B13.b Chickenleg(s)

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Radost Extreme Security Prison, somewhere along the Arctic Border of Siberia
A few months ago

Radost prison was widely considered to be the least joyful place on Earth, even more so than the infamous Nporpecc towns that had dotted the Siberian districts for over almost two decades. Abuse, mutilation and brutal deaths had merely been a near-certainty in those, not an absolute one, like in Radost.

Radost was, after all, not merely a prison, even if that was in its name. Yes, it was primarily one, and one meant for the worst of the worst. It was where the Red Council sent those captured metahumans whom they were unable to break and indoctrinate into their purpose, yet were too valuable (or too difficult) to simply execute.

That alone, however, was not the only reason it was so reviled a place, nor why it was more heavily defended than the seat of the American President himself. An entire army battalion was stationed here on permanent duty, at triple rationing both for the soldiers themselves and their families back home, to keep the men happy in spite of the horrible weather, the depressing, often horrifying duty and the constant danger of both prisoners breaking out and people from the outside trying to break in. The ground level of the prison was fully equipped to serve as a major military base.

The battalion was one of the best-equipped in all of the Sovjet Union, including the newest advances in military technology – even some precious gadgets, up to and including a half-strength company using power armour – and an entire company of metahumans. Rather than the proper command structure, there was an actual general in charge of the base, aided by two members of the Politbüro, allowing him to call in reinforcements as needed, without having need to explain himself before the fact, up to and including airstrikes and even, in the most extreme situations, a tactical nuclear strike.

There were, in fact, three nuclear warheads stored on site, spread throughout the underground complex beneath the military base, to act as a fail-safe in case of the outer defenses being defeated, or an irrecoverable uprising of the captives.

Radost had not always been so heavily defended; much of its security, including the option of said nuclear strike, had been added in during the late nineties, after a certain metahuman came to national attention. In fact, much of the paranoia surrounding the prison there was one particular person that they had feared would eventually try to break in, considering the bounty waiting inside.

Another reason was that it was also one of the biggest sites for human experimentation in the world, the men and women working in its laboratories having been charged by the Red Council to unravel the mysteries of metahumanity, so that it may be fully twisted to the council’s purpose. Though a truly daunting task, it was well-aided by their blanket permission to experiment upon the captives of Radost at will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these scientists were mostly in favour of triggering the fail-safe in case their victims ever broke out.

Even less surprising was the fact that General Vlasiy Lagounov, who’d been in charge of this god-forsaken place for the last five years, did not relish being the first of its wardens to fail so thoroughly that it would become necessary to do so. Putting aside the fact that it’d almost certainly ruin his career, which he’d planned out many years ago and which involved working his way up the command chain of the military until he could land a cushy job in the Ministry of Protection, he was also spectacularly unlikely to survive it, seeing how he was just a normal human – no nepravil’nyy narod was allowed to hold the rank of even the lowest of commissioned officers, much less a full general – so he’d always planned to defeat any assault upon Radost, in case it ever happened (it never had, before), by way of overwhelming force, superior tactics and the plain fact that no one who could bring as many metahumans to bear in a battle as he did could penetrate so deeply into SU space without causing all their espers to go crazy and see it coming a week away at the least.

Of course, there was the matter of said one threat that had originally caused the security arrangements to become so insanely enhanced…

“Ba-ba, babababaaa-ba, ba-ba-baba,” a sweet voice sang, barely audible through the heavily re-inforced tungsten doors.

That she was audible at all was already a reason to panic, and Vlasiy had to use all of his self-control not to start shaking all over, as he ordered his remaining men to draw up a defensive line.

Half an hour, he thought bitterly, disbelieving, as he watched his remaining men – three of the folk, thirty-three proper warriors and two of the researchers – draw up a line, taking cover behind hastily errected walls, formed out of the very tungsten that the entirety of the room was made of via one of the metahuman asset’s power.

They’d been forced to retreat into the deepest, darkest portion of Radost, which was named, appropriately enough, Koschei’s Chest. The entire section, an underground building as large as the Kreml, was made out of a single, solid piece of tungsten, shaped via powers, to hold Radost’s most dangerous prisoners. It hung, suspended by magnetic engines, in the centre of a vast underground cavern, the walls of the cave dotted with countless weapons that faced inwards, as well as one of the fail-safe’s nukes, dedicated solely to the task of, not destroying the chest, but collapsing the cavern on top of it, in the hopes of burying those held within. Currently, only two of the eight available cells were occupied, one holding an American prisoner of war, and the other…

Vlasiy shuddered, preferring not to think about the other one. He hoped that the rebels would at least show enough sense to not set that one free.

Just being there, in the hub room that lead to all of the cells, made him shudder, even though he tried his very best not to look towards the solid wall of heavy metal beyond which he was sealed away (there were no doors into the cells of the chest, one needed to have access to the right kind of superpowers to access them, if they could even disable all the defenses installed to prevent just that).

“Baaaaa-ba, baba-baa, ba, ba, baba, baaaaaa-ba…”

The singing – if it could be called that – became louder, coming closer, making the men shudder and raise their weapons – all of them, enhanced, weapons built by one of the three assets still with him, rifles with special ammunition, each shot capable of punching through a tank’s armor and out the other side, front to back. Weapons that, even with their near-limitless resources, they could only have a score of at hand at any time, due to the effort that their creator had to invest in maintaining them and producing the proper ammunition. The ones who didn’t have such weapons had lesser gadgets to use.

Fat load of good it did us so far, Vlasiy thought as he stood in the third row of tungsten cover, behind two rows of soldiers and assets, holding his own gun – made by one of the assets, as well, to his distaste – in one tightly clenched hand, while the other held a cylindrical object, a detonator to set off the fail-safe, which he’d already armed, as per regulation, when the attack on the base above had begun – though he kept its cap on for now, not that that would slow him down much, it could be flipped open with a twitch of his thumb to reach the button underneath. He was gripping it so tight his knuckles had turned white.

As there was nothing more he could do, for now, but wait and see what she would do next, he looked at his assets, feeling ill at ease – the rebellion was led by more of the wrong folk and only one of the three had been properly conditioned, the others being ostensibly loyal enough to the Union to be stationed even here.

The one who’d built his gun was a woman, a slight one, one of the Joyous Folk. Thin, with pale skin that rarely saw the sun and short, stringy blonde hair. She stood there in a simple smock that reached down to her shins, her feet bare underneath, stained with grease and who knew what else, as were her bare hands up to her elbows. Her only other item of clothing was a metallic collar around her thin neck. She held her head lowered, her brown eyes focused on a spot somewhere on the ground. Number two-four-four-nine, she’d broken under the strain of the conditioning and needed commands even for such basic actions as swallowing the food she’d just chewed, showing only the barest amount of initiative where the use of her power was concerned, building ever new weapons that were either used in Radost or shipped out to be used in other places. Of the three Folk, she was the only one he didn’t worry about. A single command of his was all it would take to make her choke herself to unconsciousness (he’d had her do it before, both to test her conditioning and to amuse himself), or pick up a gun and shoot herself in the head.

The other two were more problematic, being still in command of their own will, an absurdity, if a necessary one, as broken dolls made for horrible soldiers. Sergeant Petrov, a tall, broad-shouldered man with blonde hair and muddy blue eyes, wearing a proper uniform with a black armband bearing the crest of the wrong folk who served in the military, a simple red circle with a black hammer and sickle in it. He was the one who’d reshaped the walls and floor into cover, as well as reinforced the door keeping (hopefully) their adversary out by merging it and the wall and floor into one solid piece. Unfortunately, his power only had a rather short range and so he couldn’t act outside of this room any more than anyone else in here could.

Vlasiy always felt a measure of regret when thinking about Petrov (which wasn’t even the man’s real name), as the man would have made an amazing soldier, had he only not become one of the folk. Upstanding, steadfast, loyal, efficient. He didn’t just look like the model soldier, he acted it. Still, he was folk and so Vlasiy did not trust him, as regretful as he felt about it.

The other, Sergeant Utkin, was a study in contrasts with Petrov; short, hairy, slender, he barely filled out his uniform. His face had heavy jowls, a hooked nose and thin lips and his personality was as unpleasant to deal with as he was unpleasant to look at. But he was powerful, having the ability to repel any other folk’s power, potentially even reversing it back upon themselves. Such an ability should have made him a prime candidate for the Foremen, but he’d been deemed too unsightly and too unreliable in combat, being often too slow and too cowardly to serve well. Thus his posting in Radost, where all of the inmates had powers of their own, and where he could serve well. Frankly, he disgusted Vlasiy more than almost any other folk he’d ever met, but he couldn’t deny the man’s usefulness, especially now, in the wake of the enemy approaching.

His eyes moved on, over the rows of proper soldiers he had with him. They were good men, well-trained men, loyal men, loyal to him, to the army, to the Council.

“Baaaaaaaaa-ba, ba-ba, ba, ba… ba-ba, yaaaaaaa…”

There was almost no way it would be enough, not facing one of the worst internal enemies the Sovjet Union had ever had to deal with.

But he’d be damned if he was going to be the first warden of Radost to fail.

“General,” Petrov spoke up calmly, suddenly, turning to face Vlasiy. “With all due respect, perhaps we should entertain the-“

“Babababababa-baba yaaaaaaaa-gaaaaa!”

Vlasiy barely had time to cry out as something shot through the solid former door, ignoring the reinforced material and the further protections installed in order to discourage just that.

He saw something akin to a ghost, a vaguely humanoid outline, transparent, silvery-grey, rush forward, trailed by a stream of after-images, moving faster than he could even hope to raise his gun, running straight through the hailstorm of bullets, lasers and plasma that his men unleashed, through their cover, through his men.

Everyone it, she, passed through collapsed with a scream, only to scream more as they hit the ground. What Vlasiy could see of their bare skin was horribly disfigured by a network of grotesque swelling, an effect he recognised instantly – it was one of her known powers, taken from the Wraith of Screams, one of the cursed children of Orenburg, causing the nerves of any it passed through to grow massively, making the slightest stimulus a source of incredible pain.

The wraith finished its charge through the ranks of his men, coming to a halt inbetween him and his subordinate folk, growing more and more solid as its after-images caught up with it, until she stood there, looking at him with a demented grin.

She’s wearing clothes, was the first thought that came to mind. For twenty years now she’d been out there and never not once had she put on any clothes before, to his knowledge. He knew a lot of soldiers kept images of her, hidden, against orders, because of her beauty and how uncaring she’d been about being seen like that, and even Vlasiy had to admit, it wasn’t unwarranted, as distasteful as it was.

The young woman looking at him could have been at home in a propaganda video of the Ministry of Education, advertising the wonderful life and opportunities that awaited young men if they joined the army, or the agricultural corps, save for the fact that she had eyes as red as bloody rubies and the rest of her body was a purer shade of white than fresh snow, though even her Albinoism didn’t detract from her almost adorable facial features.

Her hair had been cut, compared to the images he knew from her file, though it was still tied in a braid, now reaching to her knees rather than being several times the length of her body. Her torso was covered, barely, by a slashed black t-shirt sporting the logo of some American music band, the straps and sides of her red bra showing through, stark against her skin. It stopped a few centimetre above her belly button, only to be followed, further below, by a multitude of skirts layered atop one another, all of varying lengths, with the shortest ones – starting at the length of a miniskirt – furthest outside and a long, ankle-length skirt as the base; most of the skirts were slashed similarly to her shirt, while others were basically just a miltitude of ribbons attached to a waistband. Her feet were still as bare as ever, though he thought he saw something metallic flash on her left ankle, before his eyes snapped up again, along with his pistol.

He knew it was most likely pointless, but he still pulled the trigger, firing a sphere of super-heated plasma straight through her head.

Her form shifted into a multitude of after-images, each leaning a different way, making her body as insubstantial as air, the shot passing through harmlessly. Behind her, a pillar of tungsten rose up, catching the blast before it could kill Two-four-four-nine.

She reformed, and opened her mouth. “If you mess with Baba Yaga, you’ve got to be gaaaaa-ga!”

Three more voices joined in on her that chant, causing him, and his men, to look at the sealed door as they actually managed to be heard over the screaming of his afflicted men; though considering how they’d been heard all throughout the entirety of Radost since the very start of the attack, that wasn’t surprising at all.

The whole door had melted away, gone without a trace, opening up the way to the metal walkway that lead to Koschei’s Chest.

Three young women, identical to the one standing next to him, stood at the entrance. The middle and left one were holding hands, while the right one had her wrists touching, fingers splayed forward and moving like a spider’s legs, apparently being the one coordinating a curtain of plate-sized octagonal force-fields that flew around in front of them, deflecting any shot his men sent their way. Perhaps due to a quirk of the power, or perhaps out of sheer arrogance, she actually went around blocking every single shot individually, rather than just create a single, solid curtain around them.

The middle woman – was she the real one? Or a decoy? Was there even a real one? – wagged a finger at him, grinning like a loon.

More men fell down screaming as the wraith passed through them, even as others went still, some passing out, some flat-out dying as either their brains, their hearts, or both, gave out due to the massive shock of such intense sensations.

“Utkin, what the hell are you doing!?” Viasiy shouted, turning around to look at the one asset he still had to throw against her – only to find him on the ground, unconscious and bleeding of a head wound. The ceiling above had extended into a dull spike, blood dripping from its rounded tip. “W-what the hell are you doing, Sergeant Petrov? Traitor!” he shouted at Petrov, who stood next to the their fallen trump card, one hand holding onto Two-four-four-nine’s hand, almost protectively.

What?

“I’m sorry, General,” the man spoke with a firm, calm voice. “But I’m hereby tending my resignation.” And he ripped his armband and hat off. “As is my comrade here.” He nodded towards Two-four-four-nine and used two fingers of the same hand that was holding onto his armband and hat to grab a hold of her collar, using his power to tear it off without harming her.

Vlasiy opened his mouth, red-faced, to shout the empty woman’s termination code, but Petrov was faster, flinging his left hand out at him, sending the armband, the hat and the collar flying.

The three objects melted as they flew, into a single, grey-black mass, and slapped onto his lower face, spreading out, wrapping around his head, thoroughly gagging his mouth and nearly doing the same to his nose.

He tried to raise his gun, to at least shoot and kill one of them, but only felt something close around it, locking it in place. Looking down, he saw a stalagmite of tungsten reach up, wrapping around his hand and gun. If he pulled the trigger, it’d just destroy his hand.

No, no, fuck no, not to a traitor! he thought furiously, hatred evident in his eyes as he glared at the Devil’s Bride and at the two traitors, using his thumb to flip the fail-safe’s switch open – but he never got to bring his thumb down on it, as another stalagmite rose up and encased it, securing the transmitter.

“Imbecile,” Petrov snarled. “I had several minutes’ worth of time to let my power seep into the entire room. And my name is not Petrov, that’s a slavename.”

The threat so neutralised, he turned aside to address his former adversary, only to give a start as he realised that the Devil’s Bride was standing right in front of him now, on her tip-toes, looking curiously at his face.

The tall folk gulped, taking a step back. “Ah… apologies,” he said, his eyes tracing the rest of the room. All of the soldiers were on the ground, either dead or passed out, except for those who’d been caught in their own deflected shots – those were definitely dead. “I would, ah, I mean, we,” he looked at the dead-eyed woman whose hand he still held. “We would like to, to join the revolutionary army, ma’am.”

“Not ma’am,” the Devil’s Bride said, tilting her head to the side as she made an annoyed clucking sound. Her voice had a very odd accent, musical, but definitely not Russian. Unlike any those in the room had ever heard before. “Baba Yaga. Name is, Baba Yaga.”

The man paled a bit more, sweat appearing on his brow, but he seemed to compose himself. “As you wish, B-baba Yaga.”

Her annoyed pout turned into a stark, white-toothed grin, her pale pink lips stretching wider than one would have expected, and she reached up, making the folk flinch back – but all she did was pat him on the head.

“You is good boy,” she spoke. “Baba Yaga like good boys. Tell name to Baba Yaga!”

Is she a simpleton?, Vlasiy thought, stunned. Was that it? Had the boogeywoman of the Sovjet Union been a mere simpleton the whole time?

“Pytor, ma- I mean, Baba Yaga. My name is Pytor,” the man replied.

“Good. People need name,” Baba Yaga said in a sing-song, putting emphasis on the word again. “What hers?” She pointed at Two-four-four-nine.

Pytor’s face changed to one of deep sadness. “I don’t know, m- Baba Yaga. They took her name, along with everything else. All she has is a number. Two-four-four-nine.” He spoke the numbers as if they were the worst of blasphemies, his face twisting in disgust.

Baba Yaga’s grin disappeared. “Is no good,” she said. “Is, no good. People need name.”

Suddenly, her form seemed to shudder, as if a pair of after-images were trying to lean out of her, briefly. Then they stepped out of her entirely, solidifying into two perfect copies of herself, both of them facing the way out. One jumped into the arms of the other, and they disappeared in a streak of neon light, racing towards the elevator shaft.

Baba Yaga leaned back on her heels, her toes rising off the cold metal ground, clasping her hands behind the small of her back as she looked alternatively at him and at the dead-eyed woman.

“You two, together?” she asked, grinning like a nosy teenage girl.

It was clear that Pytor had not expected that question, which likely explained his hesitation before he replied, “No, we’re not. I just, someone’s got to take care of her.”

The albino woman grinned, swaying back and forth on her heels, as if she had not a single care in the world. It was intensily unsettling.

Before Pytor could speak up again to ask what was going to happen, the streak of neon-lights returned, depositing both copies of the Baba Yaga, as well as a man in a heavy brown-red overcoat, a mining hat and with a multitude of shovels, picks and other earthworking equipment strapped ot his various belts and buckles, his broad, scarred, rather unattractive face looking a little green.

“Brother Kopatel!” Pytor exclaimed, recognising him easily from innumerable propaganda posters and news spots, as Baba Yaga reabsorbed all of her copies, leaving only the (ostensible) original, who immediately cuddled up to Kopatel, wrapping her arms around his left elbow to hug it tight to her chest as she looked up at him with an adoring expression.

Both Vlasiy and Pytor stared, unable to parse the sight as the man ignored having the most powerful woman in the entire Union hanging off his arm, focusing instead on the former sergeant in front of himself.

“You must be Pytor, correct?” the revolution’s unlikely-looking leader asked as the nausea faded from his broad face. “Baba Yaga tells me you want to join us, and  that you’re honest about it.”

Pytor blinked, briefly surprised, before he all but visibly berated himself for it. Of course there’d be something to tell whether he was telling the truth or not among the multitude of powers she’d gathered by that point.

