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Anne Benson stood atop the billboard-sized Sony Megatron television screen, while New York burned around her. The Megatron currently showed the face of a man barking orders to all the soldiers and super-beings gathered below her, but Anne wasn't listening to the orders. She instead watched a man in blue armor, who flew directly at her and screamed an alien war-cry. Both fighters cocked their fists back, ready to trade blows. Neither expected to see a second punch...
Times Square was under siege. While American fighter planes whistled impotently overhead, unable to descend down into the steel canyons of New York City, dozens of armored Harrakin soldiers dropped past them to claim the city as their own. They were mostly rogue warriors, trying to conquer Earth themselves before their fleet moved in. That lack of fleet support, along with their small numbers and lack of cooperation, helped keep New York from becoming a Harrakin colony -- or a smoking crater. For in Harrakin hands, police cars and National Guard trucks crumpled like paper.
The only people who could keep the Harrakin from swarming out of southern Manhattan, and conquering the whole city, were the Omegas. Many were from the international assembly of Omegas who had been present at the United Nations when Tatris brutally deposed his father, Hallatiris, the old Harrakin emperor. After rescuing Hallatiris, the Omegas joined forces with the Seekers and SIRECOM. All of their forces had fallen back to this position, and if Times Square fell, the city would surely fall with it.
The Harrakin Blue Marine shot closer and closer to Anne, his war-cry rising higher and higher. As he finally came within range, he threw his gauntleted fist forward --
Only to see Anne jump over his head at the last second. Her feet just cleared the back of his armor, as he whistled under her and over the billboard. As the Marine looked up in surprise, Anne gave him a quick telekinetic push; that, plus his own velocity, sent him rocketing into the skyscraper behind her. He crashed through it, and into the next one, and then Anne lost mental contact with him. As Anne tumbled towards the ground, she wondered if the Marine was fleeing, or unconscious, or dead. She didn't know how many Harrakin she'd inadvertently kill today, or what she'd do if she had to deliberately kill one.
Anne hit the street, sending slabs of asphalt flying. The impact didn't faze her, but she shuddered anyway. Despite a long career of Omega intrigue, this was the first time she'd ever come close to killing people herself, and she didn't like it. Others would call it war, but some part of her still called it murder.
Nearby, her grandfather had no such qualms. Harvey Hauptmann had fought in World War II, and killed many people during and since. This was just another perilous duty to him. Those Harrakin who knew something about human culture were eager to battle him, and defeat the inspiration for the legendary "Overman." Harvey encouraged this, taunting the proud alien warriors, because he diverted their attention away from more vulnerable human defenders. Though he partially regretted that tactic as three Green nobles pounced on him and drove him face-first into the pavement.
The Greens soon fell back, however, as their single-minded attack exposed them to a withering crossfire of Anne's telekinesis, the British Omega Fusion's plasma beams, and bizarre mystical fire spilling from the third eye of Lakshmi Natarajan. Stung by the assault, the Greens leapt into the sky, deciding to conquer some easier target. The Omegas fired several shots after them.
Anne ran over to Harvey and wiped some blood that was trickling from his jaw. "Are you okay, grandpa?"
"What's Overman supposed to say... 'it tickles.'" He rubbed his head and blinked several times. "Against those guys, though, I'm a little ticklish."
Anne helped Harvey up, and they prepared to face the next wave of Harrakin. According to Wes Hickman, whose face was giving instructions from the Megatron, a squad of them were flying up Seventh Avenue in a birdlike V-formation.
As they manned the portable metal barricades SIRECOM had set up across Seventh Avenue, the lull in combat allowed Anne and Harvey to finally focus on their surroundings again. They heard vintage World War II air-raid sirens echoing all over the city, and Hickman warning people not to evacuate by the southern bridges and tunnels. Strangely enough, they also heard someone shouting their own names.
A short, olive-skinned man was racing up Seventh Avenue, trying to reach the barricades. Already, a series of little dots were visible down the street behind him. Before he could reach Times Square and the rather dubious safety of the Seekers outpost, the dots had grown into a laughing Harrakin war party. Two of the outer warriors noticed the running man, broke formation, and began toying with him. As they sent bolts of green fire crackling from their eyes to the sidewalk around the man, Harvey and Anne hurdled over the barricades.
Anne and Harvey slammed into the Harrakins' midsections -- Anne delivering a kick, Harvey doing a full flying tackle -- while Anne's telekinesis picked up the running man and flung him over the barricades. Then the other Harrakin coagulated around them, like angry bees or vultures, but before they could attack a wave of Omegas swept over the barricades. Blockade and Vari Stalnior rushed to Anne and Harvey's side in personal combat, while the Omegas with ranged and magical powers -- which tended to confuse the Harrakin -- provided cover.
Then it was war again. To survive, to ignore the screams and the sounds of cracking bones, Anne followed her grandfather's example. She turned off part of her mind, drew the blinds shut around her soul.
The next time Anne was fully cognizant, the fighting was over. She couldn't exactly remember the combat -- just a never-ending series of armored faces and bloody fists. Her own hands were bloody, though she couldn't recall why. Anne desperately wanted a towel.
