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"So are you listening?

So are you watching me?"

6.30pm Friday June 8th 2011

Siobhan Drake sighed as, once more, she was stuck in the tedious task on going through her email inbox and getting rid of all the cranks, naysayers and the occasional threat (and tonight, one slightly scary marriage proposal), to filter down to those people who actually wanted her help.

And what she saw made her sit up so rapidly that it dislodged a sleeping Hayley from her perch on Siobhan's shoulder and go crashing into the waste paper basket. <What? What's going on? Who's on fire?>

"Get the cordless phone," said Siobhan, clicking her fingers to turn into Equinox and stepping away from her laptop, but not before sending one quick message saying that help was on the way.

"I'm calling for back-up."

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Tonight was the somewhat rare night off for Eric. Sure, he had his death senses open and the Pale Horse parked down the street just in case, but tonight, he was going to go out on the town. He hadn't been at the Boardwalk for anything that wasn't business so far this summer -- zombie hitmen, who could imagine it -- so he was going to enjoy a night at the Riverrun and --

-- and his phone was ringing already. He checked the number -- it was Siobhan. Filing away his plans for the evening just in case, he answered. "Hey. What's up?"

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To Nick, Siobhan would have sounded noticeably terser than usual. "Get to my apartment, quickly. We've got another problem in a small town, and I think it's a whole lot bigger than Stratford." There came the sound of smoke being inhaled sharply. "I'd teleport there and get you, but I'm doing some quick research. But at least this time no one has to drive up there."

Nick heard the sound of a couple of books being tossed to the ground, then a muffled "Kinesi", and then the sound of turning pages. "OK, get here quick, I've got to phone another guy."

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In the training facilities of the Interceptors' underground base, the sibling duo of Jack of all Blades and Jill O'Cure were in the Wreck Room, practicing hand to hand combat. As the latter let loose a high snap kick, the intercom on the wall let out a sound like an antique rotary phone ringing as Vince routed and incoming phone call to the only members of the team actually present. Catching his sister's foot in one hand, Jack continued to hold it at shoulder height as he walked over to take the call, forcing Jill to hop after him with a string of particularly scathing expletives that could be heard in the background as he pressed the button to answer. "Interceptors, bad guys thwarted in thirty minutes or less or your pizza is free. Ask about our two for one sidekick special!"

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"This is a bad time," said Siobhan's voice wryly. "But I need your help. There's a town in the next county, and something is festering there. Can you get to my apartment soon, or do you need to me to come teleport you?"

"Damn, no recorded sightings in North America," she muttered. "Who's that voice in the background anyway, and why are they... well, turning the air blue by the sounds of it?"

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"Festering? Well now I wish I'd gone with my Janine Melnitz impression," Jack sighed in exaggerated annoyance. "Hmm? Oh, that's just my sister. Cut it out, Equinox needs a hand."

"Then let go of my foot," his younger sibling insisted through clenched teeth.

"Oh, right." Releasing the limb in question, he turned back to the intercom. "We'll be right over, Noxie, sit tight." Tapping a button to hang up the call, he jogged out into the hallway. "Get changed quick, she wouldn't have called if it wasn't big."

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The Pale Horse pulled up in front of Siobhan's apartment, and Nick Cimitiere stepped out into the night. After getting the call, he'd decided to change -- the fact that Equinox didn't feel she had enough time to either explain or send him a teleport likely meant that whatever had emerged was urgent, and it was likely that they would need to get out of Freedom as soon as possible. Besides, showing up to a now-public superheroine's apartment out of costume might have raised questions, especially as he still had to deal with the whole "secret identity" thing.

He knocked on the door, and entered when Equinox opened and gave him permission. "So what are we dealing with?" he asked. "Demonic infestation? Rampaging death cult? The mother of all risings?"

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Not long after Nick arrived below, the sound a fabric flapping in the wind overhead drew the eye upward to a pair of silhouettes in royal blue and crimson swinging from building to building on grappling lines with acrobatic ease. Jack and Jill landed lightly on the side of Equinox's apartment building, crouching nimbly on either side of her window and peering in at the unruly stacks of books and magical equipment strewn all about. "Sheesh, and I thought my room was a mess," Jill remarked quietly.

"Your room is a mess," Jack retorted as he rapped on the glass with one gloved knuckle.

