Emil was very proud of the laboratory his family had carved out for itself underneath their safehouse in Angel Falls. While most of the structural work had already been done by the Blackwells that had been posted in Angel Falls before him, the laboratory had been stripped bare after his mother left it behind to raise him and work more closely with the rest of their family.
Emil had fixed that. The barren, barely maintained rooms that honeycombed the small complex were now filled with scientific apparatuses, resources, and equipment. The stronghold was a place of both science and security- a place utterly devoted to securing mankind's place in the multiverse.
The portal in front of Emil activated, its metal rings moving in mechanical symmetry to allow the glowing orb of arcane power they contained to expand.
"Bonjour, Emil!" Jeanne called as she stepped through the portal's threshold. She was dressed in her usual work clothes- a tanktop and bluejeans with a working cap snugly planted on her head to keep her dirty blond hair from getting in the way of her work.
A lumbering metal golem followed closely behind her, carrying a bulky metal case in its equally substantial arms. The machine's faceless head swiveled to survey the room before following its mistress as she stepped down from the platform in front of the portal.
"Bonjour, Jeanne!" Emil smiled, stepping forward to hug his cousin. The golem's resounding, metallic footsteps echoed throughout the room as Jean's arms squeezed him to the point of discomfort.
"It's been too long, non?" She asked, finally releasing him. "I'm sorry I haven't been able to visit or help you before this. Golem production has kept me busy enough, but Relius needed some manufactured parts parts for the 'Gae Bolg' project, and..." Jean trailed off with a shrug and a sigh.
"It's not a problem, Jeanne," Emil said, motioning to the portal room's exit. "How's that going, anyway?"
"The Gae Bolg?" She asked, following his lead. Emil nodded. "Very well, actually. Everything is on schedule so far; I just need to assemble the prototype and the testing can begin."
"Oooh, you'll have to give me a date sometime soon so I can mark it on my calender. I wouldn't want to miss that."
Jeanne laughed a little and shook her head. "Unless we get attacked by another energy being with a god complex, I don't think the test is going to be quite so exciting. Still, I'd appreciate it if you could come." She smiled slightly, looking up at the ceiling with a slightly wistful expression as she walked. "Relius would too. It's been a long time since you two really got to spend some real time together, hasn't it?"
"Way too long," Emil said, stopping in front of a door. "Well, enough about Gramps and blowing self-proclaimed gods to kingdom come. We've got a golem problem that needs solving." The door slid open with a soft mechanical sound. Inside the room a metal table with the remains of a crystalline golem and an array of tools awaited them.
"Interesting..." Jeanne murmured, focusing intently on the fallen machine. She motioned for her mechanical assistant to follow her into the room. Taking the probes and scanners in hand, Jeanne began to analyze the remains. She worked zealously, poking, prodding, recording the results, and then frowning.
Muttering to herself, Jeanne snapped her fingers and motioned for her golem to hand her one of her more specialized tools and set to work again. The process repeated itself several times over before Jeanne set her tools down with a definitive 'clack', causing Emil to look up from the chromatic ball of light he'd been playing with.
"Merde sainte Emil, you weren't kidding about this thing. Actually, I think you understated it."
"Well that's not surprising. Golems aren't exactly my area of expertise," Emil moved to Jeanne's side and looked curiously at the pieces of automaton. "So it's not just the circuits that don't make any sense?"
Jeanne shook her head. "Non, non, non, everything about this...thing is wrong. Emil, this is what Frankenstein would have gotten if he made his monster while on drugs," She looked down at the crystal golem with a mixture of curiosity and contempt, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by it. "It's circuitry alone is so shoddy that I can barely imagine it hobbling five inches before falling over, much less shooting lasers at you."
"So, it's safe to say that this isn't the latest weapon in the Celestial Legion's arsenal?" Emil asked with a faint grin.
"Hmhm, if it is then they should shoot whoever designed it for sabotage." Jeanne chuckled. "Anyway, weren't you the one who said that it probably wasn't warped in from another plane?"
"Yeah," Emil nodded and took a fragment of the crystal in his hand, idly turning it over between his fingers. "There wasn't the slightest hint of mana from the Celestial plane on any of the golems and I find it pretty suspicious that they'd only send one legionnaire if they really wanted me dead. She was very skilled, but still."
"You think that Celestial woman may be a rogue agent?" Jeanne gave Emil a questioning look.
