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Content note: transphobia, profanity


June 2016 


The Doom Room 


In the Doom Room, Riley was on edge. The training room itself was empty, its holographic displays silent while he waited for the rest of the team. He had taken the opportunity to polish and clean his bow, its gears half-disassembled on the plastic floor, and was crouching there as he worked. He was going in without a plan. He hated going in without a plan. Late night training, no notice about the scenario (which was pretty common, especially in the last few months) and no notice about who he'd train with (which was pretty common too), described by Mr. Archer as "the final event for the year." 


Not one to complain about his education, especially about combat training, Riley silently went about his work, his ears open to his surroundings even as his eyes focused on the work before him. It wasn't the first time he'd had to refurbish his bow without being able to watch his back. 

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Robin was quiet but not silent as she took the steps down into the training room. For once, she'd left the ever present backpack behind in her dorm room which had less to do with trusting her surroundings and far more to do with dread at dealing with whatever Archer considered a final test. "S'me." She said as soon as she saw Riley's back, identifying herself automatically before she paused on the last step, her nerves clearly drawn tight.


"It's you, right... not some sort'a... solid light pretend thing, right?" Robin asked, her voice low in the dark as she moved towards the side of the room automatically once she'd past the threshhold of the doorway. 

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Raina was far less restrained as she clattered down the long hallway into the training room, her caroled "this is soooo stuuuupid" preceded her by at least thirty seconds. "I should get a freaking religious exemption for this, the full moon is on the summer solstice this year, do you know how much I have to do to get ready?" she demanded of the room in general as she finally appeared, clad in her training uniform and sporting a freshly-peeled willow wand. "It's like if Christmas and... I don't know, something else that is not as important but still important, maybe Lent or something? Like they showed up on the same day one year. Everybody would lose their minds, or at least get a couple extra days off, right?" 


She shucked off her backpack and let Merlin clamber out of it and onto his usual perch on her shoulder. Even as Raina continued to rant about her need for increased holiday time, both she and her familiar were keeping a very sharp eye on the darkened observation windows above them, and the thumb of Raina's wandless hand caressed the wheel of a palmed disposable lighter. "Did you guys get any word about what we're going up against tonight?" she finally thought to ask. 

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The clipped footfalls that announced Winifred's arrival were largely drowned out by Raina's complaints, giving the alchemist a moment to stand in the doorway and look about the room before entering. "Only the most favoured of students tonight, I see," the alchemist observed dryly, pulling her bandolier of flasks from her saddlebag before dropping in near the witch's backpack. Looping the leather over one shoulder she carefully rearranged the lines of her long white coat despite suspecting that her appearance was about to be thrown into disarray regardless. "Perhaps they have decided to forego announcing new disciplinary action going forward in the interests of saving time." There was a distinct note of tension in her voice that belied her straight-backed posture. The exercises she was assigned in the appropriately named Doom Room tended to be more focused on her disagreeable alter ego despite her protests.

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"S'me," said Riley, shooting a real smile at Robin upon her entrance. "Fake one prolly'd have this done already. Least the company's good." He wanted to get up and hug her, but he wasn't going to leave his weapon half-finished. So instead he knelt there and kept working, reassembling the bow, as the others arrived. "Sanderson, Fred," got their acknowledgements too, his best way of making sure everyone knew where everyone was and nobody got surprised. Between one thing and another, everyone in the Doom Room that night had a short temper. When his weapon was complete, he strapped it to his back and joined Robin by the wall, his hand in hers the closest thing they'd get to a PDA with everybody watching. Well, unless Archer ticked them off about it. 


When said teacher finally made his appearance, he was in the upper observation room as was his usual style - positioned directly above the Doom Room door. They caught a glimpse of him entering and turning down the control room lights, until all they could see in the dimly-lit room above them was the reflection of the monitors in front of Archer in his new round-rimmed glasses. When Archer spoke, it was with slow deliberation right into the audio pickup in the room. "This will be the final exam for students code-named Sparkler, Woodsman, Al-alkahest, and Nighthawk." Riley blinked, shooting a quick glance at Fred at that, but before any of them could comment the scenario had begun in earnest! 