Vlasiy, meanwhile, was quietly despairing, knowing that his fate was now completely in the hands of his enemies including, if he was truly cursed, those very prisoners he’d helped keep imprisoned so as to be experimented upon. Tears leaked from his eyes, even as he couldn’t help but notice how unlikely these two men made the situation seem – Pytor, the tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired and blue-eyed statue of a man, cowering, deferring to the short, stocky and at best plain if not ugly Kopatel. It would have been hilarious were it not something he’d have to witness like this.

“That, is correct, Br- Sir,” Pytor replied. “Me and, well, actually, I’m not at all sure what she wants, but, I’m sure she wouldn’t want to stay with the Union, if she was still able to choose.” He looked at the dead-eyed young woman.

***

Kopatel’s eyes softened as he looked at the broken young woman – a girl, really, young enough she could have been his daughter, perhaps even granddaughter. If she was a day over twenty, he’d be very surprised.

As usual when he met one of the so-called Joyous Folk – something which was happening more and more, now that he was actively fighting the Red Council – he felt both a crushing shame and a near mind-rending rage.

Shame, because he had, however unwittingly, been complicit in doing this to people. Rage against the men and women who’d abuse other humans so, who’d used the ideals that’d driven him and Ludmilla to perform such monstrous actions.

“Do you remember your name, young one?” he asked the girl, his rough voice as soft as he could make it, stepping closer.

It was a stupid question, a foolish one. Their name was one of the first things the Ministry of Harmony took from its victims, followed by their dignity, their memories, their will and, finally, their very mind. But maybe, somehow, he’d get lucky and this one would remember something. It had happened before, some folk were able to recover from anything the ministry could do to them, if slowly, incompletely. Usually this was dealt with regular re-conditioning, or outright execution, if they were judged not worth the trouble, but gadgeteers were always worth the trouble, in his experience.

The girl shook her head, never raising her gaze for even a moment, and his heart broke a little more.

She looks so worn out, he thought, as he reached up with a calloused hand, taking off the glove he wore on it to gently brush a few strands of thin, barely cared-for hair behind her ear. There were dark bags under her eyes, her cheeks were nearly corpse-like in paleness and her lips barely rated that description, having the same colour as the skin aroudn them. She hasn’t been treated kindly, even for one of the ‘Joyous Folk’.

“I try to take care of her, when I can,” Pytor said, looking away in shame. “But there’s only so much I’ve been able to do. If she’s not in her workshop, she’s usually…” He screwed his eyes shut. “Well, there’s… there’s not many women around this place, and it’s not like she could say no, even if she wanted to…”

“I understand,” Kopatel said, throwing a murderous glare at the entrapped general, who stared back in fear. “I’m glad at least one person was looking out for her.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, when he felt a tug on his arm.

He looked down at Milena who, for once, looked completely serious. “Give name,” she spoke softly, her accent so familiar by now it didn’t even strike him as odd anymore. “Give her name. Teacher and Baba Yaga can help, but she needs name.”

Kopatel noticed Pytor’s head turning, focusing on Baba Yaga when she spoke of helping her, looking as shocked as Kopatel would have, back when he first got to know the scary, strange young woman that currently clung to his arm, but he’d long since figured out that ‘the Devil’s Bride’ was far more complex a person than her reputation made her out to be.

“Perhaps it should be Pytor who gives her a name, he’s the one who’s been taking care of her so far, after all,” he replied gently.

“No. You give. You gave Baba Yaga, two of them! Give her, too! Give name!” she said, insistently, squeezing his arm much harder than her frame would suggest she could do. Not that that meant anything anymore, these days. “Teacher can teach and heal, Baba Yaga can protect, but you give name.” She looked at him, her red eyes reflecting the light in odd ways, almost like a cat’s. It was a hypnotic look, completely apart from her powers, even when she wasn’t so intent on something.

Of course, by this point, he had plenty of experience resisting her wiles and managing her moods. “Alright, I’ll name her,” he gave in, not that he really had any problem with it. Looking at Pytor, he got a nod, and so turned to the broken girl.

He looked her up and down, noting the stains of grease and other fluids on her arms, some on her bare feet – he frowned at that, that was just petty cruelty, not to give her shoes in a place like this – and in her hair, on her smock.

She kind of reminds me of Ludmilla, he thought, remembering the way his big sister used to look after a day of working on their father’s car, or the tractor. She’d always been handy with mechanical things – if he’d known then what he knew now, he’d have expected her to become a gadgeteer, not get the powers that’d made her the Sovjet Union’s beloved Red Star. Better that she didn’t, he thought, realising that she’d probably have been taken to the Ministry of Harmony, if she’d had such a power.

Like this one was, he continued to think, feeling the weight of it all on his shoulders, as so often lately. But at least I can still save you, little one. Or try to, at least, but Svetlana can probably help, and Milena will certainly try… though honestly, she might just as well make things worse… no, it can’t really get worse, can it? Another sigh. So much to consider, and he really had so much else to do besides, but he couldn’t just ignore this.

At least he knew what name to give to her. “I need some water,” he said, turning his head aside, only to see a sphere of water floating there, wobbling softly. Of course, she already has some, he thought as he scooped up a handful of water – it felt more like jelly, staying in his palm rather than flowing out – and stepped forward, his arm sliding out of Milena’s embrace.

“Ludmilla,” he said, just saying the name causing a pang in his heart – but he was used to that, anyway – and tilted his hand over her head, letting the water run over her hair and face, loosing its jelly-like consistency as it left his hand. “Your name shall be Ludmilla, from now on, until you find the one you had before, if you can, or choose another.” Finally, he dipped his fingers in the sphere of water, which had turned into scented oil, and drew a simple cross on her forehead with it, using his thumb. Far from sufficient, but he found that religion could be quite soothing, and the rites existed for good reasons, after all.

Briefly, the newly christened Ludmilla’s eyes flickered upwards, before she looked down at the ground again, showing no other reaction at all.

Still, it was some reaction. Kopatel smiled, nodding at Pytor. “We’ll take good care of her. We have some people, who do nothing but try to help those who fell victim to the Ministry of Harmony,” he told the taller man.

“Will I be able to visit?” Pytor asked, almost shyly. “I’ve, uh, grown rather fond of her, and I would like to make sure she’s, she’s doing well,” he tried to explain.

“Of course you will,” Kopatel said, almost feeling himself grin. “I’m sure it’ll help her, to have someone familiar, too.”

Then he sighed, and turned serious again. There were still so many things to take care of. “Baba Yaga,” he spoke. “Please take Ludmilla to Svetlana, explain the situation to her.”

Milena grinned, her teeth shiny, and gave him a playful salute, before she created two duplicates again – likely with the same two powers she’d used to bring him here. He winced, slightly, as they picked her up, one under each shoulder, and disappeared in a streak of neon light.

The original Milena of course remained there, and wrapped herself around his arm again, purring happily like the cat he sometimes thought she might have been before her awakening.

He turned to Pytor again. “Alright. Let’s get to business,” he began, wishing for a moment that Milena wasn’t clinging to him like that – he couldn’t clasp his hands behind his back like this, or cross them, and so that left his right arm with nothing to do, really. “This is the man formerly in charge of Radost?” He nodded towards the trapped general.

Pytor stepped up to stand next to him – making sure that Kopatel was inbetween him and Milena, he noticed – and looked at the trapped man with distaste. “Vlasiy Lagunov, yes. He’s been in charge for a few years now. Dunno how he got promoted – he’s not smart enough to be put on a front, but loyal enough to be trusted with this place,” he explained, making Vlasiy glare at him in anger.

“Sounds familiar,” Kopatel sighed. “The Ministry of Protection cares more for loyalty than actual skill, as usual.”

“Make things easier… for us, right?” Milena asked with a smile, looking up at him.

He looked back, smiling at her and giving her a pat on the head, causing her to beam like a little girl who’d just been given a new doll.

It was sad, and scary, how needy for affection she was… nevermind that she’d latched onto him for it.

Think about that later, old man, he thought to himself, focusing on the outraged-looking general again. “Is there any particular reason why he’s gagged and restrained like that?”

Pytor shrugged. “He has a gun in his right hand, and the detonator for the fail-safe in the other, so I restrained him from using them. And I gagged him so he wouldn’t be able to speak… Ludmilla’s kill phrase,” he explained coldly, never averting his glare from the general.

“Hm. No need to worry about the fail-safe, we disabled that before the attack even began,” Kopatel explained, savouring the shocked expression on the general’s face as he did so. “Ludmilla is out of his reach, now, and Baba Yaga could do over a hundred horrible things to him before he’d ever manage to pull the trigger, so he’s going to behave, right?” He added his glare to Pytor’s own.

The general began to sweat and went pale, his gaze flickering over to the albino girl on Kopatel’s arm, before he nodded frantically.

Pytor twitched his hand and his restraints literally melted away, merging with the floor below them, as the general fell on his ass.

“W-what are you, you going to, to do with me?” he asked, his voice trembling, looking up at the three folk in fear. Particularly at Milena, at that.

“I’m not going to feed you to Baba Yaga, if that’s what you fear,” Kopatel said with no sympathy or mercy. “She doesn’t eat people anymore.”

“Much. Baba Yaga doesn’t eat them much anymore,” she corrected him, wagging a slender finger at his face. “Baba Yaga still needs a little bit to get their powers… but this one doesn’t have powers, anyway, so Baba Yaga wouldn’t eat him anyways.” Before the general could relax, she turned to look at him, smiling a beatific smile. “Besides, Baba Yaga can do way worse than just eat someone.” The man went even more pale, and Kopatel was pretty sure he was just seconds away from wetting himself.

“That won’t be necessary, I think,” he told her, and the general. “I’m sure he’ll be cooperative, so we can just put him into prison – a real prison, not a torture house like this.”

Milena shrugged. “Ok. Now Baba Yaga wants to know!” she pointed at a nearby door. “Who there? He’s strong, strong power!”

It didn’t escape his notice that both the general and Pytor went a little pale when she pointed at said door, which told him all he needed to know. There was a reason this place was called Koschei’s Chest, after all.

“Koschei’s in there, isn’t he?” he asked, a sinking  feeling in his gut. Of course they didn’t kill him. Just said they did. Of bloody course.

Pytor nodded. “Yes, he is. The original inmate,” he spoke with a hushed voice. “The Endbringer himself.” He shuddered. “They tried to kill him, but never figured out how, so they put him in there.”

“Never did?” Kopatel looked at him, surprised. “Did anyone try nullifying his power, perhaps?”

“We’re not idiots,” Vlasiy threw in, suddenly, finding his voice again and even managing some indignation. “We have four joyous folk with power nullification in there, nearly half of all in the Union, hooked up to life support, using their power on him twenty-four-seven, but…” He fell silent again, losing his nerve as Milena focused on him.

Kopatel looked at Pytor to continue the general’s sentence, and he wasn’t disappointed.

“They can’t turn it off,” he explained, looking at the door. “Power nullification, it prevents him from using his power, but it can’t turn it off it seems. He might be powerless to harm anyone, or break out, but he’s as immortal as ever.” He frowned, looking disgusted and regretful at once. “I wish we could, we could get them out of there, they… they deserve better than spending their lifes in there watching over a monster, but if Koschei were to break out…”

Kopatel shook his head. “I know how you feel, Pytor, I feel the same way. But we really can’t risk him breaking out. That door will have to remain sealed, I’m afraid, and we’ll keep maintaining Koschei’s Chest, for this.”

Both the general, Pytor and even Kopatel himself relaxed a bit, after that declaration. He’d seen the carnage, after all, back then when Koschei had rampaged through the Union. Over three million people dead, most in horrible, painful ways, in less than a month. And it had only taken him so long to do because he’d lingered, played with his victims and the towns – later cities – he took, rather than immediately move on to the next one.

Since the Tyrant had died, until the Blazing Calamity appeared, no one had even gotten close to rival Koschei’s murderous reign of terror. It was a miracle really, that the Union had managed to keep his existence a secret from the world at large, or at least, a secret from the population at large. The Ministry of Discourse was efficient, if nothing else.

“Problem is easy!” Milena spoke up, interrupting his morbid thoughts. “Baba Yaga take his power, then kill him e-“

“NO!!!” all three men shouted in horror at the mere thought, making her give a shocked start.

Kopatel took a deep breath. Damn it, I can’t afford to lash out like that around her, he thought, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then he looked her again, noting how she was looking at him almost in fear.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, speaking gently as he reached out with his free hand to cup her cheek. “We absolutely can’t risk him breaking out, under any circumstances – or worse, if you ate even a piece of him, he might be able to hurt you, maybe even kill you. I won’t allow that.” There was also the unspoken truth that, as much as he’d found himself caring for her, he didn’t trust her yet to have such a vast power – and he may never do. Koschei’s power should never have existed to begin with.

She relaxed, smiling up at him, making him almost feel guilty for distrusting her so. “If you say so, Baba Yaga doesn’t mind.” She hugged his arm again, clinging tightly, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

He sighed, disaster averted, and turned towards Pytor again. “Who else is locked up in here?” he asked.

“Just one more,” Pytor said, pointing towards the door opposite of Koschei’s. “An American, that they caught back during the Afghanistan War. They tried to re-educate him, but it failed, and he kept breaking out again and again, killing the folk and army troops they sent after him, so they finally just gave up and locked him in there, since they still wanted to study him.”

“He  strong,” Milena supplied. “Strong power, very strong. Not as strong as Baba Yaga or Koschei, but strong. Stronger than both of you, and him,” she pointed at the unconscious folk lying tied up nearby, “all together.”

“I see. Sounds like it’s past time to release him,” Kopatel spoke firmly, even though he knew it might not be the smartest thing to do – if the man was even still sane, he may still lash out against them, once freed, and though he didn’t doubt that Milena would be able to defeat him, but she might not be able to protect them all. And even so, it’d be a rotten thing to release the man, only to have to kill him. “Baba Yaga, please stand ready to subdue do him – non-lethally  if need be.”

She nodded as she waved a hand, causing the solid piece of tungten that was the door to melt down into the ground, revealing… darkness beyond, as the stark white fluorescent lighting didn’t reach far into the room beyond, illuminating only a small half-circle at the front.

Milena’s grip on his arm tightened, hard. “Baba Yaga will get him out!” she half shouted, charging into the cell, startling him and the other two men.

Kopatel gulped – he couldn’t see what she had, but if it freaked her out, it had to be horrible – and followed her, with Pytor hot on his heels.

Light filled the cell, as they entered it, from a miniature sun that Milena created, floating up above.

He stopped, gasping at the sight of how they’d restrained the American folk.

He was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide, wearing only a ragged, torn pair of jeans. Beyond that, Kopatel couldn’t see much of him, because of all the stakes.

Huge stakes, each as thick as Milena’s forearm, a dozen of them, stabbing through his joints, his limbs, his chest and his stomach, transfixing him to the ground. Each extending up to the ceiling, fusing into it, and fused to the floor below him, the whole thing a part of the very cell. The stakes that ran through his limbs further split into forks just above where they pierced his flesh, so he wouldn’t be able to slide upwards and putting further weight onto him.

And yet, he was still alive, his power evident in its use, forming shadow patches of fur that covered him in places, mostly concentrated around the wounds the stakes had caused. For a moment, Kopatel thought that the man’s head was also covered by his power, until he realised that he had wildly grown hair and a matching full beard, both even darker than the fur his power created.

Milena stood in front of the grisly scene, looking down at her feet… where, Kopatel could see, there was a drain to which several groves led, draining the blood that kept flowing freely out of the man’s emaciated body.

He joined her, putting a hand on her shoulder, though he wasn’t sure whether it was for her sake, or his – he hadn’t ever seen someone be imprisoned like this.

“Why?” he asked, no one in particular.

“He broke out of almost a hundred different holding facilities,” Pytor replied, his voice hushed. “Kept breaking out other prisoners, too. This is the only way anyone could find to lock him up with, that didn’t require dedicated power nullifiers – and those are all in the other cell, keeping Koschei.”

Before Kopatel could reply, there was a strange, rough sound, making them all give a start. Looking around, he saw no source, until it sounded again – coming from the prisoner himself.

“Wa… ter…” he spoke, his voice rough and weak, speaking Russian without any accent Kopatel could make out.

He didn’t hesitate, circling the man and kneeling down next to his head, pulling his own water flask from his belt to gently, carefully, drip some of its contents into his mouth.

The man drank it up, slowly, with surprising restraint. “Thank… you,” he said, his voice stronger now. “Mind… helping me… out? Haven’t… had a chance… to stretch my legs… in years.” He grinned, dark purple eyes twinkling with humour.

Kopatel didn’t know how to respond to that, and instead focused on just one detail. “Years?”

“He’s been like this for four years now,” Pytor spoke, his own voice awed – and more than a little ashamed. “No one wanted to risk him breaking out, so they just… kept him here. Didn’t even try to study him, even though that was the whole reason he was locked up in here.”

“We have to get him out,” Kopatel said. “Now.” He glared at the general, making the man shrink back, even though it wasn’t even really his fault.

Pytor nodded. “We’ll need to support the ceiling somehow – it’s basically one thick slab, disconnected from the rest of the cell. If we break the stakes, it’ll drop down, impale him again or crush him. And us, with him.”

“That no problem,” Milena spoke coldly, as she spread her arms wide. Shafts of light, looking a lot like the force-fields she’d used to defend against assaults earlier, appeared out of nowhere, forming pillars that lead from floor to ceiling, humming with power.

Nodding to her, Kopatel stood up and drew his heaviest shovel, a rough, practical one, that could be a lethal weapon even without his power’s help. Pytor stepped closer as well, raising both hands, ready for chopping motions.

“You can’t do this!” Vlasiy threw in, his voice high-pitched. “He’s American, he’ll try to kill us as soon as he’s free to move!”

No one paid him any attention as Kopatel and Pytor went to work, chopping through the stakes that held the man transfixed to the ground. At first, there was a groaning sound from above, as the ceiling shifted slightly, but Milena’s force-field pillars proved capable of holding it up, and so they soon cut through the last stake.

With a pained groan, the prisoner shifted on the ground, relaxing almost imperceptibly, as the stakes began to slide out of his body, slowly, his power trying to eject them. Kopatel lent a hand, as did Pytor, pulling them out – which wouldn’t be a smart thing to do, normally, but the man was clearly hardier than any normal person, than most folk, even, and would likely not die to this, after all this time.

Once the last stake had been removed, the man gave a sigh, closing his eyes in relief. “Ahhhhh…” His wounds were healing, visibly, his power gathering around them more intensily now.

“Come, friend,” Kopatel said, grabbing one of the man’s arms and pulling it over his shoulder. “Let’s get you out of this hell-hole and up under the sky.”

“Sky,” the man whispered, groaning in pain but not putting up any resistance as Kopatel hauled him onto his feet. He was lighter than Milena. “Sky sounds good.” He leaned against Kopatel, his bushy hair scratching his cheek, but he didn’t mind, as he helped him walk out of his cell, both of them utterly ignoring the general.