Harvey led her to Times Square's Army recruiting post, which had been turned into an infirmary. The Mediterranean man, the one who'd called their names, was in fairly good condition -- just some sickly green burns on his arms and back. "You wanted to see us?" Harvey said. "Make it quick, before the Harrakin return."
"Very well," said the man. "My name is Fernando de Cordoba, and I was born in Spain some five hundred years ago. I am one of the Vitalongae, and I bring you an urgent message from Hannibal."
Anne was still shaky from the fight, and wiping her hands repeatedly; Harvey hadn't lost any of his caution, however. "If you're an immortal," he said, "why haven't your burns healed?"
Cordoba lowered his eyes and bowed slightly. "Alas, I do not heal damage; my mind simply reincarnates in the bodies of my descendants. But I assure you, I am a friend of Hannibal -- though he kept our friendship hidden, so I could act for him in times of trouble like this." He dropped his contrite pose and said, "Hannibal knows how Antigone, in conjunction with the Stormkiller agency, placed Tatris on the Harrakin throne. He also knows how they plan to use this alien 'family feud' --" he spoke the words with bitter distaste -- "to take over the world."
"Owen?" Harvey growled. "Owen is behind this?" His fists clenched and his arms quivered, veins rising along them.
Now it was Anne, who knew all too well her grandfather's paranoid hatred of Owen, who was dubious. "You can tell us the full plan?" she said.
"I am afraid I was too junior a member to know all the details. But Hannibal and the others were privy to all the debates and know exactly what they intend. Unfortunately, Antigone anticipated this; they are all under house arrest in the Halls of the Vitalongae."
Harvey slammed his right fist into his left palm, causing all the windows to shake. "Not for long."
Anne and Harvey left Cordoba in the recruiting post and gathered a few other friends: occult expert Allen Covenant, his Omega niece Rene "Tarot" Johnson, their new associate Lakshmi Natarajan, and the Seeker Thomas "Avatar" Morgan. The first three were summoned because Cordoba insisted they were essential for countering the Vitalongae's centuries of occult knowledge; Tom came because he was Anne's boyfriend, and wouldn't be separated from her this time as he was during last year's Fix crisis.
"What do you think?" Harvey asked them. "I know it all sounds strange, but we really need Hannibal's information."
"I'm not so sure we should take Ms. Natarajan," Covenant said. "Marcus Graekki and two other immortals tried to grab her in Pittsburgh. The Vitalongae want her for some reason, so our best move is to keep her far away from them."
"So we can use her, you mean," said Rene. Rene had been a hellion in combat when she drew The Empress, and she still showed some of that fury as she wrapped a protective arm around Lakshmi. "Everyone wants Lakshmi because she's the current avatar of the Mass Mind -- the collective unconscious of the human race," she explained to Anne, Harvey, and Tom. "The only way we'll shake the Vitalongae off her is to take action, to fight back instead of just reacting."
Anne smiled nervously at Lakshmi. "The Mass Mind, huh? Boy, I should have listened to you when you came warning me about battles last spring."
Lakshmi received the comment without humor. "As I said then, prophecies are always much clearer in hindsight." She closed her eyes and said, much more softly, "I suppose that's why I'm going along."
"Then it's decided," Harvey said. "We're all going to spring Hannibal. There is one more thing, though." He turned to Anne. "I'm not too sure about this Cordoba guy. What if he's setting a trap?"
Anne stared at her hands, which were still stained a dark red. She had to get out of here before the fighting started again. No matter how much humanity needed her power, she couldn't go to war for them. There had to be a better way. "Then we do a classic Benson-Hauptmann maneuver," she said. "We walk right into it."
Anne and Harvey had one more task before they left. They went back to the recruiting post to call Omega House. They weren't just checking up on Anne's young wards and her life's dream; her younger brother Neil was also there. Neil had triggered Omega powers the day before, using the strength, speed, and invulnerability he'd inherited from Harvey to stop a potential riot in Washington, D.C. Anne and Harvey were both thrilled for Neil, but had to come up to New York before they could really tell him.
After telling Neil she was fine -- everyone at Omega House had apparently seen the start of the U.N. fight on TV, and heard ominous reports about the battle for New York -- Anne asked Neil to keep a close eye on the Paint Crew kids. "I know some of the Paint Crew will want to leave and fight the Harrakin," she said, "but they're not ready. You have to keep them out of trouble."
"Anne, come on." Now that he knew she was safe, a relaxed, playful indignation crept into Neil's voice. "Staying with the Paint Crew is like being the oldest guy at the Thanksgiving kiddie table, only a thousand times worse. I can't handle it much longer."
Harvey picked up another extension. "Maybe you could look after the family, then," he suggested. "With us gone, you'll have to take that responsibility..."
Anne could practically see Neil recoiling from his phone. If he was set on going back home before, he probably wasn't now. She spoke to Harvey through Neil's line, even though he was just across the room. "Grandpa, those kids will charge into certain death..."
Neil sighed, loudly and dramatically. Anne wondered if she'd been that cocky when she was twenty. Probably, she thought; an alien invasion wouldn't have interrupted my personal drama, either. "Okay," Neil said, "I'll look after them."
"Oh, thank you, Neil..."
"What about your family?" Harvey said sternly. 'Your family' always meant he was angry. A man who cherished his family that much had to be pretty mad to semantically divorce himself from it.
