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Avenger Assembled

Moloch's Champions (GM)

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"First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear'd with blood

Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,

Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,

Their children's cries unheard that passed through fire

To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE

Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,

In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream

Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such

Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart

Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build

His Temple right against the Temple of God

On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove

The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence

And black GEHENNA call'd, the Type of Hell."

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

September 15, 2012

Speaker's Corner

4:00 PM

The young man on the soapbox was handsome and charismatic, his black hair in that mussed-up look that took young men so much effort to cultivate, his red sweater and blue jeans a perfect combination of intellectualism and working-class that made him the sort of person who looked like he could be anybody. That's what Speaker's Corner was for, after all, a long-time Freedom City tradition in the heart of Midtown where street preachers, would-be politicians, scientific cranks, and anti-Masons climbed aboard the soapbox at the corner of Blanchard and Morgan and tried to convert the crowd. They usually weren't successful, but the box had become a part of neighborhood culture. The current one was actually made of stone, a bit of well-used, worn-smooth street sculpture that dated back to the 1970s. Handsome though the young man was, it was a busy workday and the last speaker had been gone for a while. No one paid much attention to him until he began to speak. And when he did, what things he had to say!

"Hearken to the Word!" he called, spreading his hands to greet the crowd, his dark-eyed gaze seeming to bore into everyone who looked his way, before he began to speak. "The holy word, my brothers and sisters, of the One Who Waits For Us Beyond! There is no darkness or pain in the realm of the Watcher and Waiter, there is no anguish or suffering in those who have known the embrace of the One True Lord. I speak, of course, of the Dark Father of the Multiverse, the Alpha and Omega of Creation and Destruction, the Knight of Entropy: OMEGA!" He'd worked himself up to a peak of high emotion at the last word, and at his shout a crowd began to form. It wasn't a friendly one; most people were staring in bafflement as if waiting for the performance art to begin, while others were beginning to grow hostile.

"From the beginning of time, our Dark Father has watched us and guarded us! Protecting us from the hostile multiverse by culling the weak and calling the strong unto his bosom! When he comes to our world, he comes not as a conqueror but as a CHANGER! Liberating us from our flesh and bone so that we might t ascend until his very BOSOM!" He pounded one fist into the other, sweat beginning to form on his face; not from the increasingly angry stares of a growing, hostile crowd, swelling more and more with the crowd leaving work, but from the sheer fire of his words.

"The past is over! A future has begun for you, for me, for all of us, where we may all be called into the arms of entropy! I tell you She is no destroyer! The dark embrace of entropic power is no curse, it is a blessing of primal power! We all came from the Crawling Chaos of beyond and one day we will once again be liberated into that all-consuming fire of salvation, through the power and glory of the Dark Mother and Dark Father! Come with me, and I will show you a future where you need fear no man on Earth!" Smiling, he extended his hand into the crowd towards a pretty girl...who spat on it. The young evangelist either didn't notice or didn't care, but the crowd of Freedomites was beginning to get angry.

"Go back to Providence, you freak!" someone yelled.

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Eric LaCroix had finished a morning shift at the Black Petal and decided that he could stand to wander about Downtown before turning his mind towards the night work. He'd picked up a croque gagnet and caramel latte from a French place in Midtown and made his way to the Corner, hoping to get some entertainment during his lunch. This... wasn't exactly what he'd been expecting. He'd read somewhere that the laws of the universe dictated any position, no matter how abhorrent, would have at least one devotee somewhere on the face on the earth. And he'd just run smack dab into one of them.

He set his lunch aside, hoping that the planter was security enough from the swarms of pigeons, and watched the sermon the same way one would watch a drunk businessman trying to karaoke his way through "Bohemian Rhapsody." He kept his eyes on the masses, none of whom looked pleased to hear "the blessed word of Omega." You'd think he'd find something more popular to sell to these people, he thought, like cancer that punches your dog in the face.

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"None of you can see," said the young evangelist with a certain nod, his voice getting harder for Nick to hear over the sound of the crowd. Maybe thirty people were interlocuting the Omegan cultist directly, but a larger group was forming to watch _them_. It was going to get ugly, especially as more and more people left work. He could hear distant sirens, but so far the police were showing no signs of intervening. "You have been blinded by false priests and false gods. COWARDS who have kept you from the future of liberation you deserve because they fear change! Don't let them blind you to the joys of the future that-

" Someone's Big Gulp from the convenience store in the nearby skyscraper crashed off his head in a shower of ice and blue juice as the crowd laughed, but the young evangelist looked undeterred. "Violence is the last resort of small and petty minds. If you didn't fear the truth, why would you be so angry?"

