Stepping off the bus into the early autumn chill she could feel the state sink into her flesh like a million needles, feel it shifting beneath her feet, and her first instinct was to run. To turn around, climb back aboard, continue on to someplace more, hospitable.
That wasn’t an option.
Nothing had gone to plan thanks to that damn ‘hero’, breaking into her lair, ruining everything. She’d been so close and what did she have left? She’d been forced to burn through Louhi, the spellwork needed and her emergency teleport leaving her a literal husk of her former self, now nestled in her bag. She had no lair, and had only been able to fill one bag with supplies before she ran.
And now she was here, in the last place anyone would think to look for a magic user. The state was unforgiving, and wrong, but she wouldn’t be long, she swore. All she needed was to recreate and finish the ritual.
She might even be kind enough to make Dakota right when she was done.
Two Months Later
There’s a person outside, circling the property line and eyeing up the house. He wants to say something, do something, but the way his mother’s bristled, the way she’s moved between him and the window… Something says to stay quiet.
This is the third time the strange figure that isn’t right has shown up, and his father’s taken his gun with him to confront them. Something in him bristles, says to lay low.
When has he ever been this hungry…
“Really, Virg, thanks for staying the night. Mom doesn’t want me home alone right now.”
“You’re doing me a favor, man. Gravitas saved the owner of one of those foreign groceries the other day and he gave her something called ‘seamu’? So I’m more than happy to hang out here and order a pizza.”
“You sure? Seamu’s actually pretty good.” The incredulous look that crossed Virgil’s face, like Richie’d just suggested he try flea stew, left the other teen shrugging as he plopped down on his bed. “Viking stuff. Grandma sometimes imports it from the old country.”
“Yeaaah.” Virgil shook his head, tossing his bag to a spot next to Richie’s desk and flopping down beside him. While his friend essentially half-lived at his house- the boy had his own shampoo there for fuck’s sake- Virgil was still working on building his own stock at the Foley home. It would never be the same ‘practically dual-custody’ arrangement, but fair was fair. “You guys can keep your weird Norse birds, thanks.” With another rolling shrug Richie fell back so they were laid side by side.
“Sharon’s probably messing it up anyway. It is good though.”
“Richie, I’ve seen you eat, your word means nothing here.” Ignoring the raspberry blown at him, Virgil lifted himself on his elbows and looked down at Richie quizzically. “Why’d you want to stay the night here, anyway?” Turning over onto his side, Richie’s eyes flicked to the window before he ducked his head conspiratorially.
“Someone’s been skulking around the house lately.”
“Wait what?!” Virgil tensed, instinctively tasting for the electricity that ran through the walls as Richie nodded.
“They don’t come onto the property or anything,” he said, “but they like, circle it, like they’re sizing it up.”
“So, what, you think they’re gonna try to break in?”
“I don’t know, things have been weird. Like, the security cameras and what we see don’t match up, and I think Dad might see something different from what Mom and I see.”
“That’s… that’s creepy, man.” Worrying his cheek, Virgil sat up properly. Richie mirrored him. “Can you be more specific?”
“Like, the other night, they went passed the house and Dad made a comment about them trying to pass themselves off as some random person walking their dog, but when I looked, there wasn’t any dog anywhere, and Mom looked as confused as me. He went out to confront them, but apparently they just, vanished.” As he spoke BackPack climbed onto the bed and nestled into his owner’s lap, laying his retractable ‘eye’ across Richie’s shoulder in what was either a comforting or protective manner. It was hard to tell when you weren’t Richie. “Dad’s cop buddies have been coming by the neighborhood periodically, but they haven’t seen anything.”
“I can see why your mom didn’t want you here alone,” Virgil said, absently patting Backpack as Richie stroked the machine.
“Yeah. She wanted me to stay at your place, since Dad’s on the night shift tonight and she’s working late, but…”
“But then she’d be here alone.” Virgil nodded, stomach knotting at the worry that was blossoming on Richie’s face. “A Bang Baby maybe?”
“Maybe.” With a tiny laugh Richie grinned. “That or a ghost.”
“The soul of a seamu,” Virgil added, with a chuckle of his own, “come to punish your family for eating them all these centuries.”
“I’ll ask Gran about dispelling dinner ghosts in my next letter.” A deep sigh. “I haven’t seen my parents this worried ever. Mom’s even been talking about sending me to Cousin Gina’s ‘early’ when they think I’m not listening, whatever that’s supposed to mean.” Leaning forward, Virgil put a hand by BackPack’s eye.
“And how are you holding up?” Richie’s next laugh was a little darker.
“After that Brainiac thing? It’s gonna take more than some creep to rattle me.” Virgil nodded, sighing himself.
“You should’ve told me ahead of time,” he said, pulling back. “You’re lucky I brought my Static stuff.” Snorting, Richie smirked and raised a brow at him teasingly.
“Dude, half the time you bring that stuff to the bathroom with you.”
“That, is beside the point.”
It wasn’t the longest wait of their short lives, but it damn well felt like it as they sat there by Richie’s open window. There was no real guarantee that the unknown stranger would even show that night, but they had every night for nearly a week (a week, there were going to be Discussions about not telling teammates things) so the odds were in their favor, right? Right. As it was they were fully decked out, hoping Mrs. Foley didn’t come home before the stranger showed up. BackPack sat between them, recording everything he saw and showing it on Richie’s monitor.
If nothing else, they’d have further evidence of what was happening.
Showtime came somewhere around nine, with a hiss between Gear’s clenched teeth and repeated smacking of Static’s arm.
“Man, cool it-”
“That’s them!” Static followed Gear’s gaze, narrowing his eyes at the sight of a human shape walking through the neighbor’s yard, a mid-sized dog trotting along beside them, eyes straight ahead. His first instinct was to pat his partner on the shoulder, reassure him, joke about him being paranoid, but he bit back the impulse. What you saw wasn’t necessarily what was there, the tale of the other night proved as much. He turned to see what BackPack saw, the most reliable view they had.
No dog. Just a figure with a face like bleached bone walking much more slowly passed the house than they had first seemed, gaze locked solidly on the building until it passed their room and pale pink eyes flicked towards Gear and narrowed-
Before he could even form a thought he was out the open window, Saucer under his feet.
