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Avenger Assembled

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August 15, 2015 

Midnight Manor Garage

In black skinny jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt, and black leather shoes, Nina al-Darsah had certainly dressed the part for a meeting with Trevor Hunter. It was a little warm; but Freedom City's summers were nothing to Socotran heat. Messenger bag under one arm, she finished her walk up from the long 'guest' driveway and knocked on a garage door, banging her knuckles against the metal. With Mark away at work and Erin White mostly likely at her own security job, this was the best time to stage a meeting with Midnight  when they wouldn't be interrupted.

Assuming he wasn't with a client. She actually quite approved of Midnight's choice of a civilian vocation, unlike that of several of her fellow members of the Liberty League. Perhaps life as a high-end mechanic lacked the self-sacrifice of Mark's work, but there really was only one Mark. Building things showed cleverness, building things for others showed you were essential, building fine things for others showed you were indispensable. Of course, Father would say he was just a greasy-handed tradesman...

She shifted the bag under her arm, the weight of it digging into her shoulder, and despite herself the images inside flashed in her mind, pushing her out of her speculations on Midnight's career. Photographs, hand-written letters that were obviously written under duress. CDs. CDs! Oh, Father. She thought despite herself, despite the pain and the fear she was holding back. I had to borrow Mark's laptop to see these. Did you think you were being au courant? 

 

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The garage door began to ratchet its way open a few moments after Nina knocked, revealing a partially deconstructed convertible coup with styling with a gloss white paint job and a somewhat more questionable white leather interior. The pieces of its engine were laid out in precise order across a greater portion of the floor than the body itself took up, protected form the concrete by a simple tarp. By the wall to Nina's right Trevor was stepping away from the door's controls and wiping his hands with a well used rag. With his ever-present fedora hanging from a hook nearby and his sunglasses tucked away in the pocket of his simple buttoned shirt, exposing his clearly metahuman eyes, it was apparent that he'd already known to to expect on the other side of the door.

"Nina," the Hunter heir greeted with an amiable nod, tossing the cloth aside and tucking his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans in a way that unintentionally drew attention to the numerous rips across the knees and dark splotches up and down their length. He looked over at the clock on the garage wall then at the messenger bag over her shoulder before meeting the princess-in-exile's eyes again, tilting his head subtly to one side. "Need something." It wasn't a question but it also wasn't accusatory, just an observation and an invitation to elaborate. He turned slightly and gestured with one hand to the door leading into the manor proper. "Coffee?"

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"Certainly," said Nina, confident that Trevor, a connoisseur of the brew, wouldn't insult her with an inferior blend as so many Americans did. Socotran coffee, served blazing hot and strong as sin, was hard to come by in the States - but there were a limited number of acceptable substitutes. She looked around the manor with interest as she entered, noting the various small changes that Erin White must have brought to the place in the weeks and months since the change of ownership. In the kitchen, or perhaps the nearest kitchen, at any rate, she took a seat at the small table by the window and watched Trevor work. Conscious of a noise outside, she glanced out and was briefly distracted by the site of the estate's groundskeeper in the middle of planting flowers on the vast back lawn; a damp humanoid completely covered in wet earth and fertilizer, obviously enjoyed herself as she went about her work. "Hmm." 

She turned back to Trevor and set her bag upon the table, waiting for her cup. 

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The kitchen Trevor led them to - Nina had gathered that it was something of a running joke that the manor had been constructed with a disproportionate number - was one of the smaller rooms in the sprawling building, only a little too large to be considered a breakfast nook. The cabinet the Hunter heir oped appeared to be filled to capacity with bag after bag of beans, some in simple brown paper and others in opulently embossed custom packaging. From the way lean, pale fingers danced over the selection she could infer there was some sort of system of organization at work but the exact method escaped her. Trevor glanced over his shoulder to give his guest a silent, appraising glance before settling on a particular, vacuum sealed bag.