A moment later, a roar in the sky made everyone look up, and a few people screamed! An Omegadrone roared down from the clear blue sky overhead, jet spewing black and red flame behind him, and the crowd was a moment away from panicking as the silent, faceless figure landed opposite the Terminus evangelist. Having fought alongside him before, Nick recognized the pitted armor and massive frame of Harrier, Freedom City's Omegadrone hero.

"Look at me, fool." Normally Steve was more polite, even with idiots, but this particular brand of madness never failed to put him on edge; his cold, flat machine voice cutting through the crowd like a knife. "Look at your words made flesh. Step off the platform and walk away." Despite Harrier's formidable and terrifying presence, enough that the crowd had fallen silent as the grave and taken a few steps back, the young Omega cultist was unimpressed.

"Pfah. With the blood on your hands, drone, you dare speak to me about MY words? I have called these people to truth and light, exercising my rights as a citizen of Freedom, and committed no crime save being brave." He turned up his nose at Harrier. "How many children did you murder today, monster?""

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Eric had just planned on sitting back and watching the fireworks, but now there was an outstanding chance of those becoming literal. It had been a while since he'd met with Harrier in the field - though he still wasn't over some of the things he'd seen in the Victorian. Putting him up against actual cultists of the Terminus would be hilarious, if you found justified homicide to be a joke. He ducked behind the tree, drawing up the doorway - after the little incident where Hades had proven to be much displeased with him, he'd decided to move his costume into a spare chamber in Osiris's pyramid. It had taken a lot of effort, but there was less chance of having Cerberus end up right in his face. He reemerged at Speaker's Corner as Nick Cimitiere, clad in black and skull makeup.

"Well, now, that's a funny claim to make," he said. He strode up to the plinth, slow and deliberate. "See, I imagine I've seen nearly every sort of death upon this earth. Well, save for some of the really weird ones. I like to think I've seen the end of all things in miniature on a daily basis. And in turn, I've seen what comes after. I've seen fields of paradise and endless deserts, marble halls and chambers where the sin's expunged with hot pokers. I've seen promise, rebirth, and life everlasting... and I've seen your Terminus, too."

He closed the distance with the speaker, staring him right in the eyes. "And either you're one of the finest liars in existence, or you have no goddamn idea what you're talking about. There's no peace in there. No repose. It's nothing but the great cosmic garbage disposal. And everyone gets caught in the teeth."

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"Look! They come out like so many locusts to devour the truth from your mouth! They-"

Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once. "Down!" shouted Harrier in alarm, and he thrust his pike into the box beneath the speaker's feet a moment before an eruption of black energy cascaded from it in an explosive rush over the crowd.

CACHOOM!

The blast shattered windows across the sidewalk and bowled down pedestrians from the shockwave; car alarms and screams of pain breaking the momentary stillness as two dozen people who'd been standing in close proximity to a pavement-cracking explosion found themselves bleeding and battered on the sidewalk. Everyone was hurt, only Nick and Harrier, protected by their mutual armors, were uninjured.

Harrier's pike was still sticking out of the pavement, just at the feet of the young evangelist who was most very definitely dead, torn to pieces by the explosion. And with screams of sirens in the air, the police finally arrived.

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The word of warning gave Nick just enough time to try and crack together a ward... but protective telekinesis wasn't exactly his strongest suit, and the energy of the blast tore it to shreds. It was only by grace of his jacket that Nick hadn't taken a similar licking from the explosion, and he was much luckier than some of the crowd. Immediately, he was moving through the injured masses, performing triage. Ectoplasm flowed into open wounds and broken limbs, knitting shattered bone and binding together damaged flesh. All the while, his eyes kept darting back to the wreckage of the podium, and the broken body of the young doomsayer.

Except... there was no body. Just a simulacrum, something his death senses told him had all the life of a CPR dummy. It had been pasted together from glamour and illusion, like a stillborn tulpa. Which means they planned all this. It was a sham the entire way. He looked back over the wounded masses, returning to his ministrations. I think it's time that kid got a taste of what death is really like...

