B13.c On Wings of Lead

Previous | Next

Malphas never set himself an alarm clock – he didn’t even own one, there was no need. As the day began, he felt his people wake and go about their morning routines, the vibrations of their increased movements propagating through the material he’d filled with his power, reaching him, the contrast to the relative calm of the night enough to wake him from his restless slumber.

He turned onto his side with a groan, the ground he lay on molding itself flawlessly, instinctually, to his body, far more comfortable than any bed could possibly be; people often thought that his room spartan, with no luxuries other than his ever-growing collection of comic books and a single poster, but the truth was, furniture, even a bed, was superfluous – not when he could control the tenements at will, thanks to all the power he’d channeled into the material over the last two years, ever since he created their first incarnation. Even now, as he woke, the ground rose up, pushing him into an upright sitting position, then extended into a chair that was sitting on – once he wanted to rise, it’d be easier to do so from this position than from the ground.

Next, he reached out with his right arm, as a tendril of semi-liquid metal extended, handing him a cup of steaming hot coffee it’d brought from the communal kitchen, in his private metal cup-

The cup slipped through his non-existant fingers as a horrible, stinging pain shot through them, through his arms and into his shoulder.

He screamed, doubling over and off his chair, hitting the ground face-first as the pain – and the knowledge – of his missing limb took over his mind, not even noticing it as the ground melted to receive him, making it look like he’d dove into jelly, sinking in before he rose back up, curled up around the stump of his right arm.

For several minutes, he lay there in just a pair of ratty grey sweatpants, his slender, dark-skinned chest heaving, trying very hard not to hyperventilate – he’d done that a few times, the first few nights after Blauschwinge’s attack, passing out from the strain and the shock.

Fuck. Fucking fucking fucker, fuck you! he thought, as the memory of the arrogant, mad-eyed villain rose up. The contemptuous snarl on his face as he grabbed Volca using his power to simply chop through her body, from shoulder to hip, with one hand, ripping her in two. Lag’s anguished cry, as she ran to her dying cousin, touching her, taking her wounds onto herself.

Taking her death unto herself.

Then, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, he’d flown out, dodging several spikes Malphas had shot his way, those he didn’t simply allow to splash harmlessly off his body, and then smashed his tenements with a single blast, warping and twisting them so violently, even his power hadn’t been able to counteract its brutal deformation, hadn’t been able to evacuate everyone in time before they were crushed, killed.

Never, not once, since he’d gained his power had he failed so thoroughly. It hurt more than losing his arm, in its own way, to have failed the people he’d sworn to protect.

Another lance of pain shot through the space where his arm should be, into the useless stump sticking out from his shoulder, making him bite down on another scream, silently thanking his foresight in sealing up his room, save for a pipe leading outside for air, before he went to sleep, so no one would hear his initial screams.

It took him almost ten minutes to recover enough that he could gather his wits about himself and rise up on shaky feet, using his power to wrap several tendrils around his waist and left shoulder, to steady himself. Another tendril had caught his falling cup earlier and now passed it to him.

Strange, I didn’t think of that, he noticed, his mind still numb from all the pain, almost moaning as the hot black liquid – he hated sweets, never developed a taste for them, and always took his coffee black – ran down his throat and soothed him, while also helping him wake up.

Gulping it down in one go, using his power to make the cup so smooth every last drop would run out, he dropped it, letting it melt back into the rest of the tenements.

Only after taking a few more breaths did he finally look at the stump. It’d been tied off, bandaged expertly, first by Aap Oordra, then later by the staff of the hospital which he and Volca had forced him to go to.

Not that he’d protested much, once the adrenaline had started to fade and the full magnitude of the pain made itself known.

Speaking of which, it was coming back again, so he popped some painkillers from a small can that rose out of the floor, then retreated back into it.

They wouldn’t kick in for a while, but just knowing that they would was already helping, putting his mind a little more at ease.

Taking some deep breaths, he slowly counted down from ten, took a look at his poster – it always lifted his spirits, ever since he’d hit puberty – then simply walked through the wall leading to the hallway outside his bedroom, stepping out fully armoured with metal drawn from it, making his way to the shower room on the top level, where he resided.

Behind him, the floor of his room overturned itself, drawing in the sweat and tears in, channeling them out of the tenements and into the drain, leaving no trace behind.

***

One thorough shower later, the eleven-year-old was clean and relatively fit again, as the painkillers slowly kicked in and he’d removed the last traces of his troubled sleep.

Not that he had long to enjoy it, thanks to his stomach immediately deciding to rumble loudly, announcing its need for food.

I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, he realised, startled, even as he felt relieved that he had the top level for himself and no one was around to hear it.

Seeing no pressing business to take care of, he dove through the floor, using his ability to feel all throughout the structure to avoid hitting any of the tenants that moved through the intervening levels. All of them were already quite used to him diving through the tenements in such a fashion, and no one even flinched.

Malphas tried very hard not to dwell on how much emptier the tenements were, compared to before the attack. Not only had he been unable to save eleven of his people, but several more had chosen to move out, scared off by the brutal attack, even though the attacker had been brought down almost immediately afterwards (though Malphas wasn’t sure whether he’d survived or not – that mercenary working for Aap Oordra had taken his body with him, saying he’d take care of everything). He’d told them that they were welcome to return at any time, and he hoped that they’d remember that the tenements were still the safest place to be in in the Undercity, but for now, he felt the absence of twenty-three of his own.

There were few things Malphas hated as much as losing his own.

Fortunately, just as his thoughts were about to turn to all the others he’d lost over the years, he reached the communal kitchen and mess hall that he’d built into this newest iteration of the tenements, while fixing the damage from Blauschwinge’s attack. It was bigger, now, extending all the way up to the roof of the plant above, and broader, the outer walls multi-layered, disconnected from each other while still being reinforced, hopefully making it more resistant against any similar attacks.

He’d taken the chance to add several upgrades that people had been asking for for a while now, including expanding the shared kitchenspace into a proper mess hall, with enough room to provide seats for as many people as could possibly fit into the tenements.

When he got there, he was instantly distracted from his gloomy thoughts as he saw an increasingly rare sight at the tenements, though this one was one he was unambigiously feeling good about.

Volca sat at a table near the actual kitchen, sipping coffee from a huge mug. She was wearing sweatpants and a blue sweater, and her hair was still wet and clinging to her head and neck.

The other tenants kept their distance, mostly moving around her table to get to the coffee machine behind the kitchen counter, and in general doing what they could not to offend her in any way. Ever since Lag’s death, she’d become increasingly irritable and violent, to the point where, during the first days, Malphas – himself still recovering from having lost his arm – had been forced to put her down a few times to prevent her from hurting others.

He’d just about started to consider locking her away for a while, or splitting a part of the tenements off to give her a space of her own, when Aap Oordra had shown up, out of the blue, and offered her and Malphas a job. It hadn’t taken much prodding for her to accept it, though Malphas himself had declined – he didn’t like the thought of being away from his tenements for too long.

She’d calmed down since then, with no more incidents that’d required his intervention, though that was at least partly because she spent less and less time down here, and partly because she was always so tired when she did.

Still, he worried, and he was also curious about things were going, so he decided to join her after getting his own meal.

When he walked to the counter, the cook, Marley, saw him and picked up the pot of coffee from the machine, letting it flow down onto the bare metal counter. A cup formed out of it, catching the glorious java, and a bowl as he simply dumped some stew onto it, already used to the routine.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice much deeper-sounding thanks to his helmet. The short, wiry man behind the counter just nodded (he was mute, as far as Malphas new), picking them up and walking over to Volca. “Mind if I join you?”

