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Friday, June 4, 2021

5:56 PM


Ryder would have been the first to admit that Shredded Beat, which billed itself as hopefully the first annual festival for local independent and amateur metal bands looking to break out, was a little outside his comfort zone. But Eira had insisted that this was the perfect place to stakeout the mysterious guitarist he and Danica had run into in later February and after a goat-like Ragin had wreaked havoc in the West End the month prior until a few of the Interceptors made short work of it she wanted to be there the next time one of the strange, musical demon constructs appeared.


The upperclassman had told him to come dress appropriately but in typical fashion had considered the specifics of those instructions to be self-evident. Ryder had turned to the only fashion expert he knew who specialized in monochrome: Natalia. Which brought him to a milling crowd around the Liberty Park bandshell in a pair of black pants that hugged his legs like a second skin, a sleeveless t-shirt featuring a band name with lettering he couldn't begin to parse and a pre-owned leather jacket Natalia had studded across the shoulders with an insect wing design.


He tugged one more time on his leather choker, fastened in front with a small padlock, before forcing his hands back down to his sides. He'd painted his nails an uncharacteristically sombre black and hoped that the sparkly top coat wasn't going to be an issue. He caught one of the other attendees giving him a side eye as they walked by and gave them a terse nod, trying to lower his register for a brusque, "Hey, how you doin'."

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On the other side of the park, but following her built-in GPS to Ryder's location, Eira Katastroff was dressed in the style of a captive queen freed to be among her people, or so she liked to think, anyway. She had carefully modded her blue hair into cornrows on one side, cascading down past her shoulders behind her and on the other side, the tips an electric shade of green. Black fingerless gloves with metal exoskeleton parts covered her hands, while her bare arms bore the dark-colored tattoos that declared her loyalty to Arch Enemy and Powerwolf. Her black leather jeans were as tight enough that they looked painted on, which was arguably true though more a modification of her skin than actual dying, and her spiderweb shirt was patched white only where it needed to be, covering about as much as the top half of a two-piece bathing suit. She had made it clear to Pan that they needed to dress and act like humans today, but she'd made sure he was dressed like the right sort of boy for her as she led him through the crowd by hand. "Come on!" she called to him over the noise of the crowd. "He's over here!

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Once Ryder's outfit had been sorted, Natalia had turned to her own. She'd painted on a pair of dark leather pants, framed neatly by soft buckled motorcycle boots below and a studded belt above. A loose and low-necked tank top bore the name 'MECHA-APE' and an appropriately illegible, faded picture of the same, flashing just a bit of the skin of her shoulders and sides before they disappeared into a short black leather jacket with short studs along the wrists and shoulders. She'd done her makeup dark and her hair long and straight, pouring down her head and back like black silk. When she moved her head, the sun caught earrings to match the silver cross that hung low on her chest from a looped metal chain.


"Like any animal, Cricket, the metal-head can smell fear," she said, walking up behind him and surveying the crowd from behind large, round-lensed sunglasses that glinted red in the sun. She adjusted the black, metal-studded purse that hung over one shoulder, conscious of its weight. "If you feel like you own your space here, then you do. If you don't, you don't."

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Dress and act like humans? Pan had, of course, let Eira know that he dressed perfectly fine like a human, but he had also understood that his usual colors were not quite appropriate for something like this. No, no, he would need to feign a great disguise, of course! He would have to do his utmost to blend in and look the part of the metal head!


"Yes, yes. I see them." Pan was wearing a tight long-sleeved t-shirt with the design from Blind Guardian's Twist in the Myth album stretched across the front and back, a large dragon flying in front of a tower. Dark greys, blacks and gold made up the design. He wore a pair of fingerless black gloves, one hand holding tightly on to Eira as she pulled him along. Despite Eira's best efforts, his pants were a pair of not particularly tight black shorts with a grey and darker grey camo pattern that ended just under his knees. He wore a pair of heavy dark boots. His red hair was, as ever, wild and untamed.


Catching up to the others, he joined Nat's explanation. "Put on your angry face! Then they will back away!" He was all smiles, obviously having trouble keeping up with his own advice.

