B011.1 Monkey Family

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Three hours, two bottles of scotch, a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of that yellow French stuff whose name I always forgot later, I actually felt better about myself, and my life as of late. Not good, but better.

Also, some of Journeyman’s stories were just hilarious. And some just depressing, but in a good way. Distracting. But we were rapidly approaching the point where I might actually get drunk, and though I didn’t doubt that Journeyman could subdue me if I lost control, it would still be rude to go to that point.

Even if drowning my sorrows really sounded pretty attractive, after the day I’d had.

“You’re doing it again, Kevin,” Journeyman chorused. I looked up at him. “You’re doing the introspective self-pity routine. Don’t, it doesn’t suit you.”

I sighed, putting my glass aside (it was empty, anyway). “Yeah, I think I should go to sleep. Maybe some Z’s will help me work this out.”

“You do that. But put up an alarm for two forty,” he said as he cleaned the glasses and put them away upside down. “A kill team will attack you around three o’clock. It should give you enough time to wake up properly.”

Ah, one of his… prophecies. There were a lot of precogs out there, but what was creepy about Journeyman’s predictions was that, as far as I knew, he was always right. “Would I have died if you hadn’t told me?” I asked wryly. That was another thing about his prophecies. They rarely changed anything in a big way.

He chuckled, which was just weird with his many voices (though I’d noticed long ago that there seemed to be less and less voices the more relaxed he got – it was probably a deliberate effect). “No no, not at all. But you would have gotten hurt, a bit, and wrecked the house. This way, you should be able to control the situation. Just leave the house before two fifty-five, and they should attack you outside.”

“Good. Thanks,” I replied, relaxing a bit. I rather liked this place. “Actually, I’m reminded of a question I had. When I got off the plane, I saw a shadow watching me, during the ceremony.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my fingers on the counter, drumming a little rhythm. “Was that Elouise? I suspected my father’s work, but it isn’t exactly his style, unless he changed even more than you told me.”

“Wait, let me take a look,” he replied, leaning back against the shelf behind him, lowering his head. After a moment, he looked up again. “Yeah, it was Elouise. I’m not sure your father even knows you’re back. He takes his promises rather seriously. Though he’ll probably find out soon enough, either way. You’ve caused quite a stir around this place.”

I nodded, relaxing a bit. “And the house? If he kept his promise, it wouldn’t have been him who kept it,” I continued.

He shook his head. “No. The Matriarch, I suspect. If only to get in your good graces, when you returned. Anyway, I should get going. Try and catch some sleep, before the action starts,” he continued.

“Wait,” I said, perking up. I’d just remembered something. “There was one thing I wanted to ask. Something weird happened to me on the way here.”

He leaned closer. “Oh? Do tell.” The shifting images on his mask – which, I was sure, were as deliberate as his voice – seemed to focus, without actually becoming distinct enough to make sense.

“I was driving when, out of nowhere, I was in this… fairy tale forest. Rolling hills, huge trees, vibrant colours, the whole spiel. And when I got out of it, I’d pretty much arrived in Chicago, after just a few hours, total, of driving.”

I think that actually rattled him – I say this because his mirror-mask went blank. Utterly blank, not even reflecting me. There was no other sign of surprise, yet it was the strongest reaction I’d ever seen him have to anything.

“I see… that is rather weird,” he spoke slowly, with less than ten voices – making whatever his actually voice was almost recognisable. Almost. “It ought not to be appearing yet… I wonder why it’s reaching that far…” His voices vanished into an incomprehensible, rapid whisper for a few moments.

I just sat there, watching his still-blank mask as he seemed lost in thought… or perhaps some kind of discussion. To be honest, I was just confused by the whole deal.

Without any other cue, the visions on his mask reappeared, and I was pretty sure he was focusing on me again. “This is a rather worrisome development… for me, Kevin. It ought not to concern you,” he said with his usual chorus of voices. There was something oddly… intense about him. Way more intense than I’d ever seen him. A lot of firsts today.

I shivered at the foreboding nature of the comment. “Are you sure? I’m not easily scared, but you’re creeping me out right now.”

He tilted his head as he leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. “I’m serious. It’s neither threat nor concern to you, I promise. At least not in any important timeframe. You should worry about your own problems right now – if this becomes a concern for you, I will tell you. Alright?”

When I nodded, he gave me a small nod – and then he was simply gone. No fancy effects, no strange sensation or anything. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. I didn’t even have to blink.

“Sure is nice, being able to disappear like that,” I thought before I got up, putting my concerns regarding the strange forest out of my mind. I really wanted to look around the place, after all these years, but there was a kill team on its way… though Journeyman had, as always, only given me the minimal possible amount of information… I didn’t even know who sent them or why… well, either way, I should sleep for as long as I could, so I went up to my bedroom, without even bothering to turn on the lights. I simply took off my shoes, jacket and tie, and dropped onto my bed (it felt just like how I remembered it) and was asleep seconds after I set the alarm.

* * *

The alarm worked flawlessly, just like I remembered it – and just like way back then, I had to use truly saintly amounts of discipline so as not to crush it.

Buddha-like self-discipline won out over primal rage, and I shuffled out of my bed. I didn’t have much time, so I stumbled into the bathroom – going by memory, so as not to turn on any lights and betray myself to the assassins – and washed my face with cold water. I still had some time after that, so I brushed my teeth – stupid as it was, I had missed being able to regularly brush my teeth – and went to check on my wardrobe. My bedroom had no windows, so I turned on the light.

