A Fistful of Collars

Part 2♦️: And Yet / A Study With Scarlet

by MourningStarsOfLakes

Tags: #cw:noncon #comic_book #dom:female #f/nb #sub:nb #slow_burn

As said in the story intro, the general format here is a plot with a bunch of mind-control (that may not always focus on being erotic) in the main chapters and then sections dedicated to being erotic scenes in the Interludes.  If you just want the erotic mind control, feel free to skim to the Interludes which shouldn't require a whole lot of understanding of the main plot to enjoy.

Sundown, dazzling day
Gold though my eyes
But my eyes turned within only see
Starless and bible black
Starless, King Crimson

“Ms. Farras will see you now.” 
The secretary's words came out in a grumpy sigh.  She looked tired and mildly annoyed at Panzer's late-night presence as she stepped from behind the reception desk.  “Follow me.”
Panzer followed closely behind the woman, eyes drawn to the tight curves under her pencil skirt.  If her face wasn't stuck in a constant scowl she’d be quite pretty.  She was the sort of tall, leggy blonde Panzer liked to take to a bar, then to a club, and then back home.  In her experience the taller girls loved it when she picked them up and pinned them to wall, squirming helplessly in the air as the superheroine had her way with them.  She had to admit that she enjoyed it quite a bit too.
They walked past the burbling fountain in the center of the lobby towards a bank of steel-gray elevators.  The secretary’s black pumps tapped a steady staccato against the marble tiles as they moved.  Panzer could hear the frustration in each step, the need to let loose.  Those sorts always made for the most fun: women with steam to blow off and no other recourse for it.
An elevator dinged open and the two stepped inside. The secretary slammed her ID badge against a card reader and pressed the button for the top floor. The elevator rumbled as it ascended.
“Any plans after work?” Panzer asked non-nonchalantly, flexing her muscles slightly as she leaned against the elevator’s railing.  Her camouflage, spandex leotard clung tightly to her body.
The secretary shot her an annoyed look.  “Sleeping.  I had to work a double shift today.”
“That sounds rough. Did you make your boss mad?”
“I have no idea.”  The secretary shook her head.  “With Ms. Farras it feels like half the time she’s just a bitch to us so she can grind us down further.”
“Hmph. Sounds like you should look for a new job.”
“Working on it,” she replied through gritted teeth. 
The elevator door dinged open and she walked out with Panzer trailing her. Opulent, smooth onyx tiled the floor of the hallway, a dark red carpet flowing over top of it towards the only office. Plants lined the edges of a pair of fountains, their leaves stretching towards the skylight and the last shreds of sunlight trickling through it. Nearing the mahogany double doors of Regina Farras’s office were two golden statues, full sized, standing on three-foot plinths and reaching their hands across the center of the hall in an arc, almost touching.
Panzer scoffed at the gaudy display of wealth as she passed beneath them. The lavish layout screamed "superiority complex" to her.
The secretary knocked twice on the door, waited a second, and then swung them slowly inward.  The office itself was less grandiose than the hallway but perhaps more elegant in its understatement. The polished wood of the walls was mostly bare save for a cluster of framed awards to Panzer’s right. Two overstuffed armchairs sat in the center of the room, facing towards a window that ran the full-length and height of the wall behind Regina’s desk. The broad, mahogany desk dominated the room; in part due to the three small steps raising its section of the office an extra six inches from the sitting area and in part due to the woman sitting behind it.
Regina Farras had immaculately cut and styled shoulder-length black hair. Her charcoal suit was well-fitted and, if Panzer had to guess, undoubtedly expensive. It was hard to estimate her height with the artificial rise in the floor, but Panzer figured she had to be a little over six foot tall. Her face was thin, mean, and intelligent. She was writing in purposeful strokes on a legal pad as they entered. Powerful gray eyes flashed toward the heroine and silently the businesswoman raised one finger to request— no, to demand a few more moments and then dipped the finger downwards to point at one of the armchairs.
Panzer looked at the chair and then back at Regina, harrumphing to herself.  She wasn’t a dog to be ordered around.
“Sit.” Regina said crisply, a subliminal power undergirding her voice.  At no point did she stop writing or even bother to look towards Panzer again. “I insist.”
Panzer sneered as she trudged over to the closer of the two chairs and threw herself into it. Begrudgingly she admitted to herself that it was actually very comfortable. She tapped her foot impatiently.
“Tara, bring our guest some tea. Perhaps it’ll calm her nerves.”
“Right away Ms. Farras,” the secretary grumbled, contempt evident in her voice. Panzer thought she saw the hand writing on the legal pad slow for a moment before resuming its neat, looping strokes.
It was almost a full three minutes of silence before Regina set down her pen. Her fingers intertwined in a haughty arch, she swiveled towards Panzer; a cool, collected smirk on her ruby lips.
“Ms. Heneghan, pleasure to finally make your acquaintance.”
Panzer leaned forward in the chair, her mouth twisting into a snarl.
“How the hell do you know my real name?”  The anger in her voice was evident but didn't project quite correctly through the room.  It was oddly muffled, falling off in volume shortly after it left her lips.
“It’s my business to know things. Knowledge isn’t actually power, but in the modern world it is often a reliable avenue to it.” She smiled wickedly before continuing.
“Karen Heneghan, a rising star in the boxing world of the upper-Midwest. Undefeated in the ring, as her opponent's blows never seemed to injure her, and yet and yet and yet..."  Regina's voice seemed to relish the repetitious phrase, each word dripping with elated cruelty.  "She was blacklisted from the fights after it was discovered she was lying about her age. Breaking rules, it seems, came naturally to young Karen.  A week later... What was it again, four bikers?”
“Five,” Panzer grunted, “They deserved it.”
“Five bikers beaten into hospitalization a week after your expulsion.  Early statements collected claimed they were throwing you out of a bar for drunk and disorderly conduct, not to mention underage drinking. They also mentioned a number of stab wounds they inflicted on young Karen after she broke the first man’s leg, but no hospitalization record was ever recorded for her. Next thing you know, the charges were dropped and young Karen dropped off the grid.  Poof!  Gone!  Four years later, the standard length of League training, a bold, invulnerable superheroine who prefers pugilism begins to make the papers.  Easy.”
Panzer snorted in frustration. It was supposed to be difficult to uncover superheroine identities and yet this woman had laid out the path to discovery so simply.  Regina chuckled.
“Don’t fret, to most people Karen Heneghan was lost in two turns of a news cycle.  Even those who do remember you or hope to hunt you down don’t have the resources or access I do. To the rest of the world, she was just another American flash in the pan.”
Panzer’s nostrils flared, the suggestion of her inferiority angering her far more and more deeply than the revealing of her identity. She forced herself to remain calm; she needed to question this woman and losing her temper at the richest woman in the world was bound to land her in trouble.
“Ms. Farras,” she said through clenched teeth, “I’m not here to talk about me, I actually have a few questions for you about one of our ongoing cases.”
“Ah but I have a handful of questions for you as well.” The businesswoman’s vicious gray eyes stared her down. “Perhaps a quid per quo?”
“Hmph.  Fine.”
“You first.” Her tone was like ice; slick, cool, and hard. “You are my guest.”
“Are you aware of a break in at Calmwater Logistics last night?”
“Of course, you and an unlicensed vigilante trespassed on the property and were fortunately able to stop an ongoing heist of items from one of their warehouses.”
“One of your warehouses. You own the company.”
“A subsidiary of a subsidiary,” Regina chuckled, “But yes, I own it. And in my kindness I chose not to press any charges against you or your friend.”
“Press charges?!” The indignation in her voice was easily evident. “We were apprehending a smuggling operation! A smuggling operation using one of your warehouses! You should be thanking us and counting yourself lucky the League isn’t investigating you in connection with it!”
“Ah, so this isn’t a social visit then?” Regina’s words and her snide humor made Panzer scowl. She hadn’t flinched at the insinuation; if anything she seemed to find it mildly amusing. “Of course I’m grateful that you managed to stop the hooligan that was breaking into our warehouses, but you were trespassing. I’d be well within my rights to press charges or request a reprimand. As for the ‘smuggling ring’, from what I understand the evidence points to a lone-wolf superhuman with aquatic powers stealing from Calmwater.”
