A Pale Court in Beauty and Decay

byDragonCobolt©

I blushed and slowly raised my hand. My last Halloween had been spent in a bizarre alternate universe ruled by sentient cats. Before that, I had just been a civilian cowering in a shelter.

Janus sighed. "After the Darkthorn Invasion of 1989, there were two billion dead people. Cities were in ruins, and the dead weren't fully buried until 2003. In that time, the number of spectral hauntings across the planet had increased ten thousand percent. It was all around, every day, constantly. Despite the best efforts of the Project, the NuuBludd and the GBU, it became untenable. And so every sorcerer, necromancer and wizard the Project employed undertook the Great Working." He leaned back on the wall. "Now, rather than facing a dozen hauntings a day, we instead focused all of the spectral activity to one day."

"Halloween!" I said, the pieces falling into place.

"You never learned this in school?" Eric asked.

I blushed. I had always gotten Ds on history.

"Now, we're positioning street and city level heroes with PACUs at various hot spots -- you know, graveyards, memorials, abandoned houses," Janus said. "But we want a Cosmic hero or two per major area." He rubbed some grit from his eyes. "Stojanovic, Logan, I want you two teamed up. You're taking China."

Dr. Quantum coughed. "Sir, are you sure that's wise?"

"You can't take China again," Janus said, frowning. "Not after the incident in Kashmir."

Dr. Quantum looked irritated. "I can't believe the Anarchosyndicate is still upset about me shooting down their missiles."

"It's not that you shot down their missiles," Janus said. "It's that your Indian. The Anarchosyndicate has a lot of bad memories about the 90s."

Dr. Quantum looked even more offended. I reached over and patted his shoulder gently. Then it hit me.

"Wait, I'm going to be working with him?" I asked, pointing at Plasmaster. He had levitated another donut over to himself and was chewing on it. He looked calm and placid.

"You do work well with supervillains," Janus said, his voice so deadpan that I was almost positive he was making fun of me. I scowled at him.

"That reminds me, why is Maddie still in jail? She's a great wizard," I said.

"It's true that Maddie is a great general practitioner," Janus said. "That's why she's in Sweden handling the northern polar spell to maintain the ice cap over Cthulu. He gets cranky when ghosts start making spectral noises."

"And you didn't tell me!?" I asked.

"This is a planetary defense force, not your personal dating drama club," Janus said, sounding irritated. "Stojanovic, your job is to guide the newbie through the difficulties of dealing with the spirit world."

I gaped. I wasn't even going to keep a leash on Plasmaster! I was going as his...his...

"Well, sidekick," Eric said, grinning at me as he wiped some donut crumbs off his mouth. "Lets get ready for a long night."

###

The coastline of China had been left behind to grow wild. The ocean had come into the coastal cities, while plant life had started to reclaim skeletal buildings -- their glass scavenged and collected en mass by the millions of citizens of the Anarchosyndicate. The bones of buildings had been picked away, and several larger structures were nothing more than filled in rectangles, the green spreading across what had once been warehouses or monuments. I flew down and landed in the center of one of the cities. Eric landed next to me, his cape flapping.

I looked slowly around myself as I reached up and adjusted my domino mask.

"You know, they used to dress up for halloween," Eric said, quietly. "In the dawn of the 20th century, Halloween was a time for children to go from door to door. They'd get free candy and get to show off their costumes. Those costumes are the direct forebears of what we wear today. Well. Them and Luchador wrestling."

I frowned. "So, why are you wearing it?" I asked. "Isn't baseline culture supposed to be what is holding metas back?"

Eric chuckled and started to walk down the abandoned plaza. His hand slipped along a statue to some cultural hero that had been knocked over and never put back up again. His chuckle echoed through the city -- bouncing off buildings again and again before being swallowed up by the vast emptiness. I felt a chill roll along my spine.

Shall I add happy music from your playlist to ease your fright? Princess Radi asked.

"No, thank you," I whispered.

Eric turned to face me. "It was a wise baseline who said that I am standing on the shoulder of giants. Though, that's somewhat inaccurate. Newton was standing on the shoulder of a great deal of people who weren't fit to polish his boots. Plato was an ignorant, superstitious fool. Copernicus was a religious zealot who barely understood his givens." He waved his hand. "We metas stand atop a foundation of raw stone. I don't deny this foundation -- in fact, I use it."