It took me a few moments to blink the tears out of my eyes (due to the light, of course. Not because I was seeing my bedroom for the first time in almost two decades), and then I went to the old hardwood wardrobe and opened it.

Someone – I had a pretty good idea who – had set me up, clothing-wise. And very recently, too, I was sure.

Could Elouise have done all this between seeing me at the ceremony and me coming here? Most definitely, if she has even a fraction of the Matriarch’s resources. I picked out a pair of jeans, some fresh underwear and a black shirt with a white peace sign on it, putting them on. Then I took my socks off, and threw them into the laundry basket with the rest, before I made my way down to the first floor, and out the door.

Then I simply took a stroll down the street, with ten minutes until the projected attack left – I didn’t want to fight here, so close to my home. Too much of a chance of collateral damage, never mind the attention it would draw to me. If these killers were even remotely competent, they’d jump on the chance to attack me during an evening stroll in some remote location, so I gave them just that, making my way towards the old mills near the lake – they were pretty close to my place, at least by my standards (I didn’t get tired easily, and even my normal walk was pretty fast) and I’d bet my house that they were still abandoned and rundown. Tearing what was left of the old steel mills down had been talked about for a long time, but even back then, they didn’t get anything done – I doubted they had, in the intervening time.

The city was as quiet during the night as I remembered it – meaning, anything but. Though Merlin Street was as quiet as ever, by itself, the surrounding city really left no illusions as to this being a metropolis. Cars, horns, more electronic sounds than I remembered, people shouting in the distance… Strange smells that reached even this far, across several streets. Smells that made you question their origins, imagining some pretty awful things. A strong wind that seemed to always blow from the front, pushing you back, or directly from behind, pushing you ahead.

Then, as I left Merlin Street, other people. A few doxies who gave me appraising looks, but whom I honestly ignored – I’d never had to resort to paying for a woman’s attention, not with my looks (and, I had to admit, the skills my father had instilled in me). I just focused on the feeling of pavement beneath my feet, and on spotting my shadows (another skill dad had had me practice relentlessly).

It didn’t take long for me to spot my pursuers. I counted no less than four, and there were probably more that stayed back, following their scouts. Professionals, definitely, but not good enough to hide from me. Though they probably wouldn’t expect me to have black ops training. Few people did, and even fewer metahumans.

Nothing I can’t deal with, I thought as I kept on strolling towards the mills. If they were powerful enough to simply overpower me, they’d have already attacked and then fled before the heroes could interfere. If they’re instead following me, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, then because they feel the need to do so.

Which meant I would have a major advantage, since I knew they were coming and could control the battlefield. Also, the fact that Journeyman had been sure that I’d beat them with just minor injuries even if they surprised me in my sleep spoke volumes all on its own.

Just a few minutes later, I’d reached the mills. The whole area hadn’t changed much since I’d last come here – ruined factory buildings, even more overgrown and broken now. Scars from super-powered battles littered the entire field, testaments to its popularity for grudge matches apart from immediate interference by the authorities.

Arid earth, sparse, coarse grass and dry twigs cracked underneath the soles of my feet as I made my feet towards the waterfront. A cool wind blew from the direction of the lake, making my hair whip around my face (I really ought to get it cut). The attack should come any time now, and I prepared myself, sharpening my senses.

* * *

They did not disappoint. I barely had time to react before the ground beneath me shook, two broad, shovel-like hands in thick brown gloves emerging to grab me by the ankles.

At the same time, five figures appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all around me. Three in a half-circle in front of me, two more behind that I could only hear. The three I could see were male and wore a skintight black suit that covered them from head to toe, revealing rather impressively muscled bodies, with equally black vests and belts containing God-knows-what additional equipment, and wearing pure white Skull masks with high-tech goggles built in that glowed a menacing red.

Gee, original much?

Despite their rather boring attire (they looked to me like cheap knock-offs of the Corpse Corps), I could tell that these people were trained. And trained well. Something about their stance just screamed ‘experienced killers’.

Which, of course, meant that they weren’t the best. The most deadly people I knew did not radiate such an aura of menace. They didn’t need to.

“Good evening, strangers,” I greeted them casually, smiling at the man at the center of their formation. “Why didn’t you show yourselves earlier? I wouldn’t have minded chatting on the way here, before we fight.”

He tilted his head as I saw the other two tense up. “You knew we were coming?” he asked, his voice made unrecognisable by way of mechanical distortion, reducing it to a monotone.

“I had your team made moments after I stepped out of my house. And I’d known you were coming since the early evening,” I spoke, turning my head left and right to take a look at the other two out of the corner of my eyes – a man and a woman, in the same outfits as the others, though the woman also held a huge rifle of futuristic design in her hands in a way that suggested that she was either very strong or the weapon far lighter than it looked. Their earthworker was still holding onto my ankles. “So, what’s the reason behind this? It’s rather rude to interrupt a guy’s sleep.”

Their leader shrugged. “We’re here to kill you. Nothing personal, just business,” he spoke, his voice even, his stance (apparently) unconcerned.

I sighed, lowering my head for a moment as I took my hands out of my pockets. Then I thought this all over. These people… were not my daughter, nor anyone I cared about, really. And it wasn’t a public fight, either.

No reason to hold back. And besides, the world got a little brighter every time mercenaries like these died, so…

I should let the monkey blow off some steam anyway, I thought as I felt the beast within stir in excitement.

My knockles popped as I stretched my fingers, then curled them up before looking down at the two hands holding onto my ankles.