Most of the opposite counter was taken up by a massive, generally boxish contraption metal and glass covered in mismatched dials that had obviously been scrounged from immediately available parts over time with little regard to aesthetics. Pouring a portion of beans into a rectangular funnel on one side with practiced precision Trevor adjusted a few setting for time and temperature before pressing a button that brought forth grinding sounds from somewhere within the machine. Moving to retrieve a pair of clean mugs from the only storage in the small room not taken up by ingredients or spare parts he asked without turning around, "Requests?" With his usual economy of language he was inquiring after both her preferred style of beverage and what had brought her to the manor to begin with.

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"None, thank you," replied Nina evenly. She'd raised an eyebrow at the sight of the ungainly machine, but she trusted Trevor's mechanical engineering skills. If not necessarily his sense of aesthetics. When she had a cup in hand, she balanced it delicately in her long fingers and paused to savor the brew, nostrils flaring over the steam. "Mmm." There was no talking over first coffee, of course, this was a time to cling to good manners, not abandon them. After a few minutes, Nina reluctantly set down her cup. There was no sign of Wander or anyone else in the house - it was time enough to tell her story. "Well-made, Trevor." With that, she opened her messenger bag and came out with a picture - the false color sonar image of what Trevor identified as an underwater mountain. "This is Ifrit, a dormant seamount off the Makran coast of Pakistan. Forty years ago, my father threatened to cause its eruption unless the Pakistani government made certain...financial concessions." Her mouth worked, slightly. "Under attack from Pakistani and Chinese super-agents, he allowed the world to believe the facility in Ifrit had been destroyed. But those were lies," she said frankly. 

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Trevor took the printout silently, ruby irises scanning back and forth in glossy black voids as he took in very grainy detail. They weren't actually luminous, that was simply a trick of reflected light and high contrast but it was difficult not to be taken in by the quick, flicking movements of those intense rings of colour. He was familiar with the altercation to which Nina was referring and not just by way of general history. After the Liberty League's last altercation with Typhoon and the princess' exile it had seemed prudent to refresh his knowledge of the aging tyrant's previous tactics and assets. He was moderately surprised to hear that the Ifrit facility was still intact; he hadn't dug into that site's status particularly deeply among everything else but what he had found had held up the assumption of its destruction. Placing the paper down on the table, he wordlessly indicated Nina's mug, offering to refill it while patiently waiting for her to get around to her point.

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"In the years since its supposed destruction, my father has transformed what remains of the facility into a holding area for the enemies of the people of Socotra." Outside of those not executed publicly, of course, but Trevor had seen the same documentaries that anyone else growing up in the United States had - never mind his own investigations as a superhero. "As well as those deemed too dangerous to be held by the governments of certain nations that would prefer not to send their criminals to an American or European super-prison." Fully aware she was beginning to beat around the bush, Nina mastered herself and spoke. "There are certain...items being held at Ifrit by my father. Personal mementos, memorials of my mother and pictures of my siblings, and I would...prefer to have those restored to me. Socotra is barred to me - but my past need not be." She handed him her mug, patiently waiting to see if he would penetrate the lie.  

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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Trevor took Nina's mug and paused, meeting her eyes. It wasn't the menacing glare that the princess had seen him level at criminals, one so full of dark promises that it had reduced hardened men to quivering puddles of spilled secrets, but there was still the uncomfortable sensation of being analyzed, broken down into irrefutable data. There was a moment where Nina knew - knew - for certain that he had seen through her half-truths and misdirection, swept them to the side to piece together the true puzzle.

And yet he said nothing. Instead he turned away and replaced the cup on the far end of the countertop dominating machine and pressed a button. When the contraction made a low sound of metal grinding on metal in response, he pounded its top soundly with a closed fist and steaming coffee immediately began to pour forth. Turning back around he asked simply, "Plan?"

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Hmm. 

"Mark could easily break into the prison with me, retrieve what was taken from me, and be gone. We might even be able to bring the walls down as we left." Nina smiled thinly, then looked directly at Trevor. "But that would mean nothing." Heat crept into her smooth voice. "You understand, don't you? Breaking into the prison with Mark would do nothing more than prove that my lover is of great power." She took the cup from Trevor and sipped it, briefly, her nostrils flaring over the steam. 

