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Skysong

Southside Story (IC)

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The filthy streets of the Fens, illuminated only by the flashing neon signs advertising strip clubs and a few guttering streetlights, were quiet as Romeo Levine led his crew toward the meeting point. It was nearly midnight, and that meant that he was running out of time; if he didn't make a good impression on the gang's new supplier, he would lose his chance to get 'the package' (as he'd been carefully instructed to call it), and probably a finger or two if the gang leaders decided it was his fault. Behind him, eight C's traveled in tight formation; their gang colors were hidden by baggy, dark-colored sweatshirts, as were their switchblades and the guns of the three who were packing heat. They didn't want to run into trouble before they made the deal; afterward, they would go looking for it.

The old warehouse loomed up before them in them dimness, and Romeo swallowed a little nervously, though he was careful not to let the others see it. This was his big chance, and that meant that he was done for if he blew it. He reached into his pocket and flicked the safety off of his piece, then allowed it to sit within easy reach; there wasn't any point in hiding it any more, and he wanted to make sure the suppliers knew not to mess with him. Now feeling more confident, he pushed the rusted door open (it was unlocked, as he'd been told it would be), beckoned to the other C's, and walked inside, a low bounce in his step and his chest thrust outward. He was going to get 'the package', and then he was going to kick the ass of anyone who dissed his gang.

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Murielle Lefevre waited impatiently within the dark, chilly confines of the old warehouse, the nine small packages in her trench coat seeming to weigh several tons each. The stuff she was carrying was major enough that metahumans were known to get heavily involved at the merest mention of it, and the damn buyers still couldn't show up on time. She was low level in the DuLac cartel, having agreed to transport packages a few weeks before only to be promoted to actual dealing a few days earlier. With an unmemorable face and an ability to remain outwardly calm no matter the situation, she knew she was an asset to the group, even if her role was small-time. And while she'd promised she would stop as soon as she could pay for Betrand's chemotherapy, she wondered if this job might work out better for her than her studies as a social worker. Whether she kept that job hinged on the next few minutes, assuming her clients showed.

The nearby door squeaked open, and she managed not to jump. Nine burly gang members swaggered inside, pulling off the dark overgarments they'd been wearing to reveal the colors of the Southside C's. Murielle wasn't paid to know things, but she knew that they were way outside their turf, and that they would be even edgier than she was. Fortunately, she wasn't as defenseless as she seemed. Around her, in the shadows, thirteen men and women stood in awkwardly straight poses, the aura of rot that surrounded them hidden by the general smell of mildew that permeated the warehouse. They were just visible, and that was just enough to keep her buyers from trying anything. "You're late," she said, her voice level but obviously irritated, "so let's see the cash and get this done."

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Within the confines of the unmarked black van that was racing through the streets of the Fens, five men in leather jackets and gas masks loaded and checked their weapons. Andy "Juicer" Scaglione, leader of the little crew, looked down the sights of his AK-47 and imagined mowing down the damnfool gang members who'd thought they could outmaneuver the mob, looks of terror plastered forevermore on their faces as they realized their mistake. Beside him "Big" Boris Brustachev, on loan from the Russian Mafia, was debating whether he should put a gas grenade or an incendiary into his military-grade grenade launcher first. Andy tapped the gas grenade, and Boris obeyed with speed and efficiency. The mobster looked at his crew with no small measure of pride; these weren't just any old hitmen. Kevlar vests, genuine Soviet military weapons, and discipline set them way above every other group on the streets of Freedom.

"Awright, boys," he began, "ya know what we're doin'. De Southside C's think dey can walk around an' do business in de Fens wifout ah permission, and we gonna prove 'em wrong. Make sure dey learn da hard way, got it? Da boss says no prisonas, no savivas, but we don' torch the place 'till we got whatever they was sellin'. S'gonna be a cakewalk, so have a lil' fun wif it, know what I'm sayin'?" Behind their masks, the other men nodded; the sound of five bullets being simultaneously chambered served as a grim foreshadowing of the carnage that was to come...

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Gun oil. Tattoo ink. Fresh money. Lukos had been following the same three scents for an hour now. He'd been keeping tabs on the C's for a few days now. They were up to something, but what? And when? He needed to find out, so he followed them. Gun oil. Tattoo ink. Fresh money. He followed them.

Night time in the Fens. He'd been here before, but not at night. He had fled before the sun went down. It was a different place at night. The kind of place you didn't want to be. Between the trash bags left by the streets, and the pungent aroma of the neon signs, this section of the city even smelled unwelcoming. Thousands of people lived in Freedom. But in the Fens, Lukos felt like they were all watching him. As he crept crouching through the shadows, his shoulders unconsciously tensed and rose. It wasn't a human thing. Lukos knew where he'd picked that habit up. It was Wolf's instinct. He was nervous. His hackles were raised.

