[WaR] nothing to lose.
#1
Beneath a pitch-black sky coated in clouds, the streetlights of Portland burn, determined to pierce the night with their watery, stark pale glow. As with each night for weeks, the city is as quiet as the grave. Apartments lay dormant, every curtain drawn resolutely closed and each light extinguished. A few nightclubs and brave businesses leave doors open and neon “OPEN” signs crying out for attention; the rest sit as abandoned, empty husks. With the exception of the occasional bird’s call or dog’s bark breaking the silence, the city of Portland lies in a dormant, fitful sleep.

One woman walks down the street, whistling a merry tune. Bright turquoise eyes gleam in the half-light. She’s dressed as if for a night on the town - a black jacket, half-worn over a loud pink crop top and tastefully-frayed jeans - but her trajectory takes her far from the clubs. The longer she walks, the farther she gets from the once-beating heart of downtown. More of the streetlights here are broken than not, but the woman seems unbothered by the dark.

Beside the woman, heavy footsteps shuffle along. The sound of breathing isn’t quite drowned out by her whistling. A disembodied voice whimpers, “Please let me go, I have a family that needs me, my sister is -”

“Be quiet,” says a voice from an equally indistinct source. “I will poison you.”

The woman chuckles softly. When she turns her head, she sees two men walking on the inner edge of the sidewalk, just a few paces behind her. The one farthest away, closest to the buildings that grow sparser and more dingy with every step the ramshackle party takes, is huge. Like the woman, the big man’s eyes shine with a strange sheen, but his are golden and serious. The gaze of the third traveler is concealed - his whole head is hidden beneath a hood of black canvas. He’s shorter than both of them, and trembling in every limb, from the wrists zip-tied behind his back to the feet carrying him reluctantly forward to the yellow-and-red-furred tail sticking straight out of the base of his spine. “Aw, Vince, let ‘im say what he wants. Kinda like a last rites thing, yeah?”

“Theo, for God’s sake, be serious.” The woman looks back toward the horizon ahead, and in her peripheral vision, she sees nothing. “Unless you’re going to put us on mute. We aren’t supposed to be heard.”

“‘We’re supposed to be quiet’, says man not bothering to keep his voice down.” Theo rolls her eyes. “So what if someone hears us? No one’s gonna come riding to his rescue.”

Another whimper. The big man - the one who threatened the poisoning - grunts, and it silences everything but Theo’s chuckle as she continues with what, to all appearances, looks like her leisurely solo stroll.

Before long, there’s more shadow than light. At the same time, a building in the distance begins to loom larger, almost… heavier. More grim. From the outside, it’s nothing special; just another old warehouse, square and uniform and tall, with walls of faded red brick and boarded-up windows. But as its shadow falls over the three travelers, even the woman’s smile drops slightly. There’s a gravitas here that the painted-on graffiti and old, cheery company signage just can’t conceal.

Another man stands at the warehouse’s front entrance, arms folded. His eyes, a plain green, rake over the woman and the invisibly occupied space beside her. “There ain’t a delivery scheduled tonight. What’ve you got?”

There’s a flash of blue and red as Theo snaps her fingers. At once, the yellow-eyed man and his captive become fully visible, seemingly summoned out of thin air. When Theo smiles, she shows off razor-sharp canines. “Sorry to disrupt the schedule, Saul, but Vincent brought down a Mienfoo. Li’l chimera went for a night walk in the wrong part of town, poor boy.”

“I haven't done anything to you! Please, let me go, don't hurt me -”

He stops as the vice grip on his shoulder tightens, breaking down into sobs. The guard looks on unmoved. “Lemme get Eloise on the phone. Hopefully she’s not busy. It’ll be over for the poor bastard sooner rather than later.”

“My name is Eric Ruiz, not poor bastard. Please, let me go, my sister needs me!”

This final plea is met with only more coldness from Vincent, who shoves the hybrid forward. Saul catches him, nearly stumbling at the unexpected weight. But he rights himself quickly, taking hold of Eric’s other arm with a grip nearly as firm as Vincent’s.

“Don’t worry,” Theo croons to Saul, the grin still wolfish on her face. “He might be a Mienfoo, but he ain’t much of a fighter. Even your mundane ass will be safe with him!”

A green-eyed glare meets Theo’s impish look. “You two keep my post while I hand this one off.” Without waiting for an answer, he turns, marching Eric Ruiz inside. The door of the warehouse slams behind the two of them, leaving behind a resounding echo.

“Y’know, you got a real talent for pissing people off,” Vincent says, without rancor. He reaches into his pocket and fishing out a cigarette, only to curse under his breath a moment later. “Must’ve lost my lighter in the scuffle.”

Theo chuckles. “I do it because I know you people need me.” She pulls out a cigarette of her own, igniting the tip with a cheap lighter, which she then graciously passes to Vincent. “This whole operation’d go to pot without me, and everyone knows it.” She pauses, taking a deep drag of her cigarette, then exhales. When Vincent remains silent, she asks, “You think the kid was serious about his sister?”

“Ask Eloise in a few minutes.”

Theo gets a good laugh out of that. “Nah, man. I’m not gonna yank the boss lady’s chain.”

“But this whole operation would go to pot without you.”

With another chuckle, Theo exhales a trace of smoke. “I fuck with you and the other mugs because I know none of you is gonna shove somethin’ sharp into my ribs if I push the wrong button by accident. She doesn’t give me that.”

Vincent snorts. For a long moment, there’s no sound - the warehouse is silent, and this desolate corner of Portland does not stir. After a few minutes, the door creaks again, and Saul reappears, blanching slightly.

“Sooo, how’d the call go?” Theo leans against Saul with one bony elbow; he shoves her aside a bit roughly, but she disengages and steps back easily enough.

“Fine. Eloise seemed pleased enough.”

“And you told her exactly who gets the credit?”

“No, I told her that I, a regular human man, took out a Mienfoo hybrid alone. While I was supposed to be guarding her base of operations.” Saul says nothing as Theo laughs, only lighting up a cigarette of his own. “You’ll get your pay on-time, don’t -”

Something bright flashes within the warehouse, a mingled pink and red light flaring into sharp light for just a moment. “... worry,” Saul finishes, casting a glance back toward the warehouse. A single light shines through the windows on the lower floor, dim fluorescence that barely makes it past the glass.

“I dunno whether to be relieved or offended that we’re not worth so much as a howdy-do,” Theo says.

“Relieved.” Vincent takes a drag of his cigarette and offers nothing further.

“Easy for you to say. You’ve already got all the power you could want handed to you -”

“Saul, if you whine about being pure human again, I’m gonna glue fursuit pieces on you ‘til Eloise thinks you’re a chimera and rips out your brain.”

“Don’t even joke about -”

This time, Saul’s rasping voice is cut off by a scream and the bright flash of crimson light within the warehouse. There are words to Eric Ruiz’s panicked cry, but they’re muffled by the walls, inaudible except as faint, horrified syllables. The smile on Theo’s face wavers. Vincent’s focus seems to be entirely on his cigarette.

“All I’m saying is,” Saul ventures after a moment of quiet, “if she would just give me a Mega Stone, a Z-Crystal… hell, even one of those weak Shards. I could be something. Right now I just idle all night - you know what, hang on. Lemme show you just how dull this fucking job is.” He raises a hand, three fingers extended. “He’s gonna scream again in three, two, one…”

Saul’s estimate is off by only a fraction of a second. This time, he doesn’t wait for the sound to end, instead speaking over it. “I’m not saying I wish it was me in there, but one of the sleepers could do this job. Guy of my talents with hybrid power? I could be out there on the ground with you two instead of standing here listening to this all night.” Another scream sounds off, this one more desperate and formless. The sound of someone begging for withheld mercy. It hangs in the air for several moments, the tension that follows turning the air between the three as thick as the warehouse walls.