Milena joined them, giving the prisoner odd looks, though she stayed quiet. Pytor followed behind, as more of Kopatel’s compatriots came in, men and women in military uniforms, most of them unpowered, but led by two winter soldiers.

He briefly gave them orders to sort out the corpses for burial, and take the captured folk up for questioning. He also told them to lock the general up, who didn’t put up any resistance – just watching with wide, unbelieving eyes, like he still couldn’t quite grasp what had happened.

You’ll get what’s coming to you, just like everyone else, Kopatel thought quietly, taking the elevator up this time – Milena was always eager to ferry him around at the speed of sound, but it didn’t do his stomach any good, nor did the prisoner seem to be in any state to take that kind of stress.

Their small group moved through Radost, ever upwards, and then through the military base above. Men and women, both folk and not, saluted them, but gave a wide berth, though whether that was out of respect for him, as their leader, or fear of Milena, he didn’t know – and frankly, he didn’t want to know the answer. Neither was something he’d be all too happy about.

The base itself was in rather bad shape – he and his troops had fought here, not Milena, who’d directly invaded Radost itself to prevent the use of the fail-safe, and that any harm be done to the prisoners.

It did not escape anyone’s notice that the Baba Yaga had had an easier time taking down Radost’s greater defenses than the entire rest of their force had had taking down just the military base – and even there, she’d helped indirectly, as most of the enemy folk had been in Radost itself, standing guard, rather than up above.

Kopatel put that thought aside as they reached the main exit of the base. Outside, the sun shone, a rare day without snow or clouds above even so far up North. There were others, prisoners, test subjects, who’d gathered there, looking up at the sun for the first time in years, in many cases. Men, women, old and young, even, to his disgust, some children, who were looking up at the sky as if seeing it for the first time.

He really, really, really hoped it wasn’t the first time, that they hadn’t been kept in there for so long as to not remember the sky, or worse, been born in that hellhole, but he knew those hopes to be in vain.

Still, he felt at least a little pride as he saw his people taking care of the prisoners, giving them clothes, food and comfort. The Frozen Family was ahead of everyone else there, in spite of their monstrous appearances, they were the most gentle, dedicated to helping the victims of the Union recover, especially the children. Even Matryoshka, whom had been called one of Russia’s worst serial killers, was there, handing food out to the children of Radost, along with blankets, being perfectly gentle. The fact that the clones she was using had been made out of a local soldier, well, Kopatel couldn’t even feel disgust over her power right now, not in this situation.

“Still as pretty… as ever,” the prisoner he’d been helping up whispered, drawing Kopatel’s attention back to him. He was looking up at the sky, his purple eyes brighter now, standing out starkly against his dark hair and beard, and the pale skin visible. Then he said something in English, too quickly for Kopatel to understand it.

“What’s your name, my friend?” he asked, feeling quite curious about this strange, hardy man, a man who still seemed sane after such monstrous treatment – nevermind his achievements.

The man opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, briefly averting his eyes. Kopatel started to worry that he might have been deprived of his name, in spite of his other resistance, but then he looked at him again.

“Kevin. Kevin Paterson,” he said, his voice low, but perfectly understandable.

“I’m Kopatel, in case you didn’t know,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”

The man chuckled dryly. “Home, yeah,” he said, turning his head away and looking into the distance. “Don’t have much of one… but I’d still like to go back to it.”

***

Soon enough, Radost had been emptied of both its staff and its victims – save for Koschei, of course – though people would remain, trying to sort out everything that had gone on, as well as to pack up the corpses. Not of the soldiers and scientists – those who’d been killed, rather than be taken prisoner – as those would simply be burned, but of those victims who’d already died, or else taken their own life as soon as they had the chance, rather than risk being captured again.

That last one, that haunted Kopatel more than almost anything else he’d seen there, apart from the children – at least Milena had harvested their powers from their corpses with minimal damage, was still harvesting, in fact, so they’d be able to help bring down those who consigned them to this fate.

Kevin had left, together with most of the others, and the surviving staff of the base and Radost was gone, as well. Kopatel stood at the entrance to what had once been the mess hall, in which they’d laid out the corpses of all the fallen folk, watching with heavy eyes as Milena went from corpse to corpse, taking their powers for herself while their bodies were still fresh enough for that to happen.

Pytor had joined him, at some point, along with several other members of his Novaya Armiya – Matryoshka from the Frozen Family, a woman whose body seemed to be made of ribbons of black and white, wrapped rightly around the body of an enemy, even now feeding on him; Sergeant Sergei of the Winter Soldiers in their troops’ customary outfit, a heavy white suit, so thick one couldn’t even tell she was a woman, her every feature hidden entirely (even now, she eyed Milena with both fear and annoyance, her whole group unable to completely bury their enmity for the young woman who’d defied them for so long) and Padeniye of the Overlords, a tall, slender man with bright pink hair, wearing a heavy winter jacket and tinted goggles, as well as broad, ever-present grin.

Together they watched as Milena went from body to body, using a thick syringe to draw blood, before wrapping her lips around it every time to drink. Every time she did so, she froze for a few moments, her eyes rolling up, eyelids fluttering as if in pleasure – though, she’d explained to Svetlana, and Svetlana to him, that pleasure was not what she felt at all – rather, every time she took in a new power, she briefly had to integrate it, which caused her all but lose all awareness of her surroundings as her brain locked up, then basically restarted, almost like a computer.

“I thought she had to eat folk to get their powers,” Pytor whispered, as if afraid of drawing her attention.

“We thought so, too,” Kopatel replied, not bothering to whisper. It wasn’t like Milena didn’t have over a dozen powers that enhanced her senses in some way, anyway. “Until it turned out that she only needs sufficient genetic material for her power to home in on the target. About a quarter of a litre of blood is sufficient for that, and the process isn’t even lethal, though, far from pleasant for the folk she uses it on.”

“I, I see,” Pytor spoke, looking pensively at Milena’s progress. “And she can take them from corpses, too. I never knew that.”

“They have to be relatively fresh, but yes, she can.” It’s monstrous, in some ways, but at least it means when we lose our people, their powers aren’t lost to the cause, he couldn’t help but think. The question of whether to allow Milena to take powers from fallen compatriots had kept him up for several nights, but in the end, there hadn’t really been a choice – the Union still had a vast advantage in terms of sheer numbers of powers, they needed every edge they could get, and all distrust towards Milena to the contrary, she’d more than kept her word of cooperation so far.

“Did she ever actually eat people?” Pytor asked, suddenly, drawing him back from his contemplation. “All the atrocities she is said to have committed, did they really happen? Or was that all just propaganda?”

Kopatel shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “I’m afraid it wasn’t, she really did use to eat people, and all the other things, she did most of those, as well,” he explained. “She didn’t know not to,” he felt the need to defend her, drawing a confused look from Pytor, while the others in their group stayed quiet, already aware of the story. “It turns out that, whatever happened during her awakening, it wiped out her mind. All her memories, her skills, gone – a newborn, really, in the body of a woman, with the power of a goddess. She just, she had nothing, but the instinct to gather powers, and so attacked any folk she found, mindlessly, for years. The fact that she kept being attacked by the Union’s troops…” Sergei flinched, growling quietly, “It only made things worse, as she responded in the same way. Wasn’t until she ate a power that allowed her to absorb skills from people, that she started to think again and… well, then she joined us and now she’s our big trump card.”

“Yeah, we’d have been toast if it wasn’t for our adorable little monster,” Padeniye spoke up, his voice mocking, yet oddly affectionate. “Turns out the Union even had plans in case the entire council was wiped out. If we hadn’t had Baba Yaga here, they’d have crushed us soon after we revealed ourselves.”

Kopatel nodded, not bothering to reprimand the villain for referring to her as a monster – in his case, it was a term of endearment, rather than an insult, and he was, in many ways, the one member of their group’s inner circle who was the most friendly with Milena, other than perhaps Matryoshka.

Pytor kept watching Milena, meanwhile, rubbing his chin in a contemplative manner. “You named her, right?” he asked. “I was wondering why she doesn’t go by Devil’s Bride anymore, but then again, I suppose she might never have known about that name in the first place?”

“Yeah, I figured, Baba Yaga was appropriate, considering how powerful she is,” he replied with a slight smile. “I also gave her a proper name – Milena – but she prefers to go by Baba Yaga.”

“She’s… not at all like what I expected,” Pytor admitted after a few moments.

Kopatel couldn’t help but snort. “You haven’t seen nothing yet.”

***

Saratov, a few hours before the Crocell Incident

Kopatel entered what had once been the Great Father Stalin Technical University of Saratov, now the unofficial headquarters of the Novaya Armiya, followed closely by Milena. The entrance hall, once a grand monument to Stalin, had largely been stripped bare, both to get rid of all the propaganda materials and for raw materials. People were hustling and bustling about, largely ignoring him and his companion, even when she sped up, rushing past him towards the stairs leading up, her bare feet slapping the cold, hard stone floor – getting her to wear anything at all had been one hell of a herculean task, as Svetlana would call it, but even her beloved teacher couldn’t get her to put on any shoes.

At least she wears underwear now, Kopatel thought, shuddering at the memory of the nude girl. There was no way he’d ever be comfortable remembering the state she’d been in when she’d first joined his cause, feral, barely human in many ways. She’d latched onto him, like a starving person latched onto someone with food, only what she’d wanted had been something much more simple, and so much rarer – affection. Understanding. Someone who’d treat her like a human being, even if she hadn’t know what that meant back then.

He followed her up the stairs, though at a more sedate pace, looking left and right. The University’s primary use was for taking care of former prisoners and victims of the Union’s love for ‘re-education’, especially those poor people who’d been turned into ‘Joyous Folk’.

Here, in this place, they did something which Kopatel could be unambigiously proud of, even if it was met with a lot of derision among his less scrupulous allies, who  thought it was foolish to divert so many resources to rehabilitating these people, rather than waiting until after the war was won – and it was a war that they were waging, even if, at first, they’d thought it would be over quickly – or worse yet, use them against the Union.

Fortunately, he hadn’t been alone in crushing any ideas about actually using the Joyous Folk’s brainwashing to their advantage, to make them fight for the revolution – the few people who’d advocated it had either quickly changed their opinion or else been demoted heavily, if not expelled outright.

Now, he walked these hallways, looking into rooms where people of all ages were being treated, with kindness and patience. The program they used to de-program them had been invented by Svetlana – another of many things they owed her a great deal for – and seemed to be working, even if it necessitated that she spend most of her time here, to adjust it to the individual needs of every new arrival, meaning she couldn’t travel with him to help take care of Milena.

Still, it was more than worth it, if only to see such sights as Ludmilla, sitting at a table and quietly tinkering with what would likely be a gun at some point, a soft smile on her lips, while Pytor leaned against the wall and watched her with unconcealed affection in his eyes. She was far from being whole, would likely never recover the person she’d been before… but thanks to their efforts, thanks to Svetlana’s brilliance and Pytor’s love and, in no small part, his own efforts, she’d at least be able to find some happiness.

Another reason why they had to win, no matter the cost, so as to safeguard these people. A thought that wasn’t just his own, as it had driven Pytor into near fanatical dedication to the cause, causing him to rise in the ranks until he was now, effectively, Kopatel’s right-hand man.

How fast everything moves, Kopatel thought, moving on to catch up to Milena, who was entering the door at the very end of the hallway. Sometimes, I feel like I should be too old to keep up.

“Teacher!” he heard Milena’s shout from inside, followed by a grunt and a laugh. When he entered, he saw Milena hanging onto the woman who’d been working inside, apparently doing some paperwork.

In many ways, recruiting Svetlana Mikhailov – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she’d recruited herself for their cause – had saved the revolution. The slender, attractive woman in her late thirties, with the long brown hair in a severe knot and the slim glasses on her small nose was a genius, plain and simple. She was the one who’d helped Milena make the step from a feral almost-monster to the bright, if still volatile, young woman she was now. She’d devised the means by which they helped victims of the Union’s many re-education methods to break free and recover from their brainwashing, and she’d also been responsible for actually forcing him and the other members of the inner circle to actually sit down and write out a charter for their group. Such a simple idea, and yet they’d never even considered how much it’d help to have a clear idea of what they actually intended to do, and how to do it, it’d helped keep the group together even after the Union turned out to not be nearly as broken as they’d thought it was.

Being a folk herself, if not a particularly powerful one – her power merely allowed her to harden her own body, becoming nearly invulnerable, without the super-strength that often came along with such powers – she’d had no problem working with all of them on various tasks, though she focused primarily on keeping the revolution sane and civilised.

Her biggest project, though, beyond all of that, beyond even her work rehabilitating the Joyous Folk, was Milena. She’d taken the child-like woman under her wing, teaching her everything from proper speech (still a work in progress) to not horribly murdering anyone who annoyed her even slightly (also a work in progress).

Milena had taken to her almost as much as she had to Kopatel himself, making Svetlana one of maybe three people in the world who could manage her at all.

There’d been some voices of concern, at letting a woman who’d come out of nowhere have so much influence over their most powerful asset, but they’d been dissuaded both by the fact that they needed someone who could handle Milena, even an unknown like Svetlana, and the woman’s own skill at persuasion.

“Good afternoon, Pavel,” she greeted him with a smile, even as she affectionately rubbed Milena’s head. “I trust that your mission was successful?”

“Very much so, Svetlana,” he replied in the familiar term, at her request. “We’ve secured Volgograd, thanks to, in large part, the efforts of your student.” He nodded towards Milena, who was literally hanging off of Svetlana’s arms, held up only by their mutual grip on each other.

“Which student? I have many of them?” she asked mischievously.

“Your favourite!” Milena exclaimed, grinning.

“And who’d that be?” Svetlana pressed on, looking down at the girl with a soft smile.

“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!” Milena continued, pouting up at her now.

Svetlana responded by letting go of her, dropping her on the ground. “Are you now? If so, then surely you can tell me all what the binomial theorem is about, right?”

“Bah, numbers! Baba Yaga doesn’t like numbers!” the albino girl replied, looking up indignantly from her position on her knees, in front of the older woman (though they weren’t that far apart in terms of age, if one only went by biological age). “Doesn’t need them! Baba Yaga has powers for that, anyway!”

Svetlana’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Am I to understand, then, that you haven’t rehearsed your formulas?”

Milena blushed, looking away as she mumbled a confirmation.

Her teacher sighed, throwing him an annoyed look that made him cringe – technically, he’d kind of promised to make sure Milena would do her homework, while they were busy, but it’d had fallen by the wayside in all the fighting that went on. She didn’t comment further on that, though, instead walking to one of the heavily ladden bookshelves that filled her office and pulled one particular book out, laying it down onto a circular table near her desk.

“Sit,” she ordered Milena in a firm voice, pointing at a chair in front of the book.

Milena puffed her cheeks up in indignation, but obeyed, getting up and sitting down on the chair, the silver chain she’d wrapped around her left ankle – a present from Kopatel – flashing in the light, while a collection of small bells she’d attached to it – each taken from a different shop, and one even looted from an enemy’s corpse – jingled softly.

“Now read that and memorise all the formulas,” Svetlana told the girl, giving her a pen and some graph paper. “Write them down here.”

“No! Baba Yaga doesn’t need them!” the girl replied, glaring at her teacher, her red eyes flashing with anger.

Svetlana didn’t even flinch, looking back calmly, her expression hewn out of ice. “Yes, you do. And yes, you will.”

Milena kept glaring.

“Study. Now.”

The student went to work, grumbling under her breath.

How in God’s name does she keep doing that? Kopatel asked himself. He’d suspected some form of mind control, at first, but even if that kind of power would work on Milena – it didn’t, she had too many powers to counter it with – no one had detected anything like that, not even the Winter Soldier’s power analysts. I wish I could be half as commanding. It’d certainly help leading this madhouse.

“Well, Pavel, how are you doing?” she asked him, smiling again as she stepped away from the quietly working Milena, her long brown skirt swaying with every step. “You look a little tired and… hungry.” Her eyes narrowed, instantly making him feel like he was in trouble with his mother. “When’s the last time you ate?”

He gulped. How did she manage to make him feel like a schoolboy, every damn time? “Uh, I had a, I mean, yesterday…” He didn’t even try to lie, it never worked.

“I thought so. Sit down then, I’ll get you some food,” she stated simply, walking towards the door.

“That’s really not necessary, I’m used to going without food for a while,” he raised his arms, trying to get out of it. “Besides, I still need to talk to the Overlords and organise the garrison we’ll install in Volgograd, and-“

She pointed at a chair at the table that Milena was working at. “Sit.”

He sat.

She left, then soon came back with a plate full of steaming hot potatoes, a little meat and way too many vegetables, putting it down in front of him along with some cutlery.

“Eat.”

He ate.

“You really have to take better care of yourself, Pavel,” she lectured him as she watched over his meal, and Milena’s lesson, waging a slender finger at him. “You’re too important to risk your health, for any reason, especially one as silly as this, understood?”

He just nodded, quietly, so she wouldn’t also lecture him about talking with his mouth full. That had been too embarrassing the last time it happened, he’d rather not repeat that. Ever.

Milena snorted in amusement.

***

Someone shook Kopatel awake, roughly.

Blinking, he sat up, reaching for the one-handed shovel he kept on his nightstand, but stopped when he recognised Pytor.

“Wake up, Kopatel!” the man urged him. “We need your help.”

“Wh-what’s going on?” he asked, both worried and annoyed. He’d just laid down to rest, after Svetlana had forced him to eat a proper meal. Just a nap, and – he looked at his clock – it had only gone on for a few hours, anyway.

“One of the girls we brought back from Volgograd, she’s freaking out in a bad way,” Pytor replied, referring to the group of girls they’d liberated from the harem of Volgograd’s mayor – a disgusting man, who’d abused his power to take in any girl that caught his fancy, among many other horrible things – and brought here to give them some psychological treatment. “I was hoping you might be able to talk her down, she’s upsetting the others, as well, badly.”

He got up, quickly, looking around for his clothes – he was down to his underwear at the moment. Finding them discarded on the ground, he began to dress in his full uniform – it was important to keep up the image, he couldn’t just show up in mundane clothes. “What about Svetlana? She’s way better at this than me.”

“She left,” Pytor replied. “Got a phone call and said she had something private to take care of.”

Kopatel grunted as he pulled on his heavy boots. That was another thing about Svetlana, something even he couldn’t ignore lightly. She’d often disappear, sometimes after getting a mysterious phone call, sometimes out of nowhere, and come back whenever, never telling anyone where she’d gone or what she’d done – and sometimes, she’d go missing for days, even a week, one time. It didn’t help make the more distrustful parts of the Novaya Armiya like her any more, though he was willing to overlook it, seeing how much she’d helped them and continued to.

