Well it's been a little bit, hasn't it?
I got about a little over a third of this chapter finished when boom, real life came knocking, busted down my door, rummaged through my pockets for spare change, found nothing, and decided to abscond with my writing inspiration as penance. Don't worry, I'm doing a-okay now, just took me a bit to get my head on straight and feel creative again!
Let's see... In the interim, your lovely reviews on both the main story and side stories have been greatly appreciated. I revel in the chaos I caused with the last chapter. Seriously, I've been planning it out pretty much from day one. The scene where Skylar shows up at Wayne Manor and Alfred lets her inside has been written since I think... before Artemis was introduced if I remember right. It has of course, been edited since, but it just gives you an idea of exactly how excited I was for this arc.
I also got a few questions from reviewers, which I will answer now.
To the Guest asking who exactly has seen Skylar's real face so far on the Team, only Connor has. Dick and M'Gann have only ever seen her with her sunglasses on, and the rest have yet to meet her civilian persona.
I got a suggestion from newcomer Featherboi about an AU where Skylar wasn't successfully roused from the berserker state and the ramifications thereof, that is an excellent idea. Writing it will make me feel like a monster. Which means it's going on my list. Too dark? Pshaw, no such thing.
The final question/suggestion I received was about Skylar returning to Thanagar. I guess we'll just have to wait and see, won't we? ; )
That's all the questions I wanted to answer for now. Continuing. Jeez, this is a long author's note. If you've made it this far, good on you!
For this specific chapter, I feel the need to put a bit of a warning for two reasons.
First, this is the Halloween episode, thus it is spooky. It deals directly with multiple phobias, some of which are semi-detailed, others of which are downright ridiculous. Gotta add some levity, you know? So keep that in mind as you read. These parts are short and very easily skippable if they're too upsetting. I even had to stop after a bit after writing a section pertaining to my own crippling phobia. Why did I do this to myself, you ask? I have no idea.
Second, and far more importantly in my eyes, Ski'Lira displays some behavior in this chapter that can be interpreted as a form of self-harm and the topic of going on a self-destructive spiral is briefly mentioned. Nothing explicit occurs, but I think ignoring medical advice to one's own physical detriment definitely counts. She's not in a good place mentally (nor is anyone on the Team, really, thank ye gods for Dinah giving these kids some well-needed therapy). So keeping that in mind, just please watch out for yourselves if this is a point of possible distress.
I think that's everything I wanted to say for now. If I think of anything else as I finish off the last bits of the chapter, I'll put it in the author's note below.
ST. ROCH, LOUISIANA
OCTOBER 31ST, 2010
Halloween was the worst. There was something about the anonymity of costumes that drove people to be the lowest version of themselves, punctuated by the near-constant barrage of sugar hyped children running around. And if Halloween made normal citizens act insane, well, it was practically a field day for supervillains. As it was, both of her parents were both split across the city dealing with two completely separate threats. Usually, she would have joined them, but she was still deemed unfit for 'full duty', and thus she had been confined to street patrol duty.
Most of her bruising was gone, and her stitches had been removed the day prior ago, leaving only firm bandaging on her fingers for the last span of their (unfortunately uncharacteristically lengthy, as her regenerative abilities were still slowed) healing process. At this point they qualified as 'cracked' more than broken, but no one wanted her to take any chances. Basically it meant she could still use her hands and function semi-normally, as long as she was careful not to overtax herself. Something that was driving her slowly up the wall, and her patience with her increased recovery time was coming very close to snapping. It certainly didn't help that she was still on a strict diet, though she was now able to consume small amounts of fruits and vegetables along with her unseasoned meats and water.
Waffles were still banned for the foreseeable future.
Punching normal, human people in the face with her good hand, however, was still perfectly within her capabilities, a skill she had already used three times tonight.
One of those times had been a very intoxicated aspiring burglar who didn't think she was the real Hawkgirl (instead just wearing a very convincing costume) and had taken a swing at her to test it.
The police officer she'd waved down to take him to the station thought it was one of the funniest things she had ever heard.
After a few solid hours of watching over kids as they traversed the streets for candy, stopping potential vandals, and detaining participants in more serious crimes like stealing and mugging, Hawkgirl was more than ready for a short break. She allowed herself exactly forty five minutes at home, planning to take a quick shower, eat a hasty meal, hydrate, and get back out again. Part of it was necessity thanks to the chaos of the night, but it was mostly a personal decision. It just felt so good to be able to work again.
Of course, her plans were dashed completely as she heard the front door click open. From where she was rummaging through the freezer to scrounge for a few ice cubes for her water, she froze as a foreign scent washed over her senses. Growling under her breath, she dropped low to hide behind the counter, cursing the intruder's ill-timing. As she was freshly showered, she'd left all of her armor and her weapon upstairs, opting instead for a loose t-shirt and a pair of green plaid pajama pants until she was ready to put her uniform back on for patrol.
The primary stench she registered was immediately identified as cigarette smoke, a foul odor that immediately fostered more dislike in whomever was unfortunate enough to try to break into the Hol household.
"Looks like no one's home." An unfamiliar, heavily accented male voice commented aloud to himself. "Lucky."
For a moment she thought the intruder was mocking her, until she realized she'd forgotten to turn on the lights when she'd gotten home. Again. It was a frequent occurrence when one had perfect night vision.
Remaining hidden, she tracked his movement from sound alone, trying to pinpoint exactly where he was going. If he were a common thief, he'd be attracted by the expensive electronics downstairs, if he were more experienced, the displayed antique weaponry would draw his eye.
"Now where the bloody hell do they keep all the good stuff?" The man muttered to himself, accompanied by a creak as he took to the stairwell.
Slinking out from behind her hiding space, she caught visual sight of the back of a long coat ascending the stairs. Whoever this was, they wouldn't be getting any further. Padding near-silently across the hardwood floors, she made her way to the side of the stairs. In a smooth motion, she pulled her wings in as tight as they would go, then vaulted up and over the side of the banister.
