We went up a spiral staircase (the steps were actually straight and not warped – nor were they smooth, providing a lot of traction) that apparently led to every level of the structure. I noticed, idly, that none of his steps made a sound, even though he was walking on metal surfaces with metal boots. Nifty trick.
He took me to the third floor, and down a hallway with walls covered in amateurish graffiti and then stopped in front of a doorway that had been covered in a thick green blanket. I could smell the two in the room beyond, as well as sweat and blood, and I heard a soft voice talking. I tensed up, ready to act – I smelled quite some blood.
Malphas reached out and knocked on the door frame, producing a clear, bell-like sound. “Are you two decent?” he asked. “You have a visitor, and I’m afraid it’s urgent!”
The two voices whispered furiously, just barely low enough for me not to be able to make out their exact words without calling up the monkey – and it was already hard enough to resist it as it was, right now. It was spoiling to end the fight I’d cut short earlier in the night.
Save it for the real target, I thought, even though I doubted it could even understand me. It never did respond to verbal cues.
“Come in, I guess!” Brimstone replied – her voice was quite recognisable, now that I thought about it. It made me think of smoke, in a pleasant way.
Malphas pulled the curtain aside, entered, and I followed him.
The room beyond opened into a section of the sewer plant that I hadn’t been able to see before, with the colourful, patchwork-curtain that usually provided some privacy drawn aside. The room itself contained two mattresses next to each other, with blankets and pillows. A small, old drawer stood at the foot end of the mattresses. Other than that, there was just a small, round table with two chairs and a cooking corner that held a pot hung over a simple fireplace made of stone.
Smelly lay on one mattress, her costume off down to her waist, exposing her upper half – which wasn’t nearly as tantalising as one might expect, since it was basically just one giant bruise with a side order of bloody gashes that were spread liberally across her torso, though focusing mostly on her left side – the direction from which Sara had shot her, in fact. If it wasn’t for a plastic tarp beneath, she’d have already ruined the mattress. Her skin was pale, bloodless, her short dirty blonde hair plastered to her head by sweat. Under normal circumstances, she’d probably be considered exceptionally beautiful, but right now, just looking at her hurt. She looked to be barely out of her teens.
Brimstone was kneeling next to her, her own mask taken off to reveal a face with similar enough features that I was pretty sure they were closely related – perhaps sisters, perhaps cousins. Her hair was longer, but of the same shade, her face a little younger and softer.
The wounded woman was in no shape to react to anything, but her relative was. Her eyes widened at the sight of him, even as her bare arms began to crack and blacken, until they were made of volcanic rock once more, the embers of great heat glowing from within the cracks. “You!” she shouted, her voice almost cracking in her fury.
I’d expected a violent reaction to my appearance, and thus I was ready to evade an attack – in this case by simply stepping back out the door, simultaneously turning around towards the left, to get out of sight.
However, it seemed that Malphas had also expected it – or he had some pretty impressive reflexes, because the ground rose up almost as soon as Brimstone’s arms changed, surging up like a living thing to block the blast of super-heated air that she let loose – No lava, at least.
Malphas didn’t say anything. He just stared at Brimstone as the barrier he just made sank back into the floor, smoothing itself out even as it spread the heated portion around.
Brimstone looked from me to him, then back. Then she looked at Malphas again, who simply stood where he had, not having moved an inch. I didn’t pick up any hostility in his stance, he didn’t even square his shoulders or shift his stance – but she subsided, her arms going back to normal.
I was very, very impressed.
The young woman took a deep breath, then looked at me with a murderous gaze. “What do you want, asshole?” she asked. Her smoky voice was dripping venom.
I looked at Smelly, then at her. “First, it appears I’ll help,” I said, taking my jacket off as I approached them and knelt next to Smelly, opposite from Brimstone. Before either of the three could react – Brimstone seemed to be just dumbfounded – I’d already done a quick check of the woman.
It didn’t look too good. “The gashes are from the shotgun,” I said firmly. “And these bruises are from me throwing her against the tree,” I pointed at several bruises along her back. “And these from me throwing you at her.” I pointed at several others. “But how’d she get the others?,” I asked, as I saw quite a few more bruises than I could possibly have caused in our battle. “And how come the shotgun tore her open like this, when she wasn’t even scratched back then?” I was sure she hadn’t taken this kind of damage from the shot.
“Who the fuck do y-” she began, but I cut her off with a level gaze.
“I’m a trained paramedic,” I told her. A statement that was not quite true, but not quite false, either – I wasn’t anything like a trained and certified paramedic, but both my father’s and my military training had given me a wide range of experience with wounds like these. Nevermind my field experience. “I can help her better than you can, so tell me what I’m missing.”
