At the center of the Citadel’s primary training base, the Hub, four Directors met in a room beneath the Tower. This was not an emergency response or a sinister cabal, just their bi-weekly briefing. It was important to stay updated, after all.
“Mary won’t be able to make it tonight. Care to start us off, Alec?” Melody Shift, Director of Training was the first to speak.
“Hm. Well, first on the agenda is Phoenix.” Alec Dione, Director of Analysis, was met with a series of nods, ranging from matter of fact to irritated. Given the media coverage, no one wanted to talk about the Phoenix Incident any further but no one could argue that it wasn’t important either. “The basic results are obvious enough. A fair bit of structural damage in the downtown area, including the total destruction of the city’s primary hospital, but relatively low civilian casualties. Overall, the public will likely end up viewing this as a bad situation that the Citadel kept from getting worse.”
“Really?” Anthony Greer of Support’s reaction had not been matter of fact. “We’re calling a four figure death count low? And the damage-? My crews have just finished their initial surveys and reconstruction’s going to take months. Minimum.”
“Compared to what it could have been? Yeah, I’d call that low.” Sheila Strong, Co-Director of Operations (Intervention) responded. “Have you taken a look at what this Skinthief was capable of? Mass duplication, various forms of flight, illusions and a kill aura with a half mile range. If that fight hadn’t been contained early and stayed that way we would’ve lost the whole city’s population in minutes and it would’ve only gotten worse from there.”
“Three figures.” Alec’s voice was quiet, without inflection. “Current counts put us at eight hundred thirty two, mostly from the hospital itself. Luckily, the city’s population was widely dispersed, one of the few benefits of something like this happening in a Border city.”
“Perhaps it would be best if we allowed Analysis to give a more detailed explanation before we move on to recriminations and justifications?” Melody’s voice was light, pleasant, but no felt the slightest desire to argue with her suggestion.
The Director of Analysis resumed speaking. “We only had one operative, Hector Hive, who was present and conscious for the majority of the incident. Unfortunately, his recollection of events is… somewhat fragmented. How much of that is due to Skinthief’s attempt to usurp his power and how much from Operative Glory’s rather harsh method of stopping that is… unclear at this time.”
“Pity we can’t get Dr. Lizborne’s opinion on it.” someone muttered.
“By our best reconstruction, Skinthief had been present in the city for weeks, perhaps as much as a month. Dr. Hana Lizborne had recently returned from a personal vacation. We think it likely that she taken during that absence.”
“That’d explain why Anna Insight couldn’t spot him when Strider’s team was in the city. They had a Hunter designation and Skinthief was their primary target at the time.” Sheila added.
Alec nodded, acknowledging the point. “As a head of research for the Voluntary Registration department, she had access to a huge amount of data on the local Empowered. We believe she used that to acquire additional victims. Or rather, Skinthief did so while acting as the doctor.” He shook his head. “I hate body thieves and this man was one of the most effective I’ve ever seen.
“Skinthief used her contacts to add to his collection. He also met and befriended Operative Grim through the research Lizborne had been conducting on Disadvantageous Empowerment Syndrome. The imposter befriended him and used that relationship to get what he needed to mimic his powers and, through him, Hive as well. Luckily, Grave refused to cooperate. He was afraid of the risks involved with donating his skin.
“The local branch of the Crowley Lodge got roped into it as well. They were actually the first ones to realize something was suspicious about Dr. Lizborne. That, and the level of power displayed by one of their leaders during the actual fight, was why I’ve recommended we place a much stronger emphasis on our relationship with the group. When they confronted Dr. Lizborne, Skinthief came out of hiding.
“Half of the Lodge was killed on the spot as well as the everyone else in the hospital and anyone in a half mile radius. That was when the majority of casualties occurred. Operative Grim was also present but Skinthief disabled him with a-” He gave a sigh. “-with a spell. Another of the Lodge’s leaders identified it as a simple thing, normally used to light a room. Apparently, the effect had been magnified and concentrated, then placed over each of his eyes. This not only blinded him but caused enough continuing damage to negate Operative Grim’s strength and healing.
“Frankly, it’s possible that the initial kill effect was caused by Grim rather than Skinthief, an instinctive attempt to protect himself. We don’t think it’s likely. The boy didn’t take any other lives after that, despite being nearly out of his mind with pain after he managed to escape the initial confrontation and spread the word. Further, we know Skinthief was using the area version of his ability almost continuously during the later portions of the conflict. That’s what took out most of Strider’s team when they responded to his call.
“A response that was completely foolish. Hive, acting in his post as Chief Analyst for Phoenix, had already warned that this was a Prime level intervention. If not for Operative Wares’s danger sense, we would have lost our most capable sensor along with the rest of the team. Luckily, it provided enough warning for her to protect herself and Insight with her stealth effect. Grim’s power isn’t truly an area effect, closer to a subconscious targeting of the lives he can sense within range. That distinction was enough to keep Skinthief’s stolen kill aura from hitting either of them.
“In addition to calling for Intervention Prime, Hive also initiated the city’s evacuation and moved to attack Skinthief with a… frankly an immense group of his duplicates that were armed with the one-off Richards gear we gave him. Flight, a bit of strength and some forcefields in addition to a poorly calibrated teleporter that acts as a disintegration weapon. He should’ve been able to end it himself but, as I said, Skinthief already had access to him.