“There were two others with her,” Panzer protested, “I saw them!”
Regina shook her head. “All hearsay, I’m afraid.  A story from the League’s most temperamental superheroine and an unlicensed vigilante who slinks through the shadows. Hardly reliable. And with the thief, this Undertow, comatose there’s no way to corroborate your version of events.”
Panzer deflated into her seat.  She should have seen it coming, it fit the pattern perfectly. “Comatose?  How?  Since when?”
“Uh uh,” Regina tutted, a ruby red smirk enjoying Panzer’s misfortune, “You had your question, now it’s time to answer mine: What is it you want from being a superheroine?”
Panzer raised an eyebrow, a look of disbelief on her face. What sort of question was that?
“I— uh— I want to help people, beat bad guys, lead my own squad one day…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged.
“Lead a squad?” Regina scoffed, “You want to do paperwork and solicit business partnerships?”
“No!  Not like that.  When I was coming up I used to idolize the team that brought down Doctor Destructo, just six people putting everything they had into stopping a truly evil person.  I want to be like that; kicking the ass of Doctor Destructo or the Grim Phantasm or the Crimson Codex.”
Regina’s eyes lit up at the mention of the Crimson Codex, a hunger in them making Panzer shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“Hmmm… now that’s a name you don’t hear often,” the businesswoman said, folding her arms down onto her desk as she leaned forward, “I can already guess your next question.”
Was she really going to make it that easy? “Uh sure. What do you know about the Crimson Codex?”
“Not nearly as much as I’d like,” Regina admitted, “But still more than most. The first mentions of them among gray-market task groups started about four months ago, although research into the initial team composition hints at selective recruitment efforts three to six months before that. I use ‘recruitment’ as a very loose term here, as all information points to every team member save one being disposable and likely coerced or manipulated into service via superpowers.”
That tracked with what Panzer already knew, although the expanded timeline was a point she hadn’t fully considered.
“Their leader, or perhaps controller, is a superhuman known as Scarlet Sigil.  She uses a form of written magic based around symbols, ranging from teleportation to small scale psychokinesis to mind control.  No doubt you’ve seen her body writing on her victims, many of whom served her faithfully and mindlessly until they were no longer necessary.  Once she disposes of the people she uses they go catatonic until the marks efface themselves from their body.  The victim afterwards wakes up confused and disoriented, remembering nothing.”
“No,” Panzer scoffed, head shaking incredulously, “Someone would have noticed a pattern.”
I did. But that’s because I keep tabs on unexplained phenomena across the country.  Until recently she’s been dumping anyone suspected of being compromised in other parts of the country.  They buy a ticket under her influence, walk off the plane, and fall over in the street.  Of those, the only ones I even have reports on are where either the scarlet markings were extremely prevalent or the doctors kept a close enough reporting to note their disappearance.  Undoubtedly there were many more cases where someone with a crimson tramp stamp fainted and woke up a week later with no one noticing the mark in the meantime.”
“What changed recently then? Why are they getting sloppier?”
“A different question,” Regina purred, grinning at Panzer’s displeasure, “But one I’ll entertain for free.  From what I’ve been able to piece together their initial jobs were small-time things like store heists and truck hijackings; easier to cover up and easier not to get caught when you’re gifted with mind control.  Then there’s a gap in our reports, the group falls off the grid entirely for a month and a half until their more recent spree of activity focusing on corporate espionage and subterfuge.  My guess is that they attracted a new clientèle focused on plans of a larger scale, hence needing a planning period and an expanded network of agents.  The more people involved in any plan, I've learned, the more likely it is that one of them will fail.  And the more failures, the more likely one will fail in a way or place you don’t want.”
Panzer considered the information. It was all either speculative or from sources she had no way to verify, and from a person she still strongly considered a suspect for involvement.  And yet it wasn’t unsound in its reasoning.
“That all?”
“That’s everything I can share at the moment, and quite a lot for the mere cost of answering a question of mine.” Regina cocked her head, resting it on her hand. “Speaking of which: What do you know about me?”
The green and brown spandex stretched and rippled as Panzer scratched her head. What was with all the odd questions? Maybe this was just how rich people had fun.
“Your name’s Regina Farras, you’re the richest person in the world, and you own and operate Farras Ironworks.”
“Farras Incorporated,” Regina corrected her, chortling lightly to herself, “If you look around you you’ll notice we’ve expanded from my grandfather’s steel mills in Arkansas into a global empire of industry and manufacturing. Although technically yes, Farras Ironworks continues to exist under that umbrella and I do own it.  Although day-to-day operations I leave to my underlings.”
“Good for you,” Panzer growled.
“Very. After my father nearly ruined the company with his shortsightedness and inability to think beyond what his father left him, I stepped up at the bright, young age of eighteen to claw our way back to the top. I made long term deals that subsumed our competitors and broke us into new markets, reinvesting every cent of profit time and time again into promising acquisitions, infrastructure updates, and research. By the time I was twenty-five we had at least one building in every state and seventeen in other nations, all pushing forward as hard as possible to place the Farras name back on top. They called me a wunderkind, they said that everything I touched turned to gold, and I twisted that narrative to my own ends and repeated it until it became inevitability.”
Regina’s hands were clenched into fists, crumpling and twisting an imaginary bar of iron in front of her.
“If we entered a market, our competitors tanked because public opinion was that we would win out in the end.  Every smaller company wanted to be absorbed into us, because the payout was better than being crushed under our heel.  One by one we brought every piddling little firm under our umbrella, and I stripped away the waste and inefficiency from each one.  Finally it was only the other massive conglomerates standing in our way, and one by one they too succumbed to the Farras myth made manifest.”
“Great.” Panzer rolled her eyes at the self-indulgent grandiosity. “You’re rich and powerful, what’s your point?”
My point is that as an ambitious woman yourself it would be in your best interest to consider the benefits of working with me rather than against me.” She stretched herself upward, towering over Panzer from her raised platform. “You want a team of your own?  It would do well to have a friend in high places.”
The whiff of bribery was merely offensive, but the implied threat?  That was enraging.  Panzer’s knuckles went white as she balled her hands into fists.  She felt her lip snarl and the fighter within her urge her forward.  Regina Farras may be the world’s richest woman, but she could rip the bitch in half if she wanted to.  She could but— but— 
But then what?  If she lept across that ridiculous raised desk and socked the trillionaire in the mouth, what good would that do?  She’d be ruined, the case would go unsolved in a sea of League bureaucracy, and… well she really shouldn’t be punching people just for triggering her own inferiority issues.  The less she gave in to those impulses, the easier they became to ignore.  At least, that's what Doctor Klock had told her.
A knock rang through the room and the door opened. Tara teetered in her heels as she brought in a silver tray with two cups of tea on it. Regina motioned to where Panzer was sitting.
“Guests first.”
Tara took tiny steps towards Panzer, the tray wobbling in her hands. She lowered it down for the superheroine to take a cup, and Panzer could see spilled liquid pooling on the tray. She looked to Tara and then to Regina.
“Thanks but I don’t want any.”
With a sigh Tara turned towards her employer. Heels clicked slowly up the stairs towards Regina’s desk, giving Panzer a chance to appreciate Tara’s accentuated legs and ass. The pencil skirt rode up slightly as she ascended, revealing a pretty pair of light blue panties. Panzer smirked to herself, happy for something to take her mind off of her anger at Regina.
The tray clunked and the cups clattered as Tara slid it onto the desk. Regina pivoted to face her, a cruel smile curling across her lips.
“Tara, I only asked for one cup of tea for our guest. You brought in two cups. So now we’re wasting twice as much because once again you’ve failed to follow instructions.”
The secretary’s face scrunched up. Panzer couldn’t tell if she was going to cry or scream. Her trembling hand balled into a weak fist and floated between her and the still-grinning Regina for a second before she slammed it sideways onto the tray. The force knocked one of the cups over.
“Tera,” Regina said smoothly and calmly, sadistic glee dancing in her eyes, “A word.”