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"But it's a public park...?" Ryder questioned Natalia's advice hesitantly. He turned at the sound of Pan's approaching voice while still stepping forward and immediately collided with another festival-goer. "Oof! Sorry, I--" He turned back around to apologize and had to crane his neck upward to find a face. The man had nearly two heads of height on Ryder with the difference occupied with a massive tawny beard. His shaved head had been almost completely covered in tattoos of stylized sharks and waves, giving the impression that the viewer was looking through a submarine porthole. A thematic fishhook hung from one earlobe while a weathered black tank top had been charged with covering his broad torso and been found sorely lacking.


For a beat Ryder and the tattooed man made tense, silent eye contact. The teenager remembered his friends' advice and genuinely intended to act upon it. What came out instead was an enthusiastic, "Holy smokes, that is a great blue ink! Ultramarine?"


The towering man blinked before responding to the dimpled grin with a big smile of his own, revealing teeth that had been filed slightly to sharper angles. "Nah man, Egyptian copper salts. Supposed to be healthier in the long run, yeah?" His voice was a bass rumble with a ragged edge but his body language softened as he took a half step back to make room for the small group. "Nice stud work on the jacket."


"Thanks! My friend Nat did it! She's super good at crafts."


The big man nodded sagely and gave Natalia a relaxed thumbs up with a fist roughly the size of her head. "Wicked. There's a pin and patch show set up over by the water tent, you should check it."

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Natalia's face was as impassive and unmoved as ever, but after a beat she did raise one hand to return the thumbs-up with confident conviction. "I'll have to check it out," she said, voice flat but not uninterested. "I'm not much for pins but some of the patches going by have impressive needlework."


Which brought up the question of timelines, which had to wait a moment before only four people were part of the conversation. "If anyone has anything they want to say or plan," she said, turning her mask of a face back to the others, "they should probably do it now before one or more of us goes deaf listening to someone murder a guitar."

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Eira grinned, putting her arm around Pan's waist and sinuously pressing against him as they joined their friends. "There is no need for planning at a metal concert. What happens happens, and it is glorious, yes? Chaos made of flesh and metal. But you are right," she added with a smirk at Natalia. "I can smell fear." She tapped one of her ears, where a silver pentagram dangled, and leaned back with a thoughtful look on her face. "Thank you all for coming to this," she added, perhaps a trifle more subdued than usual. "I have waited so long for an actual metal show in Freedom. Every damn time the last two years it has been just one jävla sausagefest after another! You look good, by the way," she added to the others. "You look like yourselves. And that is what metal is all about."

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"Plans are overrated," Pan agreed with Eira. "Let us just see what happens, yes?"


A slight smile played over his lips while he raised his hand in a quick thumbs up to Natalia and Ryder. "But, you do look good. Very nice work."


"So, planning aside, what do we do now?"

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Eira stared at the audience, the bandshell, and one particular person in the crowd, her eyes wide and seemingly-unfocused for a moment. But only a moment. 


"Ryder," she said suddenly, "tell your friend," she said with a head-bob in the direction of the tattooed roadie, "that I can fix whatever is wrong with the sound system. They are having technical difficulties," she added by way of explanation. Eira knew better than to present herself in that fashion; the experienced engineers and technicians that roadies were, or became with time, had no reason to trust a random teenager, even if she was at least as qualified as any of them, even more if she was honest with herself and she usually tried to be.


"Pan," she added with a whisper right in her boyfriend's ear, where the cool breath would tickle, "go see who that is, would you? They're watching the crowd instead of the show." If anyone in the party could handle that situation without it causing a disruption that would ruin her chances to see Drowned in the Loch in person, it was Pan. 


She took the water a passing Good Samaritan offered and handed it smoothly to Nat. 

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Natalia had turned her eyes toward the stage, sliding her sunglasses down long enough to peer over them at the staff assembled there. She took the water without looking at it, and immediately handed it off to Ryder.


"....I would hope," she said, pushing her glasses back up, "that roadies at a concert would know their own equipment, and would think better than to hand control of it over to members of the crowd that they don't know from Adam. Or Eve, as the case may be." She arched an eyebrow, looking sidelong at their less-organic classmate. "We know that you're a technological marvel wunderkind who falsifies garments and bends science for fun. They know that you're some teenage metal-head, and there are a hundred more just like you in the crowd who would all say anything to get on that stage. How much would you trust some stranger to wander into your lab and play with your toys?"


