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Continued from >Worn-Out Places

 

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

-Winston Churchill

The black dots faded, leaving behind them an ominous natural darkness. They were all standing on a cracked concrete floor, the distant sound of rumbling machinery and gunfire echoing in their ears. The air was rank and still with the heat of summer, and the sound of scuttling rats was at least as loud as the noise outside. And inside they were: the room around them seemed to be a damp, ruined basement, with only the broken remnants of stone steps leading up to ground level. As the heroes walked closer to the steps, thin rays of moonlight stabbed through the edges of the ruined ceiling. The bits of rubble shifted and moved under their strides, stirring up full regiments of fleeing rats in their wake.

It was Trevor who recognized where they were first, thanks both to his piercing gaze and a sudden, nagging familiarity with the room. They were in the basement of the Rothsteins, the elderly Jewish couple who lived in the same sprawling block of mansions as his grandfather, a convival enough bunch whose main virtue as neighbors was being too busy with their poodle-breeding hobby to worry much about their elderly chemist neighbor and his quiet grandson. Standing in the rubble of their home, looking fresh enough to have been destroyed just a few years ago, it wasn't hard to guess what had happened. For his part, Edge led the way: with a gesture from him there were new stone stairs to climb, and he was up pushing open the door to gaze out at the scene outside.

And what a scene it was: three night-black helicopters were whizzing by overhead, making a beeline for the shape of a very familiar house, leading the way behind a half-dozen armored vehicles coming out of a darkened city with a broken skyline lit only by searchlights. The Nazis were out in force tonight, and they were heading straight for the Midnight Manor. The helicopters were going to be in range of the Manor in seconds...

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"North Bay," Midnight informed the others as he got his bearing before following Edge outside. It took only the space of an accelerated heartbeat for him to take in the situation and realize what had to be coming. He knew immediately why the Nazi forces were there. Being branded a vigilante by his own government hadn't stopped his grandfather from continuing the fight for justice; no matter the world, nothing would have stopped Travis Hunter from taking the fight to the fascists. If they'd discovered their enemy's true identity, learned the location of the Midnight Manor, then this would be the hero's last stand.

Onyx and ruby eyes narrowed to slits behind his mask as the young man intoned a single word, a command of such chilling severity that if the advancing forces had been within hearing range, they may well have surrendered then and there. "No." With that, he was sprinting forward, arms pumping and lungs burning until, driven by instinct and will, he surged into a leap. As he did, midnight mist cascaded from ever pore of his body, blackening the night further. This time, however, he continued pushing until he himself poured into the cloud, leaving only a terrible column of inky smoke that spiraled heavenward like a living drill, aimed straight at the nearest helicopter.

The gaseous arrow seeped into the cockpit of the attack craft and in an instant solidified once more into the imposing figure of retribution that was Midnight. Pulling the remaining mist into his form to supersaturate his muscle tissue, he drew forth a collapsible staff from his jacket and extended it with brutal force into the first of the Nazi's aboard the helicopter before bringing it down in a two handed blow that knocked the pilot unconscious and damaged the control array beyond repair. Pushing the collapsed man out of his seat, the black clad hero wrestled with the yoke, aiming the plummeting craft toward the line of armored tanks. At the last moment, sure of his makeshift payload's course, he leapt back out into the air, firing his grappling line to hook onto one of the two remaining helicopters as rolling explosions lit him from behind.

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Corbin had blinked his eyes to try to get rid of the last lingering effects of their travel. It was definitely the strangest way to move about; even Mark's teleport didn't feel exactly the same to him.

'Maybe I'm just over-sensi...tive...'

He stood there gazing at the devastation outside.

"Holy Crap."

The whirling of rotors attracted his notice. His eyes narrowed as he saw the helicopters and the tanks rolling for the house. He wasn't sure what was up, but those looked to be Nazi war vehicles. And if the Nazis were attacking it, maybe whoever was there could be an ally. Of course, before he could process the thought further, Midnight had jumped into action. Well, jumped, then flew, then kicked some Nazi tail, then grappled to another chopper.

