Hundreds of rounds converged on the center of the warehouse floor, without any of the usual pretense that comes with most supervillain traps. Whatever the Family had cooking with the Skulls, Nightstrike was close, and it wasn’t Carlucci’s style to waste time on posturing.
The walls reverberated from the thunderous hail of gunfire for several long seconds before someone finally stopped. One of the older enforcers stared at the spot where everyone was firing, narrowing his eyes in confusion, then alarm.
“Hold your fire!” he yelled. “Stop shooting!”
When the last burst rang out, some of the others started laughing. “Holy crap, we smoked him.”
“No you idiot! He’s n-“
Everyone turned in unison as the voice cut off with a muffled grunt. Instantly, the room was filled with startled cries and the clacking of reloading ammunition clips. Someone yelled out, almost in a panic, “I see him!”
As if on cue, a metal spike slammed into a power line on the wall, plunging the area into darkness with a crack and a shower of sparks.
An eerie silence had settled by the time their eyes had adjusted to the dark. Finally Papa Pain worked up the courage to break it. “You think we afraid of the dark, hero?”
Suddenly the room lit up with an intense glow floating in the center of the crowd. Papa Pain tried to look up through the glare until finally he could make out a woman in red tights emanating fire from her hands and eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked defiantly.
“Whoever she is she’s dead!” the Bonedaddy answered, charging straight at her. But the second he waded into the fiery aura, his step faltered. Waves of heat washed over him and flames sprouted from the floor around him. He took one lazy swing, but his shadowy fist arced wide left.
Effigy smiled at the stunned gunmen. She turned toward the maze of crates, finding Nightstrike looking back at her incredulously. Taking that as some sort of signal, the yellow aura around Effigy lashed out. Every gun in sight glowed red hot and clattered to the floor with a shriek from its wielder.
Papa Pain growled and ran forward, charging headlong into a cone of fire that sent him reeling backward and crashing through a boarded up window. The warehouse erupted into chaos, half the Family and Skulls running for the doors and windows, the other half just running in a blind frenzy.
Nightstrike marched forward amid the chaos. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Effigy snapped a look of shock at him. “Returning a favor.”
“You have a weird way of showing your gratitude, lady. Not that you owe me anything.” Nightstrike slammed an elbow in the face of a passing Skull. “I had it covered. Now anyone worth questioning is gone.”
Effigy dove upwards, flying out of the path of a column of solid darkness, answering with a stream of fire that engulfed the Bonedaddy. “What about him?”
Nightstrike rolled his eyes at the flailing gang boss, knowing he was screaming more in confused panic than pain. “Tall on power and short on brains. They wouldn’t be trusted with anything this major.”
“Trusted with what?” Effigy asked, hurling a fireball at the feet of another cluster of Skulls trying to salvage their trap.
“That’s just it!” Nightstrike barked, locking the elbow of a sledgehammer wielding goon and flipping him forward onto his back. “I don’t know! And now I won’t thanks to you.”
He grumbled, stalking off toward the now open doors to the street, kicking a fallen thug in the face as an afterthought. He paused for one last look around, then just growled at the fact that not one member of the Family was left and continued outside.
“Wait!” Effigy called out. Nightstrike turned around to face the burning warehouse as the fire warlock touched down on the street.
“I’m sorry,” she said, though the defiance in her eyes didn’t make the apology sound entirely sincere. “I just thought you needed help.”
Nightstrike glared at her, then at the warm glow of the building, then back at the redhead. “What are you doing here anyway?”
Effigy sighed, her eyes softening to a cooler orange. “I came here looking for you. One of my contacts told me about your requisition for new weapons and I asked around.”
Nightstrike eased his defensive posture a bit, his expression shifting to curiosity and confusion. Natalia averted his eyes, suddenly feeling awkward.
“I need your help,” she finally managed to say.
Across town, the four members of Hell Patrol stepped methodically through a dilapidated high rise. Granite, the rock-hewn heavy hitter, held the anchor position in line. Hardline kept a watchful eye on the team’s flanks, sweeping his glowing hands in a wide arc as they moved. Jade Tiger did likewise, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of movement. The point man, a stocky, ex-Marine hoisting a Crey Omnirifle embossed with the name Josie on the barrel, went by the name Max Payment.
With a smirk he stepped over a gray uniform that once belonged to an officer in the 5th Column, a Nazi revivalist group inspired by the chaos of post-invasion Paragon City.
“So I ask this guy,” Max began, maintaining focus on the area ahead, “What the frack were you doin’ takin’ on like ten Circle Jerks by yourself? I swear to God it was closer to twenty.”
Granite chuckled from the back of the room. “Some kinda kung fu dude ya said?”
“The costume sounds like Nightstrike.” Tiger replied. “I’ve heard of him. A capable fighter.”
“Yeah, but not an idiot,” Max continued. His electronic eye zoomed in on movement, but he kept moving when the camera focused on a rat scurrying out of the wall. “Or at least I didn’t think. Turns out he did it for some broad.”
Granite laughed out loud. “Is there ever any other reason?”
Hardline turned to Max. “Okay we’re clear. Building’s secure, Sarge.”
The soldier hefted Josie and rested her on his metal shoulder. “Alright people let’s-“
An explosion silenced the order, blasting out the wall in green flame.
“And that’s when I first saw you.”
Effigy looked at the cup of coffee in her hands absently. She and Nightstrike had decided to take the conversation to a nearby all-night diner. There she relayed the whole story, as much as there was to tell.
Nightstrike sat across from her, sipping a cup of tea as he listened. The black cloth that normally covered his face like a scarf was lowered and the hood pulled back, leaving only the black material around his eyes remaining of his intricate mask. Natailia noted that it was unusual to see someone guard their identity so closely in a city that endorsed superheroes and often even kept them on a payroll. But this was apparently a very private man.
“Our paths crossed at that time and place for a reason. I have reason to believe it was more than just to make good my escape. In that cave I uncovered a threat that could dwarf the Ritki. I cannot hope to stop it alone. But it is not the kind of enemy that can be simply crushed by unleashing the Freedom Corps on it. I need allies who understand the darkness and can stand against it.”
At that, John looked up. He thought back to his years in the monastery. His masters spoke often of the nature of evil, of the power of subtlety over strength, and of his destiny. On the day the news of the invasion reached him, an old monk said that understanding the power of darkness would be his greatest weapon against it.
“Okay,” Nightstrike said. “But remember, you came to me.”