- October 23, 2022
The Wolf Pack (Chapter 12)
The Tiger’s Den
Ken has had me sparring with him non-stop since I denied him a fight.
It’s… interesting to see how far he’s come, both physically and mentally, especially that arm. It’s new since the last time, I mean, he had one a couple years ago, but it was a different metal, not as hard or as tough, and certainly didn’t have a laser in its palm. He’s not allowed to use that… thankfully.
It’s getting pretty late. Even though this place doesn’t have a day and night cycle, I still feel it. That, and I’ve been keeping track with a timer.
I bet they fell hard for Uub’s trick. Maybe it will fix the attitude problem between Emily and Marie, maybe even put Tommy on the way to actually using that brain of his.
“You haven’t listened to a word I said,” Ken asks, trying to interrupt my train of thought. I turn back to him after he finally puts on a gi.
It’s harder to not stare at the six-pack when I’m not trying to punch him, so I’m thankful. He’s more than a little distracting once he’s all sweaty and glistening, and he knows it too.
That being said, I’ve managed to actually listen to him. I repeat to him, “You said I should work on my left sweep, it’s not as fast as my right,” and in response, “I think you can fuck right off.”
Ken chuckles as he brings his towel over his neck, and begins to make small talk.
Ken is a strange one, little unhinged but not like me. He’s never gone beyond the self-endangerment of an adrenaline junky.
He asks, “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you become a part of this teenage… hero… team… do they have a name yet? Also, how old are they? It’s all very unclear.”
“No name, yet, Tommy’s the youngest and he’s two years younger than me, and…”
I lift my briefcase over my shoulder as I think about that. He’s used to me and my calculated choice of words, he’ll let me think.
“Resources, they attract danger for me.”
He arches his brow, holding little worth in what I said.
“By that,” he begins to hypothesize, “you mean attract prey, which seems more like a plus than the reason.” He looks at me, looking for confirmation or denial, but silence is enough to do either.
He sighs and mutters, “Little disappointing, I thought it might be Emily, she fits your type.”
“My type?” I repeat, because honestly, I didn’t think I had a type.
“A fixer,” Ken says as if it should be obvious, “someone who wants to fix you. You also attract users, which she could be. Tell me, has she asked you to kill anyone for her yet?” I groan at the thought, and at least Ken doesn’t take that as confirmation.
I hear footsteps heading towards us as we make our way to the kitchen. Hopefully, it’s not someone looking to make their mark, I have no patience to defend mine.
Instead, I find myself asking, “Looking for your youth group?”
Tommy grimaces as we walk to meet him, as he stands alone. I guess they finished for today, but I wonder what he’s doing without the others, the girls might kill each other.
Tommy asks, “Really? A Nazi joke?”
He… he caught it. I point out, “The joke isn’t the youth group, it’s the fact that it flies over your head.”
Tommy gets all confused, which is par for the course for him. He just says, “If you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny.”
While not untrue, Tommy seems off, he looks fine, he sounds fine, but it’s like he’s missing something. As good as I am at sensing when something’s wrong, Ken is better, being more in tune with spirituality, chi, magic, and all that. I look at him, and he’s watching Tommy with intent, without taking his eyes off him.
I think I’ll just punch him.
If nothing’s wrong I get to punch Tommy, it’ll be fun and I don’t care if he complains. I’ll just tell him to get better at dodging. If something is wrong, well, everything goes to shit.
When Tommy continues to walk past us, I throw a punch right towards his face. Ken doesn’t move to stop me and Tommy somehow has the thought process to not only look surprised, but dodge.
Tommy can’t dodge for shit.
Ken backs me up and I duck so he can strike at the imposter over my head. He hits the imposter in the chest, sending him sliding across the ground, where he rolls over his head back to his feet.
In Tommy’s voice. he screams, “What the fuck?!”
“Tommy is about as skilled as a deer in headlights, which means you’re not him.” I’m not looking to carry on with this bullshit any longer than I have to. I get ready to fight and so does Ken besides me.
“Shapeshifter, illusionist, it doesn’t matter,” Ken warns him, “the time for that is over.”
The imposter stops faking it and cracks a smile, and rubs the back of his head the same way Tommy does.
“Jesus, I didn’t think I’d get caught that quickly, I figured you’d find your suitcase broken-” He stops talking and sees the briefcase in my hand, ready to be used as a weapon. “You have two of them?”
One big one to hold a smaller one. Works as distraction and double the security. I’m a paranoid man, this shouldn’t be surprising.
The imposter shakes his head and says, “You still find ways to surprise me, Hood, didn’t think you knew this idiot that well.”
He knows me, I know a lot of shapeshifters sadly, but only a few who aren’t my… never mind, being my ally wouldn’t actually deter them from doing this shit.
