- April 30, 2023
The Wolf Pack (Chapter 23)
The Removal of Power
It’s so tranquil here, so beautiful. The Satpura Range in India is gorgeous, breathtaking, there’s so much greener here than in Seoul, and certainly less people. Maybe not to the people here but…
Standing before the mountain range, I see less stone than I do green by the mountainsides covered by this dense forest.
It’s a once in a lifetime feeling to stand at the edge of the cliff, all alone, and mediate. To be one with the world, to sense everything around me, the trees, the animals, the chi and chakras that flow through them all. I sense them as Master Ali taught me to.
She recommended that if I am to live in this world, I should spend time getting to see it. After leaving the Timeless Palace I did go and see the world. After fighting through the Northerners, being packed in by China, going back to visit my mother’s homeland in Japan, enduring the harsh winter of Russia, bored by the samey countries of Europe, and enlightened by all the strife and hope in Africa and the Middle East, who would have thought I’d find a place in India that I wouldn’t want to leave so soon.
“Ken, do you have to do that?” Sarem asks.
Alright, I’m not alone, but my friend Sarem, she can be so quiet I don’t notice her presence, at least until I bother her. She’s native to India, and yet not.
She wears this sharp and black hood that contains her long dark hair, followed by a long looming cloak attached to it. Her tunic resembles an Indian sari with its black and red colors, but her gray trousers aren’t exactly what all women wear, at least that’s what she told me.
Getting to know the people is important to getting to know a place. Even if they tell you wrong things, that still tells you something if you’re willing to dig deep.
Sarem is someone no one would ignore, but not everyone would approach. When she stands, it’s usually while floating and with her cape wrapped around her.
Yeah, so she’s not what one would call normal.
As I turn my head towards her, properly mediating, I realize mediating isn’t the most correct term for what I’m doing either. Most sit with their legs crossed, and if they’re in tune with magical energy like Sarem is, they levitate. I plant my one hand on the ground, and hold myself straight up, testing myself even as I ‘relax.’
I know she has no romantic preference for men, just as I do no one, but being all sweaty and without a shirt, it’s fun to tease her as it is to tease anyone.
“What?” I ask her, flexing my abs as I ask her, “is it distracting?”
She lacks a sense of humor, but she has a lot of patience for me so she never grows too irritated. It also helps that my visits are separated pretty far by time.
Sarem narrows her eyes at me, her lip a fine line, moving so little but doing so much to tell me how annoyed she is with my antics. She’s at least not above striking my ego, which I hope brings some modicum of entertainment. “Yes, your groans of pain are quite distracting, you’d think training so many years would make this exercise child’s play.”
I met her after my first visit to the Palace six years ago, when I was fifteen. Being a sorceress — the only explanation of her powers she would give — she sensed the magical energy and thought a hellish demon of sin or a dark wizard was opening a portal to our world. What she found was little old me. It took a little time to convince her I wasn’t a demon, but since then we’ve remained pen pals of sorts.
I found her to be a kindred spirit, like me, choosing to venture out into the world alone despite being so young. Admittedly, my departure from my family was treated with respect and support. I was aiming to learn how to be fighter which would bring… I don’t want to say honor, that was a mentality my mother was trying to avoid, but there was still pride, even if she didn’t want to show it.
For Sarem, abandoning her home wasn’t the same for her.
I come down from my handstand to let the blood rush back to the rest of my body instead of resting in my head. I stand on my metal arm so blood doesn’t even go there.
Sarem watches me as her cloak drapes behind her over the rock she mediates on. I smile and gloat, “I want to seem impressive for our new friends.”
“So you noticed them too?” She smiles back as she begins to play with our eavesdroppers as I do.
“It’s funny how they think we would miss them,” I insult.
“Well, sorry for trying,” a voice answers from behind the leaves and trees, a voice that I recognize, and one that makes me twitch.
A bird flies from the bushes, a bald eagle with blood on its head. Now maybe I don’t know India as well as I think, but I’m pretty sure they’re not native to here.
Sarem and I stand ready as the eagle takes its perch upon a rock, and its shifts into the man with a suit and a gas mask.
Usually when I fight, I get this adrenaline rush, I feed off of it, it changes me, makes me wild. It happens wherever I fight a worthy opponent, even sometimes to the death, but never against evil, true villains. It never feels good knowing that I’m hitting someone who’s wronged so many others, especially when I’m losing.
Uub deserves justice for what Shadow Mask and his accomplices did to him. The only problem is, with his powers and supposed telepathy, he’s better than me. I have little doubt that Sarem can defeat him, but what does that matter if he’s just a hired gun?
“Oh,” Shadow Mask goes as he sits on a rock, several feet below me, only several feet from a forest. He tilts his head, watching me, and based on the noises from his mouth, he’s reacting to what I’m thinking. “I wouldn’t need to read your thoughts to know what you’re thinking Kendall Lee,” he tells me, assuring me of my fears, and adds a new one when he taunts, “it’s written all over your face.”