The intruder barely had time to whirl around before she grabbed him by the lapels of his coat. Her attempt to throw him cleanly over the banister was ruined as he tensed and instinctively shifted his weight backwards to break her hold. So instead he ended up crashing through the wooden railing, sending chunks of wood spraying all over the place.
"Fu-!" His exclaimed curse was cut short as Skylar pressed her bare foot down onto his throat.
"How dare you break into my home?!" She snarled digging her heel in a little deeper and forcing a choked sound from him.
One of his hands lifted up in a strange gesture, but that's all the warning she received as a blast of unseen force threw her off of him and backwards, destroying even more of the railing.
"Damn, I knew the Hawks had a kid, but you're more like a bloody attack dog, you are." Grumbling, the man pulled himself upright, rubbing at his throat. He held his hands up in a peaceful gesture before she could lunge at him again. "Hold your horses, kid, I'm a friend of your parents. Didn't think you were home, else I would have been more polite... Slightly more polite. Maybe."
Narrowing her eyes, she reached out and flipped a nearby light switch, finally taking a moment to inspect him in full technicolor. Underneath the cloying scent of ash and cigarette smoke was the telltale odor of magic, which explained the force earlier. He seemed nondescript, wearing a well worn trench coat over a wrinkled white dress shirt and black pants, black tie hanging loosely around his neck.
"... You have exactly ten seconds to explain who you are before I stab you."
"With what? The daggers coming out of your eyes?" He scoffed.
Without looking, she snapped a hand to her side and tore a half-broken railing support the rest of the way off its moorings.
"Ah. Right." Clearing his throat, he stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Name's John Constantine, and I'm really hoping you've heard of me right about now."
In fact, she had. "My parents don't like you."
"Not many people do, really. We're more... professional acquaintances."
"They aren't home. It's Halloween."
"Well, obviously. I'm not exactly looking for their help right now. I'm going to be honest, I'm just here to nick one of your Nth metal weapons."
Grip tightening on her makeshift weapon, Skylar let a low growl tinge her words. "So you are here to steal from us."
"Borrow! Borrow!" He corrected. "I don't need it for long, just an... hour or two. Got a bit of a situation to clear up that could use a quick fix."
"If you don't give more details than that, I will call my dad."
Letting out a groan like he'd just been punched in the stomach, Constantine's head tilted back towards the ceiling. "Alright, fine, fine. Complete honesty, right here. There's a bit of a... situation brewing in England. Real small town, honestly I can't even remember the name of it. Far as I can tell, a group of bloody teenagers got their hands on a summoning ritual and decided to pull a prank on their town. Backfired on the tosspots pretty much immediately and now the entire town's stuck under the thrall of a fear demon. Usually I could handle it on me own, but the thing put up a shield around the whole place, hence why I'm here."
Things started to click together, and she found herself dropping her makeshift weapon to the ground with a clatter. "So you need a quick fix."
"Hence trying to steal your Nth metal weapons, yes. So... can I have it?"
This wasn't the first time that a fellow vigilante had requested this specific service from the Hawks. One of the primary benefits of Nth metal was it's inherent magi-null abilities, which made it perfect for situations exactly like this one. Time was very clearly of the essence here, or Constantine probably would have just used some kind of... anti-shield spell to get himself through. But those kinds of things usually took time to prepare.
But her parents had a rule. No Nth weapons were to be lent to anyone. Only one of the three Hawks was allowed to wield them.
Which left only one option, really, considering both of her parents were indisposed for the rest of the night.
"Alright, John Constantine," Hawkgirl began, straightening up and trying to look as intimidating and stoic as she could in a ragged shirt that had Kermit the Frog on the front. "I will make you a deal. You have my mace at your disposal."
"... Just like that? That's... oh, there's gonna be a catch I'm really not going to like, is there?"
"Probably. Because I'm going with you."
Predictably, Constantine hadn't liked the deal, but as it was, he had no other choice really. Precious minutes would be wasted on arguing further on the matter or exploring another avenue of breaking through the shield entirely. That really only left him with the reluctant choice to agree to her proposal, which is how a newly re-armored Hawkgirl ended up following Constantine through a glowing portal. Between one blink and the next, she was whisked from St. Roch to a nearly forgotten town in England.
Well, if they failed, there's a good chance it would be a completely forgotten town.
As it was, things already looked... bad. The entire town was completely covered in a semi-translucent sickly green dome that flickered with runes and patterns every so often. Even from where they stood on a hill overlooking the town, she could hear screaming from inside, which was not... pleasant.
"Here's the plan. We go in, run straight through whatever fear constructs this thing's cooked up. From my experience, the big bad's usually hiding in the epicenter of domes like these, so it should be pretty easy to find. If not, well, it's probably where the most screaming is. Got that?"
Giving a terse nod of her head, she narrowed her eyes, trying to make out any shapes through the energy field, but failing. "So it's... creating constructs from other people's fear? Yes?" At least, that's what she was able to suss out of his short speech. When he gave an affirming nod, she continued. "Then what is keeping it from manifesting our fears?"
Constantine's eyes went wide and he promptly smacked himself in the face. "Bloody hell I knew I was forgetting something. Here. Whipped these up while you were getting ready." Digging around in his pocket for a moment, he pulled out two necklaces. They were simple in construction, a plain black cord bearing some kind of animal canine that had a glyph glowing on it. "As long as this stays on, Phil can't get his claws into yer brain."
"... Phil? The demon's name is Phil?" She asked incredulously as she took the offered amulet and held it loosely in her hand."
"Not really." John shrugged. "Can't exactly use his real name, so, why not Phil? Now put that on."
"What about my armor?"
"What about it?"
Ski'Lira gave him a pointed look. "It's made out of Nth metal." She emphasized. "Won't it disrupt the spell?"
"Just... tuck it under your shirt, or whatever. Should be fine." The warlock was growing a little impatient now, clearly itching to get going as soon as possible. "Just means we'll have to be right quick about this."
