2:44 PM  ...Pocket D...

In the pocket dimension of all-party, all-the-time, every day was Friday.   On actual Fridays outside, however, there was hardly any standing room left pretty much anywhere, and the dance floor was writhing with pure, unadultered sexvibe.

DJ Zero, floating around in his techno-control bubble, was jamming out a hard-pounding, hip-grinding remix of Timbaland's "The Way I Are", and while he usually didn't give spintime to any mainstream garbage, he did cater to his audience.

Jack sipped his martini, watching all of this from a top-floor balcony.     There were some real powerhitters here tonight, dancing it up out there, and he'd been watching some of them for the past two hours.

So far, he'd spotted half the Vindicators, and unless his eyes were failing him, whatever was left of War Witch was even here.    It weirded him out a bit that she still had it in her to party down despite being dead, but then he checked that thought.

After all, if he were a ghost, would that stop him from being here?  

Smirking, he finished his drink and tossed the glass onto the tray of a passing waitress android.

Then, he looked at his watch.    

Where the fuck were they?   They were supposed to meet him here two hours ago, and not a single one had shown up yet.   

Sighing, he muttered "Damned amateurs." and ordered another martini from the waitress android.

If nothing else, he was going to enjoy the show of hundreds of the world's sexiest, most exotic people dancing like pornstars.    There was a saying about all work and no play, and unlike his namesake in that epithet, he was not going to be a dull boy.

Not today.

Elsewhere in Paragon City, Same time, Same day...

"OUCH!" Yachiru howled, having been blasted onto her back by a hail of steel-hard crystal shards.  "Ow ow ow ow!  Owwwwy!" she whimpered.

Arborealis, a look of concern actually taking her inhuman features, sprang cat-like over to her fallen mentor and bit her bottom lip.  "Sorry.   You can...pull vitality from me, if you want."

All at once, Yachiru blasted her much larger student with a hazing of illusory injuries.  "No no no!" She caterwauled, springing to her feet despite the crystal shrapnel still stuck in her limbs, body and face.  

The illusory wounds didn't have nearly the effect on her student as she might've hoped, and so she huffed.  "Alright...that's all for now.    I remember when you couldn't even touch me if I didn't let you, Arbie...and now look at you.    You kicked my ass."

Arborealis snorted vaguely, her body flickering and dancing with blacklight vibrancy as the illusory injuries struggled and finally failed against her adamantine will.    

It wasn't like any real damage was inflicted, here in the training arena, but all the same, it still unnerved her to have to fight her mentor, and it showed in her expression.

As if prompted by that, Yachiru pointed at her.  "You hesitated, Arbie.   I've never seen you hesitate like that before.   Is it because we're friends?"

Arborealis shot her a look that silently inquired as to whether she really needed to ask that or not, and Yachiru interpreted it correctly.

"Never hesitate like that in a real fight.   If a friend is dominated or somehow turned against you, you'll do nobody any good if you let them cripple or kill you.   And if they're just outright turning against you, I doubt any hesitation on your part is going to serve you well."

Arborealis snorted again, but clearly gave it some thought.   "I've never thought about it quite like that before."

"I know" Yachiru said as she padded over to her student, the healing fields in the arena having already absorbed the many crystal shards that'd been lodged in her.   "But you need to, especially now.   There's not a lot left for me to teach you, my friend.  Not about fighting anyway."

Again, Arborealis snorted vaguely and crouched like a gargoyle, so Yachiru wouldn't have to look straight up at her, as had long been her habit, but Yachiru interjected before she could follow that snort with speech.

"I'm serious.  Maybe it's because of what you are, but you've learned in a single year what it took me decades to master.    Our talents aren't the same, but I can tell that you are on the very knife's edge of being ready to fight alongside me as my equal, not my student."

All at once, Yachiru flopped onto her tiny behind and grinned.  "But not quite yet.  There are still a few very important little things I know that you don't."

"Of course there are." Arborealis said quietly.  "I didn't yet think I was even close to being your equal.   It's strange that you say I am, to me."

Yachiru shrugged, then nattered on.  "Well, it's true.   You've still got more to learn, and as it is, I think you'd beat me up in a real fight anymore.   You're too smart to be distracted much by my phantoms, and you annoyingly ignore most of my attacks or dazzlements like they didn't even happen.    Your blades and crystal spikes aren't so easily ignored, and you've gotten really good at making them hurt like hell."