Like a shimmer of light, the imposter transforms from Tommy to a mask that I know all too well.
“Shadow Mask,” [c2] I hiss. He’s an interdimensional mercenary, with shapeshifting powers and a minor telepathic ability to read minds to better impersonate them.
But how are his powers working? I thought they were genetic, not magic. For genetic powers, he’d need to drink the water that runs through this place, that’s why Claire’s healing should still work despite never being given the water.
If drank it, he’d have to go through either Uub’s place or Alekandra’s. Did he run into either one of them?
“You know him?” Ken asks me. I don’t know why he’s surprised.
“It’s been too long, really,” the asshat says. He wears this stupid gas mask over his stupid face, for stupid reasons I don’t know.
And he dresses like an idiot by most standards, even for supervillains.
Dress pants, and a vest over combat padding… it’s just… why?
“I’m sorry to say, my friend,” he mocks with a bow, “but I need to go.”
As if he would fool me, he flips and goes to kick me in the face, but I block with my briefcase, neither of us budging.
“Sometimes I forget,” he says as he flips backwards, showing his acrobatic prowess, “you’re annoying even without the suit.”
As he lands on his feet, I rush him.
I kick his knee as he tries to get away.
I try using my briefcase as a weapon but he shifts into something small and disappears. I see him immediately as a snake wrapping around my arm before I can blink, and his cobra head pops up over my shoulder with its fangs out.
Shadow Mask dodges Ken’s metal fist and hisses with his forked tongue.
“It’s not fun being foiled, is it. dickhead?” I ask him.
He unwraps around my arm, and changes back to a man as he does a split kick to separate me and Ken.
“You would know.”
We both roll to opposite sides of him, and I swing my briefcase over my wrist to hold it as a shield.
Then I rush him again, but he shifts again. He shifts into a gorilla and I bring the briefcase to my face as he punches me. My head bounces in my helmet after it gets smacked by my own shield.
I’m seeing a pattern with the animals. I’m guessing whoever hired him didn’t pay him enough to go all out. I’m lucky he has tiered pricing he needs to stick to-
I choke on my spit as he hits me again.
I fall to my back and roll to my feet expecting a follow up, but he attacks Ken next.
Shadow Mask beats his chest and lets out a gorilla’s roar as he aims to slam down on Ken. Ken’s metal arm proves stronger than the ape’s as he grabs it by the wrist and squeezes before Shadow Mask can use his other massive arm. Ken twists and squeezes some more, causing the gorilla to yelp, and as Ken is about to palm strike its face, Shadow Mask shifts again.
He shifts into a monkey to escape Ken’s grasp and dodge his punch, and shifts to a man again.
He catches Ken between his legs and flips to throw him at me.
I just barely jump over Ken to try and kick Shadow Mask!
But the bastard blocks! This is going nowhere.
It only took a day but I already miss Aegis City, a place where it’s pretty easy to kick everyone’s ass.
Shadow Mask falls back from the force and I bring my briefcase down on his ankle. He roars in pain while kicking my own, making me to fall. I try to get up-
That was one nasty kick to my chin.
I try to roll away when I hear a bird screech and am met by a bald eagle, priceless.
I’m about to headbutt it with my helmet, better than sacrificing my unarmored arms, but Ken strikes over my shoulder right into the eagle’s chest.
Shadow Mask shifts into his human form and rolls to his feet. “Okay, I didn’t expect you to have a friend,” he complains, “you don’t exactly have many of those.”
Ken says it before I do, “As if you do.”
“Hah,” the mercenary gasps as he places a hand over his heart, “how the hell would you know?”
He shifts into a coyote and makes to run away, so Ken and I start to book it so we don’t lose him.
Apparently Uub and the elders live in the mansion, one that’s pretty modern. I mean, it has a light bulb on the porch. Thankfully, there is a sign that stops anyone from before 1960 from walking up to it, and everyone has good reason to abide by the rule.
I knock on the door and I hear a beat over the door handle. This square casing over the handle looks like modern security. Then it blinks green and the door makes a clicking sound like it’s unlocking. I wonder if the elders make trips to the modern times to get stuff for this place or does this place just magic it here for them.
I open the door to the small area where people put their shoes before walking on the wooden floor. It’s a simple one floor house, it’s just big.
As I take off my shoes, I’m thinking… should I call for master, teacher, or maybe elder…?
Eh, fuck it, just, “Uub!”
“Is that you, Thomas?” I hear Uub call back. I hate Thomas, but I know he doesn’t know that. “Come to the living room!”
I walk through this place, with its light bulbs and switches, and it all feels out place. I come from a time where this is all natural, but I’m in a world where what should be normal isn’t. Kind of reminds me of when I first got my powers.