"I would enter that prison with you, liberate what is mine, and have it done by stealth and cunning. It need not be known as my deed, or the deed of any other. Let my father wonder which of his enemies has robbed him under his very nose." She set down the cup. "It will not be easy. The guards are well-armed and trained, and are chosen from among Socotra's best. The commandant of the prison itself is...family," she said delicately. "My brother Farida had strayed from the line. He has taken this role to show his loyalty to my father." 

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Trevor did understand that. He was well versed in the idea of actions as statements and he could see why this was something Nina couldn't involved Mark in. It was matter personal in a way that their mutual friend was too close to her to help resolve. The coolly analytical part of his mind that whirred along like intricate machinery at all times agreed that he was the right tool for her purpose, skilled in stealth and deception, well equipped and motivated but not so much as to lose perspective. Coming to him had been her soundest tactical choice and he could respect that.

Besides which, shutting down a dictator's secret underwater volcano base seemed like a reasonably good use of an afternoon.

"I'll have Redbird prepare the submarine," he told her calmly, raising his own mug and taking a sip. "Anything to eat?"

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Monsoon kept to herself aboard the refitted Midnight Sub that Mark had once told her was a heavily-refit American submarine from the Second World War - she spoke cordially to the machine intelligence that enhanced its speed enough to navigate across Atlantic and Mediterranean in the space of a day, practiced scimitar cuts and strikes in her small quarters, and ate the MREs in the kitchen without a trace of complaint. If the close quarters bothered her, she gave no sign - certainly she had plenty of experience with the crushing depths of the ocean, albeit usually without benefit of a vehicle. She and Trevor were in the control room together during their relatively slow passage through the Suez Canal when she asked a question. 

"What did you tell Wander about this trip?" She was drinking the coffee that was their voyage's main luxury, proving to have quite a constitution for the drink. Having put away a solid four cups by the middle of the new day with no sign of the jitters, it was clear she had a physical fortitude beyond that of a normal woman of her size. "I told Mark I had family business and he...understood," she elided. 

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Midnight was fully dressed in a variation of his uniform, having spent a good portion of the journey installing and testing modular components that rendered the more streamlined version watertight but his mask was still undone and hanging loosely about his neck. "Hm? Ah. Said you needed help with something." He hadn't gone terribly into details largely because the simple fact that Nina hadn't asked Mark or indeed the rest of the League to help already suggested it was a matter of some delicacy. If things did go badly for whatever reason he expected it wouldn't take long for a properly motivated Wander to track him down no matter how little information she had. Setting aside a tool on his workbench he tilted his head very slightly to one side and turned to look at Nina head on. "Why?"

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"When I was seven years old, my father came into my bedchamber, awoke me from a sound sleep and told me it was time for me to see something important - something worthy of the daughter of a king." Nina wasn't looking at Trevor, she wasn't looking at anything, not even the dials and gauges in front of her. "I was very excited," she said, remembering, "because I hardly ever saw Father in those days, and time with him was very special." She began drumming her fingers lightly on the metal in front of her, slow, regular, back and forth. "The whole court was there, all the ministers of state, and even Farida - he was the only other royal still in the palace then. I stood behind him and I remember he had this...this look on his face, every time he glanced back at me, and I remember thinking that he must have done something naughty again because he looked like he'd been weeping. But of course he knew what he was about to see, and he was just a boy of ten." 

Abruptly, her hand stopped. "When the whole court was there, a man was dragged out in chains by the palace guards. He was some...barbarian Atlantean who had allied with Father to seize an orichalcum treasure house, and then tried to kill him and take the loot for himself. I remember he was defiant even then, even in the presence of Typhoon, which I had never seen before. My father was like a god to his subjects in those days. At least as far as I knew," she admitted. 

"The warlord gave a little speech and said that his clan would pay no ransom to Surfacers and that they would come in force to rescue him. And so my father laughed and said, "Then let there be no ransom! You will be returned to your people!" She made a little gesture with her fingers, closing them together like a baker pinching dough. "It is possible to drown an Atlantean," she said, her voice very soft. "You simply use something other than water. When it was done, he hurled the corpse to the depths of the sea to make sure the Atlanteans would find what was left. Typhoon had won again" She stood up suddenly so she could look down at Trevor. 