Following his instructions, she made sure the amulet was situated firmly under her shirt, the tooth almost warm where it pressed against her bare skin. The entire situation made her uneasy, knowing she was relying on only the most tentative of hopes that the spell would last long enough to complete the mission. But there was something familiar about that sense of unknowing that was almost comforting, reminding her of long hours spent in the bio-ship on her way to locations all over the globe.
Shaking away that train of thought before the delightful tinge of nostalgia turned into full blown emotional distress, she triple-checked that the straps on her armor were tight and ready for combat. Sharing a last affirming look with the warlock, she followed John Constantine down the hill. Once they were in close proximity to the shield, the indescribable scent of magic overwhelmed her sense of smell. She desperately hoped she'd acclimate quickly, because this was unnerving.
Stepping forward, Constantine pressed a hand to the energy bubble for a second, before drawing it back with a sharp hiss escaping from between his teeth. "Right, you're up birdie."
She didn't even bother to glare at him, instead moving towards the magical wall. After contemplating for a moment, she adjusted her grip on the handle of her mace, allowing the head to pop off and drop onto the ground. Taking a section of the newly unspooled chain in her other hand, she pulled the line taut and held it above her head. Taking a single step forward, the chain parted the harsh green light, as if she'd opened up an umbrella in a downpour. Positioning herself carefully, she created enough space for Constantine to slip through, which he did so with a wink and a fierce grin.
Once she was certain all parts of the warlock were through, she threw herself forwards in a neat roll, springing up inside the dome and immediately retracted the head of her mace back onto its handle.
"Neat trick." John muttered. "Let's get going. No doubt our lovely Phil noticed something getting into his territory."
It was clear that Constantine had been drastically understating the state of affairs in this near-nameless town overrun by a fear demon. Ski'Lira had expected to see some people screaming, maybe gathered in groups being terrorized by broad fears, like those afraid of heights being stranded on the very edges of buildings unable to draw back, caught in a constant state of vertigo. To be fair, she did see that exact thing, along with thalassaphobes trapped in a swimming pool that had warped into a seemingly bottomless section of ocean, a birthday's party worth of coulrophobes being terrorized by a colorful troop of clowns, and what looked like a playground that was nearly completely covered in spiderwebs, multiple victims hanging in cocoons.
But what she hadn't expected were how specific some of the fears were. One woman seemed to be afraid of the color yellow, a teenage boy not much older than herself was being chased around by a goose, and a middle-aged man who was running away from a Mylar balloon. The weirdest ones were those being hunted by manifestations of cartoon characters or things from cartoons (most of whom she was pretty sure were from Courage the Cowardly Dog).
Constantine seemed wholly unbothered by the whole affair, ambling along at a casual pace that made her skin crawl and lighting up a cigarette while watching the chaos around them with near-indifference.
"Is this normal?" Hawkgirl found herself blurting out before she could tamp down her rampant curiosity. "Demons taking over entire towns?"
Taking a long drag of his cigarette, he seemed to think for a few moments. "Not really, but you know, All Hallows' Eve and all that. It tends to add a bit of a power boost. Plus, small towns like these have an... energy about them."
"What do you mean?"
He shot her a look that clearly meant 'I don't really want to have to explain, but I'm going to because I know you won't let me leave it well enough alone.'. "Everyone knows everyone, most of 'em grew up together, lots of families, They all know each other's business, their lives and all that. There's power in a connection like that."
That... made a logical amount of sense she supposed, or at least as much sense as magic could ever make.
Naturally, that's the moment that they were beset upon by a ten foot tall spider from the nearby playground nest. Letting out a loud curse, Constantine snapped up a hand, summoning a glowing shield of magic that stopped the arachnid moments before it slammed into him.
Hawkgirl whipped around as she picked up on a low chattering noise, bringing her arms up and grabbing it's unusually sharp forelimbs in her gauntleted hands before she could be impaled. Mouth curling into a snarl, she adjusted her grip on the spiny appendages and yanked forward as she lifted up a metal booted foot and slammed it into the fear construct's face. Instead of the squelching and explosion of guts she had been expecting, the giant spider disintegrated into dust that promptly blew away, as if it had aged thousands of years in the span of a second.
"Well that was bloody unpleasant." Looking over at her companion, she saw Constantine had similarly dispatched his own attacker while she'd been occupied. Though at the moment he seemed more upset at the loss of his cigarette than being pounced on by a giant demon spider.
"I doubt this will be the last opposition we face." Hawkgirl reminded, removing her mace from her belt and keeping it at the ready this time. She didn't want to be caught unawares again.
Letting out a low groan, the warlock rolled his blue eyes. "You are definitely your parents' kid. So damn serious all the time. Do you winged folk ever lighten up?"
She didn't deign his complaint worthy of a response. Her pointed silence earned her an exasperated eye roll in turn from the Englishman.
"Alright, fine, fine, I get it. Stoicism on the battle field and all that, but- oh bloody hell."
Seeing the warlock stop mid-stride, Hawkgirl readied her mace and followed his line of sight, as she had been visually scouting in the opposite direction she did not see their next wave of opposition. The environment was so polluted with piercing, errant noise and the overwhelming stench from frightful humans, natural hazards, and horrible monsters alike, that there was little doubt as to why an entire horde of zombies had managed to sneak up on them.
"Why is it almost always zombies?" John groaned, hands coming up and fingertips glowing slightly with a reddish energy, ready to unleash a spell at a moment's notice.
"It does tend to happen." Ski'Lira shrugged off the occurrence, as it truly was the norm. Magic users tended to utilize the undead simply for the sake of ease. Making a sack of rotting meat move, claw, and bite whoever you wanted was a fairly simple concept that usually didn't require a whole lot of arcane talent.
John let off his spell first with a sharp string of words in a completely unfamiliar language, the red energy erupting from his fingers and coalescing into a ray that carved straight through at least five of the zombies, crumbling them to useless particles. Snapping out her wings to their full span, Hawkgirl flung herself forward with a massive downstroke, hurtling into the midst of the horde without hesitation.