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The police arrived to see an Omegadrone with a recently discharged weapon amid a crowd of bodies and made the natural, albeit wrong conclusion. "DROP THE WEAPON! HANDS IN THE AIR NOW!" the cops shouted, guns out and drawing down on the heavily armed cyborg. Harrier did as they commanded, dropping the pike to the ground and putting his spiked hands on his head. "There was a bomb under the podium! He killed himself with his device!" he called to Nick, evidently not as wise to Nick that the body at his feet was fake. And Harrier had seen a lot of those in his time. "I tried to deflect the blast, it...it could have been worse. Unspoken among Steve's horror at the moment was the simple fact that if he had fired his weapon to kill those civilians, they would all be dead. And that was something he knew from personal experience.

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Nick swiftly walked up to the cops, noticing that their attentions - and their guns - had quickly fallen on Harrier. "He's telling the truth," Nick said. "This was a set-up. In more ways than one." He pointed towards the corpse, drawing the attention of the police from the former Omegadrone towards the simulacrum that had been left behind. He bent his fingers like a cat's cradle, trying to slip into the threads of magic that had been tied together to create such a likeness. After getting a good bead on the magic, he began to twist and rend.

To the eyes of the crowd, the corpse began to change. It didn't rot, didn't twist, and didn't distort; rather, it changed colors, going from red to blue to the multiple hues of a TV test pattern. "It's a construct. Magic made solid. Whoever put this whole thing together, they're a practitioner. And they really wanted a martyr." He snapped his fingers, and the "corpse" vanished with the sound of a soap bubble popping.

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With a superhero like Nick Cimiterie backing up his story, the police reluctantly lowered their weapons and went to help with emergency services: tending the two dozen or people injured by the blast that had 'killed' the cultist. There were several severe injuries, but with the police on the scene those hurt were soon whisked off to hospital. His pike retrieved, Harrier stood a mute sentinel of terror on the blasted street corner, face, body, and pose all invisible beneath the spiked armor that was today not much protection at all. The moment; the explosion, the 'corpse', the screams of the wounded innocents, it had all been too terribly vital, so much like the horrors of his past that it was hard to pull himself away from them. When Nick passed by, the Omegadrone murmured to him.

"I have heard his kind before. In other places, other times, beneath the shadow of the towers of Nihilor. To see him here, now, and for it to end like that is...grim." He fell silent, then that great spiked head turned and seemed to study Nick. "I did not recognize him. Can your spells find where he went, or what his purpose was here?"

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Just then, a flash of red and white blazed through the deepening blue of the sky, arcing downward to speed between the buildings in a blur of color and light. Even in the middle of Freedom City, jaded superhero capital of the world, people looked up and pointed when Miss Americana flew by. Today she did not pause to smile and wave, she was obviously on a mission. She zeroed in on the speaker's corner and landed next to Harrier, concern writ large on her lovely face. "I heard the chatter on the police radio," she told him, putting her hands on his upper arms and looking him over for signs of damage. "They said an Omega cultist was inciting a riot, and there was an explosion involving an Omegadrone. Are you all right?"

Belatedly she noticed Nick, giving him a smile that was no less potent for all it was an absent afterthought. "Oh, hello Nick. I didn't know you were here too."

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"Hey, Miss Americana," said Nick, "Well, it's broad daylight and there are plenty of people around, so this isn't exactly where I'd expect myself to be either. As for tracking them down, should be relatively easy. Just need to switch out my eyes."

The task wasn't as gruesome as Nick made it sound - but he needed to keep up his credibility somehow. He closed his eyes, taking account of his extraordinary senses. There was the attunement that let him see immaterial ghosts. There was the "third ear" that let him hear the silent scream that went up whenever a sapient life was ended, and let him get a feel for the resonance of deaths elapsed. And then, there was the innate understanding of the various threads that held together a spell, the "colors" and "weaves" of magic. Normally he couldn't trace the threads back to their source - but that was normally. Taking a deep breath, he worked to... juggle his senses. It was a bit like trying to read a thermometer while keeping it between your lips - possible, but fading in and out and capable of causing eyestrain. But when he opened his eyes again, he saw the trail of magic leading off into the distance.

"Got it," he said. "Maybe we should go knock on the evangelist's door with some of the good news. Namely, that he might get to keep his teeth."

