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April 24, 2016


Nuevo Laredo, Mexico 


There have been some interesting reports from Freedom City for the last few days - but honestly the news from Freedom City is usually full of something interesting or another. 


Nuevo Laredo was a dangerous city - its status as the busiest inland port in Mexico made it a hotbed of cartel activity, crime and violence such serious problems that even families separated by the border only met on the American side to avoid the risk of street violence. And yet even so, the people that lived there lived better than any prole in the Terminus - better than those people could have dreamed. In the trainyards, as the local security monitored the loading of Dragonfly's new electronic decompilers into the cars of the Southern Pacific, Steve Murdock brooded on these thoughts, and more besides, his dark mood a strange contrast to the "Pixar-blue" sky overhead complete with perfect white puffy clouds dotted here and there. 


"Thank you for coming, Echo," he said in a moment when his speedy teammate joined him on top of the train where he crouched, watching the work. Of all the Interceptors, Echo was the one with the simplest passport card - no wonder, for a woman who could cross borders when it suited her fancy. "The men appreciate seeing an American superhero - and I appreciate a comrade here. I apologize I am not a better companion." And with that, as he had been doing so often since they arrived, he fell silent. 



Getting assigned as a superhero 'ridealong' to the famous Asad had proven to be a real coup for Sparkler and El Huracan - the wealthy playboy had had no real superbattles to fight during a week when business had taken him down to south Texas to supervise the acquisition of Multimedios Radio, one of the largest Norteño stations in the region, a gateway towards making a real financial push into the relatively untapped media market that was northern Mexico. Now he'd crossed the border to actually sign the papers that would make this territory part of his business empire, bringing with him his business staff and the two teenage heroes who hadn't had very much to do this week. 


The Crowne Plaza Hotel might not have been very big at 12 stories high - but it was the largest building in Nuevo Laredo. From the penthouse suite that Asad's party had rented for the occasion, the group could see out over the struggling city. From this high up, and behind glass, it was impossible to see the city's troubles, or hear them; just to see a nice, sunny day and a thriving commercial metropolis below them. The streets all around here were crowded with semitrucks, thicker than any the teens had seen even back in major cities in the States, making things far easier for those who could fly. 



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Raina wasn't a big fan of waiting around, but if one were going to wait around, a penthouse suite wasn't the worst place to do it. Even a somewhat cramped penthouse suite that could've used updating about a decade ago would do for the moment, especially since it had been quite awhile since she'd been in one at all. She stood at the bank of tall windows overlooking the city and idly watched the traffic, sipping extra-sweet Coke from a glass bottle. She liked that part of Mexico, definitely, and having a translation spell at her fingertips meant she didn't have to wonder what anybody was saying. It looked like there were stores down there, and some kind of open-air market. If it hadn't been for all the crime, she thought this probably would be a decent place for a short vacation. 


She turned to find where Anibal had gotten off to. "Your people aren't too close to here, right?" she asked, trying to refresh her grasp on Geography. "They're more out west?" 

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"Ah, you're too hard on yourself, big man," Echo said cheerfully, tossing her false white hair back over one shoulder. "You're a fantastic traveling companion. I really like the way you..." she considered her next words with care, "...don't say much. Plus you can lift cars, which would be handy if we got stuck in traffic. Not that I ever get stuck in traffic. Can you imagine if there were so many speedsters in the world, even we got stuck in superspeed-traffic? Nobody would ever be able to get anywhere. It would just be a gridlock of spandex-clad nutjobs, horizon to horizon. Of course," she switched back to her previous subject without a moment's transition, "I can lift cars pretty well too, so I guess I could do that for myself if I needed to. Oh well." She industriously used one finger to scratch an itch under her mask. "You're still worth if for the conversation," she said, apparently unaware that nearly all of the conversation had been coming from her.


She took a breath, surveying the workers below. "Never been to Mexico before, too. Should take some pictures." Her stomach rumbled. "Hey, do they have Mexican food here, or is that just a States thing?"