"I'll have them come here if I have to. Anne, I'm on the job, okay?" Then Neil's voice softened, and he said, "Take care of yourself up there. Come back in one piece. And, uh, you too, Harvey." But they could all tell it was an afterthought.
Harvey slammed his phone down. "Just when I thought that kid turned himself around... why did he end up with my powers?"
Anne figured it wouldn't console her grandfather much if she told him that right now, Neil was probably saying the very same thing.
Lakshmi Natarajan also faced a personal crisis, but she did so silently and alone.
Her visions were vague and unreliable, filtered through heavy curtains of symbol and myth. Her most blatant warnings of the Harrakin arrival had gone unheeded and misunderstood, even by her, until well after the Harrakin arrived. Sharing her visions often raised more questions than it answered.
So she didn't know what to make of her most recent vision. During the fighting, when the Mass Mind possessed her and her third eye was activated, she had seen an intruder in a dark gallery, withering between a murderer's hands. She was sure it was one of the raiders of the Halls of the Vitalongae -- but she didn't know which one. And she didn't even know if it would really come to pass. Maybe it was a metaphor for something else. Maybe it was the Mass Mind, jealously feeding her misinformation to keep her as far as possible from the Vitalongae. Maybe telling the others, getting them worried about each other for no solid reason, would do more harm than good.
But just the same, maybe one of the raiders would die. That was why she had to go along: she couldn't avoid a danger she sent her new friends into. And her presence slightly lessened the odds of death for everyone else.
Or maybe she wasn't going out of heroism at all. Maybe, Lakshmi thought, I'm only going because I've foreseen myself going, and can't contradict my own predictions. Preordained fates always were the stuff of mythology. The Mass Mind had already pushed Lakshmi halfway into the world of myth; with this step, she completed the journey.
The team of Omegas ran up Broadway at nearly ninety miles per hour, dodging around abandoned cars and burning buses. Anne carried Allen Covenant, Harvey carried Cordoba, and Rene, using her tarot power to draw on the speed of The Chariot, carried Lakshmi. Tom's astral spirit flew beside them; his body became incapacitated when he used his power, so he left it in the infirmary.
Cordoba took them north, to Fort Washington Park. Traffic became heavy as everyone in the city tried to flee across the George Washington Bridge, so the Omegas quickly ducked into the empty park. Cordoba said several cities contained magical portals which gave the Vitalongae easy access to their headquarters; Anne wasn't surprised to learn the New York one was in the Medieval galleries of the Cloisters.
The museum was deserted, the doors left hanging open. The religious art and architecture made the Omegas slow down a bit when they entered; it seemed too sacred for running. The invasion fleet hanging overhead quickly laid such quaint notions to rest, and the Omegas picked up speed again.
Cordoba led them downstairs, to a stone room which had been made to look like a crypt. The stained-glass windows seemed to reverberate with spiritual energy, and the authentic stone tombs defied anyone to challenge their authority. But Cordoba walked straight toward one tomb, waving an electronic key which disabled the museum's alarms, and placed his hands on the lid. A carving of a knight decorated it; his weathered features were resolute in the face of the desecration that was about to happen. "Remember," Cordoba said, "once we cross through, there is no turning back."
Lakshmi bit her lip. She was unable to look at any of the others.
He lifted the lid.
The wall next to the tomb shimmered. Brilliant light poured through the stained-glass windows, and their colored panes wriggled and swam together. Soon the colored spots were flowing in a counter- clockwise pattern, forming a large circular vortex. As the rainbow of lights spun to the outside of the vortex, another room was visible through the center: a long gallery, lined with mahogany and lit by candles.
"Through, quickly!" Cordoba shouted. Anne and Harvey leapt through the vortex first -- there was a strange, stomach-wrenching sensation as they passed through, like a sudden drop on a roller coaster -- and then they were in the gallery. The others came through after them, and the portal closed behind Cordoba.
Allen looked down the long hallway and whistled. Then he looked at his fellow intruders, and his eyes widened with surprise. "You know, I just realized something really embarrassing," he said. "The lot of us charging in here... we're basically a party of Dungeons and Dragons characters."
Rene rolled her eyes. "Thanks for showing everyone that my uncle is a geek," she joked.
"They already knew," Allen retorted.
Unaware of this exchange, Tom also gazed at his surroundings, and said, "Good lord." His astral form was currently visible in the real world, as a trenchcoated private eye, but he was seeing the astral plane around him. "We're in the middle of solid rock," he said.
"The Halls are cut deep into the Pyrenees," Cordoba said. "Since most of the world thinks this is a normal mountain, that's how the astral plane reflects it."
"Really?" Allen said. His eyes glazed over with some deep inner reflection; even in the middle of a planetary crisis, Allen Covenant was still first a scholar. "I wonder if the astral plane is linked even more closely to the Mass Mind than I'd thought..."
"The truth lies deeper than all human perception; deeper even than this mountain hold," Lakshmi intoned. Her voice was hollow, distant; reverberating in the empty gallery, it sounded even more sacred. "But you have come closer to it. Thomas Morgan accesses one aspect of the Mass Mind, just as Rene Johnson and Lakshmi Natarajan draw upon another."
Rene looked very worried and said, "You are Lakshmi Natarajan."
