ASH: Shadow Girls #1 - All Cats Are Gray

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Sun Dec 5 21:08:42 PST 2021

     [The cover shows Madelyn Chin walking down a Chinatown alley in
      harsh contrasting lighting at night.  The darkness is peppered
      by cats' eyes.]

 .|, COHERENT COMICS PRESENTS             An ASH Universe Story
 '|`   SHADOW GIRLS      #1 - All Cats Are Gray
			 copyright 2021 by Dave Van Domelen

[Editor's Note: All scenes take place in the Manhattan Autonomous Sector.]

[March 12, 2027 - Central Park]

     Al Mirage sat on one of the park benches, his heavily customized (and
somewhat shabbily repaired) Ihi Badger parked behind him, watching the late-
season snow fall around him.  It was cold, and despite his racing leathers he
could feel it in his bones, especially the ones that Hellhound had broken
last winter.  He'd been lucky, all things considered, he hadn't needed any
cyborg replacement bits.  Hellhound was gone now, he was still here, victory?
Pretty sad victory, though.
     "Hey, Al," came a familiar voice from behind.  No whir of turbines, so
Jumping Jack must've walked.  Or, you know, jumped.
     "Hey, Jack.  Sounds like you didn't even hope for a pickup race today,"
Al turned around to face the Satan's Eyes 'rager.  Well, Jack still
identified as a member of that gang, but it had never been big and now was
mostly a memory.
     Jack sat on the bench, crossing the oversized legs that came with his
paranormal power.  "Yeah, snow's not bad, but it's not safe enough for racing
today."  To his credit, he kept a straight face for a full second before
snorting in derision.  "Man, the scene's died off so much.  The PRRC poached
all the best racers, it's not even worth trying to get around the Hangmen
     Al nodded.  The Paranormal Road Racing Circuit was the King of Shadows'
attempt to compete with Paraball for eyeballs and adoration, inspired by the
utter disaster that was the Prix Ultime.  No coincidence that he also used it
to suck the life out of the Roadrager scene once he'd gotten too "legit" for
it, especially since he used Dice as a frontman for it.  Al was certainly
good enough for the PRRC, but by the time he'd recovered from his injuries
he'd found that Hellhound had salted the wounds by making sure everyone knew
why she'd come after him.  A year ago, the Hangmen were fine with what he did
to those little bitches who said no to him, but now he was box office poison.
     "Man, first Rex gives us all these new toys so we can help him rule the
city, then he decides we're not good enough for his shiny new regime," Jack
     "Read a history file sometime," a third voice sneered.  It was a Manson
Haight, wearing a pin that read "24."  Al thought he might be the tenth 24,
it was definitely the unlucky number.  "We were his brownshirts.  His
Sturmabelung or whatever the German word was.  The goon squad.  At least we
didn't get a night of long knives when he was done with us, we just got," he
patted the spot before sitting down, "benched."
     Jack sighed.  "Yeah.  I know it could be worse.  Like what happened to
all those Vogue Ghouls in Berlin.  At least Rexy didn't literally use us up
like Sable did to her dudes."
     "Ah, Vogue Ghouls were a bunch of posers anyway," Al snarled.
     "And we aren't?" 24 shrugged.  "Five years ago, we were a bunch of
unruly teenagers playing at being badasses.  Then Warden came along and shit
got real.  Plenty of our gangs were posers too, and we got hit just as badly
as Sable's Ghouls.  Remember the Snakeaters?  I think there's still a few of
my old buddies decaying in corners where the Macoute abandoned 'em once they
weren't useful anymore."  Having actual zombies riding around in the streets
ran counter to the lower profile the 5th Avenue Macoute were trying to keep.
     "Yeah, I feel like a grandpa now," Al admitted, "getting an ache in my
knee when there's a storm coming.  Raging went corporate, and those of us who
aren't media-friendly are just puttering around on last year's models.  I
dunno what I can even do.  Go legit?  Like anyone will touch me."
     "You'd be surprised," 24 tapped his forehead.  "The right powers can get
you a decent job, especially if you're not too squeamish about how you use
them," he giggled.  Neither Al nor Jack wanted more details about how the Pod
Squad was making money.  Their Ihi Ticks sure seemed to stay in good repair.
     "I suppose we could just throw ourselves on Bathory's tender mercies and
get in on the orgies I hear she throws," Jack suggested.
     Al shivered, and it had nothing to do with the weather.  "No fucking
thanks," he spat.  "I got out of the Blacks just in time.  Once Cockatrice
was gone, our gang just slid further and further into Bathory's furry paws.
Sex, drugs, and mind control?  I mean, I guess it's an okay way to commit
suicide, but I'm not that bad off yet.  I'll stay unaffiliated for now, it's
not like you NEED a gang anymore if you're not looking to start stuff."
     "I hear she's started to get serious again," 24 shrugged.  "We sent 17
and 27 to hang out and see what was what...and she didn't immediately kill
'em.  We're not sure what they're doing, they're not actively in the link
anymore.  More like a distant couple of voices on the wind, or somethin'."
     "Oh, that's all we need.  Bathory deciding to start *thinking* again.  I
guess she's over Cockatrice," Al sighed.  "Say, I don't remember you being so
lucid, Manson."
     "Yeah, this is the longest I can remember any of you going without doing
something crazy," Jack nodded.  "Not that I'm asking you to."
     24 shrugged.  "Near as we can figure?  The original was really crazy,
but none of the clones were.  Not really.  But as long as he was in the link,
it was like an insanity contact high, right?  Since he was excised, we've
been stabilizing.  I dunno if we're sane by a flatscan standard, but we're
better at leaning on each other when the brain swirlies get too heavy."  He
grinned in that unsettling way the Pod Squad was known for.  "We still tend
to go all kamikaze for no good reason, for the giggles.  Just, you know,
     "Yeah, can't say I like the new you, and I didn't like the old you too
much," Al admitted.
     "Pod didn't put me here for you to like," 24 giggled.