They were somewhere he didn't recognize specifically but knew pretty well after hanging with Robin - a public housing apartment corridor, somewhere in Lincoln or the Fens. Probably the Fens, he judged - the graffiti on the walls and strong smell of mold was powerful in the air. Several of the doors were open and off their hinges, showing wrecked, empty apartments inside, others were bolted shut by multiple, high-security latches, odd sounds coming from inside. The writing on the wall, a lurid red in flickering incandescent bulbs above, read such cheerful things as THE END OF DAYS and THE LAST DAY IS AT HAND. Eyes hard and bow out, Riley looked for trees inside the building, glad to find none. 

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"Hey, Sparkler, get some air and give us a look around would ya?" Nighthawk said, straightening from her position against the wall as the scenario started up and cracking her knuckles. "You're most likely the one who can recognize whatever voo-doo apocalypse crap is going on. Reagent, you got my back, yeah?"


She gave her room-mate's preferred code name a bit of extra stress, and paused despite the scenario to pat Fred's shoulder with a muttered, "Don't let him in your head. You're in control."


She tipped her head towards Woodsman. "Watch the windows. If we've got some zombie scenario, you don't wanna be nabbed heading for a rooftop. If Sparkler spots a clear patch for you, though, might as well get in a good position?"

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"Yeah, lemme see what I can do," Raina said, surprisingly cooperative for once. Raina's magical senses were always a little bit off in these training scenarios, since the magic was simulated in a way she didn't quite understand, but she extended them anyway as she walked into one of the empty apartments and tested the window. They didn't slide open, but she found one that was broken already and encouraged it to break a little further. Carefully wriggling her way out the window, she flew up to rooftop level to try and get a better look at what was happening all around them. 

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"Not exactly one for subtlety, our Mister Archer," Winifred replied dryly to Robin, loosening the strap of the topmost vial on her bandolier with one hand while choking up on her care warily with the other. It was rude, certainly, going strictly against her clearly and repeatedly stated preferences but it was the distinct stutter that struck her as out-of-character. That along with the lack of explanation put her ill at ease; the Academy faculty had proven to be perhaps overly fond of 'pop quizzes' but her understanding of a final exam generally allowed for some preparation or at least a full night's sleep. It might have just been Archer's spartan sensibilities at work but an insistent knot of dread settled in her stomach nonetheless.


Still, she'd be damned if she let that stop her from making short work of the bully's test. "And yes, you may rely on me, Nighthawk," she assure her roommate with characteristic cool composure. Making sure to keep her eyes flicking about the hallway she took a closer look at the graffiti, looking for signs as to its age and whether it had been scrawled with paint or something less tasteful.

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'Upstairs', Raina found a post-apocalyptic city given over to strange rites and bizarre acts. Atonal music played from street-level speakers and the instruments of dancing musicians, while a frenzied crowd danced and sang and gibbered. There were no signs of other heroes in this version of Freedom City, only the crowd gone wild and innocents she could see here and there, huddling in their homes against the maelstrom outside. Overhead the stars were wrong in some unnameable way, arranged in arcane patterns that had no business existing in reality. The main action appeared to be happening outside in a park located directly adjacent the building, where before a cheering crowd of shabbily dressed civilians-turned-acolytes bearing unholy symbols on their foreheads, masked figures were in the middle of an arcane ritual she didn't recognize. 


The symbols on the walls certainly looked like blood to Fred's experienced eye, fresh enough to have been there only a few days. All the damage looked only a few days old, the carpeting and walls torn up but the torn areas themselves looking half-faded. it was as if the city had one day decided to simply go mad. 


At the window Raina had gone out of, Riley was watching outside with binoculars too. "I c'n snipe the leader," he called out, reluctantly loud to make sure his voice carried to Sparkler and Merlin outside, "but at this range, I'll only get one shot with any chance of hittin' 'im hard. Whadda we do?"

