“Ugh, it’s so fucking cold.”
Vanessa rubber her sleeve covered arms as another brisk wind that still smelled of the recently ceased rain blew over the entire group and filled the street with a shrill sound.
“You are such a cliché.” Amy snarked as she walked beside her childhood friend and Shane, with Greg bringing up the rear. “And why are you stooping so much?”
“Secret identity concealment.” Shane said matter-of-factly. They were all dressed for chilly weather, thick, denim pants, long sleeves, and a particularly large hoody on Vanessa being the most prominent articles of clothing. And they all without exception wore a pair of comfortable boots; the last few days had made them all a bit on edge, and if they happened to get into a fight none wanted to have to suffer trying to maneuver in dress shoes or sneakers.
Vanessa nodded before explaining in a low tone. “Me and my teacher have a rather attention-grabbing height so we either need to stick to large, busy places or downplay our height. I also hear that the news likes to angle their cameras so that we all look taller than we actually are.”
“That’s- “ Shane was about to say before flinching when they rounded a corner and nearly crashed into a man that was dashing along the sidewalk. He kept a close eye on the unkept man before eventually brushing it off as none of his concern, a hand on his shoulder brought his attention back to the group.
“Ease up, man.” Greg said. “It’s been two days since our little field trip so we need to loosen up a bit. It was our first time seeing one of our own go down. A little movie and then a trip to the bar too network a little should take the stress off.”
“Yeah, I know.” Shane grumbled. “It’s too bad our newest member is too busy to join us and I can’t drink too much either; don’t want to be hungover for my date tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes; that foolishly inefficient endeavor of yours.” Amy quipped from his left, a quirk playing at the corner of her lips. “How much has this woman cut into your training time already, I wonder.”
Shane’s cheeks turned the slightest tinge of red before he responded. “There’s nothing wrong with living a little outside of The Life.”
“Don’t waste your breath.” Vanessa cautioned before putting an arm around his shoulder and nodding towards Amy. “This girls’ got no interest in romance. Greg has tried setting her up with men, women, and everything in between; she’s just not interested.”
“Unlike the rest of you, my loins take no priority when making decisions.” Amy affirmed.
The air seemed to lighten and Shane felt his clothes stop chaffing as much as the conversation continued and transitioned from thinly vailed Hero talk to the typical nonsense of recent college graduates that were out for a late-afternoon day off.
Conversation petered off though as they made their way into the seedier streets on the way to the multi-plex theater. The damp sidewalks and occasional pieces of litter seemed to shine more prominently with the golden light from the setting sun as the amount of people dwindled sharply. Now only dregs of the usually bustling crowds remained, even the usual Brooklyn traffic had been reduced to a trickle.
Those that remained were quick to either get to their cars, bus stop, or kept well away from alleys while checking their backs.
“Man, this is just sad.” Greg said as he walked with both arms behind his head, absentmindedly kicking aside an empty beer can in his path.
“Yeah, the recent fights have got regular people avoiding staying out after dark.” Vanessa said. “I’ve seen it before while growing up in my hometown; my mom was in her prime back then and attracted a lot of attention, which made her a target for criminals.” The tall woman shook her head, brown locks swaying. “Honestly, based on what I’ve seen, we’re lucky the property damage hasn’t been more intensive. That minotaur guy did the worst by far.”
“Agreed; I just hope we don’t get the Brewster treatment. Evacuating a place as densely packed as this en-masse would be a challenge for anyone that’s not a teleporter.” Shane agreed.
“Maybe we shou-“ Amy started to say before being cut off.
“Guys, I made one errant comment, that wasn’t me consenting to being swamped in negativity.” Greg said. “Now come on; let’s turn off our brains and watch Shane’s dumb, black-and-white slasher flick.”
“Wha- Wait, they aren’t dumb.” Shane protested.
And just like that, with no more than two statements, Greg was able to pull the discourse back down to the usual stupidity.