“You know, my feet are perfectly comfortable in this weather. No need to warm them.”

Then I let the monkey out. Just a little bit.

* * *

Several hours earlier

Nine people were sitting at a round table in a well-lit room, Camille one of them. She was not happy about that. There was one person missing – the most important one, as far as she was concerned.

But Hennessy had been too weak to join them, her mother insisting (rightly) that she stay in bed to rest, surrounded by positive emotions (meaning, her half-sister was spending the night cuddling up to her). The fact that Camille herself had insisted that Henny take a break didn’t make her any more happy to be here without her. Her left hand was hanging limply down the side of her seat, randomly clenching and relaxing as it longed for Henny’s hand to hold.

I should just track the bastard down and kill him, she thought for the millionth time. It was a pointless thought, she knew she wouldn’t do it – she’d never killed, nor did she intend to. Nevermind the fact that she’d probably lose – anyone who could handle Henny on a rage the way he had was way out of her league.

It didn’t make the thought any less tempting.

And so Camille missed Vek’s speech, lost in thoughts of how to get some payback against Henny’s so-called ‘father’. More like sperm donor.

She rose out of her homicidal thoughts when someone shouted her name.

Camille!” Vek’s bleating voice might be an easy target for ridicule, but it was very good at catching your attention. Camille snapped to attention, looking straight at her leader. “Pay attention. The higher ups sent me the dossier on Aap Oordra. I’d like to brief you on him, seeing how we’re likely to have to deal with him in the future.”

Now she really had Camille’s full attention. “What’d we know about that fucker?”

“Language, please,” Director Queensfield said in her throaty voice. The stocky woman in the severe power suit always reminded her of her mother, especially when she reprimanded her. “Miss Petson, please proceed,” she added with a nod towards Vek.

The goat woman nodded and tapped a key that was being projected on the flat table in front of her. A high-quality shot of Aap Oordra’s face appeared on the table, leaving only a thin ring of blackness around it. His face was neutral on it, his hair combed back, his beard neatly trimmed. He looked… gaunt. His eyes were haunted and ringed in black… and yet, Camille couldn’t deny that he looked damn attractive, even like that.

Well, not like someone related to Henny could look bad, she told herself.

“This is what we know of Aap Oordra’s history after he left the USA – he joined the army to fight in the Afghanistan War, but was pronounced missing in action after the Great Clusterfuck – a three-way battle between the forces of the PATO, the SU and the newly-formed Caliphate, interrupted partway through by an attack from Desolation-in-Light. What we know after that is rather more… sketchy. It seems that he was taken by the Sovjet forces after the battle and put in one of their re-education camps in Siberia.”

Camille bit her lip. He’d been a prisoner all this time? That… that was actually a damn good excuse for not being, well, there. No, don’t think like that! Asshole left to join the army, he shouldn’t have done that in the first place!

“What we know since is rather sketchy, and relies on second-hand reports and some files we could get out of the Sovjet Superhuman Committee. He apparently broke out within five days of being incarcerated – just an hour or two after recovering fully from the wounds he sustained during the fight – but was recaptured three days later, before managing to leave the SU territory. Re-education proved unsuccessful, the files noting that he seemed to have gotten extensive anti-brainwashing training, to the point where they suspected a background in metahuman black ops – though his young age at the time makes that highly unlikely. Over the last seventeen years, he broke out of twenty-seven different re-education and containment facilities, and is credited with enabling the escape of more than three-hundred war prisoners, as well as more than six hundred Sovjet citizens who had been kept in these facilities, as well as the killings of no less than three whole teams of the Sovjet’s metahuman capture forces – as well as participating in the subduing of an S-Class threat that ravaged the Mongolian lands. He was recaptured, one way or another, each time, but they paid for it dearly. And this is just the information that our office of intelligence considers reliable. “

The room was filled with stunned silence. That wasn’t the background of a downbeat ex-thrill-villain who’d left his family behind to chase some war glory. Even Camille had to admit that that was freaking badass.

“Aap Oordra – or Kevin Paterson, though we have no way to make sure that that is actually his real name, as he doesn’t seem to have a past before he showed up here in Chicago at the age of sixteen – was liberated by members of the Sovjet rebellion just a short time ago. They found him in the Sovjet’s supermax prison, Koschei’s Chest. He was being held in their maximum security wing, their equivalent of our Tartarus Star Super-Max Section.”

The Junior Heroes around the table visibly shivered at the mention of the name. Koschei’s Chest was not known for its humane treatment of its inmates.

“In keeping with the Ondero Act, he has been pardoned of all his crimes – which is kind of superfluous, as the statute of limitations has expired on most of them, as well as given a veteran’s pension and several cash boni for everything he went through – as well as several medals for his recorded achievements.”

Camille frowned, but didn’t comment. She didn’t like hearing that ass described like a badass war hero.

“More important for us, though, is his relationship to Chayot – you all know of it by now – and his, ah, performance during the Great Clusterfuck,” Vek continued, and changed the image on the table.

Now it showed… a young and very hot guy with wild black hair, tan skin and bright eyes, the air throwing his hair around as he laughed wildly.

It took Camille a moment to connect him to Aap. His features matched, but… he seemed far, far younger, not just physically.

“A quick primer on his powerset and past – Aap Oordra used to be a rather popular thrill-villain and prankster in the nineties, terrorising Chicago’s metahuman community and several political, financial and criminal power figures. No deaths, no serious bodily harm, but a lot of collateral damage, mainly due to the nature of his powerset. He is, to this day, one of only ten recorded true speedsters.”