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As Equinox cleared some space on her couch for her guests, the window unlatched itself and was shoved open by a grunting, straining Hayley, to let the brother-sister duo into the apartment. "We have doors," commented Siobhan wryly, opening up her laptop to reveal the email she'd been sent.

"Right, as you know, I've been trying to offer a source of support to the magical community lately, and have an email address set up for it," she said gravely. "A lot of them are cranks, but this one seems to be very genuine, especially after I took some time to Google the subject matter."

She whirled the laptop round to show Nick, Jack and Jill.

Ms Drake,

I hope you get this soon, because something strange has been going on in my town for months. A lot of people are acting strangely. People have disappeared. This has been going on ever since winter.

I've known for a while that I can do magic. Nothing major, just a couple of small household spells. But, this isn't just suspicious. I don't know what you can do or sense, but my town feels wrong. Even without the disappearances and people acting odd, there's a bad smell, but no one I've spoken to seems to notice it, and I think it must be some form of magic.

I've enclosed links to some news articles, and a map of the town. Please help me,

Christine Smith.

The email ended with maps of a town in the south of New Jersey called Haymarket, and articles on the website of a small local paper, and a couple of larger state-wide ones, listing several disappearances dated back to winter. There were even a couple of articles on assorted dogs and cattle being found dead, their internal organs stripped out and missing.

"I called you to help, because... well, this looks bad, and I'm not sure I want to just walk in there alone," explained Equinox.

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Nick took a look at the map of Haymarket and its place in the state. "Hmm..." he said. "Looks like the town's near the Pine Barrens. The Barrens have always had a running reputation of strange things running about - the Jersey Devil, stuff like that. It's also got a reputation of killing livestock." He took a look back over the message. "There aren't really many stories about the Devil bringing a miasma with it, though, so odds are pretty good it could be something else. We planning on setting out tonight?"

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"We could use the door, but you seem to be forgetting the part where were awesome instead," Jack noted with mock pomp while his sister did a poor job of concealing how taken she was with their hostess's furry companion.

The fencer scratched the light stubble on his chin with one thumb as Equinox and Nick discussed possible explanations for Ms. Smith's unease and the odd happenings in and around Haymarket. After a short pause he gave Jill a sidelong glance. "It means 'a really bad smell'," the young woman supplied obligingly.

Making a sound on comprehension, Jack turned back to the others. "Well, don't normally work outside the city, but this sounds easy. Get in, work a little mojo to track the big nasty down, perforate it a bit and humbly let the townsfolk throw some sort of produce-centric festival in our honor. I'm thinking rhubarb, is that in season right now?"

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Nick took a look at the map of Haymarket and its place in the state. "Hmm..." he said. "Looks like the town's near the Pine Barrens. The Barrens have always had a running reputation of strange things running about - the Jersey Devil, stuff like that. It's also got a reputation of killing livestock." He took a look back over the message. "There aren't really many stories about the Devil bringing a miasma with it, though, so odds are pretty good it could be something else. We planning on setting out tonight?"

"I've never heard anything about Devils attacking people, and never over so long a period," sighed Siobhan, shaking her head. Then she suddenly smiled. "And you're right about the miasma, it just doesn't seem right. The Barrens are old, though. There's no guarantee it's even a creature recent enough for us to have heard of." Siobhan rubbed at her forehead. "But we're leaving tonight. I've burned too much energy teleporting in the past, so I've put all my practice time recently into learning how to do it without burning myself out at an unnecessary rate. I should be able to get us there in a couple of jumps."

"We could use the door, but you seem to be forgetting the part where were awesome instead," Jack noted with mock pomp while his sister did a poor job of concealing how taken she was with their hostess's furry companion.

Hayley, glad of the attention, began snuggling up to Jill and making happy squeaking noises, rearing up on her hind legs to pull at her trousers to try and get even more fussing over. <Do you have cookies? Or hugs? You smell funny, but do you have cookies?>

Making a sound on comprehension, Jack turned back to the others. "Well, don't normally work outside the city, but this sounds easy. Get in, work a little mojo to track the big nasty down, perforate it a bit and humbly let the townsfolk throw some sort of produce-centric festival in our honor. I'm thinking rhubarb, is that in season right now?"