“Hey!” The figure didn’t look up that he could see, not even their ‘dog’ reacting to his presence as he flew straight at them, electricity gathering in one hand before everything went black, breath not even catching in his throat, more like it’d been yanked back down into his lungs.
“Static!” When the world came back into view the hero was hovering only a foot off the ground, greedily sucking in air. Gear’s hand on his arm was welcome, as was his worried checking of him. Behind them, he could hear BackPack pacing the roof, probably standing guard. “Are you okay? You just, dropped!” Slowly Static nodded, reaching out to clap a hand on Gear’s shoulder, eyes on the empty space the mysterious figure had occupied.
“We’re calling the girls.”
“Richard Foley, we understand you’ve got your iffy moral stuff going on, and family crap you can’t talk about, but if you ever keep something like this a secret again I will dig a basement just to lock you in it for your own safety!”
The rest of the night had passed without incident. Virgil had been woken up by a truly awful smell at one point, but that was all of note until they’d woken up the next morning and begun calling the rest of the team over a truly massive breakfast.
Turned out there wasn’t much that got everyone moving quite like the words ‘someone might be stalking Richie’. As it was they’d had the whole band together in the Abandoned Gas Station of Solitude by eight, and the past two hours had been spent grilling Richie for every detail ever and watching the security footage highlight reel on repeat.
The figure hadn’t even looked at Static until he was practically on top of them, and had waved their hand before he fell, just as Richie said, straight down out of the sky. After that they’d just, not been there. Nobody could really figure out how to describe it. All they knew was that they’d been there one frame and the next, nothing. Which certainly wasn’t helping the mood of a room that had, en masse, leaned protectively towards their blond when the figure’s eyes had locked on him. And when they’d done whatever it was they did to Static? Sharon had immediately all-but suction cupped herself to her brother in exactly the same manner he’d suctioned cupped himself to Richie.
It would’ve had to be a force of nature that dared try to bypass the sheer force of the Over My Dead Body emanating from that side of the room.
“Do we have any idea who that was?” Frieda asked, collapsing into a chair like she was made of putty. “Any clue at all?”
“I’ve never seen them outside of the whole, ya know, creeping around thing,” Richie said while the Hawkins siblings shook their heads.
“Haven’t found them on any databases yet,” Daisy said from her spot at one of the many, many computers that were- between her and the boys- beginning to take over their hideout. “Not even any maybes.”
“So, we have an unknown person stalking the Foley’s,” Sharon said, arms crossed tightly over her chest as she hovered- literally- behind the boys. “Well, I’m not risking it, who’s taking what guard shift?” For a moment it looked like Richie was going to argue that guard shifts were possibly overkill before Virgil placed a hand over his mouth.
“Rich, you have been kidnapped more than all the rest of us combined. And I’m counting the giant amoeba thing.” A ball of paper wafted across the room to collide with the back of his head.
“We’re not having it happen again when we have forewarning this time,” Frieda added, and BackPack whirred in agreement.
“Whose side are you on,” Richie muttered to the machine, but smiled at the others anyway. “Thanks guys.” Spinning her chair to face him, Daisy grinned reassuringly.
“We’ll figure out who this is and what they want,” she said, “don’t worry.” Her gaze swept the rest of the group. “I can take the ten to one shift.”
Oh, she’d known this would happen eventually, with her targeting one of Dakota’s little ‘heroes’. A part of her that sounded suspiciously like Louhi had said she could still go back, change tack and grab one of those Bang Babies nobody wanted. There were a few that met her needs- Spaulding could’ve been brought to heel, and Stone, even the Hawkins boy from the night before, both would be grand for her purposes. But this one was perfect and soon the veils would part, it was better than she could dream, and she’d had every intention of having control before any of his little friends noticed anything afoot.
Damn Dakota, always making things difficult.
It poked and prodded at her, tendrils of it’s power sliding along the fibers of her magic. Plucking strings that sent a jot of fear down her spine. The longer she stayed the more it went from curious to passive-aggressive, the state miring her down like swamp mud and covering it’s citizens like the first snow. She had been upping and upping her game this past week and to her knowledge there had been no change beyond the boy eating more.
And now, now he had bodyguards.
She was done, this was happening tonight if she had to tear off his skin and force him to wear it.
Kicking over a carved pumpkin on her way passed a neighboring house (another thing this place wouldn’t let her do, her transportation spells flickered and died in her throat, refused to touch Dakota air, and this was as close as she could get in the layer below) she headed for the spot she’d taken last night. It wasn’t as close as those she’d used before, farther away to be harder to spot, but it was near enough and should work with what she had in mind.
No more careful portioning, no rationing, she had scaled the recipe up as far as she possibly could. Her entire supply of onyx powder was in the large container she pulled out of her satchel, already mixed with tomato seed oil and ready to go. Dried licorice and valerian soaking it up. A package of hay to act as kindling. The strike of a match.
Thick black smoke rose from the flames, fading into octarine as it drifted against the wind, settling over the Foley house. The girl on the roof slowly fell over sideways as it drifted in through open windows and cracks in doorframes. This would do it.
It had to.
He wakes up in the dead of night to growing fur and long, long limbs.
It itches. It feels right and weird and it itches, even after he’s brought up a foot to scratch at it. To scratch everywhere, because it is everywhere and seemingly endless. With a grumble he rolls off his back and onto his feet, yawning with a mouth that’s longer and longer and longer. He twists around with a quiet whine and uses it to snap and pull at the fabric covering his hindquarters- it was comfortable once, he remembers, but now is too tight too tight around his rump and he’s happy when it rips enough for his tail come through and continue to grow. So much better. Now he’s free to streeeeeetch as the itching slowly stops, shake free of the tatters left behind, and listen to the call coming along the frigid autumn air.
Ignoring the little machine’s whirs of concern, he licks BackPack affectionately before loping out the open window.
The first thing Frieda was aware of was frantic poking and prodding at her shoulders, arms, face. Prodding that only disappeared after she called up a gust of wind to blow whatever it was away. It wasn’t gone for long though, quickly returning even more frantic than before, finally forcing her to blearily open her eyes.
She was still on the Foley’s roof, right where she was supposed to be, but BackPack was in front of her, all flashing lights and distressed whirring and chirps.