“Bye, Saul. Theo.” Vincent shatters it. He drops his cigarette without warning, stomping it out. Leaving it behind.

“Tch,” Saul grunts. He drops his own cigarette, which is burnt nearly down to the filter, grinding it to paper and ash with his heel. “Did you wind him up, Theo?”

“Nah, he’s just pissed because you’re begging to do job he hates, but can’t leave,” Theo’s tone is completely matter-of-fact, belying the smile returning now that she’s back in her antagonistic element. She flicks her cigarette far away, burning down to embers on cracked asphalt, and pats Saul on the cheek. “Don’t you worry your pretty head about Vincent. Just stay here and be a good little guard dog, alright?”

The sound that follows Theo’s retreating footsteps is more like a loud, protracted sob than a scream. The red flash punctuates it again, but the glow remains. Saul sighs, putting his hands behind his back. If he leans against the door, he can imagine that he feels the faintest tinge of psychic power, a hybrid’s excess energy overflowing into him.

And Eric Ruiz’s cries tear the silence apart again, and again, and again.

-

Calloused hands, brushed with dirt, push back the stray black hair that’s fallen out of its ponytail. As they do, they sweep past pointed ear tips. Unconsciously, Dixon Perry fidgets with his ears, tapping the elven edges with grimy fingers. It’s the one sign of his Impidimp hybridism, his solitary point of chimerism, and his nerves cause him to fixate on it now.

“Mister Burris, please. You know that I can’t afford these prices. And I’m one of your hardest workers; please, if I could just get some sort of discount, or extend my hours -”

Dixon’s boss - a human, aged and grizzled - scowls. “Hardest doesn’t mean best, Perry. You’re barely strong enough to lug around a sack of potatoes. If you seriously think I’m gonna cheap out just because you’re weak and can’t manage your cash, then you’re mistaken.”

“Then give me more hours! Come on, it’s not like there’s anyone around to give a shit about labor laws; I can work more -”

“Zero times zero’s still zero, kid.” Burris’s stern glare breaks Dixon’s resolve, and he stares down at the floor. “You’re stretched thin as it is. And I’m not about to have you drop dead on my farm. The prices stay where they are.”

Dixon wants to argue, to defend himself - but it’d be an uphill battle with Burris. Easier to just find more room in his budget somewhere else. “Fine.” He pulls the bills out of his wallet, slides them across the counter toward his boss, takes his meager basket of peas and potatoes. “There. See you tomorrow.”

Burris just grunts noncommittally. Dixon turns on his heel and walks out of the old farmhouse, sitting down on one of the benches outside. It’s been another hard day of pulling up potatoes and plucking blueberries, and his tired, aching body needs a break before he begins the trek home.

“... have a chimera neighbor, right?” Dixon’s eyes flit over to a group of humans sitting on the porch, several feet away. While the speaker sounds somewhat nervous, they’re not exactly doing anything to keep their conversation quiet. “You should be careful.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s just the chimeras they’re after, right?”

“Not for long.” The first speaker’s voice has grown dark. “My friend Marnie, she had a chimera neighbor. One of those evolved guys, real strong. Then a couple weeks ago, she woke up in the middle of the night; you know what she saw?”

No one speaks, and the tale-spinner goes on. “The eyes. The wings. Like an angel out of the bible, but glowing red like blood. Somewhere in the middle of all that glowing horror, there was a woman, that chessmaster witch - Eloise Riggs.”

“Ugh, please,” another group member chimes in. “That Xatu chick’s nothing but an urban legend whipped up to make us humans more afraid of chimeras than we need to be.”

“Like hell! She’s real, and she doesn’t give a damn who she hurts.” Despite himself, Dixon finds himself engaged, wondering how much of what these people are saying is true. “This chick, she broke into Marnie’s apartment complex and nearly took the building down fighting this neighbor guy. Then she just vanished, and she took the neighbor with her.”

“I thought the big chimera kidnapper was some redhead dude.”

This neighbor of Marnie’s opens her mouth to speak up again, but one of her buddies cuts her off. “I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that having chimeras around is putting the rest of us in danger. Who knows how many people could’ve gotten killed in that crossfire?”

“It’s not just the crossfire,” the neighbor continues, waving an irritated hand. “It’s what happened with the neighbor. He disappeared, but I saw the guy the other day.”

The rest of the group erupts in disbelieving cries, but the neighbor yells, “It’s true! I swear, I saw the man. Archeops dude, bunch of scraggly blue and green feathers in his hair? I saw him. He was shuffling around like a zombie; didn’t seem to know where or who he was. I know it’s nuts, but I think the rumors of this Xatu making a brainwashed chimera army - I think they’re true.”

There’s a long silence between the humans; a couple of them look incredulous, but the pervasive mood seems to be a tense nervousness. The one who was originally being warned to be cautious looks especially fearful as he says, “I hate what Portland’s turned into, lately. Everyone’s so scared of everything, and it feels like the city’s just going to fall apart at any moment.”

It takes Dixon a moment to screw his courage to the sticking place, but he chimes in. “I agree. There just isn’t any trust or peace in this city anymore, and it’s…” he trails off as the humans all turn toward him with startled, almost affronted looks on their faces, “... hard…”

Dixon can see immediately where the humans’ eyes go first - to his ears. The pointed tips are a dead giveaway to his nature as a hybrid, and the humans’ expressions immediately turn to pity and a little disgust - like the way one might regard a mortally wounded piece of vermin. “C’mon,” the neighbor says, putting her hand on her frightened friend’s shoulder; without making a shred of eye contact with Dixon, the group shuffles off, leaving him alone on the porch in the late summer sun.

With a sigh - and without any care for the dirt he’s about to plaster across his face - Dixon puts his head in his hands. Before hybrids started vanishing a couple of months ago, Portland was… well, it was still bad. Shards, Mega Stones, Z-Crystals, evolution stones, and a plethora of other rocks radiating nightmarish amounts of bizarre energy were unearthed in Mount Hood half a year ago, and since then, people have been mutating into hybrids of humans and the ancient, mythological beasts known as Pokemon. The powers given to these hybrids have made them untrustworthy to those who still remain human, even though Portland’s unique location next to a hybrid energy hotspot makes has been causing the human population to convert to a hybrid one at a staggering rate.

But while that distrust and social unrest was awful, things have only gotten worse since Eloise Riggs began vanishing hybrids in the night. A collapsing United States government, both combined with and due to, rampant hybrids with power over the elements themselves have all but put the common social safety nets out of commission. Now, it’s everyone for themselves - until Eloise Riggs, or someone like her, comes for you in the night to take everything you have, to kill you, or, if rumors are to be believed, to turn you into a lifeless puppet of a person.

Dixon sighs. Thinking about these things isn’t going to make them better. And the daylight is starting to fade. Still heavy-hearted, he begins to walk back toward the more urban section of Portland, in a rush to be home before night falls.

The humans weren’t wrong about hybrids disappearing, after all.

-

“I said don’t touch me, you little shits!”

With a thump, Dixon bumps into someone on the sidewalk. The woman turns to give Dixon a scowl, then looks back to the skirmish in the middle of the street. Dixon, suppressing a sigh, looks too.

He’s just in time to see a man spit fire from his jaws; the flames force the loose ring of thugs surrounding him to back away. The hybrid is so nonchimeric, it’s hard to tell what species he is, but his Fire typing is pretty plain to see. “I don’t have anything for you idiots! Go to Mount Hood if you want a stone so badly!”

“Oh, I’ve got a stone,” says the ringleader, a sadistic glee in his tone. He pulls a completely unremarkable slate-blue rock from his jacket pocket, which the hybrid’s eyes immediately lock onto. For the first time, the hybrid’s expression betrays real fear. “Now, you’re gonna hand over your Fire Stone, plus whatever other goods you’ve got, or I’m gonna shove this Everstone down your throat.”

