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July 13, 2018

Midnight Manor 


Even now, Midnight Manor was one of the safest places in Freedom City. "Sea Devil and Singularity have made contact with Foreshadow. The plan is in motion." Redbird had been more subdued than usual lately - hadn't they all? Even with the evacuations the dead, wounded, and missing in Freedom City were four, maybe five figures; not to mention the heroes, no, the friends they'd lost. 


"Good." Through his radio link to the Manor, Harrier spoke with the slow, deliberate intonations of a man whose breathing came with difficulty. "Are you prepared?" He'd done his best to help them. They had a map of their destination, a rough sketch of its likely defenses, and more besides - Steve had stayed up all night, multiple nights, dictating to Redbird when Wander and Midnight had been deployed to the action. There was very little else he could do. 


While the others talked, Mark studied the screens showing the continued carnage of the fight in Freedom City - maybe it was all confined to an isolated few areas this time, maybe this was just touches of Hell on Earth instead of the real thing. He closed his eyes and thought of Nina and Richie, safely away from all this - unless all this spilled out over everything, and took them just like it had taken his friends in the DuTemps Building. 


When we get back here - I need to fix things.





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Midnight gave Harrier a grunt of affirmation while going over the cobbled together hardware in front of him. He considered himself a mechanic and an engineer far more than a theoretical physicist but there was no denying that he had considerably more practical experience with dimensional travel than most anyone who could explain the principles in better detail, particularly where the Terminus was concerned. That didn't make him any more pleased to be using leftover pieces from their recent misadventure with Wander's numerous duplicates along with the jury-rigging he'd reverse engineered with Redbird and Harrier's assistance for a trip into the belly of the beast.


The power levels were at least holding steady and the readings were within what could generously be described as an acceptable range. "Won't hold long."

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"Shouldn't have to." On the other side of the room, Wander was checking her gear, grim-faced and steady handed. There weren't many fights she walked into with more than just her bat, but for this run she had a backpack of basic supplies including food, first aid, and extra weapons. Nothing on Nihilor could be trusted to be free of contamination. "We can worry about getting back when the job's done." She tried not to think about the possibility of not coming back, or of how much more powerful she'd been the last time she'd faced the wrath of the Terminus head--on. Didn't matter, she reminded herself. These were the people who had once killed her world and everyone she loved. If she died stopping them from doing that a second time, it would be enough. 


Slinging her bag onto her back, she holstered her bat and walked over to Trevor. She wanted to hold him, just in case they didn't have another chance later, but she didn't want to distract him from his work. She settled for brushing a hand lightly over his shoulder as she watched the spot where the portal would open. "Ready?" 

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Psyche sat perfectly still, her legs folded under her and her hands lightly resting in her lap. Her expression was smooth, almost serene, as her preparation for today was entirely internal. She had to be entirely confident in the protections of her mind and utterly centered; which wasn't an easy task with Phalanx out fighting and the city screaming in the psychic static background. It would only get worse with where they were going. It had been a long time since she'd felt it necessary to take the time for a full on meditation before a battle but it was, without question, vital for Psyche to be at her best. 


Part of her still clocked the movements around the room, growing more aware as she began pulling herself out of the low-trance she'd immersed her mind in. "Ready," she answered Erin's question, even if it hadn't been directed at her. Leaving the couple to their moment, she rolled to her feet and walked over towards where Mark tried to take in all the video feeds at once. Her hand came down on his shoulder in mute support, answering his unspoken thoughts with quiet reassurance, "We will." 

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Trevor's hand latched over Erin's as it landed on his shoulder, the gesture anticipated without looking up from what he was doing. Rather than a distraction, she could feel a bit of tension leave the muscle under her fingers at the physical reassurance that she was there beside him.


He'd been almost nonverbal since the attacks had begun, blaming himself for not having anticipated the invasion, not having been better prepared. The civil war amongst the Annihilists seemed to have been keeping them busy and there were always more pressing threats closer to home. Now the city was on fire, Eve and her people were still missing and he was about to his wife and friends on what should by all right be a one-way trip into hell.


The railgun he'd hastily assembled while the others risked their lives to buy each second sat undisturbed in its display case. There was no point bringing it along; the cosmic lightning rods it had fired were long since spent. What would it cost if they couldn't find a similar advantage this time? If he was just a little bit slower to find a solution? Those churning doubts he locked beneath a layer of steely resolve; he would find a way to succeed because the alternative was unacceptable.

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“Sure, we all will,” agreed Mark a little distractedly. “We’re a team. And I’m ready,” he said, straightening the blue suit and Windsor-knotted tie that were his trademark. Perhaps he could have worn a more practical outfit, but if his powers failed him over there, he was dead anyway. But then wasn’t this avoiding that the whole point of all this? I won’t make my son an orphan or my wife a widow - or let anyone else be. As the cosmic batteries fired up to power the Terminus gateway, he knew things wouldn’t be the same after this. Unbidden memories of Unitarian Sunday School came to him; the stories of the Harrowing of Hell. But what did that make them?


