Out of the Frying Pan...
by Charlie Ball and Nathan Gibbard

Alex got out of the cab and paid the driver. Entering the building, Alex checked in with the security guard. He was issued a visitor's badge and was escorted to a private elevator. The doors closed and the elevator shot upwards. After what seemed like only a few moments, the elevator stopped and the doors slid quietly open.

Another guard was there to escort Alex to the briefing room where he was to meet with Trinity and Lioness. The guard indicated that he should wait and that the two would be with him shortly. Sure enough, Alex had only been waiting for a few minutes when both Trinity and Lioness entered the room.

Lioness moved like her namesake, her sleek, tawny body stalking towards the large oak table in a sinuous line. He found that her slow, almost rolling gait caused her body to move in a sensual manner. When she got closer, Alex could see that her eyes were also feline, the pupils thin, diamond-shaped slits. Though her face was stern and suggested she was threatening, Alex found it difficult to keep his eyes from wandering over the cat-woman.

Trinity followed closely behind the feline heroine. This woman also possessed an exotic beauty with Grecian features and complexion. Alex had some difficulty imagining how she could produce replicas of herself.

Lioness stared intently at Alex as she moved to take a seat. The young Brit had the distinct feeling of being the entrée at a large buffet and that Lioness was deciding just how large a piece she could take without drawing attention. Trinity was a little more difficult to read but she was the first to speak.

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Mr. St. John-Smythe," she began. "As you might imagine, we are kept fairly busy."

"Yes, I would imagine so," replied Alex. "I very much appreciate your being able to take the time to see me. And please, call me Alex."

"Ordinarily, we might have referred you to the Board, but it would seem that you have some well-placed friends. What can we help you with that more conventional law enforcement can't solve."

"In the last several months, I've had two encounters with the Royal Elite. The last--"

Alex was interrupted by a snarl that erupted from the throat of Lioness. "What do you know of them?"

Trinity shot a glance at Lioness, then turned back to Alex and said, "Please continue. Describe the nature of these encounters. And please be as specific as possible."

Alex did so, including as much detail as possible.

The first encounter had been in London, an attack on a medical complex that ultimately resulted in the abduction of a newborn child and the slaughter of the parents and their doctor. The attack had been perpetrated by the Yeomen, four armored 'knights' who acted as enforcers for the Royal Elite. Alex had tried to stop the attack but had been outnumbered and defeated by them. Autocrat had intervened moments before they would have killed him, giving instructions that Alex should not be permanently harmed.

The second had been more recent. Two members of the Royal Elite had come upon him at Juilliard for the express purpose of abducting him to who knows where. Were it not for the presence of Sarah Steiner, also known as Knock-out, Alex would likely have been unable to refuse their "invitation." As it was, they were barely able to hold them off until the Draughtsmen had arrived.

Throughout Alex's narrative, Lioness frequently interjected with guttural snarls and outright animosity toward the very mention of the Royal Elite. Trinity also expressed concern, although she seemed somewhat distracted.

After concluding his tale, Alex looked to the members of the Protectorate and asked, "I don't know what the Royal elite wish with me and, should these 'visits' continue, I'll eventually run out of ways to fend them off. Can you advise me on how to proceed?"

Before either could respond, there was a soft knock at the door and then the door was flung open. A man-sized creature stumbled in, two white, feathery wings jutting from his shoulder blades. The man steadied himself, his hands on his knees, body heaving as it gulped down oxygen. His body was battered and torn. Nicks, slashes, and strange animal-like punctured wounds covered his arms and legs. His breathing slowed as he straightened, revealing another side.

A strange glow surrounded the man, flecks of steel-grey occasionally swirling within the globe of light. Lines of fatigue were countered with the impression of firm resolve. Even in his battered state he gave the impression of quiet dignity. His grey eyes flickered to the people in the room, meeting each. As his eyes fell on Alex, his expression betrayed some confusion. He shook his head and returned his gaze to the people he had been seeking, members of the Protectorate: Trinity and Lioness.