“True… speedster?” Camille asked, not familiar with the term. She knew several speedsters, but she’d never heard about some kind of true speedsters, whatever that meant.

The senior members of the UH seemed to recognise the term, though, their eyes widening.

“Most speedsters accelerate by somehow cheating physics – they twist time, or partially move into another dimension, or transfer the strain that speeding puts on their body and their environment to some other body or dimension. Usually, this goes hand in hand with a reduction in their ability to affect their surroundings, which limits their combat utility.” She stopped the exposition, taking a deep breath.

The director leaned forward, picking up where Vek had left off. “A true speedster, conversely, is someone who actually speeds up to superhuman speeds, retaining and even increasing their ability to affect the world around them. They combine the strength, toughness, sensory speed, processing speed and coordination necessary to actually move at superhuman speeds – in some cases even supersonic speeds – and not cripple or kill themselves.”

Oh shit, I can guess where this is going.

Vek continued, “Aap Oordra is number five on a list of ten known true speedsters above Paragon tier – he usually limits himself to short bursts of speed, but he has been clocked it at Mach one speeds when given enough space to run in a straight line – and his peak may be even higher. His strength and toughness can match those speeds, and though he doesn’t seem to have perfect control over it – he can’t ignore inertia, for one – he is still considered an A-Class combatant all on his own.”

“No wonder he managed to handle Chayot mostly on his own,” Slough said. He was sitting next to Camille, in a rather normal-looking form (the only thing strange about it were the pink tentacles that replaced his hair). “So, what do we do about him? And what’s so special about his role in that big battle?”

Vek looked intently around the room. “What is special is that he took three direct hits from DiL, and only went down after the third one – and then recovered from the damage he took in less than a week. That speaks of a level of toughness and recovery that is, frankly, up there with Quetzalcoatl and Kraquok.”

I think going after him to kick his ass is now officially out of the question.

“People, this is important,” the Director stated calmly. “Whatever or whoever Aap Oordra may be – wherever he came from, whatever his intentions for going to war were – we know that he is comparable to any single member of the Shining Guardians or the Dark Five. We know that, even when he was a rather irresponsible youth, he still did hold himself back enough to keep his true potential hidden and prevented any truly serious damage. And we know that he cares a great deal for one of our team members and has expressed interest in becoming a part of her life – which may mean that he might be interested in joining the United Heroes. I do not have to tell you how desperately we need people with this level of power and skill.”

Oh, you wouldn’t dare suggest that we…

“So I want everyone here – everyone,” she emphasised with a look at Camille, “To put aside personal grievances and play nice around him. I will not demand nor expect Chayot to welcome him back with open arms, or even pretend to like him any more than she does – but I do expect everyone else here to foster positive interactions with him. He is, as of now, the most powerful metahuman in the State of Illinois – and I’d rather have him on our side than on the opposing one. Clear?”

“Clear!” came a chorused answer from around the table. Even Camille took part, despite her misgivings.

Well, I guess I can try… a bit…

* * *

I washed the blood off my hands in the dark waters of the lake. There was quite a lot of it, even though I had, in the end, refrained from killing anyone. I was still not sure why – I’d never felt bad about killing people like these, not in the least. But something had held me back.

Perhaps I’m just sick of all the killing, after all this time.

The fight hadn’t lasted very long, but it sure had helped me, nonetheless. They’d been tougher than I’d expected, though not by much. I hadn’t gotten hurt at all, in the end.

“I’m very proud of you,” Journeyman’s voice spoke up from my left.

I very pointedly did not flinch, but rather finished cleaning my hands and arms, then turned to look at him while I sat on my haunches. “How so?” I asked him. He was standing with his feet in the water, his robe moving back and forth with each wave, his hand clasped behind his back. He was looking out onto the lake.

“You didn’t kill any of them – unlike in the original future,” he remarked. “That’s good. You shouldn’t kill any more than absolutely necessary.”

I gave him a long look, thinking things over. “You warned me about them… just to save their lives? Not mine, since you said that I wouldn’t have died anyway.”

He shrugged. “That, too. Mainly, though, I did it to prevent you from killing them. A fine distinction, I admit, but an important one,” he answered, pre-empting my follow-up question with that last sentence.

After a few minutes of just staring at him, with only the remote sounds of the city, the sounds of the lake and the moans of the broken bodies behind us around, I nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, my friend,” he spoke in what passed as a cheery voice for him. “Now, I really need to go – altering these events to such an extent will cause one hell of a backlash, and I’d rather not be anywhere near anything alive when it hits me, so I just wanted to give you one last, very important piece of advice – because I won’t be able to help you for quite a while, I’m afraid.”

“Shoot,” I said. He’d mentioned that before, quite a lot of times. Some kind of backlash for altering the events he saw in his visions. The big reason why he wasn’t just fixing the world, as he phrased it.

“You should talk to your father,” he said.

“No,” I shot back as firmly as I could. “No. Not happening.” I sighed. “He… doesn’t deserve it. I’m not giving him that satisfaction.”

Again, he shrugged. “It’s not about what he deserves. It’s about what you deserve. You’re hurting yourself as much, if not more, than him by keeping him away like this.”