“BackPack. BackPack,” she reached out to push down on the machine, stopping his frantic scurry across the shingles, “what’s wrong?” With a whir that somehow managed to be even more distressed than those that came before, BackPack slipped out from under her hand and bolted for the edge of the roof near Richie’s room. Her gut twisted. Cautiously she called the wind to pick her up and carry her to the open window. She was tense and ready for a fight as she checked inside, but still her stomach dropped out of her and her heartrate skyrocketed.
“Don’t tell Virgil, but I lost Richie.”
“You what?!” Frieda cringed as a voice that distinctly wasn’t Sharon’s came over the shockvox. Muffled at first, but clearer following the sounds of a brief scuffle. “What do you mean you lost Richie?!”
“He isn’t here!” She hissed, careful not to raise her voice, not to wake up Mr. and Mrs. Foley still inside. “I don’t know what happened!”
“You don’t know what-” Another scuffle and Sharon’s voice returned.
“Details, Frieda.” She almost stopped in her pacing back and forth on the Foley’s roof, but instead found herself pausing just long enough for a deep breath before falling back in step beside BackPack.
“I was standing guard, and there was this nasty smell, and then suddenly the next thing I know BackPack is shaking me awake and Richie is gone.” She still reeked. Virgil was struggling on the other end, she could hear it and practically see Sharon with a hand clamped over his mouth. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t.” Sharon’s voice was pinched, clearly panicking same as she and Virgil are, but age and experience were keeping her together. “It’s not your fault. We’ll find him.”
“We don’t even-”
“We’ll. Find. Him.”
They had no leads was the problem. Every other time Richie had been kidnapped the whys and hows had been pretty fucking obvious. It was more a matter of actually tracking him down, which only ever took as long as it did because Dakota had more abandoned buildings than it did people. But this time… They didn’t know who they were dealing with. They didn’t know what they wanted Richie for. How much danger he was in.
At least if it was Ebon again they’d know he was bait, for all they knew right now he was being sold on the black market.
“I really doubt that,” Ultraviolet said somewhere around dawn, several hours into the team’s search for any clue at all. BackPack had recorded none of what happened in Richie’s room, if he’d even been active at the time. They didn’t even know when between two and three the boy had been stolen.
“It does happen,” Gravitas said. Ultraviolet shook her head.
“Not in Dakota though. Have you seen the statistics for that stuff? People’ll be kidnapped for trafficking, but they always escape one way or another. I once read that a few years back some guys were trying to take a girl across state lines and not only did their car break down, but then they were trampled by water buffalo.” The team froze and turned, as one, to stare at her slack-jawed. It was Static that spoke up.
“East, in the mountains.” Silence. Hurricane slowly shook her head and went to sit on a random porch, mindlessly throwing a breeze back and forth to move a jaunty skeleton decoration. Gravitas made a gesture of surrender.
“Only in this state.”
“Okay,” Static said, “so we know that’s not a problem. Doesn’t narrow much down though.”
“No.” Sighing, Ultraviolet worried her lip. No tracks, no signs of struggle, no sign of that mysterious figure. They were hitting a dead end. “We’re just going to have to keep looking. He has to be somewhere.”
The collar around his throat itches but it’s easy to ignore in favor of the smells and sounds of this city that is his. Smoke, oil, sweat, engines, music, yelling, meat meat meat sound and smell all around him and hunger thudding like a heartbeat through his veins-
He hunts. Leisurely, moving at an easy tot through the alleys and backstreets of the city, nose held high to track these many many scents. He’s so hungry, more than he’s ever been in his life, and all he needs, all he wants, is a good target…
There. A barking little beastie, chained to a fence and straining at him, teeth bared. At another time, in another shape, he may have backed away from sharp teeth and aggression he can smell in the air, but here and now all he sees is meat. A leap longer than the pit expected, jaws around its muzzle, a single good whip of his head, and there’s silence.
Eventually, they’d been forced to split up. Ultraviolet and Gravitas had taken BackPack back to the Gas Station of Solitude with the goal of finding something, anything, to tie back to the mysterious figure they all knew was behind this, while Static and Hurricane continued the search of the city.
It was ten am, at least seven hours following Richie’s disappearance. They’d each of them fielded calls from a frantic Mrs. Foley. The police were getting involved.
There were still no damn leads.
“Well,” Hurricane said as soon as the door opened, “I had to stop Static dropping Kangor from a flagpole, so that was something.”
“Look,” said hero responded, following close behind her, “if he hadn’t tried being coy we wouldn’t have had problems!” It said something about how he was feeling about the whole situation that he immediately plopped down beside his sister, barely an inch between them.
“So,” she said, “ended up just interrogating everybody?”
“It’s not like we had anything else to go with,” Static said, “may as well ask around the Bang Baby scene.”
“We didn’t try everyone,” Hurricane added. “We figured if this person were involved with Ebon’s crew we’d have heard something by now, same with Puff and Onyx.”
“And Madelyn’s not this subtle,” Ultraviolet said. The others nodded.
“Exactly.” Sighing, Hurricane leaned against Ultraviolet’s desk. “But nobody knew anything, at least anything we could get out of them.”
“And we’ve found exactly jack shit,” Gravitas said with a groan, head falling back against the ratty couch she and her brother occupied. “Fantastic. Fan-fucking-tastic.”
“We just need one lead,” Static said, mirroring his sister and reaching up to pat BackPack when he climbed into his lap. “Just one, that’s all we’re asking!”
True to all rules of thematic timing, there came a knock.
The room went quiet as the heroes went tense, eyes darting between each other and the door. There weren’t exactly that many people who knew where to find them, and even fewer who bothered to knock. Under the best of circumstances they would’ve been on guard, and these were certainly not the best of circumstances. Patting Static’s shoulder, Gravitas stood slowly and made her way cautiously towards the door- probably for the best, given she was the oldest and along with Hurricane was the one most capable to turning the tide on a sudden attacker. The door opened with the loudest creak in the history of the world, Gravitas’s eyes blowing wide when she saw what was outside.
“Good morning,” Wonder Woman said, slipping into the doorway, “may I come in?”