I could feel Malphas’ gaze on me and I saw Brimstone throwing a look at him. Though I couldn’t tell what she saw, it apparently convinced her to be more cooperative.
“Her power delays harm,” she explained. “Not all of it, but most of it is staggered. Inflicted bit by bit. And she can absorb harm done to others, staggering it.” I heard her grit her teeth. “When you threw me at her… I’m not nearly as tough as she is. It probably would’ve crippled me, and she absorbed that herself.”
Well, damn, I thought. “Does she have enhanced toughness or regenerative abilities?”
“Yes to both. Not very much of either, but combined with the delay, it’s usually enough.” Again, she grit her teeth.
“Hmhmm.” I took off my vest and rolled up my sleeves. “Do you have any alcohol or another disinfectant? If we disinfect these properly, there’ll be less strain on her regeneration.”
“Don’t have anything here,” she said, surly. “We’re not exactly swimming in cash, y’know?”
But you can afford really nice quality on your costumes, I thought, though I didn’t say it. Nice priorities.
“I have a first aid kit,” Malphas threw in. “I’ll get it immediately. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone,” he added before he left.
Brimstone grit her teeth again, but she very obviously respected Malphas enough to behave.
The young man – it was hard to think of him as the boy he was beneath that armor – returned quickly and handed me a military first aid kit.
I went to work, disinfecting her wounds before properly binding them. It only took me about fifteen minutes, all in all, to treat her properly while the other two watched.
By the end, I could already see her wounds starting to close as her regeneration picked up speed. Good, she’ll make it, I thought as I rose up.
“Is there somewhere I can clean up a bit?” I asked. My hands were pretty bloody.
“Down the hallway, the first room next to the stairs,” Malphas said.
The bathroom turned out to be quite nice. The tubing was literally a part of the room – Malphas either had phenomenal fine control, or he’d spent a lot of time working all the tubes and valves needed for a fully functional communal shower and several basins, with the mirrors literally fused into the walls – and seamlessly so.
I wonder why he lives down here – he could get damn rich with a power like this, and all legally, too. But then again, that could be said about so, so many of us. Including me.
I knew why I had gone down the criminal route, back in the day. I wondered what motivated a young boy like Malphas to be an outsider to the world above, to stay in the Undercity, creating this place for, well, lost people. Because the people I’d seen or heard so far had seemed to me like the typical Undercity inhabitants. The criminals, the mad, the broken and all the lost ones.
Who knows, maybe I’ll find out someday. Or more likely, I won’t. It’s none of my business, really.
I returned to the room to find Malphas sitting on a seat that he’d made out of the wall and the floor, with Brimstone fussing over Smelly, who seemed far more lucid than earlier. Still pale, and sweaty, but sitting up now with her back to the wall. She was also wearing a shirt, which provided some much-needed decency.
When I came in, everyone looked at me. Brimstone and Smelly both seemed hostile, though not as much as Brimstone had been earlier.
Still, it was obvious that neither of them was too eager to talk to me. And something told me that Malphas wouldn’t be of any help to get the conversation started, so…
Take charge of the situation.
“Let’s introduce ourselves, shall we?” I opened. “My cowl’s Aap Oordra. I already know Malphas – how should I call you two?” I looked at the two women.
Brimstone spoke first. “I’m Volca, and this is Lag,” she replied, though she didn’t seem too happy about it.
“Why are you here?” Smelly – well, Lag – asked. Her voice was quite strong, considering the pain she must’ve still been in. “You’re not a hero – you call yourself a cowl – so why’d you stop us earlier? Why’d you follow us?”
You’re a perceptive one, huh? I’d wondered whether they’d pick up on that. “I stopped you because I have issues with people attacking a mother and her son in their sleep,” I said.
“What!?” Malphas snapped sharply, and I felt the entire building shake for a moment. His head wipped around to focus on the two women. “Is he saying the truth?”
The women froze, eyes wide. Volca threw up her arms, waving them in negation. “No no no, calm down, that’s no-“
“You know the rules! My rules! No drugs! No rape! No murder! Nothing that harms children!” Malphas shouted, and I swear I saw something shift beneath his armor, in places where nothing should be able to shift.
“Malphas please, we didn’t have a choice!” Lag shouted, then broke into a coughing fit. Volca picked up for her. “We couldn’t refuse the job! He’d kill us! And we were only after the mom – who’s a Syndicate agent, anyway!”
“Who put you up to that? Who!?” Malphas shouted, his voice deepening as the room began to twist, the whole structure becoming… unstable.
