Chapter 12: Songbird
If you’d thought the poor traumatised girl who’d been recently broken out of prison, would be allowed to sleep in a little… You’d have thought wrong.
“Rise and shine, Miss Wraith!” Unbowed called out with unnerving morning energy as he entered the room and flipped on the lights.
Grumbling expletives into my pillow, I pulled the sheets up over my head and defensively curled into a ball.
“Sorry for this Robin, but I need you up and getting ready in thirty minutes. I’ll have breakfast ready when you do. Dress for movement not concealment,” he instructed, before ripping away my protective sheet cocoon, leaving me exposed to the lights and cool air and leaving.
“Neuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh,” I cried out, “waaaaaah noooooooo!”
Now I know why they call him a villain, that filthy terrorist woke me up and stole my warm sheets. Can no one stop him? Alas woe is me, cast adrift in the cruel seas of the awake.
Ok, got my melodramatic fix for today. Time to shower.
Just short of an hour later I walked into the dining room, dressed in boots, a black skater skirt and yet another black tank top. For someone who claims not to be a goth, I sure wear a lot of black. Not that I had much of a choice, red was the only bright colour I had available in the mostly monochrome clothes Tinker had tailored for me.
Most of that hour had been in the shower. I had taken my sweet time letting the spray of hot pressurised water wake me up, it was almost as good as a large mug of black coffee.
Unbowed greeted me with a stern look and crossed arms, then glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner.
“I said thirty minutes Miss Wraith, not an hour. Actions have consequences, because you were late, breakfast is cold. Punctuality is about respect, when you are late you show disrespect for those around you and I am not referring to myself. I am referring to those who cooked your meal. Real respect is not how you treat those more powerful than you, but how you treat those with no power over you.”
No, I wasn’t going to feel shame over this. Nope. My guts clenched as if they had been grabbed. Damn him. Damn my conscience.
‘Al’ sighed, “I’m not angry with you Robin, just disappointed. You have the potential for so much more. It may be hard, but you need to overcome those solitary instincts you’ve developed and learn to recognise those around you and trust them.”
“Fuck off. That’s easy for you to say. Judging by this place you were born with a gilded spoon in your mouth, not everyone has experience growing up with servants,” I angrily retorted.
“Did your parents never teach you manners?” an exasperated Unbowed replied.
He did not just say that… Fixing him a rage filled glare, I stomped right up into his personal space and tried to match his towering height with menace.
“No they didn’t and you should know that! I’m exhausted enough from the nightmares, I don’t need your self righteous parenting” I yelled, my voice ringing out in the underground space.
Hurt flashed across his face before it was quickly replaced by a mask of guilt.
“I’m sorry. I forgot you are not Li-. No… I am sorry, I was letting something unrelated affect how I treated you. I hope everything else I have done, has shown that I am not just using you. That I want to help you have all the opportunities that your upbringing never allowed you to have.”
I took a deep breath to calm myself and stepped back. He had done so much for me in so little time and I didn’t want it to end like this.
I didn’t get far. Matching my step backwards he advanced and looping his arms around my back and shoulders, he pulled me into his chest. One awkward moment later, a not entirely confident looking ‘Al’ stepped back. Wait… Was that a hug?
“I’m sorry as well. Let’s put this behind us and start again. Just please recognise how foreign this is for me and how far I am out of my depths,” I almost pleaded and gave my best attempt at an adorable ‘please pity me’ look. Yes! I was rewarded when he looked away and coughed as if clearing his throat.
“...I’ll try to be more patient with you. Give me a few minutes to reheat the food, so we can eat and head off,” he offered in an attempt to move the discussion on. He walked over to adjoining kitchen and pressed several buttons on the microwave, starting it.
Head off where? He talks in riddles, leaving out the main point.
“You’re doing it again…” I grumbled.
‘Al’ looked back with a mystified expression on his face, “Doing what?”
“You’re hopeless… Speaking without telling me anything. Head off where? You haven’t said why you woke me up so early,” I said, suppressing an annoyed sigh.
“Ah, I didn't say?” For a moment ‘Al’ looked confused, probably trying to recall what he had actually told me.