I rose up so fast I almost jumped into the air, turning to him. Old, ugly, hot feelings reared their head in the pit of my stomach as I almost lashed out with the monkey. “NO! Not happening! You have no idea what he did to me! To my mother! How he betrayed us, how he fucked everything up, for no reason other than his fucking pride!” I shouted at him, my voice booming across the lake. At that moment, I was quite tempted to attack him, even though I didn’t stand the ghost of a chance.

He finally turned to look at me, somehow conveying… sadness, even though his posture didn’t change, and he had no expression to read. “I’m sure Hennessy says similar things about you.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, the tension and anger and hurt draining out of me, leaving behind… cold emptiness.

He bowed his head, slightly, and then simply vanished, leaving me behind on dark shores. Alone.

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Interlude 7 – Monkey Business (Part 2)

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That looks extraordinarily unhealthy – for me.

She pounced on me, wings folded back, spear thrusting at me, clearing several hundred feet in a single bound. The monkey afforded me a lot of protection, even if I only used it partially, but… I had no idea how her power actually worked, and while she seemed to be largely limited to the paragon and apex tier (those exploding spheres had gotten intense), there seemed to be no clear theme to her capabilities, nothing to catch on to; telekinetic blasts, then remote kinetic detonations, receptive and projective empathy, flight, enhanced vision (and probably other senses, as well), protective force fields, fire balls, exploding fire balls, not to mention all the limbs and now full angelic bodies she created; I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to defend myself against those burning weapons if I took a direct hit, so I evaded by burrowing.

Why did I feel as if I was over my head while fighting a seventeen year old girl? Alright, I’d fought Desolation-in-Light a few times, back in the day, when she’d still technically been a toddler, but…

Hell’s Bells, I’m comparing my daughter to Desolation in Light! Get your act together, buster, and find a way to stop her from tearing you to pieces!

All of those thoughts shot through my head in the time it took me to dig about thirty feet directly downwards, to get some space to breath – yeah, underground breathing room, but still better than staying up there with pointy fire death sticks and my estranged, probably-at-least-partially-insane and definitely-pissed-off-beyond-belief daughter.

That was not to be, however, as I suddenly felt a tug on the small of my back, and then I was torn out of the earth and right into the path of a swing of that wicked, long sword. That very long, very sharp and very hot sword.

Jesus fuck this hurts!

The blade bit into and through the partially manifested chest of the monkey, through my suit and into my skin – if it wasn’t for the monkey, it’d have bisected me for sure.

Oh nonono, no-

I cut myself off before I could flip out and hurt her. That was just the monkey, losing what little restraint it had… and this was my fault, after all, not hers. I was not going to hurt her over this.

Repeating those words in my head, over and over, I did my best to put some distance between us – her new form was not nearly as fast as before, and she seemed to have lost her ranged offense, or perhaps discarded it – so I kept retreating to the back and the side, leading her on circles as all her legs tore into the ground to catch up to me.

She’d make a great plough.

The monkey was already knitting my flesh, closing the wound she’d cut into my chest, but I was not up to going face to face with her unless I let the monkey out entirely, and that would be… unacceptable.

I need some time.

Using her powers cost her. I knew that much, from the vision earlier. She had a well, and it was finite. I didn’t know how deep it went, nor what would happen if it ran dry, but I hoped that, at some point, she’d be forced to conserve her resources, whatever they were.

I need to talk to Tam, to her teammates. They’ve got to know something that can be done.

I circled around her, hoping to fake her out or somehow trap her.

Chayot – not Hennessy, not now – pounced once more, even though she was further away from before, using her wings to carry herself over the distance she could not clear with a simple jump.

But she was still jumping, not flying, and that gave me an opening. I dove down into the soft earth she’d just torn up, tapping into the monkey’s speed and strength to tear into the soil.

For just a moment, underground, I let the monkey cover all but my face, and I moved like a fish in the water, tearing through the earth, breaking it down.

When Chayot landed, she sunk to her… gut… into the earth, howling in frustration as I pulled her lower body down deep, fixing it in place with a few boulders. Then I burst out of the earth some distance away, with the monkey once more only covering half of my body, and made a beeline for our spectators.

Something pulled on my waist, stopping me dead in the middle of the run. Looking behind, I saw a golden thread run from my back to one of her snake limbs. Probably how she’d wrenched my sorry ass out of the earth earlier on.

Ah, baby girl, you don’t wanna get into a wrestling match with me.

Not that I’d ever refuse a friendly one.

Still, I had her where I wanted her and there was no use in pulling her out of the sinkhole I’d made, so I grabbed the glowing line – damn, this burns! – and snapped it with raw strength.

She howled as if someone had cut her arm off, and for a moment I was afraid I might really have hurt her; but then I realized the howl was just one of rage, not pain, so I ran quickly over to the others. Everyone but Tam, Vek, Dearheart and a goat-like boy – Is he Vek’s child? – had fled the moment Hennessy had turned into the pseudo-cherubim. Something tells me they didn’t flee due to cowardice.

“Tam!”, I half-shouted, stopping in front of her. “What is going on, and how can I help her!?”

You, help her!?” shouted Dearheart. “It’s your fault she’s flipped out this bad in the first place, dickwad!”

What a pleasant girl.

“Dearheart, shut up,” Vek said. “Mister Paterson… Aap Oordra. Chayot has always had issues controlling her power. And I’m afraid the agitation from the battle today, plus, well, your… return, was just too much for her all at once. Her power is based completely on emotions-“

“Really? Because it seems to me like her power really is built on knocking me around and trying to roast me alive,” I couldn’t stop my mouth from rattling off. “Not to mention all that pretty angelic imagery and inappropriate groping of herself.”