"Mark has told me about the enemies you have faced. I...don't expect you to fear my father. But I do." 

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Whatever reaction Nina had been expecting from the taciturn tactician it probably hadn't been for his to step away from his workbench toward her and wrap his arms around her shoulders in a hug that was firm enough to be comforting but had a noticeable stiff hesitation to it as though he wasn't entirely sure if it was the correct thing to do. He held the pose for a long par of heartbeats before shifting back a pace with a faint cough while keeping one hand lightly on the exiled princess' shoulder. "Wrong. Mark. Mark is never afraid," he explained even a little more softly than he usually did. It was a bit of an exaggeration - he'd seen his friend during some particularly low moments, after all - but it was true enough. "Knows we'll win because we're fighting for the right reasons. Faith. I see numbers. Force multipliers. Odd." He tapped a finger of his free hand to the side of his head demonstratively. "Odds are often very, very bad and I can't make luck or lift a car or control water." He allowed the corner of his mouth to twitch upward into something that was almost a smile. "Fear tells me when to be cautious, to fight smart. Never not to fight, though. Because we're fighting for the right reasons." He gave Nina's shoulder a small squeeze, hoping that he'd managed to string his words together well enough to convey his meaning.

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Nina's eyes widened, but she was no feral animal - she gently returned the embrace. "The right reasons," she echoed - and the words seemed to be the right ones, too. 

A few hours later, after they'd slept and eaten, came the difficult business of gaining access to the prison. Nina had only visited Ifrit herself a few times, but she knew enough to guide the submarine through one of the blind spots near the prison - one of the consequences as well as benefits of being built into the side of a semi-active volcano. "Farida's specialty is construction out of solid water. He was a natural for this position." 

When they'd both changed into the reflective black, hooded uniforms of Socotra's elite prison guards (each with face masks that echoed, but did not actually ape, Typhoon's own mask), Redbird guided their submarine towards an emergency airlock that the prison's guards would have used to evacuate in the event of a full-scale eruption. "I can make the swim," said Nina, who had declined any need for protective gear despite the five hundred feet of water over their heads. "I trust you will be able to open the door without triggering alarms?" 

 

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Midnight simply responded by silently securing the waterproof seals on his mask with a faint hiss of air, foregoing his usual headwear in deference to the specific needs of the mission. He didn't need to check his equipment, he'd had plenty of time to do that thoroughly three times over during the trip and even he wasn't immune to the impatience spurned by long transit. Enhanced by Furion technology designed for the airless void between dimensions the airlock cycled them quickly into the crushing depths. Midnight gestured in the dark, inviting Monsoon to lead the way then swimming swiftly after her, albeit without only human skill, not the haunting swiftness which which the princess sliced through the water.

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Inside the prison corridors, they had the quiet and security of the emergency airlock to dry themselves - an easy matter for Nina who had but to gesture at herself, and then at Trevor, to leave them both bone-dry, before they left the airlock behind for the prison corridors themselves. Looking around behind her featureless mask, such an imitation of her father's, Nina decided it was a good thing there was no claustrophobia in her heart - not with the meters of rock over their head and the kilometers of ocean above that. "We should be in the upper tiers of the prison," she whispered as they took a moment to collect themselves. "The...items will be below, near the main core." Walking around led them to what looked to be a copy of Blackstone's long, shallow central staircase, where a scan fooled by one of Trevor's belt devices easily got them past a security door. There were no sign of other guards yet - why would there be, with security like an entire ocean? 

The air was warm, almost uncomfortably so, and humid to boot - the grated stairs beneath their feet were just this side of slick as they made their way down, down, and down. This was not a place designed for human comfort, either of the prisoners or their guards. Four levels down a twenty level flight, they opened another door and were suddenly confronted by a half-dozen guards! This was evidently a guard post built into the sloping corridor, a landing in the ever-descending stairs. The lead stepped up and addressed Nina in English - from his Russian accent, he was probably one of the many mercenaries who worked for her father's armies. "You two! What are you doing away from the rest of the garrison?" 

