B013.1 Call of the Sleeper

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Yesterday was a big day, for yesterday was the day, on which the first of the Chosen of the Blood, of whom our Leader speaks so much, has visited Germany.

They call her Lady Light across the sea, and by God Almighty, a more fitting name, I can barely imagine. Angel, perhaps.

Goddess.

She came to us glowing like the sun, brilliant and flawless, escorting the American President on his way to a peace conference. A sham, really; no one here in Europe actually wants peace, I think. But at least it allowed me to lay eyes on her.

Later, many of my landsmen spoke about how she was living proof of the Truth of Blood and Heritage, even if she was a woman, at least the first of the Chosen had been a true Aryan, the rumors of her relationship to one of the accursed Jews notwithstanding. Personally, I never saw the point in despising people merely because of race. Yes, some people are born inferior to others. Others superior. That is nature.

That is no reason to hate, though. Pity, perhaps, for those less fortunate, but certainly no hate. Disdain, for those who refuse to recognise their place, but certainly no rage.

Besides, even in my limited experience, I have come ot realise that the same differences exist within the German – or Aryan – race, as well. Perhaps not to such extreme extents – other races are definitely more different from us than we are among each other – but the difference exists. No one would ever say that I was an average member of my race and I say this without a hint of vanity. I had proven myself to be better than most even before my blood awakened.

Perhaps if I tell myself that often enough, I’ll even convince myself that I didn’t end up proving to be less than most, too.

I am rambling again. Mother always tells told me that I tend to ramble too much, if I don’t have others to keep me on track. Adelheid just says said I’m addicted to the sound of my own voice. It is quite likely that she is right.

Where was I… ah, yes, Lady Light. Such a simple name, to encompass such an enrapturing creature. At first I thought, this is it? This is the first Chosen? She was… thin. Almost a head shorter than I, and looking so fragile. Weak. I could pass for her older brother, even though I’m barely half her age.

And yet… and yet, there was something, something that drew one’s eye to her. A quiet confidence, a core of will, of conviction, as uncaring for what us mere humans may do as the sun itself is, and just as brilliant. A blazing sun in human form. I have never seen its like before, not even in the Leader.

She did not talk to me – why would she, I was but one lesser chosen among several gathered there? – but her gaze passed over me. It felt like she was staring right into my soul.

Whatever happens… whatever else comes of the next few years… I pray that I shall meet her again.

***

8 am, November 17, the day after the Crocell Incident

The door to the container ‘hangout’ that Basil used as a cover for one of the entrances to his base opened, and Vasiliki entered alongside Tim and Dalia, studiously trying to ignore her friend’s choice of clothing. Fashion was just one of the many subjects which they clashed on, and she wasn’t going to get into another discussion about how appropriate skimpy tops and miniskirts or hot pants with tights were, especially during winter. She’d just quietly stick to a nice (hand-made) long skirt and a comfortable (hand-made) sweater.

Maybe some day, Dalia would learn. And until then, she’d keep entertaining Timothy, who clearly did not mind her fashion sense at all.

They walked to the elevator, that would lead them down to the base.

“You think B-Six is already awake?” Dalia asked lightly, smiling as she moved with a casual, unconscious grace which Vasiliki greatly envied her for. “Or perhaps still? Could see him skipping sleep, after yesterday.”

She wasn’t wrong, though. “I can imagine that being the case, yes,” she admitted while they pressed the hidden switch beneath the counter to take them down. The elevator started to move without a sound. “Studying that monster, then getting a chance to work with three other gadgeteers, on Sovereign’s equipment, no less, well…”

“Basil got his hands on new tech?” Timothy asked, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified. “I bet he was… ecstatic.”

That elicited a giggle from Dalia. “He must’ve had such a huge nerdgasm!”

Vasiliki rolled her eyes at the crass language, though she couldn’t honestly object to the point made. Basil could be very easily excited by anything to do with his power, and the fact that he’d somehow convinced Gloom Glimmer to take him straight back here, right after the battle was over, spoke for him being almost out of his mind with new ideas. Otherwise, she was absolutely certain he would not have left them behind.

Not that Vasiliki wouldn’t have stayed anyway, to help with search and rescue. It had still been an unpleasant surprise to find out that he’d left so suddenly, and without even telling them that he’d survived.

Vasiliki had been scared for her friend.

He’d better have a damn good excuse, she thought to herself, while also trying not to think about all the corpses they’d pulled out of the flooded rubble and collapsed buildings.

So many corpses, even though an anonymous hero had been going around helping evacuate the civilians…

She was distracted from that train of thought when the elevator reached the living room and ‘command centre’ of the base, where they were immediately greeted by Eudocia’s emblem appearing on the large central screen.

“Hi you three!” she chirped, sounding to all the world like an over-exited preteen. Which, in some ways, she pretty much was. “How’re you doing?”

“We’re fine, thank you for asking,” Vasiliki replied. “Is Basil in his lab?”

“Yup, he’s been there since he came back. Didn’t even sleep. If it wasn’t for Prisca, he wouldn’t even have eaten,” Eudocia complained sullenly, as usual exasperated in how hard it was to pursue her self-imposed duty of looking after Basil’s oft-neglected health.

At least he keeps himself nearly obsessively clean, Vasiliki thought, thanking the gods for their small favours. “Do you know what he’s been working on?”

“Nope! Whatever ideas he got, they’re way beyond me,” the AI replied, chirpy again. “First thing he built was some kind of headgear he used on himself, but I have no idea what it really did, he wasn’t being too chatty. Seemed to give him a headache, though. Since then, he’s been working on some kind of bracer or gauntlet. He cannibalized most of his stuff to make it, even his vibrosword!”

Dalia whistled, though even she looked like she could see the issue with that. Vasiliki couldn’t help but frown, too. She knew that Basil’s resources were running thin, which explained why he had to take apart previous projects – or unfinished ones – to make new stuff, but sacrificing his sword?

Well, it wasn’t like he’d used it all that much to begin with – he didn’t like killing any more than Vasiliki did, and the vibrosword was pretty much only useful for taking apart inanimate objects, unless you wanted to kill your opponent.

“We’ll talk to him,” she stated firmly, sorting out her thoughts. “Try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, time for a little reality check,” Dalia said in a similar tone of voice. She hadn’t taken him just leaving them behind much, if any, better than her. “This is weird even by his standards.”

“Thanks. I hope you’ll talk some sense into him,” Eudocia said, opening the door that lead down to the lab proper.

The three of them walked down the short staircase and entered into the lab… which honestly looked not much different than usual, at least to Vasiliki’s eye. It had always been a strange mixture of obsessively neat and absentmindedly chaotic; several worktables with half-finished or just-disassembled projects laid out in what seemed to be utter disorder, to the point where she sometimes suspected Basil might have an eidetic memory, just to explain how he ever found anything, contrasting with the neat, orderly way that said tables and projects were laid out in the room, with clear, neat pathways between them, everything stationed so that, no matter at which one Basil was sitting, he could look at any other project by turning in the right direction.

She’d never admit it to him, for fear of his head swelling even more than it usually did, when it came to his gadgets, but watching him work, seeing all the strange stuff he was working on, was a really fun pastime for her, trying to figure out what the hell he was fiddling with at any time and all. The fact that he tended to get so absorbed in his work, he’d likely not notice her even if she was standing around naked and singing in Greek, made it all the easier to observe him in his ‘natural habitat’, as she and Dalia tended to joke.

It had changed over the last month or so, though. Vasiliki had been aware that he was having trouble continuing his work, both due to his power being baulky and due to dwindling money, he’d complained about it a few times, and Eudocia had shared some of it, as well, but right now, it was as obvious as ever that he was starting to run out of resources, at least.

Half the lab was empty, really, with only a few small parts and tools on most tables, his work mostly concentrated on the five centre tables, one of which being his computer station, at that.

She couldn’t even begin to guess at the purpose of most of the things he was working on, but one table, at least, was easily identified – the one he’d been performing maintenance on his battered armour (as skillful as he could sometimes be, somehow he still managed to get it wrecked a whole damn lot), the individual pieces laid out along with the bodysuit worn underneath them, looking like they were back in top condition.

The other tables were far less obvious. One sported what she assumed was a computer tower as tall as she was, standing at its centre. It seemed to have been built by cannibalising damn near every other computer in the room, fitting all the necessary parts together into an amalgam that would have made Frankenstein proud. With all the wires leading out of it, and the irregularly spaced amber-coloured cooling lines, it reminded her kind of of some japanese anime’s idea of a mechanical tree or such. And that was only the most obvious piece, as its wires connected to a variety of other devices, which were interconnected in turn, the whole construct so expansive it extended onto another table, all of it ending up in what looked like a twisted, uneven VR headset that had to weigh as much as a small child at the least, currently resting on the table in front of where Basil would normally sit.

Another table sported what looked like three hollow, egg shapes that fanned open like flowers, the insides of the petals covered in countless tiny spines, with one of Basil’s hand-made laptops wired up to them, running some kind of program with a progress bar that was half-done.

Finally, there was one last table on which lay a single gauntlet, sized to fit over Basil’s forearm and the back of his hand. Unlike the rest of his armor, it wasn’t made out of the black ceramic he tended to use, but of several overlapping half-rings of silvery metal, covered in gold and copper circuits which seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever (though Vasiliki knew better than to assume Basil would waste resources on mere aesthetics). The table was actually clean apart from that, all the tools put neatly away, signifying that this work, at least, was complete.

The one responsible for all that, Basil, sat at his computer terminal, wearing black dress pants and an unbuttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps, lounging on a swivel chair, turned halfway towards them.

Vasiliki felt her face heat up a bit, hoping to all spirits that her dusky skintone would hide the light blush as she was reminded that Basil had been… really getting more attractive, ever since she first met him.

Oh, he wasn’t turning into a supermodel, and he likely never would be; but gone was the gangly, messily black-haired, stick-thin nerd with the sharp black eyes she’d first befriended. His hair had grown long (and stayed messy, in spite of his attempts to keep it under control), nearly touching his shoulders by now, and his face had lost a lot of baby fat it’d still sported just a few months ago, making it look even sharper than before (which was saying a lot), his cheekbones looking like she could have sliced bread on them. His unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves showed the results of working out regularly, nevermind all the combat training they did whenever all three of them had the time, nevermind the regular patrols; he was still a little too thin and she doubted he’d ever look like a body-builder, and he often looked like he was tired due to what seemed to be some natural wrinkles around and underneath his jet black eyes, but…

Damn it, I’m feeling a little jealous of Prisca now, she thought. All in all, she wouldn’t be surprised if Basil wasn’t going to be getting a lot of hopeful suitors, come prom time – traditionally, Diantha High always had girls’ choice there, and Prisca wasn’t around to lay claim to him.

Oh Goddess, what the Hell am I even thinking? I have way more important things to worry about! she thought to herself as the two of them walked up to Basil.

“Hey, B-Six!” Dalia greeted him cheerily, and Vasiliki noticed that the red-head was clearly not as restrained as she tried to be about ogling the eye candy. “Did Prisca just leave?”

Timothy coughed suddenly, looking away.

Basil looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “Just a few minutes ago, yes. Her charge ran out and she had to wake up. How did you know?”

Yeah, how did sh- ohhhh, Vasiliki caught up just a second later, and felt her face heat up even more. She really had to get herself a boyfriend already.

“Female intuition, I guess,” Dalia quipped brightly. “I see she got you to eat, huh?” she continued, nodding towards an empty plate on the table next to the computer.

Their friend shrugged. “I was not really hungry, but Prisca was really… insistent,” he said casually, as if it was nothing special.

“I really need to get that far with my girlfriend…” Vasiliki heard Timothy whisper from behind her.

Amen, she thought. And I need to find a boyfriend in the first place.

“Anyway,” she spoke up, trying not to focus on her relatively irrelevant relationship status. “We’ve got to talk, Basil.”

He turned his chair to face them fully and she realised that it wasn’t just his natural look she’d picked up on earlier. He really did look tired, though not as badly as he’d gotten before their intervention a while ago.

Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on him again, I don’t think that Eudocia is really cut out for watching over her ‘father’.

“Let us talk then,” he said with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“What happened at the end of the battle?” she asked straight out, not wanting to beat around the bush anymore. “Why’d you just dump us to come back here, and why’d you risk showing Gloom Glimmer our base?”

He flinched a bit, looking actually guilty. “I… I am sorry for leaving you behind. I am not entirely sure of all the details, but when Crocell died… well, you noticed his death throes, right? They call it a ‘psychic scream’, I think.”

Vasiliki nodded, shuddering at the memory. It had been profoundly unsettling, not to mention painful – her headache had lasted for hours. She knew that Dalia’s experience had been no better, either.

“What did you experience while it happened?” he asked them, gesturing for her or Dalia to take over.

“Flashes,” the latter immediately spoke up. “Flashes of colours and shadows, and weird sounds, like whale songs,” she explained as she sat on a chair Timothy had pulled up for her.

Vasiliki looked around and saw that he’d done the same for her, and was now sitting on one of his own, too, so she sat down as well, the four of them forming a loose circle among Basil’s workstations.

“My experience was very similar,” she continued once it became clear that Dalia was finished. “But even less distinct. Just shadows and screeching, but muted, echo-y, like it was underwater,” she described as best as she could, while Timothy remained quiet – he was the only one here who hadn’t been present. “I think there was more, while it happened, but it… didn’t stick in my mind.”

Basil made a thoughtful sound as he intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, elbows on the armrests of his chair. “I saw… much more. Perhaps because I was so close to it. Images, mostly. Memories, I think, of Crocell. To be more precise, his birth… and his creators.”

“What!?” Vasiliki shouted, jumping up onto her feet. “That thing was made? And you know who did it?!” She’d track these monsters down and blow them to high heaven!

He raised a hand in a calming gesture. “I will get to that,” he said, standing up as she sat down and buttoning his shirt closed, before he walked over to the huge computer tower to flip a single switch, causing it to boot up quietly, numerous fans that were hidden among the already extensive cooling lines starting their work. “I can not say whether it happened due to Crocell’s presence, but during the battle, it was like my power… came unstuck.” He gestured towards the gauntlet with one hand, using the other to type something on the tower’s keyboard without even looking at it. “That is how I was able to figure out how to kill the beast. Anyway, my memory of the contents of its scream began to fade quickly, and that is when I came up with this.” He gestured towards the computer tower and the headpiece it was connected to. “A neural engram recorder and visualiser,” he explained. “It can read the neural signals of the brain’s visual cortex and record them, provided one focuses long enough on an image – I used it to save as much of these visions as I could, before they faded from my mind, as well.”

The three of them just gaped at the boy, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care, as he continued on.

“Now, as to what I saw…” he stopped, suddenly, and turned to his computer terminal. “Eudocia, how is Prisca doing?” he asked calmly.

“She’s awake and talking to her mother,” the AI replied. “It seems like it will take a while, but I can’t be sure, since I’m not allowed to listen in on private conversations without permission,” she continued, sounding sullen.

“Good,” he said, sitting down again. “She will have to hear this, too, but… I would rather discuss it with you all first.”

And with that cryptic comment, he tapped a few keys on his terminal, calling up an image of… some kind of underwater scenery, a trench maybe. A slick rockwall could be seen, covered in corals and illuminated from below in all colours of the rainbow.

A tap of a key called up another image, looking up said wall towards the surface of the water, though little could be seen of it.