“I’ll see what I can do. Where’s Milena?” He put on his jacket, and started strapping on all his various earthworking tools, through which he usually channelled his power.

“The last time I saw her, she was at the playground building a sand castle,” Pytor told him calmly. “I don’t know whether she’s still there.”

“Alright, let’s go see what can be done about this.”

They left the bedroom, Pytor first, guiding him down several flights of stairs until they got to the ground level. Kopatel could hear the commotion already, hysterical screams, sobs and hushed whispering.

A small mob of people, both patients and therapists, as well as some guards, had gathered around the entrance to the former mess hall. Kopatel ignored them, forcing his way through.

Inside, people had mostly formed a large half-circle around a young woman who was crouched with her back to the wall, holding a large kitchen knife as she looked around, staring at everyone with wild, blood-shot eyes. She was a pretty thing, and young, barely an adult, with curly blonde hair and a heart-shaped face that was twisted by fear and despair. She was holding another girl, younger by at least half a decade, but with similar enough features that they had to be sisters, or otherwise very closely related, with one arm around her neck, holding the knife to her throat with the other. The younger girl was just crying, and not struggling at all as she stared down at the large knife.

Several other women and girls, near her age and of similar beauty, were huddled up nearby, some hugging each other, some standing apart, screaming, sobbing or just softly crying.

“Back! Back, please!” the young woman with the knife shouted, swinging it left and right, as if trying to point it at everyone at once. “Y-y-you mustn’t stop me!” she begged them, her voice high and shrill.

“What’s going on here?” Kopatel asked one of the soldiers who stood closest to the woman.

The young man looked at him, looking upset. “I, I don’t know, Sir. She just, she started freaking out, threatening to kill her own sister! I have, I have no idea what’s going on!”

Kopatel nodded, patting the man on the shoulder. “Alright, I’ll take over from here,” he said, moving past the young soldier and into the half-circle.

“Stay back!” the woman screamed at him, tightening her grip on her sister. “Don’t come closer!”

“Shsh,” he hushed her, raising his hands as he stopped approaching. “I’m not going to do anything to you, I promise,” he spoke in as soothing a voice as he could. “My name is Kopatel. What’s yours, young lady?”

She stared back at him, her lip quivering. “M-motya. My name is Motya,” she said. “Y-you’re not, not going to stop me, either. No one is. I have to do this!” she cried, pushing the knife closer to her sister’s throat, making the younger girl flinch in fear.

“Why do you have to kill her?” he asked, softly, slowly sitting down to seem less threatening, though he also palmed a tiny shovel, really just the blade of one, ready to use his power at the earliest opportunity.

“B-because it’s the only way to save her! I’ve got to, it’s the only way to make sure he won’t take her again!” she shouted, sobbing.

“You mean, the man who took you two? And them?” He nodded towards the sobbing young women – all of them near Motya’s age, though none nearly as young as her little sister.

She nodded, shuddering. “He’s still alive. He escaped your people, and he’ll come for us. I can’t, can’t let him get her again, I have to, to protect her!”

His eyes moved from her to the younger girl, growing heavy with sadness and no small amount of anger. She was a gorgeous girl, even prettier than her older sister, and there was a fiery look in her green eyes, in spite of her fearful expression.

“We’ll keep you safe,” he said, not sure what else to do. This wasn’t something he was really any good at. “I promise, we’ll keep you all safe, so you don’t, you absolutely don’t need to do this, do you understand me?”

She shook her head, gasping for air. “I, I have to make sure! I can’t protect her any other way, I have to, I have to do it!”

“Why not?” a new voice asked, from just behind Kopatel, nearly making him jump up in surprise. “Why not protect, with other way?”

The source of the voice moved up next to Kopatel – Milena, on all fours, her long braid dragging over the ground as she looked at the sisters, wearing one of her favourite outfits – her customary collection of slashed skirts and a belly-free shirt, this one white with three back circles evoking the outline of a mouse’s cartoonish head on her chest.

“I, I can’t!” the young woman wailed. “He’s so strong… and they have so many of the folk… I’m powerless, I was powerless before and he’ll just, just take us all again! But not her! Even if I have to kill her myself!”

Kopatel frowned, not sure how to respond to that – though he probably didn’t need to. Milena had more than enough powers that’d allow her to disarm the woman, without risking any harm to either of the poor women. Provided she actually wanted to save the younger girl, that is.

“Then you must be stronger,” Milena said simply, without any hint of gentleness in her voice, crawling forward. “Be stronger and protect, like Baba Yaga.”

“I’m not, nothing like you,” the woman replied, her eyes transfixed by Milena’s gaze. “I’m weak, I’m not even folk, certainly not, not as strong as, as you.” Her grip on the knife tightened, holding it so hard her knuckles turned white.

“Not as strong as Baba Yaga,” Milena said, stopping to pick up a chipped mug from the floor, shaking it out without averting her eyes from Motya’s own. “Don’t need to be as strong as Baba Yaga, only need to be strong, and protect!” She moved closer by a few steps, holding the mug in one hand.

“H-how?” Motya asked, trembling from head to toe, her eyes filled with fear as the infamous folk moved closer to her.

“Baba Yaga will make you strong,” she replied, putting the mug down between them.

Then she used the nails of her left hand to slive her right forearm open, making several people cry out and Kopatel jump to his feet, as her blood spurted into the mug for a moment, before the wound closed, drawing in the blood around it, but leaving what she’d put into the mug – aimed expertly, not a drop wasted.

Everyone stared in confusion as she gestured towards the side, without looking, and a bottle of water flew over into her waiting hand, with which she filled the mug, mixing it into her own blood.

The resulting fluid was glowing ever so softly, in the same colour as her eyes.

She pushed the mug, causing it to slide over to Motya, until it stopped right by her side, within easy reach.

“Drink,” Milena commanded the older-looking woman. “Do as Baba Yaga tells you to. Drink.”

The knife fell from Motya’s trembling hand, clattering onto her sister’s lap, as her hand went for the mug, as if against her will, picking up the mug.

“Motya, don’t!” her sister shouted, even as she scrambled away from her, but it was too late – she lifted the mug to her lips and drank the watered-down, glowing blood, with eveyone in the hall staring, fascinated by the whole scene.

She put it all down in one go and, as the last drop slid past her lips, her hand went slack, letting go of the mug to have it tumble down onto the hard-wood floor, shattering completely – but no one heard it, as Motya bent over screaming, screaming so loudly it actually hurt Kopatel’s ears, making him take a step back.

Milena remained in place, unperturbed as she watched the girl bend over so far her forehead pressed onto the wooden floor, hugging her own stomach as she screamed in pain.

Kopatel thought he saw her shudder, then, just a bit – though he could only see her from behind, so he wasn’t quite sure; shudder much like how she did when she took a new power, as if in pleasure.

Motya screamed again, and then her clothes  turned green, and solid, and then erupted into jagged growths of crystal, spearing outward in every direction, into the ground, the ceiling, through the wall behind her, towards the rapidly retreating crowd, towards her own sister, thrusting at Milena as well, though they were repelled by an invisible force-field around her.

Kopatel thrust his shovel into the ground, channeling his power into it through it, and raised a half-circular wall between her and himself, and the crowd, and her sister, encircling her and Milena.

It almost wasn’t enough, as shards of green crystal punched through the rock, concrete and earth he’d drawn up from below, but fortunately, they didn’t extend much further than a metre or so past his wall, failing to cause harm to anyone.

That, that’s Vismut’s power! he thought, shocked, remembering the powerful former Foreman, a comrade of his when he’d still fought for the Union, but had died… died to Milena, when she’d still been the Devil’s Bride…

When the crystals failed to continue to grow, he lowered the wall again, to see what was going on. It crumbled apart, as the sound of breaking crystals filled the otherwise completely silent mess hall, the jagged growths of crystal falling apart into thousands of tiny shards, leaving behind the utterly destroyed wall and floor around Motya, stripped bare of the material she’d inadvertantly converted into those crystals.

The young woman was on all fours, staring down at her hands, naked as the day she was born, while Milena was facing her, in a similar position, on all fours atop the only patch of ground within the circle which hadn’t been transmuted into crystal.

She grinned as she watched Motya raise her hands from the ground, leaving behind crystalline handprints. More crystals were growing out of the earth, where her legs were touching it, slowly spreading over her body. Her face was stunned, utterly stunned.

“Now you strong,” the Baba Yaga said with no small amount of smugness. “Now you protect properly, like Baba Yaga said.”

She looked over her shoulder at Kopatel, grinning proudly at him.

All he felt was a cold chill run down his spine, a single thought dominating his thoughts.

By God, how many wars am I going to have to fight, to keep her safe from the world?

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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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B011.15 Monkey Family

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I bolted off at my top speed, leaving everyone else behind. For once, the monkey was being cooperative, and fully so, pouring on the speed; one step carried me across the old sewage plant, to a tunnel that led towards Old Downtown. Another step and I crashed through a wall at the end of the tunnel without slowing down by a noticeable amount.

When I made my fourth step, sounds vanished as I shattered through the sound barrier.

I hadn’t reached speeds like these with such ease since I’d fought my demented half-sister during the war; even before that, I’d only managed them less than a dozen times, tops. I was soaring, I was roaring as a primal joy filled me, howling right along with the monkey as our thoughts lined up and we tapped reserves of power I’d forgotten I’d had.

We broke through more walls than I could be bothered to count, all but disintegrated a rusty old school bus when we went through it, gave a rather diverse-looking gang gathered around a portable television a nasty case of burst eardrums (and a shattered television); I focused ahead, I sped up and we. Went. On.

I felt the monkey’s skin attach directly to mine, mingling, melding, the separation vanishing for the first time in nearly two decades; my senses were escalating even faster than my speed did, the world around me slowing to an almost still image I was soaring through, every step taking me several hundred feet ahead. I could see every speck of dust in the air, I could feel the ground crack and liquefy with every step I took, I could feel the air slam into me over and over and over, trying to skin me alive, to shatter my bones, yet unable to do more than stir my fur and draw my lips back further widen the manic grin I felt stretch across my face, two rows of teeth revealed in all their sharp deadliness. I felt more than fast, more than powerful. This, this was what my power, what I was made for, just utter abandon and speed; In that moment, I felt more than human, more than metahuman – I felt like a god, utterly free and untouchable!

This, I could do forever. But alas, the downside of being as fast as me was that, even with my rapidly accelerated perception, the journey was not all that long. Eight steps, in total, until I burst through a wall thicker than many a skyscraper – or perhaps it hadn’t been a wall at all, it might just have been undeveloped earth and rock between the last tunnel I’d been in (less than a tenth of a step long) and the water distribution centre.

I don’t know what the Ascendant and his people had expected to see coming, if they’d expected anything at all, but I was entirely sure they hadn’t expected a furry blue monkey to burst through the wall and scream bloody murder.

To be perfectly honest, I liked what I saw. There were thirty-three people in the room (super-fast perception plus infravision equals lots of battlefield awareness) and all but three had an abnormally high body temperature, practically glowing to my vision.

Two of the three people without the spiking body temperature were in the back of the installation, out of sight of my normal vision – even their heat signatures were hard to pick out through all the intervening material.

The third person was much colder than a person should be, and a look through normal sight revealed a literally white-skinned woman with blue lips, wearing winter clothing; she was standing atop a railway that overlooked several water-purifying tanks, the metal around her iced over; looked like a pretty classic ice cowl, really.

The thirty burning people – all of them also enlarged to ridiculous degrees – were spread all around the place. Those I could see looked like the thugs I’d seen in Chayot’s memory, wearing dark clothing and masks – only the Ascendant must’ve shot them up with something, because they’d all grown to over ten feet of height, ripping through most of their clothing – the only things that still fit them were their masks, which still sat on their now ridiculously small heads, in between shoulders that big enough for someone like Volca or Tamara to fit into without trouble.

I could have – and probably should have stopped, looked around and made a plan on how to proceed, but I hadn’t reached this kind of level in a long time, and if I was honest with myself, I just wanted to cut loose.

Never mind that I was still angry as all hell and wanted to take vengeance on these people. I hadn’t forgotten the burning rage that had driven me earlier, and now was my chance to teach these clowns that you don’t mess with my family.

All these thoughts and observations went through my head in the time between bursting through the wall and landing on the ground, almost exactly beneath the cold woman.

And then it was monkey fun time.

***

My first move was as simple as it proved to be effective – I kicked off the ground, going straight up towards the cold woman. I didn’t know how exactly her power worked, but given the choice between taking out two of thirty juiced up normies (there were two that I could hit at once, just a few feet ahead of me) and one unknown metahuman… Well, I picked the popsicle.

I’d slowed down a lot, and no longer moved at super-sonic speeds; thus I could hear her try to shout something – or perhaps scream in horror – before I hit the railway from below. I reached out with my hands, grabbing the metal and tearing it in half right beneath her feet. Then I used both my momentum and my hands on the two halves of the railway to soar higher, tackling her.

Bones broke audibly, specifically those of her legs and she got all of a second of screaming in before my tail whipped up and wrapped around her throat, cutting it off. What most people don’t realise is that, if you do it right, choking someone out is a matter of a few seconds, tops.

I landed on the left side of the railway, letting her dangle off my tail, legs shattered, until she passed out – in plain sight of the mooks.

They didn’t take it well, at all. No less than eight of them leaped at me from below, but I’d been counting on that. I tossed the woman aside, to the far end of the railway, and went to work.

Reaching around me with both arms, one leg and my tail, I ripped huge chunks of the railway off and threw them at the four closest mooks. Before the projectiles were even halfway to their targets, I leapt off the railway, over the vats. I’d seen three enemies close together, and I flew straight at them. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could see their eyes through their masks – they widened in surprise at my high-velocity assault on them before they’d even gotten close.

Tough luck. You shouldn’t have taken this job, I thought as I gut-kicked the one in the middle with both feet. As he folded over, the air knocked out of him, the other two tried to grab me as they flew past – but I was faster; I grabbed each of them by their normal-sized heads, wrapping my hands around them, and pulled them down after me.

The one I’d kicked hit the ground with an impact that created an actual crater around him. Coming to a dead stop, I swung the other two head-first into the ground to his left and right.

All three went limp, but I didn’t waste any time – before their bodies had even fully touched the ground, I’d already kicked off towards five charging brutes.

I slammed into their leader just as the chunks of rock and concrete from the hole I’d blown coming in hit the ground and I did not rip off his head, as quick a solution as that might’ve been.

I did, however, see my father come through a wall (without blowing it up. Negative points for the weak entrance) dragging Warren, Malphas and Volca through (he was stretching his role there, I was sure; still, such an ability could easily be explained as a capability kept secret for emergencies, so…) and I decided to let them in on the fun, so I slammed my forehead into the centre of the guy’s face, grabbed the mooks to his left and right and threw them right at the group.

Then I went to town on the two still standing and trying to tackle me.

Tackle me.

The result was as hilariously one-sided as one could expect.

I don’t think that I broke their spines, but at the very least, they’d be in a lot of pain, for a long time, unless whatever they’d taken came with a lot of regeneration.

Warren, Malphas and Volca were getting ready to intercept the two I’d thrown at them and my father was running towards one of the metal vats. Seven enemies were down, two more about to get the shit kicked out of them. Leaving twenty-four targets.

I shouldn’t give the Ascendant too much time to do whatever it is that he’s doing, I reminded myself between seconds.

Twenty-two thugs left. They were gathering in one spot and seemed to be hefting weapons – I had to move fast.

Fortunately, moving fast is part of my power description.

There were twelve huge vats for water purification before it was fed into the city’s pipes. They were organised in four rows of three vats each, with the control room and the central access pipe on one side of the huge installation and my entry point pretty much on the opposite side. I was right in the middle of the vats, and the thugs were gathering behind the next row.

I don’t have much time – but I only need to scatter them, I realised and ran towards the gap between two vats. The sound of the rocks I’d blown into the facility impacting the floor reached me just as I reached twenty of the remaining thugs, who were busy picking up what seemed to be heavily customised rocket launchers.

Those were most likely no threat to me, or to Dad, but they could very well kill any of the others. Not that I would’ve let them pull off whatever they were aiming for anyway.

The juiced-up thugs didn’t even know I was there until I slammed into their midst at two hundred miles an hour, clotheslining no less than five of them as an opening move, two on the left and three on the right; I’d always rather enjoyed mixing wrestling moves into my fighting style – they were surprisingly effective and watching professional wrestling matches on television used to be something me and dad used to bond over, before things went bad.

The five unlucky assholes I hit first were down and out instantly, save for the third one on my right side (I hadn’t managed a full hit), and now I was in the middle of the group, which meant they’d have to be utterly insane to use their weapons on me.

Fortunately for everyone involved, these weren’t the kind of weapons you just had to aim and pull the trigger to use – never mind that they were still in the process of assembling half of the human-sized things, anyway. Unfortunately for them, I was also too fast to give them the chance to put up an effective defence, anyway.

I roared at the top of my lungs, not long but short, explosively – I’d shattered glass and burst eardrums with my roar before – to stun them, and then I went apeshit on them (heh).

My fists flew, breaking bones left and right – though I limited myself to striking at extremities, to reduce the chance of lethal blows; Hennessy’s and Camille’s request sat oddly with me, as did Journeyman’s words. I’d never really lost sleep over killing. Not during my stint as a villain, certainly not during the war, nor during the years after. But now…

I’d been told, from two sources that had a great deal of weight with me, that I shouldn’t kill. Journeyman, who’d so often given me good advice (and was the closest thing to a true friend I’d ever had, aside from Warren), and my own daughter and her girlfriend. I wondered whether Journeyman had known that they’d ask me that… no, stupid question; of course he’d known. There was no way this was a coincidence, not when he was involved.

But why had he preempted the girls’ request? Because, now that I thought about it, it had been more than just a plea to spare the Ascendant. They’d pretty much told me that they didn’t want me to kill, period. Not just in this one case.

Because, one way or another, it’d be on them for not stopping me. At least, in their heads, it would be, as unreasonable as that was.

And I couldn’t do that to them, not to Hennessy and, yes, not to Camille, either. She might have rubbed me the wrong way, but she was good to Hennessy, and that was more than I could say about myself.

All I could do, in the end, was to sigh. Which brought me back to the here and now – among the broken – but still alive – bodies of twenty enhanced thugs. Two of them hadn’t even hit the ground yet, still falling down in slow motion as I refocused on the present.

Two thugs left. As well as the Ascendant and whoever the other one with him is. I looked around, with both my normal and infravision, only to find that my team had taken care of the rest. Malphas, Volca and Warren had downed the two whom I’d thrown at them, my father had taken out (non-lethally, which was pretty surprising to me) the other two and was waiting near the place where the last two active heat signatures were.

No time to waste. I went and joined my father, after telling Warren to stand watch with the others.