"Since when could he-! Is he going to-!"

The young man in blue spent a moment in awe of the senior.

"Did he just throw a helicopter at a tank?"

He shook his head, realizing he had to "get in the game". Without another word, Cobalt Templar burned into the sky, leaving a slight trail of blue fire in his wake. His path took him towards the helicopter that didn't currently have a teammate attached to it. As he flew, CT concentrated and shaped his will and imagination; the result was a large sword that appeared in his hands. Said sword was raised over his head, and brought down in a powerful overhand chop at the tail of the helicopter he was positioned near.

"Hah!"

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Edge had been on Erde before, and he called out to the others. "Looks like these are a lot more primitive than the Nazi super-tanks we fought two years ago! Let's show them that there are still heroes left in Freedom City!" Inside, Mark couldn't help but think about his family: his mom's folks lived out in Cleveland and had probably escaped internment, but his grand-dad...Hope had never heard of Jimmy Lucas when he'd asked her. Given the very public fates of Freedom City's WWII-era mystery men on this world, he supposed that was probably a good thing. Since there'd been no Centurion to meet his grandad in college and get him interested in hero work, Jimmy Lucas might still be alive. Such as life on this place had to be. "...hey, where did Midnight go?" He shot a glance up at the suddenly falling chopper, and couldn't help but cheer as it hit a tank."I hope you're right, Cobalt Templar..."

"Take them out, Young Freedom!" He fired a blast of his own at one of the tanks, instantly oblitering the solid steel machine and sending the very surprised crew tumbling to the ground amidst the tiny fragments of their great machine.

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Sage considered her options for a moment; attacking the helicopter Midnight was tethered to was unacceptable, and Cobalt Templar appeared to have the other aircraft well in hand which left the tanks. Far too many tanks for her or her friends to deal with in a reasonable amount of time; their cannon more than capable of inflicting terrible damage from range.

Their destination was simple to puzzle out given Midnight's brutal response and Sage's own familiarity with the community. The telekinetic bolted from her position in a blaze of color, her telekinetic wings awash in a myriad of hues. Interposing herself between the oncoming tanks and helicopters Sage gathered her will and concentrated, a dome of telekinetic energy surging up and completely enclosing the Hunter property.

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Erin barely had time to get her bearings before they were on the move, running up out of the basement and into the middle of a fight. She recognized Trevor's home, saw the Nazi vehicles.., and then watched Trevor race towards one and explode in a cloud of black smoke. A small, involuntary cry escaped her throat as suddenly every other loss came crowding in on her. Too many people she cared about had died before her eyes for her to believe it couldn't happen, and for a moment, she relived each one again in all-too-vivid detail. The whole universe was gone, all the universes were gone, Alex, Oliver... how could Trevor be gone too?

The horrific images in her head were so clear and immediate, she almost missed Trevor's reappearance until the helicopter began to fall out of the sky. Her heart began to beat again as she watched him grapple the second chopper and swing away from the crash, relief tangling with anger that he'd done that to her, mixed with fear that this wasn't over yet and anything could still happen. They were all far from safe. Ruthlessly Erin took all those emotions and shoved them far away back into her head. Now wasn't the time. It was time to fight. Leaping through the air, she opened her bat and plowed into one of the tanks at full speed, silent, focused, and deadly.

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There was a wild melee among the tanks as Wander tore through the armored column like the wrath of a vengeful god, her flashing fists and feet ripping and tearing steel like so much cardboard: no, like tissue paper. One of the tanks got a shot off fro its main gun, but the round did nothing more than rip her costume as she grabbed the turret and ripped it away to use as a club on the others. Within mere seconds, she was standing amid the shattered ruins of five tanks and the ashes of a sixth, the crew members all fleeing in terror, some shouting prayers and oaths in German, from the vengeful warrior goddess who had torn their unit to pieces before they knew what had happened to them.