The Fire-type hybrid is clearly looking for a way out of the situation, but two of the goons are circling behind him now, cutting off his escape. “I don’t have any stones, I swear. I can give you my money -”

“Screw money! Give us that power you’re hiding, chimera!” The whole gang dogpiles the hybrid; he spits more fire, but even the red-hot flame only repels a few of the goons. The rest grab him, holding him down as the leader shoves the Everstone against the hybrid’s face, and he screams -

Real nausea roils in Dixon’s gut, and he turns away, regretting the momentary distraction. Even if that hybrid survives this brawl, people have seen him getting into a fight, which means he’s going to be one of the next hybrids to up and vanish. And if he really did have a Fire Stone on him, the idiots who ganged up on him don’t exactly have the best survival outlooks, either. Chasing hybrid powers that actively will lead to trouble - out-of-control abilities, deformities, visible or even debilitating chimerism, and flat-out death are only a few of the grim possibilities.

But it isn’t Dixon’s problem. He clings tightly to the strap of his rucksack and keeps walking, muscling past a few other gawkers who haven’t yet realized that it’s time to move on.

The walk home is a long one. Dixon, thankfully, doesn’t get the chance to get lost in thought - he has to keep his eyes open. Portland hasn’t had a police force in years, which means that if someone decides that they want Dixon’s money or his life, the only person Dixon will be able to rely on for help is himself.

Fortunately, he arrives at home - Pleasant Valley Apartments, building seventeen - without incident. The apartment complex is nothing fancy, but it’s one of the better-kept residential areas in Portland. Dixon doesn’t know all the details, but the people who claimed the place have forged favorable deals with the lords of the city’s dwindling utilities. Running water, modest climate control, and a building that isn’t in complete shambles is a better setup than some can mention.

That being said, there are a few downsides. A human couple gives Dixon a furtive glance, eyeing his shaggy violet hair and pointed ears with suspicion and disgust mingling on their faces. Leaving another building is a young woman with green hair, pale yellow eyes, and a worried expression. Most residential areas naturally end up predominantly hybrid or human as a matter of course - or in the former case, as a result of overexposure to the unstable energy within hybrids and the stones that create them. Usually, Dixon wouldn’t mind rooming with both humans and hybrids, but things have changed in the past few months. Once upon a time, the tension between humans and hybrids was a dull roar, but like that Fire-type found out earlier, no one can ignore it.

-

Click-clack.

The sound of a doorknob rattling rouses Dixon from his sleep. He opens bleary eyes, squinting as they adjust to the half-light. His clock reads one-forty-six. Who’s going in or out at this hour, in dead dark?

Footsteps pad outside; someone’s entering the building. Dixon sits up in his bed now, nerves rising. The disappearances -

Click-clack. A much louder rattling starts right at the threshold of Dixon’s apartment. The apartment door was locked, Dixon remembers locking it when he came home, but the clicking continues. Someone’s trying to force the lock. Dixon throws himself out of bed, reaching for the baseball bat, Dark-type energy flooding his body with inhuman strength. Unfortunately, Dixon isn’t exactly practiced in the use of his powers. The clanging and clattering continues, now accompanied by the sound of Dixon’s ragged, panicked breathing. His trembling fingers wrap around the handle of the bat; the clattering’s gone silent now, and Dixon’s fear doesn’t dissipate as he slams his hand into the lightswitch, his heart jackhammering as footsteps march through his apartment and right up to his bedroom door.

Click. A huge man, pale-skinned and red-haired, stands in the doorway, glaring at Dixon with narrowed gold eyes. Nothing about his appearance gives away his species or even his typing, but it’s not like Dixon has time to absorb much information before -

A huge fist swings toward Dixon. He manages to dodge the blow, but only just; he can feel the wind from the stranger’s swing against his jawbone. He tries to swing his baseball bat, but he barely has space to wind up; the stranger takes the blow with hardly so much as a pained grunt. As Dixon stands, dwarfed in the other man’s shadow, staring up at him in abject terror, the man takes the long end of the bat in one hand. “You prepared? Smart.”

With a snap of his wrist, the stranger wrenches the bat out of Dixon’s hand. It smashes against his nightstand, knocking his clock and notebooks to the floor. He tries to back away from the man and into the living room, but he bumps into something in the threshold -

“Woah-hey! Don’t rush off so soon, friend!” Dixon turns to see a woman standing in the doorway, which was empty just a moment ago. Her bright blue eyes, dark skin, and black-spotted red undercut sharply contrast each other, but her most noticeable trait by far is her wide, sharp-toothed grin. “We’re just getting started.”

Dixon doesn’t think - the fear of the mountain of a man behind him impels him forward. He shoves his shoulder into the woman’s collarbone, forcing her aside and running into the living room screaming, “HELP! Someone help!”

Everything goes black. Dixon is still conscious - he can still move and think and feel - but he can’t even see his hands in front of his face, much less where he’s going. He hits a chair with one shin and tries to keep going, but the furniture flips over, taking him with it.

“Don’t black the whole place out! I can’t see through your fucking illusions, Theo!”

Theo chuckles, a sound so incongruous with the current situation that Dixon’s fear spikes even higher. Trying not to make any sound, he crawls forward, disentangling his leg from the chair as he moves. “Aw, c’mon, Vincent, it did the job. Kid didn’t even make it halfway to the door before he fell on his face. Look - look at this.” There’s the sound of fingers snapping, and suddenly Dixon can see again.

And by the sounds of it, Dixon can be seen again. He flips onto his back, struggling to summon his powers as the man, Vincent, stalks toward him, looming over him larger than life. Dixon raises one shaking hand, black-and-pink energy forming into jagged spikes around his fingers. “Stay back - stay away from me, I’m warning you -”

There’s a sound like a gunshot, and an orb of glowing cerulean light flies through the apartment and strikes Vincent square in the face, sending him staggering.

The woman that steps into the apartment is young, about Dixon’s age, with bright yellow hair and fire in her red-brown eyes. She’s a plain chimera - her ears are oddly rounded, covered in bright yellow fur. A tail of the same color, tipped crimson, extends from her spine, and the anger that contorts her face reveals teeth just as pointed as Theo’s. More light crackles between her palms - and unlike the light Dixon summoned, it’s stable, growing stronger by the second. “You two have only got seconds to run.”

There’s a long, tense pause; the only sound is Dixon’s heavy breathing and the faint clack-clack of the chair smacking against the floor as he finally manages to extricate his leg. Then, abruptly, Theo starts cackling. “You wouldn’t happen to be a ‘Ruiz’, would you? Oh, God, this is too rich.”

“I fail to see the humor at play here,” Vincent grunts.

The newcomer - Ruiz - grits her teeth further and the crackling orb of light in her hands begins to form faster. “Shut the hell up. Or better yet, tell me what you bastards did with my brother.”

“We’ll do you one better and demonstrate, babe,” Theo says. “Vincent, get the Mienfoo, would ya? I’ve still gotta wrap up with the one we came here for.”

Vincent lunges; the movement is inhumanly fast. However, Ruiz isn’t slow herself - there’s a resounding crack as the orb of light between her palm shoots off like a rocket and straight into Vincent’s ribs. Dixon doesn’t see more; he struggles to his feet, turning toward Theo, heart racing as he fumbles to his feet.

Theo just laughs. “Come on then, little man. Make me work for it.” A rippling razor of sharp black energy, illuminated crimson at the edges, forms like claws at the tips of her hands.

The energy around Theo’s hands is powerful. It’s violent and dangerous and unpredictable - and it’s familiar, because it’s the exact kind of power that Dixon himself wields as a hybrid. But it’s not the only element within him. He clenches his fists; pale pink smoke begins to form within them. It takes all his concentration to hold onto that energy as he lunges at Theo, as her claws pierce into the upper part of his left shoulder despite his best attempt to turn aside.