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Asad stood there, his suit jacket off, in a vest, dress shirt, and slacks that matched his vest.  His sleeves rolled up around his forearms.  Right now the Arab American billionaire turned hero was staring out the window at what was happening.  He had been amiable enough, but something felt off.


He had gracious given the kids access to room service and such, just in case.  Acknowledging that this was something of a fieldtrip.  But... it didn't feel right.  It felt bad in fact.  Asad turned back to the kids, surprised he had these two, honestly, but he was appreciative of being given the chance.  "My oh crap meter is tingling.  Feels too much like the calm before a storm."  He moved to pick up an overpriced bottle of beer out of the mini fridge, popping the cap off in a practical exercise of super strength.

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Aníbal had planned to take Raina on a trip to Mexico for quite some time now, but it's safe to say Nuevo Laredo wasn't at the top of his destination list. He had no connections here, familial or otherwise, and despite any other charms it may have had the town was well known as a hotspot for gang violence. A busy commercial center mostly visited by international businessmen, drug lords, and wayward Texans looking for adventure across the border, not really a resort town. They were here on business themselves, on an unusual assignment from the school. Accompanying a businessman making a deal in Mexico seemed odd at first, but it turned out this was no ordinary businessman. Asad was well known to the general public - a billionaire playboy who was open about being a superhero. Aníbal had heard of the man, and was pleased to find their host was a really nice guy in person. There would be no problems on that end, at least. Presumably this was to be a learning experience for the two of them, an opportunity to be mentored by a more experienced hero. They wouldn't be required to actually do anything dangerous, unless Multimedios Radio was secretly a front for the Zetas or something, but he took his suit along just in case.


Aníbal wore a blue striped polo shirt, white trousers and penny loafers. He was standing next to Raina, sipping chilled lemonade, looking out the panel windows and pensively observing the city. Here they were safe, at least. The accommodations weren't great, but this was probably the best hotel in town. Besides, as his father always said, you don't become a billionaire by wasting money. When Raina asked her question, he nodded.


"South, southwest, yeah.", he replied, "Don't know anybody in Nuevo Laredo. The one kid I know who's from up north is from Juárez, and that's way out west from here."


He shrugged. "I'm sure we'll find something fun to do."


Asad's comment surprised him a bit. Apart from the usual safety concerns, there didn't seem to be any cause for worry. Maybe Asad was just paranoid - a life spent being hounded by paparazzi will do that to you - or maybe the more experienced hero picked up on things they didn't.


"What do you mean, Sir?", Aníbal inquired. 

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Raina turned as well, unconsciously taking a half-step closer to Anibal as she did so. She wasn't quite sure what to make of their mentor for the day, who was obviously wealthy and charming, but carried foreboding around him like Santa with a sack full of time bombs. "Do you expect something bad is going to happen here today?" she asked. "I mean, obviously there's gonna be stuff, this city just does its thing pretty much day and night, but something in specific? Or do we just want to run some patrols, put the fear of whatever into the bad guys?" Raina wasn't generally much of a one for patrolling, but if she was gonna do it, it was way more fun in places outside Freedom City, where people weren't totally blase about heroes in the sky and on the street. 

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He finished the beer, the metabolism of his just burning away the alcohol just like it was nothing.  R and D once tried to get him drunk since the change, for the sake of science, or something, it didn't work.  The excision of a vice was annoying.  But he dealt with it with his usual aplomb.  A lot of whining and learn to ape being drunk.


There were reasons as to why he was something of a black sheep among the other heroes as a community.  Though, his willingness to throw his money around made up for it.


He looked at the kids like he hadn't really realized they had been there.  "Hm.  It's a feeling.  More often than not when I have a business engagement, or I go to a charity event, and I bring other heroes... bad things happen."

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"I have little knowledge of the culinary geography of Earth-Prime," conceded Steve, "but Miss Americana informs me that the local food is excellent." He hmmed, remembering his conversation with Gina - who was always one to plan trips and other visits outside of Freedom City to the utmost. "The restaurant adjacent to the Crowne Plaza Hotel came highly recommended." He fell silent again, trying to keep himself talking in order to make the conversation palatable to the active young woman. "I believe the men can finish the work without our supervision. Will you accompany me?" 