Dearheart almost threw another insult at me, I was sure, but Tam put a hand on her shoulder, while her eyes remained transfixed on the thrashing monstrosity that was slowly clawing her out of the trap I’d improvised.

“She eats emotions. People give off emotional energy like body heat, and she soaks it up. All of her powers burn through her reserves, no matter what she does with them – just maintaining them costs her,” she explained in a monotonous voice. “If she absorbs too much of a single emotion, and is also provoked into indulging in that emotion herself, she might lose control and… that happens.”

Breathing deeply for a few seconds, she calmed herself. “The others left so they don’t provide her with more energy. We need to knock her out before she burns herself out – it might be lethal!” She was almost crying with fear at the end.

I had to swallow a few times to get the lump out of my throat. My life. Hate it.

“She has a weakpoint,” Vek threw in. “Trained herself to always include that crystal, in case she ever went berserk and needed to be stopped. Find it, crush it – it’s really durable – and her power will shut down.”

“Don’t tell him that!” shouted Dearheart, again. “He’s a villain, remember!? What if he uses that against her, or sells it to o-“

Tamara whirled around and slapped Dearheart, hard. She wasn’t all that strong, by Adonis standards, but it still had a lot of weight behind it.

“Young lady, my daughter needs help, now! Shut your mouth and help him, we can sort everything else out later on!” she half-screamed.

Dearheart looked stunned, and Vek took charge: “I can’t help much here, so I’ll stay with Mrs Benning. Mister Paterson, please, you have to help us here, Dearheart and Slough can’t stop her by themselves!” She gestured at the goat boy and little miss rudeness.

“I shall, but you all should lea-“

“No,” Dearheart simply replied. “I’m not leaving. My power can counter hers to a degree. And Slough here might be able to help, too.” Goatboy – Slough – nodded fervently.

There was true steel in her voice, and I suddenly liked her a little more. No matter what else, she obviously cared about Hennessy.

Speak of the devil – I heard a massive rumbling, and then the earth around Chayot burst apart.

Both Dearheart and I took off, she flying up while I circled towards Chayot, so she wouldn’t attack in the direction of her mother.

The teenage heroine approached me and said: “Her crystal core is always somewhere different, but she can’t move it once her form is set.”

Chayot leapt out of the smoke, her legs morphed to all resemble a spider’s legs with cloven hoofs, her lower body swelling in size, and threw her spear at us, the blazing projectile flying faster than any cruise missiles I’d ever seen before.

I got ready to evade, but Dearheart simply raised her right hand, pointing at the spear – it flickered, then exploded into harmless sparks, which promptly vanished into nothingness.

She raised her other hand, pointing the palm at the charging Chayot,who stumbled, then fell, as all of her limbs seized up at the same time. At the same time, a burst of scarlet fire from her lower center head (the ox) destroyed said head.

It made all of remaining her mouths scream, but at the same time, the arms of the upper body disintegrated, as did its wings, and then a halo of five floating arms, two tipped with razor sharp nails as long as I was tall.

“What exactly is her power?” I asked.

“She’s a power shifter. Takes on different powers, but just maintaining, much less using, them costs her. Luckily enough, she’s limited to apex tier powers at most.”

My mouth gaped open. Of all the fucking unfair, broken powers out there, she just has to be a power shifter. And what does that mean, limited to Apex Tier? That’s NOT a limit! You can level a city just fine by combining the right apex powers! You can fuck up anyone’s day by choosing the right ones!

The spear piercing Chayot’s chest faded away, just as three of her free-floating arms (one of them with the freaky pointy death blades) opened fire on us, unleashing lightning bolts, a stream of acid and her earlier fire spheres.

I evaded the spheres and the lightning bolt, but Dearheart charged forward and made the acid vanish simply by pointing at it.

That’s one hell of a power she’s got.

Unfortunately, Chayot could tell as much, because she let the three arms she’d used disintegrate and the other two got into position.

“Dearheart, get away!” I screamed, but she didn’t.

I tapped deep into the monkey’s speed, ran up to them and jumped off, tackling Dearheart out of the way of the reaching unclawed hand trying to grab her.

“Get your hands off me!” she shouted in exasperation.

You try to be a hero, and what do you get?

“Need to g-“

Chayot slapped me down, hard, with a swing of her right snake limb, driving me into the ground.

Dearheart growled as I threw her aside at the last moment, then aimed her hand at Chayot again before she could follow up on the strike.

Pointing at the upper body – personally, I’d have gone for the lower one, bigger target, more likely to house the core – she used whatever kind of power she had. The golden woman’s flesh began to twist and boil, whole sections of it just sloughing off and disintegrating.

No wonder I had gotten odd vibes from these two earlier. Whatever the particulars of their powers were, they were not normal.

Either way, her power was useful, and Chayot seemed slow to push the advantage of her power. Or maybe she was instinctively holding back to conserve energy?

So I charged into her, slamming right into her lion-head’s mouth, letting the monkey coat the lower right half of my body too, as well as my right forearm. She probably screamed, but I couldn’t tell, because I was already tearing into her flesh, digging deeper into her body.

Find the core. Great advice.

I let the monkey’s eyes emerge so I could actually see something, then I simply tore apart her lower body, looking for anything that might constitute a core. She seemed to have most major organs covered in this form, and they even seemed functional, which implied that destroying them would disrupt her, so I did just that while working my way through to her rear end, bursting out of it in a shower of blood that turned into fading motes of light before it even touched the ground.

