The Lost Souls

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY GRAVEYARD' started by Razilin, Jun 30, 2016.

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  1. OOC Thread

    JUNE 27, 2016
    YOKOTA AIR BASE
    NEAR TOKYO, JAPAN

    Warning klaxons and red lights blared throughout the US Air Force base. Personnel scrambled to action stations, only to soon wail in agony and terror. Black shadows flooded rooms and corridors. Lights blinked out on their own. Screams from stalwart soldiers were instantly silenced as the blackness wreathed over them like a soft fog.

    At the mouth of one hallway, a squadron of six guards leveled their rifles at the roiling black mist creeping toward them. Sweat beaded down their faces. Fingers itched toward triggers. The mist slowly crawled toward them, seemingly unconcerned by the deadly weapons borne against it. Finally, the guards opened fire. The mists twirled slightly as each bullet dug into the swirling morass of darkness. If the shots struck anything, it did not make a sound. In fact, the mist seemed to absorb all sound, permitting not a whisper to pass.

    Then, suddenly, like biting snakes, the tendrils came. Whips of smoky darkness lanced forth from the black cloud. They ensnared gun barrels, arms, legs, and bodies. All were pulled toward the silent cloud. Each man let out a cry of panic, which was instantly silenced once they entered the blackness.

    The mists coiled down the hallway. In its wake, the six guards - or more precisely, their corpses - were left behind, limbs and visages twisted in absolute horror and their eyes blank with lifelessness. They literally died of fright.

    ---

    JUNE 27, 2016
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "...Another attack, sir." The enigmatic Crossfire was one of the most experienced and deadliest agents within the Hushcobb organization, yet his tone was one of careful trepidation. And with good reason.

    Director Ferrara looked up from the computer screen on his desk. The limited security footage playing on the monitor showed everything. The black cloud, the dead soldiers, the carnage left in the wake of yet another raid by this mysterious creature. Hushcobb had dealt with a multitude of supernatural creatures and other bumps in the night during its long, secretive existence...but this avatar of fear was a new one.

    On the screen were several other videos and reports, all showing the same thing. A black mist striking at US bases and military installations all across the world. There were also reports of attacks by the same mist on the streets of major cities, always against criminals, gangs, and other ilk. No one was sure what this strange mist wanted, how it came to be, or how to stop it. Guns, explosives, even tanks...nothing could hurt it or disperse it.

    And in a scarce few seconds of a scarce few videos...the director could make out a ghoulish, armored figure inside the mist, with glowing red eyes the color of old blood. Ferrara paused one such video to study those eyes. There was so much hate and rage in them. People who survived the attacks had given that figure a name:

    The Devilman.

    He frowned darkly and let out a grim rumble from his throat. "Agent Crossfre," Ferrara said in a deep, gravelly baritone, "get our local agents out there. We're stepping in."

    ---

    JUNE 29, 2016
    RESEARCH WING
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "Bring up the production speed by oh-point-oh-five," a firm, cool female voice commanded.

    "Yes, Doctor. Oh-point-oh-five in." The reply was from a younger, mousier woman. She read off the readings on a nearby monitor hanging from the operating room ceiling. "Patient's vitals are holding steady."

    The blonde doctor scrubbed into the surgical suite ran her delicate hands across the control sticks of a surgical robot interface stationed next to the operating table. Sterile wrappings sheathed the mechanical arms jutting from the base of the robot, moving at the female surgeon's precise commands. At the tips of the arm were various probes. At the tip of one arm in particular was a dart launcher housed in front of a whirring box - within that box was a micro-factory factory, rapidly producing a dart-like projectile filled with ectoplasm.

    Ectoplasm drawn from, of all things, a literal ghost boy. It was the breakthrough Engel needed to make her technology finally work. For years, the challenge had been finding a suitable, adaptable medium to manipulate the natural healing rate of the human body. It wasn't until Engel joined Hushcobb that she finally found that medium.

    "What's the time to finished production, May?" the surgeon asked.

    The mousy woman, May, looked up at the hanging ceiling monitors. "Projectile completed...now, Dr. Engel. You can fire when ready."

    The surgeon nodded. "All right. Begin recording. ANGEL delivery system test forty-two." She spoke in clipped, dry tones, speaking solely for the sake of the recorders hooked up within the operating room rather than for either her patient or her assistant, May. "Test subject is a volunteer who suffered an IED-related injury to his spine. The patient is paralyzed from the waist down. The ANGEL System can theoretically repair any damaged tissues. Previous tests have shown exemplary effects on soft tissue injury and more modest, but significant, effects on bone healing. This is the first test done on neurological injury. Activating ANGEL delivery system...now."

    The surgeon pulled a trigger at the controls. The dart launcher fired a small projectile at the patient on the table. Both Dr. Engel and May waited with bated breath.

    Engel smiled behind her surgical mask. "Readings are beginning to show modest neurological activity in the previously paralyzed nerves. Not enough to restore mobility or sensation, but its a start." She turned to May. "Time until ectoplasm clearance?"

    May replied, "Thirty-five seconds." Finally, the timer ran out. The two women continued to study the nerve readings. A minute passed. Then two. Then five. May happily announced, "Full ectoplasm clearance achieved. Neurological responses persisting. Congratulations, Dr. Engel. It seems there is a lasting effect from the dart."

    "Not much. But its a start," Engel replied. She disrobed from her surgical attire and made her way into the locker room.

    She passed by a full-sized mirror, only cursorily glancing at her appearance. Though clad in unflattering scrubs, no one with eyes could forget her. Dr. Annabelle Engel was nothing short of gorgeous. At five-foot-seven, she was tall for a woman with a lithe frame and a full bust. A comely face with high cheekbones was framed with long golden hair, currently pulled into a tight bun. Even in the scrubs she was wearing, it was impossible not to notice the roll of her shapely hips.

    She didn't notice how her assistant, May Seavers, was enraptured by those hips. A shorter woman with boyishly short brown hair, she was a few years Engel's junior. She joined Engel in the locker room and opened a locker to switch out of her scrubs. May used the opportunity to covertly sneak several peeks at Engel as the surgeon disrobed.

    "May?" The mousy woman let out an eep and hurriedly changed in order to hide her sudden blush. Engel didn't seem to notice as she went on, "Thanks for your help today. We've made some big breakthroughs in the last six months, but today's an ever bigger one...no matter how small the results." Engel's cool tone began to warm as she spoke further about the day's test. "Think of it! The ability to quickly regenerate actual nerve tissue! We just need to find a way to amplify the effect...."

    May blushingly opined, "I'm sure you can do it, Dr. Engel. You're amazing! And you're super smart! If anyone can do it, it'll be you, I know it."

    Engel let out a smile. "Glad to know I have your belief in me, May." Engel finished buttoning the shirt on her uniform. Last came the jacket of her service uniform, the proud ranking of a Hushcobb agent glittering upon it. The ring of her cellphone cut the air of the locker room. Curious, the surgeon answered. "Engel. Director Ferrara, good morning." The cool tone was back. "No, I just finished the test for today...er...."

    She trailed off, her brows furrowing. May watched her crush with concern. Finally, Engel said, "I'll be there shortly, Director. Yes, sir." She snapped the phone closed and looked to May. "Get the ANGEL packed. It seems we're going to have a lot of wounded coming in."

    ---

    JUNE 29, 2016
    MEDICAL WING
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "What the hell happened to these men?" Dr. Engel quietly asked, emerging from the medical ward and hanging her stethescope around her neck. The tail of a white lab coat swished against her legs with each step. "Preliminary tests show nothing physically wrong with them. There's not even any supernatural causes that I can detect. Its as if they simply decided to die."

    Director Ferrara's expression was grim as he filled her in. "Twenty-four hours ago, we sent a team of agents to Japan take down a supernatural creature called the Devilman. They ended up like this. Even our best efforts yielded only defeat. Local hospitals in Japan couldn't help them, so we had them transported here."

    "I already have the ANGEL System getting prepped up in the operating suite," Engel said. "Conventional treatment isn't going to cut it. Maybe the ANGEL will. They only look dead. There is still some minimal brainwave activity occurring." She cupped her fingers around her chin and muttered to herself, "Perhaps something's blocking signals from the brain to the rest of the body? Or signal interruption downstream...?"

    Ferrara cut her musings short. "Get it done, Doctor. I leave it to you."

    As he began to walk away, Engel asked, "Director. About this Devilman. Did our agents manage to get any samples of him? Or have any extra information that I can use?"

    "...They were able to record something the creature said; its the first words anyone's ever heard from him," Ferrara said heavily. "'I am justice; I am coming.'"
     
    #1 Razilin, Jun 30, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2016
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  2. June 29, 2016
    Inversion Lockup
    Hushcobb, Kansas

    Erika gasped. Something tingled her spine. It made her shiver and arch her back on her bed. Her mouth fell open and her eyes closed. Then she opened her eyes and smiled. She remembered feeling that a couple days ago. It was a good bit of dread.

    "Mm...ha ha," she said. "Someone wants to play."

    She sat up and walked around her room. It was a little space, eight feet square, with open walls of iron bars. Her bed was a comfy twin and she was given a long T-shirt and matching pants to wear. She almost never wore the pants. Erika skipped as she paced around. Hm, hm, hm. New voice? New sensation in her body. She looked forward to finding out what it meant.

    She jumped and grabbed the bars overhead, bending so her legs could slip between them and let her dangle. Erika laughed at the two guards who moved in front of her door, their faces flushed.

    From the guards' perspective, she was upright, her hair and shirt pointing up from the inverted gravity of the cell she called home. A small portion of an M.C. Escher staircase climbed up her right side in black, blue, and neon green. A spiderweb coiled around her left hand. On her other arm, a marking that was two different words depending on how you looked at it. From one angle it read "serenity" and from the opposite it read "madness." Her eyes were heavily shadowed blue bleeding into green.

    "Hi boys." She tossled her short red hair - black and green at the roots - and made a display of stretching. "Is it bath time?"

    They nodded and opened the door. One stepped up and held his arms out, so when she let go of the bars and she fell up, he caught her by the waist.

    "Down, boy," she teased in that lyrical Irish accent. "The pipes, the pipes are callin'. Or are you just looking to see me naked?"

    The guard rolled his eyes. She never got tired of teasing him, especially in front of the other workers. If she were maybe ten years older. Oh, and not crazy.

    "Here to do our job, which unfortunately involves listening to your nonsense. Now let's go."

    Erika had them both flanking either side of her while they walked to the communal showers. On the way, she would pass her roomies. One was just a box of copper standing upright, about the size of a person. It sometimes made ghostly moans. Then there was a man chained to the sides of his cage, all two dozen arms and legs shackled with wrought iron chains. He had six eyes - three blue, three brown - and when he growled his mouth split into numerous smaller mouths. Erika bared her teeth and let out a whisper of a roar, giggling and giving what would have looked like a friendly wink under other circumstances. She occasionally looked up at Hushcobb employees they passed by, but mostly her eyes were on the men leading her along.

    "So...Agent Moss..." she began with a pop of her lips. The man rolled his eyes again. Here it comes. "You give any thought to raping me?"

    "You know, it's not really rape if you're asking for it," his partner responded. Moss struck him with a glare. "I mean literally asking for it. Like she is. Not rape."

    "Just immoral and against the rules," Moss replied.

    "No, no! Harv's right!" Erika said. "But I mean a time when I'm not in the mood. When you just wanna...take a hold of something and... mmph!" She clenched her fists and shook them, an odd action given what they were talking about. "That's how you have fun. Just do something because you feel like it. Sometimes it's good to follow the little voices in your head - no, not you! You're so boring!"

    The two guards looked at each other. Moss nodded to her. Told you. Crazy.

    Mercifully, they got to the showers with little more of that. Erika split off from them, pulling her T-shirt over her head and revealing yet another set of pigment tattoos. Along her spine were twisted ribs, bent so that they read up her back. "Beware if" on the left, and "you stare" on the right. She went behind a corner and started showering.

    After a few minutes they could hear her voice echo through the empty shower area. "By the way, since I've been a good girl I think it's fair I ask you to open some of the doors."

    Harv and Moss looked at each other. "What?"

    "I want to take a walk," she simplified.

    "Where to?" Harv asked.

    "My master."

    ---

    Inversion Command Post

    Director Ferrara stepped into the octagonal glass platform that held all the monitors. There were three on hand to watch at all times. For him, it was just a routine walk-through.

    "How are things holding up, boys?"

    They looked up and nodded to him. "Just fine, sir. Gravity pump is functioning properly. No energy dips. It's pretty quiet, actually."

    "Hm." He looked at the monitors and found an empty cell. "Where's crazy?"

    "Showers," another replied. "Keep her isolated, right Director? I can switch to the outer cam."

    "No, that's alright."

    "You know where your master is?" They suddenly heard over the radios.

    "What's that?"

    "Moss's walkie." A guard turned it up.

    "Not really. But I know where to start looking. At least, Slut Me thinks she does. Could just be she wants a ride." Erika's voice. Barely making sense, as usual. "Hm?...Oh, you think that's a good place to start, too? How do we get...one thing at a time! Fuck, you're so annoying! This is why I tune you out."

    "Um, Erika?"
    More apprehensive. This must be the guy recently assigned to her, Harv.

    "Just the voices in her head. Give her a minute."

    Ferrara was getting tired of this hearing without seeing shit. "Sweep to the camera."

    ---

    Erika paused with her hand rubbing excess shampoo off her neck. Did Bitch Me actually come up with something good? Her other voices echoed an agreement in that minefield inside her skull.

    "Oh, I can definitely do that. So impulsive! Risqué! Not like you at all!" she chirped with approval. She poked her head around the corner at the two men. "Boys! Any chance either of you can take us - I mean, me - to a place called Dublin? Please? I'm asking really, really nicely."

    She fluttered her big eyelashes, making them blush again, but Moss kept stoic.

    "Sorry, kid, but 'please' doesn't get you everything," he said.

    She turned back around and began to shut off the water. "Well, I tried. Now we try the fun way."

    The guards' guns leapt out of their holsters and aimed themselves right at their owners' heads. They backed up, but the pistols followed them.

    "Erika put them down, now!" Moss yelled. "This isn't funny!"

    She rounded the corner, slipping on her shirt and shook her head. "Mm, no. I'm stepping out. Little night on the town." She plucked Harv's hat from the top of his head and fitted it over her spiky hair, smiling. "Now the vest and your boots."

    ---

    "Sound the alarm," Ferrara ordered. His face reddened in anger as his guards were forced to strip. "We've got an escape attempt."

    ---

    Erika sneered at the ceiling with disgust. "Ugh! I hate this song."

    She shot the nearest speaker and continued with a sexy saunter. She had the guns leading the way. She retraced her path to in front of the guard tower. As she looked for stairs eight armed agents rushed in and surrounded her.

    "ERIKA PUT THE GUNS DOWN AND GET ON YOUR KNEES NOW!"

    She chuckled. "Hm...kinky. Some of you will have to wait your turn, though. I bet I can take care of you all at once my way."

