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AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD…
All eyes were on Lindsey, and it was making her nervous.
She had been through several harrowing adventures lately, in imitation of Jackson Turner, the star reporter who was now missing. One such adventure had almost cost her life, but that event was almost insignificant to how jittery she was feeling now.
Lindsey had always watched the heroes of Paragon City with unenvied fascination, but always felt like they had kept their distance from the regular citizens. It was, in her mind, like an exclusive clique; sure, the heroes would talk to people, but only to help their careers or missions. However, this group seemed different; they seemed interested in what she was going to say.
"Jeffery Hobart had been experimenting with frequencies, specifically the ones generated by the human body." She flipped through her extensive notes. "He also theorized that by producing various sounds, one could trigger a resonance between it and the one the body produced, and this resonance would disrupt what the mind was doing and alter thought patterns. Dr. Hobart was testing his theories on the mentally ill when Statesman told him to stop."
"What happened to his research?" asked Medusa.
"His project was abandoned. It appears Statesman deemed his work ‘dangerously unethical,’ and wanted him to stop. After that, he got his certification as a teacher, but as Jeffery Hamlin."
"But you don’t think he really stopped, do you?" asked Fixit. "I mean, Webb sure as hell didn’t quit his little experiments with the portals."
"No, I don’t think he did. Have any scientists in this city stopped their experiments?" she asked with a chuckle and a flip of her sandy blonde hair. "Mad, naked geniuses keep you guys busy."
"What makes you think he has anything to do with Gamester?" Nightbringer scowled. "If Hamlin is Piper, how did he go from helping people to becoming a supervillain?"
"How well do you know your fairy tales?" she asked. The tattooed hero shook his head, as did the others. Lindsey sighed, but continued. "Particularly, the one called The Pied Piper of Hamelin?"
The group exchanged an uneasy look. How obvious, they all thought.
"What was that one about?" asked Prismatic, a slightly confused look on her opalescent features.
"The Pied Piper charmed all the rats away from the city of Hamelin. When the townspeople didn’t pay him for his services, he lured away all the children," explained the reporter.
The translucent heroine nodded in understanding. "Then I think we owe Mr. Hamlin a visit."
Fixit cracked his knuckles. "I think you’re right. Mind if we tag along?"
Nightbringer smiled. "Not at all."
Just then a well-dressed young man came up to them.
"Hey, you guys! I’m a big fan of yours! Can I get you guys to sign this?" He enthusiastically asked Fixit, but he was also looking at Red Sniper and Medik. He handed them a long, folded piece of paper.
The three shrugged. "None of us have a pen," Medik said.
"Don’t worry. Consider yourself served," the young man replied, and took off towards City Hall.
"What the…" growled Red Sniper.
"Oh, no," groaned Medik as he unfolded his paper.
"What is it?" Nightbringer asked.
"Eva Carlin-Webb filed a complaint with Hero Corps. We have to appear before a judicial board in two days." Medik looked the document over. "In fact, we have to stay out of any restricted zone until we’ve had our hearing. I guess we won’t be coming with you," he sighed apologetically.
"Tell you what," Nightbringer started, "You three go and talk with Webb. We’ll look for Hamlin and bring him in."
The three nodded and went to the large building, while the others, after getting the address from Lindsey, headed towards Eastgate.
The six children had been through here, thought Solanum. The signs of looting carried the tell tale signs of Delilah’s and Carlito’s abilities. The redhead was beginning to wonder if they would ever find the children.
She looked back at Nocturne, whose lifeless gaze was unnerving. Solanum had been hearing reports of heroes teaming up with villains throughout the day, all trying to find the Gamester. She wished they would all go back to the Rogue Isles or wherever they came from. She really didn’t like the woman.
They stopped for a moment to survey their surroundings once more. Both Psirene and Beguiler closed their eyes and concentrated; the twins could not only work independently of each other, but when psychically linked, they grew more powerful, their abilities reaching even further. Their minds scanning further than the eye could see, they searched for the six children.
An electronics store had been robbed, cleared out of its wiring and other components. A jewelry store, too, had been looted. Other than that, no other stores had been hit.
Pulling their minds back in, the pair shook their heads at the others.
"We couldn’t find them. I have no clue where they are," apologized Psirene.
The patrons of Pocket D looked at the group of kids who had just entered the club. They found it amusing that the children were all dressed in what looked like prep school uniforms.
"What is this, a field trip?" heckled one villain, who was staggering from all the booze in his system.
A bouncer went to the kids to remove them, since Pocket D was a twenty-one-and-over establishment. However, a little girl, no older than nine, grabbed him and spun him around, flinging him like an oversized doll. The bouncer crashed onto a table where a group of heroes were sitting, spilling drinks all over the group, and shattering the table from the sudden force of a heavy man landing on it.