The Indian girl smiled sweetly, with a patient expression straight from an idol or an altarpiece. "The message is not the messenger."
Cordoba wrinkled his nose in an irritated scowl. "We don't have time for all this. The guardians will soon know we're here."
"You underestimate us, old man." The new voice startled the intruders; Anne, Harvey, and Rene quickly circled around the others, and everyone scanned the hall nervously. The voice continued, "We already know you're here."
Forms melted out of the long shadows along the gallery walls. "Shit," Cordoba said, "it's the Parasites. Immortals who feed on human life for survival."
"Well," Allen said, "maybe I should try to turn the undead."
From the luxury of his private quarters, decorated like an ancient keep on the Vistula, the lord Hunyadi notified Antigone of their good fortune. Allowing his telepathy to carry the words to her, he said, "You should come at once. The Mediterranean has come to free Hannibal, as we expected -- and brought three Omegas with strong links to the Mass Mind. I sensed them as soon as they arrived, glowing like fireflies in the mountain darkness. The fool's practically delivered victory to us."
He listened to Antigone's answer, then said, "No, I haven't left yet. My supporters are detaining the intruders; I have more pressing concerns."
Hunyadi casually laced up his loose black cravat, stepping carefully over the withered husks of the women he'd drained last night. "I need to look my best before going out in public," he told Antigone. "Besides the avatars, the Mediterranean brought two Omegas I've dearly wanted to meet. Hauptmann and Benson, two of the mortal cows who killed my grandson, Jurgen."
Hunyadi pulled on his best red velvet waistcoat. "Formal dress is required; it is time for dinner, after all."
"We don't care for that name, Mediterranean." More Parasites spilled out of the shadows; each one seemed radically different from the others. A Japanese woman in white make-up and mourning robes seemed to glide rather than walk down the gallery. A blond man wore only a loincloth to show off his muscular body, and the network of stitches and surgical scars that held it together. An Indonesian woman rolled towards the Omegas in a wheelchair and life-support rig that would have seemed very modern -- but the wheelchair was made of bone, and the IV nutrient bags held entire human brains. Many of the Parasites chose, purely for style, to emerge from alcoves that held their own portraits. It looked like a gallery of the past's greatest monsters was coming to claim the Omegas' lives.
Their speaker was a fat, dark-skinned man. His long, cylindrically-braided beard reminded Anne of Assyrian carvings of winged bulls, but it seemed to be dripping wet. As he drew a small flail, he said, "'Parasite' is a name of jealousy. All sentient beings survive by consuming lesser creatures; we merely happen to reside at the top of the natural order. And to our refined palates, your Omegas are rare delicacies indeed."
Cordoba said "Aren't they a bit old for you, Moloch?" But the time for talking was over; the Parasites leapt on the Omegas.
Moloch faced Anne, swinging his flail with tremendous force; Anne actually felt pain when she blocked it with her left forearm, and quickly switched to a telekinetic shield. This close, she saw that his beard was dripping with blood. To her left, Harvey wrestled with the surgical man, and to her right, Rene shielded herself and her uncle from the Indonesian's spells with a shimmering pentacle. Tom and the ghostly Japanese woman seemed capable of hitting each other, although their blows were most likely iconographic representations of telepathic attacks; Anne knew Tom wasn't that good a martial artist.
Neither Cordoba nor Lakshmi were attacked by anyone, however. Moloch's attack pressed Anne back up against Cordoba, and then there was nowhere else to retreat to. She could feel Moloch's foul breath of decay on her face, and his blood dripping on her shirt. It was like all the blood from her earlier Harrakin battle was spilling out of his mouth. Anne grunted to Cordoba, "You can jump in any time, pal."
"Absolutely not," Cordoba answered. "Vitalongae law forbids us to harm one another."
"So you'll just let *us* die for you."
"Actually, I'm magically protecting all of you right now," he said, and when Anne risked a glance backwards she could see a line of sweat on his forehead. "Several of the Parasites have already tried to psychically drain your minds, and I am holding them off. And that is all I can do."
"What about you, Lakshmi?" shouted Rene. By now, the Parasite attacks had pressed back all the Omegas except Tom, with their backs brushing against each other. "Can you channel that destructive power again?" Clearly, Rene was desperate if she was asking Lakshmi to surrender herself even further to the Mass Mind.
"Not in this place of cold, deathless order," Lakshmi said. Indeed, no flaming third eye was appearing on her forehead, as it had before -- and capillaries were breaking and branching underneath her skin, spreading dark de-oxygenated blood, as though she had massive internal bleeding.
"Lakshmi!" Harvey screamed. "Your veins are bursting!"
"The immortal has the correct idea," Lakshmi said. "The forces of preservation are always small and subtle -- but effective." By now, her skin was entirely blue, and her shirt ripped as several new arms gracefully unfolded from her back.
The bone wheels of the Indonesian's wheelchair suddenly locked into place. A pith-helmeted British Parasite discovered his elephant gun wasn't working. Soon, even the simple device of Moloch's flail was not functioning; its chain was frozen in a useless, improbable position and it bounced impotently against Anne's shield. The surgical man was immobilized when his stitches constricted. And the Indonesian convulsed in her chair as fluid clotted in her IV tubes, impeding the flow of life- sustaining brain cells. Making a hideous choking noise, the woman flung herself off the chair. One final, useless spasm ended uncounted centuries of life.