He grabs Theo’s other wrist, digging his nails in hard as the smoke flows. She growls, pained; she punches Dixon in the gut, and he staggers, nearly winded, but he comes back with a punch of his own. The blow is weak, but the arcane energy surging through Dixon is much more potent. She rips her hand free of his and, for the first time, she’s starting to look angry.

But before she can retaliate, Vincent’s body slams into hers. Indigo light streams down Ruiz’s arms as she follows, bleeding from a cut along her face. There are tears in her eyes as she swings a full-bodied punch at Vincent, not waiting for him to pry himself off of Theo. Vincent raises his arms to catch the blow, but he’s thrown backward again.

Theo grits her teeth as her crony slams into her for the second time. “Handle the goddamn weasel, Vincent!”

“They’re not worth it!” As Ruiz swings another punch, Vincent catches her hand in his, but before he can take advantage of the situation she forms another sphere of energy in her free hand and socks Vincent between the eyes with it. “I’m not getting the shit kicked out of me just to catch a couple of kid chimeras!”

“You gutless - “ Dixon, sensing his chance, runs up to Theo, whose back is now turned to him. Without ceremony or form, he slams his fist into the back of her head, hoping to knock her out - to scare her away - to do something. She turns toward him, eyes burning with fury.

“Theo!” Vincent roars, already halfway out the door - and, when another orb of light blasts toward him, he dodges all the way out and disappears.

With two people glaring at her, Theo glowers. “Don’t think you’re safe here,” she growls, glaring directly into Dixon’s eyes. Then she snaps her fingers; there’s a blinding white flash, and with that, she’s gone.

The pain from Dixon’s shoulder wound slowly registers. All he wants is to take some pain pills and sleep for a month, but he knows that that’s not an option. He turns toward the stranger in his house, the Mienfoo woman with the light slowly draining from her hands, the blood running down her face unheeded and unchecked.

“Who -” Dixon’s voice is a croak from the many blows to his torso. He clears his throat and tries again, placing a hand over the clawmarks on his shoulder. “Who are you?”

The way Ruiz’s ears twitch is… well, it’s inhuman, disconcerting. But her voice, albeit strained, is normal. “My name is Sylvia Ruiz.” She grimaces, pushing a hand experimentally against her ribs. Apparently she isn’t that badly hurt, because she turns upward to look at Dixon immediately. “I got lucky. What about you? Did that big bastard poison you?”

“What gave away that he was poisonous? That was one of the most human-looking hybrids I’ve ever seen.”

She finally seems to notice the cut on her face, because she carelessly rips off a shred of her hoodie sleeve and presses it to her cheek. “I can read auras. They tell me a lot about people. That’s the only reason I was able to see him and his buddy, too - she’s a Zorua, put the both of them under some sort of invisibility.”

Dixon… really doesn’t know what to make of that, or any of this. All he knows is that his shoulder hurts, his meager furnishings are all either upended or ruined, and two violent maniacs know where he lives. The only thing that keeps him from sinking to the floor and staying there is the crimson blooming through the fabric in Sylvia’s hand. He doesn’t know this brash Mienfoo, but he doesn’t want her to just stand around bleeding in his home, especially after she just saved his life. “Here… let me get the first aid supplies out. It should be enough…”

A few minutes - and a lot of rubbing alcohol, along with several blood-soaked rags - later, Dixon flops back limply in his chair, his shoulder throbbing but clean and bandaged, while Sylvia, her face patched up, watching him curiously.

“You have a lot of medicine.”

It’s… not really what Dixon expected from the rough-and-tumble brawler. “My job - I’m a farmhand - I kind of get cut up a lot, so I save up for disinfectant -”

“Sorry. I know you’ve been through a lot tonight. I just…” she sighs. “You know you can’t stay here, right?”

Dixon looks around - one of his lightbulbs got shattered somehow; his table is cracked in half; one of his chairs is missing three of its legs. And Theo’s voice - Don’t think you’re safe here - keeps echoing in Dixon’s head. He finds himself rubbing at the pointed tips of his ears again, falling into the same semiconscious fidget. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.”

Sylvia looks contemplative for a moment. Dixon gets the uncomfortable sense that he’s being… scanned. Analyzed. “You could go to a hotel, and lay low. Or maybe take whatever money you have and skip town. Or.”

“Or…?”

“I’m looking for my brother. Those jackasses… they took him. And when I find Eric, I’ll be able to find the brains behind all the hybrid disappearances, and maybe even figure out how to stop her.”

“That’s insane. You want me to help you find the boss of the people who just got done kicking me around like a football?”

“I never suggested any such thing. But now that you mention it...”

Her wry tone and smile make Dixon’s stomach roll with fear. “No. No way; you had the right idea the first time. I need to get out of dodge.”

“You could. But say you didn’t.” The intensity in Sylvia’s dark brown eyes burns even brighter than it did when she was in life-or-death combat. “Say you went with me and helped me find the ringleader, and say we brought her down. We could make Portland safe. Hell, we could maybe make this place livable again. Can you imagine?”

A writer like Dixon is too curious for his own good. “You keep saying ‘her’. Do you actually know who’s in charge of these people?”

“Most of the wild rumors you've heard are completely true.” Sylvia leans forward, so animated that her exhaustion seems all but forgotten. “After my brother disappeared, I started talking to people. Everyone who would listen to me. But so few people want to talk about the disappearances… I didn’t get much information, but here’s what I do know.” She holds up one finger. “A Xatu hybrid - that’s a Psychic-Flying-type, evolved, if you don’t already know - named Eloise Riggs is the mastermind.” She holds up another finger. “I also know that a very, very small number of the hybrids who disappeared have been seen on the streets afterward, but they weren’t acting like themselves. They moved like sleepwalkers, and didn’t seem to recognize…” her voice chokes up a bit before she simply said, “anyone,” and held up a third finger. “And the last thing I know is that no matter how powerful she is, this Eloise chick is just a person. And she can be taken out, just like any other person.”

There’s a long, long silence. “You… your optimism is really overwhelming, you know that?”

She shrugs, though the wolfish grin on her face suddenly looks a little bit sad. “Look, I know we just met. But think about it. I can pierce that Zorua woman’s illusions - that’s how I knew to find you tonight - and you’re a Dark-type, so you’ll resist Eloise’s brain shenanigans. I can lead us right to her, and then - “

“And then what? We ask her nicely to quit? Or do you really think we can beat up an evolved hybrid who’s powerful enough to make half of Portland’s hybrids vanish in the night?”

“I haven’t got anything to lose by trying.” Sylvia’s voice is solemn now, quiet. “My brother is the only family I’m close to. He's all I've got.” She looks Dixon right in the eye, so intensely that he couldn’t look away if he tried. “And I think you’ve got everything to gain. Think about it. If we get rid of the kingpin - queenpin, whatever - who’s messing with the balance of things, we might be able to get Portland stabilized again. We might be able to get this city livable again. This city could be prosperous and safe. Can you imagine? Going back to being able to just live regular lives?”

Dixon’s protests die in his throat - because the truth is, he can imagine. His books of poetry filling again. No more cut-up hands and scratched-raw bug bites from long, draining days in the field. Being able to walk around town without constantly looking over his shoulder… God, he misses living like that.

And looking into Sylvia’s bright eyes, remembering the courage with which she fought… he starts to think it might be possible.

“Okay. When do we get started?”

-

“Now. Dixon, wake up; we have to leave now.”

Threadbare sheets scrape at Dixon’s skin as he sits up, spurred out of his bleary-eyed sleep by the sound of Sylvia’s voice. Instinctively, he moves to scratch at his shoulder, but when his fingernails run against a bandage, he stops, remembering where he is.