It was easy enough to open the gateway, a flat displacement in the air that shimmered with the unhealthy rainbow color of gasoline on water. As ever with the Terminus, the trick was going to be getting out again.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Erin squeezed Trevor's fingers and then let go; the comfort of holding his hand as they went through wouldn't make up for the tactical disadvantage of not having their hands free. She drew her bat and extended it to full length, the silver metal gleaming in the light of the workshop. "Stay together," she reminded everyone tersely, "don't trust anything you see or hear over there. We know they have access to duplicates of us, god only knows what kind of games they might try and play." She took one deep breath, feeling the familiar pull of dread that came from leaving the universe that had been her salvation, then walked through the portal. 

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Psyche didn't say anything. With one last touch on her bond to Mike, to let him know that he'd feel her absence. It wasn't often that something could disrupt the bond she shared with him, but a jaunt through to the Terminus would certainly do the trick. Bracing herself for the dampening of the voice that she'd lived with her entire life, she took a steadying breath and took her place in the middle of the group walking through into the unknown. "I'm right behind you," she told Erin. "We're as prepared as anyone can be, and we have luck on our side. That's as good as it's going to get; and it'll be enough."

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With a rumble that could be interpreted as agreement Midnight pulled a locking lever down into place, completing a circuit with a shower of sparks. The the thrumming machinery around them took on an odd sort of echo as sound waves were distorted along with the space through which they travelled. Arcing electricity hung frozen in the air before widening impossibly into crack in reality itself, a toothy maw filled with deep crimson light dotted with floating black spheres. In the space of a heartbeat the portal had widened enough for two of them to walk through at a time - any larger and he couldn't guarantee it wouldn't continue to grow without end.


Tightening the straps of the armour panelled vest that had taken the place of his usual jacket the masked man exhaled silently. Nodding to Wander he dropped into a sprinter's stance and charged through the hole in the world.

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They'd all been through dimensional gateways of various sorts at one time or another; and they'd all been warned about the gateway to Nihilor - warnings that came in handy over the next several minutes. The energies of the passageway seemed to cling to them as they went like a thick, oily film that was somehow noisome without any visible sight or smell; the stuff of dying universes in which Nihilor swam had a spiritual decay to it even if no eye could detect it. Visions flashed before their senses, almost too quick to process - ghosts of dead worlds? A touch of the corruption of the Terminus? 


Nina smiled as she threw the baby in a dumpster "Weakness cannot be tolerated!" -


"No, Erin, please!" Megan screamed as her sister's cold grey fingers grabbed her arm -


Phalanx knelt in homage before Omega - and the whole world saw it happen - 


In his trophy room, Travis ran his fingers over a bit of tanned human leather, smiling  - 


The party opened their eyes and found themselves stumbling out of the portal on a rooftop that looked vaguely familiar. Looking around, they were in a neighborhood of low, vaguely rectangular buildings, something that wouldn't have been out of place on Freedom City's south side. A few miles away, cruelly huge structures rose up on each side of the "neighborhood" where they'd landed, the nearest a mirrored tower with a twist at the top that made it look vaguely like an eagle. The fortress of Shadivan Steelgrave; their destination. Overhead the skies were red and starless, but marred with rapid movements of a thousand different sorts of vehicles, and the distant sounds of energy discharges. The invasion of Freedom City wasn't the end of it. The Terminus really was at war with itself. 


The streets were full of people; the proles they'd been warned to expect, but none of that harried, greyish-looking bunch seemed to be looking up. Their eyes were all cast down as they moved from one building to another, or simply sheltered where they stood in alleyways. The firm voice of propaganda extolling the virtues of entropy and the glories of its "Steelgrave knight" echoed from the sides of buildings, cutting the sounds nearby into inaudibility. There were things below that looked like shops, and even four-wheeled vehicles, all of it unsettlingly like a cruel, twisted version of the Freedom City they had left behind. If that was the fortress of Steelgrave in front of them, about where they'd been told to expect; this was the place of beings denied a home in that dark paradise. 




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Midnight oriented himself quickly and pulled the group toward the deepest shadows the rooftop afforded. "Do what you can to deflect attention," he asked Psyche in barely more than a whisper. Thinking about Nilhor in terms of police state with unknown technology it was less a question of whether they would be detected before they completed their objective than how long they could remain concealed before that happened. If Alex could give any prying eyes a nudge to look elsewhere that gave them a chance.


One of his forearms was circled by a small OLED screen and other computer elements, devices he would have normally tucked away or hidden under his jacket's sleeves. There was no time to try to bridge the divide between his own systems and whatever passed for an operating system in the Terminus but he could generate brief, irregular bursts on the relevant wavelengths that would hopefully be mistaken for harmless interference. "Get ready to move."