    She started dancing, waving her arms and working her hips like she was at Woodstock. But with every move guns were ripped out of hands and thrown at the face across from it. She hummed the alarm like it was music. When all the agents were down she stopped and smirked. The guns floated around her.

    "You know, the tune's starting to grow on me."

    She turned and shot out her fists. The guns fired, shattering the glass of the observation tower. By some miracle the workers managed to duck under the gunfire and slip out with only a few cuts. Once that was done, her weapons moved one in front of the other, creating a stairway. With a lot of poise, Erika skipped up into the room. She looked at the monitors, played with touch screens and buttons. Mm...boring...boring...ah-ha! Lock controls! A few keystrokes later and all the secret paths to the surface were unlocked.

    She looked again to the monitors, at all those cells. Her roomies. Don't, that annoying voice warned. I mean it. Ha! What could she threaten her with?! Boop.

    Iron, silver, gold and fizzing electrical doors slid open all over the Lockup. Guttural roars and screeches echoed throughout the carved out prison.

    Zeroth's wrought iron chains clicked and fell off. He dropped to his knees. For years...no sitting, no reprieve. His deformed, clawed hands shrunk down into normal human ones. His extra eyes disappeared and his skin took on a softer texture.

    A few cells down he saw a box pop open and a cloud of white smoke pour out. It fell to the ground and gathered itself into a human form. It darkened into a young black boy, who immediately looked around fearfully.

    "Attention everyone, this is your lovely fellow roomie Erika on the PA! I think it's time to stretch our legs! So get some exercise, but we should be back in our rooms by midnight, okay? Play nice!"
     
    #2 Quiet One, Jun 30, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2016
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  3. JUNE 29, 2016
    MEDICAL WING
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "What the hell?" Engel wondered as blaring klaxons and warning lights screamed through the medical wing, as well as the rest of Hushcobb.

    May looked up from where she was assisting Engel in injecting ectoplasm into one of the agents wounded by the Devilman. She pushed the robotic arm - loaded with a dart launcher - hanging from the ceiling to the side. An earpiece communicator in May's ear started rattling off a sitrep. "Dr. Engel! The subject in Inversion Cell Forty-Two just escaped! And she's released multiple other mid- and high-priority prisoners!"

    Panic welled within the surgeon at the news, even as she tried to recall Subject Forty-Two's identity. "Forty-Two...Hennessy? The psychic? Shit, if she's out, she could tear this entire place apart! What about the others?"

    May listened to her comm before reporting, "Confirmed escape of Subjects Seven and Thirty-Five."

    "The ghost and the shapeshifter," Engel recognized. She didn't know Zeroth too well and only remembered him from a cursory overview of his file and abilities upon joining Hushcobb. But Wyatt Pasternak, the ghost boy, was someone Engel was very familiar with. After all, his ectoplasmic makeup was the cornerstone for her own research in creating the ANGEL System.

    Engel realized that May was looking to her for instructions. She didn't notice that the mousier woman also had a bit of adoring longing in her gaze. Engel snapped into action. "May, get the patients to the fortified bunkers. Critical patients first. Make sure security is on the way to provide escort. I'll transfer all computer data to a protected system - " Even as she said the words, the surgeon had moved to a terminal and was busily typing away, " - and I'll provide cover for your exit."

    "Cover?" May inquired in confusion.

    There was a snap-hiss sound as Engel disengaged the ANGEL launcher from the ceiling-mounted robotic arm. Then she slapped it on her forearm, allowing the apparatus to seal shut around the limb like a gauntlet. There was a whir as a dart was loaded into place. With resolve, the surgeon said, "Get going."

    ---

    Engel made her way through the corridors outside of the medical wing, taking shots at the disorganized pockets of monsters leaking out of the Inversion Lock and rampaging throughout Hushcobb. It seemed that Erika Hennessy had been reading up on her Lovecraft; Engel was sniping down a group of three fishmen straight out of Innsmouth. The misshapen creatures, for all their scaly and malformed appearance, were humanoid enough to succumb to the effects of her ANGEL System's dart.

    Specifically, the fact that Engel had reversed the darts' settings. Instead of injecting a target with regenerative ectoplasm, they were now getting a dose of crippling neurological poison. The fishmen collapsed one after the other, completely paralyzed. The effects were temporary, but it would buy the other agents time to do some proper mopping up.

    Engel let out a breath as she leaned against the wall for cover and ejected a spent clip. In a fluid motion, she slammed in a fresh magazine of raw materials for her ANGEL System to produce more darts.

    She was quite a sight. Tall, blonde, and beautiful, still garbed in professional slacks, a white blouse now stained with sweat, and her lab coat. And over all of that was an abbreviated suit of armor that wasn't actually armor. A pair of dart launchers were mounted on her arms with gauntlets, with cables connecting it to a breastplate housing the main production center for the ectoplasm itself. The ANGEL System was never designed for personal defense and left the rest of her body unprotected.

    Engel left cover, turned the corner, and proceeded down another corridor, where she came upon a wounded agent. Two more fishmen were approaching the injured man for the kill...only to fall as they took a dart each. Engel switched a dial on her breastplate, setting the ANGEL System back to medical mode. She knelt by the downed agent.

    "Hold still. I'm here to help," she said reassuringly. She fired a regenerative dart into the man. "It'll take a minute for the effects to kick in, but you'll be fine. Are there any other wounded?" The agent groaned and pointed down the hallway. The surgeon nodded and sped down the hall.

    ---

    "Medical wing successfully evacuated, Doctor," May's voice came through clearly on Engel's earpiece communicator.

    The surgeon finished injecting the last injured agent and replied, "Thanks, May. How's containment going?"

    "Not good. Some of the monsters have already gotten into the town and no one's sure where Subjects Seven, Thirty-Five, or Forty-Two are specifically."

    Engel stepped into an elevator and keyed in for the village aboveground. There was bound to be more wounded there and she was determined to make sure her fellow agents made it out of this mess alive. The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened; from the outside, it looked like Engel was stepping out of an old telephone booth on a street corner.

    And that was when she saw all hell breaking loose.

    "Well May," Engel said dryly, "I think I've found Hennessy...."
     
    #3 Razilin, Jul 2, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2016
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  4. Her roomies played rough. A gang of goblins made fireballs appear in their hands and threw them into stores, setting them ablaze. The Jersey Devil jumped on cars and flapped its wings, trying to fly away, but it still had about four hundred pounds chained to its tail. A howl from the rooftop of the bar pierced through the various roars.

    Erika stepped out of a broken store window, all decked out. She had knee high black leather boots, fishnet stockings, jean booty shorts an army green T-shirt with a goblin decal on it, and the vest she'd stolen opened up to show it off. She held a fireman's axe over her shoulder.

    This was fun! What had she wanted to do again? Bitch Me started talking to her again, reminding her. Oh yeah. Master. What was she looking for Master for? She looked at her axe. Oh yeah.

    "Ggggggreaaahh!" One of the fishmen jumped in front of her. He stank like...well, rotten fish. Erika smiled.

    "Hey! Want to take a swim? Everything's better wet," she flirted.

    The monster paused only for a second, before wrapping his webbed hands around her throat and slamming her into the wall.

    "Ooh! Someone wants to play," she chuckled. "Good. I like it rough."

    The axe came up behind the fish man and around his neck. The creature gagged and staggered back, but the axe kept on him. It then spun, the blade cutting into his throat until his head came clean off. Erika grabbed the handle and balanced the head on the end.

    "Hm. Get a string and I can play paddle ball," she mused. She bounced the head a few times. "Or baseball."

    One last bounce and she batted it away. It sailed right past the head of Engel. She cocked her head at her. She remembered her - along with Landel - giving her a few examinations.

    "Hi, doctor. Enjoying the crisp night air?"
     
    #4 Quiet One, Jul 2, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2016
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  5. "Hi, doctor. Enjoying the crisp night air?"

    Though the girl's tone was light, friendly, and playful, Engel didn't lower her guard; she'd examined and interacted with Hennessy in the past and was familiar with her psych profile. A pleasant demeanor didn't mean much with this one. Unsurprisingly, Engel kept one gauntlet-mounted launcher trained on the younger girl.

    "Its pretty refreshing," Engel replied smoothly, trying to hide the unease in the pit of her stomach. She kept tabs on the other monsters rampaging through the streets around her. Agents had come out in force to engage and subdue the creatures, but judging from how things were going, it would only be a matter of time before they were overrun. "Its getting a little crowded out here for my taste. I prefer my walks to be more private."

    "Oh, that's right!" Hennessy clapped her hands gleefully. "You're the long walks in the park type. Haven't been doing that much lately, though, right? Not since that guy you were dating got offed. I heard about that. SPLAT!" The girl pounded a fist into her opposite palm to demonstrate.

    Engel frowned darkly at the memory. It seemed that office gossip mill was in full steam, no matter if it was in a regular job or a secret organization. She pushed those feelings aside and focused on Hennessy; Engel wasn't about to let the girl get under her skin, not with a small army of monsters on the loose. "Why'd you break them out?"

    The girl shrugged. "I needed to get out. To find the Master."

    Engel raised an eyebrow in confusion. "The who? Never mind. You need to stand down, Erika. As it is, a lot of people are going to get hurt...maybe even get killed. Do you want that on your conscience?"

    Erika blinked and tilted her head. "Conscience? I got Bitch Me to take care of that." She looked around at the chaos and sighed. "I did tell them to play nice. Maybe it's time to come in...hm? Aw, do we have to? Alright! Doc, duck!"

    Six guns suddenly jumped out from behind her back and fired. Engel shut her eyes but didn't feel anything. When the gunfire stopped she cracked open an eye to see Erika skipping off. A loud thump behind her made her turn. A wendigo lay dead behind her.

    "Of all the reckless...." Engel muttered as her beating heart slowed down to something less than panic. The gunshots left her ears ringing, but at least she was alive to be annoyed by it. The surgeon jogged after the skipping girl and even dared to grab her arm.

    The teenager whipped a glare a her, but Engel held her ground. "Erika, this has to stop. Stand down, please."

    The girl was about to reply when another pack of four wendigos skittered onto the scene. Tall, elongated, emaciated, and covered with thinning white fur, they were the very incarnation of hunger, driven only by the instinct to feed. That was their legend, after all - men and women who, in desperation, resorted to cannibalism to survive...and cursed with a twisted, misshapen existence plagued by unending hunger.

    Though Engel knew Erika to be more than capable of defending herself with her powers, instinct drove the surgeon to push the girl aside to safety as one of the beasts dove at them. Engel fell onto her back, the monstrous creature snapping at her face with a massive maw; Engel barely held him at bay. In desperation, she fired two darts at point-blank range. The creature stiffened and fell over, paralyzed.

    Another of the creatures leaped at Erika, only to find itself perforated by a series of bullets from the six floating guns constantly circling the teenager. Engel tracked a third wendigo, sniping it down with another dart. The fourth, however, was sneaking up on Erika from behind.

    "Erika!" Engel warned, but too late as the wendigo pounced upon the unsuspecting girl....

    ...Only to fall flat on its face in the wake of a gunshot. Its white fur was stained red.

    A tall, lean man in black emerged from a side-street, casually holstering a gun.

    Engel recognized the man, of course. He was the older brother of the man she loved. She said softly, "Crossfire."
     
    #5 Razilin, Jul 3, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2016
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  6. Crossfire walked over, straightening his red tie - the only splash of color on him. The moonlight caught in his ever-present sunglasses as he strode over.

    "Anna," he nodded as he changed clips. Engel could see he wasn't empty; he was just switching to one of the special ammunitions. "Thought you liked quiet evenings."

    "Wasn't my idea of a good time," she quipped back. "It was...dammit."

    While they had been talking Erika had skipped off again. Only now was it clear where she was going: the radio station. And underneath that, the Philadelphia Room.

    "Get her to turn around," he said. "I've seen how she handles them. Might be useful."

    "And just how do I do that?"

    Crossfire flashed her a quick smirk. "Treat it like it's a game. She likes games."

    ---

    Wyatt glided out of the phone booth entrance and stayed there. It was taking him quite a while to get up to speed, but there seemed to be monsters everywhere. The cars - the ones that weren't flattened - looked newer, people had weird gadgets in ears and pockets. He knew he'd been asleep, but just how long had Hushcobb kept him in electromagnetic limbo?

    Something between a whiny and a screech made him jump as the Jersey Devil jumped off yet another car. Its long, spaded tail swung and threw the four hundred pound weight into three agents and onward into the booth. Wyatt cringed, but the heavy weight passed right through him like he was a pillar of smoke.


    "Oh yeah..." He'd forgotten about the abilities his curse lent him. He could see things weren't going well for Hushcobb. Maybe he should lend a hand.

    The Jersey Devil whipped its tail again and the weight wrapped around a street light. With a sharp tug it snapped free.

    "No no no!" One of the agents started shooting, but he wasn't using blessed silver or gold. The monster was immune to normal bullets. It bit into his shoulder and jerked back and forth, before tossing him away. It made its freakish screech and spread its wings.

    "Oh no you don't." Wyatt ran and jumped onto its back, but he didn't grab a hold of the demon. In fact, he slid right through it.

    He opened his eyes to a strange tunnel vision. Looking right or left he could see a lot, but not much detail. There was only a tiny sliver where things were crystal clear. Then he noticed how solid his foot felt. He stomped it and heard a "clop." His arms felt like they were held with a heavy sheet. An unexpected sting made him turn and see the agents trying to surround him. He tried to speak but instead a piercing whiny-shriek came out.

    Holy shit, he thought. Am I the Jersey Devil?

    Without his volition his wings flapped and he started to rise. He pulled his arms back and suddenly they stopped flapping. Which meant he kept leaning back until he fell headfirst on the asphalt.

    Smoke poured out from its head and gathered into hands, pulling the rest of Wyatt out to resolidify.

    "I don't think I want to do that again," he panted.

    ---

    Zeroth tried to slip through the chaos. As a changeling he could stretch and fold his skin, making it look like clothes, so he was able to disguise himself as one of the fighters. But he wasn't going to get involved. He had enough of these humans. Caging him, chaining him, treating him like an animal. He was done with this species. At least for a few decades.

    He could hide away somewhere. He'd been a vagrant before. Live off cow milk. Not as satisfying as human, but it could sustain him. He could hide from Hushcobb for a few years, maybe find a way to a country they didn't go to often. A supernatural dead zone would be a safe place for a while.

    It wasn't easy to stay out of the way of the other creatures. He had to keep ducking behind buildings and assuming their shapes to fool them. After a time he found himself in the suburbs. Not many monsters had gotten that far. Things were quiet there. He stepped over the sidewalk onto the grass and immediately recoiled. Some kind of Fae shield. Looking closer he saw it. Iron wire. Clever bastards.

    He continued on until he spotted movement in the shadows. Looking over he saw a group of vampires climbing the roof of a house. Pale, undead freaks. Worse than humans. All their bad qualities, none of their good. It looked like this wasn't the kind that needed to be invited in.

    As they quietly opened a window, Zeroth started walking away. It wasn't his problem. They were Hushcobb. He had no reason to care about them. Then a little girl screamed.

