ARC 2: MEMORY
The Underground gathers in Epione’s kitchen with easy smiles and laughter, despite that our mission tonight involves kicking the door in on a group of white supremacists named the Storm Knights. They’re led by a mask named Alabaster John, and he’s an actual mask, not just a super-powered thug. His efforts to fight crime involve a brutally racist method of attacking black, Hispanic, Asian, or other minority criminals in the area.
“Iso said that Pandahead is meeting with Alabaster John and the Storm Knights, tonight.” Flashfire grimaces and splays his hands out on the kitchen island. “Alabaster John has one very specific power, and that’s if he touches you with his index finger, you die.”
That statement runs a sword right through the happy mood. I knew about Alabaster John already, I’ve just never had the chance to tussle with him. I wonder if he would have killed Megajoule.
I’m not worried about Pandahead or Aspect. I’ve already beaten Aspect once, and Pandahead just has his power over fear. Fear’s never stopped me before. “Okay, how do we deal with him?”
“He has to make skin contact.” Flashfire jabs his finger into his arm to demonstrate. “We’ve got an advantage in that most of our gear covers all of our skin. Gabe, you’re the only one with exposed flesh, since you need that to draw in heat. I’d say draw in a lot of heat before hand and put some extra layers on.”
Maisa steps up to the island. “I want to go.”
“If there wasn’t a very real chance of death, I’d say hell yes,” Flashfire says. “But you’re not prepared for this tonight. We have to be really careful.”
“I want to see Pandahead brought to justice,” Maisa says. “I gave you the names of these gangs so I could see that happen. I don’t want to wait here while you bring him in, I want to see his face when they put him in hand cuffs, or when he dies to trying to flee.”
Flashfire and I exchange a look and he gives a small shrug, as if to say, “It’s your call.”
“Iso is meeting us tonight, right?” I ask.
Flashfire nods. “He’s gonna take us to the meet up.”
“What if Maisa stays with him?” I ask. “That way she doesn’t get hurt, but she can see Pandahead brought in.” I sympathize, I really do. I want nothing more than to see those responsible for the deaths of my brothers brought in. And whoever killed Megajoule, I’d gladly watch them die, too. “Then, maybe, we could train her?”
Maisa looks excited at that prospect. She turns her puppy dog stare to Flashfire, who relents within seconds. “Fine, fine,” he laughs.
Remise slaps Maisa across the back, sporting a big toothy grin while she does it. “I’ll make sure you know how to box.”
Epione exchanges a look with Flashfire, and he shakes his head so subtly that he could hardly be said to have moved at all. Epione sighs, her shoulders fall, but her expression does not change. As always, she bears the demure smile. I don’t quite know what to make of the exchange.
Regardless, half an hour later, Flashfire, Remise, Maisa, and I are all walking through a section of town called Skyscraper Shadows. The name is half-true. The Houston skyline stares down on Skyscraper Shadows, but the towers cast light down into the suburban tangle, powerful and neon, and it blankets the neighborhoods and streets in a perpetual spectrum. The light is so oppressive it over-writes sound and smell, and the normal atmosphere of the city is lost in eternal day.
I shoot Kitsune a text with the address of our meet-up, and let her know that she might get the chance to knock some racists around.
We walk in slow and measured steps, careful even this late into the night not to catch the eye of an officer or, worse, a cape patrolling the area. There’s not much darkness to hide in, but we make do with what we can find as we follow Remise’s excellent senses to Iso’s meeting spot, which is an abandoned car wash nestled in a pocket of shadows.
Iso isn’t strictly a mask in that he doesn’t wear one, instead hiding how out of shape he is underneath a large trench coat that must be hell in the summer. He’s a journalist by trade. His jowls he borrowed from Droopy the Dog, but his eyes are sharp, stolen from the glare of a hawk. A camera hangs from a strap around his neck, just barely obscuring the mustard and ketchup stains on his button-up.