As they talked, Raina was beginning to feel something - a sensation of pressure all around her, not physical, but like the humidity in the room was growing at an exponential rate despite how dry she knew intellectually it was both inside the air-conditioning and in the near-desert city outside. She wasn't feeling this with her skin, though, or any physical nerves - but rather with the innate sensory abilities tuned to the magical planes all around her. Something was about to happen...

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"Thought you'd never ask! But now, the question of the hour." Echo raised a finger. "Tacos, burritos, or quesadillas? Actually, who am I kidding, we're going to need all three, plus whatever else they have on top of that. You're the size of an eighteen-wheeler and I just hoofed it two thousand miles in a half-hour. I'm a mite peckish. Don't worry, we'll split the bill." She jumped nimbly down from the roof of the train, then made a come-on-already gesture to Steve. "You coming? Assuming you're confident in their ability to put boxes into bigger boxes without our careful oversight."

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"Huh... Somehow the school neglected to mention that little detail when they gave us the assignment.", Aníbal replied, cocking his eyebrow when Asad clarified his earlier cryptic remarks. Figures... It sounded like there would be some trouble after all, and no one had seen fit to warn them beforehand. Perhaps it was another one of the Academy's stupid tests. Dealing with unforeseen circumstances, adapting quickly, that sort of thing. He winced, cursing inwardly, but he was prepared to tackle whatever came their way. It would be fun to do some hero stuff with Raina at his side.


"Well, regardless... If anything happens, we'll be ready.", he continued and finished off his lemonade, "I've dealt with some trouble before, and so has Raina."


Turning to Raina, he noticed a strange look in her eyes. She seemed distracted by something, but he couldn't tell what. "Raina? Everything OK?", he whispered, slightly concerned.



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"He's right," Raina said abruptly, running her hands up and down her suddenly chilled arms. "There's something in the air, something heavy. Something...moist." She shuddered, backing all the way into Anibal so that her shoulders pressed against his chest. "Not physical, it's something magical. I dunno." Her eyes were slightly unfocused, but she spoke with the certainty of an expert in her field. "But it's hanging over us now and just waiting to drop." Reaching into her pocket, she grabbed hold of her lighter and flicked it to life, cupping her hands around the resultant flame like a little girl with a small pet. "What do we do?" 

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He rolled his eyes and moved back to the window, frowning a little as blue glow of the containment suit under his clothes showed now.  "It's how it always works, really.  They likely didn't know this would happen, but it is fair to say that we all suffer under the Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times.' "  He laughed a little bit to himself... and then he looked at the kids.


"Sorry.  This isn't a training, and I don't care how well you can handle yourselves, you stay behind me.  If you feel you can help do so, but let me take the brunt of it, alright?"  His expression going to stern from the awkward little laugh at the insanity of the life he had.  If this was a test they didn't tell him, and that would be too dumb to think about.

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It was about that time that the air conditioning in the hotel shuddered and died - an ominous sound indeed given just how hot it was out in Nuevo Laredo despite it being springtime. The ducts were making all sorts of odd noises too, buzzing and clanking, as if something was moving around inside them - until suddenly, great, thick swarms of big black flies were swarming out everywhere, blanketing the interior of the room in seconds. The closed windows to the balcony outside offered no escape - because out there, a hideous creature had just landed. With his giant eyes, fluttering antennae, and massive wings - he might have been almost beautiful. If he hadn't born the face and stench of a full-blown fly that walked like a man! The creature vomited up a great burst of liquid from its maw against the glass, liquid that began eating away at the translucent stuff quickly. If not for the bulletproof glass made necessary high security of this crime-ridden city, the fly-man would already be inside. 