The young blonde looked up at him, taking a moment before she responded – not because she had to think it over much, he was sure, but simply because her brain was not quite as awake as the rest of her body, just yet – and nodded. “Sure thing. Your place anyway.”

He nodded back and sat down, his armour immediately fusing with the bench. He picked up the cup of coffee, the lower portion of his helmet folding open (he’d styled it to open kind of like that alien from that old Schwarzenegger movie) to let him drink.

Ah, coffee.

He noticed Volca staring rather intently at him, as he drank, and gave her a questioning look.

“Ah, sorry,” she said, averting her eyes and raising her mug to take a sip. “Just… I can still barely believe that you’re a freaking preteen. Never would’ve guessed.”

He felt his face heat up a bit. “Um, yeah. That’s why I always go around in full armour, you know? I need people to take me seriously, not see me as just a kid, so I can take care of everything.”

She snorted, almost laughing, putting her mug down and looking incredulously at him.

“What?” he asked, defensively. His helmet snapped shut again.

“Malphas, dude, you’re so far beyond being ‘just a kid’ it ain’t even funny anymore,” she replied, grinning at him over her steaming hot mug. “If there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about, it’s anyone ’round here not taking you seriously.” She looked him straight in the eyes, her gaze as intent as her words.

He looked down at his food, looking at his food rather than at her, feeling embarrased. “You think so?” he asked her, not really taking it all that seriously. He knew how adults were about that, treating children like they weren’t able to think properly or something. Like they couldn’t be trusted with anything.

It always annoyed him, seeing how the adults themselves couldn’t really be trusted with anything, ever. One look at the state of the world showed that.

Except for guys like Aap Oordra, he’d rarely met any adults who seemed all that better than kids at being smart. A lot were worse, in his experience, like Volca used to be.

“Yeah, I mean, dude, look around you,” she replied, seeming to wake up fully for the first time and leaning forward over the table even as she gestured at everything around them. “You built this. All of this. On your own. You’re taking care of dozens of people, all alone. You were, what, nine when you started it?”

“Ten,” he grumbled, annoyed. “I started this two years ago. Am almost twelve, now.”

“Yeah, I betya even Double-L and the Dark weren’t this badass at your age! And, and, I mean, dude, you lost an arm defending this place!” She almost shouted that last sentence, then suddenly became a lot calmer, sitting back again and averting her eyes. “The people here love you, Malphas. You don’t need to hide a thing from us, you know? No one who matters is gonna think less of you for being young.”

He had trouble believing that. Especially since it came from Volca, the same woman who thought it was a good idea to put chili powder into coffee and hot chocolate.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll think about that,” he replied. “So, uh, how’s work, anyway? I barely see you around here anymore.” She’d barely spent three nights in the tenements, since the night Lag died. Not that he couldn’t understand that, even disregarding her new job.

She groaned, slamming her head onto the table. “Don’t remind me. Aap’s a fucking slavedriver,” she said, muffled. “I don’t just have to work full-time, I also have to train. ‘Until you’re up to my minimum standards’ he says. ‘So I don’t have to worry you’ll get yourself killed by some random crook’ he says.”

“Uh, training? What kind of training?” he asked, surprised. He hadn’t heard about that.

“What kind of training? Easier to say what kind of training he’s not giving me!” she complained loudly, making several heads turn their way, though the other tenants still kept their distance, giving the two metahumans their room. “He’s having me study to get my GED, and to get a proper, legal license both for the job and as a cape. A cape, me! Plus combat training, and investigative training, and negotiation practice and it ain’t the normal stuff either, you know? I looked it up, the kinda stuff he makes me learn, even the cops’ special forces don’t do that much! I dunno who trained him, but it must’ve been a complete sadist! Today’s my day off from training – not work, just training – otherwise I’d be out jogging with a backpack full of rocks while getting quizzed on crime scene procedure. And his pop quizzes! Any time we’re not on the clock, he might attack me, out of the blue! To test whether I’ve been practicing all the reversals and tricks he’s teaching me! And he says we’re just getting started!”

Malphas couldn’t help but gulp, feeling glad that he’d dodged a bullet by refusing Aap’s job offer. Even though he’d been really, really eager to accept, if only to spend more time with him. Aap was freaking awesome. The coolest adult he’d ever met, ever.

Still, what Volca was telling him sounded like the proverbial training from hell.

“That… sounds a little extreme, yeah,” he agreed with her. “Does he, uh, what does he do, while you train?”

She shrugged, while remaining bent over, her head on the table. “Most of the time, he trains with me. Does all the stuff he makes me do. ‘cept when he takes on some extra work and is busy. Then he has Wa- I mean, Cartastrophy watch over it instead.”

“Well, at least je doesn’t make you do anything he ain’t willing to do himself, right?” he pressed.

She looked up, finally, looking annoyed, and waved it off. “Nah, he’s pretty cool ’bout that. He’s done it all when he was little, already, and he does it again with me. And he even pays me for the hours I spend training. Well, will pay me. Haven’t got my first paycheck yet, just a signing bonus.”

He tilted his head to the side. “A signing bonus? How much did he pay you?” he asked, curiously. If he’d understood it correctly, Aap had just returned from being some kind of prisoner of war – how much money could he already have, really?

“Ten k,” she said, grinning. “First time I made this much money the honest way and all at once. Or any way, really.”

His eyes nearly bugged out. “T-ten thou? Seriously? Where’s he get all that money!?” That may not have been all that much up top, but ten thousand dollar were one hell of a fortune down here.

She waved an arm. “Savings from before he went to war. Plus, he got money from the government. Basically, they paid him his salary as a non-com for every single day he spent as a PoW. And on top of that, bounty for turning the Ascendant in. Guy’s a freaking millionaire, not that he seems to care about it, ‘cept how it lets him set up his new business.”

Malphas jaw was hanging open in shock as he processed that. He knew Volca was gonna be making money now, real money, not the occasional take from some crime, but if that was just her signing bonus

“Ah, this reminds me,” she continued, laying her arm on the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking straight at him again. “You’re gettin’ some of that, too.”

“W-what?”

“The bounty, silly,” she grinned at him. “Aap’s insisting that everyone who helped with the fight at the water works gets a cut, ‘cept for that stoic mercenary he’d hired – he got paid already, or sumthin’.”

“Seriously? I, uh, I dunno what to say. How much am I gettin’?” he asked dumbly, not sure what else to say.

“Bounty was a few million. Got paid out to him and he’s giving us all an equal share, after taxes and all. That’s you, me, Cartastrophy and himself, so about, a little less than a mill each, once the money comes in.”

He felt the people move about in the tenements, going about their business, some leaving to get to whatever small jobs they had, or just to scavenge or do other stuff. Time passed.

Volca got up and went to get herself some beef barley soup, then came back, sitting down to eat. Time passed.

“You know, I’d say it’s funny seein’ ya look like a statue, but then I realised you always look like that, anyway,” she commented, when he’d still not said anything halfway into her meal.

“Uhhh…” He shook his head, trying to recover his wits again, then groaned when the jerky motion made pain shoot through his stump.

It wasn’t important, though, because, damn it, he’d never even seen that much money, nevermind had been told it would be his. And now Aap Oordra wanted to give him nearly a million dollars, when he’d basically taken down the Ascendant and his cronies all on his own?

“I, um, I really don’t know what to say,” he replied. “What, uh, what do I have to do to get the money?” he asked the only thing that came to mind, or at least the only one that wasn’t him just babbling incoherently.