“Right… Training. Miss Wraith, I was planning on taking you somewhere where you can train. While I know that you have some use of your gifts from the breakout. I need to know you can not only look after yourself but not cause unnecessary harm and destruction. You need to learn how to use and control your powers. You need to learn your strengths, weaknesses and limitations.”
“Right, training… Explains the dress instructions. I guess it is necessary,” I replied trying to keep the enthusiasm from flooding my voice. I knew I needed to experiment and train with my powers, since my first foray into exploring them the morning before my rescue. Not to mention I can’t deny that making that hero, who I now know is called Bastion, go flying into the ground has really made me excited to learn more.
Moments later the microwave beeped. Breakfast first, then training!
* * *
Breakfast and one Nel rift later, we were inside an almost empty warehouse on the outskirts of Penrith. Moments after our arrival, the warehouse’s corrugated sheet metal walls and roof began to shiver raining down dust, as a freight train thundered past on the tracks outside.
I wish Nel was sticking around, she’s fun and I am sure her cheeky banter would have made time fly. Ok not entirely honest, I kinda wanted her around so I wouldn’t be alone with ‘Al’ after this morning and unfortunately Nel had left for her side gig after wishing me good luck.
After almost eighteen years of guardians who couldn't give a shit about me unless I was sick or dead, this whole overbearing dad act and his awkward attempts at affection were throwing me off balance. I had no idea how to even react. It was like I had lived in a parched desert my whole live and now there was fresh water to drink and I was drowning in it.
I guess for now I could try to keep treading water and see if I learn to swim. Sink or swim, I guess and if I succeed… Ok I'll work out what to do then, later. Time to train.
When it came to training my abilities, I was spoiled for choice in targets. While mostly empty, there were all sorts of construction materials laying about discarded. I could see tattered bags of cement that had set after getting wet, old wooden crates with Spencer Shippings stenciled on the side, bundles of rusted steel rebar, rotten train sleepers and a stack of lengths of jointed tracks.
I could see some fun ways to make use of these.
Making use of my figurative parental figure, I had ‘Al’ assist me in stacking the solidified bags of cement into multiple mounds. Off to the side, we laid the sections of track and bundles of rebar across the discarded crates.
With our training gym set up and Unbowed now resting against the wall panting, I got to work testing and refining my abilities. Targeting the cement mounds, I slowly walked backwards firing from further and further away as I worked on my accuracy. Aside from a few misses that took chucks out of the concrete or punch holes through the wall behind my targets, I felt I had aim down pat up to just over two hundred feet.
As a side effect I worked out how many I could shoot off. At twenty three I felt drained and it took another four blasts before I collapsed. Not quite the same as the guns my foster parents made me learn how to use in accuracy, but they more than made up for it in power. My blasts had reduced the lumps of set cement to a fine rubble.
A short break, lunch and thirty minutes of 120 volt mains power later, I was feeling refreshed, re-energized and ready to continue. If I ever cleared my name, I could probably make a career starring in tv ads alongside the energiser bunny.
Next up was testing my sword. Summoning it up, I tested it on a single bar of steel and slowly worked up from there aiming towards the sections of rail track.
I quickly found to my disappointment that while it was sharper than any sword should be and could cut and hack through an impressive amount of metal, it wasn’t a lightsaber. I had to reabsorb it when I got the blade got stuck halfway into a section of rail.
I did have some theories on how to make it sharper, but I was satisfied leaving that for another day.
I’d had my eyes on summoning armor but at this stage I still couldn't make it work, perhaps I needed to study actual armor first for a clearer mental image. What I did manage was a jagged roughly triangular shield. I guess that could be useful, even if I have no idea how to test its protection.
Last thing I wanted to test was turning into shadows. Back in the prison I had only managed to shift an arm at a time, but this time I wanted to do more.
Another half hour passed as I trained this ability and my progress was limited. I’d manage one full arm to the shoulder, another arm up to the elbow and one of my legs. The rest of me was as normal and fleshy as ever with no signs of turning into smokey black shadows.
While partially transformed I tested my ability to pass through objects. Shadowy limbs could pass through the bundle of rebar and section of steel track, but not though the warehouses sheet metal walls where there were no existing holes.
I had no solid answers why but Unbowed had a few suggestions on how it might work. He hypothesised that my transformed limbs behaved like smoke passing around objects, or perhaps that they can travel where light can and are blocked by anything that blocks light.