Greenish light filters in through the motel windows, a sickly pallor cast by dying streetlights. It’s the dead of night, but Sylvia is wide awake. Dixon smooths his shirt and walks over to where she’s crouched at the window - but almost as soon as he leans down to peer through the tiny gap between the curtains, Sylvia gets up. He doesn’t know what spooked her - all he sees is an empty street.

“She’s down there,” Sylvia says. “She’s got the poison guy, and someone else tied up. They’re all camouflaged, though. You’re gonna have to follow my lead.” She’s already ready to go - a small satchel thrown over her shoulder, a drab jacket covering her from the cold, shoes already on her feet. “Just stay close to me.” And with that, she pushes open the door and hurries into the night.

“Wh - Sylvia!” But Dixon doesn’t actually shout, as much as he’d like to. If Sylvia isn’t just seeing things, then that means that Theo and Vincent might be in hearing range. Instead, Dixon groans, pushing himself to his feet and pulling his own belongings together. Then it’s a mad, breathless scramble down creaky motel stairs.

As Dixon hurries to catch up with Sylvia, he pats his pockets and reflects on what they left back in their room - he has a key, a few bandages, some money in case they get stuck out on the road and need some food; Sylvia’s provisions are smaller. If they don’t return before sunup, the disinfectant, photos, and journals that the two of them smuggled out of Dixon’s apartment will most likely be forfeit to the motel owner. Being only two people and leaving in a hurry - Theo and Vincent might make a return within the night, Dixon had feared, maybe even with backup - they hadn’t been able to take much. And so, with Dixon being a marked man and Sylvia having nowhere else to go, they’d been living in this motel for the better part of the past two weeks, with Sylvia hunting for any sign of Theo in the night while Dixon kept watch and ran out for essentials with his and Sylvia’s dwindling supply of cash.

But these memories and worries are for another time. A bony elbow shoves into Dixon from one side. Sylvia is forcing him into an alleyway; he lets himself be pushed along, though Sylvia is strong enough that he probably would be pushed regardless. He can barely see Sylvia in the pitch black of the alley, but he can feel her grip tight on his wrist. Washed-out patches of light pick out Sylvia’s vague silhouette as she crouches down next to him. She leans forward, half-out of the alley, waiting and watching.

“Now,” she hisses, pulling him back to his feet. With effort to keep his steps light, he follows her; they’re both hurrying, making up the gap, walking the fine line between too far for Sylvia to track their quarry and too close to stay unnoticed. Their plan - hiding until they’re in danger of losing track of Theo and Vincent, then rushing to stay close - isn’t the best, but it’s the only one they’ve got.

And so with Sylvia holding his hand, Dixon shuffles through the night, in and out of alleyways and hiding places and secret corners until -

Sylvia pulls him into another alley, but this time, she doesn’t lean half-out into the road. Instead, she sits back on her heels and turns toward Dixon. He can barely see her in the darkness, but he makes out the shape of a grim smile on her face. “We’re here.”

“Where?”

She gestures back up the road, the way the two of them had been walking. “I can see the auras of a lot of people up ahead. All hybrids. The missing people - there’s no one it could be but them.”

Dixon feels as if his heart might burst out of his chest. “And Eloise Riggs?”

“I’ve never seen her aura, so I wouldn’t know for sure if she was here, but I doubt it. She’s fully-evolved, so her aura would be overwhelmingly powerful, and nothing I see matches that.”

“And neither Theo or Vincent noticed you - us?”

“I’m stubborn, not suicidal. If they had even got a glimpse of me, we’d be running for our lives.” She turns around, just barely peering past the wall - and hisses, “Shit! They turned around!”

“Wh - did they see us?”

Get back and stay down, now.”

Sylvia is already heeding her own advice, scooting backward at full speed. Dixon, feeling more exposed than ever, follows suit; he shoves himself behind a dumpster, each aching breath rapid and shallow.

It feels like years before Sylvia heaves a massive sigh. “Okay,” she says, “okay. I think we’re clear.” She stands; Dixon stares at her, and as she holds out a hand to help him up, “Sorry about that. They finished up their conversation with the guy at the door and walked back the way they came.”

“God,” Dixon mutters, feeling lightheaded. “That was too close. Maybe we should go back.”

“If you want to, go ahead,” Sylvia grunts, but she sounds more tense than before. Something tells Dixon that if he were to actually take her up on the offer, her resolve would fail. And… he misses the way things used to be. She’s his best shot at living a peaceful life again, so -

“Nah. We already did the hard part, right? All that’s left is to punch out a Xatu hybrid powerful enough to make, like, a quarter of Portland into mindless zombies.”

“You really do have a sense of humor!” Sylvia’s wry grin returns, and seeing her relatively at-ease quiets the thundering of Dixon’s heart ever-so-slightly. But then it’s back to business immediately. “Alright. I got a decent look at the building they stopped at. It’s a big warehouse. There was a doorman, too - I think they were human, based on the aura - so sneaking in is kinda gonna be a pain in the ass. How much experience do you have with climbing?”

-

As it turns out, breaking into warehouses is pretty different from climbing trees.

Finding a window old and decrepit enough to jimmy open that’s also not old enough to be completely rusted shut takes time. Dixon is adamant about not busting open a window - they don’t see any guards except for Sylvia’s doorman, but better safe than sorry. At last, they find themselves on a dusty, stone-cold concrete floor.

“Yech,” Sylvia mutters as she lands, brushing mildewy moisture off of her jeans. Dixon doesn’t bother - he gets filthier at work on a daily basis, and in any case, he needs to check out their immediate surroundings. It’s really dark - the streetlights on the back side of the warehouse are defunct, and the only light is the faint ambience from outdoors and a fluorescent stripe running beneath what looks like the crack on a door. The longer Dixon’s eyes adjust, the more certain he becomes of where they are - a supply room. Long, metal-grate racks store a myriad of items, from old bottles of glass cleaner to bedsheets to what looks like lead-lined suitcases, no doubt full of hybrid-energy stones. While some of the items are old, it looks like this place has been used recently. Its nature is foul, decaying, but the warehouse is clearly still alive.

“I think we’re in some sort of storage area,” Dixon whispers. Sylvia’s rounded ears twitch in reply; she only nods, seeming slightly distracted as she moves toward the door. Suddenly, Dixon wonders how long she can keep up this whole “aura” thing.

Whatever Sylvia’s limits are, she clearly hasn’t hit them yet. “No one’s close. Lemme…” she tries the doorknob; the faint creak of the door opening nearly makes Dixon jump out of his skin, but nothing else reacts to Sylvia’s actions. Dixon peers past her shoulder; he can make out the wide expanse of a warehouse floor. Steely fluorescence illuminates the floor. Huge racks that once housed goods have been shoved aside or removed entirely; in their place, what looks like several dozen cots have been moved in. Most eerily, nearly all of the cots look occupied. It’s hard to tell from where he’s standing, but Dixon is pretty sure that most of the people are asleep. Though near the door, barely visible at this distance, Dixon sees a man in green wrestling with a hooded figure.

“... rather not give you the Everstone treatment.” The voice, gruff and raspy, echoes across the warehouse. “But if you give me trouble, I’m not gonna hesitate.”

“Go th’fuck ahead,” the hooded figure spits, trying to wrest their way out of the other man’s grip. With a start, Dixon realizes he recognizes the voice - the Fire-type that he’d seen the crowds ganging up on all that time ago, the day Vincent and Theo broke into his house. “I’m sick of being pushed around - an’ I got nothing left to lose!”