Nobody from the League had gotten the kind of welcome Wonder Woman got, which was all on the women. Static certainly hadn’t ever considered offering Batman a soda. But then, that was Batman, who probably didn’t even need to eat, thriving off sheer justice, and this was Wonder Woman, who’d gladly accepted not only his seat on the couch but also a coke and a handful of the fun size candies he and Gravitas kept sneaking from the community center. Because that’s what you did with free bowls of candy, no matter who you were. As it was, she had the full attention of the whole team, including the girls’ hearts from the looks of it- if there were any more stars in Gravitas’s eyes he’d have been calling Adam with a warning- leaving BackPack to do the fifth trawl of the many, many, many files they’d found and gotten into all on his lonesome.
“So,” Ultraviolet said, two fun-size snickers into the visit, “I’m going to guess this isn’t a social call?”
“Unfortunately,” Wonder Woman replied, “though I guess we probably ought to do those more often.” She sighed and scanned the group. “I was hoping to get your help with a, situation.” Yep, they’d known it was coming.
“What kind of situation?”
“There’s a witch somewhere in Dakota-”
“In late-October, yeah-”
“A real witch.” There wasn’t even a hint of humor in her tone or expression, but also no judgement for the comment. She took a sip of her soda before continuing. “Normally it wouldn’t be anything to worry about, the vast majority of magic users aren’t any trouble, even the ones from Dakota, but this one…” She shook her head, a sight that had the team all exchanging concerned looks. They didn’t even have information and this sounded bad. Again, it was Gravitas that stepped forward.
“We’d love to help,” she said, “but I’m sure you’ve noticed we’re down a teammate.” Wonder Woman nodded. “Gear vanished from his bed last night in what we’re sure is a kidnapping.”
“Well,” the older hero set her drink down, making solid eye contact with Gravitas, “I’m more than happy to help you find him. We’ll just have to handle more than one situation, perfectly doable.” Everyone was silent for a moment, up until Hurricane sighed, deep and heavy and blowing candy wrappers around the room, and dropped into the spot beside Wonder Woman.
“Fuck it,” she said, “not like we have any leads anyway. Gives us something to do while we figure this out besides worry.”
Well, it wasn’t like she was wrong.
“You first,” Ultraviolet said, leaning back against a desk with her eyes locked on Wonder Woman, “what are we dealing with, with this witch?” Nodding, Wonder Woman picked up her soda and settled back in her seat.
“She goes by Athame,” she began, “she’s, very ambitious. Too ambitious.” The young team, who had all heard that more than a time or two, raised their eyebrows in unison.
“She wants to create a new source of magic.” Okay, that sounded, something.
“Alright,” Static said, “we may need some more background here.” Wonder Woman nodded again.
“All magic has a single source. There are plenty of items out there that contain magic, or run off of it, but there’s only one source of magic, and even just having it with you is enough to allow people with no magical talent to use difficult spells without issue.”
“Okay,” Ultraviolet nodded, “I can see where that might be dangerous if a skilled witch got a hold of it.” A hollow chuckle from the older hero.
“I wish she wanted to get a hold of it,” she said, “then it would be someone else’s business. What she wants is to make a second one, and she’s come up with a ritual she thinks will do it.”
“Who knows.” She shrugged. “But we can’t take that risk. The best-case scenario is that the ritual does nothing, but if it fails violently then there’s too much risk of collateral damage with all the power it would need, and that’s not even taking into account it if works.”
“At which point we have someone running around with pretty much unlimited magical power,” Gravitas said, running a hand down her face. This was just, great.
“If the existence of two sources of magic doesn’t just tear reality apart.”
And that was even better.
A mass groan went around the room.
“What about your friend,” Wonder Woman asked, leaning forward probably as much to make sure they knew she was taking all of this seriously as out of actual interest, “what are the details there?” Static, being the first alerted to the situation, stepped forward.
“Some creep’s been stalking around his house the last week,” he said, “not that he bothered to tell anyone until the other day. Why the hell wouldn’t he tell us?”
“Because,” Hurricane butted in, “he’s the stupidest genius we know.” Beside her, Wonder Woman took on a thoughtful look, head bobbing slightly as she clearly tried to work out whether that actually was the stupidest thing she’d seen a supposed genius do. Gravitas, meanwhile, just looked at Static and wobbled her hand in a ‘that’s iffy’ gesture, earning herself a glare.
“Anyway,” Static continued pointedly, “he finally said something the other day and... They’ve clearly got powers of some sort, but this is Dakota, we had to deal with a dandelion with delusions of grandeur just last week, so that’s not really weird around here. What is weird is that we decided to take shifts to guard his house and he still disappeared right out from under us.”
“I’m still not sure what happened,” Hurricane said. “One minute everything was fine, then the next BackPack was waking me up and Gear was gone.” Eyes narrowed, Wonder Woman nodded.
“That is worrying…” Ultraviolet purposefully shoved away from the desk she was leaned against and half-turned towards where BackPack was working his not-quite-Gear-level magic.
“Come on,” she said, “we have video.”
The group moved as one, crowding in around her as she removed BackPack from the computer he was interfacing with. He found a comfortable spot in her lap as she sat down and went about pulling up the video from the night before last. Nothing was different from any other viewing- same too-pale face and eyes, creepy eyeballing of the house, looking directly at their now-missing friend. Same mysterious attack on Static and subsequent disappearance. But there weren’t many eyes for it this time. Instead everyone was focused on Wonder Woman, stood in pride of place directly behind Ultraviolet, watching her take in the event, her eyes going wide. When the screen cut to black, she reached out and put her hand on Ultraviolet’s shoulder.
“Well,” she said, “good news, we only have one situation.”
She ought to be happy, overjoyed with how things are going right now, but really she was kind of annoyed. Richie did whatever she commanded, which was perfect, just what she needed in a familiar, but… Well the problem was twofold. First off, Dakota let him wander around, through the layers of magic that made up the region, with ease. As if he was just walking through parting curtains. Meanwhile she had to struggle for every inch the state would give her, putting more and more power in to move around, to hold off the clash of ethereal jaws she could feel building.
