Two people, a man and a woman, sat on office chairs in an empty, dust-ladden office room on the second storey of a building in one of the ‘sensitive quarters’ of the Seine-Saint-Denis department North of Paris proper.
The woman was wearing a figure-hugging blue-and-red suit with flat boots and gloves, as well as a blue domino mask with a red rim. Her hair was black, long and tied into a high ponytail, and her dark brown eyes were focused on an old, derelict apartment building just across a narrow green strip and a four-lane street. A weak breeze barely stirred her hair as she shifted around on the old, worn-through seat, trying to get comfortable, while her left foot tapped a steady rhythm on the floor. Judging by her figure, and what could be seen of her face, she ought to be in her mid-twenties; but that was always hard to tell with metahumans.
Though her companion lacked the stunning heroic build of the heroine, he made up for it with his elaborate costume, a white bodysuit with red-and-gold armor on top, in a style that mixed Greek hoplite armor and knightly plate, with a long red cape as well and a Greek-style helmet. He sat more stiffly than the woman, the chair groaning under the weight of his armor.
“When is he supposed to show up?” the woman asked, as she had not five minutes ago. Her voice, unlike her body, was quite average – not unpleasant, but certainly nothing special.
“He said he’d be here by eight o’clock,” he replied with a deep, steady voice. “Along with Sol-Sol and maybe one more. Relax. There is no reason to drive yourself insane already.”
“How can you say that, Phalange?” she asked, annoyed, though her eyes remained fixed on the apartment building. “You’re going to be the one who’ll have to go toe-to-toe with him, you and the pothead!” She spoke like someone who’d brought the point up repeatedly in the past, and had little hope that it’d be acknowledged this time.
Phalange smiled at her, his mouth the only part of his body that was exposed by his costume. “This is what I signed up for, Fusillade,” he answered. “I’ve dreamed of a chance to become the Chevalier since I was six years old. And today will be the day that I’ll get my chance to honour its legacy.” His smile grew into a white-toothed grin.
Chantal couldn’t see it, but she knew him well enough to picture it, and she groaned, though without taking her eyes off the building. “You’re way too cocky. It’s gonna get you killed.” This, too, appeared to be a common comment of hers.
“Or maybe it’ll end up making me the next Chevalier,” he countered. “It’s too late to turn back now, anyway. What is he doing?”
The young woman sighed, but focused her gaze, looking across the park and the street, and through the walls of the apartment building. “He’s listening to music and reading a comic book,” she replied dutifully. “I hope he doesn’t turn on his television; I still think we shouldn’t have called in the press.”
“The people of France need to know that the Blackguard is going down,” Phalange said firmly, his voice rising as if in preparation for a speech. “They need to know that there are heroes who’ll defend the honour of the Chevalier. That a m-“
“Right, right,” she cut him off. Spare me the the speech, she added in her mind, though she didn’t voice it out loud – he tended to take criticism like that too seriously. “Well, with some luck, and a lot of excessive violence, they’ll see just that soon.”
“I’d rather like it if the violence wasn’t necessary,” he said earnestly.
She felt her lips tick up into a smile, and she was glad he couldn’t see her face right now. It was wrong, it was demeaning, but she just thought it was cute how honestly and earnestly he could say things like that; never with a moment’s hesitation.
And he really means each word he says, she thought to herself and once more reflected on how well the mantle of the Chevalier would fit him… though she hoped, desperately, that he’d not share their short lifespan.
Thinking about that did not help with the matter at hand, though. Better to focus on more productive subjects. “Are your sentries all in place?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” he reassured her.
They fell silent as they continued to wait for their compatriots, Chantal’s eyes fixed on the Blackguard in the otherwise abandoned building.
“They’re here,” Phalange spoke up a few minutes later, tilting his head to the side as if listening to something. “Casque Vert, Sol-Sol and some newbie.”
The heroine frowned, though without averting her eyes from the target. What was that pothead thinking, bringing in an amateur? Sol-Sol was almost too inexperienced for her taste, and she’d been in the game for three years!
Four sets of footsteps came up the old, bare stairs; she recognised Phalange’s heavy, armored boots, Casque Vert’s creaky bare feet and Sol-Sol’s heels. The fourth set was unfamiliar, and quite weird beside – muted to the point where she could only tell there were steps and nothing in particular besides that.