I didn’t want them involved in the finale. However it turned out, they’d sleep better if they remained ignorant.

***

We didn’t bother with big entrances, not at this point. Father and I just walked, without a word, down a short hallway made of concrete and lined, left and right, in pipes of various sizes and colours. It ended in a reinforced steel door with the words ‘Central Pipe Access’ written on it.

Father and I raised a foot each and kicked the door out of its frame, sending it flying across the room beyond.

There was a yelp, and the sound of a gun being drawn and cocked.

Father let me take the lead, and I simply walked in in full monkey form, stooped over to fit through the door, with my hands entwined behind my back.

Within, I found two men standing over a contraption they were about to lower into a hatch in a big red pipe. The machine looked like some kind of tubular nightmare made of brass, gold and plastic, and did not inspire confidence at all. Of the two men, one was reasonably tall, thin, and wearing a pure white priest’s robe, with a mask depicting an angelic face; the other one looked like the thugs outside, only he was still normal-sized and fully clothed; he was holding a pretty heavy-looking handgun and put five bullets into my chest, and three more into my head, before I’d even fully entered.

I barely felt them, but still. I had to set the tone of this meeting, not them. To that end, I took a single step towards them, ignoring the burning desire for bloody murder at the sight of the Ascendant, and backhanded the last of his thugs, throwing him across the room. The man slammed into the wall and slid down with a sigh, the breath knocked out of him. Father walked over there to stand watch over him, while I approached the other one.

“The Ascendant, I presume?” I asked, without bothering to mask the pure hatred I felt for the man, the desire to kill him; nor did I hold back the monkey’s growl. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you for a while now,” I continued, while I reached out with one hand and pulled the contraption off the hatch.

“N-no, put that back!” he shouted in a shrill voice, all but leaping for the contraption – though there was no way this scrawny guy could lift it, not unless he shot himself up with his own drugs – it was almost as big as he was, and probably quite a bit heavier. “I need the dispenser, I need it!” he shouted as he tried to reach it, with me holding it out of his reach like a school bully denying a smaller boy his action figure or something.

Good God, this is the monster that hurt my girl so much? THIS? I thought furiously as I brushed him back. He fell on his ass like a freaking pushover, and started sobbing. Sobbing. For crying out loud, he was… he was acting like…

“I need that! If I don’t do this, they’ll take my name away!” he cried. “I need it, I n-“

“Oh, shut the hell up,” I said as I lashed out with my tail, hitting him in the gut. He slid back against the wall, the air – and fight – knocked out of him. Then I looked at the contraption. “This. It’s supposed to poison the water supply, right?” I asked the Ascendant, though it was my father who answered.

“Yes. He’s used a similar contraption before,” he said from where his hulking grey form stood over the downed minion.

I nodded to myself – and then I squeezed, crushing it. The Ascendant made a desperate, weak scream as I snapped it in two, watching various fluids spill over my hand and onto the ground, as the pieces tumbled down and hit with a metallic crunching sound.

“He’s not going to use this one, though,” I said with a satisfied growl in my voice.

The… little man in front of me was just sobbing now.

“I can’t believe it. This man, he created all this misery? I expected more from the Gefährten,” I almost-whispered.

“I guess we know now why they wanted to purge him. Can’t have been hard to find someone more appropriate to the job,” he replied casually. “Though my reports suggest he used to be much more… together. Perhaps his power has degraded his mind. Or perhaps just the threat of disappointing the Gefährten was enough to make him crack.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, though I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to. This was… not what I’d expected. “We’re done here, let’s go,” I said, turning around – though I didn’t leave him behind. I picked him up with my tail instead.

“Why not just kill him here?” Father asked. “We have time. We can enjoy it.”

“No,” I said firmly. “He’s going to the authorities, and he’s going to stand trial and be judged fairly.”

Father tilted his head, clearly confused – or at least surprised. “Seriously? Why the sudden about-face?” His voice almost slipped into his natural tone, for just a moment. I enjoyed that way more than I should.

“H- Chayot and Dearheart contacted me, asked me to spare him. To have him stand trial, as he should,” I said. Then I had a thought, and I reached around myself with my tail, so I could look straight at him. Snot was running down from beneath his mask, and his eyes were bloodshot and wet.

So pathetic. “Did you hear that, you piece of trash? The only reason you’re living through this is because the girls you hurt, the children you tortured, they want you to be treated fairly. No, not fairly – better than you could ever deserve. Do you get that!?” I screamed the last sentence into his face, revealing rows of teeth and covering him in spittle.

He nodded frantically in between sobs, but then he shook his head. “It don’t matterrrrrr,” he whined. “Th-they’re… they’re going to kill me, anyway. Just for failing. And so I don’t t-t-talk.”

“He’s right,” my father agreed. “He’s dead already. And we do need some intel, to be perfectly honest.”

I turned to look at him. He approached me in turn, leaving the thug behind. “I’m not going to kill him. Not going to leave any evidence. But it would be irresponsible not to extract as much information as we can from him, before he vanishes either into prison or is killed by his own people,” he stated firmly.

Why does he have to constantly make sense? I asked myself, but there wasn’t really any argument to be made. Really, I had no reason to even think it over – the Gefährten were major trouble, way worse than the Syndicate, and any edge against them was worth this.

“Alright. But be quick about it,” I said, dropping the Ascendant.

While my father went to work on him – I doubted there’d be much of a challenge, not with a man this broken – I went to take a look at the thug I’d downed earlier.

There, I met my next big temptation. His mask had fallen off, revealing features I’d seen before.

It was the same man I’d seen in the visions Hennessy had shown me. The one who’d taken her.

The one who’d kicked Tamara’s head when she’d already been on the floor, paralysed by poison and half-mad from fear for her child.

Boots, all around us. Boots, kicking. Boots, falling.

I blinked, looking down at his bloody face – I’d broken his nose. He wasn’t unconscious, though. But he wasn’t all there, either.

A black boot, dropping down. I remember the sound, the crack. The spray of warm blood, its taste when some droplets flew into my screaming mouth.

I shook my head, realising that I was bent over the man, ready to tear into him, to rip his fucking head off with my bare teeth!

I remembered the light dying in those big, warm brown eyes, I r-

I pushed myself away from him, growling under my breath.

This isn’t the way, I thought to myself. Not anymore. Really, it never was. They were never worth it to begin with. And there… I felt a kind of peace. I still hated them, but… no, it was done.

Once more, I looked down at the thug. He wasn’t anything else, after all. Just a thug. He’d hurt those I loved… but that was over. He was over, as surely as if I’d bitten his head off.

There was no need to literally do it, not anymore.

I waited for my father to finish extracting as much as he could out of the former Ascendant, then we left together, taking two criminals with us.

I did make sure to have him tell me what he found out, though. Just in case.

***

The next three hours passed in a blur. I mostly let my father do the talking. Warren snuck off with Volca and Malphas, after they made me promise to meet them all later on.

We called down the authorities, and the actual adult superheroes of Chicago showed up to pick up the trash. I hadn’t seen or heard from any of them, aside from Vek (who was just staring at me, as I stood in my pristine suit and tie in front of the piled up thugs – who were slowly reverting to normal size – and the tied up (and unconscious) Ascendant.

I smirked at her, while my father introduced himself as my hireling and handled the nuts and bolts.

Honestly, I couldn’t care enough to participate. I smiled at the cameras as journalists had gathered near the entrance to the water works, reporting as the police carted the goons out, and two men dragged the Ascendant to the paddy wagon. People cheered when they did that.

I just felt… pleasantly numb. It was only thanks to my father’s ingrained lessons that I bothered to smile and do some pleasant chit chat with a few reporters, giving them some nice soundbites.

***

Before I knew it, we were standing in front of Tamara’s house, just as the sun was setting. Father was back in his Dark form, though I doubted anyone but me could see him.

“Will you be alright from here on out?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I want to do this on my own,” I said. “Afterwards, though… I’d like to talk to you. At my place.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and I heard something almost like… hopefulness in his voice(s). I couldn’t be sure, but… it was a nice thought.

“Yeah. Drinks are on me.”

“I’ll be there,” he said, before he sank into his own shadow and vanished.

I smiled to myself – though I couldn’t tell why, things were just… just a blur right now. I looked at the house – nice and sturdy, picturesque really – and I tried to put my current state into words.

The closest I could come up with was a feeling like… like something had been knocked loose. Something old and scabbed over, broken and yet so persistent. I wasn’t miraculously healed of all my issues or anything, but…

But for the first time since mother died, I felt like I could finally start to heal.

I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell.

***

Little feet pounded the stairs and then the little princess opened the door. She was now wearing a bright yellow dress and a matching tiara, with diaphanous golden butterfly wings and a golden wand in her hand.

She grinned up at me. “Hello, Mister Henny’s-other-Dad!” she chirped, and I couldn’t help but grin right back.

“And a hello to you, too, dear Fairy Princess,” I said, just as Tamara rounded the corner into the hallway.

She was dressed in casual stay-at-home clothes, and looked like she’d been crying – she didn’t look sad though. When she saw me, she smiled brilliantly, and even more so when the little princess turned to her and asked, “Mommy, how’d he know I’m a Fairy Princess!? I’m supposed to be in disguise!”

Tamara laughed and picked the little girl up, then she looked at me, looking radiant herself.

God, I could just look at her all day. As inappropriate as that would be now. And as if to underline that fact, Phil joined us, putting a long, thin arm around her shoulders.

“Hello, Kevin. Or Aaron, I guess,” he said, and he looked like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or frown at me. “They’re in the living room. Take your time.”

Tamara mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before she leaned closer to give me a kiss on the cheek (causing the little princess to giggle, and give me a mirroring one on the other one). Then she went up the stairs.

I looked at Phil, again. He looked back. I grunted. He grunted. I entered, taking off my shoes, and went to the living room.

When I entered, I saw Hennessy (in sweatpants and a pink baby tee) and Camille (in a matching outfit, only with a green top instead of a pink one) sitting on the couch, their eyes wet as they watched the television, holding hands.

Well, Camille was watching television. Hennessy was looking at me, and I got the feeling that she’d been tracking my movements as soon as I’d entered the range of her ability.

Camille turned, as well, and I got another memory for the records; I had made a lot, in my life, but this one, this one was unquestionably beautiful: Both girls broke into relieved, radiant grins, and then Hennessy literally leaped across the room and into my arms, wrapping her legs around my waist for some extra hold.

And when I wrapped my arms around her, I felt like I’d finally done something good.

***

It was nearly midnight before I got back home, but father was still there, despite my tardiness – and he wasn’t alone.

He was sitting at my bar, the living room lit brightly by numerous indirect lamps, without any wraith to obscure him, in his black robe and skin-tight suit; and on the other side of the bar, currently mixing some manner of cocktail, was Journeyman in his dark blue robe.

Just like the last time (many years ago) I’d seen them both together, I was struck by how similar their costumes were, save for the colour of their robes and Journeyman’s mirror mask.

Neither of them had ever told me what was up with that. Or rather, Journeyman hadn’t. Father claimed he didn’t know why Journeyman dressed the way he did.

But that wasn’t important right now. Instead of pursuing the thought, I took off my jacket and tie, opened a few buttons on my shirt and sat down next to my father.

“Gimme something good, barkeep,” I said in the worst Chicago accent I could think of. “I got a lot to  celebrate.”

“Most certainly,” he said, as he filled a big glass with whatever he’d been mixing – obviously, Journeyman had known just when I’d show up, and what to prepare for me.

“I gather that the girls were pleased,” father said as he raised his own drink, the tip of the glass vanishing in the shadows of his hood. He sounded… quite pleased himself.

“Very much. I’m now invited to their bi-monthly Saturday barbecue; they want to introduce me to the rest of their team,” I said happily.

He nodded.

Journeyman filled a third glass with a sparkling blue concoction for himself.

We drank in silence.

Really good stuff.

After a while, father broke the quiet. “I have a confession to make,” he said, his voice even.

I looked at him with suspicion. How foreboding, coming from you of all people, I thought but didn’t say. Instead, I let silence speak for me.

“While you were busy with the girls, I snuck into the house,” he said. When I opened my mouth, he raised his hands to forestall an angry comment. “I had good reason to do so. Let me explain.”

I closed my mouth again and nodded. It couldn’t hurt to hear him out, and he usually did have a good reason for anything he did… unless that reason was ‘to annoy someone’.

“These last few years, I have been paying a lot of attention to the rising number of second-generation metahumans,” he started.

I blinked. I had not expected that. “Second-gens? What’s so special about them? I’m second-gen,” I said. “We’ve been around for ages, there are even third- and fourth and fifth-gen, probably even more, out there.”

He and Journeyman both shook their heads. “No, you’re not a second-gen metahuman, Aaron,” father replied, taking another sip from his drink. “Your power is… connected to mine. Your… power certainly took some inspiration from mine, thus explaining the visual similarities,” he explained. “But you’re still a first-generation metahuman. It takes more than simply being connected to another metahuman to become a second-gen. And the differences between first- and second-generation powers are… profound.”

“How so? And what does this have to do with you sneaking into Tamara’s house?” I asked with a frown. I was getting pretty worried there – he wasn’t usually this talkative when it came to powers.

“I’ll get to that. Anyway, second-generation metahumans are a result of multiple very precise circumstances,” he continued, his drink now put aside to let him gesture with his hands. He’d turned to face me, and was getting quite animated, as he usually did when it came to subjects he was really interested in. “Keep in mind, though, that a lot of this is just conjecture – there haven’t been enough cases I could study to draw definite conclusions yet – and whatever Gwen may have found out, she does not share with me.” He sounded quite annoyed by that, but continued in the same tone of voice as before. “It takes two metahumans to produce a second-generation metahuman. They have to both be close enough to heterodyne, and be doing so frequently. They have to both be emotionally and physically close to the recipient – like, for example, living in the same house, or working at the same place – and they have to repeatedly heterodyne their powers over a period of at least a year, it seems. In this case, it just so happens that…”

“That Hennessy and Camille did just that… and with no less than two normies around who spend a lot of time with them;” I concluded, thinking of Phil and the little princess.

He nodded. “Yes. The girl, Charity – she’s a second-generation metahuman, though she hasn’t manifested yet.”

I… didn’t know how to take that. That could be a bad thing… or a good thing. Or neither. But there was one thing… “Wait, what do you mean, she’s a metahuman, but she hasn’t manifested yet?”

“I told you. Profound differences,” he replied casually. “A second-generation metahuman is already connected to their…” He searched for a word. “How to call them…”

“Tenants,” Journeyman suggested. “I call them the Tenants.”

Father shrugged. “As good as any. Yes, such a person – like Charity – is already connected to her tenant. With her, it’s not a question of if she’ll manifest – just when.”

Tenants, huh? This was so much new information. Focus on Charity first.

“And anything could set her off,” Journeyman continued. “The… threshold is far lower. Something as simple as being shoved during a game or losing a toy might be enough to make her manifest.”

“Oh no… I have to warn them!” I said, my head filling with horrific visions of Charity randomly getting powers and hurting the others, ready to jump up and-

“Relax!” they both said in unison.

I didn’t relax, but I stayed in my seat.

“First of all,” father said, “I’ve already taken precautions. The girl is being watched, and I have a wraith ready to intervene, if worst comes to worst. Second, second-generation metahumans – those I know about, at least – are amazingly stable. Not a single one of them that I know about – save for two extreme examples – gained powers beyond their control; and the likelihood of derangements is so low it’s almost non-existent, compared to first-generation metahumans.”

Taking a deep breath, I drank from my glass again. “Alright. Alright. But…” I frowned. “Didn’t you say Mindstar’s a second-generation meta? From what little I’ve heard of her, she’s anything but stable.”

“Mindstar was broken long before she gained her powers,” he replied casually.

I frowned some more. There was another question… the answer to which might clear up a lot. “The two extreme cases you mentioned… Desolation-in-Light and Gloom Glimmer, right?”

He sighed, slumping a little over the bar. “Yes. Let’s not go into that.”

I let it drop, though I was a good deal wiser on the subject now. If the threshold that has to be reached for manifestation is lowered, then that could explain how DiL manifested so early.

Though that didn’t explain how that same thing could happen to their next baby, and even give it such similar abilities.

Questions on top of questions.

We all fell silent for a while.

Journeyman refilled all our glasses with different concoctions. We drank. They were good.

“I’ll still tell them… tomorrow. Since there’s no need to rush it.”

“Of course. They ought to know anyway.”

More minutes passed.

“What will you do now?” Journeyman asked, looking at me. Father also turned to look at me again, clearly curious.

“I… have the beginnings of a plan forming in my head,” I said, surprised to find that, yes, I was working out a plan. “A plan that’ll involve Warren, Volca and Malphas, especially. And the entire rest of the city, too.”

“Care to share it?” father asked with some amusement.

“And ruin the surprise? Hell no!” I grinned at him. I couldn’t see his face, but I was pretty sure he was rolling his eyes. “But it won’t be anything you’d expect, I promise.”

He sighed. “Alright. I’ll look forward to it, I guess.” He emptied his glass, then rose up. “I have got to go. There’s lots of work to do… and no small bit of paperwork, either.”

I chuckled to myself. “You sound like a paper pusher from a bank or something.”

“Yeah, sometimes, it feels that way,” he said as he walked towards the door.

He stopped in front of it, his hand on the door knob.

I suddenly realised that Journeyman was gone. Just vanished. I looked at my father. His head was slightly lowered, enough so to be visible even from behind, despite his robe.

Time passed.

“Aaron?” he said, softly.

“Yes?

“I was afraid,” he admitted, though I had no idea of what. Not that it mattered. I’d never heard my father say anything like that. “I was so afraid, after your mother died,” he continued. Then he shook his head. “No, even before that. But then, I always had her to reign me in. After she died… I was so afraid, that this world would swallow you up as well. That you wouldn’t be ready to face it.” He took a deep breath, before the words continued to explode out of him. “I’m not trying to excuse how I treated you. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just… I ask you to understand – I was scared, and I just wanted you to be safe. To be strong and cunning and ready, so you would be safe, and able to keep those you love safe, too.”

I stared at him, my mouth wide open, and I was infinitely grateful that he stood with his back to me, so he couldn’t see the tears running down my face.

“I just… I’m sorry. That’s all,” he finished.

***

An infinite amount of time passed, before I found my voice again. Time during which I relieved all the memories I had of our time together – both the good and the bad – and my limited interactions with my own children.

I thought about it. I reviewed it. And I concluded… “I can’t forgive you, dad,” I said, my own voice choked up for more than one reason. “But… I’ve got children of my own now… and I… I understand.”

He nodded quietly. Then he pulled the door open.

“One more thing,” I threw in. “You… you had another child. Gloom Glimmer.”

“Irene,” he said gently.