Almost every swing of her mace impacted into soft flesh with a sick squelching noise. If these had been normal zombies, she was sure that she'd be covered in vile fluids, but much like with the spiders, they merely turned to ashes. Though she could feel motes of the powdery grime getting into her feathers. It was highly unpleasant, reminding her of the time Clayface had thrown her through a brick wall.
Fingertips grabbed one of her shoulders, and she reached a clawed hand back and grabbed a mobilized corpse by its throat before it could sink its yellowed teeth into her neck. With a war cry, she tossed it up and over her, straight into another pair of zombies that were shambling towards her with singular purpose. Taking a moment to evaluate her situation, a soft growl left her lips as she realized that the horde wasn't shrinking.
With every zombie that she and Constantine managed to destroy, it seemed like two more would pop up to take it's place.
"I hate magic." Ski'Lira snarled as she pounded one zombie crawling on the ground straight into the dirt with particular force.
"Not gonna lie, I hate it a lot of the time too." Constantine shouted back, making sure he could be heard over the riotous din of the horde. "These blokes are just gonna tire us out at this rate!"
There was a beat of silence (at least from Constantine, as their attackers did not cease making their horrible racket) before he let out a sharp whistle. "This way, birdie!"
She didn't have time to be insulted at being called like a dog, instead charging for the thinnest part of the group surrounding her and escaping from the circle. Another whistle from Constantine drew her attention to the doorway of a nearby apartment building, the warlock waiting impatiently for her to follow. She easily outran her pursuers, and the two ducked inside, Constantine slamming the door shut behind them and muttering a spell to bar it, trapping them in the pitch darkness of their temporary haven. His attempts didn't stop the beasts from hammering away at the wood.
"That won't hold forever." Constantine muttered. "We'll have to find another way out. Hold on a sec, I'll get us a light."
Striding down the hallway, Ski'Lira pulled her wings in tight. "There's another door back here."
"Wait, what? How could you possibly have seen that?" There was a click as he struck a lighter into life, letting the meager light illuminate his path.
"Because your species was unfortunate not to have developed night vision." She snapped back easily, coming to a halt in front of the back door. Reaching forward, she moved to grab the handle, only to let out a hiss and draw back.
"What?" John asked.
"It's searing hot." She answered, visibly confused. Pulling up a leg, she snapped her foot into the wood to splinter it off it's hinges, but it refused to budge.
"So we're trapped. Great. Guess we should try the stairs? Maybe there's an access door on the roof or something. We'll jump out a window if we damn well have to."
"Stairs are back this way." Retracing her steps, she made a beeline for the staircase she had spotted earlier as they'd been making their way to the back door. "Watch your step." She warned sincerely, already spotting a few holes in the floorboards.
"Oh real funny." John mocked, only to let out a very loud curse three seconds later when one of his feet went straight through a slat. "... Don't say a word." He warned in a low tone as he yanked his foot out of the newly made hole.
As they ascended the stairs, Hawkgirl finally acknowledged something she had been steadfastly ignoring practically since they left St. Roch, her steadily growing fatigue. The fight with the zombies and the sprint to safety had contributed greatly to the sudden weight that drew down her bones, making it impossible to ignore. But she had to, there was no time to stop and rest in a literal realm of nightmares.
"Hey, uh, is it just me, or does something about this building seem... wrong to you?"
Her foot froze mid-step, hovering for a moment before she gingerly set it back down, twisting her head back so she could look at her companion directly. "How so?"
"Because I'm pretty sure we just went up at least five flights of stairs, and I'm pretty sure that this was only a three story building at most... Which means we just walked straight into another fear trap."
"So what, fear of never ending stairs?"
"Could be. There are certainly weirder things out there right now. The more important question is how the hell do we get out?!"
Ski'Lira's wings twitched slightly, unnerved at the thought of being trapped inside of a windowless stairwell. Fortunately, there still seemed to be doors in this mockery of an apartment complex. Picking up her pace to make it to the next landing, she tested the doorknob, only to be flummoxed when it opened easily, swinging open to reveal a normal-looking hallway (still unlit, of course).
Something was bothering her about the situation, but she couldn't pin it down. She chalked it up to her tired brain unable to make the connection since she wasn't running at full capacity.
"Is it just me or is it getting warmer?"
She honestly hadn't noticed, though that was primarily because of her Thanagarian blood, as her species had a wider range of temperature tolerance than humans did. Though his observation did force her to focus on her other senses. Closing her eyes for a moment, she just... paid attention, ignoring Constantine's constant reek of magic and nicotine and the thumping of his heart.
A Thanagarian curse left her lips as her foggy brain put together the last of the pieces of this messed up jigsaw, eyes snapping open and darting to Constantine. "I smell smoke."
As if her words had called it into existence, she caught a flicker of light from the stairwell.
"... The building's on fire, isn't it?" John deadpanned.
"It does seem that way, yes."
Nearly between one blink and the next, the hints of a spreading flame erupted into a full blown inferno. Where once the hallway they'd been standing in was dark and harmless (albeit a bit warm), flames licked walls and smoke filled the air. Screams called out from newly locked doors, fists pounding against unrelenting barriers and frantically calling for aid.
"We need a way out now." Darting over to the nearest unoccupied apartment, Constantine started kicking at the door with all of the strength he could muster, but yet it didn't budge. "No dice. I could maybe try portalling us out, but I have no idea where we'd land. If it'd even work at all."
"Plan B, then?"
"Plan B? What the hell is Plan B?"
Shooting him a look (which was effective now that he could actually see her clearly), she made her way to the end of the hallway where there was only blank wall. Grabbing her mace and holding it firmly in both hands, she gritted her teeth, planted her feet, and swung. White energy crackled around the head of her mace as it impacted against the wall, cracking the plaster and exposing the brickwork.