Phalange – his clone, duplicate, extra body (she wasn’t sure how exactly to classify what his power did) – came through the door with the others.
First after him was Casque Vert, a man who’d started out as a joke among the caped (and cowled) community of France, but had worked his way up the ranks and gained the respect his name and chosen costume had denied him at first. Chantal still felt a little uncomfortable around him, mostly because she’d been on of the ones to make fun of him, back when he’d just been starting out; but she had to admit, she’d rather have him with them than not. The man was a tank if there ever was one.
He was tall, so tall he had to stoop over to get through the door and even afterwards, his helmet (an upturned green pot with two holes for the eyes cut into it) brushed the ceiling. It wasn’t his height, though, that made him stand out – it was also the fact that he was, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, a living plant. Chantal didn’t know whether this form was permanent or if he had a human form to live a civilian life in (she’d never heard anything about his private life, and his current appearance was impossible to conceal; so she assumed that he had a more human form to fit in with), though she didn’t know why he’d bother wearing that ridiculous pot on his head if he didn’t have to worry about a secret identity anyway. His body beneath the pot was made up of fresh, thick wood, with tightly coiled roots as the joints, looking almost like exposed muscle. Though he didn’t seem to be uncommonly massive for his height, she knew that his body was so dense, the wood compressed to a degree which a friend of hers with a liking for the sciences had described as ‘insane’ that he weighed a good ton and was as tough as if he’d been made of steel. And that didn’t even touch on his actual main power, which made him one of the oddest cogneurs (not to mention déplaceur) she’d ever encountered.
Next to him, Sol-Sol was positively normal, even though her ever-changing costumes tended to cause quite an uproar among the more conservative cape watchers and moral guardians. Today, she was fashionably practical, wearing light brown spandex pants and a matching crop top, their creamy colour meshing with her dark skin in a way which even Chantal had to admit was quite attractive. Dark brown boots with heels and elbow-length gloves, along with a matching domino mask, completed the outfit. Her black hair had been tied into countless micro-braids which fell to her elbows, and she was walking like she was still on one of the runways she used to frequent before her manifestation, putting her slim, professionally trim body (unlike Chantal, she had not had the luck of her power improving her looks, much to her chagrin) on casual display.
Her gold-coloured lips spread into a white-toothed grin when she saw Phalange, and Chantal felt her own lips tilt downwards – that kind of distraction was the last thing they needed here.
At least Phalange missed the undertones (if one could call them that, they were so obvious) with the unerring practice of a man completely oblivious to female interest.
Still, Chantal felt more than a little annoyed now. Sol-Sol was a tireur, much like herself – only she packed a much, much bigger punch and she was also tougher than she had any right to be.
Annoying, but efficient.
The last newcomer was the only one in the room which Chantal did not know, though it was easy to tell which class she fell under – she wasn’t simply wearing a costume, but rather equipment, and it was so obviously handmade, she could only be a génie or a bricoleur; considering how flimsy her ‘armor’ appeared to be, Chantal was tempted to bet on génie, but one could never be sure with bricoleurs.
She seemed young, definitely younger than Chantal herself, though not by much; her body was entirely covered by her costume, but the contour suggested either very good genes, regular workout or some supernatural influence – or perhaps all three; though if it was the latter, then she had at least dodged the bullet and gotten a slim bodytype, and not an impractically voluptuous one. Her ‘armor’ was really just jet-black bodysuit, skintight but so thick it obscured her natural contours quite a bit. The whole of it was covered in strange circuitry which was invisible to the naked eye, but would flare up in a stark white colour as energy pulsed through it in a rhythm which suggested a heartbeat. Over that bodysuit, she wore a dull silver breastplate, greaves and bracers, as well as a slim helmet with a mirrored faceplate. A sword was attached to her left hip by no visible means, and it, too, looked rather futuristic, the blade uncommonly thick and made of the same dull silver metal as her armor; channels that ran down the side of the blade revealed circuitry within which pulsed in the same odd rhythm as her bodysuit. Several barely perceptible buttons were built into the hilt where it met the crossguard, and the woman’s delicate fingers were running over them almost tenderly, as if to reassure herself that they were still there and whole.