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"I am fine. The cultist created a false corpse in order to spread terror, then detonated a bomb." said Steve without hesitation, but of course Gina knew that he wouldn't complain if he was on fire. "Disquieted by the news that there are Omegan cultists loose in Freedom City, much less ones with the confidence to stage an attack like this." Distracted as he was, it took Harrier a moment to realize that Miss Americana was nearly embracing him, horror and all, in public view of everyone, and despite everything else that made him feel better. "It is good to see you, Miss Americana," he said, relaxing a fraction from his usual ramrod-stiff posture in her embrace.

Nick followed the young evangelist's path like a ghost, eventually ending his 'scan' in what looked like a converted church in Lantern Hill. He could feel the magic in the room, a hint of hoodoo and Egyptian, with something else, a hateful curl of entropic darkness that was all-too-familiar to any magician who battled the dead. The black-haired young man was arguing with someone, a white-haired young man in a green work shirt, their silent argument growing heated before the interlocuter turned and seemed to vanish out the door like smoke, the evangelist taking a moment to gather himself before the object before the altar that was the strange holy symbol of the church: a woman with skin black like obsidian, in a strange red garment that hung oddly on her body. When he was done, he smiled, turned, and walked out of the church and into his encounter with Harrier, Nick, and the crowd.

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"All right, good." Miss A relaxed a bit as well when it became obvious that he had no new physical or mental damage. "I was a little worried after last time you had a run-in with the authorities while you weren't in costume. And you ought to be in costume," she reminded him with a half-smile, keeping her voice low. "I went to a lot of trouble putting that thing together to keep you out of trouble." She patted the side of his mask as though she were patting his cheek, then turned to Nick. "That sounds like an excellent plan," she told the young necromancer, a hint of vengeance behind her bland look. "Mind if I tag along and lend a hand?"

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It wasn't quite what he was expecting - the Terminus sorcerer must have had some sort of ward up to keep him from being tracked. At least this one diverted his senses rather than blowing up in his face. However, one of the side effects of the little sensory blockade was that some of his other senses kicked in to compensate. Such as his connection to the Fates.

"Black and white sides of a lead coin..." The croaking was part theatricality, part necessity; opening up his mind to the perception of the Fates, who saw creation, duration, and destruction all at once, required a little bleed-off to keep the sheer overstimulation from sending him to the ground. "Hallowed halls turned to God's crypt... scarlet like blood, black like night, the woman who sings lullabies and elegies..."

The feed cut off, and Nick turned to Harrier and Miss Americana as soon as he was sure he was seeing out of his own eyes again. "I think I got his hideout," he said. "Looked like this deconsecrated church I saw in Lantern Hill. He's got a colleague - white-haired guy, similar age, can either teleport or move really fast. They had an altar set up, too. Strange figure - black skin, red cloak. Kinda reminded me of some versions of Erzulie."

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Steve's mother bent down to look him in the eye, gazing into her eight-year-old's eyes with fiery determination. They were standing amid a crowd of mothers and their children, some eager, some weeping, as they stood in the shadow of the great transport, the skies overhead the red and black glow that were all the young boy had ever known. This was the Black Ghetto of Nihilor, and it was time for the Gathering. Omegadrones loomed on the rooftops, their black, spiky forms one of the countless terrors of the young boy's life, as he listened to his mother with rapt attention.

"Don't go with them, Steve. You know what she is. I told you about her. You know what happens." She straightened up a moment later, the fallen Annihilist, and stood with her son before her as she was supposed to when she came down the row of thin, starving, big-eyed children of the proles. There was already a crowd behind her, children holding each other's hands, and hers, a trail of dirty faces and shabby clothes behind her like twin tails.

A black figure in red stopped before them both and looked his mother in the eye with a sneer of deep, boiling contempt.These two knew each other of old.

"Sally."

"Conjure." Steve felt his mother's hands tighten on his bony shoulders as the Black Madonna's gaze fell upon him...

"I am familiar with the person you describe," said Harrier in a mechanical voice like death warmed over. "Not the cultists. The goddess they worship. An Annihilist who I do not believe has been active on this planet. I am glad you are here, Miss Americana, and you as well, Nick. We must...we must deal with this, and quickly, before whatever they worship there can spread. There are evil gods in the world of men." And with that, he took off into the air, hovering on a jet of black and red flame for a moment before the others followed him.