The eyebrow came back down, and she went back to watching the stage. "I've seen Ryder convince strangers to do stranger things, I suppose. It's worth keeping an eye on, regardless."

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Ryder gave Natalia his most infuriatingly genuine grin. "That thing you're feeling right now? That sort of fluttery unsureness? That's optimism and a little bit of trust in your friends." He gave the group a thumbs up as he jogged backwards in the direction the roadie he'd bumped into had gone. "The vote of confidence seriously means a lot, won't let you down!"


By contrast, Pan effectively vanished, blending into the crowd and flitting from one brief interaction to another so that at any given moment he seemed engaged and in his element. In truth he kept one eye on the individual Eira had pointed out. The Forever Boy recognized the layers of hard, lithe muscle that spoke to experience rather than aesthetics and the slightly sunken definition of survival rather than comfort. Likely in their early twenties, they kept one hand gripped securely around the strap of their backpack at all times. For a brief instant Pan made eye contact, casually as if in passing but deep enough to read a simmering intensity. Whoever they were they were at the festival on a mission and prepared to do violence.

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Pan smiled slightly at Eira, winked at Ryder and Natalia, took a step back and let someone pass between them, and then he was gone in the crowds.


No magic, he had decided. Not just yet. Instead, he moved among the crowds, chatting, moving between each interaction as if he was completely at home. The person with the scar was different from most else here. Not just someone that worked out in the gym to build their muscles, and not just here to enjoy the music.


He caught their eyes, and he froze for half a second, before he moved through the crowds again, returning to Eira and the others.


"They appear to be bad news." 


Pan had made sure to keep his eyes on the person with the scar and the backpack, and still did. 


"I am not sure what they want, but they are not here for music, and their mind is on violence."

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"Yes," said Eira impatiently, "that is why I sent Ryder to talk to them." Pan would have been more magically persuasive but you could never quite be sure that he wouldn't announce that she was there to slay the gremlins that had befuddled their machinery. When Pan returned, her demeanor lost its impatience and grew deadly serious. "They might be a shooter," she said, craning her neck slightly to peer at the agendered figure that was the subject of so much attention. For all of Eira's fierce personality, her gynoid form was no taller than a normal girl's. "Meta or otherwise, yes?"


She began cracking her knuckles and said, "We should stop them." Her eyes moved quickly from the stage to the baddie to the crowd, then after a moment's consideration she cocked her head, logged onto the wifi, and sent Ryder a message: 


POSSIBLE META-TERRORIST. A picture was attached, taken from her own eyes, at a wide enough angle to show the whole scene around Scarface. CAN YOU SEE THEM FROM WHERE YOU ARE? 

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No sooner had the text been sent than Ryder approached again with the shark tattooed man in tow, along with a half dozen other people. "Hey, so I'm Soup," the bald roadie introduced himself, walking right up to Eira with a nod. "My man here says you know your way around custom work sound equipment?"


"The Blood Tribute's second bassist's amp got dropped on the way onto the stage," Ryder explained, gesturing emphatically with his hands to indicate that they should all be taken aback by the news. One of the other roadies, a lantern jawed man about the same height as Pan but nearly as wide as that again covered his face in massive hands covered in spiderweb tattoos while the wiry redheaded woman in the glossy purple corset beside him patted his shoulder comfortingly. "But Soup and I talked to Kel--" The redhead raised her other hand in greeting. "And she said Pyroclasm brought almost the same model. But their frontman usually won't let anybody touch their stuff except Antoine here, right?"


A roadie with huge spacers in his ears and straight black bangs covering both his eyes slumped his shoulders. "And I would but I just ended this thing with Liam - he plays in Necropotence and Bog Wraith, obviously - and... ugh, it's stupid, we said it was just going to be a casual thing right off the bat and--"


"Antoine, bud, we just went over this. Having feelings does not make you stupid." The circle of roadies all nodded and murmured in agreement. Ryder turned back to his friends, hands still animated. "Liam is hooking up with Sepulchre from Blood Tribute - that's his sister Luanne with the drumsticks on stage, she's their drummer - so clearly that's a non-starter."