“Just come with me to the office,” she replied between two spoonfuls of soup. “You can talk to Aap and get all the info.”

“Leave the tenements? But, I need to-” he began to protest, but she cut him off.

“Dude, it’s gonna be alright if you’re gone for just a morning or something,” she said, annoyed. “Besides, what do you think is gonna help this place more? You being here this mornin’, or you havin’ nine-hundred kay to throw around?”

He looked away, embarrassed. She was right, of course, but… leaving the tenements, his place of power behind… it wasn’t just that something might happen to people around here, it was, it wasn’t something he really felt comfortable doing. Ever. Even leaving them to go after the Ascendant, it had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

Volca finished her soup and got up. “So, you comin’? I got a schedule to keep, so I can’t hang around and wait, big guy.”

He looked at her, then he looked around at the other people in the mess hall. Most of them were focused on their food or their conversations, but a few noticed him looking at them and looked back, smiling and waving.

Everyone here was ragged, their clothes old, some of them handed down half a dozen or more times, within the tenements. Food was just a thin beef barley soup, water and coffee from a scavenged coffee machine they’d somehow fixed up, but which kept breaking, over and over again.

Forget nine hundred thousand, I could do so much for people around here with just nine hundred dollars, period.

That thought was what decided him, finally, and he stood up, nodding to her. “Alright, let’s go.”

***

“You know, I haven’t seen the sun in months?” he asked Volca, as they left the Undercity through an old, abandoned subway station, stepping out onto the open street and drawing no few looks. He’d left his armour behind, putting on some real clothes – well, more than just underpants and sweatpants – for the first time in a long time, and that alone was making him incredibly nervous, but even so, at his age, and with just one arm, he was drawing stares.

At least his sweater hid the bandages around the stump, so it wasn’t evident that it was a recent injury, and not just something he’d been born with or whatever.

He didn’t like it, feeling both pitied and exposed, two things he really did not want to feel.

“You should get out more,” she replied, walking ahead confidently, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. New jeans, not brand-name stuff, but still, new and well-fitting, and a stylish black sweater, her hair up in a messy ponytail, and just a touch of actual make-up on her face.

Maybe it wasn’t just him who was drawing stares. He’d never really thought about it, but walking with her now, out of costume and all, he couldn’t help but notice that she was really quite… attractive.

It was quite annoying really, ever since about two months ago, he’d been noticing girls more and more. The poster on the wall of his bedroom being Exhibit A of his newly awakened interest in the formerly icky half of the population.

At least most of the women living in the tenements – ‘cept for Lag and Volca, and now just Volca – weren’t all that pretty, so he hadn’t gotten tongue-tied or anything in front of people yet.

At least Volca was someone he’d known since before he’d started noticing girls, so he could talk to her normally.

“Maybe I should,” he told her, as they walked down the street. “The breeze feels nice.” It was a windy day in the Windy City, and it was really refreshing. It even made his stump throb less painfully.

All the noise around them wasn’t nearly so nice, though. The Undercity wasn’t exactly tranquil, but up here, it was a cacophony. Cars driving around, people walking, talking, shouting. Electronics, everywhere, beeping and screeching and more.

He focused on the way ahead, trying to shut the worst of it now, but it did distract him briefly, so he missed the first part of Volca’s next sentence.

“- sometime after the next months starts,” she said.

“Huh? Sorry, I got distracted, what’d you say?” he asked her, wishing he could look up at her face as they talked, but he didn’t have the tenements around him to feel where he was going, and know when he was about to walk into someone, so he was focusing on where he was going, moving much slower than usual and not just because his legs were shorter without his armour.

“I said I’ll probably be moving out once I get my cut of the bounty and my first paycheck,” Volca repeated.

He stopped dead, looking at her in shock. She moved on a few more steps, before she noticed that he’d stopped and turned around to look at him, looking confused, first, then sympathetic as she seemed to pick up on his mood.

“Y-you’re leaving?” he asked, dismayed. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand… the tenements were a place for people to hide out and rest, until they got their life back on track, and it was also the place where her cousin had died, and she was making money now, too, but…

But… he hated it when people left. No matter how good the reason.

She smiled sadly at him, moving closer and bending over as one of her hands slid to the back of his head, pulling him forward to touch her forehead to his.

“Hey, don’t be sad big guy,” she spoke softly. “I won’t disappear. I’ll still visit, and I’ll be helping out – you and the others down there, you did so much for me and Nina, there’s no way I could just abandon ya all. But I gotta find a place for myself, now that I can.”

He averted his eyes, even as he leaned against her, enjoying the gentle touch – a rarity, even when one discounted the fact that he was wrapped in several inches of steel most of the time. “I know. I’m sorry for being silly, it’s just…”

“You’re not being silly, big guy. Just… being you. And I freaking love you for that, you know?” She pulled back, then leaned in again, giving him a warm kiss on the forehead.

When she pulled back, the warmth stayed, spreading from his forehead through his head, and down towards his chest as he looked up at her. They were both a little teary-eyed.

“Thanks, Volca. And… congratulations, I guess. I should’ve said so sooner, but… I’m really glad you’ve found something like this.”

She laughed quietly. “Thank you, big guy, but really, that’s just thanks to Aap. I still dunno why he insisted on hirin’ me, it’s not like he can’t do everything I can do, just better, anyway. But I sure am grateful that he’s such a weirdo. Anyway, speaking of said weirdo, he’s gonna put me through hell if I’m late, so let’s get a move on!” She ran her hand through his close-cropped hair, then turned around and walked on.

He stared after her for a few moments, then he gave a start, and followed her.

***

They reached her new jobplace soon. It stood near the Downtown area of Chicago, though Malphas didn’t know enough about the upper city to identify the precise location. There were a lot of shops around, but also a few apartment buildings, plus a homely little park with a playground.

The building Aap’s business was in must have once been a bar or something. Only two storeys tall, it was made of red bricks, with a solid wooden double-door that a short flight of stairs led up to and stained-glass windows.

What stood out the most, though, was the sign above it. A circular carving of a monkey wearing one of those Sherlock-Holmes hats, holding a magnifying glass and a baton, and next to it, in bright golden letters, the words ‘Blue Monkey Investigative and Protective Services’.

He was just about to ask Volca what those weird hats were called, when the door opened and the absolutely prettiest girl he’d ever seen walked out.

She was tall, taller than Volca even though she was clearly at least a year or two younger, with chocolate-coloured, unblemished skin that didn’t match her more white-ish facial features, but strangely complemented them, and bright, gorgeous purple eyes, as well as rich brown-black hair currently up in a braided bun. Wearing black tights, calf-high boots, a skirt and a pink keyhole sweater, she drew the attention of every guy on the street with a line of sight towards her.

“Oh, Hennessy,” Volca greeted her with a chargrined smirk. “Looking good as ever, but shouldn’t you be in school?”

The gorgeous girl rolled her eyes at Volca, but didn’t reply, instead looking at Malphas and giving him a gentle smile that made his knees weak.

Holy shit… How the fuck could girls be so distracting without even talking?

Then another person stepped out of the door, turning around with the same motion as she seemed to be talking to someone inside.

“-dare forget it, or I’ll make your life hell!” she shouted, sounding angry in a cheery kind of way, before she turned around.

