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Avenger Assembled

(IC) Pop Quiz: All You Have Is Your Fire

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January 2, 2018 

 

On the last day of Raina Sanderson's last day of Christmas vacation at Claremont Academy, she got a text from her monkey. Merlin had been increasingly agitated over the last few days, for reasons that he swore had nothing to do with the monkey-sized Christmas sweater that he'd gotten from the floor Christmas present pool. It couldn't have anything to do with the temperature - Cathy was off on a date, or some sort of mystery, with Phaedra, which had left him master of the room while Raina was outside. The text said 


FOUND BIG THING. TROUBLE. With only three emojis, all of them from the "Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil" series, this was an unusually restrained message. NEED TO SHOW YOU. 

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OMW, Raina texted back, not bothering to add any emojis. She'd gotten into emoji battles with Merlin before and knew he cheated. There were certainly a lot more emojis in his vocabulary than were available on her phone, that was for damn sure. But Merlin wouldn't text her to come home for no reason, so she didn't waste time as she headed across campus and back up to her dorm, unwinding her scarf and pulling off her hat as she entered the room. "Okay," she began as soon as she walked in, "I have in my hand an ice cream cone entirely full of fresh mango chunks I stole from the caf. If I give it to you, will you finally stop complaining about the sweater?" 

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Merlin took the mango chunks (after all, the room wasn't on fire) and thanked Raina, wishing that the sweater was the worst problem he had to deal with. 


Sitting in front of his latest computer, a hefty desktop number with a screen large enough to display a life-sized version of Merlin himself, he told her his tale, gesturing occasionally with a piece of mango for emphasis. Ever since the incident with Mr. Archer, he'd been tracing the components of the cybernetic device that had been used to control Claremont's former gym teacher. The work hadn't been easy; along with certain hackers of his acquaintance, he'd been running against firewall after firewall, obstacle after obstacle. And then suddenly, there'd been a break in the case about Christmas. While he hadn't been able to trace the manufacturer of the components, he had been able to trace where more of them were being stored. An warehouse in the Fens had put photographic records of its holdings online as 'an anti-theft precaution' (really a Dark Web advertisement for barter) - and a piratical friend of Merlin had recognized the components from Merlin's description. 

 

Whatever that tech was, right now it was sitting in a warehouse in the worst part of Freedom City - along with other things that Merlin didn't recognize specifically but could tell were super-tech. He demonstrated for Raina by showing her pictures; boxes and boxes worth, of the disassembled components that could be used to make mind-control implants - and a great many other things. 

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"Well, that's effed up," Raina decided, studying the detailed photographs and the accompanying descriptions. "I'm guessing that if your buddy saw them and tipped you off about them, then the cat is sort of out of the bag in terms of supervillain types knowing about all this stuff being up for grabs. You think if we call this in to the Freedom League they'll give me a stamp on my Alert Citizen card?" she asked dryly. "Twelve stamps and I get the benefit of the doubt again." She pulled out her phone and began scrolling through her contacts. "Nice find, though." 

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Merlin jumped to his feet and actually shrieked aloud. The warehouse wasn't the worst of it! He'd done his civic duty too and hacked into the warehouse's security system, the better to scout it out for whoever's purposes. 

 

He pressed a few buttons on his screen and an image popped up - an image that truthfully looked very much like the interior of most warehouses to Raina. This was a much busier place than most of the warehouses Riley and Robin had described in the Fens, though - there were workers moving back and forth and heavy equipment, and people obviously in the process of moving things. The camera "paged" around for a while, obviously paging between cameras, until it found what looked like the manager's warehouse. 

 

There a man dressed all in black was sitting behind the desk - obviously a supervillain in his dark outfit that looked like combat body armor, mask that covered all of his face in a black sheen despite one white patch over one eye, and guns and knives at his belt. Well, there was another reason he was obviously a supervillain. 

 

Eric and Rochelle Sanderson, both clad in prison orange, were sitting across the table, chatting with him amiably. There was no sound, but Raina could see the ritual implements on the desk, looking recently gathered. 

 

His manner apologetic, Merlin indicated that this feed had been taken just that morning - he'd been spending the day running checks to make sure that everyone in the clip was who was they appeared to be. 