Fire burns up the hood, starting right where the captive’s mouth should be. In its vivid red light, Dixon sees the Fire-type lunge at his captor, seemingly uncaring that his hands are tied behind his back. The man staggers backward, but the flames are growing, their reach expanding - and the skirmish is all the louder in the silence of the unconscious hybrids -

The human grabs something from a desk behind him and throws it as hard as he can, straight toward the hybrid. The object, whatever it is, is clearly blunt and heavy, because when it strikes the hybrid clear across the face, it’s enough to stop the gout of fire burning in his mouth. In the borrowed time, the human grabs another object, but now, he runs straight at the hybrid with it - and even before he grabs the hybrid by the collar, before he presses the object to the unmarred side of the hybrid’s face, before the hybrid screams in pain again, Dixon knows exactly what it is. His stomach rolls. Just because he’s seen others stricken by Everstones doesn’t make it any easier to see this stranger hurt like this.

“That rat bastard,” Dixon swears he detects the edge of a feral growl in Sylvia’s voice, even over the screams. “I’m gonna slit his throat -”

“Don’t,” Dixon grabs her by the wrist, looking up to meet her rage-wild eyes. “We’re both as vulnerable to Everstone poisoning as he is. If we come out now, we’ll just lose the element of surprise.”

Besides, the Fire-type is starting to make a comeback. He’s clearly in agony, but they manage to stay coherent enough to ram one knee straight into the human’s instep. The Everstone falls away; the hybrid, face bloodied on one side and burned on the other, stalks toward the human, fire roiling in his maw again -

The flash of light is lurid, violent. Red and magenta and violet and white smear themselves across Dixon’s entire field of vision, dazzling him, burning into his retinas.

And when his vision clears, he can see that the tales about Eloise Riggs did not exaggerate by much.

She appears between the Fire-type and the human, alabaster skin and deep red hair, waist-length, shimmers like something ephemeral. She floats above the concrete floor by a full foot, surrounded by pink light. A plethora of wide eyes and too many pairs of wings wings, traced from this light, float behind her.

The flames that the Fire-type spits fly, but Eloise raises a few sets of her wings and the fireball dissipates against it. Seeming to sense the shift in the wind, the Fire-type turns, but Eloise flies forward, so fast that her body seems to blur, and blocks him with wings spread wide.

It’s plenty of time for the human to sneak up behind the Fire-type again and shove the Everstone between his shoulder blades. While he reels, the human pulls something out of his pocket - it’s hard to see from here, but it looks like a beaded necklace - and ties it around the Fire-type’s neck.

“That could have been handled much more elegantly, Saul,” Eloise says, finally landing on the floor with the faint click-clack of shoes against pavement. Despite ringing clearly through the entire building, Eloise’s voice is quiet. Flat. Dispassionate. The flaring eyes and wings behind her fade into nothingness as she turns her attention toward the Fire-type hybrid, who seems to be overwhelmed by the Everstone exposure and is kneeling on the floor. “Did Theodosia and Vincent leave you too difficult a task?”

Saul rolls his shoulders, still looking a little pained. “It might’ve gotten dicey if you hadn’t shown up. Thanks, boss.”

“It is no trouble. I would hate to lose you.” Her voice is as affectless as ever. More eyes of light appear around her, swiveling to look at the hybrid on the floor. “A Fire-type. What species are you?”

No reply. Eloise waits a moment; then, red light surges up through the veins on her hand, spreading to grab the Fire-type’s chin in a psychic miasma and jerk their head upward, forcing him to make eye contact. The smoke and the fire are gone now. The hybrid’s mien is now one of pure fear. “G-Growlithe.”

Eloise nods. “Very good. You fight well - and you will serve me well.”

“W-wait, no, I’m not gonna - “

The wings and swirl of eyes reappear at once. The glow around the Growlithe’s chin disappears, but Eloise’s hand still shimmers with power. She presses her palm against her victim’s forehead; a faint glow forms in his eyes, and his jaw drops. The crimson light grows brighter and brighter; with a flash nearly as bright as Eloise’s teleport, the light flares, and the Fire-type screams, his voice transparently agonized.

“You may wait outside, Saul.”

As the human backs away, nodding, Dixon feels Sylvia lean forward again, pushing the door open further. He grips tighter, “Wait, she’d kill you -”

Tears are rolling down Sylvia’s face. “They took my brother,” she says, her voice strangled by sorrow and fury. “They took my brother, and this is what they did to him -”

Dixon’s eyes dart around the room as he prays for an answer; outside, on the warehouse floor, he sees only an ending. Every single eye of light has turned toward the precarious hiding spot, trained on Sylvia. And slowly, slowly, Eloise’s head turns, too, as the aura framing her hand and the Growlithe’s face fade.

“Saul, you may stay.” Dixon can feel those artificial eyes of light every bit as strongly as a human’s plain gaze. “This Growlithe should be stunned for a while, but I need him to remain here. A complication has arisen.”

“Wh - did someone find the warehouse -”

Dixon, still relentlessly holding Sylvia’s wrist, tries to back away. If they can just get to the window, they might have the chance to run and hide -

“It is of no concern.”

And, with the outlines of two bright red eyes rising straight above her to look down on Dixon and Sylvia, she extends her hand toward the door.

Dixon expects a blast of psychic force, but what actually happens is far, far worse. The sleeping figures, a blend of chimeras and hybrids that could almost pass for human, begin to stir. They stand to their feet in horrifying unison, and Dixon realizes that this was another detail about Eloise’s operation that wasn’t embellished. These people - blank-eyed, slack-jawed, arms hanging limply at their sides - they’re nothing more than puppets.

“I do not know how you found this place,” Eloise intones, “but I recognize one of you. I saw you in your brother’s memories, Sylvia Ruiz.”

For a moment, Dixon thinks his hands are shaking, but no - it’s Sylvia. Her tail came loose at some point; it’s bristling, fluffed out like a bottlebrush, as she stares into the crowd with disbelieving, desperate eyes. Faces shadowed by the red glow of Eloise’s eyes, the crowd shuffles, the waters part, forming a wide, empty space directly beneath one of the fluorescent lamps shining down from the ceiling -

The Mienfoo is every bit as chimeric as Sylvia. Gold hair flows in long, uneven matts behind round ears, and a forked tail just like Sylvia’s hangs down behind him. He shares the same lanky body type as his Sylvia - as his sister; Dixon can tell without so much as being told - but there’s no fire in his eyes. There’s just the same glassy nothingness that blights the throng of puppets.

Sylvia doesn’t move. Doesn’t speak. Dixon can hear a choked sob rising in her throat.

“He is one of my sleepers now.” For the first time tonight, Dixon’s anger rises above his fear, Eloise’s unflinching, unwavering stoic calm finally cracking through Dixon’s terror. “He will be one of the many hybrids who assists me and mine in my takeover of Mount Hood and Portland - but he does not have to be.”

The eyes above Eloise rise higher, pointing further downward. Dixon’s stomach rolls as fear reasserts itself again; he knows that Eloise is looking right at him. “Dixon Perry. If my enforcers had told me what you are, I would have approached you much more straightforwardly.” Now, Eloise herself begins to rise, hovering above the crowd. Despite the distance, her gaze - both her natural gaze and that of the eyes surrounding her - falls on Dixon with unerring accuracy. “You are a Dark-type, the rare hybrid that even I, in all my power, cannot control directly. However, you and Sylvia Ruiz seem to have established a rapport. And so I offer the two of you an exchange: work for me, and Eric Ruiz -” maybe it’s by command, maybe by coincidence, but the husk of Sylvia’s brother shudders at the sound of his name - will be returned to his senses. He will go free, and I will keep him safe, even as my power and influence grow.”

“Wait, are you actually trying to make another Theo - two Theos!?”

“Theodosia’s handling is my concern, not yours, Saul. Now be quiet. I have business to attend to with these two.”

At long last, Sylvia’s gaze breaks from her brother. She turns toward Dixon, that same wild-eyed desperation on her face. And as he grips her wrist, she grips his.

“Sylvia - Sylvia, we can’t - ”

“I can’t just leave my brother, Dixon. I can’t.”