"The barrier magic's centered on the doors not the walls." Constantine actually sounded a little impressed. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Huffing out an amused breath, she pulled back and went in for another swing, this one noticeably weaker than the first. The ever-present smoke was certainly not helping her get the air she needed into her lungs, but she didn't allow it to deter her from her single-minded mission. Beating the hell out of this wall and giving them an escape route.
It took two more swings to actually break completely through to the outside, and a handful more after that to widen the hole enough for them to clamber through. Once the chore had been done, Ski'Lira's arms were trembling and her breathing was downright ragged.
"Okay, next problem, twenty foot drop." Constantine said, looking reluctantly down at the ground below. "I mean, not a problem for you, obviously, but my knees ain't what they used to be and -whoa!"
Mid-ramble, she'd scooped him underneath his arms and threw them both out through the hole, flaring out her wings and taking full flight.
"This works too." The warlock admitted as she swooped down towards the street. She tried to get as far as she could, but she was having difficulty enough keeping herself aloft, let alone with a passenger. On any other day, carrying him would have been a breeze.
As it was, she was seconds away from dive bombing straight into the sidewalk.
Scanning the street, she spotted an area that seemed to be monster and fear-construct free, a mom and pop ice cream shop that was all pastel colors and hand-painted signs. Dropping her burden onto the ground, she executed a sloppy landing, just barely managing to remain upright before Constantine grabbed her arm and bodily dragged her into the shop.
The two took refuge behind the counter, Ski'Lira's legs finally giving out and collapsing underneath her. Scooting backwards, her wings flared out limply behind her, her head tilted back until the metal of her helmet dinged against the metal of the counter.
"Please tell me you didn't just pass out... Birdie?"
When she didn't respond right away, he physically shook her, earning a weak growl. "I'm still awake."
"Did you get hit anywhere? Bleeding out?"
"Neither... Just tired. This is normal."
"What do you mean this is normal?! I was under the impression you sidekick types spent your whole nights running around like little... energy... gremlins."
Keeping her eyes closed, she inhaled and exhaled deeply, relishing the clear air circulating through her lungs. "Usually I can do better than this. There was an... incident. Technically I'm restricted to light duty until I receive medical clearance."
"Are you insane?!" He physically threw his hands up into the air. "If you said anything I never would have let yo-"
"Exactly why I didn't say anything. I'll be fine. sindarti, just need to... Just need to rest for a minute."
He goes silent for a moment. "Your parents call me that a lot... sindarti. It's an insult, isn't it?"
"It means..." Thinks better of it, knowing her parents were probably pulling a long-term prank. "Yeah, it's an insult. Doesn't translate well." That is a blatant lie, considering it's literally just the Thanagarian word for 'magician', but she wasn't about to tell him that.
"... I knew it." Lapsing into a short silence, Constantine abruptly moved, straightening just enough that he could open up a nearby fridge (boasting multiple types of overpriced soda, juice, and tea) to retrieve a simple bottle of water, shoving it into her hands. "Here. Hydration's important and all that bollocks."
Biting down a comeback about how she was pretty sure he considered copious alcohol consumption his form of hydration, she swiftly opened the bottle and sipped from it quietly. Already she could feel some of the weight leaving her, her energy returning (albeit slowly).
"Now I really don't want to rush you, considering you almost fainted and all-"
"I did not faint."
He continued as if she had never interjected. "But we are still on a bit of a time crunch. So I'm just going to throw this out there... give me your mace. That way you can sit here, finish your water, and not die so your parent's won't tear my organs out through my mouth."
Tilting her head to the side, she merely considered him for a moment... before promptly punching him in the shoulder.
"Bloody hell, fine, fine, point taken." John grumbled as he rubbed at the site of a guaranteed bruise. "But if you keel over and die, I had nothing to do with it."
She punched him again, slightly harder. "I'm not going to die, so stop freaking out."
"I'm not freaking out. I am understandably concerned that a couple of overprotective winged menaces are going to rip my insides out for getting their daughter hurt!" A frustrated noise left his throat, and he let his body sag against the counter holding them both upright. They sat in an incredibly awkward silence before the warlock decided to break it. "I know it's none of my business, but last I checked there wasn't much that could knock a Thanagarian out this badly. Are you sick?"
"You know, with some kind of... space disease. Or magical, that can happen to. Seen it a few times, in fact."
"I'm not sick." She vehemently denied, though she had to slightly amend it. "Not in the traditional sense, anyway."
"... What the hell does that mean?"
"It means I don't have to explain myself to you." She snapped. "I'm not asking you to spill all your secrets an hour after we met, now am I?"
"Damn, you really are Shayera's kid." There was almost a grudging respect to his tone. "She said almost the same thing to me once. Except she also held a knife to my throat."
"I have a couple of those, would it make you feel better if I did point a knife at you?"
"... Definitely Shayera's kid." He cleared his throat. "So, is this a permanent thing, or...?"
"No, I'll be fine eventually." Ski'Lira saw no reason to lie. "It's temporary."
"Good... Good... Ugh, all of this sincerity is making me feel physically sick. Do you think you're up to moving again, because I really don't want to continue this heartfelt moment."
Her eyes widened in surprise, lips parting ever so slightly, shattering her usually easily-held poker face.
"What? Did I hurt your feelings?" John sneered a little, though it was clearly lighthearted teasing based on the lack of bite in his tone.
"No, I agree. I just didn't think I'd meet another human who has a quota for emotional vulnerability."
"Who's the other?"
She just gave him a pointed look.
"Ah, right, Batman. Should have guessed. Right well," Standing up, he stretched a little, an audible crack coming from his back as he straightened fully. "Ready to go fight a nightmare demon?"
A vicious smile appeared on the Thanagarian's lips. "I thought you'd never ask."
Perched carefully on the away side of a slanted rooftop, the two had an excellent vantage point into the center of town. It was clear this was the source of the initial ritual. Stationed around a plain fountain that had long run dry of water were four scrawny figures in cheap robes, positioned equidistantly around a brightly glowing chalked circle that surrounded said fountain. Streams of energy locked them in place, and the shadowed glimpses Ski'Lira caught of their faces were fraught with terror.