Behind me, her form collapsed – or, as I saw when I turned around, she’d simply dropped the lower half and was now a floating sphere formed by two rotating, eye-ringed rings topped by golden body that was twisting and boiling under the sustained effects of Dearheart’s power.

New flesh was already blooming on the lower end of the sphere.

“I can’t lock her down for long, asshole! Find the core, crush it!”

Such a charmer.

Just at that moment, Slough – whom I’d completely forgotten about – dove out of the ground, now looking more like a cross between a snake and a mole. His back arched, then turned hunchbacked, and then it split, the outer layers of his body sloughing off to let a new form emerge and dive into the mass of flesh that was forming – rather slowly, compared to earlier – underneath the sphere. He looked like a hermaphroditic marble statue now.

No matter what was going on with that power, the two of them gave me an opening – and I jumped directly onto the rotating rings, grabbing the outer one.

Unfortunately, there was no outer one – the two rings were of equal size, yet still somehow moved within each other at the same time. When they intersected, they sheared through my monkey hand’s fingers and I would have dropped had I not grabbed one of the rings and used it to propel myself upwards.

Careful to stay on the golden figure’s back – I didn’t want to get hit by whatever effect Dearheart was putting out – I started to rip into her surprisingly tough flesh, even as her burning wings struck again and again, burning into the monkey’s back – but thankfully not through it, at least not yet.

Dearheart screamed, and I felt something shatter again.

* * *

I saw the world of flesh again, though this time, a whole section of the forest of limbs had been cut away, leaving bare bleeding flesh behind to form a lake of the red liquid.

I looked up and saw a… a portal, or maybe an intersection, between this world and another. Light, flashing randomly in all colours, making my head hurt just by looking at it, was pouring into this vast world, causing pure chaos. And yet, it was not wholly unwelcome here. Part of Chayot was accepting the intrusion, I could just tell.

Must be Dearheart’s power.

I looked, and I saw – there was one figure I had not seen before. It floated above the land, a towering beauty at least twenty feet tall, her body woven of pure black light and marble white flesh. Her beauty was solemn, inhuman, utterly alien and yet incredibly alluring. She also had no eyes, only smooth flesh stretching over her eye sockets, with locks of black light almost hiding them.

Hennessy, curled up into a fetal position – and thank God for that, because she was naked here, and I did not want to piss her off more by seeing her naked – was floating inbetween the figure’s half-cupped hands.

What are you, and what are you doing to my daughter?

The figure looked at me without eyes and suddenly I knew her.

* * *

Nearly five years ago, during a particularly bad time for me, I’d found myself in a dream one night.

It had started innocently enough, mostly me, lying on an indistinct hill under the starry sky, with Tamara in my arms after we’d made love. She was asleep and I was just luxuriating in the warmth of her body, the scent of her sweat, the sound of her breathing.

Even though I had known it to be a dream, I couldn’t help but enjoy it, despite the inevitable disappointment and despair upon waking.

And then, a star had begun to flicker, then burn several times brighter.

I had reached out to that star, and somehow, we’d connected, if only for the fraction of a second.

Now I knew who that person had been.

I had met my daughter, back then.

* * *

I know you.

She unleashed a wave of raw dread on me, every single fear of my life crashing down on me at once – but the monkey was still there, even here, and took the brunt of the attack.

I know you. We met before. You know me. Please, stop this.

The dread changed into blind rage, goading me to just attack, but that was something I was intimately familiar with, and didn’t even need the monkey to block.

I could see her burning away flesh from beneath to maintain the attack.

You know me. I know you. I am no enemy. I have failed you, failed you as no father should, but I am not your enemy, nor will I ever be.

Crushing sadness, loss, a deep longing for connection.

My eyes teared up – could they even do that here, since I assumed I wasn’t in my body right now? – and I had to fight not to break down, as her attack slipped past my own defenses, and was only stopped by the monkey interposing itself to take the brunt of it.

Even then, it almost made me give up and go silent.

Please, I am sorry. Give me a chance to make it up to you, in any way possible!

She couldn’t speak, probably had trouble with normal language. I guessed, since her power was so deeply entrenched in emotions of all kinds, that she communicated primarily through them. So I poured all my regret, my desire to apologize, and what love I could muster for this half-strange girl I had only just met.

The figure – was it Hennessy, was it just a manifestation of her power, or was it something more… strange? – tilted her head to the side, and then my vision blinked out.

* * *

I was back in my body, and still clinging to the golden woman’s back.

But just as I was regaining my bearings, her body began to dissolve into motes of light that faded away, dropping me.

“Henny!” screamed three voices – Dearheart, Tamara and a distorted voice I guessed belonged to Slough.

They all – even Tam, bless her heart, who was far too far away to catch her daughter in time – dove towards her, Slough even, well, sloughing out of his current form into a new, insectoid one to catch her even though he was falling beneath her.

But I was faster, air jumping to her and grabbing her in a bridal carry.

I landed on the ground, letting the monkey absorb the entire impact, cradling the child I had never known of and yet met before.

You reached out to me, once. Across the world, even though we’d never known each other.

She was so light, seemed so frail.

I’d never really thought about having children. Or rather, I’d been planning to think about the possibility of considering children together with Tamara, all those years ago. I’d never seen myself as responsible enough to do right by a child. People with my kind of background usually ended up screwing their children up something fierce.

But now, holding her small, warm body in my arms as the monkey melted away, I suddenly had to fight back the tears at everything I had missed… I had failed her, in more ways than I’d known. What must she have gone through to become this?