Rene looked back at Lakshmi in horror. "That's your Vishnu aspect?" she said. "I thought he was one of the good guys."
"Preservation and destruction are no more opposite than two sides of a coin," Lakshmi said calmly. "Or two faces of a god."
Then Lakshmi's connection to the Mass Mind ended, as the strain of channeling that force twice in such rapid succession became too much for her body. She fell to the richly-carpeted floor, regaining her normal appearance, and her magical effects faded.
She had already turned the tide, however. Harvey unleashed a right cross that hurled the surgical man down the hall, knocking him unconscious sometime in mid-air. Allen cast a gremlin spell which made the elephant gun blow up in the British imperialist's hands. Tom and Rene (who had discarded the Ace of Pentacles for the Hierophant) telepathically projected emotions of fear into the Japanese woman's mind, sending her wailing through the walls. Soon the other Parasites were fleeing as well, not wanting to risk their long lives on this fight.
Only Moloch stayed, dropping his flail and lunging for Anne's neck. Anne was faster, and she delivered a combined physical/telekinetic punch right to his bloodstained teeth. Anne screamed "Moloch!" as his head snapped back and he fell to the floor. "That was for Allen Ginsberg," she said proudly.
Harvey stared at her. "Huh?"
"Sorry, that was a snotty 'Howl' joke. Guess I shouldn't have made it."
"Leave the quipping to the professionals, kid," Allen said with a wink.
"But don't worry," Cordoba said, as he picked up Lakshmi's limp body. "You're hardly the worst elitist here."
Hannibal sat further and further upright, his body growing more and more tense. "Did anyone else feel that?" he said. Even through the massive psychic barriers Antigone and Hunyadi had placed around his quarters, he knew there was a great disturbance nearby.
Jack Russell didn't sense it, of course. The former cop was the newest immortal on Earth, not even out of his natural lifespan yet, and he hadn't had time to pick up any magical knowledge. And Kierthos, originally a warrior from Greece, had always focused on martial rather than magical arts.
The other two had already detected it. Hal, always the man of action, reached for his sword in case trouble penetrated their gilded cage. The Contessa, who had shared beds with Byron and guns with Garibaldi, passed out magical Carbonari charms she'd secretly been making from the materials in Hannibal's rooms. "Something powerful was out there," the Contessa said, in a lilting Italian accent. "Something huge."
"'Od's blood," Hal cursed. "I pray the Harrakin haven't found this place."
"It could be worse," Hannibal mused. "It could be the Mass Mind."
With Cordoba giving directions, Anne's team ran through the Halls at super-speed. The multileveled complex was extensive enough that Anne had time to take in a few details. On the upper level, the immortals had vainly collected hundreds of portraits of themselves. Anne recognized a few as she rushed by: a deceptively innocent Antigone painted by Titian, a jazzily disjoint Hannibal by Picasso.
Then they ran down a wide staircase, which had been carved directly out of the mountain to resemble the steps of a ziggurat. This carried them to the somewhat less ostentatious lower levels, where mahogany was replaced by oak and candelabras, occasionally, by electric lights. "There they are," Cordoba said. "Hannibal's rooms."
The doors were carved to show dozens of African masks emerging from the wood. They were guarded by two immortals, a samurai and a musketeer in full period dress, who were knocked out before they knew what hit them. Anne tried the doors, but they were locked, and the guards didn't have any keys. "This room has incredibly thick shields," Tom said, touching the wall in representation of a mental probe. "I can't get through them, even on the astral plane."
"Then we'll have to apologize to Hannibal," Harvey said. He and Anne stepped back, then rammed the doors at full speed. Despite all the shielding, they splintered the doors. Momentum carried them through clumsily, and the others followed. Tom stayed out in the hall, keeping watch invisibly since he still couldn't cross the psychic shields.
The intruders found themselves surrounded by five immortals brandishing archaic weapons. Hannibal and Jack lowered their weapons when they saw who their rescuers were. But when he saw Cordoba enter the room last, Hannibal gasped, "You?"
That was all the signal the others needed. Harvey stepped behind Cordoba, placing him in a headlock, while Anne pinned both of his arms from the front. Rene grabbed Lakshmi away from him.
"We figured you were lying to us about something," Harvey growled, "especially when Moloch called you 'old man.' Planning to betray us to Antigone?"
"I have lied to you about some things," Cordoba croaked, "but I genuinely oppose Antigone's plans."
"I think he may be sincere," Hannibal said.
"Then let's hear all the truth," Anne said, glaring at the Mediterranean immortal. "Who the hell are you?"
"Isn't it obvious?" A new voice sounded from the hallway, causing everyone to spin around in a panic. They saw Antigone, flanked by her henchmen Tiresias and Marcus Graekki. There were also a dozen other immortals, including the remnants of the Parasites, an Aztec prince, and a foppishly-dressed man who looked uncannily like Harvey's old foe Jurgen "Deathbringer" Hunyadi. They had all crept up to Hannibal's door, and were aiming guns. Antigone smiled.