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Raina took a good long look around before adjusting her comm mic and  contacting the others. "It's way messed up out here," she reported, "Like I'm talking 'the stars in different patterns, alternate universe kind of happy crappy. There's rioting in the streets, some noncombatants hiding in the buildings but nobody in immediate danger that I can tell. Some kind of ritual going on in the park next door, I can't get a read on it yet. Knowing the way Archer feels about magic, it's probably something cartoonishly evil." She flicked one defiant glance towards the sky where the invisible observation window would be. "I'm going to try and get in closer, see if I can get a taste of the magic. Wait for me before you start shooting anybody, Woodsman." 


Angling her broom to keep her in the shadow of the building, she dropped to within a few dozen feet of the ritual and reached out again, trying to determine what exactly was going on in the wildly gyrating circle. 

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"Suitably ghoulish," Winifred observed, pulling a face while she inspected the scrawled words on the walls. "Blood, a bit too fresh for comfort. It seems safe to surmise that whatever is meant to have happened here happened only days ago and happened quickly." She thought of the rioting mob caused by the Deep One's hallucinogens and wondered if Archer's scenario didn't include something similar. Reagent hurried after Nighthawk, splitting her attention between keeping watch and looking for direction from their field leader.

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"Cover Sparkler if she's going in closer," Nighthawk instructed Woodsman with a small nod towards the window. "Last thing we wanna do is blow up a ritual and make things worse. Better if we know what we're interrupting first." She paused and then touched his shoulder lightly, the gesture mutely supportive. "I know you can make the shot, but lets recon first since we're not tossed straight into a fight. If the window closes, we'll make you another one."


She nodded her head towards Fred then and suggested, "Gross but lets get a sample. Who knows what we'll be thrown into." She stepped to the window too and scanned the streets before nodding, "Let's get to the rooftop while Sparkler moves into position and get a bit more space to maneuver. I know its a little undignified, but swing an arm around my neck and I'll climb up the side of the building while Woodsman keeps cover, then we'll keep an eye out for him. Moving solo, he'll be the fastest and he's got range."


Nighthawk was being cautious and that was clear. The scenario was moderately unnerving but more so was her clear distrust of Archer's surprise scenario. Heading for the window that Sparkler had left through, Nighthawk slipped onto the sill and to the side to keep the sight-lines clear before she extended one hand to her roommate. 

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The climb up the side of the building was a tricky one - the bricks weren't so much weak as they were somehow decayed, as if their very substance had rotted. But between Robin's great strength letting her make her own handhold and Riley's careful, utilitarian ascent using climbing gear from his poncho and a line from his bow, the trio made their way to the roof of the apartment building. There was a dead body here, the usual not-quite-real imitation from Claremont's computers that to Riley's practiced eye looked more like a plastic dummy than a person. Checking to make sure this wasn't one of those tricky bodies that moved that Erin had told him about, Riley quickly took a position at roof's edge where he could cover Raina, keep an eye out with his binoculars, and have least some semblance of cover. 


Down below, the magic felt weird to Raina - but then it usually did at Claremont, where the "magic simulators" could never quite match up to reality. Like looking at a photograph of a fire, she could usually tell what it was supposed to be, even if she knew it wasn't what it looked like. The crowd was strange, wild-eyed and shabbily-dressed, focused on the ritualistic chanting of the coven leaders with a maniac intensity, some masked but most bare-faced and enraptured. This seemed like the earth magic she was familiar with, calling up the powers and principalities below, but also of the forbidden stars and things between them - symbolized by an elder sign embossed in a pentagram. The cult leaders, wrapped in bright red robes of their own, were a man in a full-face satanic mask and the other, a woman beneath a succubus's visage, suddenly stopped their chanting and pointed with great intent into the crowd. "Goats! Goats!" 


Two of the masked figures, their faces still obscured, were the ones called out - their neighbors, shabbily dressed and manic, suddenly grabbed them and began dragging them towards the stage, the two 'goats' seemingly reluctant now that they'd been chosen as victims. The crowd was chanting now, a call and response with the female of the cult leaders. "Sheep! Goats! Sheep! Goats!" The male, for his part, had drawn a long, ritualistic dagger from beneath his robes and was advancing to the altar - which for its part appeared to be a repurposed, heavily desecrated church centerpiece. 