“May I ask how you escaped, Master Ali?”
“Through blood, sweat, and calling in a favor from a guy who can teleport.” The mercenary shrugged at me. “What can I say, most prisons fall apart to someone who can teleport.
“You know him, I see,” Sarem mutters, and with a flick of her hand and the word, “Rakaas,” she works her magic.
Her black fingernails turn red, and the veins in her hands pop so you can see them right on the surface. Then a red smoke bleeds from under her fingernails and zaps all around us, hitting multiple people in the chest. She reveals twelve female warriors by causing them to give off light. No longer hidden I see that they’re all dressed in black padded leather, with masks covering their faces. They even lack eyeholes.
Sarem wraps her cloak around herself as she floats, and tells me, “I wanted to see them.”
Shadow Mask asks her, “Did you, or did Leviathan?”
I almost miss it but the name makes the teeth in her jaw clench. Her eyes don’t move along with the muscles in her face.
But who, or what’s Leviathan?
Sarem brings her hand before her face, and whispers, something that sounds like, “Sakaar.” With a word she summons a black mist from her fingers to come around her and form black and serrated blades. She informs me that, “I’ve grown sick of this company, Ken, let’s dispose of them.”
I nod my head, and tell her, “I have a bone to settle with Shadow Mask, so I’ll fend him off until you’ve finished with the rest.”
“His… that’s his name?”
“Don’t wear it out.”
“I just… I guess it’s better than the Irish girl with the Spanish name in the Americas.”
I start walking towards him, trying to gauge his reaction, but he’s a telepath. Sarem ends up gauging me instead.
Her eyes squint for a second and she has to notice that I said I’d fend him off. I have no intention of winning. It’d be by some luck for me to defeat a person who shifts his shape with such totality and with little pain.
“Don’t die,” is all she says before her cloak envelops her and she disappears with the swords flying towards their targets.
I turn towards Shadow Mask, and I know that to fight him I have to fight without thinking. I need to move on instinct or he’ll know what move I’m going to make before I make it, as the saying goes.
Shadow Mask listened into my head and shrugs, commenting to me, “That’s such a cliche, fight without thinking, like how would that-”
Without thinking I thrust out my arm and shoot a repulsor beam straight for his head. I did it on instinct, so he didn’t see it coming.
“Well, maybe it works for some people,” he admits as he’s bending backwards, flipping away and dashing backwards towards the forest.
I surprise him by dashing over him, striking with my palm, telling him, “There’s no getting away this time.”
I think about Sarem so he knows to forget the idea.
He laughs as he catches my arm under his shoulder and kicks me over his head. I roll over through the grass and as soon as I stand up he leaps atop the root in front of me. It’s only a foot higher, but high ground is high ground.
“You know what’s better than having the high ground?” he says as he reaches and pulls out a sidearm. “A gun.”
BAM! BAM! BAM!
He fires off three shots towards my head, which I block with my metal arm. Being made of Ionium, bullets don’t do anything but bounce off. I ready my repulsor and shoot it at him. He shifts to a bird to lift his gun and dodge. He shifts to-
He shifts into Uub, with a sadistic smile that the saint of a man would never have, and tries to kick me as he grabs his gun in the air. I cross my arms to block the kick, and after being pushed back I know he has more strength than Uub did in his old age.
He spins to kick, but being Uub means his leg won’t reach me, the elder was too short.
“Don’t be stupid,” Shadow Mask says with Uub’s voice.
I understand why because he shifts back to his own form, where his leg is long enough and kicks me in the side because I was unprepared. I can’t make stupid mistakes like this, underestimate him even a little. Sarem should dismantle those goons quickly so I just have to hold out.
“You really think so?” Shadow Mask asks as he throws a fist towards my face. He barely misses. He brings the gun hand over his other elbow immediately to catch me off guard when I couldn’t see it. I duck my head and slam my palm into his gut, shoving him away from me.
The first thing standing out to me, is that he fights like the Hood. Combining fisticuffs and gunplay to catch me off guard, but more than that, he’s trying to have fun. Worse, he’s barely using his shapeshifting powers, almost like I’m not worth the effort.
“More like my bosses didn’t think you were worth the fee,” he corrected before he tries to hit me with his strong legs, striking in and out at me with his right where I’m not moving to try and hit me.
He goes for my head, I duck, and he calls me a “Dumbass,” because he knows this is my default. He brings his foot down over the back of my head, and I hear him shift but don’t see what into.
I lift my head to see nothing, and realize he’s behind me by the sound of the wind. I block with my hand in time for his leg to knock my fist into my head, but that hurts a lot less than a straight kick.
I’m in a bad spot. If I stick around, he’s gonna wail on me and take me down before I can do a thing.