In the sky, the two surviving chopper crews turned out to not be suicidal: at the sight of continued resistance below, they turned and began speeding back towards base, both of them limping thanks to the azure blow one had taken from Cobalt Templar and the Midnight clinging to the other. Neither of them had spotted that particular clinging lamprey, from their speed and the altitude they were fighting for, both were just trying to get the hell out of there! As for Sage's position over the Midnight Manor, so far there was no sign of movement from that house, which by all appearances looked for the moment like any other home. From high up, she could see the jagged remains of North Bay: some houses still stood proud and tall, flags flying out front that bore the swastika; others had fallen into disrepair. Others were so many craters.

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The wind whipping against Midnight's face gave him just enough pause to realize what he'd just done. The young man wasn't entirely sure what strange new ability he'd suddenly manifested, nor how to bring it forth again; certainly hanging from the retreating enemy helicopter was not the time to experiment. Gripping his grapple line with one hand, he used the other retrieve an egg shaped device from his belt and, with considerable effort given the awkward position, lobbed it up into the open cockpit above him. Hitting the floor with a metallic clang, the flash grenade immediately detonated with a blinding flash and an eardrum popping bang.

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Cobalt Templar had been quietly satisfied when his blow had rocked the helicopter, though he'd been a bit frustrated he didn't managed to one-hit-KO it like Midnight had his primary target. But then he was too busy watching Wander turn tanks into scrap metal.

"Holy crap. She's like a one-woman army..."

He shook his head and saw the choppers retreating. It would have brought a smile to his face, except he saw his teammate still grappled to one. A glance told him that Sage would likely stay occupied for a bit, and of course Wander couldn't fly. Edge was a bit far away as well; CT, on the other hand, was in virtually the perfect spot. With a determined look set on his face, he blazed closer to the chopper trailing a costumed hero, until he was perhaps 20 or so feet away. At that distance, he raised his ring hand, and, with a look of concentration, extended a faintly visible hand of ethereal blue flames to start enveloping Midnight. The flames burned nothing as they touched him; the fire appearance seemed tied mostly to CT's powers, rather than any inherent burning aspect.

"Try not to fight against it, Midnight. It won't burn, and I'll have you back with the group ASAP. Not quite strong enough to catch the whole chopper yet, but you're a piece of cake comparatively speaking."

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The last surviving helicopter sped off into the night, its occupants in the sole surviving craft that had come with the Nazi strikeforce to attack the Hunter mansion. The helicopter Trevor had bombed spun to Earth, the pilots fighting to control a wildly spinning aircraft, and landed hard enough that (from the crash of metal) they weren't going anywhere any time soon. Edge made sure of that a moment later, dropping a black dome over the wreck that landed with a gentle thud. Bulletproof, or close to it, there was no way the pilots inside could break out without killing themselves. "We'll have to work fast," whispered Mark to the others as they all moved fast, shooting a glance back at the still-quiet Midnight Manor that Sage had protected in a similar way. "We can probably beat whatever force they've got...but we may not have the time." Urgent mission to save the multiverse or not, Mark hadn't hesitated a moment at fighting Nazis, especially under the circumstances!

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Erin didn't look Trevor's way as the team regrouped, keeping all her attention on the task at hand. If she paid him any attention, all the feelings she'd just managed to stuff away would come back, and she didn't even know what she would do then. So instead she looked at Mark as he handed out instructions, then nodded. "Watch out for friendly fire," she suggested, "the Manor's definitely going to have defenses and they aren't going to know that we're the good guys. If we can get in and secure the place, we'll have a base to work from." She took off, leaping into the darkness in the direction of the Manor.

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Midnight watched Wander leap away, frowning deeply with concern beneath his featureless black mask. --Eve,-- he sent over the telepathic network Sage had established between the teammates, --see what you can get from the ones Mark captured. Troop positions, nearby reinforcements, and anything that might be related to the reality bomb. Or... Midnight.-- Aloud, he spoke to the younger man holding him aloft with telekinetic flames. "Templar, we need to be at the Manor now," he instructed, indicating the direction Erin was headed and the mansion beyond.

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"Roger that. Moving at best speed; be thankful for the mask."