    Fuck.

    He clenched his fists and paced in front of the yard. Normally, gaining entrance wasn't a problem, but the house was Fae shielded. The only thing that would get him in was an invitation.

    "Help!"

    At a stretch, that counts. Zeroth jumped over the magic barrier and ran towards the house. He jumped, his legs elongating to get him up there. The mother was standing in front of the daughter - a child no older than five - and pointing a gun at a sneering vampire. Its fangs were bared.

    Zeroth stretched his arms and grabbed its shoulders, pulling him back outside. They hit the ground hard, and the vampire threw him off. In a blur the super fast monster was on him, and the changeling had only enough time to block with his arm. He yelled over the pain. Vampires couldn't turn Fae, but it still hurt like hell. He made spikes sprout from his arm, eviscerating the Vamp's mouth. His arm was just a series of thick spikes now. He cut across, ripping open its face even more and causing it to turn. He stabbed it through the heart when its back was turned.

    But his troubles weren't over. The fight had drawn the other five to him.

    "Changeling, right?" one of them asked while they flanked him. "You feed off humans, too, I hear. So what? You don't competition?"

    He growled at them. "I don't kill people. I'm not like you guys. You're monsters."

    This head vampire chuckled. "Oh that's it. You wanna pretend you're one of them. Alright. Let's see how you deal with the real monsters."

    One struck him before he even saw the monster move. Then another jumped on and bit into his shoulder. Zeroth sprouted spikes on his back, turning into an ogre or troll - he wasn't sure which. Two knocked into him and sent him on his back. His spikes broke as he rolled, making him cry out. When he stood he was hit again, this time sailing into the garage door.

    He groaned and looked at the monsters coming to finish him off. Then he looked down at the splinters from the door. Wooden splinters.

    He split his arms into four, grabbed the biggest pieces he could, and charged.
     
    #6 Quiet One, Jul 3, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2016
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  7. "Treat it like it's a game. She likes games," Crossfire said with a smirk. Virtually everyone else in Hushcobb would've been surprised the serious man could smirk. But Engel was virtually family. That just meant she had the rare luxury of being annoyed with him and that idiotic grin of his.

    "Treat it like it's a game...easy for you to say," the surgeon grumbled. With a sigh, she trotted off after the Hennessy girl.

    "Um...Erika?" she ventured uneasily. The girl was mercurial to say the least. Engel had a finger on the trigger of one gauntlet, just in case. Fortunately, when the teenager spun to consider her, it was with curiosity, not rampant insanity or bloodthirstiness. "Uh...." Games, huh. Let's see how she likes this game, Engel thought. Aloud, she rushed out, "I bet you can't kill more monsters than Crossfire!"

    Erika grinned. And then grinned wider at the challenge. "Is that so?" Around her floating not only the six guns, but several street signs, a lamp, and several other rather heavy pieces of scrap she telekinetically hoisted from the ground. "Mr. Tall, Dark, and Gloomy's pretty good polishing off that gun of his...but only a woman knows how to make it fire, catch my drift?" She cackled at her own off-color joke.

    Engel ducked as a street sign spun past her, only to carve through a small pack of fishmen on the approach. It seemed Erika was putting all her chips into the pile and all too eager to wage a one-woman massacre on the monsters infesting Hushcobb.

    "That was...surprisingly easy," Engel muttered.

    "I told you it would work."

    Engel virtually leaped out of her boots and spun angrily at Crossfire, standing right behind her. "Son of a bitch, Taka!" she shouted, using the man's real name. "Don't scare me like that!" He raised an eyebrow at her from behind his sunglasses. "Never mind. I forgot who I was talking to. Ninjas are louder than you are."

    "...Hayato was quieter. Except around you."

    Engel paused at that. Those damned sunglasses made it impossible for her to read the older man's mood. Her own mood became somber at the name. Hayato had liked games, too. "Now's not the time to reminisce," she said softly, but with finality.

    "Indeed." Crossfire pointed. "It seems Hennessy is not the only convict who escaped."

    Engel followed his finger. The Jersey Devil was facing off against several agents...and a youth that seemed to phase right through the objects the creature threw at him. Then the boy phased into the Jersey Devil, with the massive creature suddenly behaving erratically before it crashed into the ground; the boy tumbled out of it, none the worse for wear.

    Crossfire's hand moved to another location. They were on the edge of the suburbs, where housing for many of the agents was set up. A nest of vampires was crawling over one such building, but they seemed to be vigorously scrapping with a humanoid...that was capable of shifting his body into whatever form or weaponry he required.

    "Wyatt Pasternak and Zeroth," Engel said, recognizing the youth and the shapeshifter from their files.

    "Our agents are being overwhelmed," Crossfire said in a tone Engel recognized all too well. Between Crossfire and Hayato, the former was the smarter one, the tactician in the family. This was his tactical acumen at play. "Hennessy, Pasternak, and Zeroth might be the key to turning this battle to our favor. While disorganized, we will surely fail - but if we can recruit Pasternak and Zeroth in addition to Hennessy, we might just be able to save the town."

    "You better get to Zeroth, then," Engel said. When he looked at her, she explained in a deadpan, "Come on, Taka - it's you. If I was a kid and you came up to me, I'd shit my pants. I'll take care of the boy."

    A ghost of a smile played across his lips.
     
    #7 Razilin, Jul 4, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2016
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  8. Zeroth grunted from the effort of jamming four stakes into four different vampires. When they finally stopped moving he panted heavily, feeling sore and...good. He'd saved that family. It wasn't exactly something he did every day, and he kind of liked it, knowing people were alive because of him.

    He didn't hear the first vamp sneak up on him. Without anything holding down his heart, the undead wretch was still alive. But he did hear the gunshot. He looked up to see agent Crossfire walking towards him, lowering his pistol. A thump on the ground behind him made him turn to see the dead vampire with a thin silver stake through the heart.

    "I suppose you want me to thank you," he snapped as he stood to stare him down. It was made easier when he grew by a few inches so he actually was taller than him.

    "Not expecting it," came the ever curt reply. "Although helping would be appreciated."

    Zeroth stormed up to him until he was right in his face, seeing only his reflection in those damn glasses. The man didn't flinch.

    "You want my help after locking me up for a decade?" he spat. "Fuck you. I didn't do it for you Hushcobb bastards." The mother and daughter slowly opened the door and looked at the scene. The girl hugged her mama's leg. "I did it for them."

    Cross spared one glance before replying. "I am too. So at least for the moment, we're on the same side."

    Zeroth thought about that. Then he groaned. "Damn it! I want to make it clear: I help, I get to walk, alright?"

    Crossfire reloaded his gun. "Can't hurt your chances."

    ---

    Bang! Bang! Bang! Click. Ruth tossed away her clip and snapped in a new one. This was becoming a rough night. The busty former secretary stayed near the church, hoping its natural holy shield would protect her.

    "Damn! Where the hell is Cross?" she cursed. She looked at the church. "And who opened the doors?!"

    A vampire zoomed into view and stopped in front of her. He gave a toothy grin. Ruth loaded one of the silver stake bullets and fired. His hand moved impossibly fast and caught it. The silver started to burn his fingers, but he acted as if nothing were wrong.

    "Sorry, Love, but we've been out long enough not to fall for that," he said. He tossed the stake away. "Why do you think they're saving us, anyway? Because as much as they say we're monsters, they want to be like us."

    "No. It's because Landel wants to figure out a cure for you demons," she retorted. She fitted in another stake. "You know, besides killing you."

    He chuckled, then stopped. He cocked his head, looking past her through the doors. An axe came swinging through in a flash. He split from breast to the tip of his skull, dropping on the ground. The axe turned and sped back.

    "Whoo! This is fun! That makes 28! Like to see Cross top that!" Erika skipped down the steps, a clear bottle in one hand and a red one in the other. She looked at Ruth and smiled. "Hey, I know you! You're my head-doc's lady friend. Nice tits!"

    "Um...thanks." Ruth kept her guard up. Eliza had told her some of the ins and outs of this girl's unstable psyche. She probably meant it as a genuine compliment. "You said something about Crossfire?"

    "Hm?" The girl paused while knocking back the red bottle. Ruth didn't dare point out that she was too young to drink. Besides, she was Irish. Like Erika wouldn't know her way around a bar! "Oh! Engel bet me he could kill more monsters than me. I say bring it. Wonder what I'll get when I win..."

    She trailed off, apparently fantasizing about fabulous prizes. Another hell spawn saw what she did to the vampire and rushed them. Erika just switched to the clear bottle and swigged, then sprayed right in the demon's face. It halted in its tracks and screamed agony as its flesh burned.

    "Are you drinking holy water?" Ruth asked offhand while a street sign impaled the monster, seemingly of its own accord.

    "What else would I wash down sacramental wine with?" Erika retorted, as if she were stupid.

    Ruth looked around, brushing away her sweat-damp hair. There was still a lot of trouble out here, but it looked like things were finally containable. She ripped the bottle out of Erika's grasp and chugged a quarter of it.

    "Long night," she gasped once she was done.
     
    #8 Quiet One, Jul 5, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2016
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  9. "Wyatt Pasternak?"

    The ghostly youth looked up from where he was trying to hide behind an overturned car as the battle for the town raged around him. It was an irrational fear, at least for him. Being capable of turning incorporeal rendered physical injury a moot point.

    He looked up and beheld an angel. She was tall, blonde, and beautiful. He also vaguely recognized her.

    "Dr. Annabelle Engel," the angelic woman introduced herself, lowering the gauntlet-mounted dart launchers to her sides to appear non-threatening. "I met you a while ago. Borrowed some ectoplasmic samples."

    "...I remember," Wyatt said guardedly. He looked around at the carnage roiling around them. "What's going on, Dr. Engel? Last thing I knew, I was in that prison. Now, everyone's fighting for their lives."

    Egel calmly explained, "One of the other inmates, a psychic named Erika Hennessy, released everyone on what seems to be a whim. I've managed to convince her to try killing most of these critters. We're trying to get some of the more benevolent supernatural beings to help as well. Hushcobb can't save itself without help, Wyatt."

    She knelt before him, extending an open hand to him. "I saw what you did to the Jersey Devil. And I know you're a good kid. Please help us."

    Wyatt looked at her, then her hand, then back to those compassionate blue eyes.

    ---

    "Um, Dr. Engel?" Wyatt began uncertainly, "Uh...I dunno if I can do this...."

    The surgeon laid a calming hand on the boy's shoulder. "Yes, you can. I believe in you, Wyatt."

    The two had just joined up with Crossfire and Zeroth, with the four approaching the church where Erika was currently holed up. "You'll need more than just belief," Crossfire deadpanned, slamming a fresh clip into his gun to make his point.

    Engel gave him an annoyed look. "Can't you be a little more positive?"

    "It's Crossfire," Zeroth the shapeshifter grunted, as if that explained everything. "Are you surprised?" The shapeshifter than threw a nod of acknowledgement toward the ghostly youth. "Good to meet you, kid. Name's Zeroth."

    "Uh, Wyatt. Wyatt Pasternak." The boy scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Uh...I'm a ghost. Half a ghost."

    Zeroth chuckled. "Of course you are, kid. No more weirder than the rest of us."

    "Can we focus?" Engel cut in.

    Just then, the church doors burst open. Erika Hennessy skipped down the steps toward them, whistling. Behind her came her curvier companion, Agent Ruth Borwell. Engel knew the woman from when she first arrived at Hushcobb as a secretary...and was one of the first to propose Borwell's advancement to a field agent after her rather unusual power for literally attracting trouble came to light.

    Much to no one's surprise, it was her on-and-off partner in the field, Crossfire, who came up with a brilliant use for Borwell's ability.

    Using her as bait.

    Most people thought that Crossfire had as much sense of humor as a slice of burnt toast. Engel was probably the only one at Hushcobb to realize that his habit of turning Borwell into bait was a hint that he and his brother, Hayato, truly were blood-related. Hayato would have found it hilarious.

    Engel tried not to think about it too much. There were a lot of old memories there....

    "Borwell," Engel greeted.

    The female agent sent her a nod. "Doc." She glanced around at the carnage. "Well. This is...awful." She jerked a thumb at Erika. "Found your kid."

    "She most certainly is not mine," Engel flatly replied.

    "Awwww!" Erika moaned in disappointment. "But I would've loved having you as my mommy! You could buy me all sorts of things! I mean, you're a doctor. You're, like, rich and shit, right?"

    Engel rubbed the bridge of her nose and turned to Crossfire. "Call it, Cross."

    The veteran agent quickly scanned their surroundings while mentally taking into account the abilities of those arrayed around him. "Pasternak can scout ahead." An obvious choice, given the boy's ability to turn incorporeal and invisible. "Zeroth, you and I hold this church; this is home base." The shapeshifter's versatility and ability to alter his physique made him a natural close combatant. A perfect guardian for any key location. "Ruth, Anna - bring any survivors here." As recognizable Hushcobb agents, any other surviving agents wouldn't try to shoot them down on sight.

    "You want me...to go on alone?" Wyatt said in a panic.

    Engel squeezed his shoulder. "You'll be fine, Wyatt," she reassured him. "Just stay invisible. The monsters won't be able to find you. You can do this."

    Zeroth suddenly reached out and scrubbed the boy's hair. "Yeah, kid. You'll do fine. It'll be easy. Just don't get hit. And even if you do, just phase right through them." He then slapped the boy across the back, nearly knocking him over. "Now go get to work, kid!"
     
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  10. As Wyatt seemingly vanished into thin air and Zeroth grew another foot and covered himself in spikes (including an impressive pair of tusks), Erika looked at Crossfire - the all of a sudden man in charge.

    "What about me, tall, dark, and handsome?"

    "You?" Crossfire flicked his wrist faster than the human eye can follow and shot down another enemy. "We still have a game going on."

    She smiled and skipped down the stairs her axe twirling in her hand. She threw it at one, then used her telekinesis to make it jump to another. She grabbed it, chopped off an arm, and then a head. Then she skipped onward.

    "Might lose that game at this rate," he muttered to himself.

    "Really? You care about that?" Zeroth deadpanned.

    "No." He shot another one. "Just a matter of pride."

    ---

    As the sun started to come up the death toll was vast, and it was no longer a massacre, but containment. The vampires were the first to surrender. Of all the monsters that had escaped they were the smartest, and they knew they wouldn't win after daybreak. A few of the goblins and more impish creatures gave up, too. The hulking wild animals - such as the Jersey Devil - where kept sedated and relocated down below.

    The town was sealed off so no one would accidentally drive through and see the horror. Clean up was already underway.

    With everyone focused on the town, the three turncoat freaks were left alone. At least for a few minutes. They decided to have a seat at the old gas station. The windows were broken and the various snacks and such were burned near the entrance. The rest of the place, while messy, appeared undamaged. Wyatt and Zeroth sat around a table while Erika was shuffling through the refrigerated section.

    "Ugh! Can you believe it?! No Pitch Black! What is this, a prison?" she griped.

    "What's Pitch Black?" Wyatt asked the changeling.

    "A Mountain Dew flavor."