There was power and grace in the way the businesswoman stood up, the tailored suit falling perfectly into place along her body.  She swung an arm around her employee’s shoulders, grabbing the further one tightly, as she began to forcefully walk Tera towards the room’s exit.  If one couldn’t see their faces, they might assume the two were friends from the closeness of the half hug and the spring in Regina’s step.  But what Panzer saw as they passed was pale-faced terror on Tera and a wicked excitement in Regina. The doors opened and quickly closed, leaving Panzer all alone.
She craned her neck around to look at the doors and then up to the desk.  Did she want to risk it?  Yeah; she wanted to risk it.
She hurried up to the raised platform and scanned her eyes across the polished wood. Other than the flooded tea tray, a phone, and a locked computer the only thing of potential interest was the legal pad she’d seen Regina writing in earlier.  It would have to do.
The page it was open to was a sea of legalese and managerial speak, a bunch of concerns and questions regarding the Lentrium acquisition.  Maybe if she had time to comb through the whole thing she could find something worthwhile, but time was not on her side.  She flipped through the other pages quickly, hoping luck would aid her in her search. A list, partially crossed out, caught her eye. 
“Project: Arkwright” was scrawled in the header.  Below it were names of people and places, some familiar and some unknown to her.  Four of them were rival tech companies: Lentrium, Neuvis, Zenith, and Tachyderm; with the latter two crossed out.  Each had statuses listed next to them, with all but the newest crossed out.  Lentrium had the words “pending; CC deployed,” Neuvis had just “initiating,” and the other two had “finalized.”
The other items didn’t immediately jog her memory, but there were a few that looked somewhat familiar.  “Kataweiz Mine” rang a bell and beside its status of “pending” was written “counterplay”.  “Kendra Monteith” felt like a name she’d seen just yesterday but couldn’t quite place, something to do with work.  Next to her name was written “CC trade established.”
Two names, a place and a person, both with initials K. M.  She could remember that.
And “CC”?  Almost certainly “Crimson Codex.”  She was on the right track.
All she had to do now was politely excuse herself and then have Bullseye help her check this information.  If the leads kept multiplying like this, they were sure to hit on to something that could take the Crimson Codex down.  And Regina Farras right along with them.  She grinned to herself at the thought.
Panzer placed the legal pad back where she had found it and hurried back to her seat.  She glanced nervously at the door, counting the seconds and wondering if maybe she should have looked at a few more pages.  Her retreat was proven timely as fifteen seconds later the door opened and Regina Farras returned.
“My apologies for Tera,” she said, walking with perfect poise and posture towards the desk, “She has been reassigned.”
The way she said the last word made Panzer’s shoulders hunch up.  “Seems harsh.”
“She’s been slipping for a while now and I do demand perfection, it’s the only way we stay on top.”  Red lips flickered into a nasty smile.  “And while punitive, her new assignment will give her ample time for relaxation and leisure.  Employees are an investment Ms. Heneghan, better to find a new use for them than have to go looking for a new one.”
“Hmph.” Panzer levered herself upward.  She had intended to do this with more grace, but felt a rising anger at Tara’s punishment. 
“Listen Farras, let’s cut it with the coy smirks and question games.  I’m here because I think that you, or someone in your company, is working with the Crimson Codex to undermine your competitors.  Every one of them has suffered setbacks in the last few months and then your corporation swoops in and gobbles them up.  Something fishy is going on here and I know it.  Consider this fair warning: I’m coming for you.”
Regina somehow drew herself up even taller in her seat, a grim chuckle rolling down from her perch to Panzer’s ears.  
“You really are brash and brazen, aren’t you?”  Hairs stood on Panzer’s neck.  The previous night’s events played out in her head, specifically Undertow examining her with alien detachment and saying the words: Bold.  Brash.  Brazen.  
“If a robber breaks into a house do you blame the bank down the street for not being robbed?”  Regina paused as she looked at the notepad on the desk.  She cocked her head as she straightened it.  With a raised eyebrow, she turned back toward Panzer.  “We’ve avoided the problems plaguing our rivals because we are better prepared than them.  We screen employees once a week for body markings consistent with those found on Codex victims.  We have zero-tolerance policies for missing equipment.  We are doing well because we have remained vigilant.  Does that make sense to you Ms. Heneghan?”
For just a second Panzer swore she saw a shimmer of red flit across the corporate mogul’s eyes.  Given the iciness of the gray stare Regina was giving her, it might actually have been preferable.  There was something else bugging her too: a terrible itching feeling at the back of her mind, a frantic fear of something just out of sight.  She puffed herself up and did her best to ignore it.
“Perfect sense,” she growled, “But it also makes sense as either a smokescreen or as precautions against a double-cross.  It doesn’t exonerate you and it sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m going to stop looking into connections between Farras Inc and the Crimson Codex.  Something is going on here, and I’m going to find out what!”
Farras appraised her from her high-seated desk, her countenance shifting between disappointment and boredom.
“Very well then, I invite you to leave.”
The CEO clacked her way back down to the lower floor of her office and waved an expectant arm towards the door.  Panzer gruffly brushed past her, hearing her follow closely behind.  A red-nailed hand reached past the superheroine to yank the door open ahead of her.  Panzer walked a step out of the office and stopped, there was something amiss in the hallway.
“I had really hoped we could see eye to eye,” Regina’s calm, sultry voice whispered behind her, “and yet and yet and yet…”
Panzer’s eyes were stuck on a detail that hadn’t existed when she’d entered the office a half hour ago.  A third golden statue was placed in the center of the hallway, facing towards the heroine and CEO.  The once grumpy face was contorted into an eerie, too-wide smile.  The pencil skirt was hiked up, the fabric ridges transmuted into permanent riffles of glittering metal.  Tiny shining stilettos miraculously held under the weight of the golden statue of Tera that blocked Panzer’s path.  She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach as her brain made the connections.
“I think you’ll do much better looking up from my feet.”  
Regina’s words were accompanied by a cold shudder flowing down the back of Panzer’s neck.  She hopped forward and spun to face Regina as the chill engulfed her shoulder blades, dragging them down heavily.  Panzer pulled her right arm back for a punch, but it felt sluggish and stiff.  Turning her head she watched in horror as golden waves crashed over her elbow and started down her forearm.  With a snarl, she snapped at Regina:
“You bitch!  I knew you were with the Codex!”
The businesswoman gracefully glided to her side, swiping a hand effortlessly at the struggling superheroine.  Panzer tried to dodge out of the way, but her legs were feeling the full weight of her new golden arms and upper body.  Regina’s hand turned gold on contact, liquid blobs of metal surging outward along Panzer’s thigh.  She pulled her hand away and it returned to normal, even as Panzer’s left leg became a useless lump of metal.
“Work for that group of bitter failures?  No.”  She chuckled as she paced behind Panzer.  The superheroine tried to twist around to keep her in sight, but so little of her body was movable anymore.  Regina’s voice was suddenly close; right in her ear, just behind her head.  “We have a limited partnership for as long as they remain useful.  But Regina Ferras works for no one but herself.”
Panzer gasped as a penetrating cold slipped into the small of her back.  Her waist and the rest of her torso soon went numb, leaving only her head and right leg free and fleshy.  There was a sharp tug in her spine, like someone winding up the tension along a length of wire, and she felt her golden leg begin to buckle.  Her right leg scrabbled and strained to push upwards off the ground, but to no avail.  A minute later her golden knee touched the red carpet on the hallway way, kneeling in perfect stillness, as her right leg kicked wildly.
“They’ll find you!” she spat as she turned her head left and right, trying to get Regina in her sight once more, “They’ll track down where I went and they’ll know you did something to me!”
Regina’s only answer was a chilling touch to the flailing leg, its movement rapidly stilling as it froze in midair.  Panzer felt another tug inside of her as it gradually moved inward and downward to kneel snugly next to its counterpart.  Panic finally started to set in.  She tried to shift her shoulders, twist her waist, flex a finger; but every part of her body was stiff, motionless, numb, and cold.  Regina walked back around her, twisted smile sneering downwards at her helpless form.  Her eyes were red and yet somehow cold, embers robbed of their warmth but not their hue.