Chantal had never seen this woman before, nor heard anything about a metahuman who would run around like that, and she didn’t like that Casque Vert had brought along an utter unknown. At all.
Before she could open her mouth and voice her disapproval, Phalange took charge.
“Welcome, brothers and sisters!” he said, his voice filling the room as easily as it could fill a square or a mall, “I’m glad you made it for this his-“
“Yeah, we’re all here,” Casque Vert cut him off quickly enough. “Is anyone else coming?”
“Not that I know of,” Chantal headed Phalange’s reply off. “There aren’t many people left willing and able to face the Blackguard, not with how things are on the Iron Wall right now.”
There was a moment of contemplation, as they all thought of the countless heroes (and quite a few villains) patrolling on the Iron Wall, while the Sovjet Union was tearing itself apart – and lashing out at the rest of Europe like a wounded animal while at it.
However, despite the lack of manpower, him bringing an unknown into this was just plain irresponsible, and Chantal voiced her thoughts on the subject.
Casque Vert looked at her, then turned his head to look at the newcomer.
The girl looked at him, then at the others present – everyone, even Sol-Sol, who’d been trying to catch Phalange’s attention, was looking at her – and she seemed to shrink into herself, her fingers fiddling nervously with the buttons on her swordhilt.
Chantal was almost ready to ask her to leave, for her own good, hen Casque Vert spoke up in her stead. “I vouch for her,” he said simply, as if that was enough.
“I’m sorry, but this is the Blackguard we’re talking about, there’s no way I’m taking a greenhorn who can’t even look me in the eyes along!” she protested. “She’ll get herself killed – and maybe the rest of us, as well!”
Phalange was frowning as well, now. “I’m not one to deny a young hero the chance to prove themselves, but this is hardly the time for such – even th-“
“We get what you mean,” Casque Vert cut him off. “But I’m telling you, she’ll pull through. She’s just not very eager for the talking part, you know?”
“Unlike some people…” Sol-Sol whispered, though Chantal was pretty sure everyone heard her – not that she disagreed.
“Anyway, I’m telling you, I’m vouching for her. She’s one hell of a Bricoleur…”
“A Bricoleur? Really?” Chantal asked, surprised. She hadn’t expected that.
The girl looked briefly at her before averting her eyes, somehow conveying annoyance, despite her utterly featureless look.
“Yes, really,” the plantman confirmed, before he leaned in a little closer and spoke in a conspirational whisper: “Better not call her a génie – she hates that.”
The young woman nodded, though she kept her gaze averted, apparently preferring to watch the leg of a nearby desk rather than facing the other heroes.
Casque Vert straightened up again. “To get back to the point, she’s powerful, she has had an excellent teacher and she assures me that she’s ready to take part in this – so how about we focus on the Blackguard, now?”
“Can we at least get her name?” Sol-Sol asked, rolling her eyes. “Rather hard to work with her, otherwise, if we don’t know what to call her.” She leaned in closer to the girl, who cringed away. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
The girl remained quiet, fondling the buttons on her sword – a nervous tick if there’d ever been one.
“She doesn’t really have a persona, yet,” Casque Vert admitted, looking aside as if embarrassed. “This is the first time she’s out in costume.”
Oh, how wonderful, was all Chantal could think to that. “Great. A complete greenhorn. We’ll just call you Pucelle, then.”
The girl looked at her for all of two seconds before looking away, and just nodded. Even though her helmet did not show her face at all, her stance relaxed slightly.
Damn, I was just kidding.
Sol-Sol giggled in amusement. “Oh, this is just glorious – we must be the most pathetic ragtag bunch of heroes ever, going into battle against a seasoned supervillain with a complete newcomer. You sure the Blackguard is going to fight us and not just laugh his ass off?”
“Speaking of which – Fusillade, what is he doing?” Phalange asked, his voice as warm and steadfast as ever, even though he was still clearly annoyed at continuously getting cut off – or perhaps he was more annoyed at how the discussion kept getting sidetracked, because he completely ignored Sol-Sol’s question.