    "Mountain Dew has flavors?"

    Zeroth chuckled. "That's right. You missed a lot in that box, didn't you. They've all got weird names. Supposed to be edgy. Code Red is cherry, Livewire is orange, White Out...not really sure what that is. Pitch Black has a grape twist."

    "And it's the best one!" Erika snapped. Finally she sighed. "Oh well. Might as well make something of my own."

    She grabbed a bottle of water but three soda bottles floated up and followed her. Nonchalantly, she opened the water and dumped it all over the floor. Once that was empty she started opening the others - a Pepsi, a Sprite, and a Sunkist grape - and started mixing them together. The changeling just rolled his eyes and drank the chocolate milk he'd taken from the same fridge. Wyatt kept staring at her with a mix of amazement and disgust.

    "You really are a crazy person, aren't you?" he asked.

    Erika chugged back her concoction and sighed, apparently happy with it. "You know what they say about the crazy ones." She winked.

    "What?"

    "They're great in bed," Zeroth finished. He gave the boy a serious smile. "But you might not wake up in the morning."

    While the teen processed that he leaned back and turned his mismatched eyes on Erika, their psychic jailbird.

    "You made the announcement. You let us all out. You caused this massacre!" He pointed to her and scolded, but she just smiled.

    "Stop. You're making me blush. Or maybe that's the half bottle of wine I had before the grape Sprepsi," she chuckled.

    "Why? Why did you do this?" he asked.

    She shrugged. "I thought everyone could use some exercise. They were supposed to play nice. I asked them to."

    He stared at her incredulously and then slapped the table. "Oh my God. You really don't know what you did, do you?"

    "Why did you want to get out?" Wyatt asked.

    Erika thought about it and frowned. "Huh. I don't remember. Do you remember?"

    "How would we know -?"

    "Wasn't talking to you," she interrupted. Then there was a pause. Finally she giggled and shook her head. "And it's gone."
     
    #10 Quiet One, Jul 6, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2016
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  11. Contrary to popular opinion, the busiest time of a battle wasn't actually the fighting itself. It was the mopping up afterward. As soon as she was done gunning down the last monster around her, Engel was recalled back to the medical ward, which was seeing a flood of injured agents and civilians. By the time Engel got there, her assistant, May Seavers, was already hard at work in triage and stabilization. The rest of Hushcobb's medical staff was in full force, moving with the calm, if intense, tempo of men and women who practiced for an emergency such as this.

    "What's our damage?" Engel asked curtly, now in full physician mode. This was her element, right here, where she could do the most good.

    "Twenty-one fatalities, a hundred and five wounded," May replied somberly. "Good news is, most of the wounded should make it and we've got eighty or so bedded down already."

    Engel stripped off her gauntlets and handed them over. "Load them up in the OR suite and break out the other prototypes," she ordered. "That should get us, what, five total suites equipped with the ANGEL System?"

    "Right away, Dr. Engel."

    Engel sighed, shrugged on her lab coat, and walked into the ward. It was time to get to work.

    It would be hours before she was finished with her last case. She stepped out of the OR, washed up, and grabbed her bag from the locker room. It was with an even bigger sigh that she plopped down at one of the round picnic tables set up outside the medical facility for patients and care providers to enjoy the sun. Her usually immaculate blonde hair was pulled up in a messy bun and she absently wiped sweat off her brow. After hours of combat and even more hours in the operating room, she looked worn.

    A paper cup of tea suddenly appeared beside her hand. Engel yelped and turned to see who put it there - Crossfire.

    "Taka! Jesus, I thought I told you to stop that," she groused. Despite her annoyance, he sat down next to her by silent invitation.

    "Sorry. Habit," he replied tersely. He had a cup of own tea in hand. They drank in companionable silence.

    After several long moments, the surgeon murmured thoughtfully, "Hayato would've had fun today. He was always eager for a fight."

    As was his wont, Crossfire gave only a minimal of a reply. "Yes."

    "He'd also be sad or angry by how many people got hurt. How many friends died."

    "Yes."

    "He was always like that, wasn't he? Wearing his heart on his sleeve." Engel chuckled softly. "It's funny how easy he was to read, yet how stealthy he could be in the field." She gave Crossfire an amused look. "I remember watching you two play hide and seek as a training game for some of the new recruits. That was hilarious. You looked so annoyed when Hayato suggested it."

    "...He was always a child." A glimmer of brotherly irritation crept into his tone.

    Engel smiled quietly at the memory. It faded into a sorrowful frown. So many memories....

    ---

    JULY 1, 2010
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Director Ferrara cut an imposing figure as the two brothers walked into the older man's office. Ferrara stood, a tall and imposing statue of authority, and regarded the new recruits with a discerning eye.

    He'd read their dossiers, of course. Their accomplishments were very impressive. For the few years, this pair of Japanese siblings tore through countless battlefields across the world, fighting as mercenaries and monster hunters. They were beholden to no one, employing skills and tactics that were amazingly efficient at dispatching their foes - both human and otherwise. They had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, various parts of the African continent, all over Southeast Asia, and others. Wherever blood needed to be spilled, they were ready to bear arms to do so.

    In particular, they hunted. There was a nest of vampires in London. A large werewolf pack in Alberta. An ogre was taken down in the French countryside. A necromancer met his end after trying to create an undead army in Bolivia. Other hunts, other kills...and it was these brothers who emerged victorious.

    Despite Hushcobb's best efforts, no one could learn much about the brothers' background. They were natives of Japan and descended from an ancient bloodline of monster hunters. But that was all anyone knew. Their skills, methods, training, and their powers - if any - were a complete mystery to even Hushcobb's impressive intelligence network.

    With such a resume, it seemed only natural that Hushcobb took the opportunity to invite the brothers into their ranks.

    Ferrara stood up behind his desk and stretched his arms to the sides in greeting. "Welcome to Hushcobb, gentlemen."

    ---

    AUGUST 4, 2010
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Dr. Annabelle Engel was no stranger to being hit on. She knew she was beautiful, gorgeous even; it wasn't an exaggeration. With her rolling hips, high cheekbones, smooth skin, lush figure, and silken blonde hair, she was well aware of how she made men's heads - as well as no few women - turn to stare.

    Normally, she didn't let it get to her. She spent plenty of time both in college and residency putting up an icy veneer to discourage unwanted advances, as well as to seem older, wiser, and tougher than most people gave her credit for. It was the inherent problem of being so smart that she ended up graduating as a fully-trained surgeon at the age of eighteen - no one ever took her seriously unless she dolled herself up to look older and acted like a frigid bitch.

    Normally, she ignored being hit on. But this time, she found it challenging. Mainly because Hayato Tennou was damned persistent and being incredibly annoying about it.

    "I really don't see the point in all this, Doc," the youthful-looking agent said and he shrugged off his shirt. "Its just a couple of scratches. Nothing a little kiss on the boo-boo couldn't fix, right?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

    Engel rolled her eyes, but did briefly inspect the man's injuries. A successful mission to take down a few supernatural malcontents left him with a set of deep lacerations across his ribs. Nothing terribly dire, but a lot of stitches would be needed. As Engel inspected the wounds, she had to admit that the younger Tennou brother was remarkably fit. He was built like a gymnast, with well-developed, well-toned muscle and not a hint of fat. A network of scars, both new and old, crisscrossed his flesh, a silent testimony to his adventures prior to joining Hushcobb.

    "See something you like, Doc?" Tennou teased. "I can pose for a picture, if you like!"

    "I thought all Japanese men were unfailingly polite with etiquette," Engel shot back, letting her annoyance seep into her tone. She disinfected the wounds with iodine. Painful iodine. Tennou grimaced.

    "Hayato's adopted," the elder brother, Taka Tennou, said in his typical deadpan, but with no small amount of humor laced within. The brothers were both rather tall for men of Asian persuasion, with the same hair and facial structure, but while Hayato was quite muscular, Taka was slim and lean. Hayato was the burly bear between the two. Taka was the coiled snake waiting to strike.

    The younger Tennou shot his brother a fake-hurt look. "Aniki! Don't listen to him, Doc. He's just jealous that he doesn't have my dashing good looks." He ran a thumb across his own jawline, as if displaying his visage for Engel's inspection. "Don't you agree?"

    Engel silently scribed something on a prescription pad. Hayato asked in curiosity, "What's that? Pain meds?"

    The surgeon replied without missing a beat, "Referral for a psychiatric evaluation. I fear your textbook narcissism will need treatment before it permanently injuries any remaining chance you have of ever procreating with a human female." She gave him the scrip and dryly added, "Though there is good news: At least your chances with female sheep haven't been affected by this devastating diagnosis."

    Hayato wilted. "Harsh, Doc. Harsh."

    Taka had a small grin on his lips from where he stood behind his brother.

    ---

    SEPTEMBER 12, 2010
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Engel was finishing up her workout at Hushcobb's training facilities when she first got the opportunity to see the Tennou brothers in action. Oh, she'd heard about their first few missions for Hushcobb - damn near every agent was talking about them - and how they utterly demolished their supernatural opponents with a degree of teamwork and puissance rarely seen by the organization. She'd read up on their dossiers, of course - their family had a lineage dedicated to hunting monsters and the brothers themselves operated as an independent duo for some time before joining Hushcobb. They certainly had the background and the experience to be the best at what they did.

    It was one thing to know about it. It was entirely another to see it.

    There they were, dominating the padded floor of the gym's sparring area. They danced around one another like flame and wind, thunder and lightning, a torrent of speed, grace, and power. They wielded practice weapons - Taka was equipped with an array of paintball guns, while his brother carried a wooden bokken - but they struck as if they were real. Engel could barely keep track of their movements, so fluid and swift were they. Taka was laying out shots at impossible angles; the younger brother was impossibly batting them out of the sky with a wooden sword. Sometimes, neither seemed to even need to look to perform these wondrous feats of skill. Finally, the two brothers ceased their dance, panting and glistening with sweat at either end of the mat.

    Engel let her gaze run over the younger Tennou. She had to admit, he was pretty damn cut for an annoying skirt-chaser.

    Then Hayato stumbled forward and crashed on the mat. Taka moved like the wind and was at his brother's side seemingly in an instant; Engel was not far behind. "What happened to him?" the surgeon asked in concern. That was when she saw the paintball stain on Hayato's temple.

    "Shot got through," the younger Tennou said groggily.

    "You have a concussion," Engel announced. "You need to go to the infirmary."

    "I'm fine."

    "You okay, Hayato?" Taka softly asked, running a hand through the younger Tennou's dark hair as if he were a small child. Though he had been with Hushcobb for only a short while, the intense older brother had quickly gained a reputation as a stern, intimidating, and no-nonsense agent. Most of the others in the organization just called him by his codename, Crossfire. Given how closed-lip the man was, it was doubtful that others even knew he had a real name.

    Thus, it was a little jarring for others to see him cradling his brother like a worried old maid. But for Engel, Taka's doting was something she'd seen before, especially when it came to his brother.

    "Yeah, like I said, I'm fine, Aniki," Hayato said, trying to stand. He wobbled and fell back. Fortunately, Taka was there to catch him and settle him back onto the mat. Hayato sheepishly amended, "Or not."

    "Are both of you this stubborn, or is he just that unlucky?" Engel groused. "Head injuries are no laughing matter."

    "I'm inclined to agree with the good doctor," Taka said. "Come on, Hayato. Stop being a child and let's get you to the infirmary."

    "Aw, man."

    "If it makes you feel any better, you can have a lollipop when I'm done examining you," Engel snarked.

    ---

    DECEMBER 24, 2010
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Given that Hushcobb was, ostensibly, everything urban legends about Men in Black, the Illuminati, and shadow paramilitary organizations wished they could be, it would have been surprising to most laymen that Hushcobb did do the occasional normal office get-together. Such as an office Christmas party.

    The agents as a whole put their lives on the line on a daily basis while in the field. Low-stress gatherings such as the annual costume party were critical to keeping up morale. It was an opportunity for these unique individuals to be in the same room and not constantly worry about the next zombie outbreak or vampire attack...to just be people.

    However, Hushcobb had a more interesting take on the holiday. For understandable reasons, a Halloween party for an organization that routinely contains supernatural problems would be a huge security risk if everyone were in costume. That caveat held less water when applied to Christmas. In addition to Santas and Christmas Elves, the agents and employees of Hushcobb turned the winter holiday into an impromptu costume bash.

    Engel swirled the wine in her glass as she studied her coworkers mingling around the large room.

    Eliza Landel, probably the only other person in Hushcobb smarter than Engel herself, ditched her typical T-shirt and jeans for a virtual cow's worth of black leather. Pale makeup and fake fangs made it clear that she was going for the obligatory sexy vampire for this year's quota. She was chatting quite amiably with a very pretty agent, also dressed like a vampire, though of the more classical Bram Stoker variety.

    The bus driver, Bob, lumbered around dressed like Frankenstein's monster. He was simple, good man. Fitting for a simple, good job. He was over by one of the two long tables at either end of the room, filling his plate from the table's spread of various dishes and beverages.

    The archives' werewolf administrator, Nathaniel Crippling, must have felt the need to scratch his sense of humor. He was in full wolf form - as an actual wolf, padding around on all fours - but wearing cat ears, a fake lion's mane, and a puffball on his tail. Engel chuckled as she saw the librarian nip at others' thighs and hips to get the back of his ears scratched.

    "Was that a laugh? From Dr. Ice Queen herself?"

    She turned. There was no mistaking that cheery, irreverent voice. Sure enough, the Tennou brothers joined her with beer bottles in hand. Hayato was smiling at her. The brothers were identically clad in ninja attire. However, rather than some cheap knock-off from a local store, the black gi they wore looked old, faded, and the edges were worn through.

    Engel raised an eyebrow. "Ninjas, huh? Looks very authentic."

    "They should be," Taka said, taking a swig from his bottle. "They are our actual training clothes."

    "You two are actually ninjas? That explains so much."

    Hayato clarified. "Not ninjas, per se. Our family trains monster hunters. Involves a lot of combat training." He tugged at the lapel of his gi. "These are our workout clothes, that's all."

    "You know," Engel said, "Hushcobb does pay you guys enough so that you can actually afford costumes...."

    "Yeah, well, it looks more legitimate this way, don't you think?" the younger Tennou countered. Then he unabashedly looked Engel over from head, to toe, to back up to head, while also pausing in the middle to scope out a few of the more curvy parts of the view. "Though maybe next year, we should go shopping, especially if costumes can look like that."

    In spite of herself, Engel found herself blushing under his scrutiny. To her surprise, it wasn't unpleasant, either. It was hardly a new occurrence for Hayato Tennou to be glib skirt-chaser - he was constantly ogling other female agents, after all. But in the few months that she had known him, she'd never actually seen him go any further in his flirtations with women other than to be a gadfly. In fact, Engel was probably the only one he routinely chatted with.

    "Where did you get a Playboy Bunny suit like that, anyway?" Hayato asked.

    Engel blushed further. "...I lost a bet to Landel."

    The brothers blinked at that. Taka said, "Come again?"