Through the damp streets and poor lighting he followed them. Gun oil. Tattoo ink. Fresh money. thinking as he crept along that there could only be one good thing about the Fens at night. It is easier to hide.

Gun oil. Tattoo ink. Fresh money. He followed them.

Follow. Hunt. Kill. Wolf followed them.

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As Lukos arrived at the walls of the old warehouse, the rusted steel that braced its dented plastic imitation timbers only barely keeping the entire construct together, he detected new smells even more unpleasant than the normal filth of the Fens. Beneath the general aura of mildew and decaying wood, his sensitive nose picked out an odor that might seem similar to the average Human, but to an animal was distinctively different. The scavenger in him knew it well: bad meat. Ten or more good-sized animals of some sort were decaying somewhere inside, but the scent was muted, as though they'd been rolled in dirt to mask it. In any case, the C's didn't show any sign of noticing it as they mustered their confidence and headed inside.

There was something else, too, something very faint. It had the crispness of the neatly stacked dollar bills he could smell in the possession of the C's, but it was acrid and sharp, as though it could cut and burn his nostrils if he were closer. It was like nothing he'd ever smelled before, somehow sickly sweet but also dangerous. Then the wind shifted, whistling softly through the high windows long ago cracked by thrown rocks, and it was gone as soon as it had come. All of the gang members were now inside, and muffled voices reached Lukos's keen ears. There was some sort of exchange going on; a woman was displeased, and a man was defensive. All of them sounded tense.

Somewhere in the distance, tires squealed.

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Dressed in all black and lurking in the shadows nearby, Lukos watched as the C's entered the warehouse. After the door remained shut, he approached the building quietly and began circling it. When the smell of rotting flesh hit his nose he actually froze in place. Head upturned in the midst of a crouch, he sniffed at the air. The presence of such an unnatural smell puzzled him. He took a moment to look at the building once more. It is old. He thought. Too old for there to be rotting flesh if a butcher were storing meat here. It would be long rotted away by this time. He sniffed at the air again. It is not an old scent either. There is definitely something foul inside.

Natural creatures were always wary of rotten meat. Only the disrespectful, and disease carrying creatures were known to rely on old dead flesh as a food source. Vultures, ravens, coyotes and the like. Any self respecting wolf would kill its own prey, and eat its fill immediately after the kill. Only scavengers and carrion creatures enjoyed rotten meat. The rest of the Animal Kingdom steered clear of it. The smell of rotten flesh gave Wolf so much pause Lukos actually considered giving up the hunt right there. Not alive. Not prey. thought Wolf.

Just as he was having second thoughts, another smell caught his attention. He struggled to place the smell's source. Its owner. Its point of origin. Anything. Lukos prowled a few more feet down the side of the building to rest beneath a badly shattered window. A few more probing sniffs failed to bring any conclusive evidence. What are you? This unnerved Lukos more than the rotting flesh. Worse still, it had Wolf scared. Bad scent. Bad place. Wolf wanted to leave.

Talking. His ears perked up. Reflexively, his head turned toward the sound. A woman. There was no woman in my group of C's. Sudden realization flashed through his mind like a sunrise. A meeting. They came here to meet someone. He began scanning the side of the building. There were no viable entry points here, and jumping for that window would make too much noise. I have to get in there.

Lukos quickly resumed his detail of the perimeter. Looking for a way in distracted him from the previous unnerving smells. It allowed him to pull closed the cage door that kept Wolf bound inside him. He rounded the corner and came upon a service entry with a busted lock. It couldn't be easier. he thought, silently pushing the door ajar.

His prey had made the first mistake. It had backed into a corner. The C's had practically hunted themselves. Wolf couldn't ask for a better gift. Now came his favorite part of the hunt. The part where he endlessly circled his prey, watching it, slowly driving it mad before he finally moved in for the kill. Stalk. Circle. Kill. Wolf once again clawed at the inside of his chest, dying to be let out of its cage.

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Fulcrum dove out of the night sky toward Pramas Bridge. The evening had started so uneventfully. A slow patrol over downtown, meandering westward toward the West End and finally swooping southward before heading home. The pattern was becoming routine, and she made a mental note to shake things up tomorrow. Tonight though had the first twinklings of a very wild ride.

Water curling in her wake, Fulcrum zoomed under the bridge. Most evenings, this maneuver was a simple joy ride. A screaming woman landed in her arms. In that moment the course of history, one person's history, changed for the better. She cradled the sobbing jumper in her large arms, circling toward Stepping Stone Shelter on the Southside.