"I need somebody to be @#$%in' Switzerland and just get stuff set up so everybody can deal with their feelings in a healthy way," explained Soup. "At the top of their lungs in front of a screaming audience, yeah?"

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Natalia was instantly the picture of warmth and cheer, flashing a helpful smile and bouncing slightly on her heels like...well, like a teenager on the verge of a behind-the-scenes peek at a venue of her favorite bands. "You're in luck!" she said, upbeat. "We have not one, but two people who know what they're doing with pretty much anything that plugs into anything." She pointed one index finger each at Ryder and Eira. "We'd love to help! It'll make for an amazing story. If only you're supposed to touch the stuff, maybe you could play overseer? It might make the frontman happy with the plan, and it puts some distance between you and Liam - and you'd be so busy watching my friends that you wouldn't have time to deal with, you know. The rest of it."


She flashed that smile again, a little more conspiratorially, leaning in for what would have been a stage whisper if she didn't have to be heard over the crowd. "Just, whoever you take, promise to bring them back. The rest of us have some stuff to do out here while we wait, but we did promise to stick together for the music."

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Pan smiled at Ryder and Eira, nodding enthusistically at Natalia's plan. "Yes, yes. That sounds perfect." He sounded somewhat distracted and disinterested at the whole metal drama that unfolded before them, instead keeping his eyes towards the possible meta-terrorist, as Eira put it. 


He seemed impatient, shifting from foot to foot as he adressed Natalia. "We should go then? Ryder and Eira will help here, and we will deal with the other matter, yes?"

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Eira nodded at Pan, and with a significant glance at the roadies, whispered "Check your messages" loudly enough for Ryder to hear before she fully addressed Soup. A curious name. "Sweden will have to suffice. I am Eira Katastroff of Stockholm University," she said. Her voice was cool and arguably not even telling a lie as she went on, "I am a licensed electrician and have experience crafting and repairing custom sound equipment. If you need amp repairs or any other technical matters, you may be assured that I have all the necessary tools at hand." She waggled her fingers, the exoskeleton parts wrapped around her fingers gleaming silver, and smirked. "Now let us not delay, yes?" With that, she headed straight for the stage, trusting that Ryder could handle any problems that occurred once she was up there and that Pan and Nat could handle Scarface. The villain would be stopped, the concert would go on thanks to her and Ryder's genius, and everything would go well. Perhaps the demon girl wouldn't even show her face, and Ryder and Nat would ride home by themselves. A smile curling her painted lips, Eira let the roadies direct her, figuring they actually did know the area better than she did. For now. 

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Ryder retrieved his phone from his unusually tight pants with a little difficulty and checked the text message in question, not-too-subtly looking around before turning back to Eira and giving her a broad shrug. The group of roadies seemed immediately taken with Natalia, both the broad jawed man and the lean redheaded woman unconsciously standing a bit straighter, talking over each other to assure her that they would make sure she and her friends were able to enjoy the show.


Soup regarded Eira for a moment then bobbed his head slightly in a gesture that was difficult to read but suggested a degree of respect. "Works for me. Let's get it done before Maureen has a stroke." He led the way back to the bandshell, pointing Eira and Ryder toward a rats nest of cables before having an animated conversation with several musicians and one of the organizers, an exhausted looking woman with her dark hair buzzed short and a STAFF shirt. With Soup running interference they were able to get to work with a minimum of fuss.

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Natalia remained warm and friendly as the roadies headed back stageward, waving at their departing friends as they disappeared into the crowd - at which point her hand dropped back to her side, her face shifting from summer to winter fast enough to starve a peasant village. "If there is trouble," she said, flatly, "having them near the stage is probably useful. Odds are good that anyone who would cause trouble at a concert are either after a performer, or want the attention that would come with the stage anyway."


She turned her head toward the trouble others had spotted, glancing sidelong at Pan even as she started walking. "One supposes that leaves us to work this end, so we should head closer to your troublemaker. You got a better look than anyone else; what do you think the odds are of them aborting their mission if they know they've been made?"

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Pan's smile was sly. He watched Natalia work, the way her face shifted immediately from one extreme to the other. 


"Oh, I got a look inside. If they figure out about us I am sure that they will start causing trouble sooner rather than later. They were here to do violence. I do not think they care particularly if they will have to redirect that to someone else."