"But your talents aren't even entirely combative." Arborealis shot back.  "Those phantoms can just as easily be made to look like anyone at all, and I've seen you speak through them.   And when you're invisible, even I still have some difficulty seeing you."

"Hah!" Yachiru cackled.  "You have trouble and almost nobody else can at all, but you can, and that's the important thing.   You can. much as I like complimenting you, as you've surely earned it, there's something I'd like to talk about.  Unless you'd rather fingerpaint with me.  That's fun too."

A slight nod was the answer she got, and Yachiru again interpreted it correctly.

"This little team we've joined is very mis-matched." she began.  "Nexus has hardly any control of his own abilities, and it's only because he's been immitating Hellmane that he survived the Carnies.    Jack is pretty good, about on Hellmane's par, but he's got a past blacker than Nexus' spit.   And then there's Talonhawk, who's too proud to latch on to anyone and not nearly powerful enough to make his own way in company like yours and mine unassisted."

Arborealis nodded, having noticed this herself as well, and so Yachiru continued.

"My point, that you and I might not be doing them any favors.  It might behoove us to back off, maybe let Hellmane take the fore and help in other ways.  Other ways that would be less likely to attract a battalion of Bane Executioners or worse to their hotel rooms."

A faint smirk briefly took Arborealis' features, and she settled out of her crouch to sit, folding her crystal-bladed wings about herself as she did.

"Why do you think I did not join the fray against the Carnies, Yachiru?   I was a bit surprised that you yourself had."

Yachiru stuck her tongue out at that and retorted, "I didn't!  Not visibly, anyway!   Nobody saw nothin'! was wise of you not to.   There were powerful eyes on that brawl; I could feel them looking at mah booty."

Arborealis, in a rare display, blinked.   Only once, but she almost never blinked, and it made Yachiru howl with laughter.

"...You've the appearance of a ten year old girl, Yachiru.   Any eyes ogling your booty have serious issues." came Arborealis' flat explanation after a moment, which made Yachiru howl and laugh even harder.

"So true!" she eventually gasped and stopped laughing, then wheezed, giggled and finally calmed herself.  "But you know what I meant!"

"I do." was her student's answer, and so Yachiru nodded.   "Good.   It was that, as well as our spider pals that you had fun with, as well as what Jack uncovered, that made it clear to me that you and I are going to have to be very careful with where, when, how and why we reveal our presences in tandem to this problem."

"After all..." Yachiru shifted slightly, mimicking Arborealis' very formal lotus-like sitting arrangement, albeit two feet off the floor, "...Talonhawk was already brutally murdered by one of those pairs of eyes, and if I've correctly guessed at the others, you and I have our work cut out for us, just like the team has theirs."

Arborealis blinked again.  She'd heard nothing of Talonhawk being murdered, and Yachiru launched into an explanation before she even had to inquire.

"I have friends in all the hospitals, Arbie.   One of them called me the next morning and told me that they'd just cloned a man who was babbling about Ice Mistral, and my name somehow came up in it.    It was Talonhawk.     Apparently, she found him and killed him right here in Paragon City.   I was also told that he appeared without his head, though they're not sure if Mistral took it or if his ex-head is lurking in a street or alley somewhere just now.   Kinda icky to think about, that is."

Arborealis' expression had, by this time, already hardened to one of grim, humorless ire.   

"I have a score to settle with her." Arborealis eventually spoke, and at this, Yachiru sucked a tooth and shook her head.  "I know you think you do, Arbie," She began, "But so do a lot of people.   Ice Mistral is one tough bitch, but -think-, Arbie...-think-.    Why would Mistral do that?  It's a big risk for her to just murder a hero right here in this city.   It wouldn't take but a moment and one phone call for her to find six thousand teleporters burying her under a mountain of stomping feet and energy blasts of every color of the rainbow."

Arborealis, thusly asked, set herself to contemplating this.    Silence reigned, then, for a goodly span of moments; moments that Yachiru filled by amusing herself with painting on the training arena's floor with illusory lights and glitter.

