Galaxy City – Freedom Corps Headquarters – The next day[b]

“What do you mean, he’s in a meeting?” Effigy practically shouted over the echo of chatter of the Freedom Corps outer lobby. Her eyes flared as she shouldered off another over-eager attempt to cut in line, snapping a glare at the crowd behind her that silently promised painful consequences to the whole lot of them.

Natalia was now dressed in her signature outfit, a form hugging red bodysuit accessorized with black wristbands, jeweled tiara, and a choker from which dangled a tiny crystal flame pendant. The top of the costume was cut like a bodice, showing off ample cleavage and thin red mesh around the midriff. Circular holes slit provocatively down the sides of the fabric from hips to high-heeled boots accented her toned legs.

But the majority of the gathered crowd was more interested in getting the attention of the frazzled clerk behind the desk than the redhead in front. Effigy’s unannounced visit fell in the midst of a recent wave of new arrivals to the city, eager for registration with the Corps. This was the madness that was New Hero Assignment day.

In truth, every morning was like this. Some were worse than others, especially Mondays, but every new day began with droves of eager potential heroes trying to make their mark in Paragon City. Tragically, with the rate of influx, they were giving licenses to anyone with a gimmick, no matter their training or experience. As if the chaos here wasn’t enough of a testament to the Superhero Act’s shortcomings, the city’s many overcrowded medical centers –and morgues– illustrated the point a little too clearly.

On many days, these musings would pass through Natalia’s mind. But right now all she cared about was that the alleged liaison of the M.A.G.I. division was avoiding her.

“Yes, he’s in a meeting,” the woman behind the desk replied. “If you would like to wait downst-“

Effigy’s eyes narrowed and flared from orange to white. “You tell that blonde, granola loving hippie that he will see me now or I will burn that ridiculous ponytail of his off.”

The clerk facing her bit back and exasperated sigh. “Miss Strechenko, he has read your report. He left instructions for you to wait in-” She cut off her own words when Effigy suddenly pivoted and stormed off.

Seeing that Effigy was not heading toward the waiting room, she started to call out, but was interrupted yet again by a massive hand slapping down a piece of paper on Freedom Corps letterhead. A man with shoulders as wide as she was tall leaned over the desk with an angry sneer. “Waddya mean my code name is already in use!?”

Effigy marched upstairs, drawing curious stares from the wide corridor of gathered heroes impatient for their first mission. The clicking of her heels ended abrubtly as she crossed the threshold onto the carpeted floor of Freedom Corps’ administrative offices, navigating the halls with single-minded determination, toward the department of the Modern Arcane Guild of Investigation.

Her surroundings shifted from sterile white with stacks of data and windows looking into laboratories, to cabinets cluttered with bizarre devices, then at last to beige walls adorned with paintings, open scrolls, and bookshelves filled with musty tomes and esoteric sculptures.

At the far end of the hall, a woman walked out of a conference room. Effigy swerved toward it as she caught sight of a blonde ponytail inside just as the doors began to swing closed.

“Gregor! I bring you news of an apocalypse and you expect me to WAIT in the lobby?”

She stood there in the conference room, hands on her hips, clearly satisfied with her entrance. Eight pairs of eyes turned in unison and just stared at her in awkward silence. Six of the sets belonged to members of Freedom Corps staff. The remaining four eyes, blinking in sequence, belonged to a very bewildered and noticeably skittish gray-scaled humanoid.

Gregor Rickardson stood up, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he fumbled for an appropriate greeting. “Effigy, this is Sa’uhli’kha,” he said at length. “He was just telling us about Ritki incursions in his home dimension. But if the world is going to end — again — I suppose that does require my attention.”

He ushered Effigy from the room and held both door handles, pulling them slowly as he backed out. “Gentlemen, please continue.”

The door clicked closed and Gregor held up a hand before Effigy could get a word out. “I swear to God, if we lose this guy I’m knocking your security level down to Delta 1.”

“How can you–?”

“Gamma 3 sounds more like it. They miss you in Boomtown.”

