Despite the presence of 3 light sources, the team could barely see 5 feet in front of them. It was as if a dim bubble was moving through the hallway, cushioning the heroes from the crushing darkness around them.
“Did I mention this was completely loco?” Emerald Ghost had never looked so tense. The pace they were forced to walk was clearly getting to him as much as their foreboding surroundings.
“Four times now.” Rampart’s tone and bearing didn’t suggest annoyance, though. He was too focused, as were they all. There was no sound save the occasional waft of stale air.
“He’s right,” Nightstrike spoke up after another two steps. “If there’s anything in here, we won’t stand a chance against it like this.” He stopped and turned around, trying to make out the front foyer, which he knew was no more than 30 feet behind.
“But if this Twilight man is a prisoner here…” Adamantia stopped with the group, but seemed torn.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s the case,” Effigy replied, thinking how their surroundings seemed a fitting home for the man they were supposedly looking for. “But I don’t want to think we went to all this effort to give up so easily.”
From the point position, Max grunted. Whether it was a laugh or a reply of resentment no one could tell.
“We haven’t,” Nightstrike replied. He looked up, off into the darkness. Another breeze from nowhere ruffled his hood.
“Dr. Worth!” he called out. The only reply was a hollow echo. “I know you can hear me!”
Suddenly the breeze swelled to a gale wind and a figure of a man formed out of the darkness. Max trained his rifle on the figure in an instant, shining his mag light on him. Even in the glow, he was all but invisible against the background, garbed completely in black save for stark white, impossibly large eyes that narrowed slightly in greeting.
With a sneer rippling his black leather mask, he raised his hands and his eyes began to glow with green energy.
“Hold your fire!” a voice boomed from all around them. “Don’t take another step. They won’t harm you unless you cross that threshold.”
It took a second to register, but they each could see more figures shuffling around in the large room beyond. Several groans and hoarse sighs could now be heard, and then a hulking zombie moved into the edge of Effigy’s feint torchlight as if out of a nightmare.
“Donations of the late Dr. Vazhilok,” the disembodied voice went on. “Easily re-programmed, but impossible to control completely. The Eidelons especially have to be kept on a very short leash. Be mindful.”
Max’s rifle remained leveled at the leather-clad monster still standing at the threshold of the corridor. A glint from his mag light caught the edge of a bulky metal contraption strapped to the back of a shambling corpse behind it.
“Are they here to keep you in,” Effigy snapped. “Or to keep us out?”
Adamantia nearly jumped out of her skin, as the reply came not from thin air, but right in front of them. “Perhaps both,” the voice said with an odd mix of annoyance and curiosity.
A new figure melted into the edge of the light. He was a gaunt man with black hair and pale, almost ashen skin. His eyes were swirling pools of pitch black that seemed to absorb what little light surrounded his features. He wore a finely tailored black suit and tie with gray a shirt.
Stepping further into the light, he looked right at Effigy with a stare that seemed to bore right into her mind. She gasped, but not in fear. In disturbing contrast to his eerie presence, she couldn’t help but notice that he was remarkably handsome.
“Is this Yelena Strechenko’s little girl? My word.”
Effigy darted a glance around her nervously, then back at the unsettling man standing casually before the group.
“You are the very image of your mother,” he added in sincere fascination. The orange hue around Effigy’s features flickered subtly, causing him to tilt his head in response.
“But you definitely have your father’s eyes,” he added, inviting a scowl in reply.
“Dr. Twilight, we came for your help,” Nightstrike broke in at length. “The world needs you again.”
“The world has been doing just fine without me,” he said calmly but firmly, slowly taking his attention away from Effigy.
“You call what’s happening out there fine?” Emerald Ghost snapped. “Do you even look out those windows?”
“You survived, didn’t you?” Twilight said flatly. “Believe me you fared far better than if I had been part of it.”
“You were one of our greatest heroes, Doctor.” Nightstrike caught himself, as if gathering his strength. “I grew up reading about you. You’re a legend. What you and Statesman accomplished-“
“Was fleeting!” the Doctor interrupted with a severity that demanded silence. “I have been existing on borrowed time from the moment I walked out of that…” His voice trailed off as his eyes scanned over the group.
He zeroed his gazed back on Nightstrike. “Look around you…hero. Does this look like the work of a force for good? It takes every ounce of will just to keep this darkness from escaping beyond these walls. If I expose that power to the Ritki and the enemies they have awakened, you would face a threat far more deadly than whatever you claim to need me of all people to fight.”
Nightstrike tensed, looking straight back into the empty black whirlpools where his eyes should be.
Ethereal streams of shadow flared and the whirlpools narrowed to little more than slits.
“You may have sat out the invasion believing that line but I never bought it. Not for one second. And believe me, if we didn’t need you for this I wouldn’t have come knocking on the door of such a coward! But you’ve had too long to regroup and refocus yourself. There is no way in hell the man who faced down the army of Tseng Lao would just give up like you want us to think you did.”
Dr. Twilight looked at Nightstrike as if for the first time, letting the words soak in more for the benefit of his audience than himself. “I see,” he finally concluded.
In the next several heartbeats he took full measure of the group. Effigy continued to scowl at him. Emerald Ghost stood as resolute as his former mentor. Adamantia regarded him with noticeable uneasiness. Rampart was the face of neutrality. Max had never lowered his weapon nor taken his eyes off the Eidelon.
Quietly, as if excusing himself politely from any casual conversation, Twilight nodded and turned away. “Your faith would be far better placed in someone who cared, boy. Best of luck to you all.” As if to punctuate the finality of the debate, the shadows seemed to lift from the hallway back to the lobby, allowing the light of the open front door to be seen.