    "It was stupid," Engel began, not wanting to recount this particular story, yet feeling the need to justify the revealing attire Landel selected for her for the evening. "We were getting drinks last week and I guess we had a little too much. She was bitching about not having a date for the party. One thing led to another and suddenly she was I were betting on who'd show up stag tonight. Loser wears this." She tugged up the bodice of the bunny suit in annoyance. She also threw Landel and her fellow vampire-costumed lady friend a withering look. "Seems I lost."

    Hayato looked at her sympathetically. "Well, if you want, I could be your date tonight."

    Her head whipped at him in surprise. It was her turn to say, "Come again?"

    "Why not? We're friends, right?" He was so casual about it, yet Engel only knew the brothers on a professional level, her own feelings notwithstanding. Where did Hayato get his sense of perspective? Then again, he was something of a social butterfly, chatting with everyone on amiable terms. He went on, "Look, think of it as a way to show up Dr. Landel." He gave her a thumbs-up and a wink. "And it'll be fun."

    "...I guess," she relented. It wasn't as if hanging out at the party with him was going to be harmful or anything.

    Taka suddenly cut in with, "Hayato. If she's going to be your date, then you should bring her another drink. She's about done with her wine."

    The younger Tennou cheerfully took Engel's glass and made his way to the table for a refill. He waved and greeted some of the other agents along the way, receiving friendly well-wishes along the way. That was just how Hayato Tennou worked; he had a way of being on good terms with everyone.

    "You do realize that even if he's my date, I'm still stuck in this ridiculous costume," Engel dryly pointed out.

    "He likes you," Taka replied bluntly.

    "Yes, that's obvious."

    Taka repeated, "He's likes you." Engel looked at him. The way he said it...there was a a deeper meaning to it, though damned if she could read that stony face of his. Though their physical resemblance was obvious, their personalities were so far on the opposite sides of the spectrum, that they were on completely different wavelengths.

    "He does, does he?" Engel repeated skeptically. "It's nice that you're trying to play matchmaker for your little brother, but I'm not exactly looking for a relationship."

    "Then don't look for it," the older man said.

    Engel raised a confused eyebrow. "...I don't follow."

    Taka's face somehow became even more inscrutable. Slowly, with great care, he elaborated, "Take some advice from someone who's closed himself off from a lot of people, Engel: When all you have is your work, it gets very, very lonely and very, very dark. Hayato is my light, just as he is a light for a lot of people he meets. You will not find a truer and more loyal friend. I'm not saying start dating him. I'm saying let him into your life. You'd be surprised the happiness he'll bring to those he calls his friends. I suspect its been a while since you've done so yourself."

    Engel was more than a little stunned; Taka Tennou was not exactly known for being verbose. This was, perhaps, the most sentences she'd ever heard him string in one sitting. And it was, perhaps, a testimony to how much he meant what he said. Taka stepped away to lose himself in the crowd of party-goers, leaving Engel to ponder things alone...at least until Hayato returned with drinks.

    ---

    MARCH 6, 2011
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    Surprise was a rare sensation for Engel. She was always in control of herself. She had to be in her job. Her patients couldn't afford her to be anything less than on-point at all times.

    And though she was expecting this moment at some point, she couldn't help but feel off-balance when it finally came.

    "I'm sorry, come again?"

    Hayato Tennou smirked at her, obviously enjoying putting her on the spot. "You and me. Dinner and a movie. It'll be fun."

    "I...." She trailed off. She knew he was attracted to her and she had to admit that he was pretty easy on the eyes himself. He was a friendly guy and most people he worked with had only good things to say about him. Hell, the only reason Engel found him annoying at all was because of how immeasurably childish he could be at times...and yet, that was part of his charm - being an irrepressible ray of sunshine in an organization that moved in shadows.

    "Come on, Doc," he persisted with a smile. "It'll be fun. And I know you've been needing a break." His smile faded slightly. "Your nurses were telling me that you've been pulling some long hours over the last few weeks, with your research. You need a little break."

    "And you think you're the one to help out with that?"

    "You're my friend, Doc," he said seriously. "Of course I want to help out with that. Not gonna lie, I'd like to get to know you better. But first and foremost...you're my friend, you're working yourself to the bone, and I like to make sure my friends are doing all right. So what do you say?"

    His words were simple, earnest, honest. Engel found that strangely...appealing. She smiled quietly. "Dinner and a movie, huh? Why not?"

    ---

    MAY 18, 2011
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    They never actually made it to the movies during that first date. After a nice steak dinner, they instead elected to go bar-crawling, which ended with Hayato learning that Engel was indeed of German persuasion and could pack away shots like an M-16. In turn, Engel discovered that Hayato was one of the few Asian men who could actually hold his liquor. The impromptu drinking bout eventually led to the pair drunkenly leaning on one another and hobbling back home. It ended with a kiss, one that Engel found herself enjoying immensely. It stopped there; Hayato was nothing short of a perfect gentlemen. But he did ask her out for a second date. She had enjoyed herself too much to decline.

    A week later, they actually did catch a movie, though they were too busy making fun of the on-screen monsters and comparing them to the actual beasts they've encountered to really get invested. They were too busy chatting with each other and riffing the film to care. The evening ended with them getting busy on Engel's couch, making out. It was with no small amount of reluctance that Engel sent Hayato home; he was a damn enthusiastic kisser.

    The third date was Hayato's idea. He invited her over to his apartment - after summarily kicking out his brother, of course - and offered to cook dinner. Engel had no idea that he had any domestic skills. It turned out that in addition to inheriting all the muscle between the brothers, Hayato also inherited all the skills of the typical Japanese housewife. The only reason why the apartment wasn't a complete wreck and the fridge actually had any groceries was solely through Hayato's heroic efforts to keep his older brother from living in a cardboard box eating uncooked ramen out of a bag. Engel found the contrast hilarious. She also found Hayato's meals to be nothing short of divine. After that, dinner dates stopped being a pastime of theirs, as the surgeon vastly preferred Hayato's home-cooked meals.

    Over the intervening weeks, things went great for them. Being around one another became a comfortable experience. They shared movies, meals, time. Hayato never failed to squeeze in an hour or two a day, just to be with her, whether that was catching her at the gym or helpfully bringing her a homemade bento lunch at the medical facility. The lunches in particular were at once embarrassing and sweet. For a ninja, Hayato wasn't exactly stealthy about walking through the halls to her office, quite obviously bringing food to a beautiful beau. Engel had to fend off nosy nurses for weeks after the first time he did that. As with most things related to Hayato Tennou, it was both annoying and wonderfully endearing.

    And over time, Annabelle Engel had to admit...she might have been falling for him.

    Tonight's date was dinner at her place - the first time she invited him over to cook. This time, she was the one preparing the meal, showing off her family's German cuisine. After several glasses of wine, she had enough liquid courage to proposition him. She wanted him like she had wanted no other man before. Hayato was cutely surprised by her forwardness. While he was no virgin, he was also evidently not one to rush into things. She liked that about him. He spent weeks getting to know her and he still wanted to take things slow.

    But, oh, she wanted this now. It was cute that he wanted to take it slow. But she was getting tired of waiting.

    That night, curled against his muscled chest, she sighed contentedly. "...Better not tell your brother about this," she murmured sleepily. "Wouldn't want Taka getting mad at me for ruining your virtue."

    Hayato chuckled and held her close. "Aniki doesn't get a say in this."

    "Bet he'll get jealous. I'm stealing his personal chef."

    "Good. He needs to learn to take care of himself." He smiled down at her and teased, "Is that why you're here? Because you like having your own chef?"

    "Of course," she replied, going along with his teasing tone. She snuggled into him more. "You're ugly, annoying, and lousy in bed. Your only saving grace is your cooking."

    He laughed. "Harsh, Doc. Harsh."

    ---

    Engel's vision blurred. "I miss him, Taka. I miss him so much." She sniffed and palmed her eyes. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me. I just...started thinking about him all of a sudden." Silently, Crossfire's hand reached over to squeeze her own. She smiled again. "Thanks, Taka."
     
    #11 Razilin, Jul 7, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2016
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  12. Footsteps sounded from behind Engel. This one wasn't stealthy. In fact, those footfalls were meant to be heard. She turned to see Eliza Landel standing there. She had a cluster of folders in her hands and she looked excited.

    "Annabelle. Cross. I hope I'm not interrupting," she said.

    Crossfire coolly withdrew his hand. Engel looked from him to the doctor. "I don't think so. What is it, Eliza?"

    "Meeting at the town hall. Addressing what happened last night. Big plans. Big pitch." She took a couple breaths to calm down and shuffled the folders. Hushcobb files. "Ferrara wants all the necessary personnel there, including doctors and vet agents."

    Engel sighed and looked at Taka. "That's us. I think the hospital will hold up without me for a little bit. Let me just tell May what's happening."

    When she left that allowed Landel and Crossfire a rare moment alone. His face was unreadable behind those glasses, and that only made the young doctor more nervous.

    "Landel, what are you up to?" he asked.

    She fidgeted before leaning over and whispering, "My initiative. This might be just the event to galvanize it into action . No one wants this horror show to happen again."

    "Shrewd." He stood and adjusted his jacket. "I like it. I can think of someone else who would have approved."

    "Who?"

    Just then Engel came back and he quickly brushed the question aside. "Not important. Let's go."

    ---

    The town hall didn't serve as a normal meeting place in Hushcobb. In Hushcobb nothing served its obvious outer purpose. But there was still clean up to be done underground, and the upper offices had served their intent before. Landel walked in, leading Crossfire and Engel behind her. On the way she ran into Ruth and kissed her cheek.

    "I'm glad you're alright," she said.

    The frizzle-topped agent bumped her respectable butt against Landel's more modest one. "Thanks. Wouldn't have made it without our resident loony."

    "What do you make of them?" she asked.

    "Unstable. Like weapons-grade plutonium unstable. But point them in the right direction...I think they could do some good."

    Dr. Engel looked uneasy as this conversation was going on in front of her. "Dr. Landel, what is going on?"

    She turned nervously and dropped her voice again. "I need you two to back me up on this. If this works out, the massacre last night may never have to happen again. What happened to Hayato may never happen again."

    They walked in to find Director Ferrara at the head of a long conference table, various other guards and field agents present around him. Crossfire moved over to a corner near the door, while Landel and Engel were granted seats near the other end.

    "Dr. Landel. Dr. Engel," the director nodded. "Dr. Engel, I know your patients are important, so I appreciate you coming up here to report on your experience of last night."

    She looked at Landel, who just stared down at her folders. She hadn't mentioned that.

    "I...appreciate that you value my input," she answered. "But before I do, I believe Dr. Landel has something she wants to share."

    The two women exchanged subtle, harsh looks. Neither of them liked being put on the spot.

    "Actually, we have quite a lot to discuss with Dr. Landel already," Ferrara replied. He turned to her, his measured self control slipping into quietly concealed incredulity. "Doctor, care to tell us why you insisted three of our more dangerous inmates - one of whom is responsible for the cluster fuck that was last night - in minimum security?"

    Everyone turned to the head researcher. Only Ruth, Crossfire and Engel avoided their eyes.

    Landel took a deep breath. "Yes. Well...I believe they're safe that way. Wyatt isn't a prisoner - he's a guest who's only here until we can fix him. Zeroth...yes, he's a Fae, but changelings are relatively harmless to humans. They have a bond with our species.

    "As for Erika," she continued. "When she broke out it wasn't in her cell. It was when she was already outside it. Just keep her confined, and she should be fine. Her telekinesis isn't strong enough to bend the bars, for instance."

    Ferrara wasn't satisfied with that answer. "There's more, isn't there?"

    "Just that I don't think it's right to punish those who helped save us. And I don't think we can punish Erika at all. She seems to genuinely not know what the implications of her actions are," she argued. She smiled. "But there was at least one part of her that was on our side. Otherwise she wouldn't have been convinced to help us."

    "One part?" Engel had been there for some of the tests on Erika, but she wasn't a psychology major. When it came to unraveling the secrets of her mind, that was all Landel's department.

    "Erika used to be a powerful psychic. From the bits of information we were able to collect she was a genius and a good person. Always helped people with their problems, seemed to know just what to say. She skipped two grades and was halfway towards her doctorate in psychology when she disappeared.

    "She was abducted by one of our former agents, who we now know had stolen copies of CIA mind control research," Eliza went on. She always did go overboard with exposition. "He attempted to harness her abilities for his own use, to turn her into a mental weapon that only obeyed him. As a result he ended up damaging her mind to the condition we know today."

    "What about the 'parts' thing?" Engel interrupted. "Does she have split personality disorder like Two-Face?"

    "Actually, I'm afraid it's more like Inside Out," she answered. "Erika's mind split in order to stay together. Individual traits took on their own entities to insure they would survive. Isolated, these traits became like personalities. However, they all live in her head simultaneously, what she calls the voices. I could elaborate, but for now let's just say one of these voices is the original Erika, and that she can sometimes trick her simpler co-habitants into doing something right."

    "So she's only sometimes not dangerous," Ferrara concluded. "Wonderful. You know this is just all the more reason to increase security."

    "She can be controlled," Landel said. "Her mental state may be questionable, but her intelligence isn't. Sir, she's a genius. And she's powerful. You see her as a threat, but I think she can be an asset. And while she's helping us, we can help her. Director Ferrara , after last night we need it."

    He groaned and shook his head. "Landel, not this again."

    "Yes. The Fire/Fire Initiative." There were quite a few groans as it came out, but Landel wouldn't be deterred. "There are some things we can't handle with what we've got to work with. Amulets and reliquaries don't protect against everything, and we don't always have the weapons or the speed to get a quick containment. These people - "

    "They're not people, Landel!" Ferrara snapped. "One's undead, one isn't human and one is apparently her own personal nuthouse! You want to give them Hushcobb jurisdiction? They're gonna cause more problems than they'll solve, I'm sure."

    "Well, what if the problem can't get any worse?" she countered. "Like Devilman? He seems to generate fatal amounts of fear. Erika doesn't seem to feel fear, and Wyatt... he might be the only person we know who could touch him."

    There were a few murmurs across the table. An enemy they had no idea how to fight that could be brought down by a few freaks.

    "And they wouldn't go alone," she added. "We would, of course, have senior agents to supervise." She looked at Engel and Crossfire.
     
    #12 Quiet One, Jul 7, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2016
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  13. Deliberations went on for about another hour. Ferrara was a brick wall of reluctance concerning Landel's initiative. Engel had her own reservations about it, as well. After all, she saw firsthand what Landel's prospective initiates could do. Quite frankly, the thought of some of these superpowered individuals running out on the field frightened her. She spent hours upon hours treating injured agents hobbling back from missions against such beings. Not all of them made it. And she, in particular, was intimately familiar with at least one agent and the scars he earned from such conflicts.

    But then Crossfire, who had remained silent throughout the debate thus far, ended all further arguments with four words.

    "It's a good idea."