Her face remained neutral, but her heart went out to the young woman, "It's okay. Everything will be okay," she whispered over the whistle of the wind. Hope was a powerful thing.

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Zakitaj stuck to the shadows as he made his way though the streets of the Fens. His armor was inactive, to keep him from looking too conspicuous. He wasn't on patrol; he stayed in West Freedom for that, close to his people and playing host to its own set of problems. Tonight he had a very specific destination, and a very specific goal when he reached that destination. One of his contacts had heard a disturbing rumor from a bribed member of the gang known as the Southside C's: they were going to make a move on Mob territory tonight, and they were getting a secret weapon to guarantee their victory. Digging a little further with his other contacts, he'd found out just how bad the situation really was.

The C's were buying some sort of highly-illegal substance they called "the victory package", or sometimes just "the package", and whoever they were buying it from was bigger-time than they were. To make things even uglier, he'd gotten a last minute tip that the Mob knew exactly what was being planned. How they were going to react to it he didn't know, but "quickly" and "brutally" came to mind. He was headed off to stop a gang fight and a drug deal all rolled into one when the final tip rolled in: the "victory package" was called "Zombie Dust". Vividly remembering his encounter with the practically indestructible Dead Head, who he'd later discovered would be considered a "zombie" in popular culture, Zakitaj had decided to call in help from someone who knew how to deal with that sort of thing.

As he neared the aged warehouse that was to play host to the deal, he moved sideways into an alley and allowed his suit to spring up around him. Hoping that his friend was on patrol, he opened the cellphone interface one of his Khaladi friends had programmed in and deftly dialed Fulcrum's cellphone. He wasn't sure if she had it with her when she was out and about, but he didn't have time to track her down at home, so this was his one shot. Knowing that time was running out, he didn't wait for it to ring and instead left a voicemail. "Mona, it's Zakitaj. I think I've found something that falls under your 'giant robots and mutant monsters' field of expertise, and I'm not sure I can tackle it on my own. If you can, come to 3464 Pinkerton Avenue in the Fens as soon as possible. I think things are about to get really unpleasant, unless someone intervenes."

With that, he carefully slid toward the front door of the warehouse and stood beside it. He could only wait so long, and it paid to be ready.

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The van pulled up behind the decrepit building in which the Mob's enemies had presumed to take shelter, and the five well-armed enforcers filed out. They flanked the small back door, two on each side and "Big" Boris in the middle, grenade launcher at the ready. Andy held up three fingers, then brought each one down. As the last one touched his palm, Boris kicked the rusted door with all his might, sending it off of its hinges and into the half-light beyond. Raising his weapon, he fired twice in rapid succession, sending two grenades between the shelves on either side of the assembled group with pinpoint accuracy before falling back behind the wall to reload. His four comrades pressed inside, AKs raised and bodies crouched low behind the shelves. They advanced, covering one another and rapidly making their way toward the area where thick white fumes were beginning to obscure their quarry...

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"And how d'we know this stuff is the genu-wine article?" Romeo stared down the Haitian chick, looking brave even though he knew that her backup had the C's surrounded. "Because we'll hang around while you try it. But you don't get any unless we get the cash, first." The gang lieutenant nodded and pulled six stuffed envelopes from within his discarded sweatshirt, then tossed them down on the cracked wooden palette that separated him from the dealer. She picked each one up, flicked through the bills with practiced ease, and stowed them in her trench coat, then pulled out the nine packages and slid each of them over, one at a time. Romeo distributed them to the others and, to once again prove his boldness, was the first to open his and pull out a pinch of the fine grey power within. Raising it to his nose, he inhaled.

At first, it really hurt, but that only lasted for a few seconds. After that, his body accepted the change, and he relaxed as all of his stress left him. He was no longer sore, and no longer worried about failure. He'd practically already done it, hadn't he? It was all gonna be good. Behind him, two of his men worked up the courage to try some of the dust. They flinched at first, then also settled into the same relaxing feeling. "S'good stuff. Let's go bust us some heads. Later, babe." No sooner had she rolled her eyes at his comment than two metallic clanks caused Romeo to tranquilly look around. Something had fallen to the ground... and then they slid open, issuing white fumes into the room. "Oh... shit..."

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Fulcrum had just delivered the disturbed woman into proper care when her phone beeped. Considering how few actually had her number, she picked up immediately. Well, she tried anyway. Someone was in a very big hurry. Standing in front of the converted storefront, the message replayed. Up, up and away the paragon went before the last sentence finished.

Over the last months, the layout of the city had become much more familiar to Fulcrum. Navigating from overhead was challenging, but GPS and Google Maps were invaluable tools. Unfortunately, she was vaguely familiar with the area of Pinkerton. The worst-of-the-worst congregated in that neighborhood, and even its mention meant something serious was going down.