Seeing me pause as I ran out of training ideas, Unbowed asked me to sit so he could give me what he called the most important lesson. Shrugging, I pulled up a crate and gave him my attention. I really hope this isn't going to be sleep inducing.
Straightening up as if he was about to give a boardroom presentation, he began, “Now this lesson will carry you in life, as I have in mine. Whether you become a clerk, a doctor, a lawyer, an actor or even if you decide to reside in the realm of superpowered villains and heroes, this lesson can guide you.”
“Attitude and actions. Attitude is how you present yourself to others. Your posture, how you speak, the strength of your beliefs, how you handle obstacles and conflict and how you treat others. Some of this is theatrics. With the right attitude you can avoid needless confrontation, make friends and win allies,” he passionately intoned.
“Just as important as attitude is your actions. Your attitude means nothing long term if your actions do not back it up. Your actions create your reputation, your legacy. If you treat others fairly, act with justice and forgiveness and help those who need it, people will ultimately see this.”
He paused as if to see if I was following his arguments and then gestured at himself.
“I present myself to the world as firm, fair, but kind. I stand firm in my belief in true justice and equality, even if others portray me as a villain. You will need to decide how you want to show yourself to the world, how you want to act, what you stand for and just as importantly, what you stand against,” he spoke, his voice firm, but gentle at the end.
“I- I don’t know what I want for myself… But… But I do know I want to find my friend Kelly and save her! I can’t let her continue to be harmed. I need to find a foxgirl called Kalia! She will also want to rescue Kell and can help. Will you help me find her?” my voice had wavered at the start, but I filled it with my conviction and hoped it would reach Unbowed.
“Of course, Miss Wraith. We can even start tonight, Al said with a kind smile.
“If anyone can help you it is my friend Barb, she runs a speakeasy bar for Emerged. When you meet her, don’t let her gruff exterior scare you. She has a knack for solving problems and soft spot for people in need. Not much slips past my friend and if someone knows where this Kalia is or can find her, Barb will know. I’ll call Miss Gingers for a rift back to the bunker so we can freshen up, before we head out.”
* * *
Nel was excited at the prospect of stopping for drinks at ‘Limbo’ and wanted to head off as soon as possible. I guessed that was the bar’s name, but Unbowed corrected me with a grimace, the full name was 2 Limbo 2 Furious. Apparently the first Limbo had been shut down by the police and she had decided to bring it back with a vengeance.
As soon as I had showered the sweat away and dressed in a fresh black skater dress, Nel all but dragged ‘Al’ and I through a rift.
We stepped out into a dimly lit red brick room. Below our feet was creaky wooden floor and above us cobwebbed rafters. Surrounding us were winter coats hanging from clothes that appeared to have been liberated from walmart. A coat room?
Beyond the rooms only door I could hear the low rumble of chatter, but before I could open it, Unbowed stopped me.
“We might be entering a bar, but let me make this clear. You’re underage and won’t be drinking, its non negotiable. I’m trusting you here, are we clear?” ‘Al’ instructed. His tone, while gentle, made it abundantly clear that he was laying down the law.
“Yes Daaad…” I sarcastically sung out. If you can’t beat them, sass them. Possibly not the smartest move, since my smart mouth started this whole mess, all the back on the afternoon of the first Emergence. At least some things never change.
“If you two don’t mind, I’m going to leave you to your family moment and grab myself a drink,” Nel teased, brushing past us and opening the door, letting the noise of the bar washed over us. Following her in, I looked around taking in the sights and sounds of the speakeasy.
A large attic made up the speakeasy, rough pillars of load bearing brick were all that remained of walls that had been knocked down to enlarge the space. Lightbulbs hung from the rafters bathing the room in yellow light. An almost chaotic mix of graffiti, poster and artwork covered the red brick walls, almost hiding them.
Across the room from us was an empty stage built from plywood covered pallets and a mic set in a stand held together with duct tape. A yard sales worth of preloved furniture was scattered across the room, making up the seating. Threadbare couches and armchairs sat amongst a hodgepodge of different styles of chairs, coffee tables and crates.
To our left was a staircase leading down with one of those emergency exit signs above it. To our right was a stolen park bench that was doing time as the bar and standing behind it, was a steely grey haired woman with so many tattoos, blank skin must have been priceless real estate. She had that same intimidating aura my elementary teacher Mrs Rushcutter had.