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Miss Americana looked up as Harrier took off, seeming surprised for a moment by Harrier's vehemence, then turned to Nick. "Sounds like we're on the move," she said with her customary good cheer. "Can I offer you a lift?" With the necromancer's assent, she tugged on the decorative accents of her costume, the morphic molecules stretching into straps similar to a tandem parachute harness. "More comfortable than grabbing you by the armpits," she commented with a chuckle, "and I don't have an anti-grav field." A moment's work had them harnessed together, then she took off into the sky after the agitated Omegadrone. "Just tell us where to go," she told Nick, turning in the direction of Lantern Hill.

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"Gladly," Nick said, "especially since I kinda left my car on the other side of town." He slipped into the straps that appeared out of Miss Americana's costume, tying himself in tight. It wasn't like he didn't have experience with unmanned flight, but he wanted to make absolutely sure. Once he was secure, he gave the signal and prepared for take-off.

"All right, a little to the left... yeah, straight on..." Seeing Freedom City from on high wasn't something Nick did much. Occasionally, when he was astrally projecting, he'd try to get a nice aerial detail of the city, for if he wanted to take up the brush again. But those occasions were rare, and the ones where he got to do it in the flesh were even rarer. "Hell of a view..." He turned up to Miss Americana, at least as far as he could. "You've gotta love a perspective like this."

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"Your name is Steve, isn't it? That's a pretty name." Her eyes flicked up at Sally's for a moment, challengingly, before looking at her son again. "I can see you've had it very tough growing up down here in the Ghetto. But do you know what? It doesn't have to be that way." She gave him a dazzling smile; her mouth full of teeth perfectly white like bleached and polished bone. "All of you, all the children of Nihilor, have been blessed with a great gift by our Dark Father Omega. Come with me back to my home, Steve, and I can help you unlock that beautiful gift and give you a beautiful life."

Steve glanced up at his mother and saw her as if for the first time, her face, white and thin, eyes wide beneath her tangled mass of hair as she looked down at him silently. "...what about everyone else?" the boy finally asked, his voice cracking with unaccustomed fear. "How could I be happy when everyone else lives here?" Steve had learned from an early age that this was not the natural state of things; that people weren't meant to live in the cold and the dark and the hunger and the pit with the monsters. There were other worlds out there, worlds where his parents had once been, long long ago. Before...

"Oh, honey, don't you know?" She asked him, her eyes like sparkling diamonds. "This is their fault. The dirt, the hunger, the fear, that's all because your parents turned against the Dark Father. Just like all these others, who make their children live this way because they don't love them enough to love Omega more." she said with a glance at the rows of blank-faced, silent now-childless parents who had just given their own offspring to her keeping. "You don't have to live like this. Come with me, and I can make you happy. I can be the mother you deserve..." She smiled, and reached her hand out to his.

Harrier brooded silently on the trip, lost in the grim memories of the dark streets of Nihilor, landing on the church's front walkway with a solid thump as massive steel body made contact with asphalt at speed. As his jetpack's flames died down behind him, he hesitated, briefly considering simply blasting down the front doors before remembering where he was and who he was with. As Miss A and Nick joined him, he took the moment to read the sign for the 'non-denominational' church. "The Church of the All-Loving Onyx Mother." When he turned from the sign, simple gold letters beneath a wood carving of a female form cast in black with red drapings, there was loathing in his voice. "Yes. Yes, this is in her name. The Black Madonna. A taker of children."

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Miss A grinned at Nick's words, her chuckle more felt than heard through her chest pressed against his back. "Best view in the city," she agreed, before angling down for a landing. The shadows were beginning to gather as the sun sank in the western sky, lending an even deeper air of menace to the already sketchy-looking "church." "I've never been too fond of Lantern Hill," she admitted softly as she undid the straps that released Nick from the harness. "A little too spooky for me." She caught up with Harrier at the door to the church, already lifting her pad computer to find out everything there was to know about this building. "What do you know about her?" she asked Harrier, mentally bracing for things she probably didn't want to hear.