I see that the doors are still sliding doors, something I’m sure Darwin wanted to keep with his obsession. I wonder if all of Japan is like this or just the tourist spots he went to. Probably just the tourist spots, what place is the same everywhere?
I guess Montana probably, but that place isn’t real.
As I slide it open, the living room is quite normal, compared to the dojo palace. It has modern furniture, but at its edges and underneath the stairs runs clean fresh water that likely goes through the building. I’d like to know how there’s even water here but this place doesn’t exactly scream logic.
There’s a fireplace where Uub sits on his knees, in a sweater and sweats. He’s looks so comfy. I want to be comfy.
“It is good to see you, Thomas,” Uub greets me, and gestures to a mat beside him.
As I move to sit, I take the chance to tell him, “Actually, I go by Tommy, I actually hate Thomas, makes me sound like a train engine.”
Uub chuckles, and looks down to his lap, drawing attention to the sword he has. A sword with the brown handle of an owl, a white face as the pommel, and a gold lining at its edges. The blade itself is black, which is beautiful in a way for a metal.
It’s not like anything I’ve seen in movies or anime, so I wouldn’t say it’s Japanese, so likely not a decoration that fell off the wall.
Uub interrupts my train of thought by commenting, “You better not let the Hood know that.”
Know what? Oh, that I don’t like to be called Thomas.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“So why are you here to see me?” he asks, not wasting any time. “You seem better than before, better than your teammates but they made progress too.” He watches my face intently, and asks, “Do you not think so?”
“I, I’m not sure,” I admit, feeling the need to scratch the back of my head.
I really should be, or else what was the point of talking to Andrea? I mean, I felt good, not like a total idiot, but I have no idea why.
By the tilt of the old man’s head, I think he needs more of an answer.
“I felt better talking, getting advice from Andrea, but I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning, about myself or anything.”
Uub sucks in the corners of his mouth, thinking on that himself. I realize that maybe he doesn’t know, which kind of defeats the purpose of coming here.
He waves to me, and tells me, “Let’s look at the water.” Okay, maybe it’s time for some old wise sage talk.
I move to the edge of the room, where water flows between the floor and the wall, and even under the fireplace. From where he sits Uub instructs me to, “Think about how the water flows, always in one direction, always doing the same thing over and over again, always knowing where it is going and what it is doing.”
“So, I’m like the water, always going the same direction?” I ask, taking what he said and taking a long look at how my life has been working, in one direction.
Uub frowns and goes, “No, how are you like water? It’s an inanimate liquid.” Well, now I feel stupid. “You’re not supposed to see anything in common between yourself and the water. You don’t always go in one direction, you don’t do the same thing over and over again, you don’t always know where you are going and what you are doing.
“No, one does, and you likely never will. You just learn things, there’s nothing you’re supposed to learn, I mean outside of a classroom anyway.”
“Okay, so now I really feel stupid,” I admit, “are you trying to say that I’m overthinking it?”
Uub cracks a smile and tells me, “Yes, you are overthinking it, overthinking training, overthinking everything. You thought that training with Marie and Emily was to connect on a spiritual level, when I really just wanted you three to talk to each other.”
I’m still mad about that bullshit by the way.
“Talking to Andrea is so you can remember how to connect. Connecting with people is a good thing. I’m only trying to help you all be better, and that means fighting alongside each other and learning together. There’s no inner peace you need to reach, no standard you need to match, as long as you all leave fitter than when you came, and you’re not all hating each other, then this training is a success to me.”
Huh, I guess that makes a whole lot of sense. I mean… I haven’t quite accepted it yet, but the team doesn’t have an end goal. I guess it only makes sense that the training and practice be open ended too. Being a hero is going to be a never-ending job.
“If you’re worried that the training won’t help because you can’t practice your powers, know that the water that runs through this house can give them back temporarily, that’s how we’ll hone your abilities.”
I turn back to the water, and wonder how something so magical could look so plain. I mean it looks cleaner than ocean or chlorinated water but still.
I go to dip my hand in but Uub yells at me, “Don’t drink that water, it’s, it’s not exactly sanitary, I mean it flows through my house. We’ll filtrate it first.”
I snatch my hand right back, knowing me I would have drunk it absentmindedly.
“That’s too bad, there would have been some challenge.”
That’s a voice I don’t recognize, and I turn around as Uub stands to his feet.
In the doorway stands a pale woman in combat leathers, head to toe with metallic plating over her chest and knuckles.
I’m sure there are other things to notice but the second those empty-looking eyes meet mine; I can’t look away. Even from behind her glasses, it’s just… there’s nothing, not even life.
“What do you want?” Uub asks as he readies the sword.