Chantal gave a start, and immediately turned around – she really ought not have let herself be distracted!
Fortunately, the Blackguard was still engrossed in reading his comic book.
“Still just sitting around and reading comic books.”
“Really? What kind of comic books does the Blackguard read?” Sol-Sol asked curiously as she pulled an office chair over to sit by them. “Smutty schoolgirls? Hardcore porn? Those weird Japanese ones?”
“Asterix, actually,” Chantal replied with a roll of her eyes. Not that she would’ve been surprised if he read that deviant crap from Japan. “Asterix in Corsica, to be precise.”
“Well, he’s got taste, at least,” Sol-Sol admitted.
“So long as we still have the time, we ought to discuss how we’re going to proceed,” Phalange stated. “Let’s make this clear,” he looked at Pucelle, then at the others, “We are here to stop this monster. It is not about deciding who’s going to be the next Chevalier – we can take care of that after we’ve dealt with him.”
Everyone nodded or, in the case of Chantal – who was splitting her attention between watching the enemy and paying attention, and had been watching him at that moment – agreed verbally.
Phalange put his hands behind his back, hiding them beneath his long cape. “This isn’t going to be easy and chances are good that at least one of us is going to die today – probably more. This man is a monster, plain and simple, and he has never been beaten.”
And we’re just five people, Chantal added in her thoughts. And far from the best-qualified, too.
“The plan is for me to lead the charge – his power doesn’t work on me – while Fusillade and Sol-Sol strike from a distance to whittle him down,” he explained their very basic battle plan. “Casque Vert is the most mobile among us, so he’ll use hit-and-run tactics to keep him off-balance.” He looked at Pucelle again. “I’m not sure what your classification is, or how you can contribute, so…”
Casque Vert spoke for her again. “With her current loadout, she’s a minor mateur, a strong modificateur and a major cogneur – probably the toughest one among us,” he replied. “We’re not sure how the Blackguard’s power will interact with her equipment, though.”
Chantal lifted an eyebrow, though she was still looking at the Blackguard. Casque Vert was probably the toughest cogneur in France, yet he considered the girl tougher than himself? Maybe she would actually be useful and not a lethal hindrance.
Phalange didn’t seem to be as taken aback by the claim as Chantal – though he was honestly quite good about hiding that kind of thing, anyway – and continued without losing a beat. “Well, that’s good. We should still assume that his power works on you if he manages any direct contact, so focus on his inorganic bodyparts and don’t try to take a hit you could dodge, if that hit is made with an organic part of himself.”
The girl nodded, still looking at the table leg. Sol-Sol had dropped the grin and stood up, starting to limber up. Casque Vert looked the same as ever, though he did reach up to straighten his pot. All-black eyes peaked through the holes he’d cut into it, looking as serious as he could with his limited facial movement.
“Uh, a question,” Sol-Sol said, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I know it’s kind of a touchy subject, but seeing how most of our best are currently on the wall or in the Near East, shouldn’t we ask Fleur for h-“
“No!” said everyone but Pucelle, all at the same time, looking at her with outrage.
Chantal was the first to continue, “The last thing we want is that sellout taking credit for this – retrieving the name of the Chevalier is a French matter, there’s no room for a traitor like her!” she snapped at Sol-Sol.
“Though I disagree with the precise terminology,” Casque Vert added, “I have to agree with Fusillade. This is a French matter, pertaining to a purely French symbol. If we call in Fleur and she helps, that’ll mean the next Chevalier will owe the United Heroes his persona.”
“And the UH, noble though their intentions may be, are everything the Great War taught us we should not be,” Phalange continued. “Weisswald showed us what happens when metahumans form a single, unified organisation.”
“Well, yeah, but Fleur is a Frenchwoman, after all,” Sol-Sol defended her suggestion in a smaller voice. “I’m sure she’ll understand…”
“She lost her right to this when she became Lady Light’s sidekick,” Chantal countered with venom in her voice. “Now she’s supposedly the chief protector of Europe – as if! No, we’re not going to ask that whore for help, not for this! This is a French matter, not something for bootlickers like her!”
Everyone but Pucelle (who seemed to have ignored the argument) nodded, though Sol-Sol did so reluctantly.