"Greetings," he said in a deep voice. "I came here to ask for the help of the Protectorate, or" his eyes glanced toward Alex, "at least let someone else in the world know what's happening in New Orleans."

Both Trinity and Lioness were instantly on their feet and both headed toward the new arrival, Alex not far behind them. A duplicate of Trinity appeared and headed for a first aid kit that hung one of the walls of the board room. In the meantime, Trinity and Lioness began asking for more information.

"What do you mean? What kind of help?" began the feline heroine.

"Perhaps we should start with your name," said Trinity as she accepted the first aid kit from her duplicate. " And what is occurring in New Orleans? Is this where you received your wounds?"

"My name is Jacob. And you want to know what's happening in New Orleans?" Jacob replied, his voice becoming deeper and different, his eyes taking on a faraway quality. "Death, destruction, and despair -- a vampiric darkness is descending over the city. If we don't act soon, nothing will be left."

Alex was startled by the manís voice. It wasnít just an affected change in his voice; it was as though someone entirely different were speaking with Jacob's mouth. The inflections were almost the same but the frequency, pitch and timbre were completely different.

Jacob shook his head, his voice returning to normal long enough to say "Sorry about that." before he nearly collapsed.

The two members of the Protectorate spoke almost together, with different purposes. Lioness was first, a sharp, suspicious edge to her voice. "Why haven't we heard anything about this?"

Trinity's duplicate was over Jacob, supporting his tall frame, while the original added, "Why don't you sit down? You look like you need it."

Jacob smiled and moved away from the duplicate, attempting to stand on his own. He succeeded, but continued to sway slightly. "Thank you, but I wanted to say something more before I collapse on the floor unconscious.

Jacob turned to address Lioness. "The reason you haven't heard anything is because there's some kind of, I don't know, communications net, over the city. We've tried phoning outside the city, to tell someone what's going on in New Orleans. We always receive assurances and offers of support, but nothing ever comes of it. I phoned the United Nations headquarters myself more than a week ago to let the Protectorate know what was happening there; I'm guessing you didn't get the message. We need help, anything, that's the reason I came here in person." Jacob continued in the same tone, "I'm just going to collapse now."

He didn't collapse, but he did allow himself to be led to a chair.

Alex stood a little ways off, wanting to help but not quite knowing what to do. Once Jacob was sitting as comfortably as his wounds and his wings would allow, Trinity and her duplicate remained standing and began administering to the other manís wounds. Lioness began pacing. Alex took his seat again, his request for advice having been set aside for the moment.

Once Trinity finished, her duplicate disappeared. While Jacob still looked as though heíd been put through a ringer, he seemed a little more comfortable and was breathing easier. Although Lioness continued to pace, Trinity returned to her seat.

"Could you give us any specific information?" she asked Jacob. "Have you discovered the source of the vampiric infestation or perhaps a pattern to their appearance?"

"Yes, on both accounts," Jacob replied, barely above a whisper. "Their source, leader and inspiration is a woman by the name of Serena Sousa."

"Vamp?" Lioness interjected, sharing startled glances with Trinity.

Jacob continued in a soft voice, oblivious to the looks of concern and anger spreading across the faces of Trinity and Lioness. "Yes, Vamp. She leads them. One-on-one, ten-on-one, I could destory the vampires, but her control makes them far deadlier."

Alex sat listening to the conversation, his own problems momentarily forgotten. ďPardon my ignorance, but I always thought that vampires only existed in fiction. Iíve never seen anything in the news that didnít turn out to be the result of a lunaticís actions. Is there any chance that this is all some gigantic hoax?

Jacob turned to Alex. "You have me at a disadvantage, might I enquire into your name?"

Alex offered his hand, which Jacob shook in return. "Alex St. John-Smythe."