Super sonic speed made the trip only a blink of the eye. She spiraled down toward the warehouse, eyes narrowing at the strange van. "That is out of place," she mumbled as she landed next to the van and looked at the open doorway.

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The confused shouts that echoed from within the building told Zakitaj that his time was up; he knew that Mona was faster than he could even conceive, and trusted her to arrive as soon as she could, but he had apparently already run out of time to head off the gang fight. His only option was to jump into the fray and hope that he could hold out until help arrived, since someone would almost certainly be killed if he waited.

Deftly he shoved the door open and stepped inside. A murky white gas was rapidly issuing from somewhere on the floor, but it didn't yet obscure the coughing and wheezing C's who were caught in it. Their assailants had to be the mob, then; no one else who was likely to be involved had access to that kind of hardware. He was going to have to move fast to keep everyone from dying; the C's, despite being outgunned, were sure to fight back to defend their pride and hopefully hurt their rivals unless he intervened, and they might even get somewhere given the amount of backup their supplier seemed to have stashed in the shadows.

It didn't matter so much to him if the criminals got away so long as they stayed alive; the Khaladi code of honor not only forbade killing, but placed the preservation of even the lives of enemies from any threat as much more important than anything else. Besides, after tonight, these gang members might reconsider their membership, especially given that things were about to get much, much worse for them.

Quite the intimidating sight as he loomed out of the darkness in his fluid silver and deep purple armor, Physicus spoke with a voice that was calm and level, yet it was somehow still heard above the tumult of shouting, coughing, and fumbling for weapons. "You are all under arrest. Drop your weapons, or I will make you drop them. Refuse to come peacefully and I cannot guarantee your continued safety, though if you run very, very fast, I might not bother to come and catch you."

The words were not in and of themselves terrifying, but their perfect delivery, level, detached, and extremely sincere, sowed fear among the nearby gang members. The Haitian woman in the trench coat he took to be the supplier had clearly lost most of her confidence, as had the C's. Even their leader and his closest cronies, all looking to be far from the real world, managed to get it through their thick heads that they should be afraid. The mysterious back-up men at the edges of the warehouse, however, didn't react at all, leaving Physicus to wonder what he was up against...

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The warehouse was dark and quiet except for the sounds of the gangsters making a deal. They never heard Lukos when he slipped through the shadows behind the woman in the trench coat. They never heard his boots on the steel staircase that led to the service level above the main floor.

Lukos had about 30 seconds to take in the scene. Crouching on the level above he did just that. The warehouse was barely lit, but that had no effect on his ability to see. There they were the two groups played out in front of him. He knew the C's, but the identity of the others eluded him.

His eyes provided a lot of information, but his nose told him even more. Bad meat. his nose locked on to what he had once mistook for people. Now he didn't know what they were. But he knew to stay away.

The deal went down.

He sniffed the air again. That sweet smell. The package.

Hell broke loose. The back door where he had just previously been was kicked in. He smelled the rusted iron from the broken hinges waft into the air. That smell was quickly obscured by the two smoke grenades that exploded in the middle of the room. Lukos was on his feet and at the railing ready to leap into action when he was forestalled, first by the room lighting up with gunfire and then...

Quite the intimidating sight as he loomed out of the darkness in his fluid silver and deep purple armor, Physicus spoke with a voice that was calm and level, yet it was somehow still heard above the tumult of shouting, coughing, and fumbling for weapons. "You are all under arrest. Drop your weapons, or I will make you drop them. Refuse to come peacefully and I cannot guarantee your continued safety, though if you run very, very fast, I might not bother to come and catch you."

KssssskkHhuuh Lukos leapt over the railing and landed behind the lines of what a moment ago had looked like a well trained attack team. Back arched, hackles raised, arms out, he continued the previous interloper's sentence. "But I will!" He snarled viciously.

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Romeo and the two C's nearest him coughed, hacked, and wheezed in the gas as they stumbled over each other; he could see that the rest of his gang wasn't faring any better. Caught between the newly-arrived super and the well-armed mobsters, he didn't seem to have any options aside from trying to go through one of them. Then another super dropped down from the ceiling between the C's and the mobsters, and he quickly made his mind up. His boss would be pleased as long as some of their rivals got trashed, and it was too risky to go through two groups that wanted him busted up. Drawing his pistol, he led the way toward the armored super at the main door.

His hand shook as he raised the gun, and the shot went wide. None of the others had any better luck with their pistols, either, probably being just as intimidated as he was in addition to their burning lungs. The five without guns flicked out their switchblades, preparing for a desperate charge past the super and through the door.