I frowned. "You're a dick."

"I can see that the rhetorical practice of the modern era has not been dulled by the invention of the internet," Eric said, with the tone of a long suffering soul.

I shook my head.

The sun was starting to dip. A cold wind breezed through the streets. Leaves rustled under my feet. I gulped slowly and rolled my shoulders. A weight started to gather along my shoulders, growing more and more intense. I ducked my head forward and rubbed at the back of my neck. I looked back at Eric. He shifted into a slightly more ready stance, lifting his chin slightly. He was such an inconsiderate asshole -- he managed to look just as heroic and handsome as me. Dick.

"Get ready," he said.

"R-Right," I said. "First wave is physical incarnations. Right?"

"There should be less of them than last year," Eric said, rolling his shoulders.

The clouds overhead seemed to rush by, as if the world was being overclocked. Shadows grew longer and longer. My brow furrowed and I frowned. I heard it. A low...roaring noise. I held up my hand as Eric opened his mouth. But he talked over me, looking to the side.

"Dr. Quantum did manage to-"

"Shut up!" I hissed.

Now Eric heard it too. The low, droning roar was coming closer and closer. My eyes widened and Eric gulped slightly.

"That's new," he said.

It came at us. It wove between buildings, darted underneath ruined cars, and banked as if it were a guided missile. I couldn't begin to describe it if I lived to be a million years old. It was everything horrible and evil and awful, contained in a single chunk of nothingness that rushed towards us. It flew into a car window -- shattering it and zooming straight through -- and rushed straight at the two of us, that horrible rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh noise it made growing louder and louder. I flung myself to the ground, rolling out of the way.

Eric went flying backwards. He smashed into the side of a building with a crunch. I sprang up, looking around. But it was gone.

Eric lay on his face, groaning quietly.

"Plasmaster!" I ran towards him. I came close...

And then his head turned to mine. Gone was the handsomeness. In its place was sallow white flesh, with huge bags under his eyes made of black flesh. His eyes were completely shot through with milky white cataracts, and his teeth had become sharp and jagged. Black bile dropped from his mouth, drooling down his chin as he was yanked upwards, as if his arms were being held by a demented marionette. His hands flopped and his arms swung from side to side as he floated in the air -- his legs kicking and shuddering in a hideously spastic jigg.

He cackled, and his voice came through in overlaid echoes.

"You think you got a chance against me, sonny!?"

I stepped backwards. "What is going on Radi?"

The Council of Occultism is researching this! It is entirely unlike anything in the Chinese spiritual studies that we have undertaken! Radi said, her voice trying to sound calm. But as I stepped backwards, I heard loud, simultaneous crash behind me. It was like a few thousand people had all jumped up into the air, then come down at once. Their feet struck in such a unified force that it made the ground shake. I spun away from Eric's twitching body to the rest of the plaza and saw that a ring of hundreds of greenish corpses were all standing before me -- their arms thrust outwards, their bodies clad in Confucian robes, with vaguely familiar looking hats on their heads. Cylindrical.

They hopped forward as one.

Oh! I know those! Radi said. But I had been paying attention to the briefing.

"Chinese hopping vampires..." I muttered. Thousands of them.

And then Eric flung his arm around my throat and started strangling me.

My glorious Archive, I have determined the source of the evil that seems to have bedeviled our comrade in arms, Eric! Radi said, cheerily as I grabbed the iron hard bar of Eric's arm and tried to yank it away from my throat. You'd think being made of nanites would make being strangled by a possessed supervillain less scary. You'd be kinda wrong. The why was as obvious as the black bile pouring out of his mouth and into my hair: He still had his powers. And whatever had hold of him-

A Kandarian demon, glorious Archive! Radi said, cheerily.

"Thanks, Radi!" I choked, then tried to fly upwards. But the same thing I felt constricting my throat caused my flight to sputter and die.

"No flying for you!" The Kandarian demon in Eric cackled. I grabbed his shoulder with one hand and flipped myself forward - sending him spilling away. He soared off my body as if he had been dragged away by a string attached to a crane. He swung around, then came right back at me, feet first. I ducked under his attack and he smashed through the window of a ruined building. I stood and rubbed my throat.