"Well, there's good old Phil." John muttered just loud enough for her to hear, his blue eyes locked on the figure hovering ominously over the top of the fountain, in the very center of the ritual circle.
Phil, to be frank, didn't look anything like any of the demonic or demonic-adjacent entities she'd encountered in her time working as a hero. They had no horns, no eyes of fire, no whipcord tail that could probably slice a mortal to ribbons, but instead was a featureless humanoid being made out of ever-shifting darkness. Looking at them reminded her of staring down at a deep pit, unknowing of what lie at the bottom.
"Alright, here's the play. We get in close, past whatever goons Phil's inevitably going to throw at us. Then the tricky bit... I'm going to need you to run distraction while I reverse the ritual."
She turned her head towards him, hoping he could pick up on her nonverbal questioning look.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm done with the whole concern thing. If I could do both by myself, I would, believe me. But with all that Nth metal you're carting around, you've probably got a better shot at hurting the bastard than I do. Just don't do anything stupid."
"So nothing you would do, then?"
"... That's fair. Ready?"
Giving a terse nod, she drew her mace and pushed a foot underneath her so she could leap off the roof. Her wings flared, slowing her descent so she landed with near dead quiet on the old brick paving the area around the fountain. Constantine was not quite as efficient, sliding down the front of the roof and onto the top of a car, making a harsh clang as his boots impacted the metal.
"Hmm, so these are the interlopers..." What could only be the voice of Phil the Nightmare Demon echoed around them, tone just as deep and endless as their form. "The Warlock John Constantine and... a Winged Pest. I find myself... disappointed."
"Hey, at least you've heard of me." John pointed out, smirk coming back in full force. "That's gotta count for something."
"Take comfort in your false belief while you still hold breath, warlock." Phil droned. "For you will meet your end soon."
The Nightmare Demon paused, head tilting ever so slightly. "Something is keeping me from manifesting your fears, or seeing them at all... So as much as I'd love to destroy you both with your own personal hells, I suppose I shall have to make do." Waving a hand with too-long fingers, the brick under their feet cracked and started to separate, glowing with the same green light that made up the barrier dome.
A decaying hand erupted, followed by another, then another, as entire torsos were dragged out from beneath the pavement.
"Great. More zombies." Letting out a long-suffering groan, Constantine rolled his eyes. "A creative demon, you are."
If the demon had eyes to narrow, it would do so. As it was, its blank mask of a face remained unchanged, though its tone dripped with annoyance. "Pardon me, I shall amend my mistake."
With a sickening crack, the zombified bodies began to twist and contort, limbs elongated, mottled skin changing color from rotten greens to brighter hues, and groans turning into harsh giggling.
"Constantine?" Hawkgirl asked, voice low as she slipped into an offensive stance.
"Did you just antagonize him into creating zombie spider clowns?"
"Seems that way, yes."
His head whipped towards her. "Hold on, was that sincere? What is wrong with you?"
She shot him a vicious grin. At the prospect of battle, a unique one with actually challenging enemies, she could practically feel her blood singing with anticipation. "It's not my fault that you humans don't know how to have fun."
Screaming out a battle cry, she flared out her wings and charged at the nearest enemy, aiming her mace straight for the center of its zombified clown-torso, while avoiding the stabbing spider legs of its lower half. There weren't as many in this horde that there had been with the normal zombies earlier, but the fear amalgamations were much quicker.
Ski'Lira was trying her best to avoid being caught by razor-sharp appendages, internally wincing every time a chitinous spike scraped across her armor. One of them lunged in particularly close, but she shot a fist forward, using its own momentum against it as she struck it directly in the face. Thanks to the putrefied insides, her gauntleted fist went through it's head, causing it to evaporate instantly into dust. Once again she was glad they weren't actually made out of real flesh, else it would have been incredibly distasteful.
As entertaining as the fight was, considering she didn't have to worry about holding back her strength since they weren't exactly real, leaving her only limitation her still-healing bones, Phil was the priority. And as the currently present warlock had explained, the longer all of the townspeople remained under their fear illusions, the more powerful Phil became as they fed upon their terror.
A flash of heat off to her left alerted her to Constantine's proximity, as he tossed fireballs left and right at any monster that dared get close.
"Constantine!" She called out to him. "Isn't there a spell that can turn them into something less murderous?"
"This isn't bloody Harry Potter!" He shot back immediately. "Besides, what bloody happened to 'thank you for the demon clown squad?!'."
"You're the one that said we were on a time limit!" Ski'Lira countered.
"Just keep hitting 'em!"
Well, she had never been one to turn down the brute force option when it was handed to her on a silver platter. If her ... former... teammates were here, this would have been a walk in the park. Robin and Artemis probably would have taken them all out with explosives in mere seconds. Or M'Gann would have just tossed them all together with her telekinesis until they exploded. Kid Flash could have sped around punching to his heart's content, and it wouldn't take much effort from Superboy and Aqualad to tear through these things with their enhanced strength.
A lucky strike from a spider leg that slipped past her armor and drew a light score across one of her arms snapped her out of her thoughts. Cursing under her breath, she snagged the offending appendage and snapped it off, using it to stab its former owner in the throat.
Despite her and John's best efforts, the horde had them surrounded, closing in a tighter and tighter until they were completely surrounded. The blonde's broad back bumped into hers, making her feathers ruffle from the sudden contact.
He let out a low swear as he prepared another fire spell.
But then Ski'Lira was struck by a sudden idea. That brief train of thought about her fellow young heroes had given her an idea, in particular a move she had seen Aqualad use a few times in training, but had yet found an opportunity to use in real combat. "On a scale of one to ten, how powerful are these things?"
"Not very, glorified constructs, there's just a lot of them." That was all she needed to know.
"Duck." She growled at Constantine. To his credit, he dropped as soon as she ordered, spell fizzling from his hands with a small puff of harmless sparks.