"Pleased to meet you." Jacob continued with the matter at hand, softness in his eyes. It was a look reminiscent of when adults are forced to shatter childhood dreams and illusions. "Do you remember the 'Cult killings' reported about in Detroit on October 30th? They weren't a cult, they were vampires: it explains the drained blood for starters. How do I know this isn't just some hoax, that vampires are real? All I can say is when you look into the blankness of their eyes and see nothing staring back at you, you know." Jacob paused. "And having the misfortune of watching them feed is something you tend not to forget."

Trinity, having listened intently to all that was being said, cleared her throat and spoke. "There is a fair amount of evidence of the existence of vampires in the Protectorate's files. One of them refers to a woman called Vamp -- Serena Sousa. She was a Portuguese countess some two hundred and some odd years ago, but she resurfaced just after the first World War, leading a massive vampire coven in Europe. She and the coven was thought to have been destroyed. If she survived, this could be her work and they may have a much larger scheme than anyone has dealt with before."

"They do," Jacob offered simply.

A guttural growl caught in Lioness' throat, as Trinity rose half-way out of her seat, eyes wide, "What do you mean? What do you know, all of it?"

Jacob's head lifted, strength returning to his features. He chuckled slightly to himself. "Megalomaniacs tend to talk too much when they think they have the upper hand. It was actually part of my first phone call to you. Serena, Vamp, spoke of an imminent invasion of North America. She spoke of her vampires as being part of that invasion and that they represented part of the next step in natural selection. While her biology is somewhat off, it seems to fit some of the rumours you hear about the Royal Elite in the news."

Trinity and Lioness turned to each other, talking in hushed tones. The tension in the room grew. Finally, Lioness stalked out of the room as Trinity turned to address Jacob and Alex. "If you'll excuse us for a moment. We need to... contact some people. If what you say is true Jacob, confirming some of our suspicions, the Protectorate will need to decide how to act. We haven't forgotten about you either Alex, but your recent troubles with the Royal Elite have suddenly taken on different meaning. Excuse me." She rose from a chair and left the room

Jacob turned to Alex. "I'm guessing you're also connected to these events somehow."

Expressions of confusion, concern and apprehension struggled for dominance on Alexís face. Confusion won out.

"I suppose so, I just wish that I knew how and why?" he finally replied. Alex looked at the other man for a moment and shifted a little in his chair.

"Is there something wrong?" asked Jacob.

"Not really," Alex answered. "Iím just not used to having my world view shifted quite so abruptly. Itís one thing to find out vampires really do exist...Ē Noting the glow that surrounded the other man as well as his wings, Alex paused momentarily, then continued, ď...Itís another thing entirely to be told by an angel. It sort of makes me wonder what other things Iíll discover today.Ē

Jacob flashed Alex a large grin, fighting down a laugh. "It certainly makes for an interesting life doesn't it. But I'm not an angel." Jacob shook his head, an odd mixture of confusion and concern replacing the grin. "At least I don't think I am."

Alex still seemed a little uncomfortable but after another moment passed, he said, "If you donít mind my asking, have you always been uh, the way that you are? Iíve only had my abilities a few years and Iím still learning new things almost on a daily basis."

"It depends on the perspective. As far as I can tell, part of me is still human, while the other part is... something else." Jacob stared as he flexed his hand into a fist, light coalescing around it. As he spoke a ball of blue, red, orange and black detached itself from his clenched fist and floated into the air. "Most people call the other part angelic."

Jacob looked at Alex, sincerity in his eyes. "Something happened to me last April, I don't know what. I was sleeping," Jacob shrugged his shoulders, "and then a new life was born in a moment of fire and pain. So, like you, I'm kind of new to my powers. Except that I've also spent millennia with powers like these. It's, um, hard to explain but it certainly does make things interesting. What about you? You mentioned learning about your own abilities?"

"Yes," replied Alex. "Iíve always been very good with music as well as remembering anything I hear. When I hit my teens, I discovered the ability to mimic voices and make it sound like they come from somewhere other than my mouth." Alex smiled briefly. ďReally useful for the occasional practical joke. Then, when I was about fifteen years old, I began changing, that is I started growing a lot and putting on weight. Between the hunger pangs and the cramps, I thought I was going to die. Turned out I was just putting on a lot of muscle and height very quickly. When I could move without cramping up, I found I was a lot stronger than I had been and could pretty well out pace any of my team mates when I got back to school."