Only Jack and the mortals were surprised; the other Vitalongae already knew or had guessed. "You mean the real Oedipus?" Anne said, not dropping her grip on him. "Your father?"
"So nice to find a young person who's read the classics," Antigone sneered. "Yes, my father -- and half-brother." Her eyes burned deeply; she clearly didn't view that as the casual insult she pretended it was. "And he was kind enough to bring me presents."
"So it was a set-up," Harvey said, tightening his grip on Oedipus's neck.
"Not quite." Antigone was strangely talkative, even jubilant; Hannibal realized she wanted them, especially Oedipus, to appreciate her cleverness. "I knew jailing Hannibal would disturb his mortal pets, and Oedipus, so I used him to lure the Mass Mind avatars here."
"That's funny," Oedipus gasped, his face turning purple in Harvey's grip. "I thought I used the avatars... to lure you here." Struggling to grin, doing a pull-up on Harvey's bicep to keep his airway open, he said, "Fire away, Mister Morgan..."
With his cover blown, Tom made himself visible to the real world again. He appeared behind Antigone's party, laughing and firing a tommygun at them. The gun was merely part of his illusory astral form, but it looked and sounded real to the immortals. Most of them scattered or dove to the floor.
While they were distracted, the Omegas and Hannibal's supporters charged out of his room. Harvey, the last to go, reluctantly dragged Oedipus along with him.
As soon as Anne recrossed the psychic barrier, she could use her mental powers again. She telekinetically wrenched her foes' weapons out of their grasp; Hal assisted her with a few deft strokes of his sword, being careful to disarm his fellow immortals without actually harming them. The intruders and fugitives ran over and past Antigone's group, sprinting down the hall. Anne and Harvey stayed at the rear, sheltering the others from stray bullets and spells with their invulnerable backs.
Oedipus, tucked underneath Harvey's left arm, noticed that Hunyadi and a few others were chasing after them. He said "Allow me to help," and gestured dramatically at the ornately-painted ceiling above them.
"Some crazy spell?" Harvey asked.
"No," Oedipus said, using a sleight-of-hand trick to produce a small detonator in his palm, "plastique. Being an immortal means lots of time to plan ahead."
He jabbed the button on the detonator, and the ceiling immediately behind them exploded. Hunyadi and the others just managed to stop short as a large slab of rock fell down in the hallway, blocking their pursuit. But nobody expected it to hold them for long.
As the fugitives ran upstairs, Tom's astral spirit dropped back and flew alongside Anne. <Sorry about that ambush. There was no way I could warn you through the shields.>
<Your entrance was timely enough,> Anne replied. <I just hope we can get out of here.> The escape was agonizingly slow to Anne, Harvey, and Tom, since there were too many people to carry at super- speed.
They finally reached the portal's terminus, at the cul-de-sac end of the gallery they'd first entered. The fugitives hopped over the Indonesian woman's body and wheelchair, and approached the dead-end wall. For the first time, Anne noticed it wasn't blank stone; it was painted with an arch of twisting art-nouveau vines, like the entrance to some 19th century Parisian Metro station, next to flowery letters listing the North American cities this portal accessed. Oedipus stood in front of the portal and wrinkled his face in concentration.
Oedipus said, "Antigone and Hunyadi must have changed the codes!" He, the Contessa, and Hannibal tried to magically crack them.
The others took up defensive positions, knowing Antigone's group would round the corner and rush down the gallery at any moment. Behind the "front line" of Anne, Harvey, Hal, and Kierthos, Rene revived Lakshmi with the cooling waters of Temperance. The young woman regained consciousness, but was too drained to access the Mass Mind again. Rene asked the immortals, "Why do they want us, anyway?"
Jack Russell said, "Antigone and Owen want to personally control the Harrakin, giving them more influence over Earth. Owen has a failsafe against Tatris..."
Harvey raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"But if Tatris ignores it," Jack continued, "the Vitalongae will incapacitate him with magic... and they need the Mass Mind as a power source to do it. Even if that means burning you all out in the process."
"Why didn't you just tell us this?" Rene angrily asked Oedipus. "Why did you bring us here at all?"
"To lure Antigone here," he said, as if this were completely obvious. "And get her or her supporters to make some foolish mistake that will cost them later on. You all serve that purpose, in one way or another."
"But there's an alien invasion going on!" Harvey protested. "Can't either one of you put your family squabble aside for a moment?"
Oedipus shrugged and said, "We dislike each other far too intensely. I suppose it's because we're so much alike."
Harvey was about to bellow his disgust at Oedipus, until he suddenly envisioned himself and Neil arguing. The words died in Harvey's throat, and he stayed silent.
"I really do want to help you," Oedipus muttered.
<Then shut up and get us out of here,> Tom broadcast from his sentry position down the hall, <because the enemy is coming!> And down at the end of the gallery, the mob of Antigone's underlings and Hunyadi's Parasites appeared and charged them.
Although Tom's astral form was currently invisible, Hunyadi ran straight for his position. Anne mentally screamed, <Tom, get away! If he's like Deathbringer, he devours minds!>
Hunyadi swept a hand through the edge of Tom's intangible form. No one heard Tom scream; that psychic energy was absorbed into Hunyadi, who immediately became redder and more muscular. Lakshmi, by contrast, turned pale and wondered if her lack of belief in her own visions had cost Thomas Morgan his life.