“I was not able to save much,” Basil continued, as he moved on, going from picture to picture. Crocell – it had to be him – was swimming up, it seemed, approaching a jet-black shape that seemed to float on the water’s surface, something like a huge octagon. “Here is where it gets interesting.”

More pictures came up, until Crocell seemed to break through the water’s surface, looking up at the starry sky.

Then, he climbed on top of the water, and looked down and out over a huge, almost city-sized floating island of metal, formed like an octagon.

His gaze swept over several people who’d gathered on some kind of platform at the edge of the installation, and focused closer on them.

Vasiliki felt her heartbeat speed up as she saw what she assumed to be the villains behind all the murder and bloodshed these monsters had caused over the last day. There were many, and not all were distinctly visible – the image quality was not the best in every shot, probably because Basil had had trouble remembering every detail – but a few stood out.

A woman in what looked like a samurai-themed knight’s armour mixed with a black-and-purple ball gown, wearing a helmet which reminded her of a bird, and a katana strapped to her side. Another woman, short, Asian, in a lab coat, with an ecstatic look on her face, her black hair drawn back in a bun. Next to her, a pimply, gangly man who looked like the stereotypical nerd in an oversized labcoat. And finally, a black-skinned woman in a smaller, tighter labcoat, her hands in her coatpockets as she seemed to look almost condescendingly at the viewer – at Crocell.

Others were around them, but they were indistinct, blurry. The focus was clearly on those four.

“That’s them, huh,” Dalia whispered. “Anyone recognise the bitch in the fancy costume?”

“No, I have never heard of anyone with that costume,” Basil replied, both Vasiliki and Timothy saying the same.

“Nor have I found any images on the internet which match her,” Eudocia added, her voice much more serious than usual.

“I did recognise one of them, though,” Basil continued, zooming in on the short Asian woman and the gangly nerd. “Eudocia was also able to identify the man – he is known as ‘the Geek’, a legacy villain who disappeared a few years ago. But it is this one that I am most interested in.” He zoomed further in on the short woman. “That… is Dusu.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop in the resulting silence.

Vasiliki stared at the image of the woman who’d ruined Prisca’s life, and that of so many others – no wonder Basil didn’t want to confront her with this rashly. The crippled girl would go ballistic.

She very deliberately did not ask whether Basil was sure – he would never speak about this unless he was absolutely sure.

“Is there a way to tell where this place is?” she asked instead, her voice barely more than a whisper. “There were some images of the stars earlier, perhaps one could determine its location that-” She cut off when she saw Basil’s grim smile.

“I did just that,” he affirmed, tapping a few keys. The images of the starry night showed up on the screens, one in each, and graphs began to appear, measuring the distances between stars, shapes they formed and more. “I also calculated how deep the trench Crocell rose out of must have been, based on the speed at which he rose and the height we observed when he first surfaced at Esperanza City. With those values, I was able to determine that it must be built somewhere above the Mariana Trench, specifically this general location.”

He called up a map of the Pacific Ocean, zooming in on the relevant portion and highlighting an area with a red circle. One quite near to the Challenger Deep, Vasiliki’s geographical knowledge told her.

“It is only accurate to within about a hundred kilometres, but nevertheless – whoever these people are, their base is somewhere there. And I am going to tell the United Heroes about it soon enough.”

Vasiliki swallowed dryly at the thought of the kind of violence that information would unleash – there was no way the heroes, and even a lot of villains, would hold back, not after the massacres caused. Nevermind governments like that of Japan, who’d been hit the hardest hit.

She wished she could participate. She’d drawn children out of the rubble of Esperanza.

“Damn, B-Six, that’s just… that’s so awesome,” Dalia said, hushed, her hands on her cheeks.

“Yeah, man, this… this is huge,” Timothy agreed, after having been quiet for most of this. “Are you… are you certain? I mean, I know you wouldn’t say this lightly, but if you’re wrong…”

Basil shook his head. “I am certain in what I saw, and the conclusions drawn. Crocell was made and he was made there. And Dusu,” he all but spat the name, “was involved in some fashion.”

He smiled grimly, showing teeth, the sight making Vasiliki shiver down to her toes. “This will not just be a chance to punish them for the monsters they unleashed. I intend to take the chance to find a cure for Prisca’s condition; if anyone has it, then Dusu, the one who created that plague in the first place.”

The Greek sorceress leaned back in her seat, running her fingers through her hair as she took a deep breath. “By the Goddess, this is… this is so much, Basil. Too much. We need to, to think this over, plan… and we need to tell Prisca, too. She deserves to know.”

He nodded, sitting down again. “Yes, yes she does. And I will. As soon as she comes back – I want to do it face-to-face, or as close as it gets with her insisting on the projection over her real body.” He sighed, leaning back as well.

“So, how are we going to tell the UH?” Dalia asked thoughtfully, an expression that was just weird on her, in spite of the situation. “Just give them a copy of the images and all?”

“I can not think of a better way,” Basil answered. “It will probably take a while to convince them that it is reliable, but I do not think that they will dismiss it, in the end. They need to take the chance to nip this at the bud, before even more monsters are created and let loose.”

Vasiliki nodded in agreement – that was paramount. Followed by punishing them for what they’d already done, of course.

She wished she had the power to directly send such villains to Tartarus herself.

“Alright, let’s talk about how we’re going to get this information to them in the most efficient, convincing way p-” she began, but was cut off when Eudocia suddenly butted in.

“Father!” she shouted, sounding panicked. “You’ve got to help!”

Basil turned his chair around, sitting straight and with alarm. “What is going on, Eudocia?” he asked briskly, but calmly.

“It’s Prisca!” the AI exlaimed, seeming to grow more and more panicked. “She just had a stroke!”

Basils knuckles turned white as he gripped the edge of his table. “Status report, now,” he hissed as Vasiliki just stared in shock.

The screens changed to ECG readings and other information that Vasiliki couldn’t even begin to make sense of, making her briefly wonder where he was getting them from… until she remembered that he’d built most of the medical equipment currently sustaining Prisca, and there was no way he hadn’t left himself a connection to it for just such an occasion.

She watched as Basil’s eyes flew over the information, seeming to absorb it in record time. “Any reports on the other surviving victims?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Two of those whom I have access to had strokes over the last hour, one of them fatal,” she replied, her voice growing calmer, more mechanical, now that she was getting orders to pursue. “I’m hacking into what little there already is on their hospitals’ networks… nothing conclusive, as usual, but it seems like the plague is attacking their brains more aggressively than usual.”

She saw Basil tremble, even though his face – which she could see from the side, sitting where she was – was completely calm. “Keep collecting data. I want every byte you can get, he said calmly, leaning back on his seat.

Vasiliki couldn’t sit around anymore, though, and leapt up. “We should get to the hospital, see what you can do for her… or maybe me, if all else fails,” she said, turning around to go for where she had her spare costume stashed. She knew her healing magic -what little of it she was capable of – was not the most reliable, but if all else failed…

Dalia got up to join her, her face tight with worry.

“No,” came a sharp, cold voice, freezing them both in their tracks. “We are not going to the hospital.”

They turned around, both of them, and Vasiliki felt her blood run cold as ice.

Basil was leaning back on his chair again, his fingers intertwined as he’d put his hands together over his lap, his head slightly leaning forward.

His eyes were cold as ice and blacker than the darkness itself.

“W-why not? We need to help her!” Dalia protested, but Vasiliki just stared at her friend, who was looking into the distance with those cold, hard eyes.

“We will be of no help rushing to the hospital,” he spoke calmly, ignoring Dalia’s protests. It was like someone completely different was speaking. “I have already done all that I can for her, with just my skills and resources. Vasiliki’s magic is not compatible with my gadgets, and no one knows how it might react to Dusu’s plague.”

“W-what are we supposed to do, then?” Vasiliki asked, her voice trembling, and not just for fear for Prisca. This Basil… she’d known that there was something cold, and hard inside of him, some part of his that couldn’t be explained by the life he’d lead so far, but that was nonetheless there, but she’d never thought she’d see it so clearly.

He was scaring her.

“It is simple,” he said with that ice-cold voice. “There is only one person who knows how to save Prisca,” he continued, calling up the image of those four villains again. “We are going to go after the source of the plague.” He tapped her face on the screen.

“Are you crazy!?!” Vasiliki shouted, unable to restrain herself. “There’s no way we have enough time to wait for the heroes and the government to gather their troops and get there, Prisca will be dead or brain-damaged long before that!”

Basil remained maddeningly calm, in the face of her outburst. “I never said we would wait. Or I will not, at least. I will go after her as soon as I can arrange for some transportation, and gather up as much firepower as I can on short notice.”

She gaped at her friend, unable to believe he was being so reckless, so… so stupid, even with his girlfriend’s life on the line! These were some major supervillains, and there could be a whole army on that floating island!

The other two seemed just as shocked as she was, unable to protest, as they watched Basil pick up his cellphone from the table.

“How… how are we even supposed to get there on our own?” Vasiliki asked weakly.

“Yeah, unless you got a jet stashed somewhere around here, there’s no way we’re getting there anytime soon,” Dalia agreed.

Basil just punched a number into his cellphone and lifted it to his ear. Whoever was on the other end picked up quickly.

“Gloom Glimmer,” he greeted the other side. “Brennus here. I am calling about that favour you said you owed me…”

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B012.d From On High

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“Welcome to the UH Central Branch, Inspector Haurson,” the young woman behind the counter greeted Mike with a brilliant smile after scanning his ID card.

He smiled back on reflex. “Thank you, Miss…” he looked at her name tag. “… Fastings.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen her before, at some point…

Right, she was at the Austin branch headquarters, he thought, as he recognised her. “Nice to meet you again,” he added with a smile.

She smiled. “You must have me confused for one of my duplicates,” she replied, tapping said name tag. “This me has certainly never met you, Sir. I’d remember.” She looked at the long scar running down the left side of his face, across his (thankfully still functional) eye and cheek, down to the jaw.

“Oh, you’re a self-duplicator?”

She nodded. “Regular and persistent. I staff a lot of places, all across the organisation.”

“Huh, you must get killer overtime,” he joked, impressed. He hadn’t heard of that kind of power before… he should really read up on more on the powered non-cape employees of the organisation, he’d focused mostly on the leadership and on the capes, so far.

The pretty receptionist giggled. “You could say that, yes. Anyway, you’re cleared for the whole building. I assume you’re here for the board meeting?”

He nodded. “Aye. First week as an inspector, and already get my first board meeting. How lucky is that, eh?” He had expected to have at least a month before the next regular meeting… of course, there was nothing regular about this one.

“Can’t be lucky all the time,” she replied with a grin. “You should hurry, or you’ll be even less lucky.”

“True, true,” he admitted, taking his card back. “Well, see you later, Miss Fastings.”

He left her, walking down the old-fashioned hall – the UH Central Branch’ headquarters was not, as some might expect, inside a huge skyscraper, nor some other modern building; it was, in fact, a refurbished mansion built in what he assumed to be an Old English style of some sort… Victorian, perhaps? He couldn’t tell. Lots of carved wood and wooden furniture, very little visible electronics of any sort. Situated in the forest depths of New Hampshire, the place was isolated and heavily fortified… not that anyone could tell.

A wooden door slid open as he approached it, revealing an old-fashioned elevator – or at least, it looked old-fashioned. No old-school elevator would have responded to his announcement of ‘Floor U4’, the doors closing.

Nothing seemed to happen at all, but seconds later, the doors opened again, and he exited out into the fourth underground floor of the gigantic complex constructed beneath the mansion. Of course, the public knew little and less about this, and even the government only knew about the first four floors beneath the mansion… the rest were secret, and the bottom most ones were secret even to him, even though he was an inspector charged with keeping the various branches of the US UH honest, investigating any hints of malfeasance.

It was annoying, but he believed his superiors when they told him that he didn’t really want to know what was down there… that it would only give him nightmares.

Some things, man was not meant to know… yeah, no, I don’t buy it. Some day, I’ll find out what’s down there, he thought quietly to himself as he walked down the hallway… which still looked like it was at least two hundred years old, if in very good condition. The aesthetics of whoever built this… well, better than just concrete and steel. I do wonder whether these fabled bottom floors are built like this, too.

Finally, he reached his destination, a large double door, and entered after a polite knock.

Inside, he found a long room, with a huge double-window at the end of it, showing an idyllic scenery of rolling hills and a lake… some gadgeteer’s work, he knew. An illusionist, he created life-like holograms, and had helped spruce things up around the base.

“Inspector Haurson, I’m glad you could join us on such short notice,” he was greeted by his superior, Chief Inspector Edward Valiant.

Edward was a strange figure to look at, in many ways. He just about reached five feet and five inches of height, was rather heavy, heavily balding and sported rather large ears. His clothing style did him no favours, either, preferring to dress like a washed-up PI from the late nineteen-forties, in a gray pinstripe suit and white shirt, with an ungodly tie in dark blue, with red-white-and-black patterned squares across it. He had a very pleasant smile, though, which almost made up for having to look at his ties.

“Chief, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Mike replied with a grin, shaking the shorter man’s hand. “I hope I’m not too late?” He looked around at the gathered men and women, nearly two scores of them; but the seat at the head of the table, in front of the window, was empty.

“Nah, we’re still waiting for the Chief Director,” Valiant said. “Come, let’s sit down. This is your first meeting here, after all.”

“Yeah,” Mike agreed, following his chief past several other people sitting at the lower end of the table, to sit down on an empty chair next to Valiant’s, near the middle, with his nameplate in front of him. “Honestly, I feel quite out of place here… Inspectors don’t usually sit in for this, right?”

Valiant lowered his girth into his chair, sighing in relief. “Nonsense. I always bring one of you lads along, and you’ve earned the spot; besides, I know you want to rise up even higher, and this’ll help you make your name,” he winked at Mike, grinning.

Mike coughed briefly, to cover his embarrassment. His aspirations weren’t exactly a secret, but neither did he carry them on his sleeve. Besides, he was in the company of the people he hoped to ascend to match, some day.

He was spared from having to formulate an articulate reply by the double doors opening once more. Three people entered, a tall woman and a thin man, flanking a second, short man.

A very short man. If he cracked four and a half feet, Mike would be very surprised. His slightly stocky build did not help make up for it, only emphasizing it. Furthermore, he sported a very… old-fashioned bowl-cut that made his hair literally look like its namesake overturned bowl, and a mustache one could have used as a broom, as well as a dark blue pinstripe suit.

In fact, he and the Chief Inspector made quite the matched set, in a disrespectfully funny way – there were many jokes going around the offices about the two of them.

On the other hand, his face and his bearing immediately put any doubts as to his qualification to hold the power he did hold down. He had a calm, attractive face, rugged, with thick eyebrows and dark green, intelligent eyes and an overall very serious, respectable expression.

Such was the appearance of Chief Director Harley Ortega, the leader of the United Heroes and one of the most powerful men in the world, as he walked down the length of the table, smiling at the gathered people, always trailed by his ever-present shadow, a tall, gorgeous woman wearing a dark blue suit and skirt, and black pumps, her regal mediterranean features calm and collected. Her hair was drawn up in a tight knot, which did nothing to hide the fact that instead of having a hair colour, her hair looked like someone had painstakingly cut a hairstrand-shaped length out of reality, allowing one to peak past the Earth into infinite space, with each strand showing a different section of it. The effect was oddly disorienting to look at, yet quite beautiful.