The blond mage nodded and began to pace the room. "It's a possibility, anyway. It could be something else but Celestial politics also aren't my specialty; the point is that she may have had to improvise a new brand of golems that I couldn't just gun down. There aren't many places or people that she could have gotten the parts and materials from to do something like this."
Jeanne raised and eyebrow and watched as Emil came to a halt. "And you're going get the information we need by visiting them, oui?"
"Oui," he smiled at her.
"Are you bringing Daniel with you, or is he going to be free while I'm in town?" Emil's smile instantly vanished.
"Very funny, Jeanne," She giggled and grinned impishly at him, obviously pleased with the ease she provoked him. "Trying to drag off my le meilleur ami while I'm on a mission? Very classy and not at reinforcing French stereotypes."
"All's fair in love and war," Jeanne said flippantly.
Emil rolled his eyes and muttered darkly under his breath. "Right, well, I'll just be going then. Might even give that new outfit of mine a test run while I'm at it."
"Au revoir," Emil waved sarcastically and left the room in a huff. Sometimes he wondered if Jeanne wasn't just feigning interest in Daniel just to tease him. Honestly, he didn't expect her to never try to date someone, but couldn't she have picked someone other than his best friend? It was just...creepy.
"Dammit," he mumbled to himself. Well, if nothing else, at least he had the investigation to keep himself occupied.
The ring of the small bell that dangled over the entrance of Merl's Magic Emporium signaled Emil's entrance. He made a cursory examination of the store as his cloak fluttered from the small draft the closing of the door behind him caused. To someone ignorant of thaumaturgy, most of the items on display would have appeared to be antiques and trinkets rather than empowered tools.
However, to someone with the proper knowledge and means of appraising the way the mana had been forged into the merchandise... well, it wasn't much more impressive actually, probably because the store's owner was keeping all of the potentially dangerous stuff in a safe hidden in the back.
Emil's attention shifted to the middle aged man behind the counter. "Sorry if I startled you," Emil pulled his hood down, removing his mask along with it. The flow of information it had been feeding him about the enchanted items laying about the store stopped instantly, leaving him with nothing to distract him the proprietor's horrendously gaudy Hawaiian shirt.
"And I thought my coat was bad." Emil thought to himself. "I heard about this shop from a friend of mine. Do you happen to have anything that could be used to make a golem?"
"Depends on the type." The man behind the counter, presumably the owner, eyed the symbol on the mask Emil had removed with detached interest, stubbing out the cigarette he held with a sigh. "I have instruction parchments and ink for your basic clay or stone variants, though you have to provide your own statues, and blood to mix with the ink of course, and I have manuals of the inscriptions needed for metal golems. Anything more exotic though and you'd be better off searching elsewhere."
Merl looked Emil up and down as he finished rattling off the information from memory. The old man grinned. "Nice robes there, been a while since I've seen anyone with a seer's mask... mind if I ask who this friend is?"
"They're a relative to be more precise, I doubt you'd know them though." Emil shrugged, drawing the mask into the folds of his cloak. "They don't live in Angel Falls. I was just given a list of the people who'd be able to help me, there aren't that many sadly." In the modern technology-driven world, magic seemed to have become something of a niche, one a small handful of individuals used to empower themselves for better or worse. Sorcery just seemed to loan itself to that sort of thing more than the mass-producing factories that technology had to offer.
That was the case for humanity anyway; certain other races walked a far different path.
"Anyway, back to business," Emil walked forward, His arm moving underneath his cloak to emerge with a bulky crystalline limb in hand. He sat it down on the counter almost effortlessly despite the artificial appendage's apparent weight. "Another relative of mine ran a few tests on this thing and found out some very interesting things about its construction." Emil eyed the shopkeeper for any sign of familiarity, any hint of emotion that could implicate him in the dismembered golem's construction.
"I was hoping that you might be able to help me figure out just where this thing came from, but if metal golems are considered exotic around here then I may be barking up the wrong tree."
Merl stared at the mass of crystal for a long moment before silently proceeding to run his hand over the scuffed surface, his gaze intense. While still fixated on the arm, his free hand reached for a drawer behind the counter, oblivious to Emil tensing up as he did so, rummaging through the contents before pulling a small hammer and chisel into view.
As he delicately chipped free small fragments from different areas of the arm, Merl held them to his eye while he clipped on a small runed lens to his spectacle-frames, before finally speaking. "Well... at a guess, I'd say you're dealing with something at least partly extra-planar, because this crystal shouldn't conduct magical energy from this plane properly, at best you might be able to get something that twitches a bit."