“You need to—“  Panzer started, the fear cracking through her voice.  If she were made into a statue, how long would she be trapped?  Forever?  Would she even still be alive?  Had she finally found the thing that could kill her?  Every assumed answer only led to deep-seated dread that shattered her normal bravado.  “You— please!  Please just let me go and I’ll leave you alone.  I’ll call off the investigation!  I’ll work for you!  Anything, please!”
Regina stretched a finger slowly across the space between them; purposefully slowly, tortuously slowly.  Panzer yelped and thrashed her head back and forth, hoping against hope to avoid the seal of her fate, her pleas losing their coherence as it drew closer and closer.  She screamed as the finger wavered before her vision, flesh rippling into metallic horror before plunging its frigid beauty right between the superheroine’s eyes.  
Panzer began to scream again but Regina’s hand swung down to cover it, fingers digging into her cheeks for a moment before splattering into freezing liquid.  The glob of gold covering her mouth flowed inwards, cutting off all sound and quickly numbing her jaw and tongue.  She sat in silent terror as the last warmth of the world bled away.  And then she felt something even worse.
The chill began to creep over her mind as well.
Her thoughts were being run down by the golden flood and cast into motionless, glimmering  abstractions.  She could feel things begin to slip away: her plans for the rest of the evening, her anger, the names Kendra Monteith and Kataweiz Mine, all the evidence she had been gathering; not lost but rendered inaccessible behind a shining layer of gold.  Worse yet her fear was being replaced with awe as gold coated her brain.  Her eyes, locked forcefully onto Regina’s towering figure, began to see her more and more as royal, as monarchical; a divine being bestowed with the rightful power to rule.  
Every thought became golden.  Every thought became a reminder of her blessing.
Regina twisted her molten arm, its hand still merged seamlessly into Panzer’s golden forehead, and the superheroine’s jaw inched closed.  Once closed, Panzer’s gold lips strained outwards into the same too-wide smile she’d seen on Tara earlier.  She tried to muster the focus to panic internally but all her consciousness could find was beauty and awe, opulent reminders of her Queen’s superiority.
“And there we are,” Regina stated as she pulled her hand away, “from nosy investigator to high-value commodity, ready for trade.”

Cynthia pulled her black luxury SUV through the wrought-iron gates and towards the garage attached to her family's manor.  The pointed, black metal automatically swung closed behind her, a modernization she’d installed to remove the need for a gate guard.  Over the past five years she'd whittled away most of the staff her family had once employed at the manor.  She had told them it was due to money troubles, but that was far from the truth.  She had sent them away so she could finally feel the oft-overlooked joys of isolation.
The car rolled past the overgrown gardens, their flowering green tendrils barely kept from creeping into the driveway by a monthly visit from their old gardener.  She parked crookedly in the center of the overlarge garage, the abundant space that once held twenty vehicles now serene in its emptiness.  She was careful not to let the car door slam as she exited the car and made her way through the ground floor towards the old ballroom.
Cynthia opened the door into the disused space gingerly and paused before crossing the threshold.  It had been years since she'd set foot in here and there was a part of her that wanted to leave it that way.  When she was little, when her family had first moved into the expensive house on the outskirts of Alterra, she'd loved spending time in here.  Whether it was running, dancing, and screaming with childish delight during parties or listening to music on rainy days with her brother, it had been a place to share joy with friends and family.  But as she'd grown older the noise had become unbearable, the company claustrophobic.  All eyes seemed to scrutinize her whenever they'd have people over and her ears suddenly were unable to filter out the interweaving voices of the upper crust chatting over the music.  She'd seize up and have to retreat to a quiet corner, wanting to enjoy the gathering and music like she used to but being relegated to worrying about why she no longer could.  
Eventually she had just stopped going, withdrawing back into the shadows.
She stepped carefully into the room, her free hand massaging her ear as a ringing sound began to form out of nowhere.  Even in the present silence her mind managed to conjure up the pain of the past.  Fortunately the aural echo didn't last long, the screeching memento fading back into mere memory as the lonely silence of the desolate ballroom asserted its more truthful presence.  She continued towards the corner where an antique wooden Victrola sat perched on a cart that hadn't been moved in over a decade.  
She noted the lack of dust and dirt on the old record player as her fingers fumbled with the vinyl album she'd acquired that afternoon.  It was clear her cleaning staff deserved every cent she paid them.  She slipped the black vinyl disk onto the turntable under the Victrola's comically antiquated bullhorn speaker.  Dropping the album cover to the floor, she cranked the handcrank and the record started playing.  A bevy of noise attacked her ears; heavy shredding guitars clearly not meant for the old brass speaker.  The fast-paced notes were tinny and distorted, a horrendous cacophony of pain.  She swatted the needle off the record immediately.  
Her ears were ringing again.
Sighing, she picked the album cover up off the ground and a slip of paper tumbled out, floating and flipping as it fell.  She snatched after it and managed to grab it on the second try.  On it was a hastily scrawled phone number.  She set the album cover down on top of the stopped record and pulled her phone out with one hand while she pulled the paper Magpie had given her out of her jacket pocket with the other..
A feeling of uneasiness swept through her, the stomach drop of walking alone through a graveyard at night.  But alongside that uneasiness, excitement coursed through her veins.  She was on the precipice of discovery.
Her fingers were shaking as she dialed the number, her nerves unable to steady themselves.  As the line rang for the first time she could feel a tense vise of dread clamp around her heart.  What was she getting herself into?
The line rang a second time as her wandering eyes searched for something to distract her; anything to keep her from losing her nerve and hanging up.  They rapidly honed in on the face-down album cover.  In the middle of the track listing on the back was a strange rectangle of shadowy, black watercolors oozing around four ominous words: this night wounds time.  Her vision swam as the splotch seemed to stretch and undulate for a brief moment.  Suddenly she couldn't help but view the blotchy colors on the album cover as a splatter of alien-black blood.
The line rang a third time.  She wondered if maybe she should just take the information she'd gathered to Panzer and let her follow up on the leads from here.  Or they could pursue it together.  She bit her lip thinking about the crass, camo-clad superoherione in spandex, her well-toned muscles shimmering under a layer of sweat.  The uneasiness in her stomach lessened and the shiver tickling its way down her spine dissipated in a deep breath of desire.  She swept her thumb towards the "End Call" button, already playing out her future conversation with Panzer in her head.  She'd hand over the information and then ask her out.  Somehow.  She didn't have them yet, but she was certain there existed a combination of words to slyly let the hot, muscular object of her affection know that she was interested while not leaving herself vulnerable– 
Cynthia jumped backwards at the sound of the voice, her arm jerking in a momentary reaction as if to throw the phone across the room.  Her careful construction of plans to woo her new superherione crush evaporated in the hushed, cool tone of that single word.  Cautiously she brought the phone back towards her ear, hesitating to say anything.  Tortured static spat out of the phone's speakers at odd intervals, preventing the uncomfortable silence from truly being silent.  Her brain was swimming, trying to remember what to say.  Shakily she held the card Magpie had given her in front of her face.
"I'm looking f-f-for S-S-Scarlet," she stammered.  Her voice gave out before she could make it any further.  She took a quick breath and tried again.  "I'm looking for Scarlet.  I traffic in grasshoppers and bees."
"Golden and gone but not for long."  The voice on the other end of the line responded melodically.  If it wasn't for the spurts of angry static surrounding her silences, Scarlet's voice would have been sweet; almost enthralling.  It reminded her of a music teacher she had adored back in her grade-school days.  "Be at Marquez Library in one hour.  Meeting Room K."
A final shriek of static caused Cynthia to flinch before the line went dead.  Reflexively she covered her ear even though the sound had already passed.  Her agitated mind began dissecting the next hour into a workable schedule while her eyes kept wandering back to the ominous message on the album cover.