Mike knew her as Sigma and no one had been able to tell him why she bore that name. She was the Chief Director’s personal assistant and bodyguard, and her file had more redactions in it than readable text.

The other man was Warren Gerden, the chief secretary of the board of directors, a thin, somehow slimy-looking man, though Mike had never heard anything but praise for his conduct and work ethics.

The Chief Director walked onto the podium built beneath his chair at the head of the table, to give him a much-needed boost, while Sigma took her place to the right behind him, her eyes almost glowing like chips of ice above a lamp, cast into shadows by the light from the window behind her. Warren sat down at a separate chair and small table with a laptop, to record the meeting and provide any resources needed.

“Good morning, everyone,” the Chief Director greeted them smoothly, his voice easily filling the room. “Thank you for coming all together on such short notice, and outside of our usual meeting times, as well. I’m afraid we have rather a lot to talk about, and so would like to skip the pleasantries and get down to brass tacks.” He looked around the table, but no one spoke up. “Good. Now, let’s start with the obvious subject, first.”

At a snap of his fingers, the entire window behind him disappeared, instead showing, now, four still images from around the world.

Mike felt a shiver down his back as he recognised the forms of Crocell and what he assumed to be the other three monsters that’d shown up at the same time, though he hadn’t yet seen images of the other three.

Crocell was shown in his final form, the last one he took before he was brought down by the local heroes.

The Chief Director gestured at a man sitting near the head of the table, a spindly thin man with wild, white hair, his face wrinkled, his age exaggerated by the huge, thick glasses he wore, magnifying his watery blue-green eyes to near-comical orbs. Unlike everyone else in the room, he wasn’t wearing a suit, but rather, a lab coat over a Hawaii shirt and a pair of black suit pants. “Professor Finderer, would you please brief us on these creatures?”

Finderer, the head of the UH’s research and development, spoke up in a nasal, but precise voice with a strong german accent: “Yesterday, at three-twenty-five Pacific Standard Time, the monster now known as Crocell appeared at the shore of Esperanza City, after heavy warnings of precogs… around the country that something horrible was going to happen there. It continued to engage our gathered heroes – and no few supervillains – as well as several dignitaries from the AMU and the GAIN, causing billions of dollars in collateral damage, almost five thousand civilian deaths – the count was only so low due to an unidentified but presumably very powerful metahuman helping to evacuate the people, who hadn’t been moved out of the city yet – and forty-five casualties among the defenders, before a group of, of young gadgeteers, using a modified Subjugator’s main turret, managed to put it down. Its death throes then flooded most of Esperanza City, causing even more damages and four more deaths among the defenders.” He stopped to take a breath. “And it was, almost certainly, the least dangerous of the four we know of.”

There were some shocked whispers around the table, people leaning closer to each other to exchange words, while Mike folded his fingers on top of the table. He’d already heard similar sentiments on the way here, though he didn’t know the specifics yet.

“Now, as far as we know – these four beasts, named Crocell, Andras, Marchosias and Alloces, appeared less than an hour, apart from each other, all coming from the sea, and all of them wreaking seemingly mindless havoc in major population centres, except for Aloces, which was intercepted by Queen Madeleine, before it could reach one. They all seemed to, shift through several, progressively more powerful forms over the duration of combat, often in response to, taking large amounts of damage, or their abilities proving, insufficient. Since everyone here was already briefed on Crocell yesterday, we will skip discussing him.” He picked up a remote from the table and pointed it at the screen, which focused on the image to the left of Crocell’s.

It showed what appeared to be a lanky, lizard-like beast, walking on its hoofed hind legs, while its head was almost leonine, like a twisted mixture of a snake and a lion, with countless spikes growing out from it in the form of a mane.

“The entity which appeared in Australia was named Alloces, due to its physical characteristics,” Finderer explained further, speaking evenly, as if he was just reciting the same lecture he’d held last year. “As it was the first one to be noticed – though not the first one to appear – if only by an hour, this caused the others to also be named after demons from the Ars Goetia. It went through multiple stages of development, ending up in this form.” Another click of the remote changed the picture to show the same beast, only now it looked more like a centaur, standing on four hoofed legs, its body still scaled and more appropriate to a lizard than a horse, even if its shape fit one, with a muscular humanoid body sticking out of the horse’s neck, topped by a now fully leonine head. It even sported fur, and was coloured like one, as well. “The creature was slain by Queen Madeleine before the full extent of its abilities were known; it demonstrated a singular ability, aside from extreme physical strength – summoning meteorites at will, ranging in size from about six metres in diameter, to five hundred.”

The imaged changed to show a veritable rain of burning hot projectiles coming down from the sky, tearing up the beach and forest. Several people gasped at the sight, but overall, the gathered directors were far calmer than Mike felt. A giant monster summoning meteorites? That sounded like the stuff of nightmares if he’d ever heard of one.

“Queen Madeleine managed to slay it, though according to what scant few reports we have, she took heavy damage doing so,” Finderer concluded, sounding animated – and annoyed – for the first time; probably at the lack of concrete information.

He switched over to the next one, an image of what appeared to be a nude male, suspended in mid-air. He lacked any primary or secondary sexual characteristics, his body perfectly smooth, yet sculpted to perfection, his skin a warm, normal colour for a caucasian male. However, it lacked a head, its neck ending in a perfectly straight stump, showing a cross-section of its spine, throat and other organs. In front of the empty air where her head should be, a mask floated in the air, depicting some manner of stylized bird, though Mike would be damned if he could name it. Its feathers were black, at the very least, yet tipped in gold, the bird somehow managing to convey a haughty expression.

“Andras appeared in Hong Kong minutes before Crocell surfaced in Esperanza City; within twenty minutes, it had killed or enslaved the thirty-seven metahumans who’d gathered to fight it off, sending its minions to slaughter the population of the metropolis,” Finderer led the description of this one, as Mike felt a cold pit form at the bottom of his stomach. “He appears to have been either incapable or simply not interested in controlling baseline humans. During their rampage, his minions caused four manifestations, all of which were quickly enslaved by him and added to his minion’s ranks. The vector by which he controlled them is unknown, and speculated to be telepathic.”

He waited briefly as murmurs broke out for a minute or so. Even the Chief Inspector didn’t stay quiet, leaning closer to Mike. “Great, another mind-bender. As if that crazy pet of the Dark ain’t bad enough.”

Mike couldn’t help but agree fully. Untangling the mess one of Mindstar’s victims caused in the Boston PD had been the assignment that had put him on a short list to promotion, yet he still wished it had never happened. Talk about messy.

Finderer continued. “Fortunately for everyone involved, Lady Light arrived in Hong Kong within forty minutes of its initial appearance and engaged it in a protracted battle. After approximately ten minutes, she’d managed to disable his puppets, after fifteen more, she managed to destroy the monster. Apparently, she was somehow able to block its telepathic powers.”

On her own? Seriously?

“Andras did not exhibit as extreme transformations as the other three monsters; it merely started out without its mask, which slowly manifested and became more elaborate as it developed and became stronger. Aside from its – presumably – telepathic abilities, Andras exhibited the ability to generate powerful, focused energy blasts from either of its eyes, simultaneously or independently, while aiming them in multiple directions at once. It was also at least as tough as Crocell proved to be, if more compact. The whole battle destroyed fifty-five percent of downtown Hong Kong. Fortunately, upon his demise, the effects of his telepathy wore off immediately, and the heroes and villains who survived are now being treated and screened. Most of them are expected to make full recoveries.”

Another click, changing to a giant, emaciated canine with wet, messy black fur. It looked, in any way, like a dog on the edge of starvation, except for its enormous size, easily the size of a minivan, judging by the cars next to it.

“Now, Marchosias, so christened due to its canine appearance, is the only one of the four to survive its first fight. It surfaced in the bay of Tokyo, causing only a minor panic, as its did not look nearly as threatening as the others. However, it proved to be the most dangerous one, having appeared almost a full hour before Alloces, yet remaining relatively docile during the first stages of its transformation, running through the city to evade pursuit, only occasionally attacking people seemingly at random. It proved elusive enough to escape the local Sentai’s attention, going through no less than half a dozen transformations – we assume – before it appeared in its final form.”

Another click, and the image changed to show a very different creature. It now appeared more like a dragon, of some sorts, its torso a weird mixture of humanoid and canine, or perhaps feline features, looking very flexible, and covered in smooth, almost silky fur. It had powerful shoulders and strong arms, ending in clawed hands with opposable thumbs, while its hind legs were more animal-like. It had a long, sinuous tail, longer than the rest of its body, bare of fur and covered in scales instead. From its back sprouted two pairs of huge black wings, though they were only black on the outside. Their insides were covered in strange scales, arranged in a way that evoked feathers, and scintillating in bright red, blue and purple. Its head could have been a nightmarish dog’s or cat’s, it was hard to tell, covered in dark fur, with glowing eyes that matched the insides of its wings in colours. It was now the size of a truck, if it pulled its wings together.

“Once it assumed this form, it was officially named and engaged by both the local Sentai team, their support groups, as well as Kong Long and the three members of our Tokyo branch functioning in a support role. However, it soon proved to be… problematic to combat.”

Another click showed Marchosias flying through a street, trailing a cloud of glittering dust that matched its eyes and wings in colour.

“From the moment it assumed its final form, Marchosias began to produce these scales, which it spread everywhere it went,” Finderer explained, sounding more subdued now. “Any baseline who breathed them in went insane, while also growing stronger, as well as able to ignore a ridiculous amount of pain – their increased is suspected to be a result of the latter, allowing them to push themselves to extremes without pause, due to the lack of sensation. All his victims immediately started killing everyone they could reach, except for other infected, unless he was currently flying by nearby, providing more scales. In that case, they would drag uninfected people towards the scales to become infected as well. Fortunately, though, the scales appear to lose their potency quickly, becoming inert within less than a minute of being separated from its body. However, their effects upon baseline humans appear to be permanent; those who survived the immediate battle and could be caught non-lethally show no signs of recuperating.”

Oh my God… so that’s how all those people died. Mike’s stomach was turning at the thought of how that must have gone.

One of the directors – Director Niles from Miami, a rather hard man who seemed much to dour to come from that city – spoke up. “Excuse me, you specified that this applies to normals; how did it affect metahumans, then?”

Another click, showing an image of a young Asian man, naked but for a pair of torn jeans pants, walking through the street in an aggressive pose, leaning forward, his arms spread as if about to pounce on someone. His eyes were glowing a purplish colour, while veins of scintillating red, blue and purple ran from them all over and around his face and neck. He was surrounded by a corona of intense, almost solid air.

“The effect on metahumans is far more pronounced; not only were they driven insane and beyond pain by the scales, but their powers were also boosted, to varying degrees,” Finderer explained, setting off another round of whispers. “Fortunately, said effect appears to be temporary; it wears off after apparently random amounts of time, though it does appear as if the ones to recover the quickest – on the order of less than an hour – are among those with the greatest control over their power. Furthermore, certain individuals, such as the Dark, appeared to be immune. Kong Long was briefly infected, but was able to nullify its effects at will, even upon re-infection.”

“Well, at least we didn’t lose one of our best… problematic as that child may be,” Director Ryan, from New Lennston, spoke up. He was a warm-looking, blonde man, stocky almost to the point of being fat. Thick, was perhaps the best word. “Though, how did this beast manage to escape the Dark and Kong Long?”

Finderer shrugged. “Mostly due to all of its victims providing such an effective distraction. After all, once infected, it did not need to remain present to manage them. Kong Long prioritized minimizing casualties, while the Dark attempted to pursue it, but was bogged down by empowered infected.” He stopped, tapping the remote to his chin. “On another note, it appears that Marchosias chose to flee the moment the last of its… brothers… died, implying that there was some form of information exchange between them. Lastly, the three which were slain all burst into frankly ridiculous amounts of sea-water, which contributed greatly to the collateral damage to Hong Kong and Esperanza City.”

The Chief Director nodded to Finderer. “Thank you very much, Professor,” he spoke smoothly, as the screen returned to an image showing all four of the monsters. Finderer sat down, immediately turning his attention to a tablet which his assistant handed to him.

“Now, fortunately, our own losses were sparse. Most of the casualties in Esperanza were on the villain side, and we didn’t lose any members at all from our Tokyo branch. There were no – official – members of the UH involved in the Hong Kong or Australian theatre. However, the simultaneous appearance of monsters like these is reason for concern. They are clearly of like nature, in spite of their appearance, and they all pursued major population centres, even if one of them never made it that far,” the Chief Director continued as he leaned back in his chair. “What are your thoughts, my friends?”

“If there’d been just one, I’d have said this was just another broken meta,” Director Niles spoke up, rubbing his pointy chin. “But four monsters, of such light nature? Seems more like one metahuman made these… or perhaps a group of them. What’s our Eyes say?”

Everyone, including Mike, looked at the director of Project Argus Panopticos, the United Heroes’ collection of pre-cogs and various other espers. A dark-skinned woman in her late forties, Martha Jenkins was the one who’d come up with and organised the project in the first place, and had been its director since the beginning. Usually, she loved presenting her pet project’s results, showing just how well it was working.

Right now, though, she looked more than a little chagrined, as she shook her head. “Whatever or whoever made these things, wherever they may come from, it blinds all our Eyes,” she admitted. “The most we’ve been able to get were disjointed ramblings about someone named ‘Rei’ singing a lullaby. And that’s from our most powerful precog.”

“That is beyond unhelpful,” Director Warren Armstrong supplied, his huge mustache twitching with his usual distaste for precognitives. “Do we at least have an inkling of who this Rei might be?”

Jenkins almost seemed like she wanted to snarl at him, but she didn’t, instead replying coolly, “No. It is apparently not an uncommon name among Japanese people.”

“Let’s keep an eye out for any metahuman with that name,” Ortega intervened before this could escalate into another fight. “For now, let us focus on what we do know. Which metahuman that we know of could, conceivably, have created these?”

People thought it over, including Mike. Soon, the first ones spoke up.

“Merkabah,” Ryan brought up. “She’s shown a propensity for creating monsters, even if they’re usually more… mechanical.”

Now that’s a crazy fucking bitch, Mike couldn’t help but think. He’d read all the reports which existed about her, as part of his briefing on S-Class threats, and they hadn’t been pretty at all. He didn’t think she was capable of something like this, though. These beasts were too big a departure from her usual MO.

“If you got something to say, spill it,” Valiant whispered into his ear. “You’re not here just to watch and look pretty.”

He looked at his boss, nodding, and then turned to the table in general. “I disagree. Merkabah’s past creations have been markedly different from any of these four, and far less extreme in scale,” he spoke, finding his throat quite dry, yet managing to avoid squeaking.

To his great relief, he didn’t get any weird looks for having spoken up; however, people did briefly focus on him, and he very nearly shrank back in his seat, especially when the Chief Director looked at him, briefly, and smiled.

“Noted. We shall still include her in our preliminary list, for completeness’ sake if nothing else, but she’s likely to be low on it,” the man at the head of the table said. “Any other candidates anyone can think of?”

Mike leaned back, relaxing just a bit.

“The Savage Six? This is just the kind of thing they’d love to do, even if I don’t know whether they could,” another director added, too quickly for Mike to check whom it had come from.

Ortega nodded. “We should consider motivation, yes. They definitely belong on the list, for now.”