"Oh no, that's the thing." Emil leaned forward, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "It was made right here on Earth. That relative I mentioned is still going over the core of this thing, but trust me, it wasn't powered by mana of other planes." He idly taped the wooden counter, letting his words sink in before continuing. "Now, as impressive as it was that this golem was even able to fight, it didn't do it particularly well. I'm sure we can find out how it was able to operate sooner or later, but right now I'm more concerned about tracking down whoever built this thing in the first place. It tried to kill me, you see."
"And you want to do so before you fully understand whatever power forced them to work against all odds?" Carefully shifting the crystalline arm to the side of the counter, Merl winced as an edge of it dug a long scratch in the counter's top.
"Golems are my relative's area of expertise and I want to find whoever made this thing before they can send the next batch after me." Emil replied tersely. "The last thing I want to do is give the people behind this time to make upgrades."
The shopkeeper gave him a hard, thoughtful look. His hesitation was genuine, Emil was sure of it, but the question was what was causing it. Concern? Selfishness? An unexpected twinge scientific curiosity? "I may know a group of people that'd be stupid enough to try and do something like this." Merl suddenly offered, causing Emil to relax slightly. "They probably had a half-dozen blow up in their faces before they came up with a batch that more or less worked, but how can I be sure you're not going to go and get yourself killed?"
Emil raised an eyebrow at Merl. "Well, I guess that depends on who we're talking about here. If you think they're that stupid though, I doubt they'd be much of a threat to me," he supposed with a shrug. Noticing that Merl didn't seem satisfied, he continued. "I have some back-up in case anything goes wrong. I know a hero that could probably lend me a hand, along with my relatives."
"I'd be more comfortable if you at least talked to someone that I know was investigating them before you jumped into things, they may be idiots, but they're crazy enough to use 'everybody loses' tactics if threatened." Merl picked a card out of his Rolodex, consulting it before scribbling on a scrap of loose newspaper, handing that to the blond mage. "Last I heard her investigation wasn't doing so well, maybe you two could help each other."
Emil glanced down at the number with a raised eyebrow, then turning his inquisitive gaze back to Merl. "You still haven't told me just who you're sending me after. I know there are some real psychos in the city but I'd prefer to solve things peacefully to calling in someone who'll probably want to go in guns blazing to make an arrest."
Not to mention that for all he knew Merl's information could just be an elaborate ploy meant to trick him into terrorizing one of the merchant's competitors. The guy seemed decent enough, but no conman had ever gotten far by being transparently up to no good.
"Just give her a call, if you're not willing to work with her then I'll tell you my suspicions and you can decide for yourself what to do with the information, fair?" The shopkeeper carefully picked up the crystalline golem's arm and motioned for Emil to take it, seemingly bored with the proceedings.
"Fine," Emil replied curtly, putting the crystal appendage back inside his cloak. "Thank you for your time, and goodbye." With that said Emil pulled his hood and mask up and left the shop, walking two blocks away from the building before deciding it was safe enough to conjure his cell-phone from the pocket dimension storage chamber built into the cloak.
Emil dialed the number Merl had given him, idly tapping his foot while the call was processed through the technological ether. Finally, the middle-aged man's associate picked up the phone. "Hello, Merl gave me this number. He said that you'd given up on an investigation and thought we could help each other."
"Excuse me?" A feminine, slightly sultry voice replied. "This is Jessica Riley and I will need to tell Merl not to give out MY number. You had better have a good reason for calling me and taking such attitude..."
Emil frowned and cocked his head to the side. "Wait, the Jessica Riley? CEO of SoftArm Industries?" He asked incredulously. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't imagine the portly, middle-aged man being a personal acquaintance of that woman. Granted, all he knew about her was what the newspapers had to say after her extremely controversial rampage and subsequent trial, but still.
"Miss Riley, I'm trying to find the person who sent a golem hit squad after me. When I visited Merl's shop he just gave me this number and said whoever it belonged to had been investigating people he thinks may have done it." Emil began to fidget at the end of his explanation. Now that he'd said it out loud it sounded even more ridiculous than he already found it. Was this Merl's idea of a joke? Did he give him the private number of the CEO of one of the most notable non-lethal weaponry corporations in Angel Falls just to get him to leave?