Could I have prevented it?

Somewhere else, Dearheart was shouting at me to let go of her, Slough was bristling for some reason and Tamara and Vek were running to get to us, Tamara running so fast she left the other woman behind.

But right now, I could only look at my daughter’s unconscious face, and wonder.

Wonder about how I could have been so stupid, back then.

Wonder about whether or not she would ever accept me.

Wonder about how many people I would have to pull apart piece by piece, until I got my hands on whoever had done this to her, if there was someone responsible – oh please, let there be someone.

Wonder about how I could ever make it up to her, express just how sorry I was.

* * *

Two hours later…

It took quite a while to sort things out – the local director tried to stick me with the responsibility for starting the battle and endangering innocents – but Vek, Tamara and the other heroes, save for Dearheart (who wanted my head on a platter, preferably with my balls in my mouth) vouched for me, plus I still had that nifty medal.

By the time we got back to Three Heavens Gates – Tamara insisted that it was best for Hennessy to rest at home, where she had a gentle, familiar emotional backdrop – nearly two hours had gone by.

So we took her there, and I was even allowed to carry her out of the armored taxi they provided and into her bedroom (she had a lot of plush toys in all sizes) and to lay her to bed.

I almost kissed her on the forehead once she was lying there, but Dearheart – Camille when out of costume – would probably have ripped my crown jewels off to arrange said platter if I’d done that, so I restrained myself.

Besides, that was a right I had yet to earn.

Dearheart threw me out, saying that she would change Hennessy’s clothes, giving me a murderous glare as if daring me to demand to do that, while Slough remained outside the door to stand watch, now looking like… well, he had a lot of dog and some bird in his form.

What kind of perverted scumbag did she take me for?

Tamara took me down to the empty living room and we sat down, her on an armchair, me on the couch.

I idly wondered where Phil and the little princess were.

“Phil took Charity out for a walk, to calm her down. She’s never witnessed Henny lose control like that before,” she explained, interpreting my curious glance just right.

“I see.”

We sat there, looking at each other.

After about ten minutes, I finally spoke up.

“Tamara… there is so much I want to tell you, to explain to you…”

“Yes?” she asked, perhaps a little hopeful?

“But… what in the name of God’s light switch happened to her!?

She turned pale, looking down at her feet in shame.

I gulped down the anger, feeling ashamed in turn. If anyone deserved being accused of not doing a proper parenting job, it was me, not her.

“Tam, I’m sorry, but…”

“No, I understand,” she whispered, then looked up at me. “How do you know something bad happened to her?”

“Five… no, six years ago. Or at least almost six years. Closer to five, to be honest… I felt a… a connection. My power reacted, I reacted, and I connected with someone, someone suffering unimaginably, but still… well, that person helped me a lot, actually. Even though I thought it a fever dream until just a few hours ago.”

She paled even more… and then she looked me straight in the eyes, transfixing mine to hers.

“I… I need your help, Aap,” she said.

Using my cape name. She wants something bad.

“Say it.”

Not smart, to give her a carte blanche. I didn’t care.

“When she was twelve… there was a supervillain. A contriver, calls himself ‘the Ascendant’. Real madman, wants to elevate all humanity to godhood, yadayada…”

My stomach began to twist as I was already connecting the dots. Though I couldn’t tell if it was dread, sadness, shame or murderous hatred. Probably all four.

“He… he kidnapped sixty-six children and… he did things to them. Drugged them up with contrived drugs, tortured them, put them into death courses…” Her voice broke for a moment, and she pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, wiping her nose.

I, in contrast, was already cool. Really cool.

“She… most of them died. Only four survived for more than three days. The… the UH had just tracked him down, was attacking his base, some hellhole beneath a cabin in the woods outside the city, when he decided to bet it all on one chance. He… he overdosed all four of them. Lethally.”

Please let him still be alive and at large.

“They all triggered. Manifested. Whatever. All four of them, two girls and two boys. But…” She broke down again, sobbing.

I moved over to kneel in front of her, cupping her cheek with one hand. Cool. Totally C.O.O.L. Not even a hint of a tremble.

“Shsh. Tell me at your pace if you need a break,” my mouth said.

I want names, details, targets, now, my brain thought.

The monkey was even more single-minded.

“One of the boys… he manifested first. A… an S-Class. His power was… it was just wrong. And it somehow tainted them, even as they… as they manifested while they lay dying,” she sobbed.

“Then the other three manifested… the heroes, some villains who’d been helping with the search – even the Dark was helping, he thought it was disgusting what the Ascendant was doing – they managed to take the poor boy down. Killed him. Had to kill him. And even then, if it wasn’t for the three children helping, he might have broken through to the city.”

“What happened to the other two children?”

I could guess already.

“Dearheart and Slough. They all joined the Junior Heroes, after two years of largely unsuccessful therapy,” she explained.

No wonder these kids had such messed up powers.

“What happened to the Ascendant? And what do you need my help for?”

“He escaped. And he’s back. That’s why she’s wound so tight, why Dearheart is so aggressive. They’re all terrified.”

She looked at me, pure hatred in her eyes.

“That monster came back here and sent them a letter. Said he wanted his children to return to him.”

If I’d been an unstoppable rage monster, I would have gone on a rampage right about now. Fortunately, I had the monkey to outsource that to, for the moment.

She took a deep breath, drying her eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief.

“I want you to kill him.”

With pleasure.

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