    He said it quietly, waiting until everyone else had said their piece, before voicing his opinion. The others, both for and against the initiative, chewed on that. Crossfire was one of - if not the - best agent in Hushcobb with enough successful assignments and confirmed kills to his name to instantly command respect. If anyone knew the extent of a freak's abilities, it was him. And yet, here he was, vouching for the initiative - with full knowledge of the implications and consequences.

    Engel's head whipped toward him in surprise. He returned her gaze, unwavering and resolved.

    Ferrara finally said into the silence, "I'll take your considerations, arguments, and opinions - all of them," he added, looking at Crossfire, " - and come to a conclusion by tomorrow morning. Dismissed."

    With that, everyone silently trickled out, with Landel giving Crossfire a thankful look before sneaking away with Ruth Borwell. On the way out, Engel grabbed Crossfire's arm and pulled him to the side of a secluded hallway.

    "What the hell, Taka? You're for this crazy idea?" she hissed. "Wyatt and Zeroth, sure. They're pretty harmless. But Erika? I don't know. Even if Eliza's right about her, that's such a huge risk!"

    Crossfire looked down at the ground. For once, he looked...vulnerable. Quietly, he said, "...It's what Hayato would've done."

    Engel stopped and for a moment, all she could hear was her heartbeat in her ears...and the ghost of a friendly voice in her ear, whispering oh-so-familiar sweet nothings, just for her. "That's not fair," she grunted.

    "You know he would've supported it. Giving people a second chance. Fighting for something bigger."

    "He did have a bit of a hero complex," Engel allowed. She shook her head. "This is a crazy idea, Taka," she repeated. "But you're right. It'd be just like him to back something like this up." She looked at Crossfire sharply. "And if it blows up in our faces?"

    Without a word, the master marksman drew a clip of special pistol rounds - these designed to take down Fae - from the recesses of his immaculate suit. He just as wordlessly slipped them away.

    Engel had the ghost of a smile on her lips. "Well. Nice to know you're still the pragmatic brother."

    ---

    JUNE 20, 2011
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "Ouch!"

    "Stop being such a baby. Its just stitches."

    "But it hurts!"

    Engel's tone grew exasperated. "Hayato, you're a ninja. You fight monsters on a daily basis."

    "Ow!"

    Now, Engel started growing more condescending, as if talking to a child. "Come on, you big baby. You took the cut, you can take the stitch."

    Suddenly, Hayato gave her a leer and a smirk. He inquired, "Well, maybe you can kiss it and make it better?"

    The surgeon rolled her eyes, realizing that he was pulling her leg again. She anchored the suture with a final knot and dressed it. Then she tucked her chin into his shoulder from behind and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "There. You're such a little kid, I swear." Hayato then reached over, turned her chin toward his face, and kissed her on the mouth. He made it last and made her moan into it. When they parted, Engel admitted breathlessly, "All right, that's a bit more adult."

    He smiled and raised his patched-up arm. "Thanks for this, Angel." Ever since their first night together, he'd taken to calling her that. A private term of endearment, just for her. She'd had boyfriends who did something similar, but it never made her feel this special before. The only other person who knew about it was Taka, of course. There wasn't anything the brothers didn't share with one another. The fact that the stony and private Taka Tennou let Engel into his life, accepted her virtually as a sister, only added to how special Hayato made her feel.

    ---

    JULY 4, 2011
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    It turned out that Hayato was not only a divine chef sent down to Earth by the gods of cooking, Martha Stewart, and Emeril, but he was also a grillmaster extraordinaire.

    Director Ferrara was hardly the most forthcoming or generally pleasant of people, but he seemed to actually be enjoying himself this holiday. It was readily evident that it was Hayato's masterful grilling skills that took the edge of the director's normally grim countenance. The director was happily digging into an absolutely perfect steak.

    "All right, Tennou," Crippling said, "I want mine rare and Eliza is going for a medium-well. You got five minutes." He raised a stopwatch. "And...go!"

    The next thing anyone knew, Hayato produced two different plates bearing the requested meat off the same grill. When Crippling and Landel dug in, they were pleasantly astonished to find perfection. "What the hell, man?" Crippling declared. "How is that even possible?"

    Hayato thew them his patented smirk and announced, "A ninja never shares his secrets!"

    "How haven't you turned into a fat old maid eating his food?" Landel joked to Engel.

    The surgeon, who had earlier requested a veggie burger - also made to perfection - smiled contentedly. "He makes healthy meals, too, Eliza."

    Landel made a mocking gesture of astonishment. "No way! Better marry that man, Annabelle. He's a keeper!" Engel blushed to the roots of her golden hair. Hayato noticed and threw her a special smirk, just for her, and added a wink on top. She reddened further.

    "If she does, then they really will be a 'flock,'" Crippling added around a mouthful of steak. It was a running gag at this point. Between Hayato and Taka - which everyone had learned generally meant 'falcon' and 'hawk' in Japanese respectively - and Annabelle Engel, who's own surname meant 'angel' in German, the three inseparable friends had enough winged metaphors in their names to to constitute any number of bird-related puns. Engel briefly amused herself by keeping track. Thus far, they'd been called 'the Birds of Prey,' 'a murder of crows,' 'a nest,' and now 'a flock.'

    She also noticed that while their coworkers were more than happy to pun in her and Hayato's presence, they dialed it back whenever Taka showed up.

    "Whoa!"

    Engel's attention went back to her boyfriend after someone in the let out a burst of surprise. Hayato was handing Bob the bus driver a plate with a very difficult and special order. Rather than just one steak, the young ninja split it in half to make two thinner slices and stuffed them with Gorgonzola and herbs. Most importantly, he sealed the cheese within the slices such that it almost seemed like they had never been cut at all. Bob, among others, were making sounds of surprise and praise at this difficult technique.

    "He's been waiting to show that one off ever since I told him about it," Engel admitted to Landel. "We went to a nice restaurant a few weeks ago that had that dish. Hayato took it as a challenge."

    Landel gave her a beaming grin. "Oh, definitely a keeper."

    ---

    AUGUST 28, 2011
    TOKYO, JAPAN

    It was Engel's first time overseas and most certainly her first time in Japan. Unfortunately, it wasn't for pleasure.

    One of Hushcobb's agents had gone rogue, taking with him a USB with sensitive information about the organization with the intent to ransom it off. The renegade thought he could escape by fleeing to the other side of the world. He was going to try disappearing in Thailand. Too bad his connecting flight took him right into the heart of the Tennou brothers' home turf.

    Though they hadn't been to Japan in years, they lost none of their home-field advantage. Engel struggled to keep up with the brothers as they seemed to fly across the rooftops of Tokyo in pursuit of the renegade agent.

    "Goddammit, you two! Slow down! Not all of us are ninjas, damn it!"

    Engel generally considered herself an athletic person and regularly met Hushcobb's physical standards whenever she had to pass a fitness exam. But she was rapidly losing ground and could only watch in dumbfounded awe as Hayato and Taka vaulted over, past, and through obstacles in their way as if they were leaves on the wind. She swore then and there to devote more time to her cardio. Those two made it look so damn easy!

    Seeing them in action like this, moving in perfect synchronization, flying for all intents and purposes like hunting birds on the wing...she could finally appreciate why they were named after birds of prey.

    Hayato leaped into the air, easily making himself a target...which was the point. The renegade, seeing no other recourse but to fight, turned and discharged his weapon at Engel's boyfriend. Hayato smiled eagerly as his sword flashed like lightning and deflected the bullets with fluid ease. "Go for it, Aniki!" he shouted as he landed.

    Taka, perched atop an air conditioning unit, took the opening and fired a pair of shots that broke each of the renegade's legs. Their target dropped with a pained wail.

    Engel finally caught up to the brothers as they converged on the rogue agent. She panted, "God, you two are such - "

    "Later," Taka said grimly. Hayato had the tip of his sword on the renegade's neck while Taka searched the man for the USB, ultimately retrieving it. Then Taka leveled a pistol at the man's head as well.

    "No, wait, please," the rogue pleaded through the pain. Something in his voice made the three pause. The man continued, "Those files...they're my last hope."

    "You were going to ransom them," Taka said coldly. "Be grateful we don't kill you here and now."

    The rogue shook his head. "I need the money. I was never going to actually release the files. I need those files."

    Engel raised a curious eyebrow. "What are they?"

    "They...they're everything Hushcobb knows about vampire physiology. My daughter...my daughter's half-vampire."

    "What the - wait, you somehow had a kid with a vampire?" Hayato asked in astonishment. This wasn't what they were expecting when they were sent out on this mission. "How...how does that even work?"

    "Not the way Twilight makes it out to be," Engel replied dryly. She then looked to the rogue. "A half-vampire has an unstable physiology. Undead and life mixed together. She must be in agony."

    The rogue looked away. It was all the answer she needed. Hayato caught on as well. He sheathed his sword.

    "Hayato, what are you doing?" Taka demanded. "We're taking this man in."

    "No, Aniki, we're not." It was the first time Engel ever heard her lover take that stern a tone with his brother. It was the first time she'd ever heard him with anything less than a chipper verve. "He's only trying to help his family. He walks." Hayato then sheepishly looked to the rogue's legs and then back to his brother. "Well...maybe not walks...but...well...you know what I mean!"

    There was the Hayato Engel knew and loved.

    Taka, however, was far from amused. "We are taking this man in," the older Tennou reiterated sharply, stubbornly. "That's an order."

    "Let it go, Aniki," Hayato pleaded. "Just this once, let it go. You already did something similar. For me."

    That got Engel's attention. What was he talking about?

    Hayato continued, switching to Japanese, "Onegai, Aniue. Konkai dake wa shite kudasai."

    Taka's gaze became flinty, as sharp as the hawk he was named after. Engel watched the undercurrent, the byplay, between the brothers in rapt fascination...and then the moment of tension ended as suddenly as it began. Taka moved his hand away from the rogue's head and holstered his weapon. "Your bleeding heart will eventually run out of blood, Hayato," he warned with a touch of sadness in his voice. Then he turned to Anna. "I'll leave the renegade's wounds to you, Anna."

    As Taka walked off, Hayato let out a breath and smiled at his brother. Engel watched her boyfriend bow at Taka's retreating back. "Arigatou, Aniki." He then knelt with Engel at the rogue's side, excitedly rendering assistance. "Come on, Angel, let's get this guy back to his kid...."
     
    #13 Razilin, Jul 8, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2016
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  14. June 30, 2016
    Inversion Lockup
    Hushcobb, Kansas

    The three were left for the most part alone, all in cells right next to each other. They were separated by a full level from the few monsters that were still in Lockup, presumably for their own protection. They were each treating their time in the prison differently. Zeroth paced angrily, growling and muttering to himself. Wyatt was discorporating and solidifying his body, trying to get a handle on his abilities. Erika...danced. She was in a good mood learning she tied with Crossfire.

    "Does this seem right to anyone?" Zeroth asked and turned to his fellow inmates. Erika was busy wiggling her hips to an MP3 she'd been allowed to have. Wyatt looked across the bars. "We get busted out, we have all the opportunity to escape and start over. Then we each somehow got talked into sticking our necks out for these people, and now we're back in prison. I mean...where did we get stupid?"

    "It wasn't stupid," Wyatt called out past the bars. "It was the right thing to do."

    "Fun, too," Erika added, not stopping her dance. "I'm gonna beat him next time."

    "No!"

    "I'm with Zeroth. Erika, don't do that again. Please," the teen pleaded.

    "Spoilsport." She stuck her tongue out at them before sliding her hands over her breasts and down to her hips. Wyatt blushed. Zeroth rolled his eyes.

    "I won't, though. Unless I do. I have no plans to. I have no plans at all." She winked at Zeroth. "Hear that? I'm totally free."

    He glared at her. "Child, I am 500 years old. I suggest you try for someone who doesn't know better."

    Erika pouted. "Aw. I've kinda got a thing for older men...yes, I know. You'd like any man. Hm? For women I think we have fewer candidates. Ruth might be willing to play."

    "Who do you talk to?" Wyatt asked. "When you do that. Is it like you have different people living in there?"

    Erika turned and started walking towards him. "What's that? Bitch, shut it so I can hear what Punchy wants...I don't think we can break his nose. Hm? I don't think we can break that, either, though it would be more fun to try, Slut.

    "Anyway, they're not different people. They're me. All me. One likes to fight, one likes to play, one wants to fuck, and the last is really annoying with all her 'responsibility' BS," she explained, leaning into the bars so one slid into her cleavage. "Guess which one is asking for you right now."

    ---

    June 30, 2016
    Hushcobb General Hospital

    The different sections of the secret base underneath the town were divided into sections and placed underneath their ground level counterparts. Therefore both Landel's and Engel's research facilities were underneath the hospital.

    Landel was too excited over the prospect of her initiative finally happening to consider the inevitable possibility that the two doctors were going to cross paths again.

    She rounded a corner and saw Annabelle walking towards her. She doubted she was looking for her, but immediately backtracked.

    "Eliza," she called after her. The researcher froze. "I'd like to talk to you."

    She drew in a deep breath and gave a fake smile. "I'd love to, but you have patients to see to, and then there's me and my research - "

    "None of my remaining patients are currently terminal," Engel shot back. "And your experiments aren't, either. This is about your initiative."

    She led Landel to a private room and immediately removed her veneer of professionalism. "I want to start by saying that was a really cheap shot what you said before the meeting started. You didn't know Hayato. Not like me and Ta - Crossfire. He may have been right about Hayato supporting the idea, but you don't get to use him to push your own agenda!"

    There was no retort. Instead Eliza hung her head in shame. "I know. That was wrong, and I'm sorry. I have been tracking what I believe is an escalation in supernatural activity, and I think the initiative is the only combat against whatever is coming." She dropped her head again when Engel snapped her hard glare her way. "It's no excuse, just an explanation. I was desperate to get you on my side. We do good work together, and I respect you and enjoy your company. And...desperation makes us do careless things. I'm sorry."

    Engel crossed her arms and let out an exasperated groan. "Damn it, Landel! I'm inclined to forgive you, but I don't know if it's sincerity or your psychology doctorate that's winning me over!"

    "Just because it's the smart thing to say doesn't mean it's not also the right thing to say," she said. "And I am sincere. I wouldn't want anyone using Ruth to sway me like that. I guess I put my head before my heart."

    She gave a sarcastic smirk. "Now that I believe."

    It would be difficult to find very many flaws in the young, attractive researcher, but that was her most famous one. She had a moral compass - and a very reliable one - but the pursuit of knowledge or an advantage over the supernatural enemies of Hushcobb did tend to make her overstep her boundaries from time to time.

    "So you said there was an escalation going on?" Engel asked. "Have you told the Director?"

    "Ferrara isn't convinced. My data isn't exactly solid," Landel replied. She pulled from her folder a few makeshift graphs. She had shown them during her pitch, but no one had gotten a close look. "The frequency of our missions has gone up. I have a theory about the collective consciousness of humanity being inherently responsible, but that conversation could take hours, and like I said I don't have much to back it up with.

    "The point is from time to time the danger in those missions has spiked, as well. If this becomes a growing trend I fear Hushcobb's current techniques won't be enough." A few of her graphs showed the spikes in Hushcobb's threat classifications, and it almost looked like the spikes were climbing.