Definitely not someone I wanted to mess with or spill juice on. Long story short, she didn’t appreciate my eight year old self crashing into her and spilling my blackberry popper all over her white blouse, while I had been running in the hallways. What was worse was that on top of the chewing out and detention I got, the Andersons welted my backside for causing trouble.
Returning to the present, I became aware of the sensation of Unbowed’s hand on my shoulder, as he stood behind me and glared at the bar’s patrons as if daring them to mess with his charge. I’m not sure if this counts as protective or possessive…
Exerting gentle pressure on my shoulder, ‘Al’ steered me towards the bar and the seasoned woman behind. I braced myself for whatever he was planning.
“Busy night… Looks like you’re making good on my investment, Barb,” Unbowed greeted her, raising a fist in salute.
“I’m doing well enough for myself, Al. Though if tonight’s entertainment is any later than it already is, I am going to have a hard time keeping the patrons from getting too rowdy. So who’s the lass?” she replied with the rough breathy voice of a long time smoker.
“You can call her Wraith, her choice if she decides to share her first name. I’ve recently taken her in as my ward. That said she is underage, so she won’t be partaking in any alcohol,” he said, introducing me.
“Fair’s fair. Great to see that you’ve finally moved on Al, you’ve spent long enough moping around about her. So... If this Wraith isn’t here to drink, did you bring her around to meet and greet or what?” Barb warmly inquired.
I’m starting to get the feeling these two go way back, definitely before the Emergence. Did she know who he was under the mask and cape?
“Well I did desire to introduce her to you and your esteemed establishment, but she has business of her own. She is seeking an Emerged called Kalia with fox traits, on a private matter involving a mutual friend of theirs,” he replied, his tone transitioning from subtle humor to serious gravitas.
“Kalia… Kalia… Ah right! Lucky enough for you, she just so happened to be in here just under three weeks ago, looking to talk to Redd over there in the corner. The wolf lady drinking that bottle of Bacardi with an umbrella in it. If she doesn’t know where Kalia is, she can more than easily track her down. Al might have to pay her fees if it comes to that though,” she replied after racking her brain, then nodding in Redd’s direction.
True enough, there in the corner was a wolf lady drinking Bacardi straight from the bottle, as she now spun the decorative umbrella between her fingers.
Though hunched over her drink and dressed in clothes that looked like they had never seen the hot side of an iron before, she lived up to her name. Even seated and bent over her drink, I could see she was a tall almost bombshell of a woman, with long tangled red curls and a brushy red wolf’s tail and matching ears.
Well I guess she’s who I need to speak to, she probably won’t eat me… Right?
Leaving Unbowed to talk with Barb I approached her, only to find her gaze already locked onto me. “You look a little young to be with an old fart like that villain. What is he, twice your age? Did he snatch you out of a cradle somewhere or maybe…” Redd’s drunken needling trailed off as recognition flared in her eyes.
“The prison… I know you! From the footage of the break out! You’re that girl who floored Captain Ass-shield. You look nothing like your distant out of focus tv appearance. Let me just say I’m a big fan, I’ve like watched that clip over ten times for a laugh. The look on his face right before he faceplants!” she loudly exclaimed drawing half the eyes in the bar, before bursting into laughter. Shit!
“What’s your name?” she asked far more quietly, intent on my answer. All traces of her intoxication seemingly vanished.
“Robin Wraith, I am looking for someone called Kalia. Barb’s says she has had business with you,” as I said my name, I saw her eyes again flash.
“Wait one… Oi! Nightbinder!” she called across the bar, before waving over the second angel I would meet.
The black clad angel withdrew her dark purple wings, that she had been hiding behind and looked up from her drink. Seeing Redd, she rolled her ebon and violet eyes, sighing, as she got up from her chair and sauntered over.
Fuck, I hope she is not like that sanctimonious bitch from the breakout.
“Alright, what is it Redd? If this is about more drinkin’ games I’m turning right back around,” she said with a sigh, almost, but not quite hiding a smile. Redd grinned wolfishly as she contemplated the possibility.
“I’ve already started so you’d have a chance this time, but no. I would like to introduce you to Robin, says she is a friend of the fox,” she countered, emphasizing my name as if to pass on an unspoken message.