“Yes. Um… I just hope you…” I didn’t know how to say this without being hurtful.

Fortunately, he said it for me. “You hope I won’t screw up the way I did before.”

I nodded, even though he couldn’t see.

He continued nonetheless. “I’m still hopeless, I’m afraid,” he said, his voice dripping with… some emotion I couldn’t parse right now. “Fortunately, I have Gwen to reign me in. Irene has grown up to be a fine young hero, despite my worst efforts, and she’s got a stronger moral  compass than either me or her mother.”

“That’s… good, I guess.”

“Yeah. Though…” He chuckled. “She asked me for dating advice. Me.” He sounded self-recrimating when he said that, weirdly enough.

I tilted my head. “Why’s that so funny? You know a lot about dating. And seduction. And all things interpersonal.”

He laughed quietly, this time. The first genuine laugh I’d heard from him in a long time. “Oh, I know all the ways the game is played, but… I’ve only ever been in love four times, I’ve dated three women, and I only got serious with two, in the end. And one of them, I was born and grew up with.”

“Oh. Yeah. Funny that she should ask you.”

“Yeah. Well. Have a good night, Aaron.”

“You too. Sleep tight… dad.”

He left.

***

I turned around, and there he was again. Journeyman.

He put a glass filled with something fizzy and pink in front of me, and I took it. He was holding one that was as yellow as a canary.

“What a day,” I said.

“There are days like these,” he agreed, putting his elbows on the bar and leaning on them. He had a question. Unspoken, but there. I could tell, just by glancing at the images in his mirror, by reading the atmosphere.

I looked down at my drink. It wasn’t pink, really. Darker, more purple. Like Hennessy’s eyes. I thought about all that had happened. All I’d seen, and heard, and felt, and done, and not done, and thought about, and not thought about. Along the way, I also decided there was one more stop I had to make, before I could turn in for the night. But that was for later.

Now, I had to answer the question. The same question he’d asked me after I’d run away from my father. The same one he’d asked me before I left for the war. The one he was asking now.

I thought of Hennessy’s smile, and Elouise’s smile, and how it felt to hold them in my arms. I thought of father’s apology and Tamara and so much more.

There were still dark spots. I still didn’t know who’d paid those assassins to come after me – I’d have to follow up on that, perhaps arrange a meeting with Sara. I still had to find my place here in this city. See if my plan was viable, what could be done. My future was still unsure. Heh, I thought to myself. Why should I be any different?

Then I smiled, looking at him again. “Yeah. I think I’m going to be alright.”

He raised his glass. “Cheers, mate.”

***

I’d breezed past the guards and security measures, making sure not to alert anyone. I’d snuck through the building, until I found the door.

It was perhaps not entirely appropriate, especially at this time, but… I didn’t want to miss one more second.

I knocked on the door with one hand, the other holding a big bottle of chocolate milk and a movie disc.

The door opened after a minute, and Elouise looked at me in surprise. Her white hair was a mess, she was wearing a crooked green nightrobe and her face looked a little pale without her make up – but when she saw my smile and the bottle and the disc, and she smiled back, it lit up the world.

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B011.14 Monkey Family

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We all stared down at the dying villain, as he squirmed weakly on the ground, a sound coming from his mouth that was too ragged and burned to be called a moan.

“Fuck me, he’s still alive,” Warren whispered, clearly audible thanks to his helmet’s effect on his voice.

“Not for long,” Volca snarled and bent down, lifting her transformed arm.

I caught her by the wrist, ignoring the damage the heat did to my monkey skin. When she looked up at me with murderous eyes, I just sighed. “He’s already dead,” I told her. “His body just hasn’t caught up to it yet.”

She snarled at me but her arm reverted back to flesh and bone. “He’ll suffer more like this, anyway,” she concluded. “So, what’s next?” came the follow-up question.

I looked up from the squirming form on the ground to see Warren and Volca both looking intently at me (I couldn’t see Warren’s face, obviously, but I could feel his attention). Waiting for leadership. Fuck, why am I the designated leader?

Well. No use in complaining. I straightened up. “First, we need to take care of Volca’s wounds, and check up on Malphas.”

“He… he’s still alive?” Volca asked, her voice half hopeful and half incredulous. When I nodded, it was like a hundred tons had been lifted off her shoulders. Meanwhile, Warren had picked up his severed arm and attached it to his armor’s back, possibly with magnets of some kind.

“Warren, pick up the trash. I’d rather not leave him lying around unsupervised, not while he’s still alive.” He obeyed, using four smaller arms (including the one that had previously held a gun) to pick up the dying supervillain. I picked up Volca against her protests, and far more gently than Warren did with his charge, and we walked to where I’d left Malphas earlier.

Instead of the crippled preteen boy, though, we found my father – in his Rhino form – and a giant made of metal.

It stood a good twelve feet in height, its torso bulky, reinforced in the most simple way – by making it of a lot of steel. A lot of it. Its head was ridiculously tiny compared to the rest of it, a half-spherical helmet with a small eye slit and a crown of horns. Its arms and legs were oversized, too long, and made of tightly wound cords of metal, like exposed muscle in copper and steel, its hands and reverse-jointed, digitrade feet ending in razor-sharp claws.

Judging by the huge chunk of metal missing from the tenements, several tons of material had gone into its construction, metal compressed as far as it was possible – perhaps even a bit further. No way to tell, with how some powers could just plain ignore minor details like time, space and common sense.

Father was watching it as Malphas tested the movement of his new armor, before he turned to face the three of us.

I didn’t know about Warren, but Volca and I were staring at him, slackjawed, a particularly vivid expression in my case, since I still had my monkey skin up, and its jaw included two rows of razor-sharp teeth the size of an adult’s fingers.

“I’m good to go,” came Malphas’ voice from the headpiece, seemingly recovered from the ordeal.

I looked at him, then at my father, narrowing my eyes. Had he done something to give the boy a boost?

“You need to rest, Malphas,” I told him instead of pursuing that point right now. “You lost too much blood, you have to recover first.”

He shook his head – or rather, slid the slit he was looking through left and right – and lifted his new right arm, palm up. Then he clenched it into a fist, the metal flowing in smooth, life-like movements. “I’m good. And I need to go after the guy behind this, even if his patsy is down.” He threw a hate-filled look at the burned form Warren was carrying around. Blauschwinge had gone mostly still, the only indication of his not being dead being the odd squirming motion, and that ragged moan.

“Same here,” Volca said as I put her back on her feet – groaning when her weight settled on her cut and bruised legs – and got ready to say something more, when her gaze fell on Lag’s remains.

I didn’t want to watch. I’d seen this scene play out far too often in my life, yet I couldn’t avert my eyes from the sight of something behind her eyes breaking, couldn’t close my ears so as not to hear the soft, broken sound she made as she stumbled over to her, pulling her mask off to throw it aside.

She slid down onto her knees, a hand reaching out to touch Lag’s cheek. Warren turned away, Malphas looked down in self-blame, father looked at her in what I recognised as a pensive mood.

I approached him, leaning in to whisper. “No.”

He looked at me, his eyes amused. “No?”

“No.”

He nodded. “Alright.” He stepped away.

I approached the sobbing girl – and I couldn’t think of her as a woman right now, all I could think of was the lost girl I’d seen in her eyes, heard in her voice – and knelt down next to her, dismissing my monkey skin entirely. She didn’t react when I put an arm around her shoulder. I didn’t talk. As bad as the situation was, we could afford to give her a few minutes.

“I should be the one who died,” she finally said.

“Why?” I said, not bothering to contradict her. She wouldn’t be receptive to that.

“He hit me. I was reckless, and he hit me. I thought I was dead, I knew I was dead but she… she…” Her voice broke, she hunched over more and sobbed desperately, making small, sad sounds.

“She took the harm, took it on herself. But it was too much, all at once. Even her power couldn’t compensate,” I finished for her. My gaze went to the dead girl’s head, and I reached out to remove that featureless mask. Beneath, she looked so very… cold. Not peaceful. Just dead, but… there was something graceful about her delicate face. Death had lifted all pain and stress from her. You must’ve loved her so very much.

“Sh-sh-she always did that,” Volca sobbed, and then it all came out like a flood. “When my mom died, her family took me in. She took me in, like I was really her sister, not her dad’s by-blow with a hooker. When her parents died, she took care of me. When we ended up on the streets, she took care of me, always… always being there. I was such a little bitch, I screwed it all up. Got powers, became a criminal even though she wanted me to be better. Got hurt, she got powers and took the hurt away, all for me. And now… I dragged her into this, I… she’s dead…”

I pulled her close, holding her with one arm while she cried and shivered. I didn’t speak – I’d gone through this often enough to know that platitudes like “it’ll be alright” or “you shouldn’t blame yourself” wouldn’t mean shit.

Instead, I waited for a minute or two, then I looked at my father. Wordlessly, he produced a compact first aid kit and handed it to me. I let go of Volca and started taking care of her wounds.

“What did you find out?” I asked him, while I worked on her.

“I found the Ascendant. He’s holed up in the lowest level of the Undercity, beneath the old Downtown area,” he explained calmly.

I nodded. Figures he’d go deep. “Defences?”

“About two scores of juiced up thugs, but no other metahumans, as far as I can tell,” he replied. “This… is troubling. It’s so very unlike the usual Gefährten operations. I can’t begin to guess what they’re up to, as it is.”

I frowned, and turned to Malphas, who was watching me and Volca. “Did Blauschwinge say anything? Why’d he attack here?”

“He came after these two for not killing that lawyer,” Malphas explained. “He wanted me to hand them over, but I wouldn’t do that, so we fought.”

Volca spoke up, though her eyes remained glued to her sister’s face. “He kept ranting something about some kind of test he had to pass or something.” Her voice was calm now, steady, but the hurt showed through still.

“Test? Are you sure he spoke of a test?” father asked, his voice animated. It was more of a reaction than I’d seen in him show at my running away from home, though that might’ve been simply due to the role he was playing, and not genuine agitation. It was always hard to tell where the mask ended and the man began.

“Yes,” she replied simply, without paying him further attention.

“I heard him rant about it, too,” Warren confirmed her story. “He also said something about ‘that bitch Skyfall’ – in German, though – and a ‘fearless leader’.”

“Aap Oordra,” my father snapped. “I need to talk to you. Privately. Now.”

I looked up at him with a frown, having just finished applying first aid to Volca’s worst injuries. “I’m not done h-“

“I can do that,” Warren threw in. “I’ve got first aid training and all.” His armor opened up, letting him climb out in full costume.

I nodded and let him take over – not that Volca seemed to notice – so I could walk a big away from the group and behind some old, rusted machine that still stood there.

“What is it?” I asked my father.

He turned around from where he’d been watching the group, leaning against the edge of the machine. “That’s an interesting group you’ve gathered,” he said, apparently unconcerned about anything.

“Yes, they are. Now, why’d you freak out? Don’t deny you did,” I cut off his denial. “Who is Skyfall, and what’s this thing about a fearless leader?”

“Not a fearless leader. Just Fearless Leader. It’s a codename… though an informal one, I think,” he explained. “It’s how the members of the Gefährten refer to the organisation’s leader, instead of using whatever his actual codename may be.”

I goggled at him. “Wait, are you implying that even you don’t know who’s behind all this?” The Dark not knowing about his greatest rival for the title of ‘Number One Supervillain’? That was about as realistic as there being a sin the Devil has never indulged in.

“I’ve never been able to find out. Gwen doesn’t know, or at least she won’t share. Any member I’ve ever interrogated either didn’t know or didn’t give it up. For all I know, Fearless Leader may as well not exist, and the three top executives are just pretending like he does while being the actual leaders.”

“I assume Skyfall is connected to these top executives?”

He nodded. “They are the Gefährten’s elite. The most powerful, devious and successful of its members. The names have been passed down since the inception of the group, from person to person, usually upon the former bearer’s death – sometimes at the hands of their successor.”

“Bad news, eh?”

“Very. Heaven’s Dancer – the only one with but a single bearer, she’s an original member of the group – is by far the worst of them. Then there’s Cloudlander – he’s held his name for almost twenty years now, longer than anyone else save for Heaven’s Dancer. And they have a recently ascended member, Skyfall. I only knew that it’s a teenager behind that name. Now I can infer that it’s also a girl or woman.” He sighed. “Gathering intel on them is a pain.”

“I guess so. So, why’d you freak out so much? You didn’t pull me aside just to expose on this.” He tapped his foot, annoyed, at the accusation of a freakout. Ah, pride is so easy to tease.

“Because I think I know what’s going on here – and it’s worse than them just being after your daughter and her friends,” he said calmly without responding to my jab any further. “They’re testing the Ascendant and Blauschwinge.”

“Testing?”

“The Gefährten have long traditions associated with the codenames they use. Both ‘the Ascendant’ and ‘Blauschwinge’ are legacies passed down for the better part of a century. You don’t just get one of these names for free. You’ve got to earn it. And then you have to keep it.”

I frowned, crossing my arms in a move that, though I’d never admit it out loud, mirrored his own stance almost perfectly. “So this is all… a performance review?”

He chuckled. “Never thought of using that term, but yes, that applies. Blauschwinge is… was famously unstable, and too arrogant. He got his name by killing his predecessor, and he hasn’t exactly performed well. Too many failures, too many retreats without accomplishing anything other than mindless destruction. It’s their practice to put people who are not living up to their name to the test. Send them out, tell them to do something that’ll impress the leadership – or die trying.”

“So what, he and the Ascendant are causing chaos just so they’ll get to keep their names!? What kind of priority is that!? And why’s the Ascendant on review?”

“Their names are their lifes, Aap Oordra. They live and die with them, unless they step down to pass them on – and neither of them is likely to want to give up the power and prestige that comes with those names, especially the Ascendant; he’d lose all or at least most of his funding without the backing of his name. And as to why he’s on review…” He shrugged, rolling his huge shoulders in an equally huge motion. “I can only speculate, but the Ascendant’s purpose has always been to find means by which to ascend humans – to let them manifest powers. Yet the current Ascendant has been… less than successful. As far as I know, he only had one truly impressive success – the incident during which Dearheart and her friends gained their powers, and even there, his success rate was just barely above the normal power distribution. This is just speculation, but his superiors are most likely fed up with him and have given him this one last chance to retain his name.”

I looked down at my feet, not sure how to react to this new information. All this, for what amounted to a performance review? I shook my head. No use brooding about morals right now. “Do you think he’s going to go after Chayot and the others?”

He shook his head. “No, or at least not primarily. Capturing them won’t help him retain his name – he needs to validate that he can live up to it, which means…”

“Somehow causing multiple manifestations in a short amount of time,” I concluded. “We need to take him down fast, before he causes a tragedy… another tragedy.” I looked at the others – they were talking among each other, with Malphas having opened his armor, reshaped the chest into a comfortable-looking seat for him to sit on. Volca seemed to be focused on Malphas’ injury, her own now properly taken care of. “Let’s involve them. They might come up with a good idea.”

He shrugged and followed me back to the group. I quickly explained the state of things to them. “Now we need to figure out what he’s up to, and stop him from doing it.”

“The guy wants to make lots of people manifest, right?” Malphas spoke up, his eyes dark and focused. “From what I know of history, most who want that try to just hurt as many people as they can.”

I snarled under my breath, though I immediately regretted it – the sound, twisted and amplified by my monkey skin, made everyone but my father flinch. “Judging by his history, I doubt he’ll be any more inventive.” I looked at my father. “So the question is, how is he going to do it?”

“He’s a contriver,” my father explained. “He has a huge breadth of options to choose from; however, to my knowledge, he prefers to use drugs and potions – he usually has several thugs with him which have been empowered by his creations – as well as long-term torture, both physical and psychological.”

My monkey nails dug into its palms as I was reminded of what he’d done to my daughter. “So, how could he use that to affect a large enough number of people… can he make poison gas? A hallucinogenic, perhaps? It would be easy to affect a lot of people with that.”

Volca bit her lip, shoulders hunched, and shuddered. I couldn’t tell Warren’s reaction, but it couldn’t be good. Malphas shivered. Father seemed fine.

“I can’t be certain, but I believe he’s only ever worked with liquids,” he stated.

I nodded. Warren shook his ‘head’. “This is crazy,” he breathed, exasperated. “What kind of madman… how’d he even spread a drink like that around? And why’s he beneath Old Downtown?”

“Because…” I began, but cut off. I had no idea. There wasn’t really anything interesting there, not since large parts of Chicago had burned down back in nineteen-seventy-two. “I don’t know. There isn’t much there, it’s mostly just some public facilities, like the power station, the purifi-“

“The water works!” Malphas shouted in horror.

We all looked at each other for a moment, and I was sure even my father shared our mortification.

Then we all ran towards the Old Downtown area.

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B011.13 Monkey Family

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I curved around the little show Blauschwinge seemed intent on putting on and reached the actual tenements. The warped structure seemed to have been hit by a giant’s fist or something, though I was hoping that Blauschwinge wasn’t actually capable of this kind of destruction with but a single blow – that’d put him right up there with Lady Light in terms of raw offensive power, and I’d learned my lesson about challenging someone like that a long time ago (or perhaps not, seeing how I’d actually tried to fight my even more destructive half-sister).

Getting into the tenements was the next problem I found myself faced with. The structure had been warped so badly – both by whatever attack had first deformed, and then by what I assumed to be Malphas’ power used to retaliate – that even the formerly open walls were mostly gone, and where they remained, they had been turned into small slits or holes, many leading nowhere. I had to rely on my sense of smell more than anything to navigate, and raw strength to actually open up a path, most of the time.

While Warren made a mess outside – I could smell whatever napalm-like compound he was using burn – I followed the scent of blood, and the two young people it originated from.

Lots of blood, and even the monkey had gone deathly quiet now.

I forced open a twisted mess of pipes and metal wall and stepped into an uneven cave of a room. Lag and Malphas were there, lying in total darkness. It was only thanks to my monkey’s sight that I saw anything at all.

Any help I might have rendered came too late for Lag. Something had cut through the woman, from her left shoulder down to her right hip, the wound ragged, rough, unlike anything I could compare it to off the top of my head (and I’d seen a lot). I was glad that her mask covered her face entirely, so I didn’t have to see her facial expression. Poor Volca…

I stepped over her torso – the rest of her had been caught up and crushed by the twisting metal, with blood still dripping down from the ceiling – and waded through inches of blood to Malphas’ side.

His right arm was missing from just below the shoulder, cut in the same manner as Lag’s body. Whatever power Blauschwinge – and I had no doubt that he was the one responsible – used, it had gone through his metal armor the same way as it had through his flesh and bone. The boy was breathing heavily, but he barely bled – his power was at work, metal moving, stopping the bleeding by forming a tourniquet on his short stump. It was temporary, at best, and he needed some help, stat.