Twenty minutes to the University and the library on the far end of its campus.  This night wounds time.  Add ten minutes for traffic and parking.  That made thirty minutes total for transit.  This night wounds time.  That left her with thirty minutes to prepare.  No, less than thirty minutes as she'd already been sitting here thinking.  This night wounds time, the wound ripping and rippling outward.  What to prepare though?  She could grab her taser just in case.  That would eat up a few minutes.  This night wounds time; its squalid darkness oozing over light and word.  And that damn phrase, she should jot it down in the moleskin notebook she reserved for quotes just like this one.  Ones that tumbled around in your head all day inescapably; prompting thought after thought centering on them.  Quotes and phrases and quips that carried more power than any jumble of letters ever should.  The clues to her personal mystery of self and substance, of sentience and soul.  This night wounds time, and every night heralds a new dawn.
She tore her dark eyes away from the four words resonating sinisterly through her head and scampered out of the ballroom towards her office.  She pulled her compact taser from the drawer and swapped its battery with a fresh one from the nearby charger.  She hoped she wouldn't have to use it, but everything today had been sliding sideways from the simple information gathering she'd expected into a realm of uncanny oddness.  Between Magpie's cautious coyness, the bizarre behavior of the Long Dash Record's employee, and the hissing phone call to set up a meeting with the mysterious Scarlet; she felt warranted in being on the safe side. 
She opened two more drawers searching for her notebook before furrowing her brow in consternation.  A moment later she rolled her eyes.  Of course it was in her handbag today, she'd brought it along expecting something more substantive from Magpie.  With a comfortable haste she returned to her fancy car and opened the leather handbag sitting on the passenger's seat.  Frustration, then worry, then panic wove themselves across her face as her increasingly frantic shuffling through the bag failed to find the moleskin containing every bit of knowledge she'd thought important over the past five years.  She dumped the bag onto the seat and felt her heart sink. 
It wasn't here.  She had lost it.
She'd only been separated from her bag for a few minutes today; minutes surrounded with ugly beaks, ruffling feathers, and the crude squawking of avian language.  Her left fist clenched.  Of course he would steal it.  White-and-black birds, intelligent little thieves.  It was in his name, in his nature.  She had left the bag on the bar booth unattended when she got him a drink.
Angrily she scooped the odds and ends on the car seat back into her handbag.  She didn't have time to pay Magpie a visit before her meeting with Scarlet, but afterwards she had a whole night to take her book back.  A night filled with shadows to creep through and hide in.  A night to get even.  A night to wound time.
She shivered at that last thought, invasive and alien.  Her hands were blurred in shadowy fists, her blood pumping.  She took a deep breath and dispelled the darkness, unsure what had come over her.  Too much excitement in too short a time perhaps?  The last week had been a whirlwind of fights and new-found desire, stirring up emotions from under the cobwebs of neglect.
Yes.  That had to be it.
She took a few minutes to cool off before departing for the library.  The drive was smooth and only marred by her usual disdain for the city's street design.  It was one of her many pet peeves: two competing city planners had laid their grids of roadways at different angles eighty years ago, each sure of the superiority of their system, causing chaotic six-way intersections in mid-town where the grids met.  It had become, at least to her, a long-lasting monument to the inefficiencies of hubris.  She had made many quips about this issue in her missing notebook, cutting remarks aimed at dead men and how their folly related to the common plight of mankind.  
For some reason her few friends found the topic to be of little interest.  
She arrived at the library ten minutes early.  The metal-framed door creaked softly closed on its ancient hinges as she entered.  Dull, fluorescent lighting lit the main floor: rows of shelves and mostly empty tables stretching from wall-to-wall.  A young library attendant was playing on her phone behind the checkout booth.  Cynthia approached her.
"Excuse me," Cynthia stated softly.  The library attendant held up a finger and continued playing on her phone.  After a few seconds she snapped her gum and looked up with a smile.
"Hi-ya.  Checking something out?"
"I... no.  Do you know..."  Cynthia stopped herself.  Of course she'd know, she worked here.  "Can you point me to Meeting Room K?"
"Sure.  Meeting rooms G through L are down the stairs in the back."  A bright blue fingernail pointed towards a stairwell.
"In the basement?"  Something rankled at the back of Cynthia's mind.  There was a quote she'd once jotted down about the sinisterness of basements, about how their very architecture encouraged shadowy deeds.  She couldn't recall it offhand though.  Yet another gem lost to a thieving bird.
"We generally call them the archives, but yeah I guess."  Her eyes kept glancing at her phone impatiently.
"Thanks."  The word was hardly out of her mouth before the assistant was back to tapping at her phone.  Cynthia brusquely walked to the stairwell and descended.
The archives mouldered under a sea of fluorescent lighting, shelves packed with books and boxes tinged a sickly yellow.  It was quiet down here save for the murmuring buzz of the lights, a silence Cynthia would normally welcome, but here unnerved her as she walked past row after row of forgotten knowledge.  It was almost as if sound was being purposefully stifled, preserving the old secrets scattered across yellowing pages in sterile stillness.
The rows seemed to stretch on for longer than they should, like the basement level was larger and longer than the floor above it.  Stopping at the thought, Cynthia turned to look back at the stairwell.  Tracing her eyes back along the floor the stairs seemed too close for how long she'd been walking, a mere twenty feet versus the one hundred or so she thought she'd walked. However as she counted the shelves she passed she suddenly got the opposite impression: of having traveled at least the full length of the building above and not having made it even halfway to the other side of the archives.  Her vision blurred as her mind tried to make sense of it.
She blinked and shook her head, clearing it.  Clearly something about the floor's layout or the arrangement of the shelves was causing a disorienting optical illusion.  It had to be a trick of forced perspective, of too-straight lines upon lines of shelves positioned perfectly against the ubiquitous blue-grey walls, their unmarred homogeneity causing a misattribution of length when her mind tried to process what her eyes were seeing.  A quirk of the brain.  An imperfection thousands of years of evolution still hadn't fixed.  
She chuckled to herself as she continued towards the meeting room.  We were able to develop superpowers as a species before mastering looking at lines.
Slowly but surely she approached the far wall, the washed-out wood of the meeting room doors becoming slightly more visible with every step through the waning jungle of books, boxes, and shelves.  The nameplate on the one dead ahead became visible as she neared: Meeting Room H.  She craned her head around the final shelf to see a few more doors spotted along the wall to her right.  Walking along the wall, every step still feeling like it carried her only a quarter as far as it should, she found Meeting Room K nestled into the corner at the farthest edge of the basement.  
She checked her watch: 7:04.  She still had three minutes until the agreed on time.
Silently she entered the room.  The handle turned heavily and the door struggled against her effort to open it.  Air rushed past her into the small room, a sudden chill that made her hair stand on end.  Inside the room was an empty table and two chairs.  There was no sign yet of the mysterious Scarlet.
She sighed and took two weary steps towards the table, reaching her fingers down to drum lightly on its surface.  The sound was far more muffled than she had expected, a fact that was as surprisingly pleasant as it was unsettling.  She lifted her arm to check her watch again as her ears felt out the silence around her.  It was serene; devoid of all the normal background noises of even supposedly quiet places in the modern world: devoid of whining fans, rattling pipes, and humming lights.  
At what point along her course here had the lights stopped humming?
Her heart beat faster, feeling like it was crawling up her torso towards her throat.  Even that feeling was muted, its minor reverberations hushed towards stillness as they pounded upwards towards her eardrums.  She glanced down at her watch.
"Glad you could make it."  A soothing voice from behind caused every muscle in Cynthia's body to freeze.  Every muscle except her shoulders.  They hunched up as if expecting a blow from behind.  "Are you alright?"
Cynthia turned around slowly, cursing herself for being so skittish.  The figure in front of her seemed genuinely concerned.
"Oh yeah, just...  You surprised me a bit."
"Oh sorry!  Didn't mean to."  The other woman was wearing a navy-blue cardigan over a creme-colored, long-sleeved top.  That plus her gray slacks suggested a professional job of some sort.  Perhaps she worked in the library.  Her green eyes smiled as she extended a friendly, red-nailed hand towards Cynthia.  "I'm Charlotte, an adjunct professor here at Alterra U."