* * *
“Sorry, Styx, I just can’t stand those old-time horror movies; those leathery costumes give me the creeps.” Greg’s voice had to raise near the end as they made their way into the noisier-than-usual bar.
“But they’re the only ones nowadays that don’t have deranged or mutated Supers as the antagonists.” Shane replied.
“Oh. My. God. You guys have been arguing about this since we left the theater. Can you please just drop it now?”
Simikiel was busy looking around the Hero bar before pointing to a table that hosted a young woman with dusky skin and short, wavy black hair and another young man sitting beside her with pasty skin and brown hair; both waving the group over. “There’s our group, let’s get going.”
As the argument subsided, with Styx mumbling something about “The point of them is to be scared.”, the whole group got close enough to see details that were hidden even from a few feet away. Both of their new acquaintances had slight physical abnormalities that marked them as Supers. The woman’s pupils were odd black diamonds and the boy had an almost luminescent, rainbow mouth and tongue that seemed unusually long. The later of which he could only see thanks to the young man letting out an exaggerated “HA!” before standing up and clasping forearms with Samshiel.
“Samshiel, you son of a bitch; I never thought I’d get a chance to work with you instead of compete from afar.” Said Goblyn, one of the few Heroes in the city that didn’t keep their identity a secret.
“Likewise. You still struggling to outshine with my lightshow last week?” Instead of seeming insulted by the barb, Goblyn just matched Samshiel’s grin with one of his own, albeit multi colored, one.
“Ugh, come on boys, we’ve got a meeting to start.” The woman’s voice wasn’t quite sarcastic, but definitely flirting with it. “And incase none of you could guess; I’m Trap Master. Please ignore the eyes, I get way too many questions about them as it is and they’re not relevant to this meeting.”
They sat down then, Styx and Simikiel sitting across from Trap Master while the other members of there group sat on the inner side portion of the semi-circular couch/table set up, letting them see outside the booth.
“Now that were all here let’s make the point of this gathering clear; we’re to talk about the White Boars.” Styx started.
“Specifically, our experiences with the gang.” Simikiel followed up.
“I get that; but why just us? I know there are other interns in this town.” Goblyn said. “A few of them are pretty strong too.”
Trap Master shook her head, “Yeah, but most of them are either in entirely different boroughs or the teams they are part of are working on completely different missions. For something like this familiarity trumps any supposed power synergy. And I suppose I should go first since this was my idea.” She then rolled up her long sleeves to reveal jagged white scars that traced across both of her forearms. “Landscape has been a sort of secondary target for the White Boars ever since they first popped up; occasionally harassing us while we tried to disrupt most of their intergang activity, whether it be fighting the other gangs or trading with them. And as you can see, in our most recent endeavor, as a reward for doing my civic duty I got a pair of broken forearms.”
“How do you explain that away without revealing your profession?” Samshiel asked, out of both genuine curiosity and because he knew one day he’d half to deal with injuries that didn’t heal cleanly.
Trap Master shrugged as she rolled up her sleeves back up. “Exceptionally close friends and family already know what I do, and I just wear long sleeves around everyone else. Besides; the healer said that the scars should disappear in a few days.”
“Anyways.” Goblyn said, getting everyone’s attention. “The Atomic Conjurers hasn’t had nearly as bad a time as either of your teams.”
“Still a lame name.” Samshiel snarked.
“And you’re still short.” Goblyn snapped back.
“Focus.” Styx commanded.
“Alright, alright. So, yeah, not as bad a time. And quite the opposite in the beginning.” Goblyn leaned in then, his green eyes shifting their gaze from side to side in an exaggerated manner. “When the gang was first starting out, a few of them tried to bribe and convince us to help them.”
The table went silent for a bit at that before Trap Master broke the silence. “Uh… I haven’t heard of that.”
“It wasn’t a big deal; they tried it twice and gave up the second time my lighting-goblin shocked their recruiters.” Goblyn shrugged. “I think they did it because we’re the only all-white team in the city. And they were stupid enough to mistake coincidence for malicious intent.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right for the level of dumb grunts we’ve had to deal with.” Vanessa agreed.