I have to duck again as he brings his other leg towards the back of my head, and this time I roll so he doesn’t bring it down again. He keeps going to knock me out, or maybe even give me brain damage. It only takes one bad hit to the head for someone bite the bucket, and he doesn’t seem to care if my brain is dead or alive.
Damn it, Sarem, what’s taking you so long?
“You keep thinking about her a lot,” Shadow Mask states, never letting me forget how he’s reading my mind. His leg is still hanging as he looks at me through his gas mask. He plants it slowly, in no rush. “You make her sound really powerful, which means those goons must be more powerful than I thought.” He doesn’t know, yet he brought them. They’re loans, yet they didn’t pay him to use the full extent of his abilities? Did they not think he could do this?
“Watch it kid,” he warns me, “I may be doing this for the dollars, but I indulge in beatdowns when I want, especially when I have weaker targets like you…or like with Uub.
“He wasn’t really worth the dollars the Savaage paid.”
I blast him for that, and I actually hit him dead in the chest. He’s fast but sometimes he likes to hear himself talk too much. He shifts when he hits the ground and I can’t see him, until I hear a slither and a forked tongue behind a tree.
“You think I’m the one who likes to hear himself talk?” Shadow Mask asks, with a raspier voice. I blast the tree the voice is coming from, but even though I burn it in half, he’s still alive to admit, “Yeah, I really do, but who doesn’t?”
A viper snaps towards me and my metal fist snaps to whack it. I connect only for the viper to shift into an anaconda around my arm. It moves at a speed faster than any normal snake and wraps around my neck, squeezing me as I try to tug it off with my flesh hand.
As I struggle the snake whispers into my ear, taunting me, “I guess it isn’t surprising for you to be losing right now, I mean you expected it, and I bet you’re used to it by now.” I try to turn on my repulsor. I can’t aim it towards him, but the heat burns him so he shifts off of me.
I whip around to face him, but he’s behind me again, his gun to my temple. “You really suck at this, you know?” he taunts me, hanging the cowardly power he has with his gun.
“Cowardly?” he questions, “Aren’t you friends with the Hood?”
“Well, he does punch me rather than point a gun at my head the second he has trouble.”
Shadow Mask laughs before telling me, “Oh, the Hood, he ain’t your friend, he doesn’t do friends.”
Like a mercenary would know.
“I would now turn around.”
I do as he says, I’m not looking to get a bullet through my temple. He gestures the gun up, and I raise my hands above my head. Before I can even think about blasting him with my arm, he orders, “Point that thing away.”
“Why are you doing this?” I ask him, looking for more than just ‘money talks’ but what he was paid to do.
He doesn’t seem to have a secrecy clause in his contract, or at least not one he follows, because after shaking his head back and forth a few times, he tells me, “My employers want you and the girl, superhumans and magic users have the kind of energy that my boss is looking for.”
I wonder if he realizes I’m not a superhuman.
“You’re not a superhuman yet, kid,” and that is the moment I find out I have the superhuman gene, pretty anticlimactic for my taste. “What, did you want a fucking party to celebrate it?”
“Aaagh!” I scream, because getting shot in my shins really fucking hurts. You can do the math, I’m not going to describe to you the numbing, scarring pain of having bullets rip through your muscles and bone.
“I thought you needed me alive!”
Shadow Mask scoffs at me as he moves behind me, having me on my knees while he has his gun against my head. “You know the saying, alive but not in one piece,” he says, “now let’s just wait for your girlfriend.”
How am I gonna date a lesbian?
“Jesus Christ,” he groans, having read my mind I bet. “Yeah, I read your mind, I don’t actually care what she is, or what you are, it’s just way to piss you off.”
I wonder if he’s realized-
“Yes, I realize I’m the one who’s pissed off, shut up, Jesus Christ, the Hood never annoys me like this, with him you forget he’s even a kid, with you… ugh.”
Well, at least I’ve annoyed him
He hit me with the gun but it was worth it.
“Don’t hit him again,” comes the woman of the hour. She’s gone full sorceress as the area around us turns dark.
“Here’s the real shit show,” Shadow Mask grunts as he stands over me with the gun to my head.
Above us, just below the high branches, the space turns black where the winds are sucked inside. This black mass whose gravity pulls on the trees, bending the trunks and breaking the branches. A head forms from the black mass, the ends of the cloak loom out into limbs covered by cloth, and we can only see the shape of claws underneath them.
From the black mass, comes the loud squawks and screeches of crows, and as the squawking grows thunderous, hundreds of them erupt from the cloak as Sarem’s face forms from the hood. The crows swarm around us, planting themselves on branches and staring into us with their black eyes.
It takes a moment to see how deformed they are. Some limbs are featherless, others have wounds that come over their eyes or ooze liquid that should cease their flight. They are products of darkness, not true life, machinations of dark magic.