Down below, stepping off the crowded city bus they'd ridden as a way of blending into the crowd of non-supers in this city, Steve and Buffy looked up at the rooftop of their destination only to see it covered in an incredibly dense swarm of flies, a gigantic, almost apocalyptic swarm that blotted out the penthouse and upper tiers of the building as if it had been dipped in black, wriggling cotton candy. The crowd around them fearfully drew away from the hotel (whose guests were already streaming out the doors) but didn't panic, they knew crime well in this unhappy place. Trusting in his anonymity in this strange city, Steve exchanged a look with Buffy before a flash of light obscured his transformation - and Caradoc rose on a pillar of fire towards the tremendous swarm of flies! 

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Buffy blinked up at the grotesque swarm of flies, not quite believing what she was seeing. "You know," she muttered to herself, "when my dying alternate-universe self showed up in my kitchen and gave me superpowers, I kinda thought that was the weirdest thing that would ever happen to me. But at this rate, it might not even crack the top five." Following her teammate's lead, she blurred as she shifted into super-speed, changing in a fraction of a second from her street clothes to her masked blue-and-silver ensemble.


Then she jumped, sailing upwards in an earth-defying leap that carried her from the sidewalk to the side of the building, fifty feet up. She landed in a crouch on the vertical surface, gravity shifting around her, then launched herself into a sprint straight up the side of the tower. "So," she shouted out to Caradoc as she ran, "no tacos, then?"

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Raina's words made him uneasy. Trouble was on its way, it seemed, and trouble of some mystical kind to boot. As she backed into him, he wrapped his arms around her and reassuringly pressed her closer. They would handle it together, whatever it was. Now seemed like a good time to prepare for the worst. As Raina fired up her magic, he moved towards his bags, one of which contained his flightsuit. He moved out of sight of Asad and his crew, took off his civilian clothes and quickly put on his costume, which offered significantly better protection. It occurred to him the suit's protective lining probably wasn't designed to handle magic, but it was the best option nonetheless. Shortly, he rejoined Asad and Raina, now having put on the attire of El Huracán.


The air conditioning died. Huh. It wasn't surprising - the hotel wasn't exactly top of the line. He was just about to make a wry remark about his air control powers making him a human AC unit, but he paused, interrupted by the strange noises coming out of the vent. That wasn't normal. 


Then the flies came. That definitely wasn't normal. He fought back an urge to scream as the hellish swarm burst out and covered the room. This was what Raina had felt approaching. Swatting the pests away, he made his way to Raina's side, ready to clear the nuisance away. He looked outside and noticed the monstrous creature that had landed on the balcony. 


"What do we do?", he yelled over the buzzing, on edge but still maintaining his composure. This was going to be one tough fight. 

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"This one, this one is easy.  You stay behind me, and I am going to going to beat the hell out Jeff Goldbum over here."  Rolling his head around on his shoulder as he looked at the massive fly and the swam around him.  Him?  Nah, it.  Let's not force pronouns on the apocalyptic fly creature.  Some gawking website would rip him apart, and he could do without that.


As that happened blue coruscating light flickered about his form, the expensive suit burning and flying off in little cinders as the Cherenkov radiation started up.  Leaving him in a white and grey body suit exposed now.  Glowing blue lines overlaying of the body, with a brilliant ring on his chest.


He moved to the window and he tapped at it with the backs of his fingers, "Hey, tall, dark, and disgusting.  I don't suppose maybe you'll just take a knee?"

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Echo sprinted vertically up the side of the tower, the swarm of flies growing larger and larger before her, the buzzing amplifying in her ears until it was nearly all she could hear. Refusing to allow herself to be deterred, she jumped again, forward this time, vaulting over the balcony and shifting her personal gravity in mid-air, so her feet landed firmly on the ground once more.


The sight of the grotesque fly-man made her recoil instinctively, before she regained hold of herself. Well that's gross. Scanning the situation, she saw the people inside the building - hey, costumes, small world - and the fly-man trying to barf his way through the glass. "Okay, hold up there, Brundle," she called out as she lunged forward. "I know you want to get at the Telepods, but the window cleaner is the one who's going to have to deal with that." She lashed out with one blue-and-silver fist at what she was reasonably confident was its chin, felt it connect, and felt an impact jar her arm all the way up to the shoulder. She danced back a step, shaking the numbness from her hand. "Okay!" she shouted at the people inside. "One of you go get me a twenty-foot rolled-up newspaper!"