At her will, the head of her mace detached from the handle, dropping to the ground with a heavy thunk. Jerking it up, she started to swing it above her head in a tight arc as it lit up with crackling white energy before letting go, bending her knees into a more solid stance and followed the momentum through. The result was spectacular, a streak of white slicing through the surrounding enemies, tearing through them and dissipating them as they went. It only took four rotations before the last one fell, and she stopped her movement, letting the end of her weapon drop onto brick.
"Bloody hell." The cursing was to be expected, really. "Why didn't you do that with the zombies earlier?!"
"Didn't think it would work." She answered truthfully. Nth metal had an inherent anti-magic quality, especially when she activated the charge aspect of the weapon, but only weaker level entities would be destroyed instantly. "I guess I overestimated Phil's minion quality."
Speaking of which, "Perhaps I, in turn, underestimated you."
Meeting Constantine's blue-eyed gaze, Ski'Lira waited for his slight grin, taking that as his permission for her to engage. The head of her mace reattached itself as she strode forward towards the fountain, the metal spikes dragging on the rock with an intimidating discord. Behind her, she heard Constantine start a long incantation, the air around them growing charged with more energy as he started his banishment spell.
She registered the exact second Phil realized exactly what was going on and moved to stop it, her quick reflexes kicking in and meeting it head on before they could tear past her and reach the primary threat. Ducking under its outstretched hands, whose fingers had grown even further to needle sharp points easily as long as her forearm, she threw her full weight into them, sending them skidding backwards.
Or rather, flying backwards, because it was hovering at least a foot off the ground.
Straightening, the nightmare demon prodded tentatively at its torso. "That actually stung." Once more she got the impression it was narrowing nonexistent eyes at her again. "Curious. What are you? Another warlock? A witch with a fondness for birds?"
"I'm the Thanagarian who's going to kick your ass."
Not giving Phil time to retort, she swung straight at its middle, only blocked at the last second by a hastily brought up needle-hand. From there it was almost a mockery of a swordfight, though with unconventional weapons for that sort of combat. Far too many times those razor-sharp fingers got a little too close to the gaps between her armor, but Ski'Lira had been well trained on how to defend those specific areas.
Phil was fast, and clearly had a lot of experience with combat, but considering she'd fought Black Adam and not immediately died, this didn't even break her top five most difficult fights.
Dodging another swipe, she brought her mace down onto his arm, the white energy flaring slightly as it made contact. A screech erupted from Phil that sent her reeling backwards, her sensitive ears temporarily overloaded. The source of its pain was made clear, as she realized that half of its entire left arm had completely vanished, leaving a stump that leaked obsidian smoke.
Phil recovered from their temporary weakness much faster than Hawkgirl did, its remaining hand grabbing her by the throat lightning-fast and hoisting her into the air. Forced to drop her mace, Ski'Lira clawed her fingers in between theirs, desperately trying to loosen its grip. Her wings flapped frantically behind her, doing little to aid in her escape.
"Hm, what was that you said? About being the one to... kick my ass?" Phil crooned, radiating smug triumph. "A valiant effort, I must admit, but not quite enough. I have been feeding on these people for hours, on Samhain, of all days. You really think you had the power to defeat me?"
Holding up his amputated arm, she watched as the smoke formed into a new arm, which he used to snag the cord of the amulet hidden under her shirt. With a harsh tug, the cord snapped.
"Ah, there you are." She felt something in her head, like a creeping ooze dotted with broken glass. "It is always the brave ones that have the most delicious fears, I've found. And you? Mmm, so much potential. I could throw you into a pit and bury you alive. Or perhaps encase you in a glass coffin and throw you underwater? Or... Oh, a more recent fear? Those friends of yours provide ample ammunition. Perhaps if I'm lucky, I can even lure them here... Or perhaps they won't come at all."
Ski'Lira had been working for hours, dealing with drunks, would-be murderers and thieves, and teenagers who took the holiday as an excuse to stop using their brains. She'd been traversing this hellscape with a sindarti that she barely trusted, forced to listen to innocent people being tortured on loop, and nearly killed by zombies and a house fire. Only for this asinine silhouette to dare threaten the people she cared about?
She was tired. She was in pain. And she was furious.
The funny thing about her armor was that people, particularly magic users, tended to fall under a great misconception that only her mace was made out of Nth metal. But every single piece of armor she had was made out of the trademark metal of Thanagar.
Which meant that when she cocked back a foot and slammed it full force between Phil's legs, it felt it despite not possessing standard anatomy. The sudden influx of pain was enough for the demon to drop her, and she wasted no time, tucking and rolling. In a second, her mace was back in her hand and she used a powerful flap of her wings to help her rocket to her feet. A burst of light accompanied by the overwhelming stench of sulfur brought a grin back to her lips, as a red ring hovered above the fountain, providing a hazy and rippling view into a desert of black rock and bloody sand.
Slipping her mace back onto her belt, she took a few steps back to get a running start, flaring out her wings and propelling herself straight at the demon. The newly formed portal had not gone unnoticed, and Phil attempted to sidestep her attack. However, still disoriented from the kick, she latched into its shoulders in her clawed grip, the razor points of her gauntlets digging into its shoulders and releasing more smoke from the punctures, its form of bleeding. Phil had barely any weight to him, so bringing him up into the air was little issue.
Frantically it scrabbled at her, fingers not quite finding purchase on her armor, head thrashing back and forth as it screamed with the voice of a thousand tortured souls. A sudden jerk changed her trajectory, making her growl in frustration as she missed her mark, but she quickly altered her path. Hawkgirl went up, carrying it high above the portal.
"You won't win." The demon hissed. "You can not get rid of me so easily! I will feast on your fears!"
That's when she dropped it. Folding her wings in close, she kept pace with Phil's descent, waiting for a very specific moment. And just as she predicted, the demon caught itself in a hover before it could impact the portal, remaining stationary three above the fiery ring. Ski'Lira, on the other hand, hadn't stopped her momentum. Executing a front roll, she extended out a leg and let the full force of an axe kick down straight on Phil's head. Flaring out her wings, she watched in satisfaction as he dropped the remaining distance, vanishing within.