Cobalt Templar reeled Midnight in until he was just a couple feet to his left, and oriented in roughly the same position. Meanwhile, the energy around the boy faded somewhat from view, making it almost look like Trevor was flying, at least from further off. Of course, that's when they took off towards the manor.

At over 200 miles per hour, they were there in mere seconds, Templar having shown no signs of any strain at all from the journey. He set them down at the very edge of Sage's force field, before glancing around.

"I've got more range; I'll cover us from stragglers until we're inside."

The ring-slinging boy was all business, his grief and loneliness locked up tight within his own heart. Instead, his will and his courage blazed forth from his ring, daring any and all to attempt opposing them.

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--Understood, dropping the barrier now,-- Sage replied across the network as she brought the telekinetic barrier that surrounded the Manor down. The telepath suppressed the thought that her actions in that brief battle were useless, reminding herself that she had no way of knowing that it would end as quickly as it did.

As the barrier dropped, Sage flew back to where Edge and the captives were waiting. "We need some answers," the telekinetic said without preamble, and though she was speaking in French accented English the words were being translated into what they could understand. "You might think that you won't talk, and that your secrets are safe." Sage placed a gloved hand on one pilot's exposed head, --Too bad for you we don't need you to talk.--

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The minds of the German pilots opened like bleeding, screaming flowers underneath Sage's aggressive probe, their secrets spilling out like the blood of a world gutted at the hands of these mad butchers. These men were here to kill Midnight: Travis Hunter, condemned by all the Americans on the street as a cowardly collaborator, had been exposed by a traitor named Simmons as Midnight, and the Germans had come in force to kill the man that Sage realized with some shock was the last living superhero in what had once been the United States. Midnight had been fought before, and had killed many Germans and their agents, but never before that day had his home come under attack.

There was a significant German garrison in 'Arbeitstadt', the former name of what had once been Freedo, City, complete with a contingent of Ubersoldaten kept there in case any more mystery men showed their faces in what was to become a showcase of the American Reich: a showcase once the remnants of the last population of resistance were wiped out by the efficient might of the SS. The camps had already been here and gone; the liquidations were taking place in the Mississippi Valley these days. Too far away to reach and save the world: and save the world they had to do. A mysterious object had been recovered by the Ubersoldaten after a meteor shower some nights earlier, an item glowing with cosmic power so great that scientists had actually been flown _here_ from Berlin to study it.

-

Midnight Manor looked like any other country manor until you got close, Trevor particularly good at spotting the depressions where landmines had been laid, the firing places where trip-wire machine guns were in place. This house could probably have fought off an army on its own, though perhaps not the entire might of the Wehrmacht. The windows were opaque even to Trevor's eyes, blackout shutters closed and locked on all of them, but as they approached the front door swung open with an ominous creeeeak, exposing inside a battered, tired-looking hallway lit too-brightly by electric lamps. "Look, let's just go in," said Mark, leading the way, shooting a glance at Erin and Trevor to make sure everyone was dealing with the crisis at hand and not the crisis that might have been. "We sure as hell don't look like Nazis, and..."

A voice crackled to life from a speaker just visible in the streets near the front porch, a relic of the past that hadn't survived to Trevor's time. "Get in the house." came a tinny vacumn-tubed version of a familiar voice. "Told one of you is my legacy. Find the door to the sanctum and meet me there. Can still blow the house if you fail."

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"That's as much an invitation as we're probably going to get," Erin decided, bounding onto a porch that was all at once familiar and strange. "I'll clear for traps." Without hesitation, she led the way through the house and towards the large grandfather clock she remembered so vividly from another day when the world had been about to end. Even in the dark and confusion of the night, it didn't take long to reach the clock, but she waited for Trevor to actually move the hands and open the door. It was his house after all, sort of.

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Trevor followed quickly behind Erin once Cobalt Templar set him down, only letting her go first without argument because he knew that if this alternate version of his grandfather had meant to attack them, they never would have gotten as far as the front door without incident anyway. Stepping up the grandfather clock, he moved both hands to point directly upward, striking midnight. As he did, he quietly spoke to the young woman beside him. "Didn't mean to worry you. Didn't meant to... do that," he admitted as the clock sank into the wall and revealed the staircase downward. "Disconcerting sensation."