"Hmph, golems and magic…" The scorn clear in her voice, the woman of science paused to think a moment. "At least you know who I am, and please call me Miss Jessica... I don't keep tabs on what Robin is up to but she doesn't normally attack someone for the fun of it. Merl must have given you my number since Robin lives with me, hold on I'll go look for her..."
Jessica's voice became tinny and distant as she took the phone with her, taking in a deep breath that even Emil could hear over the phone before calling up from the bottom of the stairs "ROBIN! Someone on the phone is looking for you! I'm not your damned secretary and since when did you give my number to Merl?" Jessica fumed; being interrupted when she had plans always put her in a foul mood.
Emil winced; imagining whoever Robin was sheepishly taking the phone from the irate CEO, raising the phone just close enough to their mouth for him to make out their reply.
"I... didn't! Merl must have found it out himself; he's a crafty one after all." An oddly familiar sounding woman stammered on the other end, obviously not addressing him. "Right, who am I speaking to?"
"My name is Emil Blackwell and I was told by Merl that we might be able to help each other," Emil replied calmly, punctuating his words with taps to the phone's side. He'd definitely heard this 'Robin's' voice from somewhere, but he couldn't quite identify her. "Someone tried to kill me with a squad of golems and when I visited Merl to see if he knew anything, he mentioned you had given up investigating someone he thinks might be connected. Would you be interested in working together to get the answers we both want?"
"Wait a minute, I recognize that voice... let me guess, those golems were crystalline and controlled by a celestial with a hate-on for you?" Robin was interrupted by a muffled voice in the background before Emil could respond. He could half hear half-hear Robin muttering back and forth with the woman that had originally picked up the phone for a few moments before she finally spoke again. "I'm the one that helped you out back then, the ice-magi remember? I've already had time to look over the remains of those golems, and while I do suspect the Tong there wasn't enough there to track down the point of origin for that batch."
"Oh, this is Coventina's number?" Emil queried, feigning something resembling pleasant surprise. He looked down at his white cloak and mentally swore to himself. The anonymity his apparel normally would have afforded him would be halfway violated if Coventina saw it. Merl was a shopkeeper who kept to himself and probably wouldn't want a police investigation turning up any of the eyebrow raising items he had sitting in his store. Coventina on the other hand was a heroine whose rocky relationship with the AFPD wasn't likely to shield him if she suspected his enigmatic alter ego of doing something illegal.
And he was bound to have to do something illegal sooner or later.
"The Tong?" Emil repeated. A significant magic based criminal syndicate that had strong holdings in Angel Falls. Their entry on the The List had noted that even high level metahumans had been unable to best them on occasion.
Bringing a superheroine like Coventina into would be a double edged sword. Her support would be invaluable if a fight broke out, but he couldn't imagine that she would just allow a large group of criminals with military grade magic at their disposal walk free. Then again, The Tong weren't the kind of people who were likely to appreciate his investigations. They were bound to notice sooner or later and Coventina had a prominent public identity...
"I think I can help you with that. Where would you like to meet up and when?" Emil abruptly asked. He could practically hear the pieces of a plan snapping together in his head.
"Tomorrow, as to where... perhaps at Merl's? The three of us could pool our resources more effectively, or at least what each of us is willing to reveal... unless you have a better suggestion?" Robin's voice was muffled a little as she responded to something in the background. "Jessie, stop fussing with it, we can take care of the other side when I'm off the phone."
"Tomorrow would be great," Emil replied earnestly, seizing the precious few seconds Jessica's interruption afforded him. Coventina had just given him all the time he'd need to alter his plans to accommodate her involvement. "Does Merl actually have that much useful information on the Tong?" Emil asked. If they met up like she suggested, there was a chance that the shopkeeper would mention his cloak and mask to Coventina. "I should be able to get us one of their holdings or a few names at the very least."
"If you've met him then you should be able to tell that it's tough to guess how much he knows at the best of times... but if you think you've already got as much info out of him as you're going to then I won't argue, it would have been helpful to have those kinds of connections in my original search, but then being an 'out of towner' is decidedly unhelpful in that regard… is that everything then?" Robin's voice took on a slightly harried edge as the background noise over the phone grew louder.
"Yes, yes," Emil said, raising his voice over the din in the background. "I'll call you back in the morning with the new rendezvous point. Feel free to bring a friend!" With that cheery suggestion, he ended the call and flipped his cell-phone shut. The mage was in a good mood as he briskly made his way back to his home.