"Oh, thank Typhoon's might we found you!" declared Nina. She crossed her wrists and held them against her face. "I had woman complaints and my brother came to make sure I reached the bathrooms - but then we both became lost in the corridors!" Raw emotion burned in her voice as she declared, "It was my fault! I am shamed beneath Typhoon's visage! Please, let me rejoin the women in their garrison! Brother, tell them!" 

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"Hnnh." Trevor let out a deep, guttural grunt from deep in his chest, folding his arms across his chest in a much put-upon display. He wasn't much of an actor compared to Nina's effusive display but given the delicate theme of the cover story she'd concocted he expected he could get away with playing the reticent sibling. Grumbling a bit he nodded tersely to the Russian guard and made a similar if more reluctant gesture of apology. "Wrong turn. Got confused." He kept his voice even deeper than his natural resonant baritone, gruffness covering for the absence of any obvious similarity to his 'sister's' accent. Even as he did he let his eyes flick from one guard to another behind his borrowed mask, plotting out his plan of attack if the ruse fell flat.

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"Ugh. In Typhoon's name, then, be-" 

Just as the guard was waving them on back the way they came, the other door opened up - this one from below, down in the prison levels. Another guard was escorting a young woman in traditional Socotran dress, her long sleeves pulled back by heavy restraining energy cuffs on both hands that reminded Trevor of the kinds of anti-power restraints used in Blackstone. "Guess who's causing trouble again?" said her escort, a hard sneer in his voice. "Think she needs another-" 

Nina screamed out loud and raised her hand - and suddenly the air rippled beneath the effects of the al-Darsah family's diamagnetic hydrokinesis. The prisoner just had time to throw herself to the floor as Nina levitated the guards and smashed them together like iron filings being pulled towards a magnet, then against the wall, then against each other again, and then she dropped them, groaning to the floor. Trusting in Trevor to deal with the alarms, or with any lingering guards, she tore off her mask and embraced the prisoner tightly. "Iyar! It's me!" 

"Nina?" Her eyes narrowed at the sight of her rescuer. "Nina, what are you doing here? Lord Typhoon will-" 

"He will do no such thing," replied Nina firmly. "He thought to use you and the others as weapons, but he will find that you will explode in _his_ face." 

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A weighted throwing disk had already materialized as if by magic in each of the disguised detective's gloved hands by the time the princess had raised her voice. They'd both known perfectly well that this had never been about recovering a few choice trinkets - though Trevor expected he'd have agreed to come along even if it had been - and considering they were infiltrating a prison this scenario had been high on his list of possibilities. The first disk cracked loudly in the back of one guard's skull just below his helmet as he turned to flee from Nina's show of power before rebounding and smacking into the elbow of his more courageous comrade as he reached for his weapon. The other disk took the guard with the third best fight or flight response time among his peers out at the knee and by then Midnight was in their midst, a whirlwind of kicks and escrima stick strikes that turned their disarray into a one-sided dissertation in applied physics. As Nina hugged her friend the last guard standing collapsed atop his fellows with a groan, leaving Trevor to silently watch the door while the two women conversed.

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The two women dropped into Socotran and Trevor distinctly saw Nina's face turn pale for several long seconds, her eyes widening and clutching her friend's hands as if she'd seen a ghost. Or learned about one for the first time. The exiled princess took one single, hitching breath before she pulled herself to her feet, freeing her friend of the last of her bonds. She hadn't looked like this upon meeting her thought-dead mother. "M-Midnight, this is Iyar al-Mizrahi. We are old...friends." With her thick, curly hair and square features, Iyar was obviously no relative of the leanly-built, pin-straight al-Darsah family, but she made a proper contrast against the lean, narrow princess. Her hands clenched at her sides, Nina went on through gritted teeth, looking around the guard post as she spoke.

 

"Those who are left are down in the lowest levels." 

 

"Nina, it's a trap," Iyar was still insisting, switching to accented English. "They're waiting for you down there!" 

 

"No, they're not," said Nina, shaking her head as she looked at Midnight. "They're waiting for him, or whoever I bring with me. Farida is the one who will be waiting for me. In our father's name."