She was a freaking goddess. Even prettier than the purple-eyed girl, and that was saying a lot, her skin was as pale as her friend’s – at least, they seemed to be friends, as she stepped forward and took the other girl’s hand with hers – was dark, her hair a rich golden colour and her eyes a mesmerising green-blue, like liquid jewels. She was wearing jeans so tight they seemed painted on, high-heeled boots that made her as tall as the other girl and a complementary blue sweater with a keyhole cut out and she was even more stacked than her friend.

Some part of Malphas mind was realising that he was staring at her with his mouth hanging open, but most of it was just endlessly repeating blue screen.

“Oh, hello Evelyn,” the blonde goddess – or was angel more appropriate? – greeted Volca, before she focused on him. “Oh, and who’s this cutie?” She grinned, walking down the steps, her friend following after her as she came to a halt in front of him and bending over to put herself at eye-level with him. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

He tried very, very, very hard not to stare at her breasts, which weren’t really hidden all that much from view in this position. He really, really tried.

“Uhh… ahhh…” he replied dumbly, really wishing he had his armour – then at least he could seal his helmet and not seem like a complete idiot. “Um, my name, uh, it’s, uh…” What was his name again?

“God, Camille, lay it off with the charm,” Volca complained.

The angel rolled her eyes, laughing before she focused on him again. “I’m not doing anything to him, silly. Just being friendly.”

He finally tore his eyes off her, her cleavage, and looked up at her face, gathering his wits for his reply. “Um, I, my name, my name’s Adrian, m-m-miss.” He gulped, trying to somehow wet his dry throat.

“Hello Adrian. My name’s Camille,” she replied, her voice as melodic as her body was gorgeous, and stood up – mercifully – offering him her left hand to shake.

He took it, shaking it. “A, a, a pleasure to meet you, miss,” he said.

“Likewise. And this is Hennessy,” she introduced her gorgeous friend. They shook hands, too, as he felt a wave of calmness come over him, helping him relax and gather his wits again.

“Nice to meet you too, miss,” he said, though she didn’t reply. Not that he cared, he was still mostly focused on the other girl.

Suddenly, Volca spoke up. “Hey, do you two have some time free?”

The girls looked at her, then at each other, then at her again. “Sure we do, why?” Camille asked curiously.

“Well, I got work to get to, and I thought, maybe you’d like to show Adrian around the place a bit, and stuff?” Volca suggested.

He whirled his head, staring at her in surprise, but she ignored him entirely, focusing on the two younger girls instead.

Camille grinned, looking at him again, and he felt his face flush with heat. Even more when her eyes briefly dipped to the stump of his arm, then up to his face again, with just a hint of pity in them – though it didn’t bother him at all right now. “Sure! We can hang out a bit, maybe grab a bite to eat?”

“Sounds great,” Volca said. “Ok, Adrian, you have a fun time and we can take care of business later, you ok with that?”

“Uh, ah, um, ahhhh.”

She nodded sagely. “I knew you’d agree. Have fun you three!” She waved at him, and walked past the girls into the building.

He stared after her, for a moment, feeling both bewildered and a little bit betrayed, before he turned his eyes back to the an- Camille.

She grinned at him, like… he didn’t know what to compare it to, it was too dazzling.

Instead of pressing the point, she held out her free hand for him. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s go have some fun!”

He took her hand, unable to form words, and let her pull him along, he on one side and Hennessy on another.

He didn’t even notice that his arm wasn’t hurting at all anymore.

Previous | Next

Vote

Advertisements

B011.15 Monkey Family

Previous | Next

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.

Previous | Next

Vote

B011.14 Monkey Family

Previous | Next

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.

Previous | Next

Vote

B011.13 Monkey Family

Previous | Next

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.

Previous | Next

Vote

B011.6 Monkey Family

Previous | Next

We went up a spiral staircase (the steps were actually straight and not warped – nor were they smooth, providing a lot of traction) that apparently led to every level of the structure. I noticed, idly, that none of his steps made a sound, even though he was walking on metal surfaces with metal boots. Nifty trick.

He took me to the third floor, and down a hallway with walls covered in amateurish graffiti and then stopped in front of a doorway that had been covered in a thick green blanket. I could smell the two in the room beyond, as well as sweat and blood, and I heard a soft voice talking. I tensed up, ready to act – I smelled quite some blood.

Malphas reached out and knocked on the door frame, producing a clear, bell-like sound. “Are you two decent?” he asked. “You have a visitor, and I’m afraid it’s urgent!”

The two voices whispered furiously, just barely low enough for me not to be able to make out their exact words without calling up the monkey – and it was already hard enough to resist it as it was, right now. It was spoiling to end the fight I’d cut short earlier in the night.

Save it for the real target, I thought, even though I doubted it could even understand me. It never did respond to verbal cues.

“Come in, I guess!” Brimstone replied – her voice was quite recognisable, now that I thought about it. It made me think of smoke, in a pleasant way.

Malphas pulled the curtain aside, entered, and I followed him.

The room beyond opened into a section of the sewer plant that I hadn’t been able to see before, with the colourful, patchwork-curtain that usually provided some privacy drawn aside. The room itself contained two mattresses next to each other, with blankets and pillows. A small, old drawer stood at the foot end of the mattresses. Other than that, there was just a small, round table with two chairs and a cooking corner that held a pot hung over a simple fireplace made of stone.

Smelly lay on one mattress, her costume off down to her waist, exposing her upper half – which wasn’t nearly as tantalising as one might expect, since it was basically just one giant bruise with a side order of bloody gashes that were spread liberally across her torso, though focusing mostly on her left side – the direction from which Sara had shot her, in fact. If it wasn’t for a plastic tarp beneath, she’d have already ruined the mattress. Her skin was pale, bloodless, her short dirty blonde hair plastered to her head by sweat. Under normal circumstances, she’d probably be considered exceptionally beautiful, but right now, just looking at her hurt. She looked to be barely out of her teens.

Brimstone was kneeling next to her, her own mask taken off to reveal a face with similar enough features that I was pretty sure they were closely related – perhaps sisters, perhaps cousins. Her hair was longer, but of the same shade, her face a little younger and softer.

The wounded woman was in no shape to react to anything, but her relative was. Her eyes widened at the sight of him, even as her bare arms began to crack and blacken, until they were made of volcanic rock once more, the embers of great heat glowing from within the cracks. “You!” she shouted, her voice almost cracking in her fury.

I’d expected a violent reaction to my appearance, and thus I was ready to evade an attack – in this case by simply stepping back out the door, simultaneously turning around towards the left, to get out of sight.

However, it seemed that Malphas had also expected it – or he had some pretty impressive reflexes, because the ground rose up almost as soon as Brimstone’s arms changed, surging up like a living thing to block the blast of super-heated air that she let loose – No lava, at least.

Malphas didn’t say anything. He just stared at Brimstone as the barrier he just made sank back into the floor, smoothing itself out even as it spread the heated portion around.

Brimstone looked from me to him, then back. Then she looked at Malphas again, who simply stood where he had, not having moved an inch. I didn’t pick up any hostility in his stance, he didn’t even square his shoulders or shift his stance – but she subsided, her arms going back to normal.

I was very, very impressed.

The young woman took a deep breath, then looked at me with a murderous gaze. “What do you want, asshole?” she asked. Her smoky voice was dripping venom.

I looked at Smelly, then at her. “First, it appears I’ll help,” I said, taking my jacket off as I approached them and knelt next to Smelly, opposite from Brimstone. Before either of the three could react – Brimstone seemed to be just dumbfounded – I’d already done a quick check of the woman.