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Raina was silent for a minute, staring at the last frozen frame. "Merlin," she finally said, her voice sounding a little raw even to her own ears, "do you remember that conversation we had about burying the lede?" 

 

Merlin seemed vaguely abashed, even as he insisted that it had been important to lay the groundwork ahead of time so she'd know what they were dealing with. "All right," she finally cut him off. "I know what we're dealing with, or at least what we know about what we're dealing with. Did you get any audio on these videos?" Merlin shook his head, it was just standard security footage.

 

"Do we know if it's real?" A shrug, it checked out on every test he knew how to run, which was quite a few. Nobody was shooping the image and the faceprints matched, but both of them knew how easily that could be managed by magic. There was really no way to tell remotely. But the more Raina watched the replayed footage, the more little tics she could find. The way Mom tilted her head when she was trying to make a point, the way Dad bopped his shoe up and down whenever he crossed his legs. If it wasn't them, it was someone who knew them or had spent many hours watching them. 

 

She got up from the chair and turned her back on the computer, walking slowly over to her bed. Nobody had said anything about her parents escaping from Blackstone, but would anybody tell her if they had? At this point it was pretty much accepted, at least by the powers that be, that Raina had been an unwitting pawn in her parents' schemes. That was enough to keep her out of magic juvie, but it didn't make anybody trust her. Maybe they'd escaped and nobody wanted her to know for fear she'd try and go to them. But if they had escaped, what were they doing in a warehouse in the Fens? Why were they still wearing jumpsuits and why were they in negotiations with somebody holding a bunch of mind controller parts?

 

Raina sat down on the bed and rubbed her eyes with both hands. If her parents had escaped, why hadn't they come to get her? 

 

Merlin chirruped softly, sensing her distress. They didn't have to do anything, he suggested. He could forward the information to the League anonymously, leave the security footage out of it. It would be enough to get the wheels turning, let someone else handle it...

 

"No," Raina interrupted. "That's... the League would go in shooting again. I can't let that happen to them, not again." She took a deep breath, rested her hands on her thighs and dug her fingers in just enough to sting. "I'm gonna need an address." 

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Merlin gave Raina her address. After two years at Claremont, Raina knew Freedom City well enough to know that it was deep in the heart of the Fens, surrounded by the sort of anonymous poverty that acted as an excellent means of insulation. Outside of people like Nighthawk and Woodsman (the former because she was from there, the latter because he followed Robin around), hardly any heroes spent much time there. While Raina was processing that, Merlin had taken the opportunity to pack one of his little backpacks, fastening it on his shoulders and climbing up onto hers. When she looked at him, he gave her a look as if to ask what else he was supposed to do when all this was happening?

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"Fine, Raina sighed, opening her backpack for him to jump inside, "just don't put a backpack inside your backpack or we're going to start doing some Inception-level backpack thing." Merlin assured her that was very funny, which cheered her up a little bit as she packed a few supplies of her own. Not much, what did one pack to go confront one's possibly-escaped-inmate parents? "We're probably going to need some kind of backup on this," she mused aloud for Merlin's benefit. "Somebody who's not going to make a big deal about things or tell on us. I'd call in that favor from Matt but he's got the thing with Fred tonight." Merlin agreed that it would be stupid to disrupt that unless absolutely necessary, after all the work they'd done trying to get it arranged in the first place. 

 

"Can't take Cathy, she can't be stealthy if her life depends on it, and who knows what Phae would do in that situation. I guess maybe we can ask Riley and Robin," she decided, somewhat reluctantly. Merlin reminded her that the aim was to not get anybody indiscriminately shot, which might well rule out the archer. "Yeah, I know, but we can keep a lid on him. And he only fires one good arrow at a time, so it's better odds anyway." 

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Riley and Robin were in the common room, playing on the used X-Box 360 that had been a Christmas present from Peyton. Neither of them had grown up playing video games - but it put them together on the couch doing something fun, and what wasn't to like about that? 

 

"All right," Riley was saying, "I have got a nice house!" They spent most of their time in creative mode, the version Riley preferred. Killing monsters wasn't really something he liked to do for fun. "Look at that," he said, pointing as his Minecraft Steve did a little dance. "All diamond windows! This place is gonna be off the hook. You sure you don't wanna come hang with me, baby?" He asked Robin with a grin, watching her character at work. "I've got all the mutton a lady can eat." 