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Mark removed the fist he'd shoved in his mouth after the transition, the better to avoid screaming at the images that were still locked in his head, and looked around, careful to stay away from the edges of the rooftop where they'd landed. Without Erin and Trevor's training or Alex's ability to make herself and others invisible, he'd just make himself a target if he stuck his head out without being careful. Play it quiet, he remembered from their briefings. You're not tougher than the whole multiverse. A big target in the Terminus is just a target. Luckily, everything was working out for them so far. He thought of Nina and Richie again, then carefully put them in the 'box' in his head where he stored things he didn't want to get torn up. He nodded at Trevor's words, then shot a quick glance at the others to see how they were holding up. "In the transit, did anyone else see-" he whispered, voice almost inaudible. Psychic defenses? The residue of failed, warped timelines that had grown up around the Terminus like fungus growing in a septic tank? He thought suddenly of Erin and Trevor's pupil Riley, and the failed timeline that was his birthplace. 

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"It's better not to think about it," Erin told Mark, curtly  but not unkindly. She herself had apparently shaken off the transit instantly, moving in a crouch to check out the entire roof and make sure they were as secure as it was possible to be while in the belly of the beast. "There's a lot of bad worlds out there, and a lot of versions of all of us that didn't end up okay. There's no way to fix everything, so you just do what you can and try to forget about the rest." She partially collapsed her bat and held the rest flush against the inside of her arm, the better to conceal its light while keeping it ready at a moment's notice. "Are you finding anything?" she asked the other two. 

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Midnight's scans, coupled with Psyche's mental explorations, left them with a strange reality. The signature of the way-strengthening device was not inside that distant fortress, as best they could tell - it was down here in the strange mockery of Freedom City that lay at their feet. A few blocks over and down underground; deep in the heart of what passed for residential terrain hereabouts. As the others looked, Mark made a point to keep his eyes upwards rather than downward, concentrating on the silent beauty of the aerial war overhead rather than the horrors that lay all around them. He'd heard the stories about Nihilor too; how it was a trap for heroes from across the multiverse, a place of such bottomless degradation that heroic lights could sink into it like candles being snuffed out by the bottomless dark. He closed his eyes. Stay calm. Stay quiet. Think of your family, and going home to them. 


He opened his eyes, still looking upwards, and gasped. Something up above their heads had caught alight in the war in Hell's Heaven - and was plunging down directly towards them. "Incoming!" he declared as loudly as he could, pointing upwards as something shaped vaguely like a spacegoing shark, but as long as a schoolbus, came rocketing down towards their location! 

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Midnight glanced up at the sleek form heading toward them and placed a hand on Psyche's shoulder while making a curt gesture to Wander and Edge. "Not here for this. Down." He guided the telepath in the direction of the roof's edge before stygian smoke darker even than the shadows of that forsaken place poured from the cuffs of his costume and enveloped them, billowing outward like like a photonegative of dry ice. Striding under its cover Midnight quickly reached the lip of the building and without preamble stepped into the empty air and plummeted out of sight.

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Every instinct in Erin's body wanted her to meet the monster in the air, as far as possible from her comrades and before it had a chance to hit the city. But this city wasn't her city, and the last thing they needed was to draw attention to themselves with a showy battle in the skies. With speed that belied her reluctance, she snagged Edge around the waist with one arm and stepped off the building after Midnight, plunging through the familiar darkness of Midnight Mist as she prepared herself to meet the ground however many feet below. As she fell, she allowed herself a moment to hope that flying sharks didn't travel in packs. 

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Run, hide, and never look back. 


They hit the street as an explosion tore at their backs, heat and light searing the back of Mark's neck. A hard landing on the streets of Nihilor would normally have attracted attention, but the fireball and collapsing building at their backs seemed to distract both the crowd of proles and the Omegadrones scattered on the streets. The shelter of a nearby alley kept them from further prying eyes; and kept them from looking too closely at the horrors around them. Remember what they told us. If you look into the well, you will never look out again. The latter seemed to be Psyche's problem, who was still with them but had gone largely quiet. When she signaled she was all right, Mark focused on the larger problem. There were dead bodies with them in the alley, face down and unidentifiable, and Mark made himself not look. 


Behind them, the building that the crashing beast-thing had struck burned, its top floors partially collapsed and flames belching from the rest. There were no emergency services on Nihilor, of course, at least not down here in the ghettos built by the survivors of endless fallen worlds and their children, but something else strange was happening. The building hadn't been empty; it was clearly occupied - but many of the occupants weren't fleeing. Even as some streamed out the doors or went for the windows, there was a chanting coming from the building, an eerie song that seemed to welcome death


From the soft, subsonic thrumming of Midnight's device, they were closer now to the portal device - both in the "y" axis and the "z"... 

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