"I don't know. I can think of a lot of things that might be plausible, but I don't know enough to even guess otherwise." Arborealis eventually conceded, and Yachiru, after finishing a big, frosty blue flower painting, said, "Yep!   And that means we have to find out fast.  You and me.   We're the only ones who can in this little posse.   I don't think I could take Mistral on by myself, and...well, you're strong.  Maybe someday strong enough to do even that.   But I don't think you could either.   Not now.   Together though..."

The sentence didn't need finishing.  Arborealis simply nodded, and Yachiru grinned.

"Good.   Jack was expecting us in Pocket D two hours ago, you know.   Are we going to go?" the tiny magician mused aloud, as if wondering to herself more than asking anyone.

Arborealis shook her head 'no'.  

"Yay!" Yachiru hopped to her feet.  "We'll call him later and tell him we were abducted by Rikti anarchists who thought we were too sexy and relocated us to a party world where everything is made out of chocolate and you can eat the rainbows 'cause they're made out of chocolate too!"

Arborealis blinked two full times at this sporadic, batshit outburst, and Yachiru simply smiled sweetly in response.

"We could just go to Pocket D for that." Arborealis eventually commented as she rose easily to her feet, but Yachiru was already skipping off towards the exit, and made no answer beyond singing.

And just what it was she was singing almost made Arborealis laugh.

"Weeeeee' to kill the blizzard, the blizzardiest bitch there was.   We hear she is a blizzardy bitch, if ever a bitch there was.
If ever, oh ever, a bitch there was, the blizzardy bitch is one because...
Because, because, because, because, becaaaaaause...
Because of the blizzardly-bitch things she does!"

Fifteen minutes later, in Pocket D...

Don't turn away...
I pray you've heard the words I've spoken.
Dare to believe...
Over one last time...
Then I'll let the...darkness cover me...
Deny everything.
Slowly walk away...
To breathe again...
On my own.

Carry me away...
I need your strength to get me through this.
Dare to believe...
Over one last time...
Then I'll let the...darkness cover me...
Deny everything.
Slowly walk away...
To breathe again...
On my own

Whomever the present singer was, Jack mused, she was doing a damn fine job of making his drink go flat.  Karaoke night in Pocket D was always a real hit or miss affair, and while this young heroine had a helluva voice to her, the song was just flat-out depressing.

Unfortunately, he didn't seem to be in the majority of those failing to enjoy it.   He noted three misty-eyed young women near to his left, a now-brooding behemoth of a male something-or-another on his right, and unless he missed his mark, there was a Rogue Isle woman directly behind him sobbing into her glass.

He muttered something to himself about melodrama, slugged the rest of his martini and took another look around.

Yep.  Four of every five pairs of eyes in the place was just staring up at that young dark songstress, and even though the song had been crooned off into silence, silence was still ringing in it's wake.

Silence in Pocket D.   It seemed criminal, but nobody in eye or earshot seemed willing to be the first to break it.

Thankfully, by Jacks measure anyway, DJ Zero was the first to speak.

"Words fail me." The normally wild-edged DJ said in an emotion-thick voice.  "If you were hoping for applause, Shadalara, you've got one better.   That was just beautiful."

Jack hmph'd inwardly.  Yeah, it was beautiful, and totally out of synch with the vibe of the place.   Girls like that deserved a record contract, sure, and some good airtime on radio stations he could avoid having to listen to.   

He was still stewing over the wet blanket the entire atmosphere had been thoroughly choked on when he felt his cellphone start vibrating.    After quickly and silently excusing himself to the nearest restroom, he plucked the phone from inside his jacket and looked at the incoming number.

Then, he hit the 'answer' button and said, "Talk to me, Talonhawk." into the receiver.

"We've got a problem, Jack." Talon's weary voice came across.  "Ice Mistral caught up with me two nights ago."

Jack winced inwardly and sidled into a stall, then locked it behind him.  "And how'd that go?" he then half-whispered.

Silence was the answer given; a good thirty seconds' worth, and Jack caught the meaning pretty well.

"You gonna be alright?" Jack then inquired, and Talonhawk half growled into his end, "No, I'm not.   She took my head, Jack.   The cloning staff said I phased in without a fucking head...and she knows where Lucille and Josh are.  I don't know that for sure, but she knew enough to make me think she'd know that too."