She holds up her forearm, where lights pop out of it, but it’s out of my field of view so I can’t see where it’s actually coming from or what it displays.
“It would seem that sword in your hand,” she says, sounding indifferent, lacking any excitement or anxiety that I see in the superhumans I fight. Even the ones with superpowers get a little tense.
I wonder, is she a part of the organization that the Director keeps telling us about? There isn’t much on any of its members, but there was a debrief from Saint Lucifer, and he mentioned someone who looks like this woman.
Could this be Hundress Dawn?
If so, I’m going to have to light this place up, so I slowly dip my hand in the water, germs be damned.
With unimaginable speed, speed that shouldn’t be possible here, she whips out a gun and shoots me right under the ribs.
I’ve been shot before, but usually it passes through the fire, and disintegrates. All I feel is the impact, the bullet barely breaking my skin. I don’t even have my healing factor as I fall over.
It didn’t hit my heart, wrong side, but… god, this… searing pain, the feeling of my insides being covered in liquid…
Everyone talks about the pain, but no one thinks about how uncomfortable it is to have a bullet lodged in and to be internally bleeding.
I need the water.
“Don’t think about it,” Hundress warns me, or I assume me, I’m not looking at her as I start crawling towards the water.
I turn around she fires again.
The old man moves between me and this woman, sword raised, and the blade smoking. If I wasn’t on verge of crying in pain, I’d talk about how cool it was for him to deflect a bullet.
Hundress holds the smoking gun pointed in Uub’s direction as I watch on. She slowly holsters it, and starts approaching us.
“Are you here to capture him too?” he asks her.
“No, not yet,” she answers honestly, “I’m sure that will come later, but it’s difficult to leave this place with an unconscious body.”
She approaches him one step at a time, eyes focused, unblinking. Her arms hang at her side but they still seem deadly.
Uub raises the sword over his head and yells, “Hee-ya!”
He brings the sword down and she catches it between her fingers.
Uub’s head shakes, and I can hear his teeth chatter. He tries to pull back on the blade but she holds it still. This is insane, powers aren’t supposed to work here, and it’s not like this water runs everywhere, I haven’t seen it outside this room!
“Impossible,” Uub gasps, which tells me he doesn’t get it either.
“I’ve been in here for a while,” Hundress tells him, “you’d be surprised how easy it was to hide in your home without a heartbeat.”
She presses forward, forcing the sword back and Uub to bend backwards inch by inch. “Cantorium is a metal known for versatility, it ability to absorb energy,” she tells him, then she rips if from his grasp, “but it is not the toughest substance.”
Then she punches him.
I scream and gasp as I continue to sit in a pool of my own blood, watching as she sends the old man flying across the room, back first into the wall. I hear the crushing sound as his frail figure meets the wood. I try and reach for him. He’s only a few feet away, but I can’t reach him!
He slowly turns his head as blood pools in the corner of his mouth. He mutters, his lips wet in red, “It seems… I’ve failed to remove….”
“Uub, Uub, UUB!” I keep screaming, trying to get him to look at me, the eyes, his eyes are glossing, I need to keep him-
A hand, hard and cold grasps my neck, and rips me to my feet. She holds me up above her head, and I get to stare into the empty eyes of a black hole. There’s no other way to describe it, there’s nothing behind her eyes.
She doesn’t even smile, doesn’t rub her success in my face. I don’t even know if she revels in proving her power and dominance over me. What is she?
“Know this Thomas Rodriguez,” she begins, “I was only able to be here because you and your friends opened the door, but because of you alone… he didn’t die alone.”
Didn’t die alone? He was murdered, by her, that’s not being alone, that’s just being violated and taken.
I try to kick her, first in her stomach but the pain of moving paralyzes me, so I bring my knee to her chin and by god, that hurts.
“Enough,” she orders, and throws me through the wall. I lose my bearings the moment I fly through it, and I don’t get it back until I’m on the ground, half in the water at the edge of the room, half on the floor.
“Better drink up,” she says, “your healing factor might save you, and Ion still wants you.”
I try to push myself back with everything I have to, fall face first. I’m on my side, suddenly choking on this water that forces itself down my throat.
As I drink to save my life, I hear her footsteps, but I all I see is the black creeping from my eyes.
When Uub and I left Marie and Emily alone, I did not expect Emily to come back bloody and bruised. At least, they do seem to get along better. There aren’t any snide comments as I spar with Marie and Emily sits it out with an ice pack. Marie even regularly asks Emily how’s she’s healing. Feels worth it.
Emily is just sitting off to the side as I touch up on Marie’s fighting skills, and my own while I’m at. With other people too, paired off and practicing with each other. History buffs would go nuts at the idea of seeing any of the people training together with wooden swords and spears.