“From what he can recollect and from Operative Glory’s report, he ran into a bad interaction between Skinthief’s power and his own. Normally, Hive has near infinite multitasking. We think he processes conscious thoughts and memories across all his bodies, like distributed processing with computer sharing boosted by his power directly. Skinthief usurped some portion of that ‘boost.’ Whether that just left Hive unable to keep up with the demand of so many bodies or if Skinthief was also able to directly interfere with them, we don’t know.
“Hive’s fully recovered but that’s about it for the good news on that front. As I said, his recollection of the fight is fragmented at best. Grave took over coordination when he was incapacitated but was reluctant to commit his Empowered assets to a fight with an enemy who had already stolen several operative’s powers. I’d have been inclined to think it was a mistake but Bruce Richards backed him after the fact.
“When the Prime members on duty arrived, Bruce Richards took over. Glory was tasked with expediting the evacuation first. Her altered form’s ‘light’ enforces a sense of calm and order on anyone exposed to it. Additionally, it has a destructive reaction to those deemed ‘evil beyond redemption.’ As a long time serial killer and mass murderer, any copies of Skinthief trying to flee the city in the crowds would presumably have been exposed.
“He also directed Power and Flux to make sure the fight didn’t spread. Power’s a strong enough Null to be immune to Grim and Flux may look human, most of the time, but he’s really a sentient cloud of plasma. Richards instructed them to enforce a perimeter around the building while Grave went in to build a horde of his animated assets from the un-Empowered corpses on site. Once she’d finished with her initial task, Glory assisted by somehow ending Skinthief’s ongoing interference with Hive’s duplication. Unfortunately, that also killed every one of his duplicates on the scene and left him too disoriented to participate.”
“Why wait?” Alec Greer asked. “He could’ve had Flux or even Power take down the buil-ding right away.”
“The building wasn’t the issue. Skinthief hadn’t made a real attempt to leave yet. Maybe he was too occupied fighting Brother Micah, the Lodge leader I mentioned, or maybe he was too preoccupied with something else. Regardless, if he’d spread out and continued pulsing Grim’s kill aura… well, bloodbath would be putting it mildly. Richards plan kept it contained until he could take decisive action.
“Insight and Ware were sent to retrieve another Lodge member, Brother Jonas. He used his-” Alec visibly winced. “-his magic to break the ongoing light spell on Grim, then to strengthen the connection between Grim and Skinthief. Richards directed Grave to infect him.”
“How the hell did he survive that?” demanded Sheila. She knew enough how Grave’s ability worked and no one short of William Power should have been able to get through exposure scot free.
“Grim’s own healing combined with the immediate severing of the limb in question.” Alec told her. “The connection between the two, strengthened by Jonas, was enough to infect Skinthief as well. He’d been able to keep Grave’s horde back with a combination of telekinesis and pyrokinesis as well as various abilities stolen from the Lodge members that I’m told are called ‘wards.’ This got through and the pain was enough to briefly disable every one of the duplicates he’d made with Hive’s power.
“Skinthief was forced to sever the connection and give up access to Grim’s power to recover. Apparently, the regeneration he’d stolen from one of Lizborne’s research subjects was even more potent than Power’s. Luckily, it wasn’t as good at detail work or he might have been able to duplicate the incident that gave us William R. and William L. After that, Juggernaut was brought in to bring down the building and force all of Skinthief’s remaining duplicates out into the open where Flux and Micah were able to finish them off relatively easily. Skinthief may have had access to a form of pyrokinesis but not on anything like the level of what Flux can bring to bear.”
There was a brief silence as the group waited to see if he had anything more to add. Sheila spoke once it was clear that that was it. “Why such a massive break in pattern? We didn’t catch onto him until last year but Skinthief’s been active for at least a decade and he’s never shown any sign of- of anything like this. Motivation and ability-wise, this was a huge departure.”
“We think it was because of Dr. Lizborne. As you said, this isn’t anything like his past behavior but his previous victims have been relatively ordinary people. He’d kill them, live their lives for a time, then move on to another. Maybe he’d been growing bored and he saw the access she gave him as an opportunity to try something on a bigger scale. We know he was at least partially influenced by the mentality of his victims as well so it could also be that she let him see new ways to use his ability. Her knowledge of Empowerment, both theoretical and practical, was almost unparalleled.
“But, there is another possibility. It may have been a sort of farewell gift. Previously, just before he moved on, he had a tendency to do something his victim would have seen as significant. A high school student confessed his feelings to a teacher. A husband who’d quietly ignored his wife’s ongoing affair murdered her and her paramour. A father who’d always regretted the demands of his job took a week off and spent it with his family. You get the idea.
“We’ve found similar things this time. The parents of a runaway were found murdered, with allegations of sexual abuse left at the scene. A man reported a phone call from his estranged father. There’s more but they all follow the same sort of pattern and they all revolve around one of his victims and took place well after they were killed. This might have been his gift to Dr. Lizborne, or possibly to the Lodge.” Director Dione touched his wrist communicator and, moments later, the other directors all received a substantial file. “It was sent out at the same time the hospital came down, received by at least a dozen scientific journals as well as a handful of media outlets. No, we don’t know how he managed it. Communications in the area were severely disrupted and the Great Bell has confirmed that his network wasn’t used.
“We can suppress it, maybe, but not without being obvious. Even Trainee Interruption and liberal use of some of my Jones type agents would have a hard time doing it at this point. More importantly, I don’t think we should.” Various sounds of surprise and shock were made as the others began skimming through the lengthy document. “They’re calling it the Skinthief Papers and, frankly, if it’s as valuable as it looks, it might be enough to justify this whole mess on its own.”