He moved up to Natalia to catch up, his feet gliding across the ground with just a slight tingling golden trail left behind his feet. Once caught up, he motioned discretely with his head towards the man. 


"We could try to lead him away from the crowds before we confront him."


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The milling of the crowd made it challenging to keep their quarry in sight without drawing attention to themselves in turn. As minutes ticked by past the time the concert had been scheduled to start pockets of conversation turned to shouts in the direction of the stage. With patience stretched thin a few disagreement could be heard breaking out across the glass and people were less gracious about letting Pan and Natalia pass, thinking they were jockeying for a better view. Meanwhile the dangerous looking individual they were tailing seemed to have spotted what they were searching for and as Pan was elbowed to one side and Natalia's path was belligerently blocked by a group passing around a flask they seemed to vanish.


The tense energy rolling off of the crowd wasn't making it any easier for cooler head to prevail in the bandshell. While Eira worked voices were raised and it sounded as though disagreements were starting to get personal despite Soup's best efforts. "Er, not to rush you or anything..." Ryder murmured to his friend, returning to her side after following her instructions and disconnecting the damaged audio equipment for the time being.


Several band members stomped out from either side of the stage to join in the shouting match when finally a power chord rang out, crunchy with heavy reverb that rattled the bones. "Hey, nice!" As two more short chords sounded and progressed into a driving bass line Ryder looked down at Eira's handiwork to see her still holding the last heavy duty audio cable, not yet connected to anything. "...uh oh."

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"Excuse you!" Pan shotued, offended by the man that elbowed him. Glittering dust began to float from him, before he calmed himself again, staring after them, and their lost target.


"Do you see them?" he asked Natalia, as he continued to look around. Of course, their quarry was gone. This was complete and utter chaos, and not the kind that he usually enjoyed.


"We could make a-" His voice was stopped by the sound of the power chord, and he stopped with open mouth, before closing it again. Were they done already?

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Eira's hand tightened spasmodically around the audio cable she held, her eyes briefly defocusing as her dataspike slithered up from under her wrist and entangled itself around the business end of the cable. She stood stock-still, lips and eyes closed, as she intersected with the electronic sound system she'd so recently been modifying. What happened next rang out clearly to all her friends, an amplified voice that they all recognized even if its particular nature would make it impossible to trace to any one person. 


"FOOL!" The sound system bellowed over the sound of a squealing guitar. "WE SEE YOU AND WE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! WE WILL MAKE YOU EAT THAT THING AND THE SHOW! WILL! GO! ON!

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Natalia had the look of someone who'd just developed an incredible headache, pausing their futile chase at the sound of Eira's announcement. She turned her face to the sky, in search of divine intervention or, at least, a sufficiently quick smiting.


"You date her," she said to Pan, tilting her head in his direction. One hand dropped to her side, surreptitiously undoing the clasp on her bag...just in case Ryder needed its contents. "I would hope that you know her better than I do. Honest opinion: would you assume someone on their end has caused actual trouble, or did a member of the crew slight her and this is her idea of a subtle comeback? I'm honestly not sure which might be worse."

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Right next to one of the speakers Eira had commandeered, Ryder covered his ears and ducked his head down with a wince. In the crowd some of the attendees started shouting for whoever that was to shut up while on stage the whirlwind argument between the musicians and organizers turned its attention toward them. "Eira, wait! If this is like the last couple of times we really need to try to deescal--"


"HA! YOU DON'T HAVE A CLUE WHAT I AM!" A sudden wind tore one of the nearby tents loose from the ground and sent screaming onlookers scrambling away. Carried aloft by a stormy grey tornado crackling with weird pink lightning was the young woman Ryder had seen once before at the bus stop with Danica. Straight black hair with a single purple streak that would have reached well past her waist was spread out in a windswept halo. With her leatherjacket flapping backward a black tank top torn along the bottom edge to be little more than a bralette showed an intricate, twisting tattoo up her left side. "AND YOUR 'SHOW' IS A SAD JOKE!"


"Outvoted, I guess," Ryder shrugged, taking advantage of the distraction to duck behind the nearest curtain and dropping a hand to his belt. "CYMK! Dream in colour!"

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