They would also go nuts at the loud thundering footsteps that get everyone to stop what we’re doing. What bursts through the wall was not what I was expecting, not in a million years.
A hippo bursts through the wall and onto the walkway surrounding the dojo arena. On top of it is a twelfth century knight and a Zande warrior hanging onto its back. Darwin yells for everyone to get back but it’s kind of too late for that.
Ken is right on its tail as it swings the knight off. He’s behind it, and steps off a pillar to catch up to the hippo and bring his metal arm down on its ankle. It trips and slides across the ground, about to fall into the arena, on Emily.
She’s barely on the move, but the Hood bursts through the wall in front of the hippo. He dives after Emily to tackle her and tumble with her out of the way as the hippo lands where she was standing.
Marie and I are running in the opposite direction of everyone else, towards the Hood on top of Emily.
He’s about to ask her, “Are you okay-” but the shapeshifting of the hippo into an eagle catches everyone’s eyes.
The eagle flies towards the entrance, where Darwin stands motioning people out. It shifts into a man in a gas mask and a weird suit, who kicks Darwin in the face. It takes me a moment, but I recognize him from one of many profiles I have on mercenaries associated with the Savaage.
He goes by Shadow Mask.
He watches everyone evacuate, tilting his head as he asks, “Why is everyone leaving? The fun’s just starting!”
I notice pretty quickly that the only ones here are my team and Ken, or will be within the next few minutes. We’re all from a timeline where advanced technology like Ken’s arm, is modern tech. I’m sure the metal arm itself was already pushing it.
The Hood is up, right next to me with Emily and Marie. “Now there’s no one to get in the way,” the vigilante growls, and for a second I think this might be personal.
“Hmm, I think your right,” Shadow Mask agrees as he crouches and places his hand on the edge, “I like it better this way…” He leaps towards us and shifts into a giant anaconda, not like one in real life, but the giant ones from movies.
He towers over us and with a hiss of his forked tongue, “I haven’t eaten like this in a long time, let’s change that.” The Hood and I push Emily and Marie out of the way as he lunges after us. We both roll backwards to move away but he wraps around us with his body, squeezing us together. “Which one first?”
“How about neither?!” someone yells, then Ken jumps atop the anaconda’s side and sinks his metal fingers into its scales. With a click he electrocutes Shadow Mask, and the snake makes a noise I think should have stayed unknown to man.
Shadow Mask shifts into a smaller snake, a venomous cobra, as Marie comes to my side to help me up. I hear the snake hiss and slither before I see it, but when I do it shoots right towards Marie and me. I move in front of her and feel fangs sink into my side.
“Aaahh!” It’s difficult not to scream, not only from the depth of the bite but from the burn of the poison being destroyed in my body.
“Director!” Marie yells, which is nice to hear.
I hear a shift behind me and Marie throws her weight into lifting me up and throwing us out of the way. I just missed being crushed by a rearing rhino. What’s with the animals? I thought he could shapeshift into people, replicate their powers?
Were we not worth that asking price? I’m insulted.
Before it can attack Marie and me on the ground, Ken brings his metal hand to the rhino’s side and shows us that it has a repulsor beam that sends the beast spinning across the floor, right towards the Hood.
The Hood leaps out of the way but leaves a disc on the floorr. The rhino spins over it, and it’s the soundwave disc he used on Emily. It blasts Shadow Mask into the air, back into his human form and onto his back.
Everyone’s up and moving to get him, everyone but Darwin.
The Hood jumps onto his chest first. He’s punching Shadow Mask once, but when he pulls his fist back, the mercenary has shifted into a tall, short-haired, bearded black man that makes him hesitate.
“What do you think you’re doing, son?” he says to the Hood, and I realize that he turned into the Hood’s father, despicable, but also confirms that they’ve met before.
Shadow Mask punches the Hood away, and kicks the vigilante as he shifts back into human form.
Then Marie comes, jumping up and bringing her fist down on him. He shifts into a bird so she misses and slams her fist into the wooden floor.
“Damnit!” she curses as she holds her hand.
Emily is closest and the bird flies and shifts to Shadow Mask in front of her, but she’s inexperienced and he’s too fast. He grabs her and tosses her at Marie as she’s turning around, turning them into bowling pins.
I’m next, and I come up on him as I swing my foot towards his head, but I expect him to duck. When he does, I jump and kick with other leg.
Shadow Mask’s head bounces off the ground as I hit my ass, and without me knowing, the Hood hops over me to dropkick Shadow Mask in the chest. The mercenary slams into the wall below the walkway, and he picks his head up as the sound of a repulsor hums.
Ken runs up behind us with his metal arm aimed, and he blasts a red repulsor beam.