Secondly, the child was a mess. It was bad enough that he’d slipped back into her lair covered in blood and back alley grime, reeking of death, but she couldn’t even wash him. To do so would risk clearing away the smoke that had settled into his fur, that even now filled the lair, and she would have to be mad to risk losing that control, even for an instant. The wool collar on his throat, the sheepskin he laid on, were enough to keep him in his shape, but for now that smoke was all that kept him in line.
Not for long though. With his help, soon everything would be ready. She would have a Source and then she could forgo the wool, forgo the licorice root, and keep him through power alone.
As soon as the veil opened…
He’s smart, and good, and now that he’s finally full his master has a job for him.
(something in his gut is screaming, it whines and hides when he smells her, sees her, hears her, says it isn’t right, she’s not right, but the call is true…)
It’s a big job too, very important. She wants peacocks, as many as he can find, and because the city is his he knows just where to look.
Seemingly out of nowhere he lopes into the center of the Dakota City Zoo, air crisp in his lungs and screams ringing out like the deep gong of church bells. The humans scatter around him, reeking of shock and fear, briefly flicking on his instinct to chase and play. Joyfully he twists, turns, leaps, nipping at heels and sending the guests scurrying with barking laughter. In their displays the animals bellow and shriek in time with the humans.
But eventually fun times have to end, there’s work to be done for his master, and so he shakes his head to clear it of ‘prey’ and ‘play’. Work. He’s here for work. Because he’s good.
Raising up on his hind legs, stretching out as far as he can, allows him to make a quick survey of the area. The humans make it difficult to see, but he doesn’t know the scent he’s looking for and he can just make out a few patches of blue among the greys and yellows that don’t look like clothes, that are moving on their own. With a heading in mind, he gives a howl that makes his heart pang (why call when his pack’s not there to hunt with him?) and drops back to the ground. Long legs make the journey quick, and the humans that come with guns drop them when he snaps at their arms, it’s easy easy easy to find the flock.
He runs forward and they scatter, but these aren’t humans, they don’t have long legs to take them far and can’t gain speed by dropping their tails. The tails that are so easy to grab with hand and tooth, to yank them out of the air so he can snap jaws around their long long necks and shake. The humans aren’t bothering him anymore, in the distance he can hear them fleeing en masse, working to get themselves and each other far far away. Not that he cares. He’s focused on the job, the fun fun job, and the pile of birds forming on the ground as he chases and grabs, snaps and shakes. A mass of blue and grey that only stops growing when he knows his mouth won’t hold any more.
With a carefree air he gathers up the bodies in his jaws, carrying them by their broken necks, and lopes, tail wagging, back the way he came.
His master, good (wrong) master, will be so proud.
When the reports of dead animals started coming in the police and animal control really hadn’t expected a handful of superheroes to show up to investigate, but given what had been going on lately there’d been no chance of them ignoring the cases. After all, it could have been the ‘normal’ tendency for sickos to start slaughtering black animals around Halloween, or it could have been tied into the actual witchcraft going on in the city. The fact it was happening the very day Richie had vanished from his bed only made the whole thing more suspicious.
What nobody had expected was to find all the animals eaten.
It was a gruesome sight, dogs, cats, a few birds all ripped to shreds. Soft, fleshy bits were all gone, as were a few of their heads, bodies held together with bits of remaining ligament and gristle. Bones gnawed, some cracked open to get at their marrow. The group hardly help it together until they’d seen all the damage, barely made it out of the room the corpses had been placed in before several of them where fighting over the nearest trashcan.
In a way, that made the call that there was a monster attacking the zoo a relief, even if the creature was gone by the time they arrived. As it was, the ladies hardly touched ground before an important looking zoo employee was running for them, his eyes wide and shoulders still trembling.
“Wonder Woman,” he called, because with her there the rest of them were chopped liver, “thank god you’re here!” A perfect professional- at least in the eyes of the younger set- she calmly placed a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“What happened here?” she asked in a gentle tone that soothed some of the frantic panic from the man’s face. “Is anyone hurt?” He shook his head.
“All the guests and workers are fine, shaken but no injuries. We’ve lost all but two of our peacocks though to that, that-” Ultraviolet stepped down off Static’s saucer, the electrokinetic hero following behind.
“Maybe you should sit down,” she said, “and then explain.” Nodding, he lead the group to the nearest bench and all but collapsed upon it, taking deep breaths to try to settle the shake in his limbs.
“Nobody is really sure where it came from,” he said, “just that it, appeared around the Asian Trail. Chased the guests around, snapped at people, then it just, killed our peacocks and disappeared.” The heroes looked at each other with eyes full of concern and fear.
“Are they any bodies we should take a look at?”
“No, just feathers left.”
Oh, thank fuck. Hurricane and Ultraviolet settled into the spots on either side of the man as Static stepped forward.
“What did it look like?” he asked.
“It was-” the man hesitated, beginning again to tremble, “it was just…” Another deep, steadying sigh. “There’s security footage.”
It wasn’t a wolf. It looked like a wolf, kinda. Sorta. Maybe. If you’d never seen a wolf before. Or a dog. The colors were right and there was fur, how about that?
In reality, the creature trotting around in the footage looked more like someone had taken the important bits of a wolf- the eyes, ears, mouth, tail, fur- and stretched them out over a human form. Then they had clearly just, kept stretching from there. It’s back was so very long to match up with the almost human limbs, limbs that kept it’s shoulders nearly level with those of the grown men it snapped and barked at. The lips were loose, constantly showing flashes of long, sharp teeth. They could easily make out the flat palms and soles of human hands and feet, stretched long and raised off the ground in favor of clawed fingers and toes too too long and flexible for anyone’s comfort.
There was no way, even in Dakota: Land of the Bang Babies and Weird-Ass Animals, that that was anything but
“There is a fucking werewolf in Dakota.”
Wonder Woman sighed, shutting her eyes and crossing her arms over her chest. Dakota’s finest, meanwhile, chewed their lips and exchanged concerned looks. Nobody there was stupid, hell all of them were brilliant, and, well. Bit of a coincidence, a werewolf showing up in Dakota with a witch running around… Static was first to speak.
“Thirty bucks it’s Richie.” Hurricane shook her head.
“What,” Gravitas suddenly spun to face Wonder Woman, shoulders tense and eyes narrowed, “would she want to make him a werewolf for?”