"How do I get it out of him?" I asked.

...the only reported incident of Kandarian possession was in 1981. The GBU team that arrived afterwards found only the dismembered corpses of four Michigan State University students: Linda Martins, Cheryl Williams, Scott Banner and She-



"I don't need their fucking obituaries!" I squeaked as Eric sprang from the building I had tossed him into. His body was contorted almost in half, his face deforming hideously. He opened his jaw wide and then vomited a stream of acid right at me. I leapead backwards, feeling my flight powers sputtering away as several hopping vampires sprang on me at once.

Oh, well, it seemed the only method of stopping a Kandarian possession is utter bodily dismemberment! Radi said. Then she paused. Oh, wait, I just saw the issue.



"Ya think!?" I shoved as hard as I could. My flight might not have been working, but I was still strong enough to send the half-dozen would be bloodsuckers off my back and into the surrounding city. Several buildings rumbled with the impacts - but I could already see them starting to hop back out and into the city. I shook my head as Eric scrambled towards me, his clawed hands reaching for me. I grabbed his wrist and carefully threw him into a nearby mountain range.

Okay, maybe I wasn't careful.

Also, it might not have been nearby.

I mean, when you can cross entire solar systems pretty quickly, a few miles away is close, right?

"Radi, give me something - get my flight online," I said as the hopping vampires leaped forward again - another rank, this one thicker.

Eric used a focused pulse of electromagnetic manipulation to rewrite the atomic structure of half of the nanites in your body, Glorious Archive, Radi said. The systemic damage is still being analyzed.



"Do I have my pulse blast?" I asked, stepping backwards.

No.



"Super toughness?"

No.



I gulped as my back touched a wall. The vampires were getting closer, their fangs glittering. They hopped in unison - the crash of their legs filling the air like an entire marching band going crazy with their drumming. Their arms wobbled slightly as they landed.

"Anything!?"

You retain your strength, and we are getting fantastic radar reception. Also, there has been no damage to your erogenous zones, pain centers-



"Well, that's comforting..." I whispered as the vampires got ready to hop again - and this time, they'd be on me. But each of us saw it at the same time. It started off as a tiny spec in the distance, but grew faster and faster and faster. My eyes widened as I saw it: It was one of Eric's plasma bolts. It was coming on slowly, which had to mean that his magnetic field was mostly focused on maintaining cohesion, not on speed. Which meant that it was huge.

All my career as a superhero, I had been taught to avoid collateral damage. It was hard to force myself to do what I had to do...but I did it. I turned around and leaped through the wall behind me. My head smashed through and I realized a slight problem with my plan. Nanites by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the millions actually now that I thought about it, were crushed, smashed and abraded away by the impact as I tore myself through the building's wall. When I landed, there were alerts coming from every single autonomous system in my brain.

We've lost 15% of our nanites! Radi exclaimed.

"Sorry!" I groaned, scrambling forward - digging. My hands grabbed onto the ground and tore, digging and digging. My super toughness was gone, so I was careful to send the chunks I was flying backwards, so that they smashed into the vampires behind me. Soon, I had a great big hole - and the sizzling sound of the plasma bolt was screaming in my ears. I grabbed a huge chunk of rubble that I had left beside me, then leaped into the hole and brought the chunk of rubble jamming down into the space.

White light filled my eyes. The air overhead felt like it had caught fire. Roaring filled my ears and the deep hole I had dug for myself felt far, far, far too inadequate. The rock overhead shook and trembled and I closed my eyes tightly. When the roaring and the screaming and the rumbling - which seemed to go on for years -finally faded, I opened my eyes up and slowly shoved the rock away from my head. It hit a burbling pile of slag. I coughed softly and rasped out: "Toughness?"

Partially online, Radi said.

I scrambled out of the hole.

I had heard the term glassed before.

It was used by pretty much every tin pot cosmic dictator that had ignored the advice of his or her fellows and decided to try and conquer the Earth. It basically meant to turn the surface of a planet into a mass of glowing glass, fusing the sandy stuff that covered most planets into glass. It didn't actually happen often. But right now, I was standing in a massive crater that had been blasted out of a crumbling, ruined Chinese City, and the area surrounding me was glass. Baked smooth and hard and smoldering. I shivered.