Shadow Mask turns into a snake to slither and dodge at inhuman speeds as Ken does his best to follow and aim, but to no avail.
Shadow Mask moves all over, shifting from snake to bird, to mouse and frog to evade being shot down, zig-zagging around. He shifts back into a bird and aims for the exit so Ken aims where he is going to be.
He clips the bird’s wing as his beam runs out and it spirals towards the ground. Shadow Mask shifts back to a man as his back bounces off the wood, but the damn cheat rolls with it to his feet. He pushes the doors open and is heads towards freedom.
“He doesn’t get to leave,” the Hood growls already chasing him with Ken at his back. I look back to the girls getting up and I move to follow.
As I run, I already feel the wound from the snake bite closing on my side.
I know that this superhuman has the power not only to shapeshift but a minor telepathic ability to read minds too. Then there’s his history with the Hood. He can predict the move we’re going to make before we do, but based on the Hood landing the most attacks on him, I would bet that his helmet protects him.
At the bottom, Shadow Mask waits in the arena where we first landed here. This is a big open space where we can see everything around us in this bubble. He stands in the middle with his hands on his hips, seemingly waiting for us.
“Jesus, I know you only got two legs, but could you be any slower?” he complains, and when we keep running towards him, he turns into a parrot and hovers above us, “Wait, I think we can make a deal, I think we can make a deal.”
I hate parrots, they repeat too much.
“A deal?” the Hood questions as we three have to stand under him. “Unless the deal ends with me pulling your stomach out your throat, I don’t want to hear it.”
While I’m not for making a deal at this point, I’d appreciate him not speaking for me.
Shadow Mask shifts back into a man several yards from us, his hand on the ground as he squats low, trying to seem unintimidating. “What I have in mind might make it easier,” he says.
I look over at Ken, and he shakes his head at me to which I agree, none of this bullshit. Before we can even step next to him, he answers back, “I’m listening.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yell at him.
Shadow Mask moves his finger between himself and the Hood, and I’m sensing a rivalry that goes back much farther than I anticipated. “Just you and me, hand-to-hand, I won’t shift as long as your friends butt out.” The idea is ludacris, but the fact that he values Ken and I as threats means that reading our minds in battle might be a stretch.
Despite the lack of knowledge on his telepathic abilities, there’s no way in hell that I’m letting the Hood fight him alone.
I tell him so, “No deal.”
“In what world would we trust you?” the Hood asks him as I hear footsteps and look to find Emily and Marie joining us.
“Trust who?” Emily asks.
“Shadow Dick over there,” the Hood says, “thinks I’ll fight him one-on-one if he swears not to use his powers.”
“Who would trust that?!” Marie shouts literally the thing we’re all thinking.
“Jesus, can you really blame a guy for trying?” the mercenary asks with a shrug.
“Yes!” all of us say in unison.
“Well fuck you guys then,” he says as he takes out a gun.
“Get down!” I yell as we scatter.
As he takes off a few shots, I throw myself over the Hood who looked like he was about to do the same for Emily. She saves herself.
Ken blocks one bullet going for Marie with his fist before another gets his shoulder.
We hear that click as the clip runs dry, and he dumps the mag to load another.
“Rush him!” I hear Emily say. I appreciate the confidence and the take-charge attitude but we ain’t getting to him before he’s-
Before our eyes, Shadow Mask finds a knife in his gun. I look at down at the Hood, the one I know who loves to play with knives, but then I’m reminded how he’s under me.
As if he knew what I was thinking, he asks, “How could I have thrown a knife with you throwing yourself on top of me like an idiot?”
“I’m trying to save your life here!”
“I’ve dodged bullets before, there were two other people who don’t!”
“Guys!” Emily yells at us as we turn around and see our elder with her hand still outstretched.
I kind of freeze, looking at her, and the blood dripping down her other fist, as her others fingers start to curl. I watch as she squeezes so hard, her palms start to bleed, and the world starts to change with her.
Then without warning, there’s a bolt of lightning that rings out in the distance, dark clouds start form over the palace, and its little time before we start getting hit by rainfall.
“What the fuck is going on?” Marie questions as Ken starts pushing her back out of Alekandra’s way.
As the Tiger Fist walks our way, the Hood crawls out of under me, dragging Emily out of the way of the elder with the look of death on her face.
The rain really starts to pour, with light seeming to bend around Alekandra and the drops that touch her. She’s been one with this place for centuries, and if they’re readying up to go this hard…
Ken tries to talk to her, but she just snarls at him.
With her rage, another bolt of lightning strikes and under that light, I see her eyes under her hood, those of a tiger.
We turn our heads to the dumbass merc standing with his arms crossed. Is he truly that stupid to not see he’s pissed off the main supernatural defender this place has?