It didn’t look too good. “The gashes are from the shotgun,” I said firmly. “And these bruises are from me throwing her against the tree,” I pointed at several bruises along her back. “And these from me throwing you at her.” I pointed at several others. “But how’d she get the others?,” I asked, as I saw quite a few more bruises than I could possibly have caused in our battle. “And how come the shotgun tore her open like this, when she wasn’t even scratched back then?” I was sure she hadn’t taken this kind of damage from the shot.

“Who the fuck do y-” she began, but I cut her off with a level gaze.

“I’m a trained paramedic,” I told her. A statement that was not quite true, but not quite false, either – I wasn’t anything like a trained and certified paramedic, but both my father’s and my military training had given me a wide range of experience with wounds like these. Nevermind my field experience. “I can help her better than you can, so tell me what I’m missing.”

I could feel Malphas’ gaze on me and I saw Brimstone throwing a look at him. Though I couldn’t tell what she saw, it apparently convinced her to be more cooperative.

“Her power delays harm,” she explained. “Not all of it, but most of it is staggered. Inflicted bit by bit. And she can absorb harm done to others, staggering it.” I heard her grit her teeth. “When you threw me at her… I’m not nearly as tough as she is. It probably would’ve crippled me, and she absorbed that herself.”

Well, damn, I thought. “Does she have enhanced toughness or regenerative abilities?”

“Yes to both. Not very much of either, but combined with the delay, it’s usually enough.” Again, she grit her teeth.

“Hmhmm.” I took off my vest and rolled up my sleeves. “Do you have any alcohol or another disinfectant? If we disinfect these properly, there’ll be less strain on her regeneration.”

“Don’t have anything here,” she said, surly. “We’re not exactly swimming in cash, y’know?”

But you can afford really nice quality on your costumes, I thought, though I didn’t say it. Nice priorities.

“I have a first aid kit,” Malphas threw in. “I’ll get it immediately. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone,” he added before he left.

Brimstone grit her teeth again, but she very obviously respected Malphas enough to behave.

The young man – it was hard to think of him as the boy he was beneath that armor – returned quickly and handed me a military first aid kit.

I went to work, disinfecting her wounds before properly binding them. It only took me about fifteen minutes, all in all, to treat her properly while the other two watched.

By the end, I could already see her wounds starting to close as her regeneration picked up speed. Good, she’ll make it, I thought as I rose up.

“Is there somewhere I can clean up a bit?” I asked. My hands were pretty bloody.

“Down the hallway, the first room next to the stairs,” Malphas said.

***

The bathroom turned out to be quite nice. The tubing was literally a part of the room – Malphas either had phenomenal fine control, or he’d spent a lot of time working all the tubes and valves needed for a fully functional communal shower and several basins, with the mirrors literally fused into the walls – and seamlessly so.

I wonder why he lives down here – he could get damn rich with a power like this, and all legally, too. But then again, that could be said about so, so many of us. Including me.

I knew why I had gone down the criminal route, back in the day. I wondered what motivated a young boy like Malphas to be an outsider to the world above, to stay in the Undercity, creating this place for, well, lost people. Because the people I’d seen or heard so far had seemed to me like the typical Undercity inhabitants. The criminals, the mad, the broken and all the lost ones.

Who knows, maybe I’ll find out someday. Or more likely, I won’t. It’s none of my business, really.

***

I returned to the room to find Malphas sitting on a seat that he’d made out of the wall and the floor, with Brimstone fussing over Smelly, who seemed far more lucid than earlier. Still pale, and sweaty, but sitting up now with her back to the wall. She was also wearing a shirt, which provided some much-needed decency.

When I came in, everyone looked at me. Brimstone and Smelly both seemed hostile, though not as much as Brimstone had been earlier.

Still, it was obvious that neither of them was too eager to talk to me. And something told me that Malphas wouldn’t be of any help to get the conversation started, so…

Take charge of the situation.

“Let’s introduce ourselves, shall we?” I opened. “My cowl’s Aap Oordra. I already know Malphas – how should I call you two?” I looked at the two women.

Brimstone spoke first. “I’m Volca, and this is Lag,” she replied, though she didn’t seem too happy about it.

“Why are you here?” Smelly – well, Lag – asked. Her voice was quite strong, considering the pain she must’ve still been in. “You’re not a hero – you call yourself a cowl – so why’d you stop us earlier? Why’d you follow us?”

You’re a perceptive one, huh? I’d wondered whether they’d pick up on that. “I stopped you because I have issues with people attacking a mother and her son in their sleep,” I said.

What!?” Malphas snapped sharply, and I felt the entire building shake for a moment. His head wipped around to focus on the two women. “Is he saying the truth?”

The women froze, eyes wide. Volca threw up her arms, waving them in negation. “No no no, calm down, that’s no-“

“You know the rules! My rules! No drugs! No rape! No murder! Nothing that harms children!” Malphas shouted, and I swear I saw something shift beneath his armor, in places where nothing should be able to shift.

“Malphas please, we didn’t have a choice!” Lag shouted, then broke into a coughing fit. Volca picked up for her. “We couldn’t refuse the job! He’d kill us! And we were only after the mom – who’s a Syndicate agent, anyway!”

“Who put you up to that? Who!?” Malphas shouted, his voice deepening as the room began to twist, the whole structure becoming… unstable.

I instinctively took a step back from him, even as the monkey roared up, aching for a fight against the young powerhouse – and I had no doubt he was one.

“You’re losing control of the situation. If you don’t regain it, you’ll be swept away.” This was one of those cases where I fully agreed with my father.

I raised my fingers to my mouth and made whistled sharply and loudly. The metal of the building around us only served to amplify the sound. “Alright, enough!” I shouted at them.

And it worked. I’d noticed it earlier, though I hadn’t really considered it yet, but I was the oldest one in the room – almost three times the age of Malphas, if my estimation of his age was correct.

“Seniority is a universal way to assume authority.”

“Please return the room to normal, Malphas,” I said, trying to be both soothing and firm at the same time. He was breathing hard, his stance wide and rather aggressive, but he subsided quickly, his anger going from burning to shimmering. The room warped back to its previous form, leaving no traces of the sudden deformation.

Then I turned to the two women. “Alright, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “Tell me who hired you, and why. Don’t bother with lying, I can tell when you do.”

The two of them looked at each other. “Well, it’s not like we can stick around,” Lag said. “We’ll have to leave town anyway,” Volca agreed. They looked at me.

“We were talking to an independent agent we work with every now and then, when a new guy showed up,” Lag explained. “He called himself ‘Blauschwinge’. Had a German accent to match his name.”

“Name means ‘Bluewing’, in case you don’t know,” Volca added.

I considered the name for a moment. I’d never heard of a cape or cowl with that specific name before. “What’d he look like?”

“Tall. Muscly but slender. He was wearing a white bodysuit with a blue wing-like cape that was attached to his arms,” Volca described him. “He wasn’t wearing a mask and he had a really good-looking face. Square-jawed, curly brown hair and blue eyes.”

“Never heard of him,” I admitted. “What happened next?”

“He said he’d come looking for someone to do a simple job for him. When he saw us, he said we should do it,” Lag explained. “We didn’t like that, of course, but when we voiced our opinion, he… lashed out. Some kind of glowing blue-white energy. Took us out in one hit. Then told us we could either do the job or die.” She shivered at the memory. “His eyes… I’ve seen the eyes of mad people before, but this guy, he… he was demented. The way he talked, the way he looked at us…”

Volca wrapped her arms around her relative as they both shivered at the memory.

Good lord, what the hell is going on in this city? I asked myself. My daughters, the Ascendant, the hit team that came after me, these two, now a demented German supervillain who could utterly terrified two other cowls while taking them down in one attack.