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When the barrier went down, Cobalt Templar hovered into the air again and flew to meet the others, his gaze still largely pointing outwards, watching for trouble. Then the owner of the home had ordered them inside. He waited as the others filed in, before bringing up the rear.

"So, we're operating out of here, I guess? Seems like a very good choice for that. Should make it easier to plan how we get that bomb, yeah?"

He was looking around the outside and interior of the manor as he followed the others in. He'd never been in his universe's Midnight Manor, so it was a novel experience for him. On the flip side, part of him felt discomfort at all the obviously lethal weaponry laying around; intellectually, he understood this was basically a warzone still, and against Nazis no less. But in his heart, he was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of so much killing. It was why, despite the fire-based nature of his powers, he was always careful not to injure people. His discomfiture likely radiated off him in waves to Sage's mental senses, despite his comparatively tight mental control.

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The staircase down was lined with a gleaming red metal that the team recognized from months earlier on Earth-Prime: it looked like the Midnight of Erde had at some point lined his headquarters with the exterior plating of a Grue battleship. Even the sliding metal door at the bottom of the stairs looked alien, only reluctantly sliding open at their approach. Inside, the Night Bunker beckoned. Like a scene from Trevor's childhood gone wrong, what had once been a crimefighter's stronghold had become the scene of a freedom fighter's last stand. The darkness inside faded as the lights came on, the acrid aftertaste of some variant of midnight mist still in the air. The Midnight Cruiser, parked where it could face the door, was a massive black roadster that looked like a battleship on wheels, bristling with weapons deployed from a dozen hidden ports.

The room in general was covered in wall charts and pictures of what had to be Erde's Freedom City; a bombed-out, devastated place populated by forced laborers and a German garrison that looked mockingly confident as it rode roughshod over the beloved home of the young heroes. There was something personally insulting, Edge reflected, about that swastika flag flying over what was clearly the Claremont Academy, renamed the "Claremont Academy for Aryan Boys" from the sign out front. Maybe it was silly to see that, amid so many other horrors, but it was easier to focus on that rather than the mass graves out by Lonely Point, the Germans standing gloatingly in front of terrified, beaten Americans, and the trains of 'undesirables' being loaded under the watchful eye of the SS.

Dominating one whole wall was a row of pictures, some of whom Mark recognized: the civilian identities of the members of the Liberty League, various other independent mystery men of the 1940s, and one he vaguely recognized as Hamilton Jordon, Freedom City's native Congressional Medal of Honor winner from World War II. Underneath each faded black and white picture was a date, all of them between 1945 and 1953. It wasn't hard to guess what _that_ meant, especially not with the neatly stacked artifacts there: Johnny Rocket's costume, Bowman and Arrows' quivers, Freedom Eagle's flight harness, all of them lovingly polished but all showing signs of terrible violence done them.

Around the edge of the door where they stood, Trevor and Erin's sharp eyes made out a ring of material that was probably some local explosive; they could see signs of it elsewhere, as if the entire place was rigged. Sitting in the center of the mausoleum that was all that remained of Freedom City's heroes was the instantly recognizable figure of the first Midnight: Travis's face invisible of course behind a black mask, twin .45s by the flickering cathode ray screen in front of him. Glowing eyes glared at them as Travis' voice growled through the room, the acoustics seeming to make his voice come from everywhere.

"Few days ago. Man I saw last as a baby came to me as an old man. Said everything, everywhere, was in peril. Said you'd come and explain. And you happen to show up the day my key operative cracks and exposes me. WHY ARE YOU HERE?"

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Erin glanced over at Trevor as they descended the stairs. "You never mean to worry me when you do stuff like that," she muttered acerbically, but ran a light hand over his hair as they headed into the dark, settling it on his shoulder for mutual reassurance as they took in their first view of what Midnight Manor had become. It was overwhelming at first, more than the eye could take in. Erin had been to Erde before, she knew what it was like, but seeing the evidence of all the death and destruction firsthand was a very different thing.