“I believe it is pertinent to mention,” Director Charles Barnes of Kansas City interjected, “that the Savage Six have apparently spent the time since they returned into their otherworldly base kidnapping other villains from all over the world. At least, our Eyes assume that the Six are behind it.”

“What!?” Armstrong shouted, slapping a hand on the table. “How come this is the first time I hear about that!? This should’ve been brought up as soon as it became known!” He looked accusingly at Jenkins again, but she didn’t get a chance to respond.

“Warren, my dear friend, please calm yourself,” the Chief Director spoke calmly. “This is no place for such outbursts.” He looked intently at the man, yet without glaring, until Warren subsided with a nod. Then he turned towards the table as a whole. “I agree that this is more than a little worrisome. Even if the Six are not involved with these monsters at all, the fact that they’re gathering villains is something to look out and prepare for. Director Jenkins, would you please make sure that your Eyes make a list of any villains whom they think have been taken?”

Jenkins nodded, looking pleased that her people were being called upon.

“So, is there anyone else who’s an option?” Ortega continued.

“Sovereign, simply because he might be able to, if he gathered the right metahumans,” Ryan said. “Though I would put him low on the list. This doesn’t seem like his… style, for lack of a better word.”

There were nods all around the table, to both points.

“That’s about it, though,” Armstrong said, his hands clasped tightly on the table in front of him. “There’s honestly no other metahumans I could think of – who’re still alive, that is – which could be capable of this. The last one to create anything near this scale was Blackhill.”

Just the mention of that name sent shivers down several people’s backs, as Mike noticed. Many of those present here were old enough to remember the Martian Invasion in all its horror and wonder.

“I suppose we’ll have to hope that our Eyes and everyone else we can gather with a hand for such things will dig up some useful data,” Ortega agreed. “Now, unless there is more on this, we should move on to determining how we’ll pitch into relief efforts for the victims of these attacks… yes, Director Ryan?”

Everyone looked at Ryan, who’d raised his hand. “There is one point,” he said. “It’s regarding the battle against Crocell or, more specifically, how the monster was finally brought down.”

“Are you referring to the young gadgeteers who cooperated to take it down?” Ortega asked.

Ryan nodded. “Yes. More specifically, I am referring to the one who figured out Crocell’s weak point, then organised the operation, an independent young hero calling himself Brennus. You all are aware of him, I believe, as the boy who was instrumental in taking out the Acre beneath New Lennston, as well as the one to put down Hastur.”

Again, there were nods around the table.

“May I interject briefly,” Niles spoke up. When Ryan nodded, she continued, “This machine he built, could it be used to slay Marchosias, when he shows up again?”

“I’m afraid not,” Finderer answered, still focused on his tablet. “Even if Sovereign had not reclaimed his Subjugator – neither Tick-Tock nor Polymnia believe that they could recreate the device without Sovereign’s advanced technology as a base, not even with Brennus’ help – Crocell appears to have been… unfinished. According to what data we were able to gather, the Dark attempted a similar strategy against Marchosias, once he learned of Crocell’s defeat, and it failed. It is highly likely that, by now, Marchosias is no longer merely a mass of sea water contained by a hyper-powerful force-field.”

Niles made a sigh, but didn’t continue, and Ryan cleared his throat.

“Anyway, the point I wish to bring up is, how should we deal with young Brennus?” he asked into the gathering of his peers and superiors, while the secretary called up an image taken of Brennus, standing atop the jury-rigged Subjugator with Polymnia and Tick-Tock, aiming, moments before it was fired off. It looked… quite impressively heroic.

Armstrong nodded. “The boy has been too… impactful. We can’t allow a vigilante like that to run around free and keep showing up the actual legal heroes,” he agreed with Ryan. “Nevermind that his actions are inherently illegal, as well-intentioned as they may be, he is undermining the whole point of the United Heroes’ existence, and of any established, legalized hero team.”

“Atmittedly true,” Ryan agreed, though he didn’t look happy, “but that is not what I am referring to. I refer to the fact that, now if not already, he is going to be a target for countless unscrupulous villains and other criminals, not the least of which being the Dark himself, and we should try to recruit him so we can protect and nurture him and his talent. Though that would also solve the image problem which he represents. Yet Brennus has, quite decidedly, refused to join our local branch, even though he is maintaining cordial relationships with both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, and appears to at least be on friendly terms with Tartsche and Spellgun.”

Niles drummed his fingers on the table. “Hmm… so we both need him, and he needs us. Have we tried making another recruitment pitch at him? If anything, we can offer him many more and better resources than he could get on his own, and gadgeteers always need more resources.”

Ryan shook his head. “According to Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia, he is unlikely to accept that, even though it appears that he is running out of his own resources, wherever he may have originally gained them.”

“He’s running out? How do you know that?” Armstrong asked curiously, obviously sensing an opportunity.

“His gear has been downgraded since it was damaged in the fight against Hastur,” Ryan explained. “He was obviously unable to finance a full restoration. He also hasn’t improved as much as we would have expected, based on his other feats shown.”

“What kind of rating has he been assigned?” Ortega asked. “I assume it was adjusted after his performance during the Crocell fight?”

Ryan nodded, answering as the expert on the subject. “We are currently rating him as a Gadgeteer ten-slash-eight, with sub-ratings of Damage six, Movement four, Perception five, Protection five and Spawner two.”

Mike almost whistled at all the accumulation of ratings. That was quite the list, even for a gadgeteer.

He also had an idea on how to approach this problem, but he was going to wait and see if someone else came up with it, first.

“And we haven’t been trying to recruit this boy more?” Armstrong said in outrage, barely controlling his voice. “What kind of madness is this, to let someone who’s that powerful – a child, no less, as all reports I’ve heard here suggest he’s in the age group of your Polymnia – run around unsupervised and unprotected?”

“It is a delicate situation,” Ryan replied, though he didn’t seem offended at the outburst. Rather, he almost seemed to agree, based on how he leaned a little towards Armstrong as he continued to speak. “Brennus has, so far, conducted himself nearly impeccably – a single unauthorized use of our e-mail servers notwithstanding, and we all know how that paid off for us – and he is quite popular with the public. I don’t have to explain to you how much the crowds love heroes like him, and he is a hero, even if he’s also a vigilante. Trying to force him into joining us could not only antagonise him, but also the public, if he lashed out and it became known,” he concluded.

Armstrong seemed ready to object, but Jenkins cut in, looking intently at Ryan.

“What about his emblem?” she asked. “Let us not forget the incident with Ember, during which he painted Brennus chosen emblem on a wall, the first time he moved since his exile began, and until he began healing people again. Have you been able to contact Brennus on this matter?”

The stocky director shook his head. “I’m afraid not. As I said, the situation is delicate. I don’t want to contact him about this by mail, yet e-mails remain currently our only viable way for contacting him. I was hoping to talk to him in the aftermath of the Crocell battle, but Brennus apparently insisted on being transported directly to a location somewhere near his lab, by Gloom Glimmer, as he apparently had some kind of stroke of inspiration in the aftermath of the fight, and wished to work on it. Before anyone asks, no, Gloom Glimmer doesn’t know where his lab is. She simply dropped him off at New Lennston’s northern industrial district, which we suspected to be where his base lies anyway.”

“Sounds to me like we really have to do something already,” Valiant threw in his own five cent. “Boy’s only gonna be getting more and more attention once this leaks, and it will leak. The Protegé is too big for such an action to remain secret for long. Nevermind his performance during three S-Class events, delivering the final blow in each. And wasn’t he sought out by the Savage Six, too, during the Fion girl’s kidnapping incident?”

Once more, people seemed surprised, whispering among each other at the new piece of information. At least those who hadn’t known yet.

Ryan dismissed it, though, waving a hand. “That was apparently an unrelated issue. They have been probing various gadgeteers all over the world, or at least they used to until they put that on hold in the wake of the Osaka incident. Anyway, the dismissed Brennus, in front of several members of our junior heroes. They don’t believe him to be this Macian they are looking for.”

Mike frowned, leaning closer to his chief. “Who’s Macian, Sir? I don’t think I’ve read any files on him.”

“That’s because there ain’t really one,” Valiant replied quietly. “He’s barely more than an urban legend. A child gadgeteer who grew up in the Savage Six’ games, was supposedly involved in both the Berlin and the London Incident and at least a dozen more, then is thought to have escaped their pocket dimension. Nothing concrete on him, but it’s curious enough that it drew the boards’ attention in the past.”

“Chief Inspector Valiant, Inspector Haurson,” Armstrong addressed them. “Do you have anything pertinent to say?”

They looked at the man, Valiant looking quite annoyed, but Mike was the one to reply. “Just a thought, Sir. The Savage Six are looking for a young male gadgeteer of apparently considerable power. Said gadgeteer is said to have been both in Berlin and London – where Ember was – and Ember has drawn the personal emblem of a young, male gadgeteer of considerable power to a wall. What if he is this Macian, and the Savage Six merely failed to realise it?”

That got people thinking. Mike stayed quiet, watching them, as he thought it over himself. This boy is getting more and more curious by the minute.

“Hrm, Brennus is truly becoming an unavoidable issue for us,” Ortega observed, stroking his chin. “We can’t allow him to remain independent, especially if he’s running out of resources – thus becoming more vulnerable to attacks, or recruitment by villains – nevermind the image problem he represents. Also, he’ll most likely be in Sovereign’s sight now, too, after everything that’s happened.”

“He is a criminal – why don’t we just bring him in, and then spin it in our favour?” Armstrong asked calmly. “It shouldn’t be our first, or second option, but it is an option, and one that is, to me at least, far preferable than allowing a child to so endanger himself – and others.”

“Much as I’d like to, I cannot disagree,” Ryan admitted. “However, I would rather try to recruit him in a more diplomatic manner. Perhaps with the help of our junior heroes, they do have a rather friendly rapport.”

“If he is truly running out of resources, he ought to be all too eager to join us, as he doesn’t seem inclined to become a villain at all,” Niles argued.

“He appears to be a very proud young man,” Ryan countered. “Maybe too proud to accept joining us, especially now, when he’d be at a disadvantage.”

“Our profiling supports Director Ryan’s view of him,” Jenkins added.

They continued to discuss it, bouncing around ideas on how to get the boy into the organisation, however possible. His teammates, too, once they were brought up, though they were a secondary concern right now.

Still, it didn’t sit right with Mike. This wasn’t the way to recruit a proud, young gadgeteer riding the high of three major successes like that.Finally, he decided to speak up and voice his opinion.

“What if we simply help him out by paying him what he’s owed?” he asked, interrupting a rather spirited discussion between Armstrong and Niles on how to strong-arm the boy into the UH.

“Pay him?” Ortega zeroed in on him, his gaze like a flood light, only more focused. “Please elaborate, Inspector.”

Mike swallowed dryly, then took a sip from the glass of water in front of him. “Well, as Director Ryan pointed out earlier, we have profited rather greatly from him providing Polymnia – and thus, us – with his reproducible EMP-protection. According to what I’ve read, it’s already protected a few millions worth of hardware by now, correct? Nevermind the protection it provided to several of our own gadgeteers when fighting enemies who relied on the kind of EMPs which Brennus’ system blocks, correct?”

There were nods, some enthusiastic, some apprehensive and some neutral.

“I’m thinking, if we want him to view us in a more favourable light and, eventually, persuade him to join us, it could help to offer him the patent on his invention. He provided it freely, but I don’t think he really considered what that kind of thing is worth. A patent, perhaps with some – moderate – back payments, could net him several hundred thousand dollars within a month and millions in the long run, as long as no better system is invented and adapted. It would not only make him feel more secure and less… threatened in his pride, when asked to join us, but he’d also have an example of our fairness and generosity, proof that we reward good work even when not asked to.” He stopped, nearly breathless. I really have to learn not to get so worked up about every little thing, he chided himself, but remained quiet, watching the men and women around the table.

Ortega was the first one to speak up. “I like this. I like this, a lot. It’s the kind of thing the United Heroes were founded to do, in the first place, and reaffirming that is really a purpose of its own. If we can recruit such a promising gadgeteer with such a simple gesture, or at least make him more willing to cooperate with us in other ways, then I am all for it. Are there any objections to Inspector Haurson’s proposal?”

“So long as we are not overly generous, I see no reason to disagree,” Armstrong admitted, and Mike released a breath he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding. If he’d convinced even Armstrong, then the others were unlikely to disagree.

And true to that, there were several agreements and nods from all around the table, with only the qualifier that they had to keep their budget in mind, which was going to be stretched anyway, due to the almost certain event of them supporting Esperanza’s (repeat) rebuilding.

“It is agreed, then,” Ortega closed with a smile, turning his eyes towards Ryan. “Director Ryan, please set everything necessary in motion. I want this done as soon as possible, before anyone else gets to the boy with another offer.”

Ryan nodded, looking quite pleased himself.

“Now, let us get to the next point, that is to say, our efforts to help provide relief and reconstruction for Esperanza City…” Ortega continued the meeting.

Mike leaned back in his chair, feeling quite sweaty. He’d really overreached himself, he thought, in spite of how it had been accepted. His first meeting, not even as a member of the board, just a hanger-on to the Chief Inspector, and yet he’d spoken up brazenly several times.

Valiant, though, seemed quite pleased, smiling that fatherly smile of his that could make anyone feel like a kid again. “Good job, kid. I knew you had it in you.”

He smiled back at his mentor, nodding to thank him for the compliment, as he picked up his glass and drank, returning his attention to the ongoing discussion.

There was still so much to do.

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B012.c The Empty Dragon – Act 1

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July 15, 2010

“… and a Happy Birthday, to youuuuuuu!” the chorus of voices finished their song just as the last of the glittery confetti rained down on Koharu’s carefully styled hair.

Still, she wasn’t too put out about it – she was far too busy smiling and bowing, thanking her friends and her family for the (expected) surprise. It hadn’t been too hard to figure out what was going on, when Chihiro and Haruka had insisted on taking her to the spa and the hair-and-nail salon. It was her birthday, after all.

When the three of them got back to her family’s house, her parents and the rest of her friends had been waiting, immediately starting to sing and throw confetti at her, while her grandfather was playing on their piano, the cheery melody filling the small, homely building.

Smiles and hugs were exchanged all around, as Koharu’s mother (whom people kept saying she took after most heavily, even though she honestly didn’t think they looked that similar) guided her into the living room, where her grandfather was already waiting, a whole pile of presents awaiting her on the dinner table, along with a gorgeous, heart-shaped strawberry cake, a second, smaller heart – her namesake – formed atop it out of strawberries and whipped cream.

Koharu just stared, not having expected that many, not nearly. It was her sixteenth birthday, yes, but those had to be at least two dozen presents – even if all her family members and all her friends, including absent ones, had given one each, it would still be too many.

A pair of arms wrapped around her from the side, followed by a kiss to the cheek.

“Surprised, much?” Chihiro asked, grinning like a loon, her face barely five centimetres away from Koharu’s. “C’mon, stop staring and start opening them!”

Koharu rolled her eyes at her best friend’s enthusiasm, but went to work straight away, indulging her by ripping open the present at the top of the pile, the one that said ‘From Chi-chan!’

There was an album booklet in it, and nothing else. Sakura Wind’s new album, Rising Moon.

“Ohhh, I’ve wanted this one since forever!” she exclaimed happily, until it sank in. “Wait, why is there just the booklet?” She looked at Chihiro with a confused expression, only to be given a continued grin and a wiggling of her eyebrows towards the next package.