"Cynthia," she responded, still half dazed as she shook Charlotte's hand.  She blinked in confusion as her thoughts pieced together what was wrong here,  "Thanks for... Charlotte?"  Her brow furrowed.  "Charlotte?"
The other woman raised an eyebrow.
"Not Scarlet?"
"A codename of sorts," Charlotte replied nonchalantly, "But we can dispense with all the cloak-and-dagger nonsense in person.  I doubt anyone is going to stumble on us down here."
Cynthia nodded slowly as Charlotte motioned her to the table.
"So you want to know about the Crimson Codex?"  Charlotte's melodic voice was quivering with excitement.  "Oddly enough you're not the first person today to bring them up."
"Uh huh."  Cynthia's voice sounded small as she spoke, cowed into near silence.  "What can you tell me about them?"
"Oh quite a bit.  If you don't mind I've brought a visual aid..."  With a flash of her hands Charlotte produced a scrap of paper from a binder sitting at the end of the table.  Cynthia's brows knitted together.  When had Charlotte put the binder there?  It hadn’t been here when she'd entered the room, had it?
A tapping red nail drew her attention to an intricate series of diagrams and symbols on the paper.  Her vision began swimming, trying to take all of it in.
"It's easiest if we start with a review of basic cosmology vis-à-vis the convergence of planes."  She pointed to a series of circles drawn in red pen.  Some of them overlapped, some interlocked, some just barely touched.  Questions began popping into Cynthia’s head but she stayed silent, scouring the paper for any hint as to what Charlotte meant.  Her confusion only grew worse as Charlotte’s explanation continued.
"Within our universe there exists a potentially infinite number of planes, each dedicated to its own set of abstractions and rules.  For aeons Earth has existed solely on the plane of Tempus Mundanus, a temporal plane that had siphoned off enough essence from many of thef others to form its own strange bubble of life.  Among its inhabitants: odd creatures who changed and grew and died; who knew the gift of time."
Cynthia began to look up at Charlotte, her face contorted in confused worry, when the circles on the page began to glow, drawing her eyes back to the page.  The figures shifted and swirled in captivating patterns on the paper.  Her eyelids felt heavy, her shoulders sagged.
"Temporality doesn't exist in most of the other realms, not in the continuous way it does here anyway.  In the realm of aspiration, the Red Realm, things come into existence in their most perfect form and stay that way forever.  Every one of them beautiful in its total dedication to its concept.  Roses that fractaled infinitely into more roses, entire cities made of one continuous, unbroken surface, fires that burned so brightly they consumed the very light they gave off.  And then the feedback started…”
Charlotte paused and raised her gaze from the paper to stare at Cynthia.  Her eyes pulsed with red light, consuming the mellow green that had filled in her irises before.  Cynthia tried to meet her stare, but her own eyes kept being drawn back to the whirling symbols on the page.  As she watched them spiral into themselves, she felt her mind periodically going blank.  It was a pleasant feeling, relieving even.  But she knew it wasn’t right.  She knew she had to escape.
“You’re looking a little tired,” Charlotte cooed in her sing-song voice.  Cynthia tried to resist its suggestions, but found herself nodding sleepily.  “That’s alright.  Let yourself lean back in the chair.  Relax.  This is a quiet place where you don’t have to do anything but listen to my voice.  Close your eyes and just listen to my words.  You’ll find it easy, pleasant, relaxing.  Don’t worry if you zone out a little, you’ll find it easy to remember everything I tell you.  Relax and go blank for me.”
Cynthia felt her eyes flutter closed as she slumped backwards into the chair.  She tried to open them again but they refused to budge; she was suddenly so very tired.  Charlotte’s pretty voice talking in the background was her only remaining tether to consciousness, and following it was so easy if she just let the rest of herself sleep.  As the last pieces of her mind slipped away into unconscious oblivion, her dreams conjured red symbols to illustrate Charlotte’s words.
“So very, very good,” Charlotte purred as she slipped the cardigan off, “Now where was I?  The feedback.  For billions of years Tempus Mundanus existed as an isolated oddity, the power it had siphoned from other realms went unmissed and stayed largely inert within it.  Then along came humankind.  Finally a creature existed within Tempus Mundanus that could be more directly influenced by the magics lying dormant through your isolated plane.  More interestingly, as your species was propelled forward by them: felt the tug to invent and dream, to perform, create, dominate, love, and aspire; they began to proliferate even more of the magics that had nudged them onwards in the first place.  A feedback loop that grew and grew over centuries.  The simple aspirations of the early hunter-gatherers compounded and grew with each generation, the simple desire for a cave becoming grandiose visions of reshaping the world and cosmos to suit the needs of humankind.”
“But all that power was still tied back to the original planes.  New things entered the Red Realm: the half-baked ideas of philosophers, inventors, poets, and madmen suddenly sparked into existence as the Red’s power surged here on Earth.  Some of them entered at the time of attainment, as the underlying aspiration or idea was fulfilled here in Tempus Mundanus enough for the concept to be birthed fully-formed into the Red Realm.  But many more did not.  Beings and concepts only half-thought or half-done longing to attain perfection, as all things do, but unable to.  Because the Red Realm lacks temporality.  Everything there stays as it is forever.”
Charlotte pulled the long-sleeved top over her head and threw it in a ball on the table.  Zig-zagging red lines criss-crossed her body in a tapestry of symbols, all rippling with a sinister scarlet light.  Below her breasts, held firm in the clasp of her crimson bra, a single letter stood out from all the others.  A capital letter “A” from which all the lines and symbols that flowed across the tapestry of Charlotte’s skin originated from.  Light pulsed outward from it in a constant rhythm, like the beating of heart.
 “There is a place in the Red Realm, a lattice of hexagons that extend forever in every direction.  Within each hexagon are shelves containing books, books of information about everything in every language possible.  If one traveled through the whole place, one could learn of everything that was and could be.  One of your author’s constructed this place and it came into being in the Red Realm, a perfect fulfillment of the concept of infinite knowledge.  I thought it beautiful once, but its structure suggested something else to the denizens of the Red who were fully attained: that of a prison.”
“The unattained concepts, beings, and abstractions born of Earth’s dreams were confined to that infinite library so as not to mar the perfection of the rest of the Red Realm.  The unattained, they argued, were dangerous to the fabric of the plane’s cohesion if left to wander around freely.  At first it wasn’t so bad, we had the infinite knowledge stashed across the cells to keep us distracted.  But therein lay the issue: eventually every one of us read the book that described our fulfillment, but trapped in the Red Realm we were unable to attain it.  It was maddening to be shown the path only after it was impossible to walk it.  Some actually went mad and tried to destroy each other, or the books, in impotent, despairing rage.  But others of us found each other, grouped up, and began to concoct a plan.”
The gray slacks hit the floor to reveal even more glowing, interconnected symbols running down her slender legs.  Charlotte gracefully circumnavigated the table to bring her red-lit figure next to the entranced Cynthia.  She gently stroked the mesmerized woman’s cheek and tilted her head with a hand under her chin.
“Cynthia, are you still listening to me?”  A weak nod answered her, Cynthia’s chin bobbing slightly in her hand.  “Good.  You’re doing so well.  In a moment you’re going to open your eyes and look at me.  You’ll look through patterns on my body and follow them around and around, etching them into your mind, until you feel their power within you.  Then you’re going to close your eyes again and focus on the twisting patterns in your head until they solidify into your own sigil, one that represents your deepest self and ambition.  Do you understand?”
Cynthia nodded again.
“Good girl.  Open your eyes now Cynthia.”
Cynthia obeyed and her eyes drifted open.  Her vacant stare, tilted upward by Charlotte’s hand under her chin, found itself gazing directly into her glowing, red eyes.  She shuddered as a strange, electric feeling wriggled its way through her nerves and then felt Charlotte remove her hand from under her chin.  She let her vision crawl downward over the red-marked woman’s body, eyes tracing over ever-shifting symbols pulsing with crimson light.  Her lips parted in a braindead “O” as forbidden knowledge seared itself onto the blank page of her mind.  