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When the grenades first hit, Murielle's instinct was to get out. She had the cash, and this was clearly between the C's and whoever was attacking the warehouse. She was beginning to stagger away, hands clasped over her mouth and nose and eyes half-shut, when the voice of a super echoed through the building. Her boss's words came back to her: it doesn't matter who gets the goods as long as it's not the Law. If they get them, you're done. She was pretty sure the supers could trash the C's, and that meant that they would find the dust, leaving her in big trouble. She didn't have any choice. "Get the packages back," she ordered. Suddenly the shadowy figures at the edges of the warehouse made their slow way toward the C's, their lumbering tread and outstretched arms combining with their putrid flesh to reveal their true nature: zombies.

A second super dropped from the roof; falling back from him, Murielle ran for the service entrance. This had gotten much too intense for her, and she trusted her protectors to do their work. Meanwhile, the zombies made their slow, lumbering way toward the C's...

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"What is going on here?" mumbled Fulcrum. Taking a breath, she zipped up behind Boris and looked around the darkened warehouse. Her newly practiced super speed slowed the world to a crawl. The smoke slowly billowed in the distance, and the heavily armed thugs floated in mid stride. Voices slurred and dilated almost to incomprehensibility. Putting her powers to good use, she surveyed the area with dismay.

These guys were packing military hardware! No way these were local gangsters. No, only mob enforcers and a handful of other miscreants had resources on this level. Only the big guy and two to her right were visible, but she doubted they were alone. Enforcers were no more honorable than the ordinary thug in combat. At least two or three others were stalking around the place. Why else would they bring a van? In any event they were out for blood.

The scowling giantess unceremoniously spun Boris around and clamped his arms together. Even for his size, she hauled him up to eye level and glared as if daring him to try something, "Drop it," she delivered coolly.

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After his dramatic entrance, the shooting momentarily ceased. Lukos took the opportunity to present his case to the mobsters.

Prey.

"Unfortunately for you, I am not as agreeable as the man at the other end of the room." Lukos reached behind his waist with his right hand and unhooked the long fire axe attached to his back. He held it with the head facing the floor. Normally, I wouldn't use this right away. But they have assault rifles. He reasoned with himself.

Hunt. Wolf's intentions were clear as always.

"Normally I allow criminals the chance to surrender. But you have already endangered lives tonight. You have made your choice." Lukos' voice was low and threatening. He made it clear through body language and the tone of his voice that he meant business and would brook no arguments.

"What is going on here?"

The voice was female, and it perked up Lukos' ears. He didn't dare turn around to see who the newcomer was, it meant risking taking his eyes off the men with the guns. Lukos reached out with his other senses. Cotton. Spandex. Latex rubber. Lukos sniffed at the air. Another costumed interloper?

Lukos heard the scuffle behind him, as well as the exchange afterward.

"Drop it," she delivered coolly.

And she is on my side. Beneath the gas mask Lukos smiled. What was a bad situation had just gotten marginally better. "If you do not wish to be subdued, throw your weapons at the wall and drop face down on the floor. If you attempt to use lethal force, I will not hesitate to return the favor." He turned the axe slightly, so that a touch of the dim light reflected off the edge of the blade. "You have been warned." The last was a hoarse snarl.

Kill.

Lukos leaped forward at the nearest mobster and delivered a flying kneecap to the man's face.

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This had not been part of the plan; Andy hadn't been told about any costumed freaks in the area. The appearance of two who were directly attacking his crew changed things up a bit. Wincing as Boris was hoisted into the air and Tony got a knee in the face, he and the other two members of his crew who were still in top shape opened up with their assault rifles, first at the extremely tall woman and then at the man who'd attacked Tony. Their panicked shots went wide around the former, but they managed to hit the latter as they retreated deeper into the warehouse, putting shelves between them and the supers and abandoning their comrades to the mercy of the supers.

"Stay back, ya freaks!"

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When the walking corpses stepped out of the shadows, Zakitaj knew that they were all in trouble. From the sound of things at the far end of the warehouse, the mob had been intercepted, but his assumption that they, with their advanced weapons, would be the primary threat had just been proven false. He counted thirteen zombies shambling toward the C's, ordered forward by the shout of the fleeing woman. The smell of rot, which hadn't existed moments before, appeared and rapidly became overpowering, prompting his suit to filter it out. The C's were focused on him, oblivious to the forces of death itself that were about to descend on them. On the one hand, he couldn't let them leave with the zombie dust. On the other, he didn't want them to get killed by the zombies.