Frowning, she picked it up and unwrapped it… to find the album’s empty case. Light dawned.

“You tease,” she hissed, though she couldn’t keep the smile off her face entirely. “You just split up your gift into as many packages as you could, didn’t you?”

Chihiro just grinned. As did everyone else who was watching, even her grandfather.

Koharu narrowed her eyes. “She got you all to do it, didn’t she? That’s why there’s so many presents – it’s just a few that you all split up!”

“Well, dear, you do always tell me how much you love unwrapping gifts,” her mother spoke, trying very hard not to break out into laughter. “So this time, you get extra ones to unwrap them, as a gift from all of us!”

Koharu rolled her eyes as she went back to unwrapping her gifts (it really was fun), slowly assembling them.

***

Finally, after unwrapping no less than twenty-five packages, Koharu ended up with a grand total of six presents; Sakura Wind’s music album (three packages) from Chihiro, a hand-made Lady Light mug (one package) from Takama, the complete trilogy of ‘All Aces Arise’ anime adaptations (seven packages) from Haruka and Ai, a real katana from her grandfather’s collection (two packages – a not-so-subtle reminder not to slack off on her kendo training), a jewelry set (five packages) from her parents and the complete collection of the latest Dragon Sentai manga series (seven packages) from Kira, Seto and Aoshi. The spa and beauty treatment was a collective seventh gift that everyone had chipped in for.

From her, everyone got hugs and kisses (except for the boys, her parents would have a coronary if she so much as gave a boy a smooch on the cheek in front of them) and dire promises to come up with something suitably ridiculous for their birthday presents, too.

Afterwards, they disposed of the wrappings and got to the serious business of eating that delicious-looking, heart-shaped strawberry cake. It was as delicious as it looked, and then some.

Koharu was sitting at the head of the table, of course, with her friends immediately to her left and right down the sides, while her parents and her grandfather – who’d stopped playing the piano and joined them at the table – sat together at the other end of the table, giving the young people a little space; mostly, they were busy talking amongst the three of them, the kind of boring, comfortable talk that only adults can have the patience for.

She and her friends, meanwhile, were talking about the important things in life. Like the upcoming new licensed super sentai movie, or how the Mishima’s team’s former ace, Kingfisher Red, had been disgraced and left the team, after that sex tape (which none of them would ever admit to having seen while within earshot of the adults) of her had been leaked onto the internet.

They were just in the middle of discussing which other member of the Kyoto team was worthy of becoming the next Kingfisher Red – would another member ascend? Would they bring in someone from another team? Or someone completely new? – when the doorbell rang.

Koharu’s mother looked at her. “Did you invite anyone else, dear?”

“No, I didn’t. I wonder who it could be…” She rubbed her hands as she rose from her seat – maybe Minato had found time to come over, after all, which would, of course, mean more presents! “I’ll get the door!”

She skipped towards the front door, smoothing out her skirt and shaking out her hair – Minato was a cutie, and she wanted to look her best for him – and pulled it open with a wide smile.

“Hey M-” Her greeting died on her lips as she saw the persons standing just outside the door.

Right in front of her, standing so close he must have stood just a nose length away from the door, was a solidly built man wearing the uniform of the Kempeitai. Dull green pants, heavy dull green overcoat and a matching cap, with an armband on his left arm bearing the crest of a howling wolf’s head and a katana strapped to his wide belt. His face was tight, lined with wrinkles that made him look older than he probably was, his black hair neat and flat, to the point where it almost looked painted on.

Koharu froze as she looked into those cool, though not unfriendly eyes, like black windows into something she didn’t want to see or even know about; her thoughts were busy trying to figure out what a member of the Wolf Brigade was doing at her home.

“Good afternoon, young Miss,” he spoke with a calm, clear voice. “I am Captain Kazuki, of the Military Police. I assume you are Lu Koharu, daughter of Lu Ning and Lu Akimi?”

She tried to answer, opening her mouth, but no sound would come out – at least her teeth didn’t chatter. But still, speech was beyond her, so she closed it again and elected to just nod.

The man nodded, giving her a smile that didn’t reach those dark, sad eyes. “Please step aside, young miss,” he spoke, again not unkindly, though even in her current state, she knew it was not a request, even if it was phrased like one.

She stepped aside, holding the door open as the man cleaned his high black boots on the mat, before he walked in, followed by the others – three more men in the uniform of the military police, though with normal military jackets instead of the Captain’s overcoat, and without the Wolf Brigade’s emblem on their armbands (theirs only sported the characters for ‘soldier’ and ‘law’, as usual).

What… why… Koharu was thoroughly thrown for a loop, not knowing how to proceed, so she just closed the door and followed them into the living room.

Walking into the room, she saw everyone frozen in varying degrees of shock and horror, staring at the Captain, not even noticing her as she circled around him, stopping halfway between him and her friends, her hands wringing the hem of her skirt.

The man ignored the teenagers at one end of the table, his strange gaze zeroing in on her family… and then just on her father.

“Mister Lu Ning,” he spoke softly, dipping his head in what might be considered a bow. “Mrs Lu Akimi. I’m afraid I have to ask you two to accompany me.” He kept looking at her father, his gaze calm, while Koharu felt her own heart go crazy, beating harder and harder, her eyes flickering from her ashen-faced father, to her deathly pale mother, to the calm, paradoxically kind-looking man in the uniform. “You are under suspicion of treason during wartime, and aiding and abetting the same, respectively.”

Koharu should have screamed. She should be freaking out. She should beside herself at the charges levied against her parents – charges that would almost certainly result in their execution. Her father should be screaming and denying the charges, her mother should be crying and… and…

And nothing happened. A great, cool calm washed over Koharu, draining all those emotions away before her heart could even start to really speed up. Her shoulders relaxed, her jaw going a little slack – and she wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the room, except for the policemen, just… relaxed. Koharu looked around in a daze, seeing that her friends, save for Chihiro and Aoshi, had nearly passed out, and even they were at least as dazed as she felt. Her parents were no better off and her grandfather had actually fallen asleep, fallen forward to rest his head on the table.

One of the policemen had grown, suddenly standing almost half a metre taller.

“We… we didn’t do… do anything… wrong,” her father protested weakly, causing Koharu to slowly turn her head back to look at him. He still looked pale, but much, much calmer, though even whatever was being done to them could not banish all the panic from his eyes.The Captain shook his head, and made a short motion with his left hand, and the two normal-sized men behind him stepped forward, pulling her parents up onto their feet.

“That will be for the judges to determine,” the Captain spoke, his voice unchanged. “Let’s go now.”

Koharu watched, dazed, as the policemen guided her parents into putting on shoes and light coats, idly wondering how the men could stand the crushing heatwave outside in those military uniforms.

Is that really something I should be wondering about? she mentally chided herself. She should be… should be… something. Something different than what she was now. But her thoughts were so… slow. Like tree sap, oozing through her head without really moving at all.

Finally, the men of the Kempeitai turned to leave, including the… the man, the Hosuto who Koharu thought might, maybe, be the one making her not care about it.

“Wait a moment,” the Captain said, suddenly, and turned towards the enlarged man. “Turn it down a bit.”

The man looked oddly at him, but obeyed without protest, shrinking down by a quarter of a metre.

At the same time, Koharu felt her mind pick up speed again, become less…suppressed.

“M-mom? Dad? What’s going on?” she asked, feeling untethered, as if the ground was dropping away beneath her. She took a step towards her parents, but hesitated, too scared of the men flanking them to close the distance – but then their leader gave her a gentle shove from behind, just enough to make her stumble, imbalanced, towards her parents.

Her mother wrapped her arms around Koharu, hugging her tight.

It barely felt like anything, the odd effect that was keeping Koharu – and several of the others, she was sure – from freaking out reducing it to a mostly mechanical gesture.

“It’s alright, my baby, it’s all alright,” her mother whispered, her voice thick with tears and worry. “This is all just a big misunderstanding, it’ll all be cleared up soon, you’ll see.” Her words, at least, made Koharu relax a bit; she could tell that her mother was telling the truth.

Her father touched Koharu’s back, rubbing it gently. “Take care of your grandfather until we’re back,” he said with a shaky voice, in spite of the calming presence of the  hosuto.

Koharu nodded, tears in her eyes, barely holding herself back from melting down in tears, and only thanks to that man denying her the meltdown, holding onto her mother for dear life regardless – until she heard footsteps from behind her – heavy ones, had to be the Captain’s – come closer. Then her mother disentangled herself from Koharu with gentle, but firm motions and… they simply left, taking her parents with them.

Only the Captain lingered, turning around on the doorstep to look at her, then past her, at the banner saying, in bright pink letters, “Tanjobi Omedetou, Ko-chan!”, which the others had put up in the hallway for her to see, when she came back. Then he looked at her again, his dark eyes heavy and sad. “Hell of a day for this. I’m truly sorry, young miss.”

And with that he turned around and left, closing the door behind himself, just moments before Koharu’s brain caught up to the situation, whatever had been keeping her down now gone.

She cried out, loud and shrill, and ran to the door, throwing it open, looking for her parents, she had to find them, had to find, to…

They were gone. There was no one outside, no one on the street, not even a truck or something that was driving away in the distance.

They were gone.

***

July 24, 2010

The stocky, broad-shouldered guard looked up at the sole clock in the bare grey room, then he looked at Koharu, and nodded. “Booth four. You have fifteen minutes,” he told her, his voice gruff and distant.

She nooded meekly, never raising her head, much less meeting his eyes. Not that she could do that very well right now, her eyes being almost completely red from lack of sleep and nearly ceaseless sobbing. She’d done what she could with some make-up, to hide the bags under her eyes, to give her cheeks a little more colour than they’d had lately. She’d washed and brushed her hair three times, put on her best school uniform, the expensive one they’d bought for only special occasions.

It didn’t seem to help much when she’d looked into the mirror. Her auburn hair, which was always a great source of pride for her, and attracted so many compliments and looks for how exotic it looked, was without luster, lacking its usual volume despite her best efforts. Her light brown eyes looked wrong, the way they were rimmed in red and slightly swollen.

Still, she hoped that she didn’t look too horrible – she didn’t want her mother to worry anymore than she already would.

The door closed behind her, as she entered the visitation room. She hadn’t even noticed herself walking through it, nor did she bother to look at any other person in the room; she simply went to the fourth booth and sat down on the uncomfortable plastic chair, using both hands to smooth out her skirt (much longer than she liked to wear), before she looked up.

Her mother was looking at her from behind the reinforced glass which separated them and she looked even worse than Koharu, her black hair being in disarray, her face lacking even the help of make-up to hide the marks of her own grief – as well as several rather nasty bruises along the left side of her jaw as well as on the corner of her left eye.

Koharu’s eyes widened at the sight of the bruises, while her mother just looked at her despondently, looking on the verge of tears as she studied her daughter’s grief-stricken face.

After wasting almost an entire minute just looking at each other, they both reached for the earphones at almost exactly the same time, something which would’ve ellicited amusement in her mother, before, what with how Koharu always insisted that the two of them were nothing alike.

Not so now.

“Koharu, my love,” her mother began, her voice shaky and rough, like she’d been screaming for a long, long time before this. She sounded so incredibly worn out. “How… how are you doing?”

“I’m…” She couldn’t say fine, or well. Those would be such obvious lies. But neither did she want to tell her mother that she’d spent the five days since her birthday and before that phonecall curled up in front of the television, trying to distract herself from the fact that her parents were to be on trial for charges of treason and yet sobbing more than she actually watched anything. Or how she’d spent the three days after that screaming, crying and locking herself in her bedroom, not even bothering to eat anything, no matter what her grandfather or Chihiro tried to get her to take at least a little care of herself, until her grandfather had finally just dragged her to his dojo and forced her to train with him, pulling her – slightly – out of her fugue. “I’m… dealing with it.” She tried her best to smile for her mother, but it only resulted in something shaky and barely noticable.

Her mother kept looking straight at her, her gaze unwavering, like she was trying to drink in her appearance, like she was some kind of lifeline for her. “Your… I mean… did they, did they… release his… his…” She choked, unable to say the words, unable to actually say it out loud.

As if that could make it not be true.

“No, but… they sent his ashes to us. We… I mean, grandfather and I, we put them… put them into the, the family plot,” Koharu replied, as fresh tears appeared in her eyes, reminded of how the tiny plastic box had arrived in the mail on the very day after the, the… on the day after. So efficient.

Akemi lowered her head, her long hair falling forward to hide her face as she sobbed softly, her thin shoulders – looking so much more thin and frail than they usually did, which said a lot, as her mother was, even on the best of days, far from an imposing figure – shaking as her hands, both of them, clenched so tightly around the earphone her knuckles turned white and the white plastic groaned, threatening to crack.

Koharu didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do, she’d barely managed to gather the courage to come here. So instead, she tried to change the subject to something, anything else.

“Grandfather… sends his best, his best wishes and he says, he says he’s so sorry for…” her voice croaked again, unable to say it out loud still. “He wanted to come, too, but they only, only allow one visitor per, per week.” She’d tried to get her grandfather to go, didn’t feel up to coming herself, but he’d gotten angry, angrier than she’d ever known him to be, so much so she’d briefly wondered whether he was going to slap her for the first time in her life; but he’d only insisted that she go, that it was more important for her to speak to her mother than for him, that they both needed each other.

“How is he doing?”

Koharu shrugged. “You know him… he’s keeping it all together. Calm. Steady. Without him, I… I don’t know, I’d have fallen apart already,” she admitted quietly.

This finally elicited an, admittedly very faint, smile from her mother. “Yeah, that’s my… that’s him,” she said, quickly editing that word out of her sentence. Koharu still heard it, faint as it was, and it hurt nonetheless. “You gotta take care of him, too, alright?” she continued on, as she lifted one hand to gently rub one of the larger bruises on her jaw.

Koharu looked at the blue and purple spots, her nails digging into the fabric of her skirt. “I will, but… mom, what… what happened to you? How did you get those?” She looked like she’d gotten into a knock-out fist-fight… except her knuckles were pristine.

Akimi averted her eyes again, her hand stopping mid-motion. “It… it’s nothing. D-don’t worry about me,” she said weakly. “As long as you’re alright… as long as I know you’re taken care of… I’ll be fine.” She smiled that frail smile again.

She felt her breath catch. Liar. You’re not fine. Why won’t you tell me? But she didn’t press the point. Neither of them had the strength to bear that, not right now.

“O-of course I’ll, I’ll take care of myself. That’s a silly thing to ask of me…” They both looked away from each other, eyes downcast.

Koharu raised her eyes first, searching her mother’s face, what little of it she could see past the stringy, messy hair and the bruises.

There was one question she wanted to ask, above all others. One question she needed to ask, that she had to know the answer to.

Was it true? Did you and Dad, did you really commit treason? Her father had been convicted of it, her mother had been convicted of aiding him, but not to the extent where she deserved the… where she could be convicted of treason in full.

If only she knew whether it was true. She didn’t know why she needed to know, not really. It wouldn’t change the facts. The court had made its ruling, and they almost never took it back. But at least knowing, she thought, might give her some small measure of peace.

She opened her mouth to ask the question, but found that she just couldn’t say the words.

Even if her mother hadn’t looked like she might shatter at the slightest push, Koharu didn’t think she could have asked the question.

She wanted to know. She didn’t want to know. She wanted to ask her mother. She didn’t want to.