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"Oh hey, I know this one, they're doing Book of Revelations: The Musical," Raina announced into her microphone, even as she sped lower on her broom. "See, magic is always all effed up in these simulations, I think it's some kind of innate phobia on Mr. Archer's part. He oughta go lay on Dr. Marquez's couch for awhile. But we should probably not let them do the whole blood sacrifice thing. No blood, got it, Woodsman?" she repeated firmly. 

With a flick of her thumb she drew her lighter and formed a fireball, then with one deft flick of her wrist sent it hurtling towards the altar. In moments, the grotesque thing was engulfed in purple flames. 

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"Maybe a little more forewarning before the boom?" Robin asked with more resignation than anything else even as she gave the hand signal to Woodsman to engage. "High priority targets, take out what you can. Reagent, you got any thing you can see about doing to give us a bit more cover or slow down the fringes? I'm gonna drop in for close combat just in case we get demons up the ying-yang here in five."


She gave the orders even as she took the few steps to launch herself off the top of the building like a diver heading towards a pool rather than concrete and chaos - taking advantage of the flare of purple fire to distract from her entry into the throng. For a moment her outline was highlighted against the flare of fire. 


"Gonna need your eyes, guys. Where am I needed?" Nighthawk asked as she hit the ground in a full tuck and roll to end up in the midst of the whole mess.

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Sparkler's well-placed fireball didn't disperse the crowd as such - but the flames licking up from the altar seemed to hypnotize most of them, making sure no retaliatory missiles of one variety or another came her way. There were hoots and rhythmic chanting now, the howls and gibbers of a maddened crowd. For her part, Nighthawk was easily able to drive aside the maddened crowd, making her way almost directly to the foot of the burning altar. The struggling 'goats' were there, still in their heavy leather masks, with the man and woman who'd been leading the crowd into a frenzy stood above them, one on each side of the altar and standing above their would-be victims. 


Or so it appeared. What followed happened quickly, even as the assembled heroes watched. The 'devil' and 'succubus' tore off their masks to reveal a man and woman who looked slightly alike - blond, blue-eyed, both of them handsome without being outstandingly gorgeous, the man looking a bit like one of those character actors everyone knows but no one can put a name. Raina could put a name to both of them, though - as off as the copies seemed, she knew her parents. "Hail Satan, Lord of Hell!" they shouted in unison. 


Then they slit their own throats - the blood gushing with the sort of volume seen more in Hollywood movies than real life, thought Woodsman as he studied the bizarre scene. The blood spattered over the goats, whose captor released them as they cried out wordlessly, howled, and ripped off their own masks to reveal a blonde, muscular woman with a stocky build and a dark-skinned man with blue eyes and dark hair going grey at the temples. These were Robin's parents - and suddenly Riley had stopped looking at the simulation and was staring up at the hidden observation booth, his eyes narrowing in a suddenly-burning rage - an instant before the noise from below sent him looking down again. 


Covered in blood, the goats howled, writhed - and suddenly roared with malignant glee as their eyes flushed an eerie, animalistic yellow. "BLOOD!" they howled together, "BLOOD!", even as their transformation continued, growing ever more violent as their bodies actually warped and changed into twin pallid masses of twisting, too-dense muscle with a greyish, corpse-like tint. Towering even with a pronounced stoop, their proportions were only nominally human and gave only the most general indication of gender. The only thing that made them look different from the Alkahest was the look of malignant glee in their Feral eyes.


Riley did not yell even now - but he found himself thoroughly at a loss for words as he crouched there on the roof next to Fred. 

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It wasn't as though Raina hadn't come into the simulation expecting a twist. This was Mr. Archer, the mean teacher, the just-over-borderline sadist, who liked to pick at psychic scars and scabs just to see if they would bleed. She'd expected demonic magic to come up anytime now, but she hadn't expected this. "Mom?" she yelped when the first figure ripped off its mask, hesitating in midair with violet flames still poised on her fingers. On her shoulder, Merlin chirped in near-echo as her father revealed himself as well. Then there were knives, and blood, and even though she knew, she knew it wasn't real, Raina felt the entire world take one long, lazy swirl around her as bile rose in her throat and her fingers went numb on the handle of her broom. 