    "Hence the initiative," Engel concluded. Eliza nodded. "Okay, Eliza. You might have a reason to be desperate, after all. I think we might be able to work something out with Wyatt and Zeroth. And I'm sure Ruth and Crossfire would be perfect for accompanying this experimental task force. But Erika? Please tell me you aren't really considering her."

    "I am," she replied coolly.

    "You can't trust her."

    "Actually, I think she's one of the only ones I can trust," Landel told her. "She doesn't know how to lie. And I'll keep an earpiece on her if I must. I can be her Fifth Voice. The original Erika and I can work together to keep the others from doing anything too disastrous."

    Engel rubbed her eyes, took a deep breath and then said, "I can't have this conversation without all the pieces. Just what exactly is wrong with Erika's mind?"

    "It's broken." Landel stood up and got one of those little paper cups that sometimes came in a walk-in clinic and got herself a drink from the sink. This much exposition was going to dry her throat. "Our rogue agent - alias The Controller - stole several patents for successful mind control techniques tested by the CIA. That's common knowledge here."

    Engel nodded. "And he took Erika to try and turn her into a psychic weapon, someone who could put large numbers of people under his control in a few minutes. As I understand, we're all very grateful it didn't work."

    "Almost all of us." Landel agreed. "I wasn't exaggerating when I said Erika was a genius. She skipped two grades and was on her way towards a PhD in half the time it would take a normal student when she was taken. During the mind break she must have realized she couldn't get out of the mental torture unscathed, but also that she couldn't leave herself in a state he could use. So she split her consciousness into four pieces, each a core aspect of her personality."

    "Which one is the Erika we know? The one in control most of the time?" she asked.

    "There isn't one in control. The Erika that's on the surface is pure impulse. Her personality, her actions are dictated by the other four, who are always giving her ideas," she went on. "Her attitude is influenced by the attitudes of her other personalities."

    "So she's her own puppet," Engel deadpanned. She sat down. "This isn't helping your case. What are the personalities?"

    "Well she gives them different names. One she calls Slut Me. I think you can guess what she's like. All of Erika's sexuality refined into a personality that thinks of nothing else. She's passionate, sultry, and has no boundaries.

    "Then there's Baby Me, or Baby Doll, as she calls her," Landel continued. "She embodies Erika's childhood. I think she wanted to preserve her innocence. She's curious, playful, loves games and trying new things. Erika has been exhibiting strange cravings, the sort of thing usually associated with pregnancy. She just wants to try new foods. This morning she asked for salmon and waffles for breakfast."

    Engel tried to hold back her revulsion at the thought of salmon and waffles. "Ugh. Well, at least I know which side of her to thank for last night. Crossfire had me come up with a game for her."

    "Sounds like you appealed to two personalities," she said. "Her third personality has a lot of names: Punchy, Renegade, Rocky. This is her rebellion. She put a lot of energy into fighting the Controller. Now she has a side of herself that fights everything. Not specifically violent, just thrives on conflict."

    "So why didn't she argue with me?" she asked.

    "Annabelle, you weren't a threat to her. There wasn't a challenge. Containing the most disastrous breakout in Hushcobb history? That's a challenge. Add in a game and the original Erika's responsibility and that guaranteed her cooperation," Eliza told her. She smiled. "It's a constant debate in her head. A democracy. Majority rules."

    "So three wanted to get involved, and that was enough to get Erika to actually help." Engel thought about that. If they could just figure out how to manipulate these personalities to want what they wanted..."This might be possible. Still a big gamble."

    "I know." Landel tossed the cup away. "But this job is always a gamble."
     
    #14 Quiet One, Jul 9, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2016
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  15. JUNE 30, 2016
    HOMS, SYRIA

    During the Syrian Civil War, much of the city of Homs was left devastated by siege and infighting. The scars of that conflict were evident everywhere. Entire districts remained derelict and abandoned, despite reconstruction efforts. Food, water, and medicine were commodities to kill over, rather than to share and enjoy. Homes were long abandoned, families shattered and destroyed.

    It was a city left blighted by war. It was the perfect place for the devil to visit.

    Terrified soldiers lit up the ruined causeway with the rapport of gunfire, accented by the occasional mortar or hurled grenade. The inky sea of roiling darkness that swept toward them was unhindered by their mere weapons, however. The blackness crashed over them with a mother's gentle caress...only to leave bodies on the ground with faces contorted in horror. At last, the shadows congealed in the center of the ruined street, turning into a tall humanoid shape. He looked like a man clad all in black, with a cloak over his shoulders and a wide-brimmed hat on his head. In the fading light of day, this strange man's silhouette was unmistakable and garish. He looked otherworldly, powerful...wrong.

    The soldiers broke rank as he slowly advanced. Bullets bit into his body. Shrapnel tried to carve through flesh. None of it mattered. Onward, he plodded, a cold finality that would not be deterred.

    Black tendrils of smoky shadow leaped forth from his outstretched hand and, like a reaper taking his grim harvest, he sliced through the ranks like a scythe in a field. There were no screams. There was no blood. There were only bodies, still from fear.

    The Devilman continued his silent, unwavering march. At last, he reached the wire and concrete wall of the military base he sought. Again, tendrils leaped forth to deal with any guards in his path. The wall itself proved no barrier, either. He passed through the concrete like a ghostly apparition and stepped through the other side. On he went, walking through all that opposed him, lazily lashing out with tendrils of shadow and passing through walls, doors, and other barriers with barely a thought.

    It took him less than thirty minutes to penetrate the base. It took another thirty minutes to murder everyone inside. When he was done, the base was as still as a grave.

    ---

    JUNE 30, 2016
    HUSHCOBB, KA

    "Well, this is new," Ruth Borwell said, showing her partner, Crossfire, the latest bit of news concerning the Devilman. "He just took out a military installation in Syria."

    "Syria? That's not his M.O.," Crossfire agreed. "He's only targeted US-aligned bases so far. We don't have any assets in Syria."

    Nathaniel Crippling raised a finger, drawing the others' attention to him. "Perhaps American involvement isn't the key thread," he suggested. "And Ruth, kindly get your feet off my desk."

    The former secretary grudgingly did so. Borwell and Crossfire were doing some preliminary digging into the Devilman and cross-referencing the creature's known abilities with any supernatural beings in Hushcobb's files. So far, there were a lot of theories, but nothing concrete. So, the duo decided to tap into Hushcobb's best mind when it came to matters superhuman: Nathaniel Crippling, the organization's head archivist.

    "Explain," Crossfire said curtly.

    Crippling typed away at his computer and turned the monitor so the others could see. "This is a global representation of all of our assets. Hushcobb's assets," he reiterated. "And this is where our shadowy friend's been visiting." One by one, Hushcobb's areas of influence started dropping out, each one taken down by the Devilman. One of which was in Syria. Crippling said slowly, "We've got spies, informants, agents, and the occasional research facility or base scattered all over the world. Most of them are hidden within an existing organization, like the US military. The Devilman hasn't been hitting American bases. He's attacking Hushcobb."

    Ruth looked at Crossfire. "This is huge. Ferrara needs to know."

    She needn't have bothered. Hushcobb's best agent was already stalking out the door.
     
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  16. Director Ferrara sat in his office overlooking some old files on the computer. His office was quite ordinary except for a couple of scrolls hanging up by the door. They were supposed to ward off demons, and were left there by the director before him. Since he wasn't killed by a demon, he saw no reason to take them down. Everything else was deceptively normal: a couple filing cabinets, his nice desk and office chair, two seats opposing his desk. Deceptively normal. That was what Hushcobb strived for.

    He frowned over the files he was looking at and pulled a vial out from a drawer. It was maybe an ounce of green liquid - Fae blood. There was red in it like ink when it was just added to water, starting to mix but not yet blended. It had looked like this for the last seven years. If he tilted the vial just so he could see the bone fragment still inside.

    His computer beeped and an anime woman appeared in the bottom right corner of his screen.

    "Agent codename Crossfire is approaching. It would seem he has information he wants to share," the tiny woman said.

    "Thank you, A.N.N.I.. Unlock my door for him."

    "Yes, Director Ferrara." The AI vanished from his screen and he closed his files.

    The anime interface hadn't been his idea. One of the techs thought it would be funny, but it ended up catching on. Harvested from an alien ship and repurposed, the Artificial Neural Network Intelligence now served as their research engine, secretary and of course an impregnable security system. Well...after last night he should say almost impregnable.

    He had just closed the last of his private files when Crossfire walked in. As always, he was serious and grim. But he looked a bit more grim than usual.

    "The Devilman just attacked a base in Syria," he said. "He's not attacking America. He's attacking us."

    Short, sweet, and to the point. Ferrara spared a glance at his computer before turning to Cross. "Then I'm afraid this just got more serious. What is the next projected attack point?"

    "We have bases in Romania and Nepal that are close enough given his speed," Crossfire replied. "He'll attack Nepal."

    Ferrara turned and leaned forward. "How do you know?"

    Crossfire couldn't think of a good explanation. "Instinct, Sir. I have a gut feeling."

    Ferrara smiled and turned in his chair. "Crossfire, I wish I had more like you."

    He hesitated. Then, "You can...if you enact the initiative. Sir."

    He shut his eyes and the smile slid off his face. "I don't want to leave it to those freaks. I especially don't want to let crazy out of her cage."

    "Think how much trouble she could be to the enemy," Crossfire countered. "And Sir, Dr. Landel is right. Wyatt's ectoplasmic makeup might be able to interact with Devilman's intangible form."

    "That kid is cursed," he replied bitterly. "Alright. If you can talk them into cooperating I'll give you a trial run. Lord knows we tried everything else on this guy. And if it doesn't work, two less headaches. Wyatt will be sad, but at least the other two will be out of my hair."

    Crossfire said nothing. He dared not, should his gun do the talking for him. However, he did have one final thing to add.

    "Director, if Devilman is targeting us, then we must have a history with him," he said. "Any idea what that would be?"

    Ferrara stopped moving. He fingered the vial and discreetly put it back in his desk. But Crossfire missed nothing. "Not a clue. But I'll look into it."

    As he left Director Ferrara had one final piece of advice. "Keep an eye on the changeling! He'll likely turncoat when he sees his own kind! Fae stick together, after all."

    Crossfire closed the door and looked at his palm. An "X" shaped cut lay across it, lightly tinted green.

    ---

    June 26, 2002
    Redwood Forest, California

    Taka was half American, so his father's wife sometimes arranged vacations to the states. He loved his home, but the trick shot kid loved the redwoods. It was the park of choice for meeting with Owen and Pen, his aunt and uncle. Then there were their kids, whose names he often forgot. His little brother was better at keeping them entertained, anyway.

    They had to pretend to be a normal family whenever they visited America. They were fairly normal, but there was to be no talk of bakemono slaying on foreign soil. Not that Taka or Hayato had anything to worry about there. Both of them had been barred from the great tradition.

    "I know what they're not talking about," Hayato said as he jumped onto the table next to him.

    "Bakemono?" Taka concluded with a chuckle. They were at the kid's table, the only ones as Pen and Owen's kids were playing by one of the thicker trees.

    "And us," his brother added, uncharacteristically dry. Taka paused with a small rock in hand. He had been about to do some target practice on an errant soda can, but stopped at Hayato's tone.

    "Father has no pride for us," he went on. "You can hear it when we're mentioned. Love, but no pride. Because we cannot carry on the legacy."

    Taka put his arm around the shoulders of his younger sibling. "I don't care about legacy. I care about family. That's the whole reason we're here. With...them."

    "You forgot their names again, didn't you?" Hayato smirked. Just like that the raincloud over him was gone. "Come on. Let's challenge them to a game of tag."

    "They'll lose."

    He grinned again. "Duh."

    The two of them were admittedly a little old for tag, but their cousins weren't, and they eagerly chased them around. Brothers, however, had masterful reflexes and speed, even at their young ages. They jumped off tree trunks and spun and weaved past grabbing hands. It may not have been fair, but Taka had to admit he was having fun.

    As he was chased around a tree the laughing stopped. He paused in his tracks. Everything suddenly sounded muffled, and when he looked at the trees he gasped. They had reversed their colors, the leaves a blood red while the trunks were coated in an iridescent blue-green moss. When he looked up he couldn't see the tops of the trees. It was like they were infinite. From every angle the clearing was shrouded in a murky grey fog.

    "Hello?" Taka whipped off his sunglasses and stared into the fog, but could see nothing but more trees.

    "You are scared."

    He spun around, hearing the voice behind him, but there was no one.

    "Your heart beats like war drums," the voice continued. It was raspy, dry, and Taka thought it sounded vaguely female. "You would fight for your last breath. That is good. I need a warrior."

    "Who are you? Where are you?" Taka stooped down and grabbed a rock. She was right about one thing: he would not be killed by a bakemono without a fight.

    "Here."

    He screamed and jumped back, raising the stone to strike. Standing there was an old woman covered in a wrinkled grey cloak slathered with mud and host to lichen that clung to the fabric like the walls of an old building. Her hood kept her face hidden, but he could see her hands. While they mostly just looked ancient and shriveled, her left index finger was a ten-inch razor sharp claw.

    "What do you want, monster?" he demanded. "Would I have even seen you if you wanted to kill me? Tell me what you want!"

    "Clever boy. With a soldier's heart." Her mouth -which sported more wrinkles than a face should physically be able to support - broke into a smile, revealing a mostly empty mouth with a few tiny triangular teeth. "I am not here to kill you. I am here to help you. Fate smiles on you, Taka Tennou. It does not for your brother."

    Taka lowered his arm. "What about my brother? How would you know what our fates are?"

    Not all Fae are bad," she said. "Some are good. Some are fickle. And some are just interested in balance. Your brother is doomed to a terrible fate. You have no hope of saving him as you are, and you are the only one with any chance at all."

    "What's going to happen to him?" the boy asked, fear clear in his eyes. "Is he going to die?"

    "Worse..."

    That made him swallow back his heart. What was worse than death?

    "There is an entity, a true bakemono as you call it, that will threaten the balance of your world,"she explained. "You must be strong to slay it. You must be fast, and you can never miss."

    "What about Hayato?"

    "The entity is his doom. Only you can free him of his fate." She held out her clawed hand."But only with the deal I offer."

    Taka tossed the rock away and stared at the trees. Make a deal with a monster - if he were his father he would have taken the crone's head by now. But Hayato; was he really doomed because of some monster they had never encountered? Would he be willing to take the chance that he wasn't?

    He turned back to the old woman. "I'll do it. If you promise I can keep him safe."

    "YOU will have to promise that." The withered crone stepped forward. "Hold out your hand."

    Taka gave her his right and she clutched it in a strong grip. She cut his open palm with her claw, once down, once across into a "+" on his hand. Then she did the same to her own hand.

    "You will slay the demon and I shall help you save your brother." Taka nodded and she smiled that awful smile again. "It's a deal."

    She shook his hand. As soon as their scars touched Taka went rigid. He felt something burn up his arm, setting little fires in his joints. When the burning sensation traveled to his eyes Taka's vision blurred, then suddenly became twice as clear as before. When it had coursed through his entire being he collapsed.