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Nick grimaced where he heard Harrier's description; it called to mind something much darker than Erzulie. "Der Kindersdieb," he said softly, "the Witch That Walks Between Worlds. I always thought it was one of those folklore bits, like Bigfoot..." He regained his composure. "Sorry. Der Kindersdieb is this archetypal witch, the child-thief. Some think she's the truth behind various child-catcher witch myths - like the one in the gingerbread house, or Baba Yaga. Then again, I know people who've met Baba Yaga, so it could be a chicken-egg thing there. There've been a few recorded encounters with her throughout the years - always powerful, always capable of thrashing other mystics, and very focused on 'special' kids."

Nick looked to the door of the church. "If she is from the Terminus, that might explain her strength, and how she's been around for this long. This... could be bad news." He adjusted his jacket, drawing it up. "Then again, she's targeting kids. It may be tough, but she does deserve to get her ass kicked up between her ears."

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"...I..." Steve stuttered, his dry throat raw as he stared up at the smiling-faced woman. From deep down inside him came his reply, an eruption of boiling emotion from the very heart of the skinny, starving boy. "...no! NO! I wanna stay here!" The raw child's scream caught the attention of everyone in the cleared 'parade ground', and the Black Madonna stood up with a sneer on her face.

"Well, I see that sense runs in the family," she said cuttingly to Steve's mother, not even sparing a glance for the boy who had defied her. "You and Ben raised your son in your own image. You must be proud." With a sneer, she pointed away from the massing groups of parentless children and children-less parents all around them. "You'd better go. Steelgrave's decree hasn't changed. Have a long life down here where you belong, Sally."

And then she began moving down the line of parents and children again, smiling sweetly and talking to them with a voice full of sweet love, gathering them to her side like a flock of starving angels as their parents stepped away under the Black Madonna's flashing eye and the guns of the Omegadrones keeping watch. Sally took Steve's hand and began to walk, faster and faster, until she was almost running. It took Steve a moment to hear the words she was whispering to him, faster and faster with every step, as if they were a spell of their own to whisk them from the clearing.

"Don't look back, don't look back, don't look back..."

"The Black Madonna takes children and gives them to the cause of Omega," replied Harrier to Miss Americana, answering Nick's words as well. "She was a mighty magus before she fell, dragging her world into black flame with her as she went. She goes among those altered by entropy and makes them her own, then makes them Omega's. She walks the worlds by night, taking those the world fears and hates and making them repay hate with the all-consuming fires of the Giga-Genocide. Her children become the willing, living soldiers in Omega's armies. Monsters who would burn a world and smile to see the same smile upon her face. And sometimes, the streets of Nihilor. I knew her as a child. And as her guard." he confessed, agony twisted hot in his voice. "If her cult is here among entropic mutants, it is...a crisis." He raised his head, and eyed the door. "Let us...let us go in."

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"Wait," Miss Americana put a hand on Harrier's arm to stop him. "You can't just go barging into something like this, not if she's as bad as you and Nick are saying. We talked about this, remember?" She gave him a significant look, finding the ever-so-faint outline of his eyes behind the faceplate. "We find another way, or we get reinforcements and go in that way. But first, we make a plan." She closed her eyes for a moment, putting a hand to her temple in the classic "psychic communication" pose. "Someone will watch the church." Gesturing to the others, she fell back, away from the building and out of sight of the occupants, hopefully.

When they had a little distance, she spoke again. "When you say she goes after entropic mutants, Harrier, you mean what we call Terminus babies, right? The children who were mutated by the 93 invasion? She wouldn't find much to interest her here, not anymore. The youngest of them are already old enough to drive, and most of them are practically adults. Like these two." She turned the screen to face the men, revealing the photos of two young men, one of whom looked very much like the street preacher. "Thomas and William Shepard," she explained, "heirs to the Shepard Sweets fortune, and joint partners in Black Onyx LLC, the brand new corporation that owns the church. They were Claremont students about five years back, but were expelled for conduct unbecoming. Apparently they were trying to start some kind of cult." She pursed her lips, looked to the building. "She may have gotten hold of a couple of children after all."

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Nick kept his eyes trained on the church, focusing his altered sight on the general "air" of magic surrounding the building. If something started up inside - be it a ritual, a ceremony, or a visit by "Mommy" herself - he'd be the first to know. "What sort of magic does she use?" Nick asked Harrier. "Not asking for styles or practices, but mainly techniques. Seeing as she's getting a huge burst from the Terminus, I'm guessing it's not gonna be flowers and sunshine. Maybe I could set up a ward if we had the time..."