I knelt down next to the boy. “Malphas, can you hear me?” I said, opening the monkey’s jaws wide, pulled back to reveal my head. “Can you talk?”

“Y-yes,” he said with a thin, shaky voice. The bravado from our last meeting was gone, and he sounded like he would be crying, if only he had the breath to spare. He sounded like a child. “F-f-fucker… killed… Lag…”

“I know.” I made a quick check, but there really wasn’t much I could tell about his state with his fullbody-armor still in the way. “Malphas, I need to get you out of here,” If only so you can breathe properly, “and I need to check you over. Can you open up your armor?”

It took him a moment to mull that over, his head turned so his eyes were fixated on me, or perhaps it just took a while for him to properly process it. Then he nodded, and his armor opened up in a single fluid, but slow, motion that looked weirdly organic. “Talk to me, Malphas,” I said as I waited for him to open it up. “You have to stay awake.”

“Uhu. What should… I say?” he asked, his voice too weak, especially without his helmet’s distortion at work, now that it had opened, finally giving me a good look at the person beneath.

I had speculated that he was a young teen before, then considered that he might even be barely a teen. Both had been wrong.

“Anything. Where do you come from?”

If the boy I saw lying there in a shirt and short pants, with a mass of steel around the stump of his arm, was a day over thirteen, I’d be very, very surprised. In fact, I would’ve bet him to be closer to twelve than thirteen.

“South Africa. I was… born in some place… South Africa. Don’t remember the name. But… don’t remember it. Left when I was a baby. We fled from… warlord… Aheri… ethnic cleansing…”

Fuck, he’s younger than I was when I set out on my own, I thought as I urged him to keep talking. If he was talking, then he was awake, and I’d know instantly if he slipped into unconsciousnes.

“Came on… ship… me and dad and mom and my big brother, but… ship sank… miles before coast. Dad swam all the way… to land… carried me and bro… mom drowned.”

Using my ridiculously oversized left hand, I carefully craddled the boy to my chest and took him quickly outside the structure, into more open air. “Keep talking, son. Tell me more.” Not that I hadn’t known people with the background I saw unfold before. It was all too common for people from that region, unfortunately enough.

I’d never heard of Aheri, though. Then again, most of those warlords usually cycled through every two or three months, anyway.

“Lived on… streets… Undercities… Dad and Bro worked, but… Bro angry, ’cause Dad didn’t save Mom, too.” He sobbed, and I wasn’t sure whether it was due to physical discomfort, or the memories.

I could barely hear the fight as I put him down – wincing along with him when the movement caused him even more pain – and carefully tore his shirt open to check his torso.

“One day… Bro went to work… didn’t come back… Never found out why. Dad just… he stopped. On the inside. He kept going on the outside, working to take care of me, but… a year later, he stopped on the outside, too. I was… six?”

It was a mess of blue and green bruises, and I felt at least two broken ribs when I checked over his ribcage with one hand (causing him to gasp for air). I had to work hard, and for that, I dismissed the monkey’s skin, taking off my expensive jacket to turn it into practical bandages. “How’d you get your powers?” I asked, just to keep him talking.

“Undercity… cave-in. I was stuck… under rubble…”

I nodded. Classic, straightforward trigger for such a power. “Why’d you become a hero?” I removed the metal from the stump of his arm, using a rag of my jacket to clean it off – despite his cries – and then made a proper tourniquet with several of my impromptu bandages, so it’d hold even if he passed out and his power stopped working.

“After dad… stopped… was in… Vegas. Savage Six came. Mindfuck, he came after me, other kids. We ran, tried to flee, but how do you flee from someone coming after you inside your head?” He cried out again as I began to wrap his ribcage, to provide some stiff support for his ribs. “Then I saw… him. Boy, just a bit older than me… killed him. He killed him, just like that.”

I sighed, knowing where this story went. I’d never run into the Six myself, before, but I knew their MO, especially Mindfuck’s. Everyone did, really. “You watched the boy die, and decided to protect people?”

“N-no. The boy… he killed Mindfuck. Saw it through… Mindfuck’s eyes. Boy killed him. Did worse to him, before he killed him.”

Wait, what? I stopped my work on the bandages to focus on his face. He had a mystified expression on it, but he seemed to have his wits about him. A kid killed Mindfuck?

“I thought… he was just… nine? Something like that. If someone that age can… kill a monster like that… then surely I can… I can do some good, too? So when I… when I got my powers, I decided to… to make a place. For all the lost ones, like me and dad and bro and that boy. So I made my tenements…” He turned his head to look at the smashed structure, and now I saw tears come out of his eyes. “I’ll have to… start over again.”

And over, and over. Such things don’t last in this world, I thought, but didn’t say. “I’m sure you will,” I said instead. Then I covered myself in my monkey skin again, listening to the battle – I could still hear Warren’s armor move and shoot, so I knew he was still alive. Judging by the amount of rage-fueled screaming, Volca was still alive, as well. “I need to go fight.”

He looked at me, his eyes glazed over with pain, but nodded. “Can you… put me closer to it? I can still… control the metal… for protection… if I touch it.”

Carefully, I picked him up and carried him to the warped structure. As soon as I leaned him against it, the metal flowed under him, forming a solid metal chair he could sit on. Some more movement deposited Lag’s remains nearby, as well as bits and pieces of other people.

I averted my eyes and turned to go, but a tendril of cool metal reached out, grabbing my elbow. I looked over my shoulder at the boy, feeling the monkey’s face distort in annoyance at the delay.

“W-wait!” he said. “Got to… tell you… his power.”

Ah. Yeah, that would be useful. “I’m listening.”

“Flies… not very strong… not very tough… but more than usual. Blast attack… but not very strong, either.” I looked up at the damage the guy had done to the structure, then back at him. The monkey’s face wasn’t that good at conveying skepsis, but I did my best. “Real power… in his eyes. Looks at things… weakens them. Gradually, but quickly. Attacks loose… force… defenses become… weak… bodies…” He glanced at Lag’s remains and at his stump. “T-t-tested… before he… hit me. Power only works… on what he sees. Effect fades once… once he’s not focusing his sight… on target. Raised metal wall… he made it weak, I could feel it… through my power.” He stopped, taking a few quick breaths. “Drew in… affected material, replaced it. Effect faded… within seconds.”

“So he’s not very tough, nor very strong, but he can weaken attacks and defenses enough that he’s functionally far more powerful,” I summarised it. I glanced at Lag. “And it apparently circumvents certain defences entirely.”

He nodded, but didn’t respond. I nodded back and left.

***

Thank God for supervillains in love with their own voice. As annoying as they can be, the advantage it poses to those of a more pragmatic disposition is simply invaluable.

When I came around the warped tenements, I found Blauschwinge in the air, unharmed, his long cape waving dramatically (how do they do that? I’d never been able to do a cape, and I’d tried) as he ranted something in heavily accented English. I didn’t bother to listen, and just looked for my allies.

Volca was standing behind a torn and partly melted mass of rusty pipes, just barely out of sight from Blauschwinge and just barely in my sight, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. Her costume had taken some damage, as had her body undearneath – so much so that I suspected she was only a short while away from passing out due to blood loss.

Warren was nearby, the bulk of his power suit barely hidden from Blauschwinge’s sight by a piece of the ground that had risen up due to an earlier impact. The right arm was wrecked, mostly gone beneath the elbow and the rest that remained twisted and useless, but he seemed to have sustained no further damage.

Nor had he caused any to Blauschwinge, however.

Well, that’s what I’m best at. Causing lots and lots of damage.

And if Malphas’ analysis of his power was correct, then that meant I could probably take him down with one hit.

<Aap, you hear me?> Warren’s voice suddenly rang in my ear, startling me. I’d completely forgotten that I was wearing an earpiece of his – how embarrassing.

“Loud and clear, my friend. How’re things going?” I said as I hid behind the corner of the tenements. “Need me to speed blitz this ass?”

<I don’t think that’s going to be so easy. I’m not sure how he does it, but he’s been slowing down my shots, making them stupidly easy to dodge, if they didn’t just fall to the ground halfway to him.>

Well, that was interesting. Disconcerting, but interesting. “Malphas briefed me on his power, but he didn’t tell me it also sapped speed.”

<Yeah, this ass is a lucky one. Seems to cover all the bases. He’s countered everything angry girl and me threw at him, just by looking at it. And he’s royally messed with my armor!>

Somehow, I was sure he’d have preferred it if he’d lost an arm, not that armor of his. “I have a plan. Can you distract him?”

<His sight even works on motherfucking acid, dude. I’m not sure I have anything that could affect him.>

Wow, that’s one hell of a power. “You didn’t answer my question. Can you distract him?”

<I can try. Just tell me when, and I’ll give it my best shot.>

I didn’t hesitate. “Go!”

He rose up from behind his cover, aiming his gun at Blauschwinge. The villain immediately turned to face him, which gave me a clear shot at his side, just barely out of his peripheral vision.

I ran, without even bothering to wait and see what Warren would fire at him. There was no way I could use my top speed – there wasn’t enough room, and I was more likely to simply run into a wall than manage to hit shit at top speed, anyway – but going from zero to a hundred and forty in three seconds flat was still pretty good.

The sewage plant had taken heavy damage, the ground was cracked… really, the entire foundation had probably taken too much damage by now. No way this was safe anymore. But it did provide me with a lot of small ramps to pick and choose from, and I ran straight for one halfway between me and Blauschwinge, and just leapt up and towards him like a monkey-shaped missile, aiming for his neck (I’d only promised to bring in the Ascendant alive, if possible).

He whirled around as soon as I kicked off the ground, even though there’d been no way he could’ve seen or heard me coming. As soon as his gaze fell on me, I was hit with the full force of his power.

God. Fucking. Dammit! I could feel myself slowing down even before I visibly did so, I could feel the monkey skin weakening, and I could very much see his fist moving to intercept my flight.

I didn’t know whether he was strong enough to kill me with one punch, without my monkey skin’s protection, I didn’t know whether it maybe reached beneath the skin and into my actual body – so I decided not to risk a direct hit, and I aborted my attack, crossing my arms in front of me to take his punch; even if I were to lose them, as long as I survived, I was sure my father’s people could put me back together.

His fist connected with my crossed forearms and punched through the monkey’s skin like the Fist of God.

It was far less godly when it connected with my forearms. Though it hurt – pound for pound, he was probably stronger than me, not counting monkey skin and weakening gaze – it only threw me away from him without causing further damage.

“Ha, I knew you’d try an underhanded trick like thaaaaaa-!” His boast was cut off as my tail wrapped around his throat from behind. I pulled, swinging myself behind him and out of the area of effect of his gaze.

As soon as I left it, I felt the effect start to fade, though if it’d penetrated to my actual body, I would not have trusted myself to survive, say, a hug from Princess Charity without major damage. But my tail had remained unaffected, as I’d first hidden it behind my body, then reached around beneath and behind him – Malphas had been right, he needed to actually have the specific object he wanted to weaken in his sight, and my tail hadn’t been.

The villain sputtered, choking as I landed on all fours behind him and pulled him down with my tail.

He made a most satisfying crack when I slammed him into the ground, but it didn’t put him down for more than a few seconds – I felt him grip my tail a little away from his neck and simply tear it apart as soon as his gaze got a hold of it. Moments before I would’ve crushed his throat, too.

Annoying power. I didn’t waste time turning around, and just jumped backwards, to slam into him before he could use his power on me directly, turning only once I was airborne – but he was fast, faster than I would’ve expected, rising up from the ground in a practiced pirouette that made his cape flare dramatically, and also served to throw off dust.

His gaze hit me moments before the green-blue energy blast from his clenched fist did, his face twisted in anger. It didn’t have time to really weaken me enough to cause serious damage, but once more, he arrested my movement, interrupting my assault on him. And this time, he also blasted my tail away with a shot from his other fist.

“You! Will! DIE!” he shouted and flew towards me – only to pull off an impressive evasion, twisting like a corkscrew, to dodge Warren’s own tackle. He simultaneously looked at my friend’s power armor’s shoulder, and kicked it, tearing off his remaining arm.

Prescient, maybe. Smart, definitely not. He’d turned his back to me, never a good idea when dealing with a Speedster.

I capitalised by slamming my hands into the ground and throwing two chunks of concrete the size of an adult at him, following closely with the projectiles doubling as cover.

Again, he reacted faster than any human could on his own, blasting my projectiles to bits – and turning them into nicely concealing clouds of concrete dust.

I soared through the dust, using my scent to keep track of him, but again he acted too quickly even for me, flipping up over my attack before I’d even started emerging from the cloud.

His blast knocked me into the ground, tearing through the back of the monkey. Fuck me, this almost hurt.

He was laughing again, a demented, all-too-familiar laugh. “See? See!? You can’t stand against me, I’m-“

Warren interrupted his tirade by throwing his disconnected arm at Blauschwinge, but the villain only caught it, rather casually, with one hand, holding it by its upper portion, the elbow bent and the gun swinging wildly left and right as he shook it in contempt.

“Was that supposed to hurt me, little Tüftler? Throwing pieces of your little toy at me? What’re you going to do next, throw yourself at me?” He grinned wildly at my friend, and I almost took the chance to leap at him, but then Warren surprised both of us.

“No,” he said out loud, but calmly. “I’m going to use the remote control.

Blauschwinge’s eyes widened, his face turning towards the canon even as he threw it away from himself – but it was too late. It lit up, firing a glob of blue-hot liquid fire at his face.

I could see his power working on it, immediately, much faster than it had worked on my monkey skin, the heat diminishing visibly, reduced to a red glow, but he could not evade it anymore, and it took him in the face, more napalm splattering onto his shoulders and chest.

Blauschwinge screamed louder than I’d heard anyone scream in a long time, his arms clawing at his face, trying to scoop the napalm away – but that only served to burn his hands too, and it let some of it flow into his mouth, turning his screams into gargled sounds of pain. I heard his flesh sizzle before I even smelled it.

But Warren was not done. As the arm fell to the ground, he fired a second shot, and without Blauschwinge’s power to lessen it, it took off the man’s right leg at the knee.

Blauschwinge collapsed, even though he was still floating above the ground, screaming and trashing around, face, neck, chest, arms and leg stump burning as he thrashed around to no avail.

Both Warren and I approached him slowly, ready to strike again, but it seemed he was done.

“Time to pay the piper, asshole,” Warren said as a smaller, human-sized (but clearly robotic) arm folded out of the chest of his armor, holding a simple handgun. “No one touches my family and gets away with it!” He pulled the trigger.

My hand shot forward, the bullet hitting the monkey’s open palm to no effect. “No,” I said firmly.

His ‘head’ turned to look at me, and I could guess what kind of facial expression he had there. “Why’re you stopping me?”

“You’re no murderer, Warren. If you want him dead, I’ll do it. But not you,” I said calmly, far more gentle than I was used to while covered in the monkey’s skin. “It would haunt you forever.”

“Aap, I…” He turned to look at the struggling man, as did I – just in time to see Volca get behind him and punch him with her volcanic arm.

Blauschwinge’s head rocked back as her fist punched cleanly through his chest, back to front, the heat so great it burned the wound shut before any blood could flow.

He collapsed entirely, going limp, and slid to the ground as she lowered her arm, her other hand still normal flesh, applying pressure to a wound on her side.

We all looked down at the figure, his face and hands burned down to an unrecognisable mess, his eyes gone entirely. He looked almost pathetically small now, wasted.

“No one fucks with my family and gets away with it, either,” Volca snarled.

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B011.12 Monkey Family

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“You know, I always thought it was freaky how you could just pretend to be someone else at a moment’s notice,” Warren spoke through his armor, as we were making our way down into the Undercity. He’d been forced to hunch over and contort his armor in order to get it into the former shop, and now he was bent over, using the large wheels on its ankles and a set of smaller wheels that folded out of its elbows (with its arms bent until they were forming a V) to roll down the tunnel. “But that was just wrong. Has he always been like that?”

I nodded. We could afford to talk, as my father had gone off through the wall to scout the Undercity, connect to Wyrm, do whatever to locate the Ascendant’s base of operations (or at least his current location). So I felt safe in talking openly – though I was keeping my monkey skin up in its entirety, walking on my knuckles to match Warren, trusting my superior senses to alert me to any trouble. “Always, since mother died. I once saw him go through twenty-seven personalities in a little over an hour, while we were going from shop to shop to strike up conversations.”

“God,” he just said, emphatically. There wasn’t really much else to say. After a minute or so of silence, he spoke up again. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“We’re pretty close to the lair of a guy I met recently. His name’s Malphas, in case that means anything to you,” I replied.

“Malphas… yeah, I’ve heard some of him. Some kind of charity cape. Takes care of the homeless. Or at least some of them,” he said. “He got some fame for taking down the local Alpha chapter.” The armor’s head swerved around to look at me. “You know the guy? Is he really a preteen? Rumors say so.”

It took me a moment to reply, since I was digesting that tidbit of information – the Alphas were a big gang, and the Chicago chapter had been their original one. Taking them down was… more than just merely impressive (I’d had my fair bit of trouble with them, back in the day). “I’m not sure whether he’s a preteen – I thought he might already be into his voice change, but I might’ve been wrong due to his armor – but he’s most certainly very young. No more than fourteen, I’d say, less is likely.”

“And why’re we going to meet him?”

“Because he’s powerful, and he has a stake in this – two of his tenants are very probable targets of the Ascendant’s people. And besides, his tenements are at a pretty good spot to work from, once the Rhino gets back with some information.”

“Alright. Oh, before I forget it, take one of these,” he said, a hatch on the side of his armor opening. Curious, I reached in and pulled out an earpiece with a flat penny-shaped disc sticking to it out.. “So we’ll be able to talk,” he explained. “There’s a throat microphone attached to it.”

I nodded, pulling the throatpiece off the earpiece, and put them where they belonged, doing a quick check as well.

We went on in silence, for a while. The Undercity had only become more labyrinthine since back in my youth, and even the two of us together had to take care not to get lost.

I wasn’t sure what Warren was thinking about, but I myself was mostly busy placating the monkey. It was seriously pissed, and I could feel the telltale pressure behind my eyes that I usually felt when it was trying to take over. Calling my father in, not fighting him, not charging in to kill the Ascendant and everyone even remotely cooperating with him. Not punishing Volca and Lag for their transgressions had pissed it off, not punishing Sara, not…

Well, the monkey always had its reasons to be angry, no matter what I did or didn’t do. I’d just have to pacify it once I got my hands on the Ascendant… neither it nor I would have any objections to what I was going to do to him, nor would anyone else I suspected…

The ringing sound of my cellphone made me jump, and I pawed for it in surprise. Not used to having a cellphone, I didn’t get it, as it was beneath my monkey skin. I had to stop, reach through it and carefully pull the phone out with my real hand, the monkey’s flesh and fur vanishing like a dream.