“And we know why they hate Pristine Strikers.” Goblyn said.
“You guys have made the most damaging strikes against them and have taken some of their strongest known members.” Trap Master elaborated, her eyes lingering on Styx for a second. “So, with all that being said; What’s the common thread here?” Just as Goblyn opened his colorful mouth again, she quickly snapped. “Aside from the stupidity and racism.” The younger Hero’s snapped shut with a clack of teeth-on-teeth.
After a second of deliberation, Vanessa spoke up. “They keep losing without noticeably slowing down. In fact; our teams Subtletly Hero already came up with a theory about their origin. It basically boiled down to the possibility of them being controlled by an investor to help cover up higher profile stuff.”
Goblyn nodded in agreement. “Yeah, they popped up really quick, in like a few weeks, with a bunch of unusually good equipment. It’s like someone gathered up a bunch human and variant human losers, gave them some connections, and a how-to-guide on being a gang.”
Trap Master took in the information without flinching, confident in her next words. “I think it’s less distraction; I think this is their purpose.”
“They were organized to lose?” Samshiel asked.
“No, think about it. If they were a diversion, there should have at least been rumors of someone gathering more power in the fiscal or political sense; yet there’s not even a murmur. I don’t think conquest is the objective here. Focus on what they’ve wrought more than what they’re doing.”
“They’ve stirred up both the public and law enforcement. Tensions were already high and now the Heroes are scrambling to keep the veneer of things being completely under control.” Styx mused. “So that’s what you think the objective is?”
“Yeah; the gangs aren’t terribly strong or smart, they don’t seem to be covering for anything, so I’m betting their purpose is to just get the Heroes scared, add just that much more weight on use while the system is as vulnerable as has been in a long while.”
“To what end, though?” Simikiel asked.
“I haven’t the foggiest fucking clue, honestly.” Trap Master stated bluntly. “Don’t be confused, what we just engaged in was very enthusiastic and mildly informed spit-balling, nothing to really act on. And most importantly, nothing that could be used in court.”
“…Would it be offensive to say I’m surprised a Subtlety major would be concerned about something like that?” Goblyn asked.
Trap Master rolled her eyes as some of the group chuckled. “Trust me, when some of your duties includes infiltration and asset allocation, and yes I know that’s basically just theft, you learn very quickly what you can present to the all-mighty justice system.”
“You say that; but I think I’ve got at least a vague plan for getting more information. They’re too tightly nit for infiltration to work in any reasonable time-frame now and they’re keeping all their secrets close to the vest while also shielding their leaders.” Styx restated, waiting to get a nod from everyone else before continuing. “So then; the best path I can see is making them overextend themselves. We just need to figure out how to bait them into such aggression that it leaves them vulnerable.”
“Pshaw.” Goblyn said, the sound coming out in a short breath. “That parts easy, we just need to dangle you in front of them and they’ll charge like a bunch of lemmings.” At Styx’s dubious look he elaborated. “Trust me, after your rather gory handling of that Minotaur and ever since that senator mentioned you in the news, they’ve been salivating for another opportunity to take a swing at you. And the fact that they, and everyone else, thinks you’re black under that helmet.”
Snorts of laughter erupted from everyone around the table, barring Amy who badly tried to hide a chuckle.
“W- whoa, people what?” Styx asked, his normally nigh-apathetic expression was lit up by red a flush. “That can’t be true. I mean, I never…“
“How can you not know- Wait, have you not looked yourself up?” Goblyn asked.
“Of course I have.”
“For things other than footage of fights you’ve been in?” Simikiel inquired.
“Oh.” Styx intoned. “I mean, I know there are forums where people talk about things like that, it just seemed kind of conceited to look myself up.”
“Well then, I guess our official next step is to get Styx to looking himself up before we can convince our mentors to dangle him as live bait for a bunch of violent gangbangers.” Goblyn said; everyone aside from Styx nodding in agreement.