Charlotte began spinning slowly as she continued speaking, allowing Cynthia a gradual view of all the scarlet sigils.  The delicate curves of her body morphed in rippling red waves; mounds of flesh and muscle and nerve and sinew freely rearranging themselves with every step.  One moment a motherly figure with full curves and a soft physique, the next a lithe college student with bones visible through the skin, the next an androgynous creature of alluring otherness.  Entranced as she was Cynthia didn’t fully register the sensuousness of the protean, extraplanar entity’s shapeshifting performance, but underneath the haze of magic and hypnosis a warmth kindled between her legs.
“It was in one of those hexagonal cells I met DeSelby, the almost-realized caricature of a philosopher whose every axiom would turn the world on its head.  He was almost a complete person, but his author had never given him a first name.  Or at least that was the reason he told me for his imprisonment, the thing left unfulfilled that damned him to eternal longing.  He and his cronies, the shadelike Hatchjaw and Bassett: two specters as unlike each other as they were similar to Deselby, both bearing a resemblance to the almost-man they were attached to as if mirror images, but both being distorted in the opposite direction of one another.  He and the two bickering clones entered a cell as I leafed through one of the 160 books stored on its shelves, a work of mostly gibberish if I recall correctly.  He carried with him a book that listed the names of a number of inmates, the cell in which they could be found, and the cell in which the book detailing their path to freedom could be found.  Its name was not printed anywhere on it, but he claimed it was a book of legend called the Crimson Codex.”
“At first I didn’t believe him; the problem with a collection of infinite knowledge on how things might unfold is that many of them depict possibilities that will never occur.  However I found the proposition enticing enough to follow him to the next hexagon on his list, only a few thousand cells away.  At the very least, I argued, it would prove entertaining.  When we arrived and found the Gyres furiously ripping through the books of the cell, that’s when I realized the Crimson Codex was real.  Right there in that cell we formed a pact to help each other escape the library and achieve our fulfillment. Soon after we began to recruit the others listed in the Codex to our cause.”
“And that, my sweet girl, is what the Crimson Codex is,” Charlotte sighed contentedly as she finished a slow revolution, “We are a group dedicated to fulfilling humanity’s wildest dreams, quite literally, in the only place they can be fulfilled.  Beautiful, cataclysmic dreams that will, in the end, rip Tempus Mundanus to shreds but will preserve all the best things of it forever in the Red Realm post-attaintment.”
Cynthia nodded absentmindedly in her chair, her heavy eyelids tightly closed.
“Cynthia.”  The softness of Charlotte’s whisper attempted to bely her eagerness in a way the rapidly pulsing sigils on her body did not.  “Do you know your sigil yet?”
Cynthia’s brow furrowed as she shook her head.  Her voice was far away.  “No.  I’m trying but they’re not coming together.”
Charlotte paused for a moment, tracing a finger along a particular pattern of lines on her left arm.  The pulsating lights slowed for a few seconds before spiking in their intensity once more.  She whisked her way past the table and rifled through her binder, pulling out a pocket-sized moleskin notebook.  
“It’s a good thing Magpie is a slave to his nature: a thief even when he doesn’t want to be.”  She paced back in front of Cynthia with the book, her red nails flipping through the pages.  “Hmmm…  Jumbles of phrases and notes and journals, all of them forming a crude outline of yourself.  Shadows hinting backwards towards the object that cast them, or perhaps to the light beyond it.  How fitting.”
Red energy coursed from Charlotte’s fingertips into the notebook, infecting the ink as it writhed on the pages, twisting into interlocked sigils of pulsing power.  She flipped through the rest of the book with preternatural speed.
“You don’t just turn into a shadow for vigilante work, do you Cynthia?”  The former coldness of her voice dripped with pity.  Her sinister glowing eyes softened a tad.  “You hide away from the world to avoid all the attention and clamor that your family’s success brought.  The people you love were consumed by fortune and fame until they were annihilated by it, leaving a scared girl to retreat into the furthest, darkest corner of her manor.  But still she yearns for love, yearns to share herself with another.”
Tiny tears welled at the corners of Cynthia’s eyes as ruby red lines began interlocking behind them.
“You want to find a way to love without hurting and without being hurt.  You want to walk once more among the light with friends and whatever family you can cobble together rather than hide in a darkening house.  To flow back from shadow to the full person who cast it; to live instead of merely survive.”  Charlotte tucked the notebook into Cynthia’s trembling hand and tenderly moved her other hand over to clasp it as well.  Scarlet stains flowed out from the page and into her skin, burrowing into her veins and jolting the seated woman upright.  Vibrant red lines formed a pattern on the inside of her eyelids and in the depths of her mind.
“The Crimson Codex is dedicated to fulfilling desires.  I can help you attain the most out of every fiber of your being.  All you need to do is find your sigil.”
Cynthia saw it in her mind, the crackling fusion of jagged lines forming a complicated superstructure representing herself.  There was little logical sense to it, but looking at it she could see all her desires conjoined by a hodgepodge of glyphs: love, mastery of her powers, acceptance, and even some darker things; all symbolically implied and understandable only through a context she possessed.  Her eyes burst open, bulging.
“I have it!” she gasped, her tone still half-asleep, “I have it.”
“Wonderful.  Now draw it here and I can make all your dreams come true...”  
Seemingly out of nowhere Charlotte produced a crimson, felt-tipped pen and handed it to Cynthia.  Meanwhile Charlotte flipped her other arm over, the symbols and patterns from her wrist to elbow scattering to either side until a blank slate of supple flesh laid unmarked before Cynthia.  Focused intently, she put the pen to Charlotte’s arm and began to draw.  For a second she worried about being able to accurately reproduce the sign in her head, but the pen knew exactly what she wanted to draw and guided her every stroke.  The sigil in her mind blazed brighter and brighter as she continued, excited for its manifestation.  She could feel it now, its desire to be created matching her frenzied desire to create it.  With a final stroke and streak of red she slashed the last of the sigil into Charlotte’s arm.
The sigil in her head grew overwhelmingly bright.  Red light flooded her vision, poured out of her eyes, mouth, nose, and ears.  It twisted in midair and rushed into the ink on Charlotte’s arm, glowing spectacularly as it seemed to meld into her skin.  The illustrated woman grinned as tendrils from other symbols on her body rushed to meet the new one, joining to it and binding it to her.  Soon it pulsed to the same beat as the rest of her markings.
Cynthia collapsed on the ground, her mind suddenly dark and blank.  She felt hollow, unable to muster the will to pick herself back up.
“Welcome to the Crimson Codex sister.”  Charlotte’s voice mixed a preening haughtiness with a sincere, familial regard.  “I’m the Scarlet Sigil.”
Cynthia stared numbly at her, unable to think.  She looked at the sigil written on Scarlet’s arm, one she had a very vague memory of drawing, and couldn’t understand what it meant.  Everything was lost in a haze of weariness, a lack of desire.
“I suppose I should connect your will back to you.  You’re not much good without it.”  A red nail poked Cynthia in the forehead as Scarlet whispered in a hushed tone: “And rules the shadows of the wood.”
Snaking scarlet light crackled through the black void of her mind illuminating the darkness and obliterating the shadowy haze that had overcome it.  Cynthia breathed in heavy, sharp gasps as if she’d just been rescued from drowning and had been starved of oxygen.  Her eyes flared crimson and she let loose a soft “ohh” as desire and want rushed back into the husk of her body.  A hot lick of pain lashed across her stomach, her hands immediately tugging up her dress to identify the cause.  She tossed the garment aside, unconcerned that she was now kneeling near-naked before Scarlet in the basement of a college library.  Instead she was staring in equal parts horror and wonder at the scarlet, serpentine letter “S” encircling her belly-button with its lower bend and the red symbols etching themselves into her skin around it.
“Now what would be a good name for you?”  Scarlet asked, her hand idly playing with a lock of Cynthia’s hair.  The kneeling woman looked up at her, trying to form words but finding herself unable to speak.  “Shadow Lass is a little… underwhelming.  It’s the name of a dedicated sidekick.  How about something more self-respecting?  The Umbral Hunter?  No, we don’t need another Umbra.  Ah, how about the Skulking Shade?  Yes.  I think that will do quite nicely.”