Uh oh. What do they know about me?
“Redd, last time we played Across the Bridge you ended up making out with a chair. That doesn’t count as winning!” Nightbinder grumbled, then turned to me with a welcoming smile.
“You the uh, jailbird Robin? From that shithole prison?”
Ok, I wasn’t expecting this. These two seemed to already know who I was and about what had gone on inside the prison if I was reading the atmosphere correctly.
“Yeah. He broke me out,” I quietly offered as I nodded over my shoulder at Unbowed over at the bar. “You’ve heard of me?”
Nightbinder lowered her voice to a hush and leaned in towards Redd and I.
“Yeah, short answer is that I’ve heard of you. Robin Wraith, 17 years old, foster parents, if you can call them that, are the Andersons. The wolf here gave the fox a bunch of case files.”
“Case files? Whose casefiles? Police? Prison? Foster system? Some hero wanted list?” I anxiously whispered.
“Well, where’d you dig them up?” Nightbinder asked, raising an eyebrow at Redd.
“The home office of some OMR caseworker, Ms Clark I think? Can’t see her death as anything but suspicious after reading those,” murmured Red as she scratched her head with a clawed finger.
I remembered our final meeting and her promise. She never came back.
““Bad things happen when little monsters run their mouths and tell lies… She won’t be coming back, or talking to anyone…” I heard the interrogator’s envenomed words as clearly as when he had first said them.
“Ms Clark…” I muttered, eyes watering.
I’d killed her…
“So you know about Kelly?” I ventured, battling between hope and comforting apathy.
“Yeah we’ve heard of her. I think this is a conversation you need to have with my fox directly though,” Nightbinder said with a small lopsided smile, rubbing a finger over a scratch on her hand.
“I’ll come back again tomorrow night, can you ask her to come?” I asked trying to keep the pleading out of my voice.
“Definitely, she’ll be more than happy to come see you. Just make sure she’s got her claws sheathed. Made that mistake last night. Never again,” she grinned.
“Thank you,” I stammered out.
“Well, catch ya ‘round then,” she smiled, giving a mock salute and wandering back to her table.
“Thanks Redd. If you don’t mind, I’ll be heading back over to Dadneto,” I excused myself, flashing her a weak smile.
“Dadneto? Oh I am going to keep that one! You’re fine Robin, I’ve got all the company I need right here,” she gestured towards her bottle of rum.
Wandering back over to the bar I could hear, Barb swearing and complaining about the entertainment for tonight being a no show and how she was going to blacklist him after tearing out his spleen with her bare hands.
Noticing me return, ‘Al’ offered her a solution.
“If she is willing, Miss Wraith here could fill in for tonight. She’s quite the singer, I heard her last night. Like a songbird it was. You should put her on, I want to hear what she can really do!” he advocated.
So I did hear someone outside my room last night. Barb gave Unbowed a hard look before turning her attention onto me.
Feeling myself wilt under the intensity of Barb’s appraising eyes, I reluctantly nodded.
“What the hell, let’s do it. Since you haven’t auditioned, I don’t know if I am putting my ass on the line, putting you on that stage. So I can’t pay you. I’ll let you keep any tips you get however and I’ll even throw in a few free soda. If you prove you can handle yourself and the crowd likes you, I’ll pay next time,” Barb negotiated, leaving me off balance and just nodding along to her terms.
Giving me an encouraging smile, Unbowed pushed me off towards the stage, sending me stumbling across the room.
Catching my balance I nervously approached the stage like I was walking to the gallows and stepped up behind the mic stand.
Every eye in the bar turned my way as I tapped the mic testing that it was on. I could make out the faces of ‘Al’, Barb, Redd and Nightbinder intently staring up at me.
A mic and no music to accompany me… Talk about high stakes. I needed a song with vocals that could stand on their own.
Picking the first song that leapt to mind and fitted, I began slowly singing the intro to Cement Butterflies’ rage filled lament ‘Sewers above us’, as the room fell silent.
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Ashlyn (she/her) , Author from Oz, most of my writing is on itch.io.
Aside from my finished stories on Itch.io I have one series I am working on with another author, on another site and I have decided to follow her here, as an act of mercy for the readers.