I had a feeling that this whole situation was rapidly spinning out of any possibility of control.

“Why do you want to leave?” Malphas asked out of the blue.

They both looked at him without comprehension. “What do you mean? We broke your rules! And we failed, too – what if this guy comes after us?” Lag explained.

He clenched his fists, the metal scraping and screeching for the first time. “He made you do it? Well, I don’t like that. If I ever see that guy, I’m gonna mess him up but good. And if he comes after you, I’ll protect you, just like anyone else who lives here,” he explained, and all traces of the child were gone from his voice.

The two women grew a tad misty-eyed, lowering their heads. “Thank you,” Volca whispered.

I took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of my nose. What should I do? I need to start figuring out what’s going on here. “Volca. Lag. What else can you tell me about this Blauschwinge?”

They took a moment to compose themselves. “Well, he had a strong accent. He said we shouldn’t try to run, because he could find us,” Volca explained. “He spoke of his companions, and how we might be allowed to join them if we perform well. After he told us what we had to do, he just up and-“

Wait. I raised a hand, cutting her off. “His companions? Did he say anything specific about them?” Like if they’re called the Companions of the Future?

Volca shook her head. “No, nothing beyond that.”

“That’s not quite true,” Lag said. “He didn’t call them his ‘companions’, you see?” she told me me. “He used a foreign word for it. German, too, right?” She looked at her companion with a questioning look, and Volca nodded.

German word for companion… I searched through my memories, trying to remember if I’d ever learned that word. German wasn’t a language I’d spent much time on. The German word would be… oh hell. “He called them ‘Gefährten’, didn’t he?”

They both nodded.

My heart took a dive down my belly.

***

The Companions of the Future. The Ascendant is a member of them. Believe in metahuman superiority. Supposedly connected to Weisswald.

Companions is the English word for Gefährten. The Gefährten are one of the oldest groups of metahumans. Supposedly an offshot of the Thule Gesellschaft. Weisswald had strong ties to the group. Believe in metahuman superiority.

They’re the same fucking group. I’m up against the Gefährten.

***

I blinked, and looked around at my small audience. “I have to go,” I said hurriedly. “I need to make a call. Is there reception down here?”

Malphas shook his head, and I cursed under my breath. Fuck. I have to warn Elouise to stay the fuck away from the Ascendant.

“You know these guys?” Volca asked.

“Only by reputation,” I replied. “I really need to go. Don’t confront them. Run. Leave Chicago, leave your cowls, start over.” I turned to Malphas. “Don’t hold them here. You can’t protect them, not from the Gefährten. They’re major bad news. Cut all ties, so they won’t come after you. If they come, flee.”

Before either of them could say anything, I vaulted out of the window, pulling up my monkey skin. As soon as I landed, I took off as fast as I dared down here, making for the nearest exit.

***

I called Elouise as soon as I had cell reception back. It rung a few times before she picked up.

“Yes? Who is this?” she asked in a wary voice.

“It’s me, Aap,” I said, not daring to use our real names over a wireless connection.

“Oh, hi!” she said, her voice perking up noticably. Though she had the presence of mind not to mention our relationship over the phone right now. “What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I need you to abort the meeting with the Ascendant,” I said. “If you have anything planned with him, pull out of it as carefully as you can without offending him. Trust me, you d-“

“Wow, where’s that coming from?” she asked, surprised. “You know, I was going to call you and tell you that it’s a bust, anyway. I’m not making any deals with that madman.” Her voice took on a trace of venom for that last part.

But the venom didn’t mask the undercurrent of worry beneath. “What happened?” I asked as I leapt up into the air, to make my way towards my house.

“Two of his guys attacked one of my operations,” she said, spitting the words. “You can still see the flames, if you look towards the North End,” she continued, and true to her word, I could see fire in the distance. “I lost some prime real estate and seventeen of my people, among them two of my superpowered personnel. Took all I had to drive them off!”

If it wasn’t for decades’ worth of training, I probably would’ve crushed my cellphone at that point. “Are you hurt? Did they get to you!?”

“No, no, I got out of it without a scratch. But my people are really beat up – these guys don’t mess around. Especially the flying one, that dude was just demented.”

I sighed, relieved – but just for a moment. Demented… “Let me guess, he called himself Blauschwinge?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?” she asked.

“I just had a talk with two reluctant assassins whom he’d coerced into attempting to kill a Syndicate agent,” I replied.

I only got stunned silence in response.

“It gets worse,” I continued. “They have connections to the Gefährten, and may even be full members. You know what the Gefährten are?”

She took in a sharp breath. “Yeah. Fuck, of course I know! Mom briefed me on all the big ones… fuck.” She cursed, using some rather impressive French curses. “Thanks for telling me. I… oh damn, I’ll have to ask for help from the Syndicate,” she elaborated. “I don’t know why, but these guys have all but declared war on me.”

“And the heroes, too,” I said. “The Ascendant is after three of the junior heroes,” I explained. “There’s no way the UH will take that lying down.”

“This… this is madness!” she shouted, making me wince. “What the fuck are they thinking!?”

“I don’t know, but I’m afraid we’ll find out soon. Make sure you stay safe, and don’t hesitate to call me for help, alright?”

“Alright. Alright, thank you,” she said, and suddenly she was a vulnerable girl again, not an experienced crime boss. “You… you take care, too, alright? Don’t get yourself killed, please.”

I swallowed dry, and croaked, “Of course. Cross my heart.” I hung up on her and went on to my house.

The sun was already rising at this point, and I had to take care of some stuff before I threw myself back into the fray… wherever it may be.

There’s a crash coming.

***

I woke up after what felt like just minutes of sleep, pulled up from the beginnings of an all too familiar nightmare by the ringing of the doorbell.

Blinking, I rose up, trying to figure out how I’d ended up in bed. I’d just wanted to change into more comfortable clothing before I rang up any contacts that were still left in the city, but… I guess my lack of sleep had caught up to me. Even before I’d come to Chicago, I hadn’t slept properly in quite a while. I’d passed out almost as soon as I’d hit the bed.

The doorbell rang again, making me focus on the here and now again. I looked at the clock – it was nine in the morning. I hope whoever’s ringing that bell better have a good reason for waking me up. Even if I hadn’t intended to go to sleep, I sure as hell needed it.

I got up, put on a pair of jeans pants and a black shirt with the word fun. in yellow on the front and walked down to the front door.

“This damn well better be important!” I groused as I pulled open the door.

By some miracle, my chin didn’t break my arm on its way down to hit the floor.

Outside the door, wearing brown boots, a red skirt and a blue jacket, stood…

“Hennessy,” I breathed her name. She looked at me, her face as serene as ever, and simply walked into my house.

Previous | Next

Vote

B011.5 Monkey Family

Previous | Next

My father had taught me many, many things (most of them things no father should ever teach to his child), but one thing he never, ever helped me with was figuring out my own power.

Now, that doesn’t mean he didn’t train me in how to use it. But he only helped me train those abilities I already knew about. He never lifted a finger to help me figure it out, claiming that some things, one had to do on their own.

Which was why it had taken me until my late teens to figure out that I had a pretty useful tracking ability. I’d thought it was just an enhanced sense of smell, until a comment by  a friend had caused me to sit down and really analyse it.