"We don't know anything about your operative, but we took out the tanks and helicopters," Erin told Midnight I, focusing on tactics as a respite from history. "You have a little more time now. We're here because there a being called Omega trying to destroy all the universes, and we need to stop him. He planted a... it's a sort of bomb, but worse, somewhere on your world, and we have to find it and neutralize it before it's too late. If we can't do it, everything is going to be destroyed."

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Trevor winced a little at Erin's rebuke but pressed his shoulder against hers in a subtle gesture. For all the terrible scenes playing out on the monitors, all the heartbreaking memorials to fallen heroes, the tank like version of the familiar Night Cruiser, the thing that caught his eye were the hefty pistols near the owner of the concealed headquarter's gloved hands. Setting his jaw, the young man unfastened his own mask to reveal his pale face, fedora in hand to fully expose the obvious family resemblance. "Taught me raising your voice is admitting a loss of control," he remarked softly, stepping forward to stand at the front of the assembled youths. "Midnight is always in control. You." He tilted his chin toward the imposing alternate version of his grandfather then squared his own shoulders. "Me."

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The boy in blue armor blinked in surprise at the Grue armor. It was a bit of a shock that the original Midnight had gotten his hands on the stuff in this sort of timeline, but such was the way of the "cowls" (as some tended to call them).

'Trevor's probably got secret armored bunkers all over the city, or something. He's the sort whose prepared to not be prepared. Wait, does that even make any sense?'

When they emerged into the main cavern, he noticed the explosives around the door fairly quickly. He made sure he'd be ready in a moment's notice to put up a protective field around the others.

When the elder Midnight shouted, he flinched a bit.

'Note to self: Never make Trevor yell, it'll probably be worse.'

He shifted awkwardly in his place, not sure quite what to do in this situation, but deciding that "shutting up" probably wouldn't hurt.

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Erde's Midnight was silent, his face implacable as he rested in the shadows behind him, seeming to merge with them for a moment before he made a decision. He rose to his feet, neatly sliding his twin .45s into the holsters at his waist. He reached up and peeled away his mask, revealing the scarred, battered face of Travis Hunter beneath. He was in his prime in the 1950s; sixty years younger than the nonagerian Trevor knew, but somehow in his eyes the weather-beaten man before them looked even older. "Control has been a luxury I haven't always had. Midnight." He studied the others, giving Mark in particular a suspicious look, before focusing back on the young man who bore his legacy.

"Few weeks ago. Something fell from the sky. One of my men saw it; saw a Wehrmacht patrol take it. It's on Von Braun Island. Where they launch their V-3s to spy on us, and burn whatever pockets of resistance remain." He shook his head, and seemed to force himself to speak in a fashion easier for the others to understand. "Thought it might be the Unity back for Round 2 with the Ubersoldaten till I heard from Jimmy's boy. I can get you onto the island. If Midnight and his friends tell me the world needs saving...we'll save the world. Whatever it takes. How long can you stay?"

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"Time is of the essence, sir." Sage said in her accented English. "When I... interrogated one of your attackers I learned they were flying in scientists from Berlin to examine a device that glowed with cosmic power." The telepath was visibly uncomfortable in the presence of Travis, she vastly preferred the Earth-Prime version. And just once, Sage thought to herself, I'd like to travel to a world that I don't loathe.

"We need to find and defuse or destroy the reality bomb before the scientists activate it."

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"Not long," Trevor answered the elder Midnight, the young man's face clouding over subtly in the stark lighting of the Manor. "This is only our first stop. Reality bombs on multiple, interconnected worlds. Demolitions on an omniversal scale: take out support beams, whole building collapses." His explanation was short and clipped, difficult to follow for most people, but Travis Hunter in any version of reality was not a man who spare much time on unnecessary words. Tilting his chin slightly upward, the young man narrowed his onyx and ruby eyes. "We're very good at creating collateral damage on the way to an objective, however."

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