“Flashfire. Fellows.” Iso’s voice is weighted by years of public speaking. “The meeting’s likely already begun, so we should hurry.”
I check my phone and see that Kitsune replied.
An emoji cat giving a thumbs up. “Cute,” I murmur. “Just a minute. We might have a plus one.”
“A plus one?” Iso asks.
“Gabe got a girlfriend,” Remise says. “They’ve already been on one date. A lovely fireside thing if I heard right.”
“Ah, right, the Dresden crew. They’ve got it out for you now, Home Run,” Iso says. “Your name is getting passed around a lot of places. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pandahead knows it by now.”
“He’ll know it by the end of the night, I promise you that.” I pocket my phone again. “He’ll be singing it to some fish in a cage.”
“I’m sure he will.” Iso taps his thigh. “When’s this friend of yours showing up?”
I’d like to say that Kitsune swung in right then, landed in a graceful dancer’s pose, introduced herself with a great amount of charm and wit, and had an easy chemistry with the group. I really would have liked to have said that.
Instead, five minutes or so after I tell Iso I have no idea when she’d arrive, Kitsune stumbles into the car wash with a large puke stain on her jacket, and says, “Where’s these fuckin’ nazis?” while she shakes like a terrified chihuahua.
Iso has no response, Flashfire buries his helmet in his hand, and Remise wrinkles her nose, likely catching the scent of vomit. Poor Remise probably knows everything Kitsune’s eaten in the last day because of that.
“You know, if you’d asked me, I could have told you drinking before flying around is a bad idea,” I say, helping Kitsune to her feet. I feel how cold she is through the jacket and pump a smidgen of heat in, not enough that she’d notice.
“I did not ask you,” Kitsune says, but she stands with my help, anyway.
“You like cats?” I ask.
“I am a crazy cat lady.” Kitsune shakes her head, trying to get a hold of herself, and manages to steady her trembling body. “I’ve got five. And a dog. Named Pawpaw.”
“That’s a great name for a dog,” I tell her.
“It is,” she agrees.
We follow Iso through the bright streets for a couple of blocks until we arrive at a trucking warehouse. The word STORM is emblazoned on the side of the warehouse in large, blue lettering, and beneath that there’s a graffiti tag that reads “Knights.” Subtlety does not follow thunder, I suppose.
“So, you were after the Dresden crew, too?” Flashfire asks Kitsune.
“Yep.” She’s clips the end of that word hard and I get the feeling there’s little conversation to be had there.
Flashfire is two things better than I am: a better man and a better conversationalist. He drives on through her terse reply and says, “That must’ve been crazy. I bet you’re glad Home Run showed up.”
“You think I couldn’t have handled a small time gang?” Kitsune asks. “I had it fine.”
“No, but every time a soldier goes alone, they die,” Flashfire replies.
Kitsune doesn’t reply to that. Instead, she goes on, “I am glad that he showed up, if only for the chance to stomp on some nazis.”
“Girl, you and me both,” Remise says. “I’ve been lookin’ forward to this since the kid said the Storm Knights were involved. Buncha fuckin’ asswipes.”
Kitsune bobs her head back and forth again, snickering underneath the mask. The fox mask lends itself well to her laughter, which is equal parts amused and malevolent.
Remise stops in her tracks as we approach the gate and holds a hand out to all of us. “I think something’s wrong.”
“What?” Flashfire asks.
“There’s no heartbeats.” Remise tilts her helmet so she can hear better. “There’s blood and tears. I can smell the fear.”
I rip open one of the warehouse doors with kinetic energy. My night-vision goggles kick in after a second of peering into pitch black, giving off a high-pitched whine as they reveal the Storm Knight’s hideout.
The entry is empty. There’s a hole of an office to my left that my night-vision won’t reveal the entirety of, and cork post board to the right, covered in pictures and news stories of black, Asian, Hispanic, and other minorities. Capes, masks, criminals. I find it hilarious that Krater is there, like these idiots could do anything to him, and then I remember that stone skin is still skin, and Alabaster John could do something to him. Krater’s not the only famous black person on there. Senator Prince and his children, errant pretty boy Tim Prince and retired cape turned politician herself, Elena Prince, AKA Snow Owl.