"Easy, pal..." Jack said fairly gently.  "You don't know that for sure.  She might be trying to pull a ruse over on you and get you to lead her straight to your fam.   Have you called Lucille yet?"

"I've been calling ever since I woke up a few hours ago.  No answer.  I can only hope that means she went to the hide-out." was Talon's strained response.

Jack had known the younger man for a number of years now, mostly because Talonhawk's wife, Lucille, was the daughter of a man he'd worked with for a while.

Neither of them knew that Lucille's old man had been a go-between for some dirty business twenty years back, and Jack hadn't seen fit to be the one to dig that skeleton out of the closet for them.  It didn't seem to matter much anyway; her old man had done a fine job of keeping his private life, specifically his family, well away from his work and it's rigorous dangers.

It was something Talonhawk just couldn't seem to do, despite having someone like Jack to help him out with that.  

"I understand what you're going through, Talon, but you're good to nobody if you let Mistral get you on a leash." he said after a few moments' reflection, and was groaned at by the younger man for his trouble.

"Jack...I'm scared shitless of that woman.  I can't fight her.  I'm not strong enough, and no matter where I go or what I do, she'll find me whenever she feels like taking another pound of flesh.   I'll put up with it forever if I have to, but Lucille-"

It was Jack's turn to interrupt, and he did so.  "Lucille and Josh have got Shatterstorm looking out for them."

He lied.  Shatterstorm, another old friend of his, had never even heard of Lucille, Josh or likely even Talonhawk...but, another phone call would hopefully change that, and in the meantime, he needed to calm this kid down.

"Shatterstorm..." Talonhawk repeated, then apparently placed the name.  "Old hero from Chicago, isn't he?"

"Yeah, that's the one." Jack confirmed.  "He's retired anymore, but I asked him to keep an eye on your wife and kid when I was out there last.  He said he'd see what he could do, and there's a lot that old man can do."

Talonhawk latched onto that just like Jack had hoped he would.  "That...thank you, Jack.   I don't know the man, but you tell Shatterstar I'm grateful.   I...I gotta go now.  The nurse says I'll need to be in here for a few more days so I can keep on these stabilization meds."

Jack heard someone come into the bathroom, so he picked his voice up a bit and said, "That's great, bro.   I'll come see you soon, then.   You take care for now, alright?"

Talon didn't seem to pick up on the subtlety, and simply replied, "Alright.  Thanks again, Jack.   Don't know what I'd do without you."

"Probably die of boredom." Jack answered, then hung up.  The conversation was done anyway.

He waited until the restroom was vacant again before digging through his list of contacts and finding Shatterstar's old number.

It'd been almost three years since he'd last talked to the veteran hero of Chicago's West Side, and they'd never been friends so much as associates of convenience.    Jack only hoped he had enough in the bank with the old hero to pull one hero-class favor, or the little white lie he'd just told his young buddy might turn into a big, ugly black one.

He found Shatterstar's number, punched the 'call' button and listened for the ring tone.

He wasn't disappointed.

One hour later...somewhere near Grandville...

Yachiru's tiny form blazed like a flashing bugzapper, her tiny voice cackling as she unleashed blazing arcs of magic at very nearly everything that moved.   

It was night, but in the immediate vicinity of the tiny spellmistress, no one would ever guess it for the eye-burning flashes, dazzling explosions and ground-hammering detonations being unleashed in a steady, unrelenting stream from both herself and the ghastly army of phantoms surrounding her.

She'd been at this for a good half hour now, and she had no clue how large the Arachnos force she and Arborealis had descended upon was in the first place.   She didn't know, and she didn't care.

Every so often, she'd see her student scything and twirling, leaping and generally just ripping through the churning masses surrounding them.   Every so often, she would rip the vitality or verve from some luckless footsoldier and mostly hope that Arbie was somewhere within it's range to absorb it.

Just the same, fun was fun, but it was time to end this.

"ARBIE!" she yowled, as she'd done countless times before, "IT'S TIME!"

As usual in circumstances like these, a soul-chilling snarl and a literal tidal-wave of crystal-shredded bodies blowing off in one direction was her answer.

Yachiru grinned, focused for a moment on the literal kinetic motion of everything surrounding her and...stole it.   Literally ripped the motion and force behind it away from over three-score of the nearest and enveloped herself, her phantoms and Arborealis in it.