"You could go on pointlessly shooting me," he began, "but you might consider shooting the ex-human creatures coming to devour you instead. With me victorious, you're at most arrested. With them victorious, you're dead. Given that his suggestion was quite reasonable, and his words quite persuasive, the C's turned their attention to their undead assailants. Physicus himself did so as well, kicking his kinetic projectors into overdrive by raising both hands to open fire on the two zombies leading the group moving in on the C's right flank. Though both the first and second shots impacted with the creatures, they were met with unpleasant *clank* sounds rather than squishes. These things had metal bones.

"Aim for the same ones I just hit! They're too strong otherwise."

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Romeo could distantly tell that he and his crew were in deep, deep trouble; the zombies weren't coming at them fast, but even the super hadn't been able to down one, and they looked hungry. The C's clumped closer together before the onslaught of corpses, and those with guns quickly pointed them at the zombies indicated by the armored man. Gunfire echoed through the south end of the warehouse as well; bullets slammed into the creatures, but it was like trying to shoot through lead. *Ding*s and *dweoo*s sounded as their metal bones very, very slowly crumpled under the onslaught. Several courageous C's jumped forward with their switchblades, stabbing and slashing, and finally managed to send one of their foes to the floor. Inspired by this example, the rest of them leapt onto the other damaged zombie and managed to take it down.

Their triumph was short-lived; the remaining zombies quickly closed the gap and continued their advance, stepping on and over their fallen comrades. It had taken all of that to bring down only two. Eleven yet remained, and showed no signs of slowing...

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Running hard, Murielle reached the service entrance and dove through it, landing on the street outside and quickly getting back to her feet. She still had the money, and her bosses had promised that these zombies weren't going to go down easy. She'd done her job. And yet, as she looked at the envelopes full of cash that were now in her possession, she wondered... Still pondering, she vanished into the night.

Meanwhile, not bothered in the slightest by the loss of two of their number, the zombies formed a semicircle around the C's and kept moving forward. As they came within range, some swiped out with their reinforced corpse arms at the closest gang members, while others reached for the packages they had been ordered to retrieve. Still a ways away, they proved unable to reach their targets, but it was only a matter of time...

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Blood gushed from the gangster's broken nose. Standing in front of the man, Lukos raised his left hand to deliver a final blow when suddenly...*thwip* The rifle round struck him in the top of the shoulder. Lukos barely even flinched. He was lucky. The bullet had impacted the ballistics vest underneath his leather jacket. Lukos barely even flinched. "rrrRRRHHH!" The growl came out fearsome and guttural. He finished striking down his opponent.

"I warned you." His voice was low and threatening. "But you failed to listen. Shame." Lukos turned and swung the axe two handed at a nearby mobster. The swing came up short of its intended target. The smell of rotting flesh throwing his nose off.

Lukos was also dimly aware of the fleeing female. It didn't matter. Fresh money, and rot. Lukos would remember the smell. He would find her later, and he would get answers.

Hunt.

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How did she miss that guy? He must have been a stealthy fellow to appear so suddenly. Something about him bothered her. His brutality was one thing, but the axe was another issue entirely. Before she could deal with him though, she had to take care of the big man with the military surplus.

When Boris didn't drop the grenade launcher, Fulcrum made him. One arm transferred around his chest and she squeezed him with all her might. Probably wouldn't break any ribs, but few people could withstand that kind of pressure. As Boris struggled uselessly, Fulcrum turned her attention to Lukos, "Hey! Axes are for trees!" she boomed in a commanding voice.

The unconscious gangster dropped limply to the floor. Scowling at Lukos, Fulcrum circled clockwise around the warehouse shelf as muzzle flashes danced across the walls. All the other mobsters felt was a whoosh of air as the big woman appeared right behind them. She stared down at him and balled a fist.

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Panicked fire continued to ring out in the northern end of the warehouse; two of the mobsters tried to open fire on Fulcrum, but she moved way too fast for them, and their shots went wide yet again. Meanwhile Andy, all on his own, tried to shoot Lukos; after all, he'd hit the strange axe-man once, so he might be able to do it again. No such luck; he dropped his opponent easily, and dodged out of the way with equal ease. Andy ran deeper into the warehouse; no normal Human was going to catch up with him at the rate he was running, and he could only hope that the axe-man was exactly what he appeared to be: insane and mighty, but not a Meta. With Boris and Tony down, he was going to need all the luck he could get.

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Zakitaj realized almost too late that his plan wasn't going to work; if he kept the C's fighting the zombies they would be eaten alive, and he didn't want anyone to die here. "Just give them the dust and run! If you don't, they'll never stop hunting you." Terrified, the gang members threw down the remaining packets and made to flee through the door. Zak would let them go; they would surely reconsider their way of life after the horrors they had witnessed and the near-death experience they'd just undergone. Of course, he couldn't let the zombies get away with the dust, either; it would just be resold to some other criminal group, or perhaps to simple bystanders looking for a quick fix. That was exactly what he'd come here to prevent.