Her eyes were drawn skyward, as the sickly green dome lightened and lightened, until the semi-cloudy night sky shone unimpeded above them. For the first time since they'd entered this trapped town, the sounds of screams and sobs faded, leaving only a blissful quiet. Hawkgirl landed near the fountain just in time for the four teenagers who had been maintaining the ritual dropped unconscious, skin pale and sweaty from exhaustion.
"I'm not going to lie, that was a pretty quick move you pulled." Constantine's genuine compliment drew her attention to where he was kneeling down next to one of the teens, checking her pulse.
"One of your parents teach you that?"
Her mind flashed to a cackling Robin as he plummeted from his perch at the top of the training room, dropping onto an unsuspecting Aqualad. "No, a friend. Are they going to be okay?"
"Should do. Magical exhaustion, mostly. But you bet I'll be giving them a hell of a stern talking to when they wake up. Hopefully this'll scare them enough they won't do it again."
"And... everyone else?"
"Simple mass memory spell will clear it up." He stood, brushing off the knees of his pants. "At most they'll remember it as a bad dream. I'll cast it tomorrow, right now I'd rather save what I've got left of my magic to get you home and get out of dodge."
"That is... probably for the best. Is there anything else we need to do before we leave?"
"Nah, we're done. Phil's gone, which means all of his magic's gone with. Constructs can't survive long without their caster, at least relatively weak ones like these can't. Don't want to even think about the trouble we'd have if this was a greater fear demon."
"Neither do I." Her lip curled as her hand drifted to her bruised neck.
Sniffing, Constantine stretched out his arms before summoning a portal, as she saw him do before, displaying an image of her front lawn. "Shall we?"
"So, uh... thanks, I guess. For the help." Shuffling awkwardly, it was very clear Constantine wanted to escape the Hall residence as soon as possible to avoid running into highly overprotective parents. He already had the foresight to use a minor mending spell on the banister, mitigating the amount of evidence his presence left behind.
"You're welcome." She tipped her head at him as a sign of respect. "It certainly made my night more interesting."
"Right. Uh, I guess I owe you a favor now. So if you want to cash in, the League's got my contact information. Thanks. Again." Turning to leave, he got a hand on the doorknob before he stopped. "One more thing."
Skylar's eyebrows rose slightly in surprise. "You don't need to keep saying thanks, I know it's probably giving you hives."
He made a face at her before blowing out an exhausted breath. "Just... Take some advice from an old man, yeah? Don't go down the self-destruction route. Driving yourself into the ground isn't going to do anyone any good, least of all you."
"That's pretty hypocritical of you, John Constantine."
"Means I'm an expert on the topic." He shot her a self-deprecating grin. "You're just a sprog, gives you plenty of time not to end up like me. And uh... Please don't tell your parents I nearly got you killed."
"I won't." She assured, though that probably wouldn't hold true for forever. "As for the advice... I'll keep it in mind."
"Good. Happy Halloween, I guess." With that, he finally made his departure.
Needless to say, when her parents finally returned home from their own Halloween adventures, they were less than thrilled. Ski'Lira's throat was visibly bruised, she had a new swathe of bandages on her torso, and the house reeked of smoke and magic, which her father immediately identified.
"What was John Constantine doing in the house?" He growled, frown setting heavily on his face and arms crossed.
"He just dropped by, nothing too out of the ordinary for Halloween." At the memory of her unsanctioned adventure, her mouth curled up into the smallest of smiles.
A sharp intake of breath from her mother caught her attention. "Something wrong, da'mi?" She asked.
"No." Shayera insisted, giving a fond shake of her head. "It's just nice to see you smile again."
"... Oh. Well." Her cheeks flamed a little in embarrassment. She gave a slight cough. "Anyway, I know we were supposed to start training up again tomorrow, but I was wondering if we could push it back another few days? I think I need some more time to heal."
Katar gave a slow blink. "Who are you and what have you done with my fledgling?"
"Ta'me," She groaned.
"No, I want to know too." Her mother agreed with a nod. "Because clearly our Ski'Lira has been switched out for an imposter."
"Was this the sindarti's plan? Spirit away our daughter while we're away and replace her with a child more responsible with her health?"
"We might have to thank him, actually."
Giving a slight fond huff, Ski'Lira left her parents in the kitchen before they could tease her any further. She made a beeline for her bed, happy to collapse onto its surface.
That night, her slumber was peaceful, not plagued by a single nightmare.
Man, I love resident bisexual dumpster fire John Constantine. He's just... so much fun. And incredibly difficult to write without swearing. Man I had to censor myself so hard to keep this to rating. This one was a lot of fun to write, the completely original chapters usually are, and I hope Skylar's solo Halloween adventure was fun for you guys too!
(An added note, literally a few minutes before I finished and posted this chapter I got a review alert asking me to update. I swear you guys are psychic. First you predict my oneshot ideas, and now my update schedule? What's next with you people?!)
As for what lies in store, I promise everything isn't going to be doom and gloom forever, just for a bit longer. I mean, the chapter after this one is going to be Misplaced, which in and of itself, is a heavy episode (and also another one of my favorites). But silver lining, the return of Billy Batson! As you can probably guess, Ski'Lira is going to be incredibly confused by this sudden turn of events.
In case you missed it, there's been an update over on Fight or Flight: Side Stories. As a bit of an exercise to get back into the swing of things, I finally finished a long Kaldur/Skylar-centric oneshot. So have some high stakes adventure sprinkled with gooey romantic stuff. I'm going to try to finish off some of the oneshots I have hanging half finished before posting the next installment of the main story (including a part two of Fletching, and an obligatory sick fic). Or I might be lying to myself and you and I'll be churning out the next chapter first, I guess we'll see.
Until next time, you lovely people!