Rolling her eyes at her familiar's continual lack of professionalism, Siobhan smiled. "Don't these festivals always revolve around corn? And flannel shirts? But I'd not get your hopes up on that working. It could just be one nasty that can be beaten up. Or it could be something a lot worse. Not every magical problem can be hit until it falls down, or we wouldn't really need to do so much reading." She grimaced. "And even after assaulting my notes, I've still got nothing."

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"Sounds like somebody hasn't been hitting her problems hard enough," Jack observed in a singsong voice, placing his hands behind his head and rocking backward on his heels as he looked innocently upward.

Bending down with a grin to scratch the insistent raccoon behind her ears, Jill noted, "You can argue with him if you like, but he's enjoyed an unfortunate amount of success without all the reading, so he's hard to convince."

"I'm just saying, you can usually spot the bad thing because it's making a speech about eternal night or rivers of blood or just trying to eat you," Jack clarified, shrugging into his greatcoat, "then when you hit it, it stops doing those things and everything typically works out."

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"Well, the Devil's not exactly a demon -- or at least, I'm not sure that it's infernal," Nick said. "It's more of a cryptid-like entity, like the Loch Ness Monster or the Mothman. No one really knows what it is, so there are a bunch of folk tales that go around about what the hell it could be."

He looked to Equinox. "And so what if we've got nothing?" Nick said. "There have been times where I've gone into situations like this with a lot less than that. What matters is we get in there, we figure out what's going on, and we find a way to put it to rest. In the end, that's really what's important."

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Siobhan smiled wryly. "Oh, I know we could easily do it, it just makes me very uneasy. Last time we did it, we ended up fighting a demon that was first bound by Solomon. It's always necessary to fight even if you don't have any idea of what you're walking into, but it's still far from ideal to do so. Even if we do have much more versatility in what he can hit things with than just a sword..."

She gestured to Hayley, and the raccoon reluctantly pulled away from the petting to bound over and leap up onto the couch, then her arm and then her shoulder, giving a slightly peeved jab to the witch's ear. "[colour=#000040]Ouch. Anyway, we're not going to make any progress in finding out what it is sitting here talking about how I haven't found out anything. Could everyone hold hands, please?[/colour]"

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"Hey now!" Jack protested as he moved to link hands with the others as instructed. "No fair giving a guy a hard time about his sword without even waiting to see if it's up to the task."

"Dios..." Jill muttered under her breath as she followed suit, taking her brother's hand while he extended on to Equinox, then turning to reach toward Nick. "I hope we're teleporting, 'cause he's got enough of these for a whole road trip."

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"Yeah, and that demon kept getting its ass sent back down to the Pit in two seconds time each time it came up against us," Nick said. "Perhaps it's more necessary than we'd like that we have to fight these things back to whatever dark corner they crawl out of. But hey, we can actually do it, and that's often what counts." He took Equinox's hand as she readied the spell. No need for doom and gloom; we're about to plunge into unfamiliar territory anyway. We could stand to be slightly upbeat. Positive thinking and all that."

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"Alright," said Siobhan, clasping Nick and Jack's hands tightly. "Let's do this."

"Hermes runs across the world in a blink,

Bounds across nations before you can blink,

Lend me a portion of that agility and speed,

Spirit us there in our hour of need!"

The group disappeared in a flash of white light.


They reappeared in the middle of a field, surrounded by cows. By sheer coincidence, a chicken was in the middle of the circle they'd formed, clucking away bemused. Siobhan shrugged. "I said it'd take a couple of trips," she said as they faded into white light again...


The hilltop they arrived on was covered in trees, and around them... more trees, as far as the eye could see. At the foot of the hill, a small town was visible, consisting of maybe 30-40 buildings, most of them small cottages and bungalows. The village looked quiet as the grave, with very few people on the streets as twilight began to descend upon the area.

And the air stunk, flaring up the Jack and Equinox's magic senses with the stench of rotting carcasses and spilled blood. Nick didn't quite get the same impression from his more specialized senses but somewhere in the woods behind them was a nagging sense of death, tinged by the hateful screams of violence and misery.

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Nick took a second to check the soles of his boots once they touched down outside the village. "Well, as long as I didn't land in any cow patties, I think I'm okay," he said. Once he was done inspecting his soles, however, he felt the influence of pervasive, tortured death digging at the back of his head. He turned to face the woods... and it flooded over him, the smell of spilled blood and an echoing scream...