“Cheaper feeding?” Static said on autopilot, immediately shying away from the girls’ glares. “Sorry.” Now it was Wonder Woman’s time to worry her lower lip, looking over the team.
“She probably needed a familiar.”
“For…?” There was, in that moment, the very real chance of a small riot breaking out in that room, and a higher one of Gravitas punching the first person to not give her answers. This was one of her brothers they were talking about. Wonder Woman was smart enough not to risk it.
“The last I saw Athame she was using her familiar as a conduit to use more powerful magic,” she said. “I have to assume a werewolf is the best conduit she can get her hands on right now.” This didn’t help the mood of anyone in the room.
“So,” Hurricane said, “she’s probably going to use him for that ritual then? Would it hurt him?” All eyes stayed on Wonder Woman, who sighed again.
“He’s young, fit, and a werewolf. In theory he should be able to handle most anything that gets thrown at him, but I don’t know exactly what the limits on them are.”
“And if he can’t?” The room went quiet. Muscles tensed all around, even worse than they already had been. Static stepped forward, footfalls heavy and purposeful, sparks arcing between his fingers.
“Wonder Woman, what happens if Richie can’t handle the ritual?” She stayed quiet for a moment more, eyes downcast, visibly struggling for words, before she sighed and sadly met the hero’s gaze.
“Okay, ‘repenting for your sins’ apparently works.”
“Maybe if you’re in human shape, but I don’t think a giant wolf-monster can repent for much.”
“‘Piercing the wolf’s hands with nails’, yeah that’s not happening.”
“No nails, no silver, no beating him upside the head with a pipe.”
“I was just repeating what the book said.” With a grunt Ultraviolet went limp in her seat, staring down at the book in her hands. The library had been raided, the internet was being raided, in their desperate bid to find something, anything, that could bring Richie back to normal. That they could use to save him.
“Swimming across a river in the full moon’s light?” Gravitas suggested, only for Wonder Woman to shake her head.
“I’m not willing to count on us having the two weeks to spare.”
“Oh here’s a fun one,” Hurricane said, scoffing, “‘not turning into a wolf’.”
“Handy,” Static commented, “wish we’d known that was all it took before.”
“‘Getting a god to remove the curse’?” Everyone looked at Wonder Woman hopefully, but she shook her head.
“Demi-god. It’s not the same.”
“Damnit.” Everyone groaned as one. Why was everything so… this? Nobody deserved this sort’ve stress.
“So, so far,” Static said, “our options are looking like poison, silver, blunt force trauma, and death. Joy.”
“I really don’t know what to do,” Wonder Woman admitted, staring down at the book in her hands. “Either we kill him, or do something that might kill him, or risk him dying at the hands of Athame.”
No one looked at each other, eyes only on pages and screens. It didn’t look good. It really didn’t look good. They wanted him alive damnit! Alive and unharmed other than maybe a stomach ache which really the way he ate even when he wasn’t a monster he probably deserved anyway!
What the fuck where they supposed to do if they couldn’t save him…?
“Guys,” eyes flicked up, just enough to see Gravitas take a deep breath and release it, “I think this is one time when we should probably forewarn the parents.”
Mr. Foley wasn’t home, not that anyone but Wonder Woman could bring themselves to care. If anything it meant this discussion was going to be easier. Nobody could guess what his response to ‘your son is a werewolf and may not come out of this alive’ would be, and they kind of hoped they never had to learn. Better to just get his mother on her own.
Unfortunately, there was no saving themselves from the look on her face when a group of somber superheroes showed up on her porch.
“Your son is alive,” Wonder Woman clarified before anything else, watching Mrs. Foley heave a massive sigh of relief, “but we have to talk.”
“Of course, come in,” she said, nodding and moving aside. The door was shut behind them. “Have a seat, please, I’ll get you something to drink. Soda, coffee, tea?”
“We’re fine, Mrs. Foley,” Gravitas said, only for the other woman to shake her head.
“Please, I need the distraction right now.” The heroes exchanged glances, knowing full well they weren’t going to argue.
“Tea would be nice.”
“Coming right up.”
Nobody spoke while she worked. She said nothing and there was a silent agreement among the heroes that she should be sat down when she heard the news. For her own sake. So, the house stayed too too quiet, broken only by the whistle of a kettle and the series of quiet ‘thank you’s that came along with getting their individual mugs.
“Alright,” breathing deep, Mrs. Foley settled into a seat and squared her shoulders, “what’s going on? Superheroes don’t show up at your door unless they have to.” As one Dakota’s heroes turned to Wonder Woman. She was oldest, most experienced, and the only one there that didn’t already know the woman, and as such was the unofficial spokesperson of the moment.
“We’re only mostly certain-” Static, Hurricane, and Gravitas all gave her pointed looks. As if they were only ‘mostly’ certain of anything. “We know your son’s been kidnapped by a witch-” Mrs. Foley made a pained noise. “-and we’re mostly certain he is, at the moment, a werewolf.”
Groaning, the redhead let her head fall back against the couch and muttered something under her breath with what was almost a growl.
“Maggie, could you repeat that please?” She looked at Wonder Woman, then around at the others, before straightening with a sigh.
“The witch…” she groan-growled again, “I knew something like this was going to happen, I said we should send him out to Gina’s, but no, Sean had to be a stubborn-” Catching herself, she took a steadying breath. “The werewolf thing is normal. He shouldn’t be turning for at least another few months, but once you get witches involved everything can go to hell in a heartbeat…”
The room went silent. Wind didn’t blow outside. Jaws were slack, eyes were wide. Static gaped like a fish for twelve seconds before he finally found his voice.
“You’re all werewolves?” Maggie shook her head.
“Sean and I aren’t, but it runs in both sides of the family. Richie’s shown signs for ages.”
“Does he know about this?!” Because there were family secrets and then there were things you told your best friend of forever- though this would explain that crush on the Wolfman in middle school, and his refusal to watch Sleepwalkers ever. Maggie gave an empty chuckle.
“I love my son, but we were hoping to hold off on telling him until any random passerby couldn’t get his full pedigree out of him with a double cheeseburger.”
Okay, yeah, that was fair.