Shadow Mask asks with a throw of his hands, “Do I have to fight you next? It doesn’t matter, I’ll kill you all before the day is done, should have just let the Hood take the deal.”
Ken turns to Emily and the Hood to order them to, “Stay out of this.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Emily agrees.
“But-” the Hood starts saying before Emily elbows him.
“We need what he knows about the Savaage, and why he’s here. Ali, you can’t-”
The Tiger Fist, she turns her head towards me with a fury that’s only a step away from being blind. She would kill me, she would beat me to a bloody pulp and find a way to kill me, I can tell from the look in her eye, if I don’t stay down.
She tells me, “Mine.”
Shadow Mask is hers, and with those words even the Timeless Palace seems to back off, pulling its lighting effect away from her. She wasn’t just talking to me.
Shadow Mask is superhuman, yet somehow, he can take massive damage, and use all of his powers here. I find it hard to believe Alekandra can fight him without any help.
The mercenary begins his short walk to her, clearly ready to go and get the one who’s scaring the rest of us. Ever the piece of shit, he sees the white robe in Alekandra’s hand, and makes the mistake of taunting her.
“You know,” he starts with a point of his finger, “I remember you now, you’re Alekandra, the Tiger Fist, I wonder if any of the stories are true.”
Ali doesn’t respond, she drops her robe from her shoulders, and her arms are on full display.
The scars of claw marks, up and down her arms are impossible to miss. She’s from before B.C., she’s older than me, so when she practiced and trained how to fight, she practiced against the animal she’s named after. Right on the side of her neck, as her long and unkempt brown hair moves out of the way, I see the ugly scars from three of a tiger’s claws, a place she should have bled out from, but didn’t.
Even with the rain, without her hood, her red eyes are enough to let Shadow Mask know that her face is wet by tears.
“Oh,” he teases her, “is the kitten crying?”
“Yes,” she answers, and Shadow Mask hesitates, not expecting an answer, and not expecting her to add, “and you will bleed for it.”
Shadow Mask had to have felt some hint of uneasiness after hearing her speak, but he tries to seem all tough as he laughs her off. “That’s cute, let’s see how cute-”
He doesn’t finish as Alekandra covers the several yards between them in seconds, prompting a, “Holy shit!” as he goes to punch her in her advance.
Her palm hits his wrist as he tries to punch her, and the sound of it shattering rings throughout my eardrums, the follow up attack comes between the fall of rain.
She lands a blow to the face, letting us all hear his jaw disconnect from his head.
He shifts into a bird away from Alekandra. I watch in disgust as he uses his shapeshifting to manually place his jaw back in place.
He flies far away and shifts to land as a white Bengal tiger. It roars at the Tiger Fist, but she stands as confident as she was fighting the man.
Tiger vs tiger, Shadow Mask rushes towards her, and he lunges for her, a tiger about to sink its claws into a deer.
Before our eyes, Alekandra ducks under the tiger’s lunge and spins to bring her heel down on its spine.
I hear the spine shatter, and the mercenary has to keep rebuilding his body to survive. The toll must be mental as much as it is physical. It’s a battle of attrition as much as power, their will making up their supply.
Shadow Mask turns into a cobra and slithers around Alekandra’s arm. He moves half-way up her arm in half a second, and it takes her less time to stab her fingers into the neck of the snake.
The force of her jab causes a line in the rain. The snake crumbles mid-air, all of its momentum stopped, and the Tiger Fist capitalizes on it.
THUD! THUD! THUD!
The snake, lacking the larger bones of other animals, creates a strange sound as the elder palm strikes the snake multiple times. The rain is sent flying behind the animal’s form with the wind her strikes Form.
The final strike…
… sends the snake flying, and it shifts back into a man before it hits the ground.
Shadow Mask rolls across the cobblestone, his arms contorted and twisted in pain, along with his legs.
He groans as we hear the bones snapping in his body. He rolls to his back and holds out his arm, allowing us to watch as he shifts his insides and moves his bones into place. The medical minds he must have ransacked to know where everything should go.
While he puts himself together, Alekandra does not attack him. She stands ready, waiting to hurt him some more.
When he’s done, he has to know he can’t meet her with speed or precision. He needs something he knows she can’t stop, or at least thinks she can’t.
He moves to his hands and knees, growling between his breathes either at Alekandra or himself. He shifts, and grows into something he was once before, a rhino. He must be thinking, there’s no repulsor blast, no future tech, no distractions, and nowhere to run, she can’t stop being trampled unless she can leap over him.
He shuffles his feet against the ground, his nostrils blowing out dust. Shadow Mask is trying to taunt her, intimidate her, and the more she stands without fear the angrier he becomes.