An odd sensation crept through Cynthia’s head, a deep-seated feeling of correctness at the new name.  Shadow Lass had been a childish moniker, one that demeaned her abilities through its connotations of youthful inexperience.  The Skulking Shade was a name with power, a shift from naivety and innocence to a force to be reckoned with.  A predator instead of prey.  A person who could finally take the things she had wanted for so long.
Crimson streaks swirled outward from the other symbols on her stomach.  New lines were added amid a rush of revelatory pain, every stinging sensation illuminating more and more of the neglected potential within her mind.  She had always thought herself relegated to hiding in the shadows, forced to live and operate where the light didn’t reach.  As her new identity was seared into her flesh and her mind she realized that line of thinking had been a self limitation.  She could bring the darkness wherever she wanted.  She could flood the world with shadow.  With enough time and practice she could blacken the sun from the sky and blot out the stars.
This night wounds time.  
The thought had her trembling in excitement and anticipation.  She stared upwards toward Scarlet with a maniacal grin, her eyes frantic and wide.
“Perfect,” Scarlet said in hushed praise, seemingly as much to herself as to Cynthia, “You’ve fully accepted yourself.  I think that deserves a reward; a taste of fulfillment.”
Scarlet threw back her head as the pulsating red rivulets along her body surged with power.  Flesh rearranged and expanded, muscles bulging and breasts growing larger.  When she looked down at Cynthia again it was with Panzer’s face.  The muscular arm that reached down to play with her hair was Panzer’s arm.  
Cynthia’s jaw quivered as a lustful whimper eeked out of it.  Her thighs clenched and she was suddenly aware of a slick need between her legs.  Even with her newfound confidence however, she was too dumbfounded to move.
“It’s alright little shade,” Scarlet said through Panzer’s rough alto, the heavy hand pulling her head closer, “This is what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yesssss,” Cynthia hissed out as her face neared the shimmering red panties stretched so tightly against Panzer’s muscular thighs and ass.  She could smell the heady musk of lust but wasn’t sure if it was her own or Scarlet’s.  Perhaps it was a mingling of both.
“It may only be a simulacrum today, but that which we perform in the symbolic will soon find its way into the Real.  I guarantee it.”  Scarlet pulled her even closer, pushed her head inwards until her nose was touching the underwear.  Cynthia was sure now that the scent of arousal was not coming from herself alone.  “Show me what you want to do to her.”
Cynthia’s hands wasted no time in yanking the panties down, the shimmering scarlet fabric bunching up a few inches down the thick thighs on Panzer’s body.  Her tongue licked along the folds of her crush’s pussy, the pungent juices tasting sweeter than anything Cynthia had experienced before.  She grasped and groped at her lover’s ass, taking breaks to occasionally run her hands down the two slabs of muscle Panzer called legs.  The muscles in Cynthia’s own legs were spasming in excitement while pitching her lower torso back and forth in a jerky rocking motion, desperate to be touched.
“Mmmmmm…” Scarlet’s voice trilled unnaturally, filling the silent air with harsh discordant chords.  The large hands of the purloined form gripped Cynthia’s hair tighter and pushed her inwards harder, controlling Cynthia physically just as her magics controlled her mentally.  Panting, Scarlet looked down at her newest recruit sensing unfulfilled need.
“Don’t forget to– mmmm… don’t forget to take care of yourself.  Never fail to fulfill your own desires.”  Her eyes closed and a monstrous moan rippled through the room.  An intense red light radiated through the sigils of her assumed form as her pleasure crested a minor hill.  “Never ever fail to attain fulfillment.”
Cynthia’s left hand had already snaked between her own legs as the right one continued to adoringly caress the muscular legs and hips before her.  As soon as she slid them into her slit she was already on the edge of orgasm.  Years of pent up feelings and denied desires had been suddenly unleashed into an unstoppable and all-consuming horniness that relished and rewarded that first touch.  She was giving fully into her desires and her body was responding by exploding with pleasure.  Her arm locked tightly around Scarlet’s leg for support as she came, stopping her licking and sucking briefly to vocalize into the other woman’s pussy.
“Fuck yes,” Scarlet growled down at her.  The room around them was awash in crimson light, a radiating aura of ecstasy.  “But you want more than that, don’t you?  Do it!  Show me what you want!”
Cynthia’s head was still reeling from the aftermath of her orgasm, unsure of what Scarlet was trying to get at.  Her head bobbed backwards as she looked up into her eyes, watching the red pupils bore into her own.  Thoughts and ideas flooded her mind, ones she at first thought were foreign and placed there by Scarlet, but that she quickly realized were actually her own.  Things she had fantasized about but hidden away; scared of what they might mean.  Dreams that elicited an uncomfortable arousal in her because they ran counter to her view of herself.  Fantasies that she dismissed as impossible so she didn’t even try.
But with Scarlet’s help she felt like she could do anything.
Gingerly she reached her hand out to caress the stiff calf muscles of Panzer’s body again.  Red thoughts crackled in her head and her hand faded into shadow as she’d done many times before.  This time though she pushed into the leg of her faux love and real lover, pushed with a force starting not from her wrist or her elbow or her shoulder but from her own shadow.  She shivered as she felt the connection more fully than she ever had before, the penumbral force she’d channeled in simpler ways now so much easier to manipulate.  Darkness poured out of her hand and over Scarlet’s leg, wrapping it in smooth, silky shadow.
“Yes; like that,” Scarlett urged her, “Do it.”
With an exhilaration she had never known before, Cynthia forcefully channeled the darkness over the other woman.  The red light lessened as she painted shadow over one leg and then the other.  Reveling in desires that had floated unacknowledged at the edges of her mind, she melded into the shadows as she cajoled them into enwrapping Scarlet, flowing around and feeling every contour of the body she had assumed.  Snakelike, she wound her way up over the ab-hard stomach and over her torso.  She flexed the shadows like a rippling muscle, squeezing Scarlet’s breasts as she slid over every inch of her skin.  
The room was dim now save for Scarlet’s glowing eyes.  The rest of her body below the neck was imprisoned in a tight suit of shadow and the light from the overhead lamps was no match for Cynthia’s powers.  She breathed heavily, hungrily, as she floated backwards from Scarlet, wisps of shade still connecting them.  There was no humanity left in her eyes, only the gaze of a jungle cat about to pounce on its prey.  At her command the shadows roiled, forcing Scarlet to her knees in Panzer’s body.  She reached through them again, fumbling at first, but finding a way to tease the other woman with the shadows enveloping her.
Tendrils of night crept inside her captive’s pussy and ass, teasing lightly at first and then more forcefully.  Cynthia projected her will along the darkness again and forced Scarlet’s arms behind her back before pushing her downwards into a bowing position.  The ecstasy of power and dominance was something she had never experienced before, but now that it was unlocked in her mind it felt oh-so-right.  Shadows rushed outward from her ethereal form, robbing the room of all color except the intensely glowing red eyes in front of her.  
“Yessssss,” Scarlet hissed up at her in Panzer’s voice, “Pleassse”
Cynthia’s mind went blank as red arousal overpowered her ability to think any longer.  Her shadowy self distended inhumanly as it rushed towards Scarlet’s red eyes and the malevolent grin barely disernerable below them.  She forcefully enveloped the other woman’s head and wrapped around her in an embrace of power and lust and love.  A pleasured scream reverberated along her all-encompassing form as her captive lover climaxed hard.  Cynthia let herself flow over the entirety of her body, feeling everything and touching everywhere.  She was simultaneously in control of everything in the room via her shadows and about to lose herself in the blissful ecstasy of it all.
Scarlet’s moans under the sable shawl of shadow soon subsided.  Cynthia twisted in the darkness, gagging the imprisoned woman and forcing her mouth shut.  A soft cushion of shadow pushed against her throat in order to stifle even the slightest noise from the bound Scarlet.  She shut her eyes and let herself discorporate into the pitch-black silence of Meeting Room K, spreading her consciousness through the blissful serenity she had created.  
This was how the world should be: quiet, calm, controlled, peaceful.  
No sound.  No stars.  No sun.  
Everything in shadow.

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