 

He was sitting next to Robin on the couch in the mostly empty common room, enjoying her presence, her warmth, and the great way the shampoo he'd bought her made her hair smell. Life was good.

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Raina was already dressed to travel when she walked in, which for Raina in January meant a stylish red winter coat, a white knit hat with matching scarf and gloves, and sturdy boots. She was also wearing her backpack, which rustled a bit as she walked. "Hey!" she said with fake cheer as she walked in. "You guys look like you must be super bored. Get on your gear and let's go do some hero work before school starts up again. It'll be exciting!" 

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Robin was about as relaxed as she ever was, which was to say that her shoes were off and she had her muscular legs curled up under her body, with one shoulder tucked against Riley's side. A small smile curved her lips at the offer, and she gave a little shake of her head as her little figure continued to plug away at getting a proper portcullis to work with red stone and switches. Robin had just opened her mouth to reply when Raina burst in to the room in more than a whirlwind than usual. Absentmindedly, Robin paused the game to give their friend her full attention. 

 

"I'm in my gear," Robin pointed out before glancing down towards her shoes. "Well, mostly. What's going on?"

 

Despite her question, Robin was already moving to slip her shoes back on, knotting the worn laces with a practiced motion before she tipped her head towards Riley in mute question. 

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"Sure," said Riley with a nod, shooting Raina a curious look. He could usually tell when she was hiding something, even if most of the time he had no idea why that thing was important. "Just lemme get my gear." He knew Raina would rather tell Robin, anyway, so he headed off towards his room at the slow, leisurely pace of a young man who certainly wasn't going off to do something against school rules. A few minutes later, his poncho under one arm and his bow and gear under that, he was heading back out into the hallway to look for the two women - he had a feeling they wouldn't have long stuck around the common room with whatever was going on. 

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Raina gave Robin a skeptical look. "Okay, but you're probably going to freeze. It's cold out there!" It was common knowledge that Raina was from the Midwest originally, but her tolerance for cold was more like someone who'd grown up in the tropics. "Merlin got a line on some bad guys doing bad stuff. You remember that mind-control thing that was in Mr. Archer last year? Somebody's selling the components wholesale down in the Fens. Somebody's gotta lock that down, and we need to figure out who's behind it, and where the parts are coming from. You know the Fens better than anybody else around here, right?" 

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"I'll grab something outta the lost and found on our way out." Robin explained as she finished with her shoes and followed Raina to do just that. Once she'd scavenged a hat and coat to toss on over the flannel that looked like it was probably once Riley's, Robin tucked her own scarf around, far more tatty than anything Raina would ever consider wearing, certainly. She was silent while Raina talk.

 

"Sure, I remember that stuff. Bad news." Robin agreed, her grey eyes thoughtful as she looked at Raina. Half of her attention was already on the possible locations for that kind of items moving, but her brow creased, "So, you want to do some recon then? Anything in particular that you heard that might help us narrow things down? Any group they're working with? Anything? Or are we just going to canvas."

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Upon his return, Woodsman slung his crossbow over his shoulder and kept his own counsel. He was reasonably confident Raina wouldn't be leading them into something stupid - and he knew enough of his friend's personal life that there was no reason to pry. If Raina was going to say anything, she'd be more likely to say it to Robin anyway. So he kept up the rear as they headed off-campus, a position that not incidentally let him keep an eye out for anyone who might be following them. Of course, leaving campus did open them up to another potential problem. "We on the Hogwarts Express tonight?" he asked. Flying to the Fens was certainly faster than taking his motorcycle - and it would let him keep up with Nighthawk on the rooftops. 

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Raina suddenly lost just a little bit of her confidence at Robin's question. "Not sure, " she said after a bare moment's pause. "There's a possibility they're working with some escaped criminals from Blackstone, but I haven't heard anything about an escape and I try and pay attention. We're going to have to be sneaky when we get there and see what we see. No fighting, no indiscriminate shooting," she reminded Riley. "We have to figure out what's happening before we can stop it. And yeah, we can take my broom." Her collapsible broom was tethered to her backpack, so it didn't take long to unstow it and extend it for flight. "Oh, and there might be magic stuff going on too, so if somebody starts chanting, try and stop them," she advised before climbing onto her broom.