Effigy set her jaw. She took a measured breath and replied flatly, “You read my report. I transmitted it from the hospital, you know.”

“Yes. And we returned the girl safely to her parents. You did what you had to. But the bottom line is you broke cover.”

“You just agreed I d-“

“You broke cover.” Gregor looked around, realizing he raised his voice more than was probably needed. He took Effigy by the arm and walked down the hall.

“Look, don’t make me be this guy. I hate playing Director. You’re not new to this, Nat.” She winced almost imperceptibly at the chiding. “You’ve been around long enough. You know how many big bads are dropped on us every day. Don’t start acting like you’ve forgotten the big picture here.”

“Gregor,” Effigy said with renewed conviction. “This was not just a creature of darkness. It was darkness itself. Whatever the Circle of Thorns found, whatever power that book holds…” She drifted off, lost on how to explain the vision she had beyond what she already reported. “It must be stopped.”

“Then stop it.”

Effigy blinked, trying to process the answer. “How can you expect me-“

Gregor just held up a hand again. “This is exactly why we need capable agents out there.” He sighed, and quickly looked at a wide window that stretched the length of the hallway, overlooking the main rotunda.

“Come here,” he said, walking toward the window. Effigy complied with some annoyance. The clamor from outside grew as they approached the glass.

Gregor gestured to the crowd below them. “Even with this much manpower, we still don’t have enough resources to devote to every crisis that hits. There’s an apocalypse every week. And no, that’s not hyperbole.”

He paused and made eye contact. “Look, we don’t give Epsilon clearance to just anybody. We’re strong believers in fate in this office, Nat. This one fell into your lap for a reason. Deal with it.”

***

[b]KINGS ROW – LATER THAT NIGHT

Laughter echoed off the dingy walls of a High Park warehouse. Papa Pain grinned from ear to ear as he recounted the recent beating he dished out on a superhero the night before. The gathered Skulls gave no hint if they thought he was embellishing anything too much. The more the story picked up momentum, the more he started to believe it himself, until a metal sphere descended from the rafters and landed in his lap.

Everyone scattered as the big Jamaican grumbled, “Son of a…” A blinding explosion cut him off mid-expletive, scattering bodies even further into the cavernous building.

Just as the ringing started to fade, the sound of fists connecting with bone and a body hitting the floor could be heard from the shadows. Papa Pain managed to stand up. “For such a big, tough hero you sure like taking cheap shots below the belt, mon.”

Another Skull dropped loudly on the north side of the room. Not two seconds later, Papa turned toward the sound of another dull thump behind another crate to his left. “When you’re done playin’ with the children, Nightstrike, I’ll be right here waitin’ for ya.”

As if taking the cue, a black form leapt from the shadows, pouncing on a Skull who was trying to get to his feet. Nightstrike stepped over the crumpled body, cracking his knuckles.

Suddenly a blast of pitch black screamed from above, splashing the masked hero square in the chest. When Nightstrike was aware of his surroundings again, he found himself sprawled across the floor, hearing Papa Pain’s voice vaguely behind him. “I told you he’d show up sooner or later. Guess he chose sooner.”

Nightstrike forced himself to focus, momentarily trying to remember the name of that guy with the Omnirifle that saved his butt last time. His own parting words, “Thanks but I can handle this guy on my own,” bounced around his head a few times as he finally got a clear grasp of his current situation.

Standing 10 yards away was Papa Pain and another Skull, the one who obviously shot him. He instantly recognized the trademark powers of a Bonedaddy, a feared bunch within the gang’s hierarchy. Enjoying a rep as the baddest of the bad, they had access to a specially engineered supply of the metapower-inducing drug Superadine. Run-ins with them accounted for more rookies dropping out of the superhero scene in Paragon than any other group.

But what concerned him more were the gun barrels pointing at him from every direction and angle he could see. Problem is they weren’t pawn shop issue gats held by rag-tag gangbangers from the streets, but highly expensive assault rifles aimed expertly by men in finely tailored black suits.

It seemed the connection between the Skulls and Tony Carlucci’s family was confirmed.

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