That had led to realising that there was no way to track someone by smell the way I did it. It was… more than just smell, but it was styled after scent tracking – or at least a child’s idea of how it’d work. I did have an exceptionally good nose, even without the monkey pulled up, but I didn’t track people by it. I simply had to smell them first, in order to prime my power. Then, I could track them. Not indefinitely, nor over any distance. And there were quite a few powers that screwed with it (teleportation being the most straightforward case – it broke up the trail), but outside of powers like that being involved, there were only two things that could really hide someone from me – the passing of time, or me forgetting the smell.

Neither Brimstone nor Smelly seemed to have a power that would screw up my tracking, or if they did, they didn’t use it.

They never stood a chance.

I tracked them halfway across the city to an abandoned subway entrance near Morgan Park and down into the undercity.

Ah, been a while. I’d always loved the undercity. As usual, it had changed, but it was also the same as ever.

The subway station was a newer one – I was pretty sure it had still been in use the last time I’d been in Chicago – but it must’ve been abandoned at least a few years ago. It had been designed to fit a very modern (at the time), chic style, all straight lines and smooth metal- and stonework. I’d only gone through it once or twice, but I remembered thinking that it was too sterile.

It certainly wasn’t sterile any more. The formerly clean white stone and tiling had been stained by age, dirt and lots of other fluids whose origins I’d rather not think about any more than necessary. Most of the metal had been removed, leaving the structure gutted to the bone. The electric lighting was entirely gone at this point – even if there still was any electricity to be had here, no lamp was left that I could see. The only light in the place came from numerous bonfires that burned in barrels.

Barrels which were spread out across the station, both on the platforms and the tracks, with people gathering around them for warmth. All sorts of people, not the worst kind of homeless (those generally lived deeper into the undercity), but still. People who’d dropped out of society, for some reason or the other. I tried not to pay too much attention to them, beyond making sure not to look like an easy mark.

Which wasn’t hard to do, really. I was alone, in a three-piece suit, almost seven feet tall and walking very, very confidently. I pretty much had ‘supervillain’ written all over myself. Or at least ‘confident enough to probably be a metahuman’. And people who lived here knew how to spot the people they ought to stay away from.

No one tried to talk to me. No one tried to bar my way, or mug me, or pick my pockets (not that they’d find anything in them) and I got through the station. The usual telltale signs marked the way into the actual Undercity, subtle and not-so subtle carvings and tags on the walls, the floor and even the ceiling, guiding those in the know into the underbelly of the city. I used to wonder who’d originally come up with the system, and how it’d happened to spread across most of the world, but I’d never been able to find out. Maybe my father knew. Or maybe not. Maybe it had just developed on its own, with lots of people adding to it, spreading it. A meme without a source, an idea without a brain to think it up first.

I reached an old maintenance hatch that might have originally allowed technicians to work beneath the rails and the station proper. I couldn’t be sure, but now it was definitely something else. Someone had turned it into an elevator and, luckily, it was up on my level. Stepping inside, I could make out Brimstone’s smell very strongly in here – like the air around a heavy smoker, only worse. Rotten eggs and smoke. If it wasn’t for my power tracking them, I would never have been able to tell that Smelly had been with her, even with my nose.

The elevator was basically just a rusty old metal cage with a simple up/down switch to control it. Since it very obviously couldn’t go up any higher, I flicked it to ‘down’. The mechanism wheezed, then made a disconcerting grinding sound, then it started to slowly move down.

***

The first exit I passed opened into the maintenance tunnels. They were apparently used as sleeping quarters – I saw a great many sleeping bags, ragged blankets and worn down people before the view vanished. My marks hadn’t disembarked on this level.

The next one was thirty feet or so below the previous one. It appeared to be… some kind of bordello. The bad kind, with girls that were too old, or too young, and all too worn out. I barely spared them a second glance, as much as I felt pity for them. The air was choking with the noxious perfume of cheap drugs, and the noise produced made me wish I’d remembered to bring ear plugs with me.

I went further down, until I reached the third exit – where the two had disembarked. A bare tunnel, not quite straight but well-reinforced, with cheap electric lighting in the form of bare lightbulbs that should have gone out of service decades ago. Typical for the undercity. As I stepped into it, the noise from above vanished almost entirely – and after a few feet into the rough passage, it cut off almost entirely, leaving just the echoes of my steps.

Been a while, I thought, feeling like I was about to see an old friend. At least this place is probably not going to be half as dangerous as the European undercities I got to know.

I made my way into the true undercity of Chicago.

***

It didn’t take long to track down Brimstone and Smelly. The undercity had, impossibly enough, become even more convoluted and nonsensical than before. The entrance I took had let me to what must’ve once been a sewage plant which had then sunk deep into the earth – perhaps a meta-fight had pulled it down – which had obviously been ‘modified’ by way of some superpower twisting and reshaping all the machines, rails and other metal parts of the structure, creating… creating…

Honestly, the closest I had to a proper description would be something like ‘post-modern expressionist tenement’ (I was probably butchering artistic terminology with that phrase). There was not a single straight line to be seen. Pipes, rails and metal walkways had been twisted into a completely asymmetrical structure of copper and steel, tha reached from the floor all the way to the ceiling, with irregularly spaced ‘apartments’ spread out. All of them opened towards the empty space into which I had entered, which was slightly elevated in relation to the ground floor of the structure. Blankets, towels and shapeless lengths of cloth brought colour into the setting, as well as serving to provide some amount of privacy to the inhabitants.

And there was light. Lightbulbs, LEDs and even old-fashioned torches were spread throughout the entire place. The irregular lighting and the even more irregular reflective surfaces broke and enhanced the illumination, the masses of cloth dimmed and coloured it, setting the whole thing ablaze in a riot of colours.

It was… honestly quite beautiful. Beautiful enough that I took a little time to just look at it, take it all in, despite my reasons for being here.

There were times… always had been, ever since I’d cut myself off from my father… times when I’d just wanted to stop. Not die, mind you, but stop. Stop worrying. Stop fighting. Stop bothering. Just leave and start walking. Getting a look at all the wonders of the world, moving from place to place, relaxed and free.

In fact, that had been my great plan, when I finally came home. I’d look up Tamara and my other friends from before, apologise for being gone so long, say my proper goodbyes and… leave. Go somewhere far away from all the madness. Canada, perhaps. It was pretty peaceful there, out in the country. Or Australia – I’d heard good things about its mysterious new ruler. Though I couldn’t be sure how much of that was true or just propaganda.

Not that it mattered. My plans were beyond being merely in shambles – they’d been vaporised the moment I found out I had a daughter. What little might have been left had promptly been blown out of reality when my other daughter showed up.

I’d never wanted children. I’d been too afraid that I’d screw up, the way my Dad had with me. I didn’t want to saddle a child with growing up with my issues.

Now that I had not just one, but two children, though, I had to face facts – I’d screwed up. Left one child to be raised in poverty, then abused by a supervillain to the point of snapping and manifesting into a cripple of questionable stability, if not even sanity. The other to be raised by a supervillain every bit as insane and entrenched in her life as my father had been (if not more so) – from what little Elouise had told me, her childhood had only been marginally better than Hen-

Voices, curses. Mother tight, the falling boot-

The monkey reared up in rage, shoving itself to my attention once more. I almost – almost – screamed at the memories it brought up, and I did fall to my knees, unable to fully deflect the sudden, furious onslaught.

Fuck! I thought emphatically. I’d been too careless. The Monkey and I had been so in tune – I’d been angry, I’d been hunting, seeking vengeance, being active – that I’d stopped noticing it. It had happened before, a creepy kind of synchronisation where I couldn’t tell our thoughts and desires apart any more.