I instinctively took a step back from him, even as the monkey roared up, aching for a fight against the young powerhouse – and I had no doubt he was one.
“You’re losing control of the situation. If you don’t regain it, you’ll be swept away.” This was one of those cases where I fully agreed with my father.
I raised my fingers to my mouth and made whistled sharply and loudly. The metal of the building around us only served to amplify the sound. “Alright, enough!” I shouted at them.
And it worked. I’d noticed it earlier, though I hadn’t really considered it yet, but I was the oldest one in the room – almost three times the age of Malphas, if my estimation of his age was correct.
“Seniority is a universal way to assume authority.”
“Please return the room to normal, Malphas,” I said, trying to be both soothing and firm at the same time. He was breathing hard, his stance wide and rather aggressive, but he subsided quickly, his anger going from burning to shimmering. The room warped back to its previous form, leaving no traces of the sudden deformation.
Then I turned to the two women. “Alright, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “Tell me who hired you, and why. Don’t bother with lying, I can tell when you do.”
The two of them looked at each other. “Well, it’s not like we can stick around,” Lag said. “We’ll have to leave town anyway,” Volca agreed. They looked at me.
“We were talking to an independent agent we work with every now and then, when a new guy showed up,” Lag explained. “He called himself ‘Blauschwinge’. Had a German accent to match his name.”
“Name means ‘Bluewing’, in case you don’t know,” Volca added.
I considered the name for a moment. I’d never heard of a cape or cowl with that specific name before. “What’d he look like?”
“Tall. Muscly but slender. He was wearing a white bodysuit with a blue wing-like cape that was attached to his arms,” Volca described him. “He wasn’t wearing a mask and he had a really good-looking face. Square-jawed, curly brown hair and blue eyes.”
“Never heard of him,” I admitted. “What happened next?”
“He said he’d come looking for someone to do a simple job for him. When he saw us, he said we should do it,” Lag explained. “We didn’t like that, of course, but when we voiced our opinion, he… lashed out. Some kind of glowing blue-white energy. Took us out in one hit. Then told us we could either do the job or die.” She shivered at the memory. “His eyes… I’ve seen the eyes of mad people before, but this guy, he… he was demented. The way he talked, the way he looked at us…”
Volca wrapped her arms around her relative as they both shivered at the memory.
Good lord, what the hell is going on in this city? I asked myself. My daughters, the Ascendant, the hit team that came after me, these two, now a demented German supervillain who could utterly terrified two other cowls while taking them down in one attack.
I had a feeling that this whole situation was rapidly spinning out of any possibility of control.
“Why do you want to leave?” Malphas asked out of the blue.
They both looked at him without comprehension. “What do you mean? We broke your rules! And we failed, too – what if this guy comes after us?” Lag explained.
He clenched his fists, the metal scraping and screeching for the first time. “He made you do it? Well, I don’t like that. If I ever see that guy, I’m gonna mess him up but good. And if he comes after you, I’ll protect you, just like anyone else who lives here,” he explained, and all traces of the child were gone from his voice.
The two women grew a tad misty-eyed, lowering their heads. “Thank you,” Volca whispered.
I took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of my nose. What should I do? I need to start figuring out what’s going on here. “Volca. Lag. What else can you tell me about this Blauschwinge?”
They took a moment to compose themselves. “Well, he had a strong accent. He said we shouldn’t try to run, because he could find us,” Volca explained. “He spoke of his companions, and how we might be allowed to join them if we perform well. After he told us what we had to do, he just up and-“
Wait. I raised a hand, cutting her off. “His companions? Did he say anything specific about them?” Like if they’re called the Companions of the Future?
Volca shook her head. “No, nothing beyond that.”
“That’s not quite true,” Lag said. “He didn’t call them his ‘companions’, you see?” she told me me. “He used a foreign word for it. German, too, right?” She looked at her companion with a questioning look, and Volca nodded.
German word for companion… I searched through my memories, trying to remember if I’d ever learned that word. German wasn’t a language I’d spent much time on. The German word would be… oh hell. “He called them ‘Gefährten’, didn’t he?”
They both nodded.
My heart took a dive down my belly.
The Companions of the Future. The Ascendant is a member of them. Believe in metahuman superiority. Supposedly connected to Weisswald.
Companions is the English word for Gefährten. The Gefährten are one of the oldest groups of metahumans. Supposedly an offshot of the Thule Gesellschaft. Weisswald had strong ties to the group. Believe in metahuman superiority.
They’re the same fucking group. I’m up against the Gefährten.
I blinked, and looked around at my small audience. “I have to go,” I said hurriedly. “I need to make a call. Is there reception down here?”