The warehouse opens up into a huge space, so large that my night vision doesn’t carry all the way to the walls. Bodies litter the floor, little lumps inside the greater darkness. I reach out with my heat-sense and find no warmth in their flesh or blood. There’s a pile of bodies nearby, and on closer inspection they’ve clawed each other, bit each other, ripped each other’s eyes out. Most of the bodies are missing eyes or parts of their nose or even chunks of their lips. Some of them are mutilated beyond recognition.
Judging by the colors they’re wearing and the color of their skin, these are the Storm Knights. No sight of Pandahead, Aspect, or any of those armed guards he had with him, and no sign of FIS, either. Just a gang of white supremacists that died alone in the dark.
“What the fuck happened here?” I ask my friends, as if they will have some answer for me.
Kitsune studies the bodies. She gags but manages not to puke everywhere. Maisa clings to me.
The lights come on with a sharp clack, spearing into my eyes before my night vision shuts off completely. I hiss and cover my eyes, growling at the sudden sharp fluorescence bathing the warehouse.
Flashfire exhales a soft, “Fuck,” Remise scoffs, and Kitsune actually yelps.
I open my eyes after they adjust and see the message spray painted on the walls.
SWING AND A MISS, HOME RUN.
“Woah,” Maisa says, so soft and yet, being the only sound in the warehouse, is so loud that it bounces and echoes long after she said it. Her voice seems to trap us in this moment, staring at the graffiti message on the walls. One that was left for me personally.
“Heartbeat!” Remise shouts, cutting through our stall.
One of the bodies — holy shit, that’s Alabaster himself — rises from the pile, half his face completely torn off his skull. Blood pools on his one good eye from a cut on his eyebrow, but even so he reaches up for Kitsune’s exposed hand with his pointer finger. He screams wordlessly, his half face twisted into wide-eyed agony.
Flashfire throws his hand out, smoking and glowing, and I wrench my eyes shut just in time, bounding forward blind except for my heat-sense. Alabaster’s finger blazes in my thermoception, so close to Kitsune’s cold hand, so very very close. I am suspended in the air, frozen mid-leap, hoping that Flashfire’s power is enough to blind the man where he can’t kill Kitsune.
I open my eyes as Flashfire’s blinding palm returns to normal, just in time to see Alabaster John’s finger twist and break off the joint, bent the wrong way toward the back of his hand. Alabaster John screams and recoils, and then I smash my fist through the bloodied skull in one, unbalanced strike that sprays the warehouse walls and floor behind him in brain matter.
The pile of bodies beneath Alabaster John’s explodes in a flurry of movement as the thugs screech and jerk upward, moving as one group of hideous zombies clinging to their last scraps of life. Kitsune rips me from their grasp and swats them down with her telekinesis, and Flashfire and Remise jump in to help.
But by the time they arrive, the survivors are dead, choking on blood.
“This one’s having an aneurysm,” Remise says, pulling one from the mound of bodies.
“Are you okay?” Kitsune asks me.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I lie. “Are you okay? He almost touched you.”
“Who did?” Kitsune asks.
She doesn’t know how close she came to death, and so I decide not to tell her. “That one guy that came out of the pile.”
Remise drags someone out from the very bottom of the bodies, someone who kicks and punches and shouts in feral tongues. “This one’s alive.”
Flashfire takes on the job of interrogating him while I steady myself from that whole ordeal. He squats down next to the panicked thug. “What happened here?”
“P-p-p-p-p-p-” comes the reply, while the survivor shakes and writhes on the cement floor, his eyes locked on a point past Flashfire’s head and opened so wide that they might fall out of his skull if he wasn’t on his back. “Pan-panda-head of panda-thermos-everyone-thing-dark-evil-black-monster-kill-kill-kill-ki-ki-k-k-k-k…” From there the babbling devolves into monosyllable nonsense, consonants uttered at high speed like a tapping tune.