“But you said we could make this city good again, safe again -”

“You will be safe,” Eloise’s imperious proclamation cuts off Dixon and Sylvia’s feeble argument. “I will make the both of you, and what family you have, safe. Such is the agreement I make with all of those who would be better off serving me of their own volition than as walkers - or dead.”

The hopeful girl that Dixon saw before is gone - no, Dixon thinks; she needs his help to be brave now, not the other way around. He finally steps out of the supply room, still holding Sylvia’s wrist in his, and meets Eloise’s eyes. Her gaze is piercing - but no more than that. Her powers to perceive, to twist, to control the mind have no effect on him.

And so Dixon raises one hand and fires off a crackling ribbon of black matter, fizzling with bright red energy, straight toward Eloise -

And the attack cuts through her wings and blinds her eyes -

And she falls.

This, Dixon thinks, for the millionth time in the past half a month, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

“Fuh - dammit - sleepers, get the intruders!”

At the sound of Saul’s voice, the crowd stirs again, shuffling toward Dixon and Sylvia on stiff, shambling feet. But Eric Ruiz doesn’t move. For a moment, hope stirs in Dixon’s chest that somehow Eric’s going to fight off Eloise’s control - until he raises his hands, and in a grim pantomime of his sister’s favorite move, forms an orb of blue light between his palms, and fires it straight at Sylvia.

Dixon manages to pull Sylvia back in time for the aura attack to only glance off of her shoulder, but she looks stunned - the sphere rips through her hoodie sleeve, leaving a faint burn and a welter of pale blue smoke in its path. The tiny burn makes her show far more pain than she did even when her face was gashed and she’d been roughed up.

The crowd isn’t stopping, but Eric takes advantage of his clear path, running right for Sylvia and aiming a glowing red fist at her. Dixon interposes his body between the two, trying to grab Eric’s arm; his success is mixed. Sylvia falls backward, staring up in incomprehension; Dixon manages to slow Eric’s blow, but he still finds himself nearly dropping from sheer pain. He gets the feeling that he’s lucky that his ribs aren’t broken.

“Sylvia!” Eric struggles in Dixon’s grasp, trying to force his way into the supply closet. Dixon doesn’t want to hurt his friend’s brother, but he’s starting to run low on options, especially as the rest of the crowd of hybrids closes in. “We have to go!”

But Sylvia, when she stands, moves toward Eric rather than away. “Eric, please,” she begs, shouldering Dixon away to look her brother in the eye, “it’s me. It’s your little sister, Sylvia. Please. Come home to me. Come home, Eric.”

This time, Dixon is sure he’s not imagining the hesitation in Dixon’s bearing. A brief flicker of fear and pain flickers across his face -

He lifts his hand and, despite Dixon’s best efforts, his elbow comes down on Sylvia’s face. A stream of blood wells from her nose.

Dixon makes his choice in a split second. Fairy energy pours from his hands, just like when he grappled Theo. With one hand he digs fae smoke and fingernails into Eric’s arm; with the other, he punches Eric in the nose, hoping to disorient him - as much as one of these marionette hybrids can be disoriented. Eric staggers backward, and Dixon lets him go, instead grabbing Sylvia’s arm and pulling her toward the open window.

“Dixon! That’s my brother! That’s my brother!” Sylvia screams, reaching back even as Dixon pulls so hard he nearly knocks them both to the ground from the effort.

“He’s trying to kidnap you! They’re all trying to kidnap us!” The gap between the window and the floor is too large; keeping one hand on Sylvia, Dixon pulls a flimsy old table beneath the window and prays that it’ll hold his and Sylvia’s weight. “Now come on - I’m not going to leave without you!”

“I would advise the two of you against running.” Chills run up Dixon’s spine at the sound of Eloise’s voice. He hadn’t thought he’d killed her or anything, but he had hoped she wouldn’t be up so quickly. “It will only make things more difficult for you.”

But her words have the opposite of the desired effect. As Dixon hops up onto the table, crouching in anticipation to take off, he turns back to see Sylvia staring at the crowd of brainwashed hybrids, silhouetted in red, Eric at their forefront. Her face contorts in pain -

And quick as greased lightning, Sylvia jumps from the table to the window, launching herself outside.

“You have dared to resist me and invade my sanctum. This I cannot abide. No matter where you go, you will not be safe.”

I know, Dixon thinks, fear ice-cold in his chest as he, too, leaps out the window and escapes into the night.

-

The farm looks bizarre at night, with no sunlight shining down on the fields and crops. They half-ran, half-trudged all the way here; Dixon feels like his lungs are about to burst, but he had to get himself and Sylvia away from Eloise, and this was the only place he could think of. But with how underpopulated this area is, it might well have been suicidal.

Sylvia doesn’t seem to care. She doesn’t even seem to notice when Dixon collapses into one of the rocking chairs on the porch like he’s on death’s door. She just stands, hands balled into fists, shoulders trembling in the starlight.

Dixon grimaces. He’s still shaking, ribs aching from Eric’s attacks; the last thing he wants to do is to try and play comforter. But someone has to. “Sylvia… I’m sorry - “

She turns toward Dixon, and her eyes are literally burning. Blue fire glows in her irises, flaring with her rage. However, her voice is icy cold. “I’m going to kill her, Dixon. I’m going to rip her throat out.”

There’s nothing Dixon can think to say. So, for the moment, he just lays a hand on her shoulder. He can’t tell who’s trembling more - him or her.

But Eloise, as twisted and awful as she is, was right about one thing. “You know she’ll find us, right?”

“Let her. I’ll shove an Aura Sphere down her throat, and -”

“Sylvia, no.” Dixon stands and looks her right in the eye. For a moment, the anger in her eyes makes him want to back down, but no - for both their sakes, he has to continue. “Sylvia, you can’t just charge in guns blazing. She’s got at least three henchmen, stocks of Everstones, enough psychic power to turn someone catatonic in a single touch, and a brainwashed army. We have to be smart.”

She doesn’t reply for a long, long moment. Then, abruptly, the fire dies, and before Dixon knows what’s happening, he finds himself holding a crying Sylvia.

“We can’t do this,” she sobs. “We can’t do this.”

From a logical perspective, she’s entirely right. The odds are completely against them - it’s two against over two dozen, where most of the enemies are hybrids, and a lot of them are going to be more powerful than Sylvia and Dixon combined. But he finds himself remembering the passion in Sylvia’s voice in the wreckage of his apartment. The sheer force of hope she brought with him, the force that got Dixon to go with her to the warehouse from hell in the first place.

And he realizes he doesn’t want to see that hope die.

“You’re probably right,” Dixon admits. “We’re probably going to get brainwashed, and-slash-or die horribly. But now, neither of us has anything to lose. And we still have everything to gain.”

She sniffles. “One of those… sleepers she has is my brother. I can’t hurt my brother.”

“I don’t think you’ll have to. Those things - erm, people - don’t really seem to operate without orders. So if we take Eloise out, then we’ll stop the whole thing.”

Sylvia doesn’t speak for a long, long moment; Dixon finally braces himself. Just like he needed someone to spur him on, now Sylvia needs him. “Do you really want to leave your brother there alone?”

The blue fire sparks in her eyes again, but only for a moment. A sad smile twists her face.

“Okay, Dixon. When do we get started?”

-

It’s hardly a place for a dramatic last stand, Dixon thinks, but the irony just can’t be beat.

The farm isn’t a perfect place for a brawl. Outside, it’s incredibly open, with nowhere to hide but the farmhouse, where it would be easy for Dixon or Sylvia to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers. But at the same time, the open space will prevent Eloise from ambushing him or Sylvia; the farmhouse will provide a place to hole up if things go wrong, as well as a convenient hiding spot for Dixon. And frankly, it’s not like they have many options. Moving back into the city would only expend precious energy and time.