Now, it was over.    The phantoms' already mighty blasts of flareon energy exploded into new, empowered brilliance, but that wasn't what Yachiru was watching oh-so-intently.

She wanted to see her young protege at work.   As gruesome as it was, she loved this part.

Less than one second later, and despite the absolutely deafening screams, shouts of soldiers, gunfire and eldritch explosions, Arborealis' duo-tone voice rose like Death's own, and a scything hail of glowing crystals cut everything within sixty feet of her not merely in half, but into a confetti-storm of bloody mist and acid-melted metal.

Empowered to god-like levels by a fulcrum shift of such intensity as she was, Yachiru knew that nothing; not anything at all; would be standing in Arborealis' way.    It wouldn't last long, of course...but she wasn't nearly out of tricks herself.

She'd keep casting her spells, including fulcrum shift, until this whole army was nothing but a long river of twisted metal, crystal shrapnel and bloody gore if she had to.

Almost exactly one hour earlier, she had asked Arborealis if they should go and leave a friendly little invitation to a party on Ice Mistral's door.   

She giggled, though even she herself couldn't hear it, for remembering Arborealis agreeing to this, then blinking again when she found out precisely what she'd meant by 'invitation'.

Wiping out a mobile ground force was what that meant; a ground force of roughly two to three thousand strong.

Yachiru was briefly pulled out of her almost zen-like spellcasting and contemplating by the most volatile snarl she'd ever heard come out of Arborealis, followed by genuinely frenzied display of absolute destruction heralded by flashing, glinting arcs of crystals. 

Even the Bane Executioner commanding this ground unit couldn't stand more than a few seconds of such abuse, and the moments following; moments that were not silent, but were quieter than those preceeding by several orders of magnitude; swiftly Arborealis standing alone, surrounded on all sides for several hundred feet in every direction by bodies, twisted wreckage of spider bots and assorted other ruined cyborg pieces, blown in some places into piles nearly as tall as herself.

Everything left that was capable of so doing was fleeing. 

Arborealis, as Yachiru was ever the invisible savant, stood alone for their eyes to see, and she did so with their commander impaled on a six foot blood-slick spire of crystal jutting from her mouth and rammed through the chest of their executioner commander.

Yachiru noted that the executioner was missing pieces of limbs, and likely didn't have an inch of his ripped body not embedded with poisonous crystal fragments.

After casting a careful glance around, just in case any assassins were lurking, Yachiru then giggled.

"They're running away.  That's cute!" her giggle turned into a madly amused little cackle, even as her grim companion flung the massive executioner's body at a still-twitching cyborg some twenty yards away.  

"Let's get out of here." Arborealis then spoke, her gaze drifting to the dire sky-haze of nearby Grandville.  "We've sent our invitation.  Let them flee.  They'll tell a good story for us."

Grinning, Yachiru twirled her hands and conjured her space-time portal, then stood cutely beside it, despite being halfway covered in gore herself.

"After you, my darling flesh thresher." She said with great luxuriance and a dashing little handwave to the much taller woman, who strode swiftly over and vanished into the portal.

There would be absolutely no way to hide their involvement in this.   None what-so-ever.    Arachnos investigators were doubtlessly already en'route, if not already carefully inserting themselves into the rather impressively large scene of mayhem.

Yachiru's grin widened even more, and then she stepped into the portal to join her companion.

No matter what else, this was going to be a good time, and not only because of how hilarious it was to watch so many cruel, unlikable bastards get mowed down like dry grass in an industrial-strength lawnmower when the team of herself and Arborealis were their opposition.

It was more than that.   Just what it was, she couldn't yet say, but she didn't worry about it.

Popping through the other side of the portal, she found Arborealis standing by the perfect circle of the Ourouboras seer's pool, still covered from head to wingtip to toe in nothing but blood and gore.

"We need to bathe" Yachiru howled all at once.  "We're covered in icky-sticky-gut-goo!"

It was then that she noticed the grin on Arborealis' face.  It startled her a bit, as she'd never seen the towering warrioress grin before, let alone so fiercely or so ... happily.

She grinned right back.

"You got it." was all she said, and that terrifying, fang-filled grin was all she got in response. 

She couldn't have asked for more or better.

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