And hanging over it like a marionette puppet was Eric's body. He wiggled his fingers.

"This body is fun," he cackled. "I love this...oh, wait, did I hurt your feelings? Killing all those peeeeople?"

I growled at him. "You dick!" i shouted. "This city's a heritage site!"

He blinked his milky white eyes. "What now?"

I spread my hands. "The Anarchosyndicate commune vote was to leave the entire coastline as a monument to the Darkthornn Invasion!"

"No one lives here?" The Kandarian demon seemed to be somewhat put out.

"Is desecrating a world heritage site and a war memorial not enough for you!?" I spluttered.

"No!" The demon screeched, a spectral wind blowing around Eric's body - sending his cape flapping and causing his hair to flare outwards like a porcupine. He sprang at me, grabbing my throat with those hideous fingers of his. They clenched and I felt something pulse through my body - Radi's scream filled my ears as I fell to my knees. Something bright green glowed behind him and I was sure he was building up something that would destroy me. He laughed and laughed and laughed.

"Dead by dawn! Dead by dawn! Dead by da-"

I blacked out.

###

I sat up with a gasp and fell off a cheap folding chair. I sprawled onto the ground, my cape flumping over my body. I blinked, then shoved myself to my hands. My head shook from side to side and I took in where I was - my brain filled with only one question. A question answered a moment later by Radi's voice filling my mind.

Glorious Archive! ...where...are we?



"That was what I was-"

"Shh!"

I was laying on the ground before a line of cheap folding chairs - the kind of plastic and metal ones you see at the DMV. They were pressed to the back of a rough hewn stone wall, while the floor had been rubbed smooth by hand - I could feel the faint chips and irregularities with my palms. The middle of the room was dominated by a rectangular desk with a pair of strange looking people behind it. They were both bright red, with permanent scowls on their faces. Their noses were oddly long, and their hair bristled outwards in every direction - looking quite fearsome. They wore ornate robes and had circular hats that perched on their hair neatly. They were busily doing paperwork - using large brushes to write out complicated notes on each paper they had. And behind them, in the center of the island of the desk, there were piles of paperwork.

I saw another person sitting on a chair about halfway to the edge of the room - nearer to one of the exits than me. He looked Chinese. A long beard hung from his chin down to his knees. He was snoring.

I stood slowly up and brushed my hands off my arms. I walked over to the front desk.

"Hello?" I asked. "Where am-"

The red skinned man I was trying to speak too glared at me. "Sir," he said, with a kind of resigned air. "Please, take a seat, and wait for your number."

I frowned. "I don't have a number."

The red skinned man rolled his eyes to the heavens. "Yama help me," he said, then pointed at my chair. I turned around and saw that I had dumped a small card on the ground. I walked over, picked it up, and saw it had the number 7,121,981 printed on it in incredibly tiny letters.

I blinked.

There was one other person in the room.

"Number 2!" One of the red skinned men called out. I wanted to call them demons, but that seemed wrong. The old man stood, his knees wobbling, and walked to the front desk. I perked my ears, trying to listen in on their conversation. But somehow, despite having the sensory acuity of a superhero, I only heard mumbling. The old man scribbled down some notes, answered some questions, then was given a slip of paper and started to the exit. He walked slowly out. Once he was gone, one of the red skinned men looked up.

"Number 3!"

I frowned, then stood up and walked over. "Listen, the only number-"

"Sir, please," the red skinned man said, then looked directly at my face - but his eyes didn't meet mine. "Muh'hor the Artisan?"

Oh! Radi said. I know her! Give me a moment!

"My..." I blinked. "My...we're getting Muh'hor. While we're getting her, mind telling me what is going on?"

The red skinned man sighed. "You're in Hell," he said.

"I'm dead?" I asked, my eyes boggling.

"No," the red skinned man said, rolling his eyes. "You were taken here in custody by the Foo Dogs, to bring you in for questioning. The Kings of Hell need to determine why and how so many ancestral shrines and spirits were disturbed all at once."

"So take me to him!" I said, angrily.

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