“Trying to swallow his tongue,” Remise says.
“You can’t do that,” Kitsune says. “That’s not possible.”
“He’s still tryin’,” Remise replies.
Maisa whumps into my side, clinging to my jacket. She stares at the bodies.
I take her aside. “Did he ever do anything like this before?”
“No, no, not in all the time I was with him.” Maisa shakes her head. “But they said he had a power over fear.”
“Some power,” I say. He’s heavyweight for sure. I’d have thought he was cruiserweight or welterweight, but this many people dead… they’d need a heavyweight cape or Lictor team to deal with him. A team of capes designed to bust powerful threats.
“There’s chatter on the police radio. They got a tip that a warehouse was hit up by masks,” Drone says. “This warehouse. You better get out of there.”
We hightail it before police arrive. We watch from a nearby alley as police, FIS, and at last a team of capes pull up in cars. The police cordon off the block and entrances into the Storm Knight’s hideout while the four capes meander around. One of them wears a trench coat a lot like Iso’s, and he’s trailed by a middle-aged woman in lightly padded battle armor, a young man in light suit, and a girl in an EMS uniform but with special badges along her arm.
“That man in the coat, that’s Empyreal. Good guy. This team is the Ministers,” Iso says. “They’re Canis class. We better get out of here, or they’ll find us.”
The Underground leaves Skyscraper Shadows behind. Once we make it back to the Flashfire’s clunker van, Kitsune pulls me aside. It’s hard to tell if she’s looking at me behind her white-fox mask. But the fox eyes stare at me and make me feel like she’s watching me all the same. “Home Run. What are you going to do?”
“Rise to the challenge.” I shrug, but it’s a loose facade over the cold fury roiling at the pit of my stomach. “He hurts children.” He hurts children, he hurts children. “I’ll hurt him back.”
Kitsune nods. She folds her hands at her waist and asks, “Why aren’t you a cape?”
“I thought you didn’t want life stories.”
Kitsune barks a single laugh under her mask, a low, sultry “Ha.” She shakes her head and I can hear her smirk when she says, “Fine. We’ll trade. One piece of the puzzle each.”
I can get behind that. I tap my chin with index finger while I think of a good reason why I’m not a cape. “I can’t be. If I walked into the OPI tower I would be arrested. Maybe even killed.”
Kitsune tilts her head to the side. “Are you a retired cloak?”
“You’d love to know if I was a supervillain, wouldn’t you? Your turn.” I wait for her puzzle piece with a grin, which my mask does little to hide.
“Fine.” Kitsune glances away and then down, and then back up at me. I worry for a moment that she won’t say anything at all, that I’ve given her a very valuable morsel for nothing, but she sighs, and says, “I used to be a big hot-shot cape. Not anymore.”
I wonder who. Maybe if I look through the list of retired capes I could find her real name. Might not be fair or right, and if she thinks I’m a cloak she’s not on the right train of thought to figure my identity out. “Okay, Kitsune. A piece for a piece.”
“Text me when you have something else. I’ll help. And maybe give you another puzzle piece.” With that, Kitsune flings off into the night, carried by her telekinesis.
I get inside the van and find that Remise is staring at me. “What’s wrong?”
“That girl. She reeks of alcohol.”
I nod. “Yeah, she had a flask on her.” I figured she was in some kind of bad way, but the only time I’ve commented on it, she rebuked me.
Remise shakes her head. “No, I don’t mean the flask. I mean her clothes. Her skin. Her hair, her mouth. Years and years of it, Gabe. She’s an alcoholic at the very bottom of the bottle.”
I sit back in my seat, unsure of what to make of that. Mostly, I feel sympathy. She lost something about herself, but I can’t put my finger on what it is yet.