Tom's astral image appeared on the floor, unsteady and flickering as it crawled back toward Anne. She had warned him in time for him to pull away. Antigone commanded Hunyadi to "Leave the avatars alive," and by then her supporters were in direct combat with the fugitives. Hal and Kierthos stepped to the front, forming a human wall that Antigone's group was bound not to kill.
In most cases, killing wasn't part of their plan. Marcus and the Aztec prince, 9 Dogs House of Flint Knives, fought Kierthos and Hal with staves, attempting to subdue rather than slay them. That was a more effective tactic against the rapid-healing immortals, anyway. Moloch tried to pin Rene with his massive bulk, creating an opportunity for the Japanese woman to glide in and grab Lakshmi by one arm. Allen tugged on her other one, but was slowly losing his grip.
Allen, Anne, and Harvey were the only ones who didn't have some special law or purpose to spare them from death. Antigone waved one lazy hand at them and said, "They have been thorns in my side long enough. Lord Hunyadi?"
"With pleasure." He flung his waistcoat off and opened the buttons on his black shirt, flaunting the strength he'd just absorbed from Tom. While two Parasites occupied Anne, Hunyadi smiled at Harvey. "This is for my grandson, you mortal oaf."
"You mean Deathbringer?" Harvey beckoned Hunyadi forth with one finger. "Then let's go. I've spent my life fighting your brand of scum."
"Lives end. Except mine." Hunyadi flew through the air, his long black hair streaming behind him.
Harvey ducked under the attack, giving Hunyadi two quick jabs to his stomach. Hunyadi was knocked down, but he recovered quickly; he pushed himself off the floor, kicking Harvey in the back with his immaculately-polished boots. Harvey slammed into the wall, breaking through the mahogany paneling but not the mountain behind it. Before he could move, Hunyadi pounced on his back, and planted both of his hands on Harvey's head. Then the draining began.
Thanks to Deathbringer, Harvey had plenty of experience resisting the Hunyadi line's psychic drain. He had to retain his own identity, his faith in the things that sustained him. That had been his heroic alter ego, once; Anne had shown him he could also find that power in himself. And his family.
Harvey flung himself backwards, slamming Hunyadi into the opposite wall. Harvey shrugged loose, then spun around and cracked his fist across Hunyadi's jaw. Hunyadi didn't seem terribly harmed, but he was stunned that he hadn't absorbed more power. "How are you still standing?" he asked, chopping his hand at Harvey's abdomen.
Harvey danced to the side and blocked with his forearm. "Because I really care about my family. You're using your dead grandson as an excuse to murder." He punched, but Hunyadi ducked and Harvey's hand slammed through the painting behind him -- a writhing Munch portrait of Hunyadi, oddly enough. "I'm doing this for my living one." Harvey drew his hand back. "There's something I plan to tell him in person." He swung again.
Hunyadi caught the fist in his open hand. "Then tell him in Hell." And the draining began again.
Oedipus, Hannibal, and the Contessa had to break off their attempts to open the portal; their allies were falling before Antigone's superior numbers. "I see you've led Antigone to make lots of mistakes, Oedipus," Hannibal snarled. "Nice plan." Then he unfolded a staff and joined the fight.
Things weren't going well for Oedipus's allies. The Aztec had pinned Hal, and Kierthos would soon follow. Anne struggled between two Parasites. Lakshmi's body couldn't channel any more power. Harvey fought valiantly against Hunyadi, but slowly lost more and more strength to him.
Across the gallery, Antigone smirked at him, savoring his inevitable defeat. But Oedipus knew there had to be some way of saving his allies, and opening the portal, and causing her or her supporters to slip up. It was just a matter of solving the riddle. And he was good at solving riddles; it was the only thing he'd ever done right...
Suddenly, it all clicked into place. Oedipus walked into the fray, stepping delicately around Moloch's bulk and the Japanese gaki's arms.
That old bastard Tiresias foresaw what he was doing, and tried to warn Antigone. Fortunately, his group's own seer also foresaw the plan; Lakshmi Natarajan, taking a chance on her own accuracy, shouted for Hannibal to stop Tiresias. Hannibal did so, dropping the wizened hermaphrodite with one gleeful swing of his staff.
A few feet away, Harvey sank to his knees. He batted his arms weakly against Hunyadi's, but couldn't break the psychic vampire's grip on his head. With each passing second, Harvey was held by more power that was once his. Soon, his neck would be weak enough to snap... The vampire shouted, "This is for the honor of all Hunyadis!"
Oedipus slid across the floor and kicked Harvey, sending him shooting back between Hunyadi's legs. The parasitic link was broken. Hunyadi, enraged and coasting on Harvey's surplus energy, shouted, "You fool! What have you done?"
"Spat on your genetic backwater of a family," Oedipus said, laughing. "I'm told Deathbringer's final days were quite humiliating. Did you know he was actually killed by a seventy-year-old man with no powers whatsoever? Of course, he was living in a decaying woman's body at the time, with a rotting caveman's brain..."
Hunyadi roared, baring his teeth wide. Behind them, his mouth was a bottomless black cave, from which emerged a cry of pure hatred. Ignoring everything else, including Antigone's urgent warnings, Hunyadi dove down and planted his hands on Oedipus's face.