They both stayed quiet, the unspoken question remaining between them, until the guard came and told her she had to leave.

“Take care of yourself, mom. I love you,” she said, too worn out to even cry.

“You too, dear. I love you so much,” her mother replied, looking up at her again. Her lips formed a brittle, but loving smile, as she briefly met her daughter’s eyes.

Koharu smiled back, as much as she could; then she left.

***

July 31, 2010

She raised her sword in a desperate block, barely managing to deflect the blow aimed at her right shoulder, which would have taken her out if it’d hit; even so, the impact was so strong, her hands went numb, causing her grip on her weapon to loosen.

“Too slow!” her enemy shouted, not giving her a chance to recover. He struck low, but it was just a feint – as she brought her sword down to parry, he reversed his grip and smacked her own weapon instead, knocking it out of her hands.

Before she could even register his moves, he’d brought his sword up, putting the tip to her throat.

“You lose. Again,” he told her with a grin, looking up at her sweaty face.

Koharu rolled her eyes as she took a step back, rubbing her shaking hands together. “Like that’s a surprise. I’ll never beat you, grandfather,” she complained with a pout. “You’ve been doing this for like, a hundred years.”

“Since I was five – so, eighty-one years, now,” he corrected her with a grin – he was used to her complaining about her lack of chances in fighting him. Then he walked to the nearest wall and put the wooden sword he’d used on its frame.

While Koharu flapped her gi  a bit to create a cool draft, she noticed with a little bit of satisfaction that his hands were trembling a bit, too – clearly, he wasn’t beating her as easily as he used to.

Of course, that might just have been due to his own advanced age, rather than any improvement on her part, but Koharu firmly believed in the right of teenagers everywhere to go with whichever version of reality they preferred.

She giggled at the silly thought. What an inconsequential thing to focus on, these days.

How does he even manage to distract me like that, again and again… Her mood briefly soured, as her thoughts were drawn back to her parents again.

The week since she’d visited her mother had been… hard. She’d gone back to school, due to her grandfather’s insistence, where her friends had tried, very hard, not to bring up the elephant in the room. She was also quite sure that they’d talked to their classmates, to have them lay off of her. No one had brought it up, no one had even alluded to it.

She’d still felt their stares, the whole time. Looking at her out of the corner of their eyes, whispering behind her back. Not obviously, no, but she was perceptive enough to notice regardless of their efforts.

The fact that two of her best friends – Kira and Haruka – were no longer allowed to associate with her by their parents did not help, at all.

The ringing of the telephone in the small office of the dojo pulled her out of her morose thoughts before she could get lost in them again and she turned to go and get it.

“Wait, let me get that,” her grandfather interjected. “You should sit down and drink some water.” He smiled, ruffling her hair (she flailed weakly at him, but her arms were still too tired to put up a fight) as he walked past her, his long, thin beard trailing over his shoulder like a wispy cloud. His smooth, bald head shiny with sweat.

Koharu grumbled something even she herself couldn’t understand, annoyed how he’d switch from pushing her through brutal training, only to pamper her right after when it came to small stuff like that.

Still, she sat down at the edge of the room, plopping gracelessly onto one of the thin cushions lined up along the wall, underneath the row of student names inscribed on short wooden boards, picking up a water bottle to drink from.

She’d barely swallowed a first gulp of water when she heard a thud from the adjacent office.

“Grandfather?” she called out. “Did you drop something?”

There was no reply. Maybe he hadn’t heard her through the door.

Koharu got up and walked to the office, sliding the door open to check on him.

“Did you drop something, Grandfather? That sounded h-“

She stopped as she saw her grandfather lying on the floor, one hand clutching the earphone, the other clutching at his gi, over his chest, his body twitching as he stared up at the ceiling.

“Grandfather!” she cried, all but leaping to his side and down on her knees, as she reached for… reached for… her hands stopped, not sure what she was supposed to do.

“A… Akimi…” he whispered, his eyes not seeing her. “M-my… Akimi…”

“What? What are you talking about? Grandfather? Did something happen to mother? Grandfather!” Koharu’s vision began to swim as she grabbed the hand over his heart, shaking him. “Grandfather, what’s wrong? Grandfather!!!”

***

August 3, 2010

Koharu stood in front of the old, wide grave in a black funeral kimono, her hair done up in a simple braided knot, her teeth dyed black for the occasion.

Not that she was overly cognizant of her looks, as she looked down at her family’s plot, a grave that now contained the ashes of both her parents, and her mother’s parents.

Her mother had been killed in prison, murdered by several other inmates in the showers. For being a traitor to Japan and the Emperor.

Left to bleed out on the cold, wet tiles.

Her grandfather, the last living family she had, had suffered a heart attack upon learning of the death of his one and only child.

Now she’d put both of their ashes to rest, after the wake of the last day, to join their spouses in death, when it had been denied to them in life. Her grandmother had been thought barren, unable to bear children. She only managed to get pregnant very late in life, and died giving birth to her mother.

Her father’s family, if he still had any, lived somewhere in China. She’d never met any of them, as her father had fled the Sovjet Union long before she was born. Even if they were still alive, she didn’t even know any names.

Now there’s just me, she thought, feeling strangely calm. Though maybe ‘worn out’ was a better term.

Rain fell down on her head and shoulders, a light drizzle, as she heard a few people talk in the distance. The official funeral was over, the guests who’d come – some those of her and her mother’s friends who hadn’t cut ties with them yet, most of them former and current students of her grandfather.

Everyone had been wonderfully sympathetic and kind, offering her kind words and promises of support, in spite of all the bad business.

It should have moved her heart, it would have moved her heart, especially seeing Kira and Haruka, and their families, attend the funeral, if only it wasn’t too broken now.

Koharu looked down at the stone plate that covered her family’s ashes and wondered just where it had all gone wrong.

***

August 15, 2010

“Koharu? Koharu, open the door!” A tiny, slender fist pounded the door to the dark apartment.

Koharu tried to ignore the noise as she sat in this sorry excuse for a home, curled up with her back to the wall, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and the television running on some show… she wasn’t even sure what she’d been watching these last few hours.

“Koharu, I swear to God, I will kick this door down!” Chihiro insisted. There was a scuffle, and voices talked. “We will kick the door down!” she corrected herself.

She turned the television up higher and ignored them.

Someone kicked the door. It wasn’t a very strong kick, but enough to be heard over the sound of the television.

Then another.

And another.

Finally, Koharu got up, the blanket sliding off as she walked across the room, using only the light of the television to see where she was going – not that there was much for her to trip over – and into the small hallway, where the door was shaking from Chihiro’s continued, if pathetic, kicks.

It was kind of adorable, really, imagining the slight girl who could barely hold up a sword try to kick down a door, and it brought a little smile to her pale lips.

She waited for another kick before she opened the door, so Chihiro wouldn’t lose her balance or hit Koharu instead, pulling it open.

Outside, Chihiro was balancing on one leg, the other raised in preparation for another kick.

“Oh, finally!” her best friend shouted, before throwing herself at Koharu to wrap her arms around her, giving her a crushing hug.

Koharu groaned at the force of it, but she didn’t complain – Chihiro felt nice, and warm, and soft. She felt herself relax a bit, just thanks to that, as she lowered her head to give her shorter friend a kiss on the top of her head.

“Hi, Chihiro,” she spoke, her voice sounding strange and rough even to her own ears; she hadn’t used it in a week.

“Hi, you big stupid idiot,” Chihiro mumbled wetly, burying her face in Koharu’s chest.

The morose girl looked up past her friend, to see who else had come with her, and saw Aoshi, Minato and Ai standing there, the former two leaning against the balustrade.

Koharu’s cheeks pinked slightly at the sight of Minato, as he smiled at her with such a sweet, concerned look on his face. He really could make her blush at any time, just by smiling. And there she stood looking like a scarecrow, her hair and face a mess, while he looked, damn, he looked as good as ever, making her feel all warm inside.

She averted her eyes before it became too obvious. Instead, she refocused on the tiny, sobbing limpet that had attached itself to her.

“I still need to breathe, Chihiro,” she whispered.

Chihiro let go and took a step back, rubbing her eyes on her blazer’s sleeve. “You’ve had me worried, you big stupid idiot,” she complained, while the boys standing behind her blushed.

“Uhh…” Ai began, though she shut up again, blushing as well.

“What is it?” Chihiro looked over her shoulder at her other friends, noticing their blushing faces. Then she turned and looked at Koharu again, and instantly went red with embarrassment. “Koharu! You’re… indecent!” she screeched in outrage, staring at her friend.

Koharu looked down on herself, needing a minute to remind herself of what she was wearing… she hadn’t paid attention in a while. The reason for her friends’ behaviour became instantly clear, as she was only wearing a white shirt that barely reached her hips, and yellow panties.

“Oh,” was all she managed to say, feeling herself flush hot. Minato was seeing her panties right now. While she was wearing them.

With a squeal, she turned around and fled into the apartment, turning right rather than left into the living room to get into her bedroom, where she quickly pulled on the first skirt she found in her clothes drawer (she didn’t own any pants), a long, flowery thing she’d bought on a whim a year ago. She also briefly used a brush on her hair, to make herself look at least remotely presentable.

When she came out again, the lights had been turned on in the apartment, and her friends were in her living room.

Koharu couldn’t help but think about how out of place they looked, in their expensive clothing (Kira and Minato never left their home wearing anything less than designer clothing), standing in a tiny two-room apartment whose living room was smaller than her bedroom used to be. It was barely large enough for a low table to sit around and a television, as well as a tiny kitchenette in the back (Koharu mostly just ate instant meals, so only the microwave and the fridge saw any use).

The fact that she hadn’t cleaned up since moving in a week and a half ago didn’t help make it look any better.

“Koharu…” Chihiro looked at her as she came in, her face overflowing with empathy. “I… I didn’t know… that they put you into a place like this.” Her shoulders sagged and she looked miserable… as if any of this was her fault.

Koharu shrugged. “You know how it goes. I’m a minor, so the state is ‘managing’ everything my parents and my grandfather left me, until I turn twenty. Until then, they pretty much own me,” she explained bitterly, looking down at the dusty floor. “I’ve got to live here until I turn twenty, and I have to go to the nearest school, not the one I used to go to.”

“You’re… you’re not coming back to school?” Chihiro asked in a tiny whisper, looking utterly despondent.

“It’s the law,” Minato spoke up for the first time, and like every time he spoke, Koharu couldn’t help but watch him do it, watch the way his lips m-

Focus, Koharu. Focus!

The object of her affection continued on, oblivious to how hard it was for her to actually concentrate on what he was saying. “Wards of the state have to go to the nearest available public school. Even if our school was the one closest to this place, it’d still not be eligible, as it’s a private institution,” he explained calmly, with the confidence of a policeman’s son. He was preparing to study law, she knew.

Koharu knew a lot of stuff about Minato.

Chihiro wrapped her arms around herself, looking ready to cry. “This ain’t fair. None of this is fair,” she complained.

“No shit,” Kira interjected, running her fingers through her long hair, the brown colour of which was about the only part of her appearance that matched her twin brother. “This is all… unbelievably fucked up.”

“Language,” Minato admonished her reflexively.

“Oh, fuck no,” Kira refused. “This is so completely fucked up!” She stepped up to Koharu, putting both hands on her shoulders, her face twisted up in a mixture of anger and worry. “None of this is fair, to you, to your ‘rents, to your grandfather, to anyone. So… don’t hesitate to ask, if you need anything, ok?”

Koharu averted her eyes again. She’d never had trouble meeting peoples’ eyes before (other than Minato), but now…

“Th-thank you. But you should really not worry, too much. I’ll be fine,” she lied lamely. It didn’t ring true even to her own ears.

Much less theirs. They just rolled their eyes, not even bothering to disagree with words.

“This is too awkward,” Minato complained. “How about we all sit down? We brought some snacks and drinks.” He held up a plastic bag she hadn’t even noticed before.

“No thanks, I’m not h-” Her stomach growled loudly, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in… she wasn’t sure. A few days, at least.

She flushed hard at the incredulous look Minato gave her and just hustled over to the low table, sitting down quickly.

There were chuckles and grins around her, as the others sat down, and then snacks were handed out. She didn’t protest again.

***

Two hours later

“And don’t you dare shut yourself in again!” Chihiro threatend as she stood on the doorstep, wagging a finger in front of Koharu’s face.

“Yeah, sure,” she replied with a soft smile. She just couldn’t stay too dour while Chihiro – who was almost a full head shorter than her – was trying to be serious.

The diminuitive girl snorted, then gave her a hard hug. “I’m there for you, alright? Any time. We’ll help you get through this,” she spoke with perfect conviction.

“Ok,” Koharu answered, though she couldn’t bring herself to muster any enthusiasm. Or hug her back.

The others expressed similar sentiments before they left, walking away, seeming… not happy, but relieved. Relieved that she was alright, after a fashion, perhaps.

Only Minato remained and, in spite of her mood, Koharu found herself blushing again, both at being (mostly) alone with him and at the memory that he’d seen her in her underwear.

“Koharu,” he began, then stopped, looking unsure.

Her blush grew a little hotter. “Y-yes?”

“I… I just wanted to say I’m, I’m really sorry for what happened to you… you deserve better,” he said softly, without his usual cool, calm air.

“…” She couldn’t muster any words, for more than one reason.

“I just… I hope you don’t let it beat you down… losing your parents, your grandfather… just, don’t bottle it up, and call when you need it, ok? I’m, we’re here for you.”

She blinked as her vision grew wet and hazy, she didn’t want to lose it in front of him, of all people.

“Th-th-thank you. I… will… keep it in… mind,” she had to force the words out, her fist clenched tightly, trembling. “I… I’m sorry, I… I need some time…”

He nodded, biting his lower lip. “Of course. Of course. Have a… I mean, see you next time.” He reached out, briefly, touching her shoulder, but pulled back before doing more.

Then he left, as well.

Koharu closed the door, almost slamming it closed… but she didn’t. Barely. Then she turned away from it and went into the dark living room (it only had one window, and one which opened into the inner courtyard of the quadratic, hollow apartment complex, so there wasn’t much sun to be had), which was now quite completely clean.

Chihiro hadn’t been able to resist cleaning duty. It would have been comical, how her best friend the neat freak had looked physically pained at the disorderly state, twitching nervously before Koharu had finally allowed her to clean it up; it should have brightened her day, and it had, a little bit.

But even that memory didn’t help at all now.

Koharu was still shaking, barely restraining herself as she knelt down at the table, facing the silent television. One of the few luxuries that had come with the apartment. Would be hard to deliver the news and ‘historical’ videos to her, otherwise. It could even be turned on remotely, so she didn’t have much of a choice in at least listening to whatever the government wanted her to.

She waited quietly, counting the seconds, imagining that it’d take her friends a few minutes to leave the apartment building; it was huge, after all, fifty storeys of twenty-five apartments each, one of many concrete behemoths that the state ran ‘for the needy’.

Most of the people who lived in them were needy because of the government’s actions, but that was a detail they didn’t advertise.

And Koharu was just trying to distract herself now, so her friends would be far enough away for her to be sure none of them would hear anything.

After nearly five minutes of keeping it in, she finally cracked, bending over as her fist hit the table hard enough to make the glass of water that still stood atop it jump.

A long, low, shrill sound escaped her mouth, starting to build as she punched the table again.

And again.