Of course, all of this planning will be moot if Eloise doesn’t try to hunt them down tonight, but Dixon gets the sense that someone powerful and domineering like her won’t just sit on her thumbs while two people that slighted her run around free. The last of Dixon’s assumptions is the most dangerous, and the biggest gamble - he gets the idea that based on her teleporting ability, the slowness of her sleepers, and the apparent size of her ego, Eloise will probably try to take them on alone.

This is the logic behind his plan - Sylvia sits beneath the shade of a pear tree; Dixon hides in the farmhouse, waiting in ambush. With Dixon being “the rare hybrid that Eloise can’t control directly”, or whatever, he figures she won’t be able to notice him as easily as she would Sylvia. He had been hesitant to recommend that Sylvia essentially act as bait, but she’d simply nodded when he’d proposed the idea.

And now, all that’s left to do is wait.

Dixon has never seen the farm at night. It’s strange, being close to the city, yet barely being able to see it. It wasn’t long ago that the skyline would burn with streetlights. Maybe when Eloise is gone, he can see that again. Maybe -

Bright red light flashes outside.

Dixon presses his face against the front window and immediately spots Sylvia in the half-light of Eloise’s wings, rolling out of the way of some attack. He doesn’t see anyone else; his heart leaps. She did it. She came after them alone.

Now for the hard part - to get the drop on Eloise. Dixon carefully, carefully pushes the door open, watching Eloise’s multitude of flickering eyes in case one of them turns toward the farmhouse. Thankfully, most of them are focused on Sylvia, who’s giving Eloise far more hell than Theo or Vincent could’ve dreamed.

“Where is your Impidimp accomplice?” Eloise’s voice is unstrained, unchanged, even as she throws her whole arm into sending a bladed, glowing-blue arc of air flying at Sylvia. “I was prepared to barter with him again, yet all I’ve found is a second common Mienfoo.”

Deathly silence is Sylvia’s one reply. She throws herself into a kick, indigo light glowing along the sole of her foot; Eloise disappears in a red flash, then reappears in the space Sylvia had occupied. She falls to the ground with a crash - and she doesn’t get up.

“Sylvia!” Dixon’s cry comes without thinking - and, as Eloise turns to snap her gaze onto him, so does the Dark Pulse that shoots forth from his hand. Eloise staggers, a few of her eyes blinking into nonexistence at the hit. Without waiting to see if he’s done any real damage, Dixon bounds down the porch stairs and runs toward Sylvia, grimacing at the ache in his ribs. “Sylvia, are you okay?”

Thankfully, she’s already starting to pull herself to her feet. That blue fire is still there and shows no sign of dying. “I’ll be fine.” She wipes a clod of earth and grass off her face. “That Dark move you did. You think you can do it again?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know how strong I can - “

Keep doing it.”

They don’t get more time. With both hands, Eloise summons a new power - Dixon recognizes Fairy-type energy in the pale pink glow, but he’s never seen this attack. A bright beam forms around her palms; then, with a flash, it releases. A fire both hot and cold burns Dixon to the bone; he drops like a rock, and he sees Sylvia fall beside him. With blurred vision, he watches an unhurried Eloise float toward them.

“Do you really think I wouldn’t have had a way to deal with your kind?” Eloise’s eyes - all of them - stare straight at Dixon, cold and contemplative. She reaches down toward him; he manages to raise his hands, but there’s no strength in his limbs, and she takes him by the throat with ease. He feels himself being lifted like a ragdoll, his meager kicks utterly useless. “Your immunity to my Psychic abilities makes you difficult to manage, but not impossible. I am no fool, Dixon Perry. And underestimating me shall be your undoing.”

Blue light, razor sharp, glows within her hand. Dixon’s struggles, though futile, grow frantic, he doesn’t want this, it’s not supposed to end here -

Swirling white stars form in Sylvia’s palm and collide with Eloise’s head. It’s enough to break her grip, and Dixon falls again - but this time, he doesn’t just lay down. He raises his hand, and with all his might, he fires a Dark Pulse. Eloise shudders in midair. She raises her hands again, fairy energy forming, but Dixon surges upward; he grabs her leg, pulling her down to earth with him, another Dark Pulse building in his own hand.

It turns out to be unnecessary when another kick, once more laced with indigo energy, sends Eloise flying and crashing back down to earth.

Dixon follows Sylvia in her furious pursuit; Eloise tries to teleport again, but Dixon fires the Dark Pulse and Eloise staggers, crying out. Then Sylvia is upon her, blue fire eclipsing Eloise’s red glow.

Eloise Rigg’s eyes widen -

Sylvia screams, a massive Aura Sphere forming in her hand, blinding like a miniature sun -

There’s a flash, white light blinding Dixon, short-circuiting his senses -

And when his gaze clears, he sees Eloise’s wings and eyes, one by one, fade away.

-

Three tired, beaten-down people sit on the bus out of Portland three nights later.

The vehicle had cost an arm and a leg, but neither Dixon nor Sylvia had cared, and Eric is only just beginning to regain his capacity for caring. It had been necessary anyway - the death of Eloise Riggs hadn’t meant the end of her operation.

Sylvia and Dixon had returned to the warehouse, and had found it surprisingly empty, at least where henchmen were concerned. Dixon had barred the front door for caution’s sake anyway The sleepers were all still standing in their huddled crowd, and Eric had been easy enough to extract. It seemed that he’d forgotten that he’d been ordered to attack the two of them.

“What about the rest of them?” Dixon had asked. “We can’t possibly track down all their families and friends - I doubt Eloise would’ve cared to keep records on who’s who - “

A sudden slam at the side door had drawn their attention. The entire goon crew - Saul, Theo, and Vincent - were there, staring stunned at the situation. Theo had shouted an order; Dixon had managed to grab Eric fast enough to prevent him from acting, but the other sleepers had been ready to kill. Dixon and Sylvia hadn’t been in any shape to run, but they hadn’t needed to. As soon as they dragged Eric from the warehouse, the thugs had stopped bothering about them.

And, Dixon mused, their reasoning was pretty easy to see now. There hadn’t been any point to chasing down the people who’d killed Eloise when the three thugs still had control of the sleepers. They’d won the battle, and saved Eric, but the war…

Dixon casts a glance at the Ruiz family. The siblings are wrapped in an uneasy embrace, both tense, staring off into the distance. Dixon can't tell which one of them looks more dead-eyed.

Whatever Psychic-type mumbo jumbo Eloise had done, it doesn’t seem to be irreparable. Eric, within a few hours, had been capable of at least vaguely recognizing Sylvia. These past three days, he’s regained his mobility and even a bit of his speech, but he doesn’t have much to say. The poor guy is traumatized. He’ll probably never recover.

That was a big factor in the decision to leave Portland. Sylvia and Eric hate their mother; Dixon’s home was destroyed; even if Theo, Vincent, and Saul all dropped dead and every sleeper returned to sanity, none of them could feel safe in Portland ever again. Sylvia killed Eloise Riggs, but she scarred every one of them.

Maybe they can find a brighter future, but none of them can find it in that cursed city.

Besides, it’s not exactly going to get better from here on out. Something tells Dixon that, while the ring of henchmen may not have Eloise’s abilities, they’re every bit as power-hungry as she was, and won’t hesitate to use a brainwashed hybrid army to horrible ends. Sylvia and Dixon don’t want to be there when they do, and it wouldn’t be safe for anyone, hybrid or human. News from other cities has been sparse and difficult to verify; maybe there’s someplace safer. They don’t have anything to lose by trying, after all, and they have everything to gain.

A single blank notebook sits in Dixon’s backpack, his whole body of work lost. He thinks about trying to write something on this bumpy ride, but then decides against it. Maybe later he’ll find the desire to, but for now… he slumps against the wall of the bus, turns his gaze to the window where he can see the dwindling traces of his city receding into the distance.

The stars are beautiful above Portland’s flickering, futile skyline.
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Time to grade all the WaR stories I've already read :beatoriche:

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