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"Hey, its okay to not have a plan. What are friends for?" Robin asked as she leaned in a bit. One hand briefly came up to touch Raina's shoulder fleetingly before she lifted her backpack up onto her shoulder. As expected, Robin didn't seem upset or nervous about the idea of Blackstone escapees. If anything, it would only make the Fens native more determined as she was well aware that it would be locals who suffered first under any newcomers to the pecking order. She nodded at Riley about joining Raina on the broom and grinned a bit, "Good, it always makes nervous trying to hide the bike in the streets. Just asking to get stolen if we had to leave it. Why don't you lead, Raina, and I'll be right behind you."

 

Once they were outside, Robin pulled the tape out of one pocket and wrapped up her wrists for a bit of protection for the free running to the Fens. The movement would help keep away the cold but her fingertips would get quickly sore without any kind of protection from the chill of any lingering ice.

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Raina could immediately tell something was wrong the moment they arrived at the warehouse in the Fens. The _feel_ of magic around the faded old brick building had the stink of wrongness about it, a bit like there'd been a chemical leak there in the Astral Plane - and a toxic chemical at that. She was a little surprised no other mystic heroes had picked up on it - but on the other hand, this was far from where most of them operated, and whatever had created the magical contamination seemed to be fading now. 

 

To Robin and Riley's eyes, though, this looked like any other old business in  the Fens - albeit a lively one. The lights were on inside the warehouse and they could see people inside moving against the frosted planes, and the sound of machinery and noise. The garage doors were all sealed up tight against the cold, and there were no obvious entrances to the building. Stepping off Raina's broom as they arrived, Woodsman studied the building. "Go in the roof?" he suggested as Robin joined them in the alley that provided convenient shelter from anyone looking out from inside the warehouse -  they couldn't see anyone who was, but they all had experience with nearly-invisible security tech. "Place this old prolly has roof access - 'n crap security up there." Between his and Robin's ability to sneak and Raina's talent for magical invisibility, he was reasonably confident of their ability to make it in there without any troible. 

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"Yeah," Raina agreed, "just be careful. There's magic all over the place here, weird messed-up magic. I don't really know what to make of it," she admitted with some reluctance.  "Be especially careful about anything you see in there, or anybody. Could be illusions, could be, like, projections or hallucinations even. Magic's good at making you see what's not there. So no indiscriminate shooting of anything." With her compact already in her hand, she craned her neck around. "Hey Merlin, you're already into the camera system and security, right? Can you give us a hole so we can get in without setting anything off?" 

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"I'd watch the magic you use then. I mean, you're the expert, but people who use stuff tend to also have warnings for it too," Robin cautioned, nodding her agreement to Riley at the roof. Cupping her hands, she offered the nimble archer a boost towards the roof-line. "You wanna risk the broom or want a lift?" 

 

She offered it easily, as scrambling up to the roof access with or without Raina and Merlin's weight wasn't all that different. Robin was certainly confident that she's not let any of them fall. "Don't worry, Raina, we got this."

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The trio made their way into the warehouse through the roof access, moving slowly and carefully to avoid detection. Much of the interior of the building had been gutted and refurbished over the years, meaning that roof access put them on catwalks rather than on an actual second floor. Looking down below, the group saw a great number of crates stacked against the walls of the warehouse, making corridors and alleys all their own, a few left open to reveal their high-tech contents - but their attention was on the center of the warehouse floor.

 

There an arcane ritual was taking place, an arcane ritual guarded by two dozen men wrapped in heavy combat armor and armed with impressive-looking super-guns, their evident leader the same big, muscular man in all black that Raina's parents had been speaking to on the video she'd seen. Raina's parents were easy to pick out too, at least for said worthy, - they were the ones standing in the middle of the skull sketched out on the ground, scattering ashes in a pattern that marked out the lines of the skull above. For his part, Merlin took this opportunity to carry out his own arcane rituals, trying to make a connection to the warehouse's computers from the inside that he hadn't been able to make from the outside. 

 

This was obviously the peak of the ritual, or close to it - because all of a sudden reality itself tore open! 

 

The portal was red and black, shot through with bright white lightning that looked decidedly ominous for the three graduates of Mrs. Faretti's extension classes on dimensional travel. Phantom's portals were like doorways opened in the walls of the universe - this was like an angry, puckering wound torn in reality itself. As the Sandersons' chanting grew louder, the lightning wrapped around the portal's edge flashed again and again - before the portal discharged its passenger, who landed with a slight stagger but didn't fall. 