They took a minute to calm down, then everyone except for Pucelle looked at Phalange again.
Their erstwhile leader took a deep breath, as four of his duplicates (Chantal really didn’t think the term applied, considering how his power worked, but she couldn’t think of a better term – refractions? mirror images? fractals?) joined them in the room – she didn’t know where the other eleven were, but they were probably already around the apartment building they’d be storming in a moment.
“Alright, my friends,” he spoke up. “Before we go, let me just say briefly that I’m damn proud to-“
“Enemy from below,” the new girl whispered, leaping back from where she’d been standing.
Casque Vert reacted instantly, grabbing Chantal – who was closest – and leaping towards Sol-Sol, but-
Before he could reach her, before Chantal could get her bearings, the floor beneath the spot Pucelle had been standing on cracked and a huge, long mass of eye-studded flesh, concrete and twisted rebar shot out, slamming straight into Sol-Sol’s bare stomach.
The young woman made a soft gasp as the air was knocked out of her, her eyes rolling up into her head.
“No!” shouted Phalange, as he and his duplicates materialised a spear and a round shield each.
More of the ground broke, as the body behind the monstrous limb rose, a cancerous mass of raw muscle and bone, topped by a skinless human head. Another man’s body was growing partially out of its left shoulder, like a desiccated husk; his waist looked ridiculously thin compared to the sheer mass of muscle it packed onto its upper body, nevermind the mass of concrete, rebar and steel pipes it dragged after itself with its left arm – its right had just attached itself to Sol-Sol. It had no legs, or even a lower body, instead continuing into a mass of flesh and concrete.
How did he get here! He was across the street just a moment ago! Chantal thought as Casque Vert evaded the other limb’s casual swipe.
She threw one last look across to the apartment building, only to still see the Blackguard there, looking just like how his old pictures showed – but this time, she looked below, too, and saw that his feet and lower body were actually fused to his cushioned seat, which extended through the floor.
He’d worked his way down the apartment building, under the street and up to them, all while leaving his own skin behind to act as a decoy, probably stuffed with useless bits of concrete and older, rotten flesh.
The Blackguard opened his mouth, the bloody, dripping muscles of his face stretching to imply a grin, but before he could say whatever he meant to say, Pucelle had kicked off the table she’d jumped towards, vaulting over the limb reaching for Casque Vert and Fusillade in a graceful leap that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Olympics, segueing seemlessly into a roll as she detached her sword from her hip, bringing it up to cut at the limb attached to Sol-Sol’s stomach.
Chantal realised that denying the Blackguard Sol-Sol’s power could spell the difference between victory and defeat, and so began materialising her turrets, the first gun-metal coloured, soccer ball sized sphere appearing in the air next to her shoulder as Casque Vert let go of her.
She fired, the metallic surface of her turret distorting as it fired another sphere the size of her fist at super-sonic speed, deflecting the Blackguard’s second limb so that it flew over Pucelle’s head, instead of hitting her and slamming her into the other one.
Two of Phalange nailed that limb into the ceiling with their spears, as it crossed over his right limb, and Pucelle’s sword bit into the underside of the Blackguard’s limb, just an inch away from Sol-Sol’s flesh.
It’s eating it, Chantal saw to her dismay, as the flesh began to worm its way into the sword…
And then Pucelle pushed the first button on her grip. The pulsing circuitry inside the sword flared a stark blue for a moment and the flesh trying to fuse with the sword simply slid off of it as it cut straight through the trunk-like limb as if it was just air.
The Blackguard reared back, pulling his neatly cut limb away from the offending sword. Whatever effect the girl’s sword used, it clung to the edges of the wound for a second or two, blue-white light eating away at it before it faded away.
Sol-Sol collapsed, Pucelle whirled around into a flawless fencer’s stance, all five of Phalange took up positions around the Blackguard with their shields and spears raised, Casque Vert stood between her and the enemy and Chantal herself had just finished materialising her second turret over her other shoulder.
Everyone looked at each other for just a moment, the Blackguard’s many, many eyes taking them in, them taking in his monstrously warped appearance – he used to look so noble – and looking for a weak spot.
And then he opened his mouth and began to laugh.