    Taka woke up in the redwoods, disoriented in the grass. He could hear clearly now, and everything sounded like the game of tag. It hadn't missed a beat. Was that real? He looked at his hand and saw the scar. He grabbed his sunglasses off the floor and stopped. The reflective lenses showed his eyes. Two pupils, with an iris encircling like the symbol for infinity.

    "Taka?" Hayato. He hurriedly put the glasses on. Not a moment too soon, as his little brother came running. "There you are. We're playing tag, not hide and seek."

    ---

    He closed his hand and headed to the Lockup. Not all Fae were friends. But they did all know each other.
     
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  17. JULY 1, 2016
    INTERNATIONAL AIRSPACE

    Engel decided then and there that she was never going to have kids.

    She wasn't sure how old Zeroth was, exactly, but he had the misfortune of getting lumped with Erika and Wyatt by association. She felt no remorse over that fact.

    Because all three of them were driving her certifiably insane.

    Erika was teasing Wyatt nonstop since the jumbo jet left the international airport. Whenever she needed a break, she spent it pestering either Crossfire or Engel. Usually by kicking the back of Engel's seat like an eight-year-old.

    "They're kids, Anna," Taka whispered to her from his seat beside her when he noticed her patience running dangerously thin.

    "They're monsters," the surgeon groused. "And not because they have superpowers."

    Wyatt was far less annoying, but had his moments as well. It was the first time he had ever been on an airplane, much less out of the country. His incessant questions about the modern world and Nepal were endearing...or would have been, if Engel wasn't operating on two hours of sleep and currently being robbed of further rest by her traveling companions.

    "Have you ever been to the Nepal base?" Taka asked.

    "No," Engel replied, glad to have anything to distract her from this godawful flight. "I did a little light reading about it before we took off. It's the center of our mystical research division in Asia. Lots of ley lines and salient magical energy. Having a couple of ancient monastic orders meditating in the mountains helps focus all of it down. Some researchers speculated that the monks subconsciously set up shop there centuries ago because of Nepal's energies."

    "Anything interesting?"

    Engel paused. Then, "There were a few dead end projects concerning spirits and Fae. They were only done at the Nepal base."

    Taka was silent. Engel knew him well enough to tell that he was carefully mulling over that bit of news.

    "Did the other installations have anything like that?" Taka asked quietly.

    "No," she answered, "not any projects. But their personnel...." She took in a steadying breath. Everything she learned about this case in the last few hours had left her more than a little shaken. When she and Eliza started digging, they initially intended to look only for clues about the Devilman's abilities. They hadn't expected to spend most of the night and early morning unraveling a mystery, only to have more questions.

    "Some of the personnel conducting research at Nepal had transferred to other facilities over the years," Engel said.

    Taka frowned. "Facilities that have now fallen to the Devilman," he concluded grimly.

    He spoke just loudly enough for Zeroth, seated behind him, to hear, "You know any Fae or spirits like that, changeling? Seems awfully invested in the mortal world for one of your kind."

    Before the changeling could answer, Erika shouted, "Hey, Cross, Engel! What're you two whispering about? Sweet nothings? This ain't the mile-high club, you know!"

    Engel palmed her face. It didn't matter how great in the sack Hayato had been. She was never having kids....
     
    #17 Razilin, Jul 10, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2016
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  18. Zeroth scowled back at Crossfire. Not for the first time during the flight, he wondered why he had said yes. He told himself it was for the deal Hushcobb offered him: an apartment in the town, a job, and best of all no iron bars. It was too good of an offer, though, and he doubted they would make good on it. So why? A nagging thought kept repeating that maybe he wasn't doing this for any sort of reward. If that were true, he'd be even crazier than Erika.

    "Seems more like he's invested in you," he retorted. "There's no shortage of Fae with short fuses, and speaking from a personal stance, I can imagine how you'd piss one off."

    "You're not in chains. No need to get vindictive," Crossfire quipped.

    "Oh yeah, sorry. I guess the last ten years don't count," he growled back, his teeth sharpening.

    "Boys!" Erika interrupted. At first Engel thought she was trying to calm them down. Then she was reminded who this was. "If you're going to Duke it out, can I drive?"

    "I wouldn't trust you on a bicycle," Zeroth muttered. He sighed and pressed on with the conversation. "Anyway, the known abilities of this guy narrows it down. I may have been out of the Fae world for a spell, but we rarely create anything new. This sounds like a dark spirit called the Arancol. Black mist. Kills with fear. Sounds like it. And if you pissed this entity off...God help you."

    Crossfire and Engel looked at each other, both unnerved by the revelation. Engel put her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp and Crossfire gripped hard to the armrests.

    "How did we not see it?" she whispered.

    "Because it can't be him. It just...can't." For the first time, the agent's voice was shaky. It got crisper as his denial grew. "They aren't the same abilities. This one has a body. It simply can't."

    "You guys fought him before?" Zeroth unbuckled his seatbelt and made for the door. "I'm out of here."

    Just when he reached the exit Crossfire had grabbed him and pulled him away. "You're not running."

    "I'm sure as hell not dying! Especially not for you!" he struggled but Crossfire kicked him into a seat and placed a gun at his forehead.

    "Say his abilities," he ordered.

    Zeroth took a few deep breaths and began. "No physical form. Can't be hurt because no physical form. Can't pass through stained glass because it's considered holy, but can go through anything else. Black mist. Kills by filling the victim with fear. Can possess objects, buildings and people. Can't use his other powers when possessing."

    "Repeat that last one."

    "Can't use his powers when possessing?" Zeroth arched an eyebrow.

    "This one has a body. We recorded it," he said. "If he were possessing someone, he wouldn't be able to kill the way he has. He would get injured when shot." He took the gun off his head. "It's not the Arancol. But perhaps an offspring."

    Zeroth shook his head. "That wouldn't make sense, either. The Arancol's offspring are always less powerful, not more. And they come into the world from a womb of nightmares. They always have a debilitating phobia."

    Erika smiled. "Maybe we can find something he's afraid of. Sounds fun."

    ---

    July 1, 2016
    Hushcobb Research Base
    Nepal

    The plane touched down an hour ago, and now they had stopped at the secret research base. It was disguised as a normal monastery, with Chinese-reminiscent roofs and long, winding walkways. Perhaps the only things that gave it away was 1: you could only reach it by bus and 2: there was a radio transmitter tower in the back. The bus driver let them off and immediately went back down. He had been instructed not to linger at the base. By a huge coincidence, his name was Bob, too.

    The six of them walked through the area, noting how limited the population was. They only saw six people from the entrance to the center of the monastery. There was a distinct lack of peace here, something else that might have given this place away.

    "You think they do happy endings here?" Erika chimed in. She was wearing much the same clothes as she'd gathered when she broke out. She'd been given six guns loaded with experimental ecto-rounds, and her fire axe was cast iron with strips of silver, dipped in holy water. She had wrapped the handle in black and neon green tape.

    "This isn't a massage parlor," Zeroth told her, though he didn't see why he bothered. He turned to Engel and Crossfire. "Why didn't we just take your teleport system to get here instead of a plane?"

    "Because we don't want the Devilman to get access to a Philadelphia Room," Engel said. "During each attack, the Philadelphia Rooms were used to sneak out important materials and personnel while the base was being defended. The rooms were then immediately deactivated. We have a similar problem here. We sent word ahead to empty the base before we arrived, but keep a few people on, so the Devilman wouldn't suspect a trap. The Philadelphia Room here has already been shut down."

    "So definitely no escape," the changeling concluded bitterly.

    "No escape for him, either," Erika added. "Like I said, this is going to be so much fun! Hey Cross, bet I can kill more Devilmen than you!"

    "I'm not sure you will be able to touch him," the agent replied. His sunglass-ed eyes looked this way and that as he planned out their moves. "But you'll get your chance. I want you, Ruth and I for direct combat. We'll keep him distracted."

    He looked at Engel. "You should probably hang back in case we get injured." Then he turned to Zeroth. "Keep your disguises ready. If we find a weakness I want you there to exploit it, then get back to safety. Let's give him his own monster to be afraid of."

    "If it's the Arancol, he won't be afraid," Zeroth replied before walking off, shifting as he got into position. "Seriously considering leaving you assholes, by the way!"

    "Sweet guy," Wyatt deadpanned. He looked at Crossfire. "What about me?"

    He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "You might be the only one who can actually touch him. You're our secret weapon. Landel, Engel and I have talked about it, and we have a special job for you..."
     
    #18 Quiet One, Jul 11, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
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  19. Waiting was the hardest part of any mission.

    It was even harder when Engel had to wait on a chilly balcony on the upper floor of the fake monastery, just to get away from the constant rabble rousing between Erika, Zeroth, and Wyatt.

    She pulled her coat closer around herself, though it would provide little extra warmth in these mountains. That was how Crossfire found her: half-frozen and half-alone.

    "You're thinking about him again, aren't you?" he asked softly, taking up a spot next to her along the balcony railing.

    "I almost hope the Devilman is the Arancol," she admitted grimly. There was a smoldering anger in her crystal blue eyes that Crossfire had never seen before. Anna simply wasn't an angry woman. Easily annoyed, yes - as Hayato learned many, many times - but not easily enraged. She went on, "I'll put an ecto-round into him myself for what he did."

    "Anna...calm yourself," Taka advised soothingly. "The Arancol was one of the deadliest creatures we've ever fought. Don't get careless, or he will literally scare you to death."

    "I'm not afraid of him," she hissed. "I hate him. I hate him and all his kind for taking my Hayato from me. God, I hope you're wrong about this being an offspring, Taka. I want to face that bastard one more time. For Hayato's sake." She looked up at him. "Don't you?"

    Taka was quiet. There was so much more at play than just simple revenge. But if anyone deserved to hear about it, it's this woman - who was more than just a friend, but family. "As a child, I had no special gifts," he began serenely. "One day, I met a Fae in the woods who told me that my brother would die, but that I had the chance to save him...If I made a pact with her. I did. And I gained my special sight." He looked down at the balcony rail. "And I still failed to protect Hayato."

    He turned his palm over, showing her the cross-shaped scar burned into his flesh.

    Engel laid her palm over his. "Taka...I...I didn't know."

    "If this creature is indeed related to the Arancol, I will consider it karma," he said somberly. "I could not protect my brother. Perhaps I can instead avenge him."

    ---

    MARCH 14, 2014
    SAUDI ARABIA

    "So, yeah, this is definitely not as nice as Dubai," Hayato noted as the trio marched through the seemingly endless desert. "Aniki, do you even know where we're going?"

    The elder Tennou said nothing, simply continued to lead the way.

    "I'm going to take that as a 'yes,'" Annabelle Engel said, taking a pull from her water bottle. They left the sands behind them some miles ago and were traversing the rockier terrain leading to higher elevations...terrain that made travel by vehicle impossible. With the sands, they also left their jeep behind.

    They'd been hiking for hours, under the unforgiving sun and the punishing heat. Fortunately, they brought plenty of water in their backpacks. Unfortunately, their combat gear was only adding to their fatigue.

    "Here, Angel," Hayato offered, slinging Anna's pack over his shoulder and next to his own. Despite the extra heft, he managed to keep pace with his companions - a benefit to being the more sturdily-built brother.

    "Thanks, love," the surgeon said gratefully. She unzipped the top few inches of her uniform, letting at least some modicum of ventilation against her skin. She wasn't terribly concerned about modesty here; there was no one else for miles and the only two men were a man she regularly slept with and his brother, who saw her as a sister.

    "Hey, Aniki!" Hayato called out. "We've been marching for a million years! Where the hell is this village, anyway?" Though the sturdier, stronger brother, Hayato Tennou was not the more patient of the pair.

    Taka was standing at an outcropping, looking down from his perch to the sands below. Sweat streaked down his face and behind his ever-present sunglasses, the only testimony to his discomfort; the rest of his expression was its normal bland stoicism. He pointed. "There."

    Hayato and Anna joined him on the outcropping. Below, at the base of the rocky hill, was a village of scattered huts.

    "Abn Adar," Taka said. "You won't find it on any map. Its too small and too remote."

    "No fucking shit," Hayato groused, his sore feet a clear reminder of just how backwater the village truly was. "So. This is the place with the plague problem, huh? Doesn't look like much."

    That was the crux of their mission. A supernatural plague gripped the village of Abn Adar, turning its meager few citizens into lifeless husks. Most thought it was some kind of true, organic disease. But Hushcobb informants in the area suspected a more mystical etiology. That was why Director Ferrara sent out two monster hunters and their head of medical research to investigate the problem.

    "Well," Hayato said, breaking the silence, "better get on it. Looks like its at least another dozen miles until we get there."

    "Oh, great, more walking," Anna muttered. "Somehow, the idea of being in a super secret society of supernatural hunters evokes a less pedestrian means of travel...."
     
    #19 Razilin, Jul 12, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
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  20. The scattered huts weren't on any sort of road. They didn't have a straight line through them and seemed to be placed in no apparent order. They did, however, all appear to face west, which was a bit odd. As the visitors came they were given a wide berth, many muttering in their native language. It was an Arabian village, definitely: they spotted Arabic writing on some of the huts, written up the doorframes as if it were some incantation, and women in full burqas, quickly ducking inside.

    "Looks like they're not very fond of outsiders here," Hayato noticed.

    As they passed Crossfire brought up the rear. A boy extended his hand and crossed the palm, pushing him away.

    "I don't think that's it."

    They pressed further inward until they came to the village elder. Their society was so small that they still used age as a hierarchy. The man's sons were interpreters not very practiced with English. Talking only became harder when it became clear the crash course in Arabic Landel had given them wasn't up to snuff. They wouldn't listen to Engel until she was given a burqa to cover at least her neck, hair and cleavage.

    Emgel had retained most of their lessons so she sat cross-legged before the man, Hayato and Taka flanking the doorway. Just when they seemed about ready to talk the old man looked at Crossfire's hand and began talking very fast and angrily.

    She looked up at him. "He says he wants you to leave the room."

    "Why?" he asked.

    After some more talking Engel put up her hands and shrugged. "He says you are not...a pure man." More Arabic. "He's apologizing, saying...he doesn't think you're evil, but..." blah-blah Arancol "he doesn't want...the Arancol's wrath on his family. What is the Arancol?"

    But he would not speak again until Taka left the hut. He went a few houses over and leaned over a well that currently wasn't being used. It wasn't long before Hayato leaned against it, too.

    "The people here seem to know something's up with you," he said in a low voice. "They seem very perceptive. Almost supernaturally."

    "Suggests there's a Fae nearby," the older sibling concluded with an unusual crispness. He looked at his hand. "Not a pure human. He didn't mean my heart or my intentions. He meant my blood. How did he know?"

    "Maybe the one that marked you knows this Arancol," Hayato suggested. "Bet they go way back."

    "Yeah..." He closed his fist. They probably did. But he doubted the history was friendly.
     
    #20 Quiet One, Jul 13, 2016
    Last edited: Jul 13, 2016
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