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The Shadow Guard (chapt 1)
by Warpstone


The building was a simple affair, two-story tan brick, non-descript, windows closed off with newspaper and glass gathering dust.  Obviously it hadn’t been vacant long, property in Talos never was.  It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and Punkupine was bored.  After two hours of staking the place out with not one sign of movement, not one sound, his usually jittery nerves with excess of energy were stretched past the breaking point.  He fidgeted, bouncing from one leg to another while flexing and re-flexing the muscles of his right arm, spikes popping in and out from his shoulder in a line down to crest his knuckles.  “C’mon Missy, this is soooo boring.  Your tip is a dud and I’ve got better places to be.  The clocks never come to Talos.”  His Mohawk, almost two foot high, bobbed up and down while he fidgeted, a vivid shade of electric blue today.  It seemed he had decided to forego matching his muttonchops mustache this time, sticking with the
>  natural black.
>  
>  Amythys Miss sighed in exasperation, a twinkling sound of light chimes as she turned to glare at the short, muscled man.  “Call me Missy one more time and I’m going to spank you.”  Punkupine pulled his thinline sunglasses down so she could see the mischievous glint in his eye and leered at her, “promise?”
>  
>  Amythys smiled in spite of herself, while he sometimes wore her patience thin, Punkupine was hard to stay mad at.  He was in his mid twenties, not much younger than her, and his energy was infectious.  The third member of the group gently chided, “If you youngsters don’t be a little quieter and blow our cover I’ll spank both of you.”  The voice was mildly distorted, a safety precaution to protect his identity.  Amythys gave a small gasp of indignation while Punkupine turned to stare at Mindblight.  “Blow our cover?  I thought you made us invisible?”
>  
>  Mindblight shook his head, light glinting off the armored helmet.  “No, not invisible, just unremarkable.  People can still tell there’s something here, they just don’t care enough to really look.  If you make too much noise or draw attention, it spoils the effect and they will actually notice us.”
>  
>  Punkupine stood with his mouth open, comically aghast, “unremarkable?  Unremarkable!?  Missy petite lady bald head here in the white bikini is made of purple glass, old pops armor is in green and black techno plating with a cape no less and I’m the most up and coming deejay in the P who just happens to have spikes sprouting out of his skin; unremarkable!?”  Mindblight shook his head, muttering softly something that sounded suspiciously like “pure ego”.
>  
>  After a few moments of quiet thought, Mindblight turned back to Amethys, “he might actually have a point Missy.  Are you sure the tip was good?”  
>  
>  Punkupine whipped around in surprise, “how come he can call you that without you jumping down his throat?”  Amythys was dismissive, her gaze still on the warehouse, “because he says it with respect, you only say it to be annoying.”  She turned to look at the younger man, “and besides, it’s cute and gentlemanly when he says it and I like him better.”  Though his features were hidden behind the armor, she suspected Mindblight was smiling as broadly as she was.  Punkupine settled on muttering to himself while Amythys weighed the situation in her mind.
>  
>  Usually Hero Corps was very good on the tips they passed along through Chillbug.  Someone had seen a clockwork darting into the warehouse, and where there was one; there were many, all working to the unseen pattern of the master plan of the Clockwork King.  It was pretty clear that just watching wasn’t going to accomplish anything.  “Alright, let’s head in and look around,” she tried to sound more sure and confident than she felt, projecting the “true leader” image she was supposed to have as founder of the group.
>  
>  “Bout time!”  Punkupine was enthusiastic and geared up, flexing various muscles until his entire body was studded with spikes; battle prep he called it, the shards jutting out through muscle shirt and blue jeans.  His finishing move was to put in his music buds with custom “war dance” mix.  The precautions Mindblight took were not apparent, though she might have caught a change in the patterns of light along the circuitry imbedded in his armor as he touched key spots along the forearm of the enormous gauntlets where hidden controls lay.
>  
>  They moved cautiously toward the back of the building, careful to avoid the traffic that didn’t really see them.  As they were examining the lock, Mindblight stiffened up and looked around, “we’re being watched.”  The group adopted defensive stances and did a scan of the surroundings.  As part of his armor upgrade, Mindblight was now tuned into nearby thought patterns, to sense incoming threats and dodge possible attacks.  It was almost infallible, giving him opportunity to suggest targets to his teammates and improve combat outcomes.  After several minutes nothing had happened and the group relaxed a bit.  Mindblight was unable to determine from which direction the sense had come so they pressed on, more on edge than before.
>  
>  The door in the back opened easily with a gentle tinkering from the older hero, as a lifelong scientist he was more intuitive with technology than Amythys or Punkupine.  They moved inside, choosing their footing to minimize noise, senses on full alert.  A strange odor hung in the air, mild, organic, almost sweet but elusive.  The building hadn’t been empty long enough to gather dust, but they did find several sets of dirty boot tracks leading inside.  Around the corner they found the first surprise; a body.
>  
>  The man was dressed in a Council uniform, though any immediate identifying features had been ground away.  It looked distressingly like someone had taken a cheese grater to most of his torso and head.  Amythys assumed that damage was only aggregate, the long, deep cut from shoulder to hip which almost severed the body in half had to have been the killing blow.  They paused a moment; Clockwork didn’t fight like this, they were more in the “beat down and electrocute” modes of violence.  As they continued into the building they found occasional clues.  The Council must have been scoping this place out as a new base.  There was no equipment, so they hadn’t actually set up shop yet, though there were several cryptic marks and outlines in chalk on the floors to show where key pieces would go.  A few electrical panels had been detached for examination and some of the light fixtures had been opened to check bulbs.