Of course, he now stood alone against eleven metal-boned zombies, some of which were about to recover the packages while the rest moved to tear him to bits. Raising his hands again, he released another kinetic bolt from each, this time targeting a single zombie with both. Once more, his aim was true; a loud *clang* and the creature stumbled back. Yet a moment later it pressed on, continuing to shamble toward him. He frowned; hopefully Mona or the strange newcomer would finish off the mobsters soon, because he was clearly in no small amount of trouble.

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Throwing down the packets of Zombie Dust, the C's scattered, running past the super and through the main door. They never even looked back before vanishing into the night. All of them except for Romeo and his two closest cronies, that is. The three of them staggered about, eventually collapsing in a corner of the warehouse. The world was spinning and twisting before their eyes, and in the back of his mind Romeo wondered whether he'd been supposed to use the entire packet. Yet his brain was so muddled that this though was quickly torn from him and replaced by simple confusion. He had no idea where he was or how he'd gotten there, but the rainbows were very, very pretty.

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Four of the zombies shambled over to the packets and scooped them up off the ground, cradling them in their rotting embrace, before moving off toward the service entrance the dealer had fled through only moments before. It would take them a while to reach their escape route, but if they got away, they would be almost impossible to find despite their slowness. The Fens were full of things that stank of rot; in places, they were even full of corpses. And if these creatures escaped, there would be more corpses before long.

The other seven dragged themselves toward Physicus, arms outstretched, heads rolling about on their muscle-less necks but their jaws opening and clamping shut as they walked, as though promising to rip the flesh from his bones. The first one that lunged at him missed; he easily sidestepped it, allowing it to slump past him. But when the next one lunged, he found that it was much harder to maneuver now that he was flanked. The creatures kept coming, and while most were too far away to attack, the third one found that he couldn't twist away so easily with dead flesh on every side. It sank bony teeth into his liquid-like armor, and while they couldn't pierce the powerful suit, he felt the pressure even through its energy-absorbent materials, pressure sufficient to leave a bruise. The teeth had to be metal, too.

When the rest of them arrived, he was in big trouble.

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One man down, one to go. Then he could start on the rest of the room.

As Boris struggled uselessly, Fulcrum turned her attention to Lukos, "Hey! Axes are for trees!" she boomed in a commanding voice.
Lukos' head turned towards the command, and it seemed to register with him, as if he would consider it. For a moment, Fulcrum could imagine him as an animal turning towards the sound of her voice as if it were only so much noise, and trying to determine whether or not he cared. Saying nothing, Lukos went back about his work.

The gangster had thought he was making a good escape. But like a scared animal, he'd only walked deeper into the predator's trap. Lukos reared his shoulders back and gave the warehouse shelf in front of him a swift and mighty straight kick. The entire structure leaped from its moorings, toppled, and trapped Andy beneath a pile of shelves and debris. "I told you you would not be getting away." Came Lukos' dry comment after the shelves ceased clattering.

Not wasting any time, Lukos spring-boarded off the fallen shelf and leaped over the far one. He came down into a crouched position, axe in hand, right in front of the service door. The creatures in front of him disturbed a part of him deep inside. The wolf part. They were not natural, they were not right. Everything about them including their smell told him to stay away. But that was why he could not. He knew their smell, and he knew the smell of their surroundings. If they managed to escape, these creatures most of all would be the hardest to track down.

Lukos stood from the crouching position slowly. He stood still hunched over, axe drawn back behind him ready to swing. His body language alone spoke volumes. He had laid down a challenge to the unnatural creatures before him. "Try me," it said. Though it made Wolf squirm he would stand before the door and guard it.

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Fulcrum was reserved if efficient with her fighting technique. One mobster received a finger thump to the chest, buckling him. Before he fell, he was pushed gently into his co-conspirator. The two landed in an unconscious heap between the rows of shelves. Stepping over thugs, Fulcrum zipped up the mash of zombies.

What the heck were these things? They didn't look like robots or clones. Not to mention the stench coming off of them was horrific. Meta-human powers or not, they nearly turned her stomach. Zombies like out of the movies? Not nearly as strange as it sounded. Especially in Freedom City!

That was all beside the point however. Underneath the crush of rotting bodies, Fulcrum spotted the distinctive coloration of Zakitaj's armor. The alien prince certainly had dug himself a deep hole. She wasn't sure of the toughness of his armor, but that many nasty creatures were probably very dangerous. She popped her knuckles in anticipation.

