No one spoke for several long minutes. They stood in the street, watching the last rays of the setting sun filter as dusk settled over the city. Suddenly the doors of the building swung back onto their hinges and slammed shut.

“So what now?” Adamantia finally asked.

“We find out what the Circle of Thorns next move is and beat them to it.”

“Wait,” Ghost said quickly, regarding Nightstrike with some hesitancy. “I thought you said we needed him.”

“Well we adapt then. We’ll figure out another way when and if we have to.” Nightstrike gave the darkened building a sidelong glance. “But right now we just need answers. I didn’t think he’d be such a waste of time. I’m sorry. But sitting around dwelling on it won’t get us anywhere either.”

“Do we even have any leads?” Rampart asked.

Nightstrike indicated Effigy. “The book used in the ritual is called the Book of Y’mathri’h, “she began. I got the impression from the hurried way that it all happened, that the book was not originally in their possession. There’s that, and the girl they were going to sacrifice. Her name was Darlene Owens.”

Adamantia shifted. Suddenly she realized that attention had focused on her and she spoke up. “The Thorns kidnap hostages for their spells on a regular basis. I get calls to grab people out of the Faultline district all the time. She was probably just a random victim.”

“But it gives us a place to start,” Rampart said.

“Exactly,” Nightstrike added. “It’s not the Thorns themselves that do the kidnapping though. Not usually. They keep gangland ties on the other side of Perez Park.”

Emerald Ghost nodded. “Where did the little girl live?”

“Atlas Park.”

“Hellion turf. No shock there.” Ghost looked toward the tunnel, almost ready to take off running on the spot.

Nighstrike put a hand up. “Hold on, speedy. Where were you planning to meet up with us?”

“Uhhm.”

Rampart chuckled softly. Several glances back and forth between the group indicated that no one had a base of operations to speak of. Finally Max chimed in. “I got a few safehouses.”

“We need one with quick access to Perez. Chances are this will all lead back there.”

Max eyed each of the group in turn. Finally he said, “Pick up the payphone at 22nd and Shelton. Dial Star 4-3-5-5.”

Adamantia looked at him hesitantly. Max grumbled and took a pen and piece of paper from his tactical belt.

“What about this book of Yimatria?” Rampart asked, getting back on track.

“Y’mathri’h,” Effigy corrected.

“Gesundheit,” Ghost added on cue.

Nightstrike regarded the group. “We’ll split up. Ghost, Adamantia, and Effigy. You three get to Atlas. See if you can get a lead on who nabbed Darlene Owens and shake a lead out of them.

“Rampart, Max, and I will head to Boomtown. The Hellions aren’t the only gang networked into the magic community.”

“Outcasts,” Rampart finished for him.

“Bingo. They’re bigger into artifacts, too. If this book came anywhere near the black market, they’ll know something about it.” Nightstrike looked around, still clearly trying to get a measure of this new team. “Any questions?”

Adamantia took the piece of paper from Max with a nervous smile, raising her other hand. “Uhm… Can I make a detour first and meet up with them?”

Again, all attention was redirected toward the lavender haired young woman. “I’m sorry. This is all happening so fast. But there’s something I promised to take care of.”

“Adamantia,” Effigy said cautiously. “This isn’t a Freedom Corps temp assignment. I thought you were aware of that.”

“I am,” she replied with maybe a little too much earnest. “I mean… I know. And if I am going to be out of touch for who knows how long, there’s some things I need to do at-” Adamantia sighed. “At home. Okay? Civilian stuff.” With that confession, she was starting to look annoyed.

“Perhaps we could all use a moment to regroup.” Rampart raised his voice enough to draw attention without sounding the least bit gruff. “I suspect being in Dr. Twilight’s condo there may have taken a bit of a toll.”

Nightstrike looked back at the building, and then regarded Adamantia. “You’re right. Take some time to attend to whatever you need. We need to stay focused, and that won’t happen if you’re worrying about something we pulled you away from.”

Adamantia smiled and nodded. Nightstrike added, “Is an hour good?” She nodded again.

“Meet me at City Hall.” Effigy addressed both her and Ghost. “I may be able to get a stronger lead from my friends in MAGI.”

“Alright then.” Max said with a huff as he shouldered his rifle. “Let’s roll.”

***

From a darkened window high above, Dr. Twilight watched the members of Shadowguard break up and head their separate ways. He let out a measured sigh as the last of them disappeared from view, looking around the room behind him.

Six corpses stood along the far wall, their eyes closed as if in peaceful slumber. Centered on the left side of the room was a large leather chair on a pedestal overlooking nothing. His gaze drifted for just a moment into an adjoining room, where the only light source in the entire building emanated from a computer monitor. From there he had indeed “looked out his windows” over the years, despite the sarcastic young man’s accusation.

He quickly averted his eyes, stepping onto the dais and into his chair. And there he sat as a king presiding over his macabre court of unanimated zombies. Again his eyes drifted to the office door in the corner of the room.

Among several searches running on the screen, the largest window was a browser set to a heavily encrypted black market auction site dealing in rare occult items.

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