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Midnight nodded politely to al-Mizrahi as she was introduced, giving her a subtle once over to determine if she seemed to require immediate medical assistance. She was able to walk and talk, however, and anything else was going to have to wait until they were safely back on the submarine. He likewise noted Nina's uncharacteristically obvious upset without judgement. He didn't want to know what those kept in the secret prison had been subject to but he had a few good guesses anyway. "Can free them," he volunteered, making an effort to soften the harsh, gravelly tone that came through his mask for al-Mizrahi's sake without total success. "Shouldn't confront brother alone." He didn't really expect the exiled princess to listen but it had to be said.

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Iyar's accounts of the defenses down below sounded familiar to Midnight's trained tactical mind - as indeed they must have been to Monsoon as well. The guards down below, guarding an unknown number of prisoners, were equipped with genetic suppressor dart guns that would take away a biological metahuman's powers on contact, along with what Atlantean artifacts from Typhoon's personal collection whose description earned a hard nod from Monsoon. "The Chains of Malador - when strung on the walls, they let magic in, but no magic out." Her pretty face assumed a hard expression. "He built a trap down there for Mark and I." 

 

Iyar knew nothing of Farida's private quarters, having never been taken up to see the commandant, but she knew its general location. At her description, Nina gave a slow, small nod, and turned to Midnight. "One has died already. And Farida is family. You understand."  

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Nina made her way upstairs, flying through the air to avoid her boots clanking on the steps beneath her feet, until she reached the level where she was sure to find Farida's quarters - the upper level, at the very roof of the volcano. As she'd expected, her brother was in the prison's 'interfaith chapel', which of course in Socotra meant that all potentially 'divisive' secretarian images had been replaced by a life-size statue of their father behind his mask and armor. Her costume covered her hair anyway. His soft prayers to God echoed in her ears as she stepped forward, ready to smash him into the altar until he was unconscious. She stopped, though, when she saw what was waiting for her in the middle of the aisle between the prayer mats - a curving scimitar, resting in its scabbard on the floor, with her name emblazoned on the leather in white Arabic. 

 

She stared at the blade and said aloud, once again breaking with the element of surprise, "You knew I would come for you." 


Farida turned to her and she was surprised at how old he looked - he'd grown the heavy mustache that their father wore, and around his eyes were creased lines that didn't belong on a young man's face. Farida was not even thirty. 

 

"Yes. From the moment Mariam died, I knew you would not come at the head of some Western army - but only as yourself, my little sister. Whatever the consequences." 

 

Tears stung at the edges of Nina's eyes as she glared at her brother. "Was Father's rage so great that an old woman who did nothing more than nurse me, than nurse _you_," she added, pointing her finger accusingly, "had to die in this place?" 

 

"She was sick," said Farida, spreading his hands. He carried no blade, having always relied on his ice powers to fight. "I was with her to the end, but I could not have made her well even in the palace."

 

"You could have done more!" Nina kicked the sword up into her hands. "You could have fought for the woman who was your family because she chose to be, not because of the blood in her veins!" 

 

"Father would have done worse had I not been here. You had word in time, didn't you? Father would have sent pictures of their corpses to mock you had it pleased him to do so - had I not asked for another way." 

 

"There is no other way, brother!" She drew the blade, the golden metal embedded along the cutting surface gleaming in the light of the blue-white candles in Typhoon's eyes. "You are with Father, or you are with me! What will it be?" 

 

Ice crystals glittered around Farida's hands. "I'm sorry it's come to this, little sister." 

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When Monsoon made her departure to fight her brother, Iyar looked around the fallen guards for a moment before seizing on one's weapon - a large, heavy-looking blaster pistol like those AEGIS agents had carried twenty years earlier. It seemed to fit her hand well as she worked the charging slide back and forth, a look of satisfaction on her dark, too-narrow face. Adjusting her headcovering until her dark hair was once again wrapped completely beneath it, she turned to Midnight and said defiantly, "The women down below have been held a year by Lord Typhoon. If any guards are not below, I will shoot them so that they will live to know Typhoon's wrath." She looked at Midnight and added, a touch suspiciously, "There is an army below and an al-Darsah above. What is Midnight?" 

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