He paused as Miss Americana talked about the two kids who'd tried to establish a cult to the Black Madonna. "It makes sense," he said. "Kids of that age are likely to try and dabble in some sort of alternative religion. That's why you get a lot of high school Wiccans. Of course she'd use that to gain ground..." He shook his head. "We got any plans for the gruesome twosome? I know they're old enough to be culpable, but... well, if the poison got in young..."

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An Earth-Prime child might have looked back at his mother's words by sheer reflex, but Steve was a child of the streets of Nihilor and had been intimately acquainted with horrors from a young age. When his mother told him not to look, he fixed his gaze forward even as the Black Madonna began to speak, her voice ringing through the darkened square in triumph. "My children, my children, the beautiful children of Nihilor. Today begins a new day for you; a day of glory and honor, where you can take your place among the sons and daughters of Omega without fear. But before that day comes, the old must be-"

Screams and cries interrupted her; not from the square behind them, but from before: the line of Omegadrones that neatly blocked the gateway out held off a crowd of parents, the mates and progenitors of those taken or waiting in the square, a sea of starving prole humanity in all its shapes and sizes, weeping and pleading for mercy to the dead eyes and mute ears of Omegadrones. They know it won't work! They know it won't work! came the desperate thought in the boy's mind as he saw the faces beyond the out-stretched pikes of the terrifying mechanical abominations. He knew that Omegadrones were terrible killing monsters to run and run and run from; why were these people trying to beg?

His mother had been running as she held his hand, but she crashed to a halt at the sight of the mourning mob beyond the line of pikes, almost falling to the pitiless diamond-hard and black ground of Nihilor before she pulled herself back to her feet. His head turned for a moment, and Steve saw that the Black Madonna was still talking, standing high on the stage where she'd first spoken to the gathered proles, a black flame growing around her that matched the black fire that began to play around the children behind her. A moment later his mother put her hand on his chin and pulled him away hard. "I said don't look! Listen, Steve, we can't go that way; the mob will tear us apart if we come through the drones and they see I have you. We have to go below, through the Dark Ways, and come back out at home." There was a frantic edge to her voice that was as terrifying as anything Steve had heard yet that day, an imagined terror worse than the monsters with which their family lived at every moment. "You want home, don't you? Daddy, our place, everything? We've just got to run away right now!"

They ran for the nearest hatchway down below, Steve and Sally both pulling their belt knives as they worked together to open the door in the ground, the monster-haunted tunnels beneath Nihilor that also carried the waste and slime of the city's great and terrible towers for once less terrifying than what lay above. As the hatch gave way and they began climbing down again, Steve caught that voice from across the way again.

"Feel the power burning inside you, my babies! The power of Omega and the Doom Coil! Together, we can do ANYTHING!" And she laughed, and as Steve and his mother plunged into the darkness beneath the square, he knew fear.

"...I am unfamiliar with sorcery," said Harrier after a time as he gazed at the church, his mind obviously far beyond it to other matters entirely. "The magic of, ah, the dead, and of suffering and pain. Curses that burned flesh to the bone, punishments that scorched the soul to ash, and other things worse than those both. I recall she warred with several other mystics of the Terminus, but was as powerful as any, even those who do not stand immediately with Omega." He took a cautious step towards the church, just one, steeling himself to either flee or attack. "If this were Nihilor, then at their age they would be young men who have killed in their tens of thousands in Omega's name. Here...I do not know. That someone could be here[/i, and want that tells me they are sick in mind or have darkness in their souls."

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"I suspect she uses some sort of natural entropy manipulation," Miss A murmured to Nick, even as she kept a concerned eye on Harrier. "There have been a number of cases in the literature where different types of energy manipulators, magic users, were turned by or turned to the Terminus, and had their natural abilities warped into a more suitable form. If you can create a field that inhibits decay, that might be as close as we'll get. As for the Shepard boys, it's possible that being T-babies made them naturally more vulnerable to her manipulations, or that they were simply angry and rebellious and found a terrible way to express it. Either way, it's not safe to assume they're not full-powered Annihilists at this point. If we can capture them, we can make an attempt to rehabilitate them, but that's a question for later. Right now we need to see inside the church and find out who's in there and whether there are innocents immediately at risk. Is that something you can do?" she asked the necromancer.

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