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The fly humanoid shot Echo a glare that was more annoyed than angry - then crashed right through the glass! Amid a shower of fragments, the man bared impressive mandibles and spread his big, clawed hands. In a growling voice, he shouted, and buzzed, in Spanish, in a voice that was both human and terribly insectile - "<King of Tigers! You miserable whoreson - the wrath of God has come for you!>" His imposing manner and admittedly fearsome appearance didn't seem to match his words, at least, not exactly. "<Where are you hiding, you miserable old bastard!? Your mercenaries won't save you from my flies! Or from ME!>"

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Aníbal steeled himself for what was to come. Hopefully, Asad and the two of them together would prove a match for the creature. Its acidic vomit would soon eat away through the reinforced glass, and they would be standing in front of it. To his surprise, before that happened, another person appeared on the roof - a superhero, dressed in blue and silver. He didn't know who she was, but judging by the blow she dealt to the humanoid fly thing, she was one of the good guys. The relief soon turned to worry as the monster shrugged off the blow like it was a pat on the cheek. The woman shouted something to them, but the glass muffled it. Just after that, the monster burst through the weakened window, sending shards of glass flying towards them. Instinctively, he leapt in front of Raina and covered his face to block the incoming shards. They bounced harmlessly off the flight suit's nanofabric. Glass couldn't cut through it. Whatever weakened the glass most certainly would. 


His eyes widened as the creature spoke, in Spanish, its voice alien and terrible. It was unnerving, but although he was afraid he managed to retain his composure in the face of the horror. Its words were... odd. It - he? she? - mentioned the King of Tigers, apparently under the impression that he was here. Aníbal knew the name. It was a fixture in the grim headlines that came so regularly from Mexico in recent years. Murders, drug running, all sorts of crimes, and the ruthless old man responsible for so much of it. El Rey de los Tigres. The name struck terror into many in the north, and it sounded even more horrible spoken by this abomination. Thoughts raced through Aníbal's head as he processed what was happening. The thing, whatever it was, spoke. And if it spoke, it could be reasoned with. It seemed to think they were mercenaries of the infamous drug lord. And it was fond of theatrics. There was no time to think or plan any sort of complex scheme. Disregarding Asad's explicit orders, he boldly - foolishly - stepped forward, right in front of the creature, placed his hands of his hips, straightened his back, and locked eyes with the monster. 


"The wrath of God?", he addressed the creature in Spanish, with an air of confidence, cracking a practiced smirk, "The wrath of God does not break into cheap hotels like a thief, or bellow and puff his chest like a rudo trying to scare the kids at a lucha libre show."


He was maybe two feet away from the monster's maw, within easy range of the acid spray. It took all his powers of concentration not to flinch or let his voice crack. The bluff was a big risk, a big stupid risk that could get him killed, but if he was correct, the thing wasn't there for them.


"The man you're looking for is not here. He was never here, and we are not in his employ.", he continued, still holding the creature's gaze, "But I'll tell you who is here. I am El Huracán, Lord of the Air, the very air your swarm of vermin needs to fly. My friend, the Queen of Flames, can burn them all with the blink of an eye. Our host here is a powerful man, powerful enough to take you on all by himself."


He pointed to the woman outside. "And she... Well, you've already met her. I can tell you now, friend, she pulled that punch. The next one, she will not pull."


"You can speak, so I assume you can count. That makes four of us, one of you... and no King of Tigers. See?", he added, "We have no quarrel with you, whoever or whatever you are, but when a criminal breaks into a hotel in broad daylight and terrorises innocent people, he makes himself our business. So... You can fight the four of us, lose all your precious flies, and let the King of Tigers slip from your grasp. Or you can cut the posturing and speak to us. Your choice."


He was ready to dodge out of the way of the monster's attack, in case it called his bluff and decided to take its chances against the four of them. Hopefully it would work, and at the very least buy the others some time.