Sarem’s face can clearly be seen as her body is enwrapped by her wide and expansive cloak. In a voice that makes me think of only demons and hell, she orders Shadow Mask, “Surrender Ken and your weapon, or be feasted upon, pecked, and eaten like vermin.”
“That sounds fun and all,” Shadow Mask retorts, “but I’m pretty sure you’re going to surrender instead,” pressing the gun harder against my temple with the end of his sentence. “I’m willing to bet- no, I know that I can pull this trigger and shift faster than your crows can move.”
He makes his point, but Sarem isn’t phased, Sarem has what others would call a great poker face. Where Shadow Mask hides behind a mask, Sarem doesn’t need anything so literal. When the gun pushes harder into my skull, I know the mercenary was listening, and he know he needs to threaten me more.
“And you know what,” he starts again, “maybe they can get a few decent pecks in, but I can still skedaddle my way home before they really get me, but you can’t get a new friend.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I tell Sarem, hoping that she really does listen, I’ve noticed that she has a tendency to ignore me. “If he kills me, he doesn’t capture me, then he gets nothing and his bosses get jackshit.”
This time Shadow Mask whacks me to the ground, and when I try to push myself up his foot is on my back. With my face in the dirt, I see that Sarem hasn’t flinched, but we all know that angered her as the crows start flapping their wings and squawking. Sarem has a tell, but it is much more intimidating than most.
Shadow Mask doesn’t see it that way. “Oh, did hurting your friend bother you?” he teases her.
“Uck!” He shot me, again, right in my back, where my metal arm meets my flesh shoulder.
The crows get nuts, and Sarem loses her cool, her eyes radiating a black mist and her canines growing sharp as her jaw unhinges farther. She snarls like animal, threatening the mercenary, “Do that again and I’ll tear you apart.”
“Threaten me again and I’ll just put one in his head,” Shadow Mask responds with a shrug, like he’s not doing this, but she’s making him do this.
“Actually, I do one better, I’ll shoot him in the spine,” and that gives me a chill down the same bone. Shadow Mask digs in his heel as a message too. He shows how much he knows my kind. “For a fighter like him it’ll be a death sentence, being paralyzed in anyway like that, he might just ask you to kill him anyway.”
Shadow Mask kneels down to move his knee in my back, so maybe I can take the chance to-
“Don’t even think about it,” he warns me as the guns goes right over the middle of my spine.
He looks to Sarem again, and questions, “Make your choice in the next three seconds, or he better hope you can make a wheelchair instead of swords.”
Sarem doesn’t change from her demon form, doesn’t take back her crows, doing as she should. She shouldn’t give in to him.
“One,” he counts off, and Sarem stands firm.
“Two,” he counts again, and the crows all start to flap and hover, getting ready to tear him to shreds.
I tell Sarem, “It’s for the best of everyone, that you don’t let him take us alive.”
“Three,” he counts, and I wait for the bullet that will hurt much more than the first few.
“No,” Sarem gives in to him, changing to her human voice as the crows come and fly back to her, a couple dissipating on the branches. Her cloak changes from this black mass to its original shiny black silk.
She floats to the ground, the cloak coming apart a bit to see the tunic underneath as her head dips. She hides under the hood, avoiding my eyes.
Shadow Mask chuckles, but he doesn’t take the gun off my spine, and can’t help but taunt us one more time. “It’s adorable how you kids never seem to choose the greater good over your friends, it’s so endearing and yet so stupid.”
Sarem raises her head so Shadow Mask can feel the full extent of the hate in her eyes, the shine through the hood’s shadow.
“The world has never proven to be worth considering the greater good,” Sarem growls at him, her voice shaking as she holds back from attacking him. “For me, the greater good is my friend.”
The sorceress’s eyes turn towards me, sorry as can be. “I know what you wanted, but I couldn’t bear it,” she apologizes to me.
“It’s alright,” I tell her, it’s much easier to sacrifice oneself than another, assuming one is good at heart. I can’t be angry with her, “It’s hard to be angry when I’m so touched.” I smile at her, try to assure her that we’ll get out of this, and she gives me one back.
Shadow Mask groans as he shuffles atop of me. “Oh, shut up, if I wanted to listen to sappy teenagers and the power of friendship I’d read a YA novel.”
He throws something from atop of me, a little disc that attaches to Sarem’s chest, and she has a look of surprise for a brief moment before it electrocutes her. He electrocutes her even as she falls to her knees, shaking and gurgling, even when she falls forward onto the ground. He electrocutes her until she’s unconscious.
“Ah,” he exhales, “nice and quiet.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I promise to him.
“They all say that,” he tells me, just as he lifts his gun from my back, “and they never do.”
I hear him shift as he steps off of me, so I make one last ditch effort to swing my arm around for him, but the boot that crushes my face knocks my lights out.