He wrenched his head away from the woods. "Yeah, there's definitely something here," Nick said. "Guessing we might wanna talk to the locals first."

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While Jill took a few steps to reorient herself after the series of teleportations, briefly waving her hands at the wrist and pulling a face, he brother shuddered with a broad grimace as he placed both hands across his masked face. "Ugh, it's like somebody dropped a slushball of evil down the back of my shirt," the metamagi groaned, looking about as if expecting to see the obvious source of the unpleasant feeling standing out in the open nearby. "Gah. Alright, let's go make some new friends."

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Equinox didn't bother looking alarmed at the countryside, or checking for cow excrement. Having grown up in the city, and on various army bases, she actually enjoyed hiking.

Instead, she pulled out a packet of cigarettes and popped one in her mouth. "We're going to have to, Nick," she said in a slightly muffled voice as she clicked her fingers to light the cigarette. "Seriously, that miasma... it's everywhere. I'm not sure I'd be able to identify something magical in all this without directly touching what I'm sensing for."

With a weary sigh, she began walking down towards the town. "I have to admit, I don't know much about locating problems besides just knowing they're there, do any of you have any ideas how to go about this?"

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"You've got that right," Nick said. "Usually I'm able to get a more distinct bead on death in situations like this. This forest, though? Last time I felt something like it was when I went up to Gettysburg... and it was a lot less fresh, then." He didn't want to mention the certain associations that came with that -- the idea that they would inevitably have to walk into an abattoir.

"Fortunately, I think there's something I can bust out." He put his hand on the ground. "The Moirae usually know their stuff -- though they have a damn funny way of getting the word out. Let's see what they have to say." He opened his mouth, and waited for the voice of dead ages to speak through him.

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The voice spoke swiftly, running through Nick's mind at full speed and escaping his lips with the dry moaning of old hinges. "The beasts in the field hoard and hunger... the bailiff is feast for hounds... the spare season strikes all..."

Nick broke from his trance suddenly, stumbling backwards as he regained his senses. "Well," he said, "that was... vivid. The Moirae don't exactly see history as others do, but they can sure relay it with all the details. Sounds like the beasts in the area have been acting weird, killing livestock and dragging it back to the woods." His expression soured. "And the sheriff, too."

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While Nick communed with the local spirits, Jack and Jill slipped away into the town proper. A little while later, a gregarious pair of siblings in plainclothes walked into a diner on the edge of the community, introducing themselves as Andy and Anne, respectively, the elder brother talking a seat at the counter and ordering a stack of pancakes and a piece of pie while he chatted up the waitress while the younger sister flipped idly through the selections on the jukebox in the corner which happened to be within earshot of the hushed conversations taking place in the booths nearby.

Andy mentioned some vague comment by a gas station attendant the pair had met on the way into town, and learned that a trio of teenagers had gone missing on their way back from a high school some miles away, along with a local farmer who had never shown up at the market the week before. In each case, the missing persons' vehicle and home had been found abandoned with no trace of their owners. As the sienna toned young man listened with rapt interest, slipping more than a few compliments about the waitress' eyes into the exchange, Anne eavesdropped on the group eavesdropping on her brother, who grew uncomfortable at the topic, noting the strange way the pillars of the community, the sheriff, grocer and elementary school principal had been reacting to the disappearances strangely, making excuses to secret themselves away and seeming distracted. One diner patron brought up the idea that they might be behind the vanishings in the first place, but was quickly hushed by the others in his booth.

The siblings excused themselves once Andy had secured an entire pie for the road, and not long after Jack and Jill reappeared to share their gathered intelligence and pastry.

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"Okay, so the sheriff's not dead," Nick said once Jack and Jill relayed their findings, "otherwise that would probably be the talk of the town. But the hounds did get to him... question is, why? Could be they dragged him off, brought them to their master, and lined him up for possession. Or probably just simple intimidation; it'd be a great deal easier to throw about your dread powers over tooth and claw and convince the law to stay away than shove some spirit in there and hope it can put on a convincing show." He adjusted his jacket. "Either way, I think it'd be a good idea if we went to go talk to one of these pillars of the community and see if we can find who's really in the driver's seat."

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