Alex paused again. "About six months ago," he continued, "I started manifesting different powers, seemingly at random. I never had any problem using them but I never knew when it would happen or why the power was different every time. Recently, I discovered they were triggered by music. The music seems to determine, or at least influence, what power manifests. In the words of a friend of mine, itís 'kinda trippy.'"

Alex shook his head. "I donít know if I can be of any help in New Orleans. My abilities arenít very reliable beyond what physical prowess I might possess. I mean, as long as thereís some good music playing at the time, I can hold my own pretty well. Unfortunately, there isnít often a good band playing in most situations where a fight is likely to happen. Is there anything you can tell me about how the vampires can be fought?"

"Far too much," Jacob answered, his eyes far away. Suddenly, he turned, locking his eyes onto Alex's, "I need to ask, are you sure you want to go to New Orleans? Are you sure you want to face what's there?"

Alex paused only for a moment before replying solemnly, "Yes. I am. Twice now, Iíve been in a situation where Iíve had to fight the Royal Elite. First, I was spared by Autocrat himself for reasons I can only guess at. The second incident had me I narrowly avoiding being kidnapped by them. If it were not for the help of a friend they might have succeeded and Iím still not sure why they want me. The best guess I can make is that they want me to join their 'cause' because of my abilities and my background."

Alex thought to himself.  He then spoke, "If I do nothing, they will surely try again and they will eventually succeed. If I can help to take out one of their own, it may dissuade them from trying to continue their 'recruiting' efforts." Alex let out a slow breath, having only just realized how angry he was about the whole situation. "What can you tell me about New Orleans?"

Jacob paused for a moment, reappraising the strength of the man beside him. "Imagine New York, except almost all the buildings are quiet and it's a rare sight to even see another person. That's what New Orleans is like now. And vampires," Jacob added, shaking his head, "their faces are human, their forms are human, even their voices are human. I can see in what I assume is the infra-red spectrum, and that's what I use when I fight them. When I stake them, stakes are very good by the way, I don't see a human, but I don't know what you'll see. Do you want me to tell you more?"

ďTell me everything you can. If I am to be of any use at all, Iíll need to know what Iím up against.Ē

"You got it" was all Jacob said before he launched into the ways and weaknesses of vampires, barely stopping for breaths. "Holy symbols, holy water, all that stuff -- doesn't do anything. Well, some of them seem to collect it, so maybe it does attract them a little. Likewise burning: they don't go up in flames like you sometimes see in movies. Don't ask me how I know that, you wouldn't want to know. Also running water, pppff, whatever."

As Jacob continued talking, he became more animated, his voice and hands becoming alive. "Wooden stakes should be your basic weapon of choice. When we get to New Orleans I'll see if I can't get you a repeating crossbow, they're very handy. Decapitations also work nicely. Granted, you usually have to have some kind of weapon to achieve the decapitations. But, in a pinch, it might be useful to know that. They really don't like garlic; it doesn't kill them, they just really don't like it. I've got some of the police using tranquillizer darts filled with garlic because internal injection seems to... bother them. They do a weird little funky dance, like their insides are exploding." Jacob paused and smiled, "And yes, angels apparently do say 'funky' sometimes."

Jacob continued with a smile. "I don't know how strong you are, or what your experience is, except that you beat up members of the Royal Elite for breakfast. Vampires are stronger and faster than regular humans, but not too much." Jacob's voice changed, taking on a more somber quality. "One-on-one, I'm guessing you could probably take out a vampire. The problem with New Orleans is that your not facing one vampire, or even a couple dozen; there are hundreds, or even thousands of the vermin roaming the French Quarter at night."

"You hit them hard, you hit them fast, you hit them smart. If you don't...," Jacob let the last sentence dangle, glancing at his scared arms and legs instead. "Any questions?"