Oedipus put up no resistance whatsoever. Within seconds, his body was drained to a dried, eyeless husk.
Hunyadi stood up, straddling Oedipus's body with his head tilted back and his arms thrown wide. His laughter echoed up and down the gallery, causing everyone else to stop fighting.
He eventually noticed nobody else was laughing. Particularly not Antigone, who stared in pale horror. Hunyadi turned to Antigone, saying "What's wrong with you, woman? I did it! I did it!" He laughed a little more -- then stopped suddenly, and looked at the body beneath him.
"Yes," Antigone whispered, "you did it. Like a rash, impetuous moron, you killed another immortal RIGHT IN FRONT OF US ALL!"
Hannibal climbed out from under two of Antigone's pet immortals, who had relaxed their grip on him and were gazing at Hunyadi in abject terror. Hannibal said, "Then we must automatically expel him from our ranks. And given the tremendous danger he represents to us, right here in our own headquarters..."
Hal also picked up on Oedipus's plan. "We have to contain him immediately," he said.
"Protocol demands it," Hannibal concluded.
"Yes," Antigone muttered, "protocol demands it." She glared deeply at Hunyadi. "And I personally will make sure he pays dearly for jeopardizing my plans." Gesturing to the fugitives, the avatars, and Hunyadi, she told her followers, "Bring all of them in."
But they were all naturally most concerned about Hunyadi -- if he'd killed one of their kind, he could do it to any of them, and end their precious centuries. Marcus, 9 Dogs, and the other immortals broke away from their previous opponents. They circled around Hunyadi, but did not approach him. Everyone knew the second immortal to do so could take him down -- but the first would fall victim to those killing hands.
Hunyadi, crouching and hissing like a mad dog, tried to face all the immortals encircling him. "Back off, damn you! You all saw! I had to do it! Back off!"
The circle drew tighter. Marcus quietly raised the tip of his staff, prepared to covertly prod 9 Dogs towards Hunyadi... Hunyadi saw this, and howled. He bolted and ran for the cul-de-sac wall; immortals and Omegas scattered out of his path. Antigone screamed "Stop him!", but no one was brave or foolish enough.
Hunyadi reached the portal entrance and -- using the new codes he'd made as part of the trap -- activated it. The arch suddenly housed a swirling portal, and Hunyadi dove through before even knowing where it was going.
Anne's group wasted no time evading their stunned opponents and following him. The Contessa set the portal to New York, and everyone ran for it. Anne was again the last to go; she carried her grandfather, while a telekinetic field the width of the hall separated her group from Antigone's immortals.
As Harvey was carried to the portal, he heard a voice in his head. He was sure he was delirious, because it was Oedipus. <Hauptmann,> Oedipus said, <are you well?>
"You're not," Harvey mumbled. "You're dead..."
<Yes and no. My mind really does reincarnate into other bodies. That was the one thing I didn't lie to you about.>
"So that's why you were willing to die for us?"
<Not entirely.> Oedipus's mental voice was growing weaker; Harvey didn't know if that was because he was fleeing, or because his delirium was fading. <I've had a... a bit of a soft spot for mortal heroes, really. Ever since a fellow named Theseus did me a good turn. I really did want you to win, Hauptmann.>
The others were jumping through the portal, but Anne's telekinetic shield was buckling. Harvey said, "Then don't use us as pawns, Oedipus. No matter how old you are."
He caught one last glimpse of Oedipus's withered body, as the immortal said, <You got it, kid...> Harvey realized how fully that could have been him, in more ways than just the obvious. Then Anne shoved him through the portal, and plunged after him, and the connection was gone.
They didn't waste any time in the Cloisters. Allen, taking the last of the blood from their wounds, sketched a quick binding seal across the portal. And in case that didn't hold, they all ran like hell. Tom's astral spirit raced ahead to the Seekers, while the others dashed through Fort Washington Park.
The city was deserted and chaotic, but free -- the Seekers were still holding Times Square. Lakshmi breathed deeply, rejoicing in the polluted air and beginning to accept her own powers. The other Omegas, Anne included, found themselves laughing hysterically. "We actually did it!" Anne shouted. "And without more bloodshed."
"And trust me," Hannibal said, "we have *plenty* of information you'll find interesting."
"Good," Harvey gasped. He limped along behind the others, at normal human speed, with Anne supporting him. He'd already learned plenty today; now he wanted to teach Antigone and Owen.
"We need to collect all this information," he said, "and find out exactly what's going on with this war. Exactly how Owen, Antigone, and Tatris are hitting us." Harvey's eyes turned as cold and unflinching as steel.
"And then we hit back."
Hundreds of miles to the south, another group was reaching a similar conclusion.
"I don't care what they say. We can't even reach Anne and Harvey anymore, and we sure as hell aren't listening to Overboy." The others laughed, while Neil Benson fumed in the corner.
Carlos addressed all of them, feeling the power of his words carrying him higher than he'd ever been before. "The world is in danger and we can help. So when the Harrakin come..."
Scott jumped off the sofa and finished the thought for him. "They'll have to deal with the Paint Crew!"
Chapter 9: This is a Test · Chapter 11: Counterstrike!
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