Following Adamantia had been more challenging than he thought. Her course had taken them through several twists and roundabout turns through Independence Port and Steel Canyon. At two points, in fact, he almost lost her. Though by the way she casually touched down and walked into one of downtown’s many high-rise apartment complexes from the roof access door, he was confident she did not know that she was being followed. He wondered silently if she had ever suspected or was just being cautious.

Shortly under an hour later, from another rooftop, he watched Adamantia walk back out into the open air.

The wind whipped her long purple hair into a frenzy the instant the roof access door slid open. She reached up a hand to wipe her eyes, but even from this distance it was obvious it wasn’t the wind that had started the tears. She stood there for several moments in silence, composing herself. With a final deep breath, she pulled up her mask and fastened it behind her neck.

He looked on as she leapt into the air and took flight. With a smirk he said, “John, you’re making this too easy.”

***

Boomtown

“I hate coming here.”

Nighttime in Paragon City was often a little eerie, especially near the war walls. But with the way the force fields shifted color against the environment, most neighborhoods managed to maintain a sense of normal life. It actually didn’t take long for visitors to get used to their presence.

In the district once known as Baumton, however, the towering concrete and shimmering translucent wall created an ominous backdrop. It was the part of the city hit hardest by the invasion. The term “war zone” was too understated. The entire infrastructure was pockmarked by massive craters. Fifty story towers stretched at 45-degree angles atop one another. Some buildings stood relatively unscathed. Others were shattered and crumbling. Others still were reduced to little more than their foundations. It stood — barely — as a monument of sorts.

It meant different things to different people. To some it showed us how fragile our so-called accomplishments were. To others the contrast with the reconstructed metropolis on the other side of the walls symbolized humanity’s resilience. At night, lit only by sporadic trashcan fires, it represented how much Paragon City had lost.

“Neither do I, Rampart,” Nightstrike agreed.

“Not that I want to miss the point or anything,” Max Payment said. “But I’ve seen worse.”

An awkward silence settled after the comment until finally Max added, “My first tour was in Moscow.” The other two men had only seen pictures of the wasteland dubbed Red Crater. It was a sobering reminder that Paragon wasn’t the only city that suffered.

Rampart’s gaze swept across the landscape, studying the readouts fed by his visor. “So where do we start?” He noted half a dozen gatherings, both out in the open and under the partial shelter of some hollowed out structure.

“There,” Nightstrike replied flatly, pointing to a group of Outcasts 2 blocks away. They seemed to be having a rowdy party on the wide rectangular foundation of a building with one corner wall.

“Why there,” Max had to ask.

“That’s 8732 Dixon Street,” Strike said, indicating a flagpole and the cracked base of a statue. “I went to high school there.”

With that Nightstrike leapt off his perch toward the lot. Rampart took flight, forming a blue platform at Max’s feet as he ascended. The Marine jumped on it, flipping rifle settings and spitting out his spent cigar.

Strike landed in a crouch behind a ledge across the street. “Max, soften them up. Rampart, you’re in the batter’s box.” He looked up as a shimmering aura surrounded him. He then quickly tapped the ear mic under his hood, confirming that the transceiver channel was keeping the three men connected with a returned nod from the armored hero.

Max knelt on Rampart’s energy disc a block away, carefully lining up a shot through a sniper’s window cut out of the force field barricade.

The echo of hundreds of startled crows quickly muffled the crack of the rifle. The Outcasts practically jumped out of their skins when one of them cried out and fell to the ground, clutching a shoulder wound. They all grabbed weapons and whirled around, looking for the source of the attack.

Right on cue, Rampart levitated in front of the building, a personal force field sphere glowing like a beacon. A hundred rounds fired off, veering away from the gravimetric force bubble. Suddenly a ball of fire and a searing stream of lightning joined the assault, arcing around the shield in a brilliant light show.

Another muffled sound mixed with the hail of gunfire, followed two seconds later by the blast of a concussion grenade in the middle of the lot. Bodies flew in every direction save for one, an Outcast with Earth powers that kept him firmly rooted.

One of the powered members flew above his scattered gang. “No one cheap shots the Outcasts! Waste ’em!”

A voice came out of nowhere, “So you must be the leader, huh?” The Outcast whipped around just in time to meet a headlong tackle. He hit concrete before his next breath, losing what little air was left in his lungs from the impact. By the time his vision cleared, he gawked at the sight of every last one of his men floating helplessly above the ground. Again the only exception was the Earth-powered meta, who was stumbling around like a blind drunk around a chain-link bag on the ground. Suddenly the leader found himself choking as a black boot pinned him to the wall by his throat.

“We’re looking for a book,” Nightstrike demanded without pretense. “Who’s handling your artifact auctions these days?” The Outcast started to hack in short spasms as his eyes bugged. “You trying to answer or is that just reflex gagging? It’s so hard to tell.”

Before the gangbanger could turn the next shade of blue, Nightstrike lightened the weight off his neck. He took a sharp breath and spat out another cough.

“Get a %*@&!#’ library card.”

The thud of a sharp kick to the Outcast’s skull ended the exchange. Nightstrike turned around to regard the rest of the gang with an unnerving casualness.

“It’s called the Book of <name>. Demonic guide to the planes so I’m told. Bound in human skin. Ring any bells?”

Somehow one of the gang squirmed out of the gravity field, scrambling down a mountain of rubble for freedom. Automatic gunfire echoed off the walls once more as the kid jerked forward and skidded to a halt on the cracked asphalt below.