The moment I’d started getting contemplative and inactive, it had upset that balance, and now it was back in full force. Urging me to act. Hunt. Confront. Eliminate.

I sighed, putting my left hand over my eyes. You sure suck, old boy. Now buckle up and focus on the job at hand, I told myself. It wasn’t like I disagreed with it, in this instance.

Straightening up again, I sniffed the air. The smell of my two marks led into the tenements, and I followed it.

It led me towards what was probably the main entrance to the tenements – it was just one of the many openings on the first floor, but unlike the others, nothing covered it, and it was narrower than the units around it.

And then there was the Gatekeeper. I assumed he functioned as such, because he was sitting behind a desk made of smooth stone that had been fused with the floor – which apparently was a thin coat of stone upon the metal floor. Novels and comic books lay on the desk in neat, orderly stacks, along with a closed laptop.  Behind the desk stood a big, very comfortable-looking chair made of the same material. Despite it being made of stone, it moved easily as the man sitting atop it shifted his weight, sitting up to look at me, the comic he’d been reading now lying closed on the desk. A small, rectangular nameplate was fused with the desk, the word ‘Malphas’ written on it.

He was quite a sight to behold, and I immediately pegged him as the one responsible for creating this structure. He was covered, head to toe, in a metal suit made of what I assumed to be steel and covered in a thin layer of copper, the two metals arranged in complex patterns that shifted and flowed over its surface. The armor itself was slender, almost skin-tight without really betraying anything about his precise build, as well as small wings attached to his ankles, elbows and temples. The upper half of his mask formed the head and half a beak of a crow, with two rows of small horns on its head. The lower half, shadowed by the beak, was smooth and mostly featureless save for three vertical slits. Two round eye holes revealed a pair of bright green-blue eyes. The costume was a work of art, truly, but it was much, much too busy. Too many clashing concepts thrown together. An inexperienced artist, I’d say.

His posture – elbows on the desk, hands folded beneath his beak, shoulders squared – seemed self-confident at first, but my gut told me he was nervous. My nose supported that assessment… and it also told me that he was quite young. I’d first assumed him to be in his late teens, based on his size, but now I had to adjust my estimation down. If he was a day over fourteen, I’d be very, very surprised.

“Hello, stranger,” he spoke, and I found my suspicions confirmed – his voice might have been warped by the mask, deepened, but I could still tell that he wasn’t entirely through his voice change just yet. “Who are you, and what brings you here?” he asked in a formal tone of voice (clearly not his usual one), now putting his arms down on the desk. I noticed that the armor lacked joints, or any kind of mobility, really, yet its material flowed and bent so as to allow movement. His power at work, I assumed.

“My name is Aap Oordra, and I am looking for two persons,” I replied, deciding to go with honesty for now. I had a feeling that this wasn’t a supervillain, or at least not a classic one.

“Aap Oordra? Weren’t you a supervillain in the nineties?” he asked, surprise making his voice sound less adult than it had just moments before.

I smiled, not having expected someone this young to know about me. “Retired, honestly,” I said.

He made a choking sound, his shoulders shaking – probably trying not to laugh out loud. “So that’s why you show up down here, at this time, wearing a three-piece suit?” he asked, his voice merry.

“Touché,” I said. Something told me I could get to like this boy. The monkey disagreed – it’d rather rip his head off and go on to deal with Smelly and Brimstone in its usual way – but I just ignored it for now. “To be perfectly honest, I’m trying to retire, but people keep interfering.”

He laughed quietly, the sound carrying a sardonic note. “Yeah, it usually goes like that. I gave up on trying to retire a while ago.”

“Aren’t you a bit young to already talk like that?” I asked casually, putting my hands into my pockets.

His shoulders moved in a surprisingly expressive shrug, thanks to the many moving parts of his armor. “It’s not the age, it’s the mileage,” he said casually. “I’ve seen and done a lot in a short time,” he explained. “Who are you looking for? And why?” he continued in a clearer, more neutral voice.

Definitely too young to be so old, I thought. He reminded me of… The monkey reared up, forcing me to focus on the situation at hand again. I made sure that my face and voice were calm and non-threatening, and replied, “I don’t know their actual names, so I named them Brimstone and Smelly,” I explained, and gave him a short description of both. “I suspect that they are connected to someone who ordered an attempt on my life, earlier this night,” I continued.

“An attempt on your life? Seriously? And they’re connected?!” he asked, aghast. “How do you know that!?” His earlier calm attitude evaporated, he leaned forward, as if to hear better.

Let’s play it honest… to a point, I thought. “I took down the hitmen, and they told me the location of their agent. I tracked said agent down to question them and found Brimstone and Smelly – I assume they are tenants here? – entering the home of said agent, sneaking into her bedroom. I attacked them and drove them off, then tracked them later on – which led me here.”

He was obviously upset, and quite a bit, too. “I was wondering how they’d gotten hurt, but…” he mumbled, though the echo his own helmet produced amplified his voice enough for me to hear it. Shaking his head, he focused his eyes on me. “They are tenants here – which means they are under my protection. If you plan to assault them, then I’ll-“

I waved a hand in a gesture of negation. “No no, I’d much rather this didn’t devolve into a fight. I simply want to know who hired them, as said person may well be the same one as the one who ordered the hit on me.” Also, I object to them trying to murder a defenseless woman in front of her son, I added in my head, but didn’t voice out loud. “I would like to talk to them. If you do not trust me to stay civil, I wouldn’t object to your supervision.”

He subsided again, leaning back on his chair. I assumed he was both thinking my proposal over, as well as buying himself some time to regain his composure.

Normally, I wouldn’t have minded giving him the time to do so – he was young, clearly upset and he seemed to be a good guy – but the monkey was making me edgy, impatient and, honestly, I wanted to get this over with and get back to bed. I hadn’t had a chance to sleep peacefully in my own bed in nearly two decades, and I really, really didn’t appreciate these interruptions.

“Look, Malphas,” I said, leaning a bit forward to convey some urgency. “I understand that you’d like to think this over, but I am in a hurry. My family’s life may be on the line here, and I will not let them be endangered simply because you are indecisive.”

I wasn’t even lying, there. I figured that it would be a huge coincidence that I happened to have assassins sent after me just when the guy who’d tortured my daughter into becoming a metahuman returned to town and made a deranged claim on her. Not that I knew why he’d target me, unless he had someone within the United Heroes’ to pass along our relation… Actually, I should keep that thought in mind…

Malphas – the name seemed familiar, somehow, but I couldn’t pin it down – flinched at the mention of family, then nodded. “I… understand. I’ll escort you to their apartment,” he said, rising up. “But just to be clear – they are still under my protection. Lay a hand on them, and I’ll…”

There was something like a ripple that spread from him, and the ground beneath me bucked up like a living thing.

I yelped and fell back – exaggerating it a little bit, perhaps – and deliberately did not roll, but fell hard on my back (oh, how the monkey hated that). Again, the ground bucked and rods made of solid steel shot up around me, wrapping around my arms and legs to pin me to the ground.

“I’ll beat ya black and blue and send you home crying, got that?” he asked. He hadn’t even moved, beyond standing up. Not a somatic trigger, then. A purely thought-controlled power, most likely.

That was impressive. Few powers could be controlled by one’s thoughts alone. Especially physical powers.

I looked up at him, not hiding how impressed I was (and perhaps exaggerating it a bit more) and just nodded.

He sighed – a pretty big tell in this situation – and released me, the rods melting back into the ground without a mark. Then he offered me his hand and helped me up when I took it.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Previous | Next

Vote