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"Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick!" Raina chanted, frantically brushing at her clothes and swatting at the air with her free hand as the flies swarmed around them. "Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick!" She looked liked she might have continued that indefinitely, until Anibal's words seemed to bring her back to some semblance of reality and she remembered the fireball in her hands. "That's right, I can!" she added defiantly, "and I will, cause you're gross!" She raised the fireball to her lips and blew on it, and suddenly a sheet of flames was scorching the room, bending harmlessly around the humans even as it incinerated every insect in its path. Raina took a deep breath and felt somewhat better already. 

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Caradoc, having flown in during the melee and the distraction provided by the heroes inside the penthouse apartment, took this opportunity to subdue the raving monster, pleased at both the words and fire of the young people and how they successfully subdued the beast (and destroyed its minions) before it could do any real damage. Or was it a beast at all? Acutely aware that appearance did not mean wickedness, he opted for a less violent approach than his usual dealings with seeming monsters. He crept up behind the fly humanoid and suddenly grabbed it from behind, thick, steely arms wrapping around a bloated torso as he lifted the creature up and off its feet. Gossamer wings thrashed angrily against his back as the stench of rotting meat filled the air; and Caradoc was glad for the metallic filters between himself and the rest of the world. 


"Argh! What do you mean, he's not here! Screw you, pretty boy!" The fly monster bellowed in Spanish, writhing angrily in Harrier's grip. "Do you know what he put me through? Do you know what I had to do to get my revenge!?



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Echo blurred, suddenly standing in front of the fly-man, trying not to gag on the stench. "Yeah, I absolutely pulled that punch," she lied. "Not doing that anymore, Brundle. This fly is about to get swatted like a..." she faltered, "...fly." Less quipping, more fighting, Buffy. Without further ado, she laid into the creature's midsection with a vicious flurry of blows, so rapid that her fists were little more than an indistinct flicker of blueish motion.


"Anybody know what the hell this thing is?" she shouted to the room at large as she struck, focusing on her assault too heavily to look. "I don't habla! Are these a normal thing in Mexico?"

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"I speak your language, you stupid American pendejo!!" growled the fly man, a tone of desperation entering his voice. Sparkler's fireballs had cleared the air of flies, leaving behind the distinct odor of burnt vermin, but now more were beginning to enter, flying through the hole left in the glass doors to the balcony and through the air conditioning. This wasn't the flood it had first been - but was clearly notable all the same. "This isn't fair! He promised me revenge and now all I can do is..." He turned his head, still writhing in Caradoc's grip, and stared at a full trashcan that had been spilled over during the earlier melee. "I want that," he growled. "I want that as badly as I want the King of Tigers! This isn't what I was promised. Arov is a monster, not an avenger!" 

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Asad didn't lift an arm to block the glass that crashed inward, even if there was something with it.  He had stopped flinching, facing a gigantic Krampus put things like a big honking flyman into perspective.  The glass hit him and fell to the ground, or was slagged and melting in a moment, it was a toss up.  


But this...This was... something else, entirely.  A frown on his face as he shifted and moved towards the fly.  "Hey.... HEY!"  He barked it out, loudly.  Asad was a big, imposing-ish enough, and he plenty loud when he wanted.  "Let's stop with the punching and figure out what is happening... I mean, I  we are not the guy you are after, so let's talk... alright?"  His arms held up, his palms open and aimed at the fly.  Not just talking to him, but still..

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Raina was more than content to let the experienced heroes deal with the frankly horrifying... whatever the hell it was that was still ranting and raving even after being captured and pinned. She didn't want to get anywhere close to the creature. Instead, she put Anibal's comforting bulk between herself and the monster and concentrated instead on potshotting the new flies with miniature fireballs as they tried to crawl from the vents. "This is so insanely gross," she muttered, shuddering all over. "Just looking at them makes me feel like they're in my hair, uugggggghhh." Another dozen flies met an untimely and sizzling end from an especially vindictive little fireball. 

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