>  
>  In all, the small group of heroes found four bodies in similar condition.  Whatever had hit the Council scouts had done so quickly and efficiently, there was no sign of extended combat, indeed, the Council members hadn’t even drawn the weapons holstered at their hips.  Now they were in the last room of the building, a large storage area and still no sign of any clockwork.  Punkupine was bewildered, as a frontline melee fighter he was off put by the lack of visible target, “I don’t like this.  It smells like a setup.”
>  
>  Amethys glanced at Mindblight, who was examining a gutted electrical panel, perhaps the business with Crey wasn’t as finished as they thought.  Six months ago she had convinced the older man to return to hero work, presenting him with a new power crystal to focus his weapon array.  If he had any suspicions of who she was, or rather, had been; he never spoke of it, but worked in a fever to build a new technosuit in less than a week.  He left his previous life behind and became a fulltime hero, minimizing the opportunities for Crey to grab him.  His downtime was spent in the mostly bare base she had constructed, helping to furnish it and make it more livable.  Indeed, he had been the first recruit into the supergroup, and his presence was a personal victory for her, redemption of sorts, her own private triumph.
>  
>  It was even better when a months worth of investigation found a major scandal at Crey Industries; turned out the Countess Crey wasn’t.  She was an impostor who had killed the original and stolen her place, using the money and resources of the company for all kinds of unsavory activities.  With the Countess facing major prison time, and Crey Industries in absolute chaos and disarray, the pressure to capture and persecution of Mindblight for his technology faded away and the man could breathe the first sigh of freedom he’d had in ten years.  Though he now had the opportunity to adopt a normal identity in his off hours again, he no longer felt the need - hero work was his life.  Perhaps someone close to the Countess wanted revenge and this warehouse was bait to pull Mindblight into a closed location to grab him.
>  
>  “This is odd,” the armored hero interrupted her reverie, “look at this panel.  Some of the key power conduits have been tampered with.  But not like clocks normally do; yanking stuff out or scrounging parts to build more of themselves.  This looks almost like someone fed an energy pulse into the power grid of the island.”  Amythys couldn’t see any difference between the heavy wires he was showing from the ones still intact, but she took his word for it.  “I wonder if I can get some kind of trace on the energy form,” Mindblight started tapping patterns on the forearm of his suit, keying up hidden controls.  Amythys turned away to leave him to his work and suddenly the room was a maelstrom of fury.  Something large dropped from a hidden space in the roof reinforcing over their heads and lashed out.
>  
>  Amythys got a glimpse of something roughly man-sized, the shoulders and torso impossibly oversized, all the outlines sharply angled.  A quick sweep of one limb sent her flying across the room, roughly thirty feet and through a side wall.    The creature continued the motion, upper body rotating almost 360 degrees to catch Mindblight across the chest and tossing him like a toy the other direction.  Before she had even landed, she saw from the corner of her eye that it was now advancing on Punkupine, a long blade of some sort extended from an arm.
>  
>  She pulled herself out of the wreckage of drywall and went into superspeed mode.  Details were fuzzy, her perceptions straining to keep up, but it allowed her to get back into the fight.  She made it back to the electrical panel just as the figure, a robot, was finishing a devastating sweep of Punkupine.  The gash along his chest was deep and spurting fluid, even with his regenerative abilities, the sheer power of it dismayed her.  No time for worries right now though.  She threw herself at the robot, which did have some vague similarities to a few clockwork “bosses” she had seen in Kings Row, blocking it from attacking Punkupine again.  She lashed out a series of rapid palm strikes, her hands sheathed in shadow as she channeled the power of the dark places she was connected to.
>  
>  Unfortunately, it seemed to have little effect.  The robot flicked out with the bladed arm, a long and low blow aimed at her belly.  The blade skittered along, the purple crystal of her skin sparking as the serrated metal tried to find purchase and failed.  Without pausing or even turning, the automaton stretched out the other arm, a pulse of light and energy flared from it to the electrical junction, filling the room with sparks and noise.  The concussive force of it knocked her back and dazzled her, setting off a ringing in her ears.  In the minute it took to recover, the robot was gone, the electrical panel just smoking scrap.  She shook her head to try and clear it and crawled over to where Punkupine lay.  The terrible wound was already beginning to pull itself closed; his remarkable healing abilities snatching him from the very edge of system shutdown, but it was clear the young hero would be unconscious for some time.  She focused a moment to
>  teleport him to the base infirmary and moved off to find Mindblight.
>  
>  The older hero was in a heart wrenching state.  His smooth armor was deeply pitted and cracked where the robot had struck it, small sparks flaring from the broken circuitry.  One of his legs was bent in an unnatural angle and the side of helmet was broken.  Some piece of metal had pierced his side, blood dripping to the floor.  He was dazed, obviously in tremendous pain, blood pooling from his nose, eyes and ear.  He looked vaguely at her through the opening of the faceplate, his eyes unfocused.  “Not . . . a . . clock . . . .” he gasped out.
>  
>  She almost shutdown in shock but time was a factor.  The base infirmary wasn’t enough to handle this amount of damage, a quick slap activated the general transport beacon to the hospital, a small wash of vertigo, a quick flare, and they were in the emergency ward, first responders pushing her to the side as they dealt with the severe injuries to the older man.  The walls were white, the furnishings white, the lighting bright and sterile.  She sat on a chair and hugged herself, crying openly now as the hospital staff tried to get answers from her.  But her mind was numb and she had no answers to give.









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