He lets out a roar, but where the tiger’s roar sounds like a growl, the rhino’s sounds more like a wail.
Then it takes off.
There’s such a short distance between them but enough for the rhino gain the speed to trample and demolish any person, but the Tiger Fist stands firm. She doesn’t make to dodge, to leap and traverse over the animal, she stands and waits, and she’s going to die.
Shadow Mask dips his horn to skewer her, and even I can’t fathom how this couldn’t be the end of her. The second before it happens, I consider closing my eyes, but my eyelids aren’t fast enough. I have to watch her die…
… but then she doesn’t, no, she catches the horn through her armpit and plants her feet. The rhino’s head slams into her chest but unable to lift her off the ground! That force should have killed her, flattened her, turned all of her insides to goo, but some way, somehow, Alekandra holds the rhino by the horn and lifts.
“Mother of god.” I don’t have anything else to say, as Alekandra lifts the rhino over her head, off the motherfucking ground, and throws it upward! The damn thing is screeching, too shocked to do anything but fly over her head and wait to fall on his horn! But the Tiger Fist isn’t done.
As it falls, she moves faster than it can fall; she turns halfway around and kicks it in the horn.
The horn shatters, the rhino falls on a broken horn with its blood pooling over the ground. It tumbles, tearing up the cobblestone only to reveal dirt underneath. Shadow Mask transforms back into a man, screaming, his hands holding his face.
“Aaaahhh, hah, ha, ahhhhh…” he cries into his hands. On his knees, pressing his forehead into the ground, unable to think from the pain.
He seemingly holds his face together in his hand, but blood still pools from face, soaking his vest.
He looks up and sees Alekandra approaching him, her veins pulsating, spots of red where her muscles tore and her veins burst from the pressure. He sees this monster of a fighter approaching him, and screams, “What are you?”
She stops, and looks down at him, tilting her head and making him twitch. “A kitten,” she answers, “who’s going to make this last.”
Shadow Mask sits there frozen. He doesn’t move or shake, from fear nor pain.
He’s silent save for the rain and her footsteps.
He admits, “I can’t beat you.” He’s so quiet, the rain almost drowns him out.
The Hood yells to Alekandra, “Kill him! Kill him now! He knows he can’t win now and he doesn’t need a ritual to leave here!”
What the hell does not mean? How could he come and go without the Palace’s permission?
I get my answer as the light shimmers around Shadow Mask at his edges, and Alekandra realizes that it’s now or never. She rushes him and jumps to bring her palm down upon him, as he comes apart like colorful ashes to the wind.
He’s about to escape, and you can almost see the red smile underneath his mask.
Alekandra’s palm strikes Shadow Mask’s head, ripping him back into this plane, shakes the ground beneath us. As his skull fractures and the bones in his body break, so do all the cobblestones underneath us.
Alekandra plants her foot on his broken body, claiming him for herself as she roars like the tiger she is.
She’s won but she doesn’t give off the sense of victory. What has she done in defeating him? Captured him so she can torture him later?
Someone’s still dead and torturing this scumbag isn’t going to bring him back.
Her arms open outstretched, shaking from her regret over her need to toy with her prey. It brings her only dishonor I imagine. She’s protected nothing, she’s only gained a small vengeance. She screams into the sky, sounding animalistic at first, but then it turns into that of an actual cry.
She falls to her knees as the ground begins to come together again. The cobblestone reforms and pushes the water to the surface. The Palace drains the water from around its elder, comforting her.
Ali raises her fists, as she’s crying, slamming them into the ground because she failed to protect her friend, a friend she’s had for so long…
Her robe sits cold and soaked besides me. I pick it up and stand. Ken sees me and we walk to meet each other.
When we’re close, I grab him by the shoulder and pull his head close to mine. “Wrap this around her,” I tell Ali’s student, as I place the white robe in his hands.
He takes it and nods his head.
He moves to his mentor’s side as her fists bleed. He kneels beside her and wraps the white robe around her, making her pause and then take her bloody fingers to its edges to pull it closer. Ken kneels down to wrap his arms around her and hold her in her loss.
“He still breathes,” the Hood growls.
All eyes turn towards Shadow Mask, as he lays unconscious, his chest rising up and down, his face lays in a puddle of his own blood.
Quickly, he begins to choke.
“Drown…” the Tiger fist growls, “drown in your blood. Uub would say not to kill, only to protect, but killing him now, letting him die, protects little,” she says as she moves away from Ken to stand over the mercenary, “so in his memory, I will spare you.”
As Shadow Mask seems to rouse, at the same time, a shadow passes over his face. “But I am elder too, and the wisdom of the tiger is spare no prey, so Shadow Mask will live… to suffer.” Shadow Mask makes no sound as her heel comes down on his face.
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