And again.

Her hand hurt, but she barely paid attention to it as the shriek turned into a scream, and then the scream into hoarse groans once her breath ran out.

They didn’t get it.

They just didn’t get it.

She hadn’t lost her family.

It had been taken from her. Her parents hadn’t died, they’d been murdered. Her grandfather too, if indirectly.

Her family had been murdered. Everything in her, everything she’d learned growing up, it demanded revenge.

She could do nothing about it.

She didn’t stop screaming for a long time. No one came to check – it wasn’t an unusual occurance, in this place.

***

September 1, 2010

Koharu had, at times, passed by South Mishima High, on foot or driving by in the car or the bus. She’d always… well, she’d always sneered at it, and at the people forced to go to school here. It was one of four (North, West, East and South) state-run middle and high schools run exclusively by the government, and the only ones who went there were the poorest of the poor and, well, people like her. Wards of the state.

There were people who sold their homes to afford a private school for their children, rather than send them to one of these.

Now she was here, wearing the plain school uniform that was used in every state school across the country – black pantyhose, brown loafers, a white skirt and a white jacket, over an equally white shirt and a differently coloured tie depending on which school you actually went to. Hers was vermillion.

Other students were passing her by while she stood at the gate to the school grounds, few of them paying her any attention as they walked into the blocky, white building. It wasn’t an ugly place, she mused, but incredibly bland, except for the tall banners that lead from the gate to the front entrance of the school building, on the left and right of the paved path, sporting various traditional japanese motifs, from the four beasts to specific scenes from myth. They were the only breaks from the school’s colour scheme of white, white, more white and some sploshes of vermillion.

It was nothing like the school she used to go to. The Himaru private school was built in the style of European and American private schools, the old ones. More mansion than anything, with lots of trees around it, expensive landscaping making it look like it came right out of a fairy tale.

This place looked like it came out of a central planning office.

Which it did.

Even the artwork wasn’t really any different; the same motifs repeated over and over, at every one of these schools.

No use stalling, she thought to herself, taking a deep breath. Her first day at school. In the past, she’d have groomed herself for the occasion, made sure her hair and her face were in top condition, maybe even used some make-up.

Even if she’d felt like doing it, the binder full of rules and regulations that’d come with her apartment stated quite clearly that make-up was strictly forbidden. Even hairstyles were regulated. She had the choice between loose and straight, a braid, a knot, or a braided knot. Absolutely no dying your hair (not that she’d ever done that before). No piercings, except for earrings, and only for girls.

Hell, there were even regulations on appropriate underwear. Koharu really, really, hoped that they weren’t going to regularly check on that.

She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. She had to get to class.

***

A boy was watching her the whole time she sat in class. He wasn’t even being all that subtle about it.

She’d first noticed him after introducing herself to the class – though it was the start of the new school year, she was the only one in her homeroom class who hadn’t been in it for at least a semester now, and so there’d been a lot of obvious attention to her. At least some of it was most likely because, at a glance, she was the prettiest girl in the class room, even though she hadn’t been taking care of her appearance for a good month now.

In the past, she would have loved that.

However, after she’d finished her introduction, and their homeroom teacher, a rather off-putting man with a thin goatee that was just plain trying to hard, had told her to sit down (she was sure he was checking out her ass. It was just creepy) and she’d walked to the only free seat left in the bare classroom, a table and seat in the far back and right, mercifully right next to the window, she’d noticed one student in particular who was… paying more attention to her than the others, even after she’d sat down and the teacher had started class. Even afterwards, the boy kept looking at her over his shoulder, often for a whole minute or two at a time, as if sizing her up for something.

At least the actual lesson only covered a subject she’d already passed back at her old school, so there was no need for her to pay attention. It didn’t seem like anyone was expecting the teacher to even ask questions, he was just droning on and on at the front, usually with his back to them.

She tried to ignore the boy, at first, but it just didn’t work, so she decided to take a closer look at him in turn.

He was… unassuming. Taller than average by quite a bit, which showed through even while he was sitting. He was thin, but not too much so. His face was long, with a slightly hooked nose, and he had really short black hair, cropped down to a few millimetres. He wore the same uniform as every other boy in class.

What stood out, though, were his eyes. They were green. Really, really green. They spoke of foreign blood, much like her own.

It made her wonder whether he might have a story not unlike her own.

Even so, though, she did not enjoy being sized up like a piece of meat, so she gave him a glare. He smirked in response, but turned away, pretending to focus on the teacher’s lesson (she doubted anyone in this class actually did focus on that).

Class passed by without incident after that, aside from the boy crossing eyes with her now and then, briefly, before turning around to look forward again.

She did her level best to ignore that.

***

Now she wasn’t just being watched. She was being followed.

Classes had ended without any further distractions (as welcome as they might have been) and she’d packed up her stuff, dodging a few girls who seemed like they wanted to talk to her… she really didn’t feel like trying to make new friends here.

Instead, she’d gone into the cafeteria, and gotten herself a meal there (food was free, at least). It wasn’t half bad, lots of rice, steamed vegetables and some seafood. In her, admittedly limited experience with cafeteria food, it was actually pretty good.

She’d taken her tray and sat down at an empty table in the otherwise crammed cafeteria, not even pausing to think about why this one table might be ignored, when all others were packed; the school had way more students than she was used to; there’d been nearly fifty in her class! Her old school rarely had more than twenty per class, if that many.

So she’d sat down and started eating, trying to ignore the stares she was getting… it was getting more and more annoying, new students couldn’t be that rare here! It was the start of the freaking semester!

“Don’t be too mad at them, it’s not often that something interesting happens around here,” an amused voice said at the same time as its owner sat down on the opposite side of the table, at the same time as when someone brushed by her, briefly touching her back.

“What?” she asked in surprise, looking up to see the green-eyed boy from class sitting there, without a tray, while a girl a little younger than either of them sat down on her side, as far away from the two of them as possible.

“I said, it’s not about you, it’s about you being new. They’ll lose interest soon enough,” he explained with a mischievous smirk, drawing her attention back to himself and those impossibly green eyes. “Though perhaps they’re just curious because you’re sitting at a reserved table.”

“You’re sitting here, too,” she replied, not sure how to react.

“That’s because I’m one of the people it’s reserved for,” he replied as he leaned forward, elbow on the table, and his chin on his hand.

She frowned at him, not really sure whether he was saying the truth or just pulling her leg. Who ever heard of cafeteria tables being reserved for students?

Deciding to just not play along with whatever this guy wanted, she picked up her tray and stood up. “I’ll vacate it then. Excuse me.”

“Hold it,” he stopped her by raising his free hand. “I never said you weren’t welcome here, Koharu. We’re not so different, after all.”

Her frown deepened, but there was something about the way he spoke, about his serious eyes, contrasting the flippant way he sat and talked, that made her sit down again.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re both half-bloods, and we both had our families taken away from us by the Emperor’s lackeys,” he replied. “And we’re both very, very angry.” His eyes were boring into hers, as her breath hitched, and she threw a scared look around; but there wasn’t anyone near enough to hear it.

“Are you crazy!? You can’t just say that out loud, you’ll get in trouble!” she warned him in a harsh whisper, but he just continued to.

“Your concern is touching, but you don’t need to worry,” he said, gesturing around. “Look at them.”

She briefly did, and it couldn’t have been more different to before. No one was looking at her, or the table. “What the hell is going on?”

The boy held his hand out across the table. “My name is Yamashita Osamu. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Koharu. Oh, and the quiet cutie over there is Hiraki Umeko. Don’t mind her, she doesn’t like to talk much.” He nodded towards the younger girl quietly eating her meal.

She looked at his hand as if it was poisoned, starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable with this whole situation. She opened her mouth to say just that, when he interrupted her again.

He wiggled it, continuing to look her in the eyes. “It’s not poisoned, you know?”

She flushed a little – was she really that obvious? – and took his hand, shaking it. “Lu Koharu… which you already knew. So, what do you want?”

“I wanted to ask you whether you’d like to get some payback,” he said with a grin, and dead-serious eyes. “You got honest eyes.”

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Update 24/02/17

This is humiliating.

I thought I’d written a note to explain the absence, but it seems I was too scatterbrained to do it.

As a belated notification: I had some personal issues to deal with and, more distractingly than that, had exams these last two weeks, which completely ate up my time to do much of anything else.

I’m sorry, sorry, sorry I messed this up.

However, there are good news. The Empty Dragon is almost two thirds done, and looks like it’ll be a 10.000+ word monster of an interlude. Look forward to it, because you’ll learn some stuff people have been wondering about for quite a while (looking at you, TheAnt). Expect it either tonight, or tomorrow by 2 pm.

From On High will follow on the same day, or else be done before midnight, this Sunday.

The Dreaming rewrite, plus a new (short) chapter will be complete by  Monday, 3:30 pm.

Finally, the fourth promised update this month, the first chapter of the Call of the Sleeper arc (which I have been looking forward to for a long, long time) will be up on Tuesday, 9 pm.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

Update 05/02/17

I really hate doing this, but I’ll have to delay the complete rewrite of the Dreaming, including the new chapter, until Tuesday, the 5th. There’s just no way for me to finish it before that, not if I want to keep up (or rather, improve) the quality.

However, I do have a definitive release date for the new Brennus chapter, “The Empty Dragon”, which will be out on Thursday, the 7th, around 5 pm.

Sorry sorry sorry! This is what you get when you try to do five things at once:

  • Dreaming rewrite/update: Tuesday, the 7th
  • Brennus update: Thursday, the 9th

I’m sorry for keeping you waiting this long.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B012.b Matriarchy

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Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Elouise was thinking about high heels as she walked down the hallway towards her ‘throne’ room. She considered how impractical it was to wear seven-inch heels in costume – even with her physical enhancements, she still had to rest every now and then to avoid getting cramps! The least said about wearing high heels in combat, the better.

On the other hand, they made her legs and her butt look awesome – well, even more awesome than usual – and they made up for her rather lackluster height. It was alright for the Matriarch to be shorter than her male enforcers, but to be shorter than her accountant? Unacceptable, even if it was just an inch.

Presentation is key. Always be aware of the effect your appearance has on people.

Her mother had pounded the lesson into her from an early age, along with many others. Elouise was to be her perfect heir, a daughter who would never bring shame to her mother’s name once she took it on; and despite some rather persistent rumors in the underworld, her taking over as the Matriarch had always been the plan, from the very beginning, her mother’s (apparent) unending youth notwithstanding. Her untimely death had merely accelerated Elouise’s inheritance.

She still didn’t know whether to thank her mother’s killer or strangle him to death.

Such were her thoughts as she entered her hideout’s main hall, built on the top floor of the Seventh Cloud Casino.

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Maybe she should have her costume adjusted, shorten the heels a bit. Losing an inch shouldn’t be too bad. Maria would jump at the chance to do it, and the girl was good at these things, in spite of her atrocious fashion sense.

Every little advantage matters. Even after all these years, her mother’s voice would still whisper into her ear, advising her, reminding her of the lessons… and of the punishments that came with disregarding them.

Being spanked had only been but one of her many, many painful humiliations.

Perhaps she would not shorten her heels after all.

She shook her head, lightly, not to look ridiculous by throwing her long, pure white waves of hair around. Her people were watching, after all.

Walking up to and lying down on her divan, she surveyed her gathered people. The first one, immediately to her right, was Kakitsune – Maria, the closest she had to an actual friend – in her customary, ridiculous outfit (not that she hadn’t earned the right to look as ridiculous as she liked to). Elouise gave her a small smile, which was returned with quite a bit less refined restraint.

Her gaze moved on, tracking over her twelve costumed lieutenants, the second-largest single group of metahumans in the entire Great Lakes region. Some of them were carryovers from her mother’s time, but most were her own recruits, drawn to her for various reasons.

Among the twelve were four she was particularly close to, and whom she trusted above the others, her four chief enforcers – Kakitsune, Holdout, Ducktail and Horrendous. They stood closest to her, flanking her divan to the left and right, each of them one of her own recruits, and close enough to nearly be friends.

Attachments are a liability. Use them, but don’t let them bog you down.

Of course, there was also one more person present, a new addition to her staff, and one she wasn’t quite sure how to feel about.

It had been as great a shock to her as to her half-sister, she was sure, to find out that her grandfather, her grandfather, was none other than the Dark himself. Inbetween the barely restrained glee at finally, finally having a family, however messed up it might be, a family that didn’t spank her for having her make-up out of place or starve her for not walking right at an official function, she’d been quietly terrified at the thought. He was the Dark, she was his granddaughter and yet, her success as a supervillain was questionable at best; even having the largerst local group of supervillains, enough people to take on any two other teams and not be at a numeric disadvantage, she was really only holding onto the title of Queen Bee of Chicago’s underworld by dint of there not being any suitable challenger to the title; none of the other villains were interested in ruling as the Matriarch had since the inception of capes and cowls.

What if her grandfather considered her a failure?

Of course, there had also been another thing that had hit her back then, and which she’d been thinking about ever since.

Finding out about her grandfather had put pretty much everything about her mother’s behaviour into a new light. Elouise could see, now, how she had been groomed to be his granddaughter, to please his way of doing things; perhaps, even, to become his heir in the absence of anyone else to do so. The Dark was a known family man, a traditionalist in many ways, who valued loyalty and blood; and so Elouise had been raised to both give and demand loyalty, to value her family above all, to be an intelligent, successful villain without being a brutish monster.

Her mother had never joined the Syndicate proper, though they’d cooperated a lot. She’d never aspired to join the Dark Five, even though she had the skills and the power to do so. Because she could never have expected being a mere underling of the Dark. The Matriarch had to rule, she had to stand at the top.

But there was nothing objectionable to the Matriarch serving under the Dark as his heir presumptive, as a beloved family member taken into the family business.

In the end, her mother had been willing to pass on her beloved name for the chance, however slim, that the Matriarch may one day stand at the top of the Syndicate.

Now she’d met the Dark and he’d… been way less intimidating than she’d expected, and way more personable; though, she was his granddaughter, and unlike all other descendants of his that she knew of, she was actually ‘in the business’. So maybe her mother’s plan would pay off after all.

It usually did.

After the whole mess with the Ascendant had been over and done with, he’d sought her out and they’d spent a whole night talking and getting to know each other… or at least, he’d been getting to know her. He’d been quite sparse with information about himself, and he’d been so smooth about it that she hadn’t noticed, that even her shadow hadn’t noticed.

But it had been nice, nonetheless. And helpful. Once she’d described all the problems she found herself faced with, he’d offered his advice, and then, to send a trusted lieutenant of his to provide her with advice and support, as her subordinate, of course, until such a time as she no longer required his help or decided to recruit him permanently.

She’d agreed, happily, after only briefly thinking it over, and the man had appeared on her doorstep on the very next day.

She still didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted. She had certainly never expected that a man like this was so high up in her grandfather’s trust; especially as he had basically no history to speak of. He simply went by the name ‘Leopold’, and the most she’d been able to find out about him was that he was some kind of background character in the Syndicate, perhaps a secret enforcer of some sort, though mostly he seemed to just be an observer.

He was, however, undoubtedly skilled. From accounting and administration to planning capers, strategic decisions and tactical expertise, the man seemed to be able to do anything he wanted, and he was good at it. He’d almost singlehandedly increased her Casino’s revenue by a hundred and thirty percent within two weeks of arriving there, among other things. And he’d rooted out no less than a dozen plants in her organisation, both by law enforcement and by other villain groups; he now assured her that there were none left, and she was inclined to trust him.

