Chapter 1 (Exile in the shadows)

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"Status report," Victor muttered, stepping from the shadows of concrete bridge supports. "I'm closing in. I located him in a park inside Jersey City--"

Thundering shouts, and not one but three figures tumbled from the bridge above into the dry gulley. Victor slipped back into the shadows, breathing quietly. Who were these two? They dressed like pseudo-heroes, one blue, one mottled green and brown. Where'd they come from?

He shut off the device in his ear, pressing deeper into the alcove. Dust billowed under his exhales and he strained to make out the earthlings' conversation.

All that work, finding the fireball here, he couldn't let it slip away. Not again. He'd spent too much time on this--she expected results.

He inhaled, then stepped from the shadows.

Dante swiveled toward the movement, eyes going wide and hands lifting, already aflame.

Victor growled, reaching back into the shadows and pulling from the depths a shield, fizzing violet. Roaring flames soared toward him and he crouched behind the shield, parting the searing fire.

The flames died down. "So I made a bad impression!" Victor called. The two pseudo-heroes gaped back and forth between them.

Dante grunted and hurled another fireball, whizzing harmlessly under the stone bridge. Victor charged forward, a long-bladed sword forming in his other hand.

"You tried to abduct me!" fireballs blasted from Dante's palms.

"You're inhuman," Victor shouted, black shield and sword swinging to deflect the flames. "I told you there was a place for people like us!"

"I am not like you!"

"Yeah, cuz you're a thief!" The pseudo-heroes charged toward Dante.

Victor stepped back, grinning. This situation had taken a turn for the better. Catching his breath, he shook his head at the one in blue, her lengthening limbs marking her some sort of inhuman too. He had no clue what the other one was, though. Part human, part animal...inhuman, or something else?

"Get away!" Dante whirled and knocked aside the half-furred one in mottled green. Victor jumped towards his exposed backside, blade lifted.

But Dante spun, fire blasting in an arc from his hands. Victor ducked, and the flames sliced through a massive tree branch overhead. Victor gaped, lifting his shield, but an oversized pair of fists grabbed him and yanked him back. The tree branch crashed to the dry gulley floor. The fists receded, lowering Victor to solid ground.

"Are you okay?" the one in blue asked, eyes wide.

"Yeah," he flashed a weak grin. "Thanks," he dispelled his weapons, glaring hard through the flickering flames. Dante had vanished.


HQ. Lonely apartment in Jersey City. Victor swung the closet door open, kicking pairs of boots and knocked-off hangers out of his way. Why wasn't he paying attention, portaling inside the closet? Glaring, he fumbled with the lights and marched through the bedroom.

The walls glowed with blue Kree tech, scanning the camera feeds in the city, tracking the orbit of their space vessel above the earth. He tossed his communicator to the desk, knocking old food wrappers and paper cups to the floor. He kicked those too.

In the drawer, he kept his file on Dante. Records of how he burned his home in Illinois when the terrigen mist struck and activated his powers. Audio from Victor's communicator of the battle on the far side of New Jersey, when Victor caught news of a mysterious wildfire. That occurred a few weeks ago, and a month after Victor set up base here to watch for inhumans, to take them back to the kree ship for Hala's inhuman army.

Victor slumped to the bed, hands running through his hair. He didn't need to pull the file out; he practically had it memorized. Except, of course, he had to add this incident to it too.

What did Dante have here on earth, that he was unwilling to come? A life of thievery and running from his own powers? He could save worlds serving Hala. Why, Victor was helping to save earth already. Why didn't Dante want that?

His communicator blinked. He stared at it, the band of sun from the mostly-shut curtains glinting sharply off the dark metal. Sighing, he reached across the desk and tapped the blinking aqua light.

"Hala," he knelt on the thin stretch of carpet.

"Exile. Why have you not returned to the vessel?"

He risked a glance at the wavering blue illusion of Hala the Accuser. Impassive, she stared back at him. "Well," he stammered. "I...I haven't captured the target yet. He..." Victor dug his fingernails into fisted palms. "He got away."

"You let him escape for the second time, Exile? I trusted you with this mission, this role--"

"I know, Hala," he stared into the grooves of the worn carpet. "I've collected several inhumans already, I promise, I'm doing my best--"

"I hardly care for your best, Exile," Hala's war spear flashed before Victor's eyes. "Our army needs to swell its ranks."

The blue glow flashed out. Victor waited until the count of ten, then shuddered and flicked the dim communicator under a heap of unused napkins, beside his laptop. He slumped against the quilts. "I'm trying," he muttered, rubbing his temples. "Dante's just...difficult."


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