Malphas shook his head, and I cursed under my breath. Fuck. I have to warn Elouise to stay the fuck away from the Ascendant.
“You know these guys?” Volca asked.
“Only by reputation,” I replied. “I really need to go. Don’t confront them. Run. Leave Chicago, leave your cowls, start over.” I turned to Malphas. “Don’t hold them here. You can’t protect them, not from the Gefährten. They’re major bad news. Cut all ties, so they won’t come after you. If they come, flee.”
Before either of them could say anything, I vaulted out of the window, pulling up my monkey skin. As soon as I landed, I took off as fast as I dared down here, making for the nearest exit.
I called Elouise as soon as I had cell reception back. It rung a few times before she picked up.
“Yes? Who is this?” she asked in a wary voice.
“It’s me, Aap,” I said, not daring to use our real names over a wireless connection.
“Oh, hi!” she said, her voice perking up noticably. Though she had the presence of mind not to mention our relationship over the phone right now. “What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I need you to abort the meeting with the Ascendant,” I said. “If you have anything planned with him, pull out of it as carefully as you can without offending him. Trust me, you d-“
“Wow, where’s that coming from?” she asked, surprised. “You know, I was going to call you and tell you that it’s a bust, anyway. I’m not making any deals with that madman.” Her voice took on a trace of venom for that last part.
But the venom didn’t mask the undercurrent of worry beneath. “What happened?” I asked as I leapt up into the air, to make my way towards my house.
“Two of his guys attacked one of my operations,” she said, spitting the words. “You can still see the flames, if you look towards the North End,” she continued, and true to her word, I could see fire in the distance. “I lost some prime real estate and seventeen of my people, among them two of my superpowered personnel. Took all I had to drive them off!”
If it wasn’t for decades’ worth of training, I probably would’ve crushed my cellphone at that point. “Are you hurt? Did they get to you!?”
“No, no, I got out of it without a scratch. But my people are really beat up – these guys don’t mess around. Especially the flying one, that dude was just demented.”
I sighed, relieved – but just for a moment. Demented… “Let me guess, he called himself Blauschwinge?”
“Yeah, how’d you know?” she asked.
“I just had a talk with two reluctant assassins whom he’d coerced into attempting to kill a Syndicate agent,” I replied.
I only got stunned silence in response.
“It gets worse,” I continued. “They have connections to the Gefährten, and may even be full members. You know what the Gefährten are?”
She took in a sharp breath. “Yeah. Fuck, of course I know! Mom briefed me on all the big ones… fuck.” She cursed, using some rather impressive French curses. “Thanks for telling me. I… oh damn, I’ll have to ask for help from the Syndicate,” she elaborated. “I don’t know why, but these guys have all but declared war on me.”
“And the heroes, too,” I said. “The Ascendant is after three of the junior heroes,” I explained. “There’s no way the UH will take that lying down.”
“This… this is madness!” she shouted, making me wince. “What the fuck are they thinking!?”
“I don’t know, but I’m afraid we’ll find out soon. Make sure you stay safe, and don’t hesitate to call me for help, alright?”
“Alright. Alright, thank you,” she said, and suddenly she was a vulnerable girl again, not an experienced crime boss. “You… you take care, too, alright? Don’t get yourself killed, please.”
I swallowed dry, and croaked, “Of course. Cross my heart.” I hung up on her and went on to my house.
The sun was already rising at this point, and I had to take care of some stuff before I threw myself back into the fray… wherever it may be.
There’s a crash coming.
I woke up after what felt like just minutes of sleep, pulled up from the beginnings of an all too familiar nightmare by the ringing of the doorbell.
Blinking, I rose up, trying to figure out how I’d ended up in bed. I’d just wanted to change into more comfortable clothing before I rang up any contacts that were still left in the city, but… I guess my lack of sleep had caught up to me. Even before I’d come to Chicago, I hadn’t slept properly in quite a while. I’d passed out almost as soon as I’d hit the bed.
The doorbell rang again, making me focus on the here and now again. I looked at the clock – it was nine in the morning. I hope whoever’s ringing that bell better have a good reason for waking me up. Even if I hadn’t intended to go to sleep, I sure as hell needed it.
I got up, put on a pair of jeans pants and a black shirt with the word fun. in yellow on the front and walked down to the front door.
“This damn well better be important!” I groused as I pulled open the door.
By some miracle, my chin didn’t break my arm on its way down to hit the floor.
Outside the door, wearing brown boots, a red skirt and a blue jacket, stood…
“Hennessy,” I breathed her name. She looked at me, her face as serene as ever, and simply walked into my house.