 

The dimensional traveler was a short, wiry woman with a short crop of kinky black hair interspersed with grey. She was fit, and armed, with a heavy-caliber pistol strapped to her right side, wearing clothes that matched dark green and grey in a familiar pattern. She looked more like a soldier than a superhero - albeit a wounded one. The empty sleeve of her left arm was pinned up at her side. Even at a distance, her face was recognizable enough. 

 

She stared around the warehouse, obviously at a loss for a moment, even briefly glancing up at the ceiling and back at the portal. "Welcome to Earth-3," came the distance-filtered voice of the man down below. "I'm sorry we couldn't greet you in your own dimension." He was taller than her, and two-armed - but she didn't seem frightened of him at all. When she spoke, her voice was inaudible from this distance, but they seemed to be having a professional, albeit tense, conversation. "Yes, it's a little dramatic, but magic is full of drama. Or so they tell me!" The man below laughed - and started to put his arm around his guest, before evidently thinking better of it. 

 

The Sandersons, for their part, were moving with alacrity around what Raina recognized as a ritual that wasn't actually out of control but could be one - casting and gesturing to restrain the portal inside the skull on the floor, seeming to try and fix it into place behind the new arrival. Woodsman stared down at the new arrival and shook all over - but even now, he didn't call out loud. Stay still. Stay quiet. Stay alive. A whisper escaped his lips anyway, almost inaudible except to the three in the rafters. "...Momma?

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"What?" Raina looked at Riley, a slightly hysterical edge to her voice. "That's your mom?" She looked frantically down at the action on the floor, with no idea whatsoever what was happening or what she was supposed to do now. "Why is your mom with my parents? What the hell is going on?" Merlin chittered anxiously in her ear that he was trying to locate the mind-control devices and he had no idea how that related to anything else, but if that if that portal ritual fell apart it was probably not going to be good for anybody. Raina bit her lip and pushed power in the direction of her mother, a magical gestalt she'd been trained in since she was little. It took almost no thought, which was perhaps why she didn't remember till afterwards that it might give away her presence as well. 

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Robin gave Raina a sharp look at the comment about 'her parents', before blowing out a slow breath meant to steady her nerves. Robin had to assume that the portal linked to Riley's dimension and from everything they'd seen so far, those went bad - quickly. Giving a short, sharp shake of her head, she kept her voice as low as she could. "We need to close that portal." She said with a small nod towards it, the defender of the Fens first and foremost, before she touched the back of Riley's hand where they crouched in the rafters, her voice gone gravely even if she kept it admirably even, "An' you and your mom should decide quickly which side you wanna be on when it gets shut down."

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Merlin took this opportunity to share with Sparkler that he'd found the mind control devices - they'd been moved against the far wall near the warehouse's loading dock. Evidently they were going to be moved soon, though he still hadn't found their destination yet.

 

Sparkler's magical gestures had already caught the attention of those below - the Sandersons were looking up, shading their eyes against the darkness above with looks of mixed shock and recognition. "Raina?" called her mother, something like dawning hope in her voice. Evidently not understanding the situation, the Peyton Smith of Riley's homeworld looked around with concern on her dark features, hand automatically going to the gun she wore at her hip. As the man at her side automatically took a protective stance, the guards around them readying but not actually aiming their guns. 

 

Woodsman looked down, then up at Nighthawk. "I love you," Riley whispered to Robin, gazing into her eyes with tears in his own. "If this _is_ an illusion, you get them," he said before crawling forward, enough that eyes on him wouldn't be eyes on Raina or Robin. "Friendly!" he called with a wave down below. "Friendly!" And with that, he hooked the line on his belt to the balcony, and jumped. 

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"Stay up here," Raina advised Robin in a whisper, even as she set down her backpack. Merlin didn't look entirely happy to be left behind, but he offered no actual protest. "At least till we get a bead on the situation." She fixed a smile on her own face, tremulous and hopeful, and turned to step off the catwalk into thin air. She floated of course, drifting down as gently as a bubble. "Mom? Dad? What are you doing here?" That question, at least, was totally genuine. 

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