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From all the *whack*, *thump*, and *crash!* sounds that Zakitaj heard, he guessed that the mobsters were being dealt with, which was a very good thing; the other zombies were getting very close around him now, cutting off his escape as they worked their disgusting and rotted but surprisingly strong jaws.

He managed to maneuver one of his hands to point at the creature that had fastened its jaws around his other arm and, charging his kinetic projectors, blasted it away. It must've been the one he'd hit previously, because it flew backwards and skidded across the floor until it struck one of its comrades with an unpleasant *thunk*. The other zombie pushed it along as it shambled forward.

The momentary gap in the wall of putrefying flesh revealed Fulcrum, in full costume and ready to fight; of course, she'd probably already been doing that. Taking an instant while his kinetic projectors recharged, Zak caused his helmet to become transparent and called out to her. "Fulcrum! Always a pleasure, especially in times like these. This is twice now you've arrived to rescue me. I seem to be getting behind." His face suddenly turned serious. "Make sure the other ones don't get away. I can hold out here for a little while."

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As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Physicus was buried again. The steel teeth of the zombies clamped shut like the gates of hell, trying to smash damned souls between them, and this time Zak grunted in pain. At least these ones were staying put, though; with Mona here, their eventual defeat was certain in his mind.

Meanwhile, two of the creatures broke away from the main group and lumbered toward the amazonian heroine. They swung their leaden arms at her, trying jerkily to bat her away as though they had flails attached to their shoulders; having moved up on either side of her, as their fellows had done with Zak, they made it difficult for her to dodge away.

The zombies clutching the packets used much the same tactic on Lukos, who was guarding their escape route. Not at all intimidated by the young hero, mostly because they lacked the capacity to be intimidated, they surged forward, a mass of teeth since their arms were full. Their attack, however, was less than effective; the young man was able to easily evade their snapping jaws.

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The stench of rotting flesh closed in on him. It pressed at his senses from all sides. He could even taste it in his mouth. It made him gag, and almost retch beneath the gas mask. The apparatus could filter harmful chemicals, but could not keep a smell as pervasive as this out.

"Stay back!" Lukos snarled. He made a tentative swipe with his axe at the outstretched limbs of the lead zombie.

Lukos summoned his courage and stayed his ground, preventing their escape through the door. Run! Flee! Hide! cried Wolf, from somewhere deep inside him.

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Fulcrum grimaced as the zombie's fists impacted like battering rams. Deep, fleshy thumping sounds echoed, but the distinctive crack of bone did not follow. Whatever they were, they possessed the raw strength to actually injure her. That revelation was both frightening and exhilarating. She responded to the assault with a full-bore punch to the chest of the successful attacker. The sensation of metal made her eyes go wide. Steel-reinforced undead abominations? Okay now that was a new one. Cyber zombies!

The night was developing nicely. When Zakitaj yelled to her, she nodded as the punched zombie rippled around her fist, "You have a knack for finding trouble. I thought the prince was supposed to rescue the princess!" Her zipped to the right. The motion occurred so rapidly that only a millisecond blur indicated that anything had happened.

In that moment she accessed the situation at the door and the fleeing zombies. The axe-wielding maniacs was facing them down, but judging from their robustness, the axe wasn't going to be very effective. Still the living obstacle would slow them down, giving her a chance to take the pressure off of Zakitaj. As her fists rained down, she shouted, "I'll thin them down a bit!"

She very consciously did not think about how disgusting they felt. Or smelled. Or looked. Blah.

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Despite his unfortunate position, Zakitaj grinned again. "I never was a very good prince, I'm afraid, in more ways than just this." He felt his kinetic projectors silently finishing their recharging and raised both hands; he needed to get himself out of this situation before it got any worse, and before any of the packet-bearing zombies escaped. One bolt invisibly lanced out, striking one of the zombies full in the chest, but it didn't so much as stagger.

Khaladi curses running through his mind, Zakitaj fired his second at the one he'd seen Fulcrum punch; it had been a good punch, too. There was more evidence for that when the zombie, caught by an assault from both sides, was dented inward from both torso and back. Slowly it sank to the ground with a clatter, disabled. There was no time to rejoice; the undead mob still surrounded him, and that meant that he was still very much in trouble.

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Fulcrum was now out of reach of the ravenous steel undead, but Lukos and Physicus weren't nearly so lucky; one of the creatures fastened its jaws around each, doing their best to rend and tear with their deadly reinforced teeth. Zak's armor was holding, but only just barely; he'd suffered no more ill effects than painful pressure and an off-balance stance that made it difficult to defend against further attacks, but that was starting to add up. Meanwhile, two of the packet bearers began to try to shamble around Lukos to escape out the door while he was occupied with their fellows...

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