Before he or anyone else could do anything, the regular dance music changed. Sounds of gentle flute music began to play, making everyone pause as they listened to it. Those seconds, however, proved costly. One by one, heroes and villains alike began to sway, and soon all in the nightclub were moving in unison, marching to the tune being played over the sound system.
Piper chuckled gleefully. The final strike was going to bring the city completely under Gamester’s control, and it wouldn’t take long, he thought, not long at all.
He looked at the six children, who watched him expectantly for their orders. All of them were gifted with superpowers, all of them were dangerous, and now that Piper managed to get a room full of villains and heroes under his control, none of them were needed.
Whispering to them all, he sent them out into the twilight gathering around Paragon City.
The door to the apartment shattered open, and the five heroes entered Jeffery Hamlin’s apartment.
"Well, if he started a life of crime to get rich, I can’t say I blame him," commented WhiteDiamond with a slight wrinkle in her nose. "Teachers don’t get paid a thing."
"Lindsey had said that the Pied Piper took the kids to punish their ungrateful parents," remarked Medusa, who was looking over every picture in the apartment. She had a fascination with forensic crime shows and ones going into the mind of a criminal; she was hoping to find some sort of clue into Hamlin’s rationale by looking at how he lived.
"He’s not here. I can’t sense him." called out the psychic from the back of the apartment. "But," she added as she joined the others, "I did find these."
She tossed a velvet bag onto the coffee table. The bag opened slightly and several diamonds spilled out. The others whistled in appreciation.
"Are those from VanBriesbocks?" asked Nightbringer.
White Diamond picked up one of the glittering stones. "Could be. There’s a number etched on the side of each diamond, that way it can be tracked in the event it gets stolen," she explained. "Unfortunately, it’s pretty small, so someone in the lab would have to check and see."
"Kinda like a VIN on a car," said Vision. "That’s pretty neat."
"Well, if this stone is representative of the rest of the bag, you could buy yourself several cars with just a handful," remarked WhiteDiamond. "These are pretty high-end."
Just then, Nightbringer’s phone went off.
"Nightbringer! It’s Tragic!"
"Oh, hey, what’s up?"
"We have been running our butts ragged fighting these Winterlords! Throughout the day, they kept getting stronger and stronger. But now, check out channel seven."
Nightbringer turned on the television, and flipped it to the requested channel. The news team was reporting apparently from Skyway City, and the picture was quite surreal.
The giant snowmen were turning to slush, no sign of any weapons, fire, or anything else that would reduce them to water. Their mouths opened as they screamed silently, struggling to stay alive.
"At six this evening, the Winterlords that had been terrorizing the city all began to lose their structure, melting pretty much as you see here. Whether or not it has anything to do with the explosion that was heard earlier this afternoon in Aerie Plaza is not clear. But Action 7 reporter Laura Starr was on hand to interview two heroes on the scene."
The picture cut to two heroes, one in black and blue armor, the other looked more like a doctor. The names "Spectreblade" and "Dr. Collins," appeared underneath the pair.
"Spectreblade had apprehended a group of children robbing Exarch Industries, when he himself was captured by the Gamester’s associate known as Piper," explained Dr. Collins. "I helped him get away, but we found in the base a temple to the Winter King. The temple was destroyed, which may have triggered the collapse of the Winterlords themselves."
"Do you think it’s over?" asked the reporter.
"No, I do not," Spectreblade answered. "There are still several children missing from the Sussex Academy, not to mention Gamester and his associates are still out there, causing trouble."
Around the city, reports started flying in; Winterlords were collapsing into huge slush piles in the street, the bands of private school students were beginning to disappear as the heroes slapped teleportation tags on them. Nightbringer was beginning to wonder what it all meant when the city alarm network began to sound off.
At first, it was the usual droning whine that signalled an emergency, like an air raid or weather disaster, but then, it changed.
"Greetings, Citizens of Paragon City. As your newly appointed mayor and benefactor, I hope you have been enjoying my gifts of good will," the speech started.
"What the hell?" the leader of The Nameless asked to no one in particular.
From their hilltop vantage point, Solanum and the others heard the speech as well, as did all heroes, citizens and villains within earshot of the vast alarm system.
"But now, as fun as it has been for you and for me, it is time for it to come to an end." The Gamester announced. "While your heroes have been busy gathering gifts and playing with my minions, I have been rigging the city alarm system to my soundboard, and now, thanks to the skills of dear Piper," the cheerful voice suddenly turned to one filled with menace, "you will all belong to me."
The sound of flute playing came across the broadcast system.
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