“Since you seem to be the one in the know,” Wonder Woman said, leaning forward, “maybe you could help us turn him back? We couldn’t find any methods we had time for that wouldn’t put him in danger.”
“Of course,” Maggie said with a nod, standing, “give me a minute and I’ll get you the recipe for my mother’s wolfsbane brew.”
“It’s a family trick, for when the kids get too caught up in being the wolf.” Slipping back into the kitchen, she raised her voice to ensure she was heard as she went through an assortment of drawers. “I don’t have any of the ingredients, since we were counting on having a few more months at least and being able to send him back west, but a good scrub down with sapphire should get him back to normal. Ah.” Her waving hand, a yellowed piece of paper clutched in it, appeared around the corner before she did. “Just make sure to check him over for any wool first. A witch only grabs a wolf for a familiar or for parts and either way they need to secure them in wool. Could be anything from a collar to a piece of string, but as long as it’s there he won’t turn back.” Every other body in the room nodded as she handed the paper off to Gravitas, who raised her hand slightly.
“You wouldn’t happen to be able to tell us anything about magic, would you? Such as, I don’t know, what to look for if this witch is going to be doing a ritual?” Maggie looked at her, eyebrow raised, and nodded.
“If they’re going to perform a ritual any time soon it’ll probably be sometime tomorrow. Thematics are very important in magic, and Halloween is a very thematic day. It’d be better if there was a full moon, but a new one is nearly as good.” Gravitas nodded even while Hurricane narrowed her eyes curiously.
“How do you know this stuff?” she asked, and Maggie smiled.
“Witches run in the family too.”
“Frieda.” Hurricane froze on her way out the door, shiver running up her spine at the use of her real name in costume. When she turned, Maggie was stood behind her, a soft smile on, holding out a glasses case. “He’s going to need these once he’s turned back.” Slowly, reminding herself to breathe, she took the case.
“Thank you, Mrs. Foley.” The smile widened.
“Thank you. Just, you kids try to be safe, please?” It took a lot of effort not to hug her, to just nod and smile back.
“I’m sorry, why am I the one in charge of boiling water of all things?”
“Because you have fucking lasers, if anyone is going to be able to get and keep 80 gallons of water boiling without it taking a year it’ll be you.” Scowling, Ultraviolet huffed and glowered at the cast iron tub Gravitas and Static had found in the junkyard. It was rusty, but she could laser that off as easy as she could boil fucking water.
“Richie owes me a pizza after this is done.”
“Yeah, good luck with that.”
“The good news is,” Wonder Woman said upon she and Gravitas’s return to base, “we have all the wolfsbane we could ever need. The bad news is I’m going to have to explain to Batman why I bought five pounds of poison on the League’s dime.”
“I'm amazed I didn’t just start screaming,” Gravitas grumbled, dropping a large box one had to assume contained said wolfsbane next to the tub. “A pair of superheroes show up talking about needing wolfsbane for an emergency and you not only charge them, but I swear that man upped the price, there is no way this shit costs that much.”
“Just be glad the League is footing the bill.” Wonder Woman nudged the box with her foot. “Still I think I’ll have Superman go talk to him about taking advantage of those in need. He may die of shame right there.” Ultraviolet chuffed, tearing open the box and beginning the process of dumping dried leaves into the boiling water.
Static turned the hunk of stone over in his hand, eyeing it carefully. Mrs. Foley had ended up giving them the address of one of the nearer packs in hopes they would have the stones they needed and it certainly seemed so.
“Ya know,” he said, “I never thought sapphire could look like…”
“Just a big blue rock?” Hurricane smiled and shrugged, holding up the small bag of the gems they’d been given so he could return his own to it. Once he had she tied it shut, tucking it away in the deerskin cloak they’d also been loaned. “They said they were rough stones. Guess they’re only as polished as they are through use.”
“Or because it’d really hurt to get scrubbed down with a pointy rock.” She chuckled.
“Or that, yeah.”
It was late afternoon before the group was all together again, the sky just beginning to go dark, costumed children starting to gather on the sidewalks of Dakota.
“Alright,” Gravitas asked, stood at the head of the room, “everything set? Wolfsbane brew?”
“Ready and waiting,” Ultraviolet replied. “It’s getting cold, but I think he’ll live.”
“Enough for everyone,” Static said as Hurricane dumped the bag out beside the tub, “we can tag team him.”
“Now all we need to do is find them.” Scanning the room Wonder Woman put out her hands compellingly. “Any ideas?”
“We asked the pack Mrs. Foley sent us to,” Hurricane said, “and they said if they were just appearing places then they were probably in a different ‘layer’ of the city? And gave us this.” She held up the deerskin cloak. “Apparently it’ll let us move between the layers ourselves.”
“Our idea was that we could put it on BackPack,” Static added, the robot perking up from his rather despondent spot in a corner at the sound of his name. “He can find them, put a tracker down, then come back. Then we go in.”
“That,” Wonder Woman said, “is a better plan than half of Batman’s. Good work.”
He’s lonely. He wasn’t lonely before, when he’d first followed the call to his master, then he’d just been hungry. After, he’d been enthusiastic. But it’s been over a day, his belly is full again of dogs and cats and one man who ran at the wrong time, and as he lays curled tight on the single sheepskin his master has given him all he can do is watch her paint patterns on the floor in peacock blood and feel so so lonely.
He misses his pack.
His dam. His sisters. Brother. His sire he can do without, but the rest of them he feels the lack of deep in his chest. He can’t hear them call, can’t smell them through the smoke, on the whirling breeze. He whines and the sound makes his master snap at him, which in turn makes the thing in his gut scream and snap back. Lonely and cold(wrong) and yearning(she’s wrong).
His pup had come. Slipped inside with fur of his own, hidden in the shadows, long enough to be nuzzled and cleaned before vanishing again. It hadn’t helped anything, only made the ache worse. His pup he misses most, and he had come and then just left him alone again…
“Richie, come here.” The command is welcome, a distraction from the loneliness and the too-small sheepskin. His tongue lolls from his mouth as he stands, stretches, plods to her side. She shoves it back in and holds his jaw closed as she begins to paint him in the same blood as the floor. It’s been mixed with something, he knows, but he isn’t certain what. Something that feels gritty against his nose. The blood-paint goes in patterns over his face, his neck, his legs, his body, and he behaves, he’s good, as it’s applied. He is good, he is compliant as she leads him by the collar to a spot among the floor patterns. As he watches, she crosses them to take the spot opposite his own, the dried husk of something (a leech, something in his head tells him, a massive leech) sitting in a marked spot between them.