To a point.

Right now, he stood a little apart from her people, close enough to make it clear she trusted him, not so close as to be thought of as one of her full lieutenants. He also stood apart in how he dressed, wearing a dark brown three-piece suit, with a black shirt and gold tie, and a golden pocketwatch in his vest pocket, tailored to fit flawlessly onto his rail-thin body. His hair was slicked back, shining almost like more gold, and his dark blonde mustache and goatee where so sharply styled she suspected that they might serve as bladed instruments. The former was also ridiculously twirled, each twist easily the size of the man’s eyes. Brown-golden eyes which were currently looking at her, twinkling with amusement like he was privy to some private joke. A very common expression on him, and one she’d grown accustomated to.

She finished surveying them all, and went on with her ritual.

“Good evening, my dear companions,” she spoke, carefully intoning every single word. “I’m glad to see you all gathered here. Let’s get down to business.”

Which one to call up first? The order in which they spoke was set by me, and I usually picked whichever one I favoured most first, and so on.

My shadow came to me, from where it had been drawing lazy circles over the walls, whispering. Leopold has good news, but it will offend one of your chief lieutenants. Kakitsune has nothing out of the ordinary to say, but she’s feeling left out since Leopold joined. Horrendous is looking forward to his turn. Ducktail has a problem and is hoping for help. Ducktail is nervous. Silverback is feeling guilty over something. The others have nothing out of the ordinary to say, it spoke to her, using her own voice, but with a different inflection, just enough to make it sound noticably different.

She thought it over, briefly, processing the information, as she mentally decided on the order. Maria had to be first, to soothe her ego; Leopold was going to offend someone, so she shouldn’t pick him last, or else the meeting would end on a sour note.

Only she didn’t know whom he would offend.

She took a glass of sparkling water off the small table next to her divan, drinking from it to buy herself a few more moments to consider it.

In the end, she decided to pick Horrendous last – he was the one least likely to get offended by anything, or hold a grudge if it did happen.

Yes, that will do. First Kakitsune, then Silverback, Leopold, Ducktail and finally, Horrendous.

She smiled. That would do. She put the glass down and turned to look at Maria, smiling.

“Maria, please start,” she said, smiling at her… friend.

The girl brightened up considerably at being picked first, standing up straighter… which wasn’t necessarily a good thing, considering her outfit. How she managed to get around without flashing her breasts every time she moved, Elouise would never understand. It certainly wasn’t her power’s effect, that was for sure. Nor did she use double-sided tape.

“Nothing’s changed since the last briefing, boss,” she said in her usual, chipper voice. “Really, the Ascendant kinda did us a favour; all the chaos and damage he caused has got the other gangs running ragged trying to re-establish themselves. We and the Misfits are the only ones who didn’t lose any cowls, and that’s mostly because their cowls were all in lock-up at the time, thanks in no small part to, well to your dad.”

Elouise smiled, nodding. “So your part of the business is running smoothly,” she followed, referring to Maria’s protection business.

Maria nodded, and then beamed when Elouise smiled at her. “Well done,” she said warmly, and she beamed even brighter.

Kakitsune’s worries have been soothed for now. She won’t be an issue for at least another two weeks.

Elouise frowned, briefly, masking it by coughing and taking another drink. Maria’s not just an ‘issue’. She is my friend.

There was no answer, and so she moved on, looking at Silverback, a man who certainly looked the part of his namesake, being a huge man, as huge as one could be as a normal person, with shoulders almost as broad as her legs were tall. He was wearing an impeccable, if very old-fashioned gray suit that made him look like a mobster from the prohibition era. Appropriate, seeing how his family had been part of the mob (and then of her mother’s organisation, and now her own) for a good five generations now.

“Silverback, how’s the gambling ring coming along?”

He cleared his throat, then ran a huge hand through his squarish, black beard. “Not as well as we’d hoped – the recent crisis has had people stay home more, though we’re seeing an upward trend again – but we’re making steady profits, and most of them are even legal, especially thanks to Leopold here,” he inclined his head towards the smiling man, who acknowledged it with a deferential nod of his, “Putting us in contact with that corrupt official at the mayor’s office.” He coughed again, uncomfortable.

“That’s good to hear,” she replied with a smile, then turned it towards Leopold. “Your support is really extraordinary, Leopold.”

“Think nothing of it, my lady,” he told her with a fancy bow. “I am merely fulfilling my duties.”

Leopold means what he says.

She nodded instead of continuing, and turned back to Silverback. Even without her shadow’s whispers, she could tell that he was rather uncomfortable. “There’s more, isn’t there, Silverback?”

He coughed again. “Well… there was a bit of an incident, last night.” The huge man shuffled his feet. “I… lost my temper with one of our patrons, and offended him rather heavily. We may lose him.”

Her eye twitched, annoyed. Silverback was everything one could wish for in a lieutenant, ambitious without being treacherous, steadfast, loyal, determined, powerful… but he was not calm. His temper was his greatest weakness, and perhaps the only reason why she hadn’t elevated him to be her right-hand man. “Which one?” she asked, her voice gone colder.

“Judge Martherson,” he replied, his head lowered in shame.

Elouise had to really fight with herself to avoid giving a biting retort to that. Martherson was a snake, but he was her snake, god damn it! Even disregarding the fact that he brought old Chicago money to the table, and was all too ready to gamble it away, he was a Judge. Always useful to keep around.

“That is… disappointing,” she forced out between clenched teeth, trying to catch herself. “I will have to… talk to Martherson, and convince him to… accept an apology. My apology, to be precise.”

Silverback flinched, opening his mouth again, but she cut him off.

“What is done, is done. I’m not going to hold this one slip-up against you, Silverback, but please do try to reign in your temper in the future.”

He nodded, biting his own lip.

This will do.

Leopold took a step forward, without saying anything, causing her to look at him. He clearly looked like he had something to say – and well, she’d planned to pick him next, anyway.

“If you have something to say, Leopold, please feel free to do so,” she drawled.

He bowed again, smiling. “Mmm, well, I just wanted to say, dear lady, that I already had a little… talk, with our judge, after I became aware of the incident last night,” he said, making Silverback stare at him in surprise – and Elouise, too, for that matter. “He has magnanimously agreed to accept an apology… from Silverback, here.”

“You… you just went and…” Silverback clenched his fists, snarling, as he looked at the far shorter, slender man. She could see the red creep into his eyes, towards his pupils, and decided to intervene.

So this is the subject that would offend another. He went and resolved Silverback’s problem without consulting with him, promising that the man give an apology without consulting him. She was relieved, really, that it was something so minor, in the grand scheme of things. Though she still had to do something, to save Silverback some pride. She didn’t need her power to figure that out, either.

Thus, she smiled at Leopold, though she made it a little sharper an expression than was strictly friendly. “Leopold, as usual, you amaze me with how… swift and efficient you are, resolving this little dispute,” she drawled, sipping from her glass. Be grateful, Elouise. He saved you the need to demean yourself to make an apology. “Thank you for that; however, I can not simply tolerate it that you intervene in Silverback’s business without even consulting him – much less allow that his apology be promised to another, like that. This will not happen again, understood? She underlined the last few words with a sharp glare at the man.

Leopold sighed, though he didn’t seem intimidated at all. However, he did make an apologetic face, and bowed at Silverback. “I am sorry, my friend, that I acted in so rushed a manner – I was only thinking of mollifying the judge, and did not stop to consider the insult it would bring to you.”

He is sincere, though still amused at the whole situation.

Annoying, but at least he was sincere enough to mollify Silverback… slightly. She would still have to deal with this in the future.

Worst of all, she was not at all able to tell whether Leopold was doing this deliberately, to test her. He was here on orders from her grandfather, after all, both to support and, perhaps, to evaluate.

The corner of her mouth ticked up as she considered just how problematic this could still become, having someone in her inner circle who didn’t answer to her, first.

She blinked, banishing those thoughts from her mind. There would still be time to pursue that line of thought later on.

Instead, she moved on with the evening’s business.

***

The rest had gone quite smoothly. Ducktail had some problem with the heroes coming after her underground fight rings, and Elouise had assigned Maria to help shore up security. Horrendous had only good things to report, as he was in charge of smuggling goods and the relatively high taxation on a lot of luxury items, due to the brewing war in Europe, was driving up their profits quite nicely.

All in all, even considering Silverback’s little blunder, and Leopold’s provocation, this had been a pleasant enough meeting.

Leopold will continue to be a problem, though he should be enough of an asset to justify keeping him around, her shadow whispered to her as she was walking towards her private suite.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Her grandfather had sent him, and she was more than willing to put up with the occasional annoyance – she trusted the Dark to have her best interests at heart.

She smiled to herself, as she opened the door to her bedroom’s antechamber, already looking forward to spending the rest of the night…

“Well, what are you smiling about like that?”

Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the man waiting for her in the room (how did he get inside? None of her security systems had noticed him!), sitting on a love seat next to the old fireplace (she rarely used it, but now there was a small fire going) with his cheek resting on a hand, his elbow on the armrest, as he smiled at her.

“Daddy!” she shouted, and leaped clear across the room, all thoughts of decorum forgotten as she wrapped her arms around his neck, nearly bowling him and the seat over.

Presentation is k-

She ignored the little voice as she hugged him tight. To her delight, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her.

She’d never known what it felt like to just be held by a father, had often imagined it, but never thought it’d feel this good.

“Hey there, baby girl,” he said as he patted her back, before he kissed the top of her head. “How was your evening so far?”

“Oh, quite alright,” she replied as she pulled herself up to sit properly – on his lap, that was. They had almost two decades of cuddling to make up for, after all. “The aide grandfather sent to work with me went a little over the line and pissed off Silverback – you remember him, right, I introduced you – and I had to tell him off, but otherwise, everything’s going more or less smoothly.”

He smiled down at her, making her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. She just couldn’t get enough looking at him. He’d grown less haggart, ever since the business with the Ascendant had been done with, and he didn’t dress quite as formally anymore – or at least, not quite as often. Just jeans and a shirt with a rockband’s name printed on it, though she’d never heard of this particular one. He still kept his beard, though, which she liked – it made him look nicely mature and father-ly.

“Well, knowing my father, he’s likely sent someone who’s certain to be annoying and testing, just to see how you’ll deal with him,” he told her, confirming her own suspicion. He didn’t really seem happy about it, though. “I wish you hadn’t taken him up on his offer, though. It’s not healthy to get drawn into the Syndicate’s business, even for an established supervillain.”

“We’ve been over this, daddy,” she replied, pouting at him as she took her mask off. “I’m not going to give up being the Matriarch. Not even for you, or Henny.”

He sighed. “I know… just like you know that I won’t stop trying to talk you out of it.” He smirked, winking at her. “And I’m doing that just for you, not for Hennessy’s sake. Though that’s a welcome bonus, too.”

She giggled, glad that he was being light-hearted about it. “How’s Henny doing, anyway? She hasn’t really been replying to my e-mails much.” Finding out that her arch-enemy was actually her half-sister, and one with such a horrible trauma in her past, had been more than a small shock. Fortunately, though, they hadn’t clashed since finding out, in large part due to her being too busy with keeping her organisation low-key and out of the heroes’ eyes, so they’d focus on the other gangs instead.

Come to think of it, it’d been her dad who’d convinced her to pursue that course of action…

He doesn’t want his daughters to clash in battle, or otherwise, came the unbidden whisper, not that it told her anything new. It was almost annoying how good her dad was at confounding her shadow – he was just too controlled to be read, even with its power, perhaps even more so than her grandfather.

“Hennessy has recovered well,” he explained, looking away – focusing into the distance. “Now that the Ascendant is behind bars, she and her friends have… relaxed a lot. Hell, Dearheart has even forgotten to glare at me, a few times!” he laughed, and she couldn’t help but join in. “So, who’s this guy the old man sent to you? Maybe I remember him,” he continued.

“Oh, he’s a weird one, so you’d remember him for sure!” she replied. “He doesn’t use a codename, he just calls himself Leop-“

“Leopold!?! He sent you Leopold!?” he shouted, making her flinch. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.”

“So, uh, I guess you know him?” she asked, leaning against his chest as she threw her legs over the armrest. They’re the same age, likely to have interacted in their youth if he has such a strong reaction to him.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, he’s my age. Did a few jobs with him, back in the day. He is… an unending source of frustration.”

“He seems quite alright to me. Really competent. And almost as hard to read as you.”

“He would be. Guy’s an a- a jerk, but he’s competent, I’ll give him that,” he replied, editing his own swear-word out – like that’d bother her. It was really kinda cute.

“Yeah, that he is. But enough of that! Tell me what you’ve been up to – I was really surprised you and Henny didn’t go to help with this Crocell incident in Esperanza City!” she moved the conversation along, not wanting to dwell on her business for too long when he was around.

“There’s no way the authorities would allow Hennessy to participiate in an S-Class situation, unless it actually came here – and maybe not even then,” he explained, looking troubled. “She’s much too unstable.” He sighed, and she could tell that he still blamed himself for his other daughter’s state. It hurt her to see, but there was nothing she could do about it -she’d already told him that she, at least, did not blame him at all for being absent from her life until recently, and she was pretty sure he still beat himself up about that, even though she hadn’t gone through half as much horror as her little sister.

“And what about you?” she tried to move on, away from the subject of Henny. “What were you up to?”

“Oh, I was out of the country for a few days, down in South America to visit a few old friends who’d moved there. Came running as soon as I heard about the attack, but by the time I reached Esperanza, I could only help with the rescue efforts.”

He frowned, tapping his chin. “Gotta wonder about this gadgeteer boy everyone’s gushing about. He killed that thing in one shot – while dad failed to put the one he fought in Tokyo down at all.”

She shivered at the reminder of what had happened in Tokyo – that was… bad business. Far beyond any limits she was willing to come even close to.

“Brennus. I’ve heard, yeah. New Lennston never disappoints in producing some amazing capes and cowls,” she said, more subdued now. “He’s independent, isn’t he? I wonder how he’s managed to resist being recruited by either side.”

“I don’t know about the heroes,” her father said slowly, “but I was talking to my father, and well, he didn’t say anything straight out, but I get the feeling that he considers Brennus to be off-limits for some reason.”

Possible that he’s related to a Syndicate member, or else a high-enough ranked hero to not be worth the trouble.

“Curious…” she rubbed her chin, considering it. Maybe he was off-limits to the Syndicate, but she wasn’t quite a member yet, and who knew, maybe she could recruit herself an up-and-coming gadgeteer…

“Elouise, stop it,” her father chided her. “No scheming right now, alright? I didn’t come here for that.”

She pouted at him. “But I’m supposed to be a mastermind, scheming is what I do.”

He smirked. “Oh yes? Even if the alternative is going out for a late dinner with me?”

She leapt off his lap. “I’ll go get changed!” she chirped happily, making him chuckle as she all but ran into her bedroom. Spending time with her daddy was way more important than some new scheme, anyway!

Her heels clicked on the expensively wood-tiled floor, making her stop just beyond her bedroom door, looking down at them.

Hm, they really are too high, aren’t they? I’ll ask Maria to shorten them tomorrow.

She smirked, ignoring her mother’s angry rebuttal, and walked into her wardrobe to pick out something for her impromptu dinner-date.

The night could only get sweeter.

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