I checked the caller ID (I could still remember a time before there was such a thing as caller IDs), but it was an unknown number – no surprise there, I only had Warren and Elouise in my contact list.

“Hello?” I asked. Not the smoothest opening, line, but I was in a hurry.

“Hello,” said a young female voice back, and it took me a moment to place it – Camille. “It’s me, Camille. Hennessy is with me, too.”

Oh. Of course, I thought, chiding myself for the momentary surprise I felt at being called by her. Of course someone other than Hennessy would have to call me for her. “Hello, Camille. Hello, Hennessy.” I assumed she was listening in. “What can I do for you two?” I noticed Warren’s suit’s head swerving around to look at me.

“Look, we, ah…” she began, but stopped. She seemed uncomfortable. “We were talking, and… Tamara kind of… spilled the beans. On what she asked you to do.”

Ah. “I see.” Don’t confirm or deny. She might be fishing for information. And that though, right there, showed how paranoid I got when my father was around. “You want to talk about that?” If they want to get at him personally, they’ll be mighty disappointed, I thought quietly to myself. There was no chance in heaven or hell that I’d let Hennessy anywhere near the guy, ever again.

“Yes, we… we talked it over, Hennessy and me,” she said carefully. Something wasn’t right. She didn’t sound angry at all, nor eager. “And we want you to stop.”

I did stop, standing still. What? “You don’t want me to go after him anymore?” No way, dear. He’s going down, today.

“No no, not that,” she replied, now more agitated. Once again, I noticed that her voice really was extraordinarily pleasant to listen to. “He’s a criminal, and a monster, and he has to be stopped.”

“I don’t see the problem then. I most certainly am going to stop him. Hard.”

“I said he has to be stopped. I never said he has to die,” she countered, and her voice became harder. “I… we want you to bring him in. Alive. So he can stand trial.”

“He deserves to die, Camille. For what he did to you, to Hennessy, to everyone he’s harmed,” I replied. “It is only just that he suffer for his sins.” As we all do.

“There’s a difference between justice and vengeance. Please, do it for us. We don’t… we don’t want anyone to die on our account,” she said, voice faltering towards the end. “And if you hurt or kill him now, you’d be doing it for us. For Hennessy. She doesn’t need that on her conscience.”

She was making it very hard for me to object. “Does Hennessy agree with that?” I really, really wanted a reason to object.

“She didn’t, but… we talked, and she’s agreed with me. The Ascendant has to be punished, but he has to be punished right, or we won’t be better than him. We don’t ask you to risk your life just to bring him in alive – but if it’s possible, and not suicidal, then please, don’t kill him. Bring him in to face justice.”

I can see what father meant. I resumed my walk, taking a deep breath with the first step. “Alright.”

“Alright? Just like that?” she asked, surprised.

“Yes, just like that,” I said, a smile tugging at my lips. “What did you expect, that I declare my hatred is too great to be contained?”

“Kinda? I mean, with your dad’s rep…” She was back to sounding insecure. Careful. “I mean, there was this whole thing with him going after people who… who hurt his family.”

She’s afraid of saying the wrong thing. I’d misjudged this girl a great deal. “I am not my father,” I said lightly. “And besides, that wasn’t him, actually. He just took the blame to protect the actual culprit.”

“Oh. That’s… unexpected,” she replied. There was a pause, as if she was quietly talking – or perhaps communicating in another way – to someone. “Who did kill that mob?”

“I did,” I said, pushing down the sudden surge of rage from the monkey. “They killed my mother. I was there. I manifested and killed them back. Father came in too late to do anything other than whisk me away and destroy the evidence.”

Oh,” she said, quietly. “I… uh…”

Great conversation killer, Aap. “That’s in the past now,” I said. “Look, I have to hang up – but I hear you. Both of you. I’ll do my best to bring him in alive and able to stand trial.”

“Alright. Thank you, uh… I don’t actually know how I should call you. Aaron Goldschmidt, I guess?”

I chuckled. “No, my parents never married. My birth name is Aaron Alexandrou. I guess I’ll go back to using it.” Mother would have liked that.

“I see. Well, thank you, Aaron. And… be safe, I guess.”

“You’re very welcome, both of you. I’ll see you soon.” She hung up, and Warren and I continued our way to the tenements.

***

The tenements were under attack.

We’d heard the noise of battle long before we actually reached the old sewage plant, and we’d both hauled ass (Warren’s armor was fast, and it actually cornered better than I did at top speed), but by the time we got there, the fight was already well under way.

Civilians ran by us, forcing us to dodge (I ran along the wall on all fours, while Warren drove along the wall, one set of wheels on the floor and one on the wall), giving more than a few people one hell of a scare they really didn’t need. Even Warren actually looked pretty fearsome in that armor.

The people running away… I recognised the smells and voices of a few of Malphas’ tenants, and I assumed that the others – mostly really young and really old people, with more children than I was comfortable seeing in such a situation (that is, there were children) – were also from the tenements. No one seemed to be hurt, though, at least not beyond a few cuts and bruises here and there.

We didn’t even slow down for them, rounding a corner that led, through a broken wall, into the old sewage plant, and right into a piece of expressionist artwork.

The tenements had been smashed, the whole structure distorted as if a giant fist had slammed into it from one side. Tendrils of steel extended out of it, some having sprouted blades, but they were inert now.

A figure shrouded in an aura of blue light was flying around, casually dodging orbs of blazing heat. I could hear him laugh from all the way across the plant.

“Blauschwinge!” I said, for Warren’s benefit. “He’s one of the Ascendants people.”

“So, that’s his name,” Warren said calmly. “Fucker nearly punched a hole into my niece.” I heard gears shift, his armor’s stance lowering, somehow becoming more… threatening. “He’s mine.”

I had a wildly inappropriate thought along the lines of Wow, Warren’s grown some balls, before I nodded. “I’ll take out any support he has, and run interference when necessary.” The monkey howled within me, ready for battle, but I didn’t let it out. Yet. Soon.

Warren took off in his armor, wheels screaming on the concrete that the plant was based on, and I leapt into a mass of pipes, out of sight, overtaking him. I needed to get a lay of the land, find out who was there and what to do. I hoped Malphas wasn’t dead, at least, but I had to be ready for anything.

I was also keenly aware of the fact that I had no idea what Blauschwinge was actually capable of, short of some manner of ranged attack that took down both Volca and Lag in one go (the fact that he’d apparently circumvented Lag’s power was… worrisome to say the least).

The terrain, at least, favoured me. Pipes and other equipment were still around, where it hadn’t all been scavenged, and even where the metal was gone (no doubt harvested by Malphas for his tenements), there was still plenty of cover left over in the form of holes in the ground and slabs of shattered concrete that were rising from the ground.

I snuck towards Blauschwinge’s general position, though ‘snuck’ might’ve been the wrong word there – I was moving faster than most cars, just really, really carefully, and I got close enough to get a detailed look in less than a minute.

Bri- Volca was on the ground, firing blasts of super-heated air at Blauschwinge, who was dodging them rather easily – whenever he didn’t just remain in place, letting the blast splash harmlessly against him. All the while, he was laughing, sometimes shouting something in German – unfortunately, my German wasn’t good enough to understand what exactly he was saying, especially since he had a pretty weird accent, but I was pretty sure he was throwing some manner of insults at the young woman fighting him. She, in turn, was screaming incoherently with every blast.

Something’s off, I thought as I watched him. Most of Volca’s blasts were completely ineffectual, actually shrinking until they were barely visible before they touched the man, barely ruffling his long, curly blonde hair. But some weren’t diminished much, or at all, and he dodged them instead. Curious.

I couldn’t make out Malphas, Lag or any other combatants – had this guy really come here on his own? Either he was an idiot, insane or just that powerful.

Hope for the first, prepare for the second, be ready to run from the third.

First, however, I had to find Malphas. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure that he was still alive. I’d have to trust in Volca and Warren while I did that.

Sneaking around the fight – if you could even call it that, with Blauschwinge not bothering to actually attack Volca – I contacted Warren. <Cartastrophy, be careful. This guy has a weird defensive power. It seems to only work occasionally, though I can’t pick out the pattern yet. He’s fast, though, and I know that he has a powerful ranged attack.>

<Don’t worry, fucker won’t know what hit him!> came the excited reply.

Oh well. Let’s hope he’ll distract him long enough for me to find Malphas. Then I can help. I just hoped he wouldn’t get himself killed… or that the monkey wouldn’t snap before I got into the fight and go on a killing spree.

And then there was the Ascendant himself, and whatever he could bring to bear apart from Blauschwinge. And whatever scheme my father may or may not have got going. And…

Feels just like the good old days, really.

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B011.11 Monkey Family

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As usual, he managed to deliver such heartwarming words with casual, deadpan routine. And the saddest thing was, I believed him.

I decided to focus on something else. “Cartastrophy,” I said, looking at my old friend in his chromed costume. “Did your niece get through it?” I’d been so worried about Elouise, I hadn’t even considered that his niece had been in that fight – and that she might’ve been among the casualties.

Fortunately, he just shrugged – couldn’t be that bad. “Girl got knocked around a bit, but she’s nothing if not tough.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” I crossed my arms, looking at the passing scenery – there weren’t that many entrances to the Undercity this close to the lake.

Nevertheless, we reached one soon. It looked like an abandoned storefront – one of those old retail stores that you expected to see a kindly old lady in, asking what she could get you. It looked like it had been cleared out a long, long time ago, the window glass long gone and replaced by boards, but there was a subtle Undercity tag over the door.

There were a few people out and about at this time, even here – mostly teenagers – but no one noticed Warren’s car, or the Dark in the backseat.

Warren turned to look half at me and half at him. “So, what’s our next step?” he asked, and I knew him well enough to be able to tell that he was pissed.

I looked at Dad – he’d want to lead this one, and I’d asked him to help, anyway.

“Don’t mind me,” he said to my surprise, as unreadable as ever when weearing his wraith.. “I’ll follow your lead on this.”

Huh. Fancy that. I hesitated for a moment, before I crossed my arms and thought it through. “What resources can we tap?” I asked him. “Is it just you and me-“

“And me,” Warren threw in. “I’m coming along, as well!”

We both looked at him, and I, at least, was surprised.

“Are you sure? Can’t really bring a car along down there, and he’s way out of your weight class, anyway,” I cautioned him, feeling my face twist into a concerned frown.

“I don’t give a shit,” he replied angrily, leaning in closer to me. “They hurt my niece. I pretty much raised that girl. What would you do?”

I just nodded, but I had to add, “How do you intend to help? You’ve never been much of a frontline fighter, and…”

He leapt out of the driver’s seat. “I’m a gadgeteer, Aap,” he said as he walked around the car, to its trunk. Me and dad got out and followed, with him staying quiet on this. “I may be bottom-rung, but I’ve had my powers for twenty years. I’ve had money, I’ve had a workplace, I’ve had time.”

The trunk opened as he approached, and a huge assembly folded out of it, as he himself turned his back to it, spreading his arms.

Two mechanical clamps connected to his shoulders, then one each to each wrist and another to the back of his waist. I watched as a mass of… stuff… folded out of the trunk and wrapped around him, lifting him off the ground. Gears shifted, connectors snapped into each other, pistons worked and a few moments later, there was an eleven-foot-tall metal giant standing where the barely five-foot-tall gadgeteer had been.

The armor was big and very bulky around the shoulders, getting more narrow towards the ‘crotch’. Its main chassis was big enough to contain all of Warren’s five feet and there was another foot added by its head. The legs looked comparatively short, ending in claw-like feet with big wheels on the sides that weren’t touching the ground. Its arms were disproportionally long and got bulkier from the elbows onward, the left one ending in what was unmistakably a huge gun – a cannon, really – and the right one tipped by a metal claw that was reinforced by honest-to-god industrial pistons. A sharp claw that looked better suited to cutting or crushing than holding things. Judging by the size of the ‘forearm’, there were probably more gadgets hidden in there. The head itself was basically a chrome dome with a single red eye… it was basically a simplified Zaku head, from that anime he never, ever would stop gushing about. The whole thing was mostly painted a dull black, with chrome details and a flame design on the cannon.

“Dude, when the hell did you start making power armor?” I asked, flabbergasted. Dad was already looking the thing over, his inner tech geek drawn to the huge claw and the assembly beyond it.

The eye turned to look at me. Warren’s voice came, barely distorted, out of the headpiece. “I’ve been trying to upgrade from cars to power armor for years now. Since you left, actually. Never got really far at it, I mean, I just couldn’t get a good chassis and joint system going, but I’ve been fiddling with the weaponry and overall design for almost fifteen years. Then I got lucky – my nephew specialises in heavy-duty power armor. The joints, chassis and the leg assembly are mostly his work.”

“You’ve been stealing your nephew’s designs?” I asked, surprised.

“What? No!” he said, sounding insulted. “He knows. I mean, the statute of limitations ran out on my crimes a long, long time ago. Even my work on the Matriarch’s cars is not illegal, and he doesn’t know about that, anyway.” He made the huge machine shrug, which looked… very expressive, thanks to its articulate, piston-supported shoulders. “He’s new to the game. Having free access to my work has given him one hell of a boost. And in exchange, he helped me with this baby, though I had to promise not to commit any crimes with it.”

“Vigilante justice is a crime,” my father threw in as he inspected th cannon. “Napalm cannon? Nasty. I like it.”

“This asshole hurt his sister. I’m sure he’d understand,” Warren replied. “And the cannon fires a semi-solid napalm-like compound. Ignites upon contact with the air, and it burns even underwater. I have a spray to put it out, though.”

“Oh, I like that! But this,” he pointed at a few bits that looked… pretty much like the rest of the cannon to me. “It’s modular – what else can it do?”

“I have a rocket launcher, containment foam, acid spray and a diamond-tipped chainsaw in this one, for when I’m out of ammo,” Warren replied, happy to present and explain his work. I opened my mouth to interrupt the geekfest, but he just went on. “And I have another chainsaw here, in my right arm, and the claw, and a drill. And some more stuff in the shoulders and chest, and some light weaponry and heat decoys in the legs. Also…”

“Oi! Enough!” I shouted, interrupting him before he could get really going. Both of them turned to me. “We’re on a schedule here, guys! Leave the nerdgasms for later!”

Father sighed, and turned to Warren. “He’s right. Still, we ought to talk later on. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for this work, or arrange a trade.”

“I can’t share anything my nephew made, not with the Syndicate or other criminals, SIr,” Warren said. “I promised him.”

“Understandable. But I’m honestly more interested in these modular weapon mounts, and your napalm cannon. I know a lady who’d pay good money for the designs, and I’m sure she’d be willing to share some of hers, too.”

“Sounds good to me, Sir. But lets focus on the job, now, before Aap’s head explodes.”

“Thanks for your consideration,” I said between clenched teeth. “So, back to my original question. What kind of resources are you willing to commit?” I asked my father.

“Any necessary. I’d obviously prefer to keep things small and contained, of course – if only to obscure the connection between me, you and your children – but I am willing to call in anyone whom you feel necessary, up to and including Wyrm and the Five.”

I blinked. Wow.

“Who’s Wyrm?” Warren asked, his ‘eye’ moving back and forth between the two of us.

After a moment, I turned to look up at him (any other time, I’d be laughing about the Irony of me having to look up at Warren). “Someone I wouldn’t like to set loose on anyone less despicable than the Ascendant.” I looked at my father again. “If we want to keep your involvement down, then you shouldn’t appear as yourself. Nor should the Five meddle. As for Wyrm… a cyber attack would be useful, I can’t imagine someone like the Ascendant not using a network of some kind, but I’d rather she didn’t show up in person.”

He nodded. “I think I have something in mind,” he said, and the wraith around him began to move. Warping, it changed him. Gray armor plates emerged as his form became shorter, closer to a normal person’s height, but bulkier, like someone who worked out.

Warren and I watched as he changed into a well-muscled man in a jetblack bodysuit, with gray armor plates on his chest, shoulders and arms, as well as gray greaves and boots. He was wearing a bulky gray helmet with a thick, curved horn emerging from the forehead, and intelligent brown eyes looked out from the only openings in his costume – though even they were covered by a clear plastic of some kind.

“Holy shit, the Rhino?” Warren asked. “The Rhino is actually the Dark?!”

Typical, I thought. “Have you been moonlighting as random supervillains again?” I asked, frowning again.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good workout when most people shit their pants at the mere mention of your name,” he said. His voice was different, nothing liked the polished perfection he used when he was ‘normal’, and not the Dark’s usual chorus. A gruff, strong voice, but not as brutish as you’d expect from a person of his appearance.

He seemed to follow my train of thought, because he immediately added, “Playing a role too perfectly is just another way of betraying that it’s a role. Controlled flaws in the performance help sell it.”

I could still remember the lesson, back then, and I had to blink for a moment. It was, perhaps, not the best thing he could have done to put me at ease – he had to know that his lessons were still a sore point for me – but it helped to know that he wasn’t acting too hard.

Unless it was his lesson at work here, him inserting deliberate flaws in his performance to sell it… but then again, I’d long since given up any hope of being able to trust him unconditionally. Best not to dwell on it.

“Why would this Rhino help me in fighting the Ascendant?” I asked, instead of responding to his comment.

“The Rhino is a pure mercenary. He fights for anyone who can pay him, hero, villain, government, it doesn’t matter,” he replied smoothly – a tad too smoothly, he wasn’t quite into the performance yet. “He only takes jobs that promise combat, preferably combat against capes or cowls, and he only kills against a big raise in pay. He never breaks a contract once he’s been paid, and he’s notorious enough to demand being paid in advance.”

“So I hired the Rhino and he’s supporting me for purely mercenary reasons,” I asked, while I watched a group of teenagers pass us by, their eyes turning glassy. “How much did I pay him?”

“A lot, but you don’t have to quote a rate. The Rhino does not discuss his contracts with people not directly involved with them.”

I nodded. Nice and simple roleplay, then. “What can the Rhino do?” I should now what I had to work with, so I didn’t depend on him doing anything out of character.

“He seems to be a straight brute at first glance,” he replied. “Not as tough as you, but tough. Almost as strong as you, and he regenerates. A quirk of his power allows him to regenerate his clothing, as well. He also has a limited ability to teleport through non-living solid objects – for example, when he’s charging a foe and he runs into a wall, he does not break it, but rather runs into it and out of another surface of sufficient size and made of the same material, with a range of about three hundred feet. The faster he is upon entry, the farther he can teleport.”

Interesting. “I can see how that would catch people off-guard,” I admitted. And it’ll be a killer in the Undercity. “Alright, do I need to know anything else?”

“Not really. I’ll just beat up whoever you tell me to,” my father replied before laughing quietly. “It’ll be a novel experience, if nothing else.”

“True that.”

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