She begins to speak a language he can’t understand and something strange starts to seep into his bones, the patterns going hot along his form as
A bolt of lightning flashes past his master’s shoulder
And Richie stops being good
He knows in his soul what that means, and even though he can’t smell them through the licorice he can’t help but jump to his feet, twisting in midair to face his pack, tail wagging so fast it’s but a blur behind him.
“Oh for the love of,” his master says behind him, “heroes just can’t leave well enough alone.” His brother is stepping forward to meet him, sisters behind him, when he suddenly collapses, gasping for a breath that only comes when a slam sounds back in the lair. Richie whines deep in his throat, turning to see his master dragging herself back to the ground, gaze darting between her and his pack. She’s clearly angered.
“Richie, attack.” He doesn’t want to, of course he doesn’t want to, this is his pack, and the something in his gut is screaming louder, fighting and howling, but the command sinks into him and despite his own wishes he turns and lunges teeth first at the nearest target. It’s a relief and a horror when instead of his brother’s face his jaws lock around something hard and metallic and burning- searing his lips and tongue as the person attached to it flings him aside. The pain doesn’t stop his body from following orders though, it rises on its own, flings itself forward again.
“Don’t, you’ll hurt him!” The woman he hadn’t noticed through the smoke and excitement of pack has raised her arms again in preparation for his attack, only to be shoved aside by his brother. A whine tears from his throat as his teeth dig into the blue cloth over his arm, as he bowls him over. He doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to, and Virgil is straining to hold his mouth open enough with one hand, struggling not to lose the arm entirely to his teeth.
“It’s okay, man,” he soothes, kicking at his limbs as he tries to claw at him, “it’s gonna be alright, I promise, it’s okay-” Distantly, he can hear struggling behind them, deeper in the lair. Feel magic flying, see and feel the light and wind off his sisters. His pup reappears, sans fur, whirring and chirping as he helps to pry him off his brother. It’s difficult, even with him fighting his hardest to stop, but eventually Virgil’s able to roll away and a shout brings one of his sister’s gusts of wind under and around him, holding him safely in the air where he can snap and swipe and whine without injuring anybody.
It’s from here he can see the fight with his master end. Not with a bang, or a flash of magic, but with merely a quick turn directly into one of his sisters’ fists. His body doesn’t stop struggling, doesn’t stop fighting, even as he whines in pain and distress, even as his pack tries to soothe him from below. Eventually the woman from before, with the silver gauntlets, simply pulls out a long rope and begins the arduous process of binding his mouth shut, tying his limbs to his body, actions that only make his whining louder, his struggling harder. Even being lowered into the reach of their hands doesn’t help, nor the removal of his collar, or the placing of his pup on his back.
He whines and struggles all the way back out of the lair.
Turns out getting Richie into the goddamn tub is the worst part of the whole affair. You’d think it would be easy to just drop the bound and gagged werewolf into the water, but no, apparently he was a cat in a past life. Somehow, against all odds, his struggling had gotten worse as soon as he’d seen the water and he’d begun thrashing so much they struggled to line him up with the tub in the first place. They’d ended up having to wrestle him in and then have Gravitas use her powers to make him all but unable to move at all.
Still, it meant they could move on to phase two, and all five heroes grabbed a chuck of rough sapphire, picked a region of wolf, and got to scrubbing him down. And, despite all odds, it seemed to work. With each scrub more and more fur fell away, and with it went the monstrous shape of him. A patch there and he had a shorter muzzle. One here gained him a more humanlike arm. Between Gravitas and Wonder Woman his tail may as well have come off in one big clump. They scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, tub filling with grey and brown fur, until their arms were sore and finally the rope binding him fell away from the smaller, bare form.
“Richie? How are you feeling?” His breathing was ragged, exhausted from fighting and transforming. He moved his head only enough to verify that Static, Ultraviolet, and Hurricane were right there before lifting himself up enough to lay his forehead against Static’s shoulder.
“I really need some cocoa,” he said, spitting out some blood from the since healed silver wounds, “and a fucking salad.” A small laugh came out of Gravitas, tired but relieved, and proved to be contagious, growing louder as the rest of the team caught it and crowded in close, clapping hands on shoulders, in his hair, even Backpack nearly climbing into the tub, as if to prove to themselves he was there and safe.
“Figures it’d take turning into a man-eating monster to get you anywhere near one.”
Once it was clear Richie was going to be okay, suffering nothing more than some trauma that he insisted still wasn’t as bad as the Brainiac Incident, Wonder Woman was forced to leave. After all somebody had to head back in and get Athame- if Dakota had left anything of her- make sure she met justice, return all the magic items they’d borrowed, and she felt confident the others could manage things like getting him home alright and finding him something to wear on the way.
(“Of course your mom would think to hand us your glasses, but not a pair of pants.”)
So, the heroes of Dakota found themselves spending the late evening in a massive cuddlepile in the Foley living room, laden with cocoa and testing the weight limits of the couch.
“I just hope I can talk mom out of shipping me off to Cousin Gina’s,” Richie said, by now ignoring the way BackPack had latched onto the back of the couch and refused to stop rubbing against his head affectionately, “don’t wanna leave you guys down one again if I can help it, even if it is just once a month.”
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” Frieda said, strewn across Richie’s legs with Daisy on top of her. “I mean, did anyone else see his face when we showed up?”
“May as well have been coming to get our dog out of the boarding kennel,” Sharon added. “You were like a puppy right up until you started trying to eat Virgil.”
“Which,” said other teen said before Richie could open his mouth, “you have never at any point been blamed for.”
“I’m sure we could keep you in line.” Daisy stretched out a kink and took a sip of her cocoa. “We just need to stay close and stock up on jerky.” Richie suddenly froze, Virgil and Sharon watching him warily from their positions directly at his sides, practically joining the other girls in his lap, as he narrowed his eyes at the half-eaten salad on the coffee table.
“I could be having jerky right now.”