"I donít suppose thereís a beginner slope to practice on, is there?" Alex responded, frowning. Jacob smiled briefly and continued.

"One final note: about a second after you stake 'em they start to shake, and then explode. We're not talking pretty explode, we're talking blood and guts explode. You should be ready for that."

"Right," said Alex. In a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood, he added, "Iíll be sure to grab my raincoat and put the cleaners on standby."

Jacob and Alex discussed the finer points of vampire slaying for a while longer when both Trinity and Lioness returned. Instead of taking their seats, everyone remained standing and Trinity addressed Jacob.

ďWe have been in contact with the Monolith. Itís agreed that the New Orleans problem needs to be handled soon, and so we'll accompany you. The three of you should meet here--ď

ďThe four of us,Ē, interjected Alex. ďIíll be going as well.Ē

"No!" Lioness replied with a snarl. "This isnít going to be a walk in the park and Iím not going to baby sit you while weíre there. "

"I havenít required a nurse-maid for a very long time and Iím not totally helpless," Alex replied.

"No? You came to us for help, remember?" retorted Lioness, a note of warning creeping into her voice.

"With all due respect," answered Alex, "do you think you could face the Royal Elite without help?"

Lioness looked about ready to spring at the young Brit when Trinity intervened.

"Thatís enough, Lioness! If the situation is as bad as we fear, we may need his help." Turning to Alex, she continued. "Very well. If both you and Jacob can be here at dawn the day after tomorrow, we can transport all of you to New Orleans."

Jacob answered almost immediately. "Iím afraid that will be too long for me to wait. I need to return sooner. I'll meet you at the New Orleans City Hall when you arrive."

"Donít be absurd. Youíre barely able to stand on your own. If you leave now, youíll likely kill yourself trying to get there."

Jacob's eyes meet Trinity's, his voice calm and steady. "I made a promise to the few remaining people in New Orleans, I don't intend to break their trust. I will make it back, and I will contain the vampires until your arrival. I've just made a promise to you now and I don't intend to break that one either."

 Trinity hesitated, she knew she should order the winged man named Jacob to remain in New York. Yet, somehow, looking into his eyes she knew he would meet them at New Orleans City hall in two days, whatever the cost. "Alright. Go back to New Orleans and tell them help will be arriving shortly. Is there anything else you might need before you go?"

Lioness grumbled under her breath. Jacob could only pick out the odd word; something about "stupid," "young," and "heroics."

Jacob tried to ignore her, a burning question in his mind. "Do you know if anything is happening in Canada?"

Trinity looked at Jacob oddly before replying. "Your mention of a communications net over New Orleans helps confirm another report we had. That being the case, there's no way of knowing what's happening without going there in person." Trinity continued, anticipating a response, "I'll try and contact the Canadian Shield nonetheless, and tell them what you said."

Jacob thanked her as she began ushering the two young men towards the door, discussing in more detail the meeting arrangements. She stopped at the door and wished them luck. With that the door closed behind them, and Jacob and Alex walked towards the exit. As they moved out of the building, both men stopped and turned towards each other.

Jacob spoke first. "Is there anything I can get in New Orleans for you, to help with your abilities? A CD player? A stereo system strapped to your back?"

"Thanks," replied Alex, smiling slightly at the image. "Iíve got a few things in a trunk at home that I never thought Iíd use. Any chance you could scare up a dozen Uzis loaded with wooden bullets, just in case what Iíve got in mind doesnít work?"

"I'll see what I can do -- I'll come up with something at the very least," Jacob continued, a touch of mischief in his eyes. "I'll be seeing you in a couple days and we can raise some hell with vampires and the Royal Elite."

 Without another word, Jacob shot up into the sky, arching over a building. Within moments was he out of sight. Seeing him in the air, it was hard to imagine he was covered in scars.

"Or maybe even send them whence they came" The words Alex spoke were definitely formed on his tongue but his voice sounded a little off somehow, familiar but a little off. Alex hailed a cab and headed back to his flat, wondering if heíd just made a very large and very final mistake.

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