The fire in her hand grew hot and red, so bright it was almost hard to look at, so hot that the edges of Raina's hair began to frizzle near it. The same color began to spark in her blue eyes, but then Merlin was there, patting her hair with his tiny hands, murmuring into her ear that it wasn't real, that Archer would pay for this. "Shut it down, Merlin," she rasped, unable to tear her eyes from the bodies. "This is over." The monkey immediately pulled his phone from her pocket and went to work, absolutely certain of what he was doing.

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Nighthawk had been in motion, that smooth, effortless motion her friends were used to on the battlefield until the sacrifice was revealed. The stop she came to was so sudden it was almost comical - except there was nothing funny about this, nothing funny at all. "Daddy?" Robin's voice hiccuped, sounding younger and her hand stuttered, reaching out towards the hologram's blood spattered face as it twisted into a rictus. Robin's fist halted halfway in the air, ignoring the simulation and the potential threat that the faux-Alkahests possessed. 


She stopped, standing utterly still, with her hands fisted at her sides. Ignoring the simulation entirely, Robin twisted and in a sudden burst of movement drove her fist down into the metal panel of the Doom Room's floor with a solid klang. As the edge of the panel curled up under the deformation from Robin's super strength, she reached out to pry up the panel with her unnatural strength. Continuing the momentum like it was a shot put, Robin sent the panel soaring towards the glass of the control panel with a shouted, "Archer!"


Robin flexed her bloody knuckles back into fists once more, her posture pure rigid defiance. She officially no longer cared about expulsion. No, Robin was going to get some answers, "You'd better be under some sort of mind control or influence, old man," she said, lowering her head and taking a step forward. "For your sake."

Edited by alderwitch
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It took longer for Winifred to realize the extent of the horror than her friends. Certainly using the image of the Alkahest for their simulated antagonists was a transparent attempt to upset her and test her self-control but then that had been the theme of every exercise designed for her in the Doom Room. She'd begun silently reciting her calming exercises and trying to think of something to help Woodsman focus past his understandable issues with humanoid monstrosities when she finally processed the reactions of Sparkler and Nighthawk. They were too far away for her to hear then until Robin started yelling but looking back to the fading holograms she put two and two together with a sharp intake of breath.


"Smith, those-- He used the images of her parents," she stuttered haltingly to the survivalist crouched nearby. The images from the photograph her roommate kept carefully tucked away in a sealed bag, the one Winifred had seen only on the handful of times they were both feeling melancholic enough to talk about their losses. "Then the-- the cultists would have been--" She turned her attention to Raina, fire burning dangerously bright and obscuring her expression at a distance. She couldn't complete the thought out loud.


She didn't particularly care for Archer or his methods but this was an outright attack, designed to hurt her friends, some of the sparse handful of people who had made an effort to show her kindness in the world of the present, as badly as possible. Glass vials clinked softly as her whole body vibrated with rising anger, vitriol that pounded in her ears. "S-Smith, I-- I'm going to-- t-trying...!" She gasped out the words while one hand clenched into a fist and pounded a panel of the revealed simulation room with a dull clang and her eyes focused with unnatural intensity on the control room.

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Woodsman stared at Reagent for a long moment, his hand twitching at the hatchet he wore at his belt. There were Ferals below and a friend about to turn into a monster here, but a sharp blow to the back of her head before she changed would end the nightmare before it began. 


And then he jumped off the roof. He knew what falling off a roof from this height meant; the shattered bones, the spilling blood, the predators tearing apart your broken corpse - 


but none of this was real. 


He hit the ground next to Nighthawk as if he'd fallen ten feet instead of fifty, landing with a neat tuck and roll directly on the section of flooring that Robin had torn up and thrown at the observation booth, ignoring the 




and trusting that landing outside the simulation would protect him from attack. "Don't even have da god'amned voices right!" he snarled at the Alkahest that might have been Robin's father, his bow out and ready. "Fred's gonna go," he hissed to Robin, crouching low so that the monsters on either side couldn't reach him without hitting the clear zone. This was no time for comfort. Don't feel. Just act. From above, there was a maddening lack of response - the outer window over the observation booth had actually cracked from the impact of Nighthawk's attacks, but the darkness inside hadn't changed, the only clearly visible sight inside was Archer's blank face and the reflection of the lights within on his glasses. 