Rampart scanned the boy’s wounds with his visor, keeping his game face on. Luckily from the stunned looks all around, the difference between firing lethal versus ESI rounds was too subtle to notice without a combat computer.

With all eyes on him now, Max lit the torch under his rifle and flipped a switch, causing a nozzle to form over the barrel. The visual effect prompted exactly the response he was hoping for.

“It’s not exactly a big seller on Amazon,” Nightstrike continued without missing a beat. “And the Circle of Thorns either bought it off the black market — your black market — or stole it. Either way someone in the Outcasts knows about it.”

One of them let out a grunt, all he could manage against the weight of Rampart’s gravity field.

Nightstrike looked at him curiously. “You’ve got something to say?”

***

Atlas Park

Among the many elements that made life in Paragon City so unique was City Hall. During the day it sat in the shadow of the mammoth statue of Atlas. At night the grounds were the most brightly lit area in the city, both due to the spotlights on that same statue and to the fact that it boasted a full staff 24/7. At any given hour day or night, Atlas Plaza was open to serve the needs of the overpopulated metropolis, not the least of which included managing the veritable army of superhuman protectors.

Adamantia looked around the bustling lobby with more than a hint of uneasiness. At last she spotted Effigy walking, in sharp contrast, with the ease of someone clearly used to her surroundings.

“Hello,” Effigy said as she approached. “Did you get everything squared away?” The taller woman nodded and smiled. The hesitancy in the reply was almost unnoticeable.

“Are you okay?”

Adamantia’s expression turned a little softer. She regarded the redhead with innocent curiosity. “Of course. Why? I just don’t come here that often. Wasn’t sure where I should wait.”

“Ah,” Effigy agreed, letting the subject rest with that. She looked around curtly. “Where’s Ghost?”

“I don’t know.” Adamantia answered with a shrug. “I didn’t see him or any telltale green blurs outside.”

“How is it that the one with super speed is late?”

“What are you talking about? I’m right here,” a voice came from next to them, though it was cut off by Adamantia’s startled gasp.

Effigy’s eyes flashed as she forced herself not to react in kind. “So we have a lead,” she said as if nothing had happened. “Police reports indicate a Hellion who goes by the name Cinder harassing children the other night at Johns and 3rd, a few blocks from Atlas Elementary.”

“That’s a straight shot down 3rd to the Argosy yards.” Adamantia interjected.

“Which M.A.G.I. also reports at least five separate encounters with Cinder,” Effigy added.

“Everyone knows that’s a Hellion nest, though,” Adamantia countered. “Isn’t that where we would have started anyway?”

“There’s more,” Effigy explained. “The pattern of engagements indicates a loading dock on the Perez gate side of the complex as a possible hideout.”

Throughout the exchange, Emerald Ghost simply shifted his gaze between the two women. With each turn he took a second to look down with an impish grin on his face. Finally he paused, put his hands together and mouthed a soft thank you prayer.

“We better get going,” he cut in as attention shifted toward him.

“You realize,” Effigy said calmly. “Nightstrike only formed the teams this way because of Max.”

“Yeah,” he admitted flatly. “You see me complaining?”

“If you can’t stay focused,” she said, her eyes now several shades cooler to match her tone. “I’ll go alone.”

“Oh cut me some slack, mamasita. I’m surrounded by such caliente… beautiful women every day.” Emerald Ghost replied with a smirk. “How can I not enjoy my job a little?”

Adamantia broke into the silence this time. “We’ve worked together before, Effigy.”

The redhead took a moment to reflect. “I trust Nightstrike’s judgment.”

Emerald Ghost sighed. “Whatever. Let’s go.”

***

Independence Port

Dr. Twilight sat, staring intently into the darkness of his throne room. Suspended in the air before him was a hologram shimmering like a film negative projected with a black light in an inverted white and purple haze. He looked away from the image of the three heroes leaving Atlas Plaza, contemplating the computer in the far room once more.

Once upon a time, a man named Gabriel Worth was a healer. He lived to help those in need. The being known as Dr. Twilight had not thought about him in a long time.

Until today.

The slender, pale man rose from his throne, crossing the room into the antechamber. He glanced at the computer monitor that was the only source of light in the building, noting the display that indicated progress at 98%.

With almost ritualistic movements, he retrieved a black trench coat from a hanger and slowly but deliberately put it on. Straightening his tie, then the coat, he reached up to a shelf, pulling down a matching black, wide-brimmed fedora. He timed putting that on as well with the completion of the progress meter, as if waiting for the computer’s permission.

He reached down and flipped the power switch, plunging the room back into darkness. Instantly the undead denizens of the building turned in unison, somehow triggered by the event. The corpses that lined the far wall of the throne room animated with a jerk, stepping toward the small office in unison.

With a gesture, the air began to grow brighter, more accurately the darkness filtered away as if being drawn into Dr. Twilight’s hand. One by one the zombies crumpled to the floor as the wave of blackness receded over them like tangible threads of mist.

The doctor turned and headed for the door. With each step, the walls became visible as light flooded into his wake. The shambling footfalls and thuds of bodies dropping to the floor echoed throughout the building. He paused a moment to reflect on the Eidelons, the two beings he had dubbed the butler and the maid.

As more shadows ebbed away they screamed and charged, then suddenly fell over in a heap.

Soon Dr. Twilight reached the front doors and pushed them open, walking out into the moonlight of the city.

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