Meanwhile, Merlin was telling Sparkler that he was hacking into the system through wifi - and it was going far too easily. Someone had completely compromised the security systems for the complicated independent computer network that ran the Doom Room...

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"Send out an SOS," Raina instructed her familiar, wheeling around on her broom so she didn't have to look at the simulated corpses any longer. "The headmaster if you can get her, otherwise any of your technopals you can catch. Something's going on beyond the normal sadism." Merlin agreed, commenting absently that screwing with the holodeck always led to bad situations. "You're a nerd," she replied, forcing a half smile. He did not disagree, but he wasn't paying much attention, either.


She saw Riley had jumped off the roof, a little more acrobatic than she'd expected from him, but he seemed to have landed okay. Fred was probably hanging back to stay out of trouble from the remaining simulations, and maybe to stay out of the way of Robin's exceedingly well-deserved tantrum. While she waited for Merlin, Raina circled around and potshotted the monsters, shooting the occasional dark look at the observation room. 

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Nighthawk took a deep, steadying breath at Woodsman's hissed information. She wanted to shake Archer until his teeth rattled but, despite what the gossip mill might say, Nighthawk - Robin - was a hero first and foremost, and her friend needed her help. "Don't let 'em clock me, yeah?" She muttered back to Woodsman about the simulations as she ignored the more present threat - dancing back on nimble feet to pivot. 


"Hey... Hey, Fred!" Robin called up, reaching to pull the mask from her features as she forced the anger back down inside. Fortunately, she had a lot of experience doing just that. She twisted back, taking a much more defensive stance than she normally chose unless fighting well outside her skill range. "You got this. You GOT this. We need YOU, not the Alkahest today. Please, I need your help to figure out what's going on."


It might have been the first time any of this group had heard Robin ask for help. "Please, Fred. You gotta hold on. For me."

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Bits of crumbled brick rained down toward Robin from the rooftop where she knew Winifred was crouched. It was difficult to see from the ground but she imagined that she could make out white knuckled fingers gripping the edge of the building as the weighty silence extended for another beat.


Finally a visibly shaking figure hauled herself to her feet to look down, one hand leaning heavily on her cane while the other forearm lay across the brick half-wall, marring the white sleeve of her coat. A flop sweat gave the alchemist's forehead and pallid sheen and her dark hair had come undone to hang in disarray about her face. "W-well," Reagent called back to her roommate, the words an obvious effort, "I'd l-look a right zou-nnh-zounderkite to disappoint then, eh? I'll just... take the st-stairs down, shall I? Watch yourself."

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Woodsman dropped to one knee in the middle of the torn-up section of floor, planting the hatchet in his hands by his left knee and ducking low as the Ferals went for him. Despite their best efforts, the twin Alkahests couldn't actually reach him, the hole Robin had torn out of the floor being somewhat larger than his body. So instead, they were punching 'air' - holographic fists vanishing within a fraction of an inch of his torso. When Sparkler opened up, the firebolts distracted the Alkahests, earning her some angry roars from the illusory monsters and giving him  a moment's reprieve from the pure survival.


His heart was thundering in his ears and his body practically rigid with repressed emotion - so he took out his crossbow and began loading it, slowly and methodically, cranking back the shaft for maximum power. He was muttering to himself over the growls of the Alkahests and the screams of the murdered city all around them, "Gonna get in the booth and stop it. Gonna get in the booth and stop it. Gonna get in the booth and stop it." 

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A chirp of satisfaction from Merlin was all the warning Raina got before the simulation ended, not cleanly and instantly the way it normally would have, but in a disorienting wash of static and a whine of feedback as the city disappeared and left them standing only a few yards apart in the black box of the Doom Room. Merlin told Raina that he'd sent the SOS, that attention would be paid, though it was hard at this point to say what kind of concrete action anybody might take. She nodded curtly, then looked to her classmates. "Everybody okay?" she asked, her voice strange and strangled to her own ears. A large portion of her wanted to fly up to that window and obliterate it, then start in on the person inside, but for once she wasn't going to give someone the satisfaction of being right about her. "Riley, Fred, you with us here?" 

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