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[March 14, 2027 - The Scott Building]

     "I do not like whatever Bathory thinks she's up to," Rex Umbrae admitted
to his wife, while looking out over the Autonomous Sector from his offices at
the top of what was once the U.N. Building.
     "I think your discomfort is one of her goals," Maria Incarnata replied,
buffing a small smudge from her polished armorsteel breastplate with the back
of one gloved hand.  "She's pretty consistently been violating the boundaries
of the Truce, just never badly enough to give you an excuse to bring down the
     "No, that sort of childish taunting doesn't bother me.  I expect it.  It
helps keep the Hangmen from getting too complacent, and the neighborhoods she
prods at need to remember that they *need* my protection.  Especially the
West Village, where we've been putting the upper class of immigrants.  No,
she seems to have found a specific mission lately.  It's not just poking the
bear anymore, she's been looking for something or someone."  He stepped away
from the window and sighed.  "What's her new endgame?"
     "Well, what's *yours*?" Maria asked, stalking over and draping herself
across his shoulders.  It was a testament to his genetically enhanced
strength that her cybernetic bulk didn't make him stagger or even sag.  "Not
that I'm complaining about being legit, but it feels like you have another
shoe to drop."
     "I really don't, darling," Rex shrugged, as if he didn't have a hundred
and fifty kilos of battle steel depending from his shoulders.  "I was bred to
rule, and that's what I intend to do.  For now, this city.  Perhaps more,
once I have convinced the Combine that I'm not some cackling supervillain
trying to leverage this into a sloppy and destructive world domination or
apotheosis plot.  That means being more scrupulous about following the forms
than the 'real' governments.  Manhattan was utter chaos when I arrived, your
Cybernostra just one of many factions playing turf war games.  Most of the
gangs were and still are children.  The Combine's attempts to pacify it by
sending in STRAFE failed miserably...although not entirely due to their own
fault, I'll grant them that.  But they came in as law, which was the core
mistake.  I came in as lawlessness, the first among equals in crime, and have
been steering this city back onto the path of order and prosperity.  If I
have any ignoble ulterior motives, it's that I want to shove the Combine's
noses in what I've accomplished."
     "Ah, so my hubby is human after all."
     "At least seventy percent," Rex grinned.  "But, seriously, this is a
fragile time for my long term goals.  I've dismantled the more overt criminal
enforcement arms as quickly as I dared, but the Hangmen are still more suited
for managing the rabble than putting the fear of God into the remaining
faction leaders.  The Cybernostra and the Boys of Pain are essentially part
of the civic government now.  The Onyx Eye have been staying aloof, but
treating me as the lawful authority, to be worked around but carefully.  The
Macoute are a long term problem, but for now they remain cowed since I bested
their leaders in personal mojo is too big for them."
     "Not too big for me," Maria purred.
     "But Bathory...she doesn't fear or respect me.  She may *lust* after me,
but that is in no way going to happen.  She controls the remnants of the two
biggest paragangs from before the Truce, thanks to Cockatrice abdicating her
position.  And while she's had a number of setbacks in recent years, she's
also the only power broker other than the Cybernostra who can create more
paranormal footsoldiers.  Oh, I suppose the Onyx Eye can train up more
warriors who are competitive, but it's a much slower process than Bathory's." 
     "Manson can make more at will too," Maria reminded him.
     Rex made a dismissive motion with one hand.  "He may no longer be a
lunatic...or as much of one...but he's hardly a major power.  Bathory has
reportedly subverted a few of his clones, but there's no signs of a more
formal alliance.  And, frankly, the only exceptional thing about the clones
is their willingness to throw their lives away...which only helps up to the
point he's dying faster than he can replace losses."
     "Wouldn't Bathory taking over some clones technically be a violation of
the Truce?  Let you send in the Hangmen and at least whittle away her power
base before she gets too big?"
     Rex shook his head.  "Oh, the list of Truce violations is as long as
my," he raised an eyebrow suggestively, "arm, let's say."  
     Maria snickered.
     "But that comes back to the stage we're at.  If I come down on Bathory
too hard, even with good reasons, a lot of the paragangers who aren't happy
with the current arrangements will see it as the start of a purge.  Even if
all the leaders stay under my thumb, every paraganger is a small army in
their own right, not just Manson Haight.  There's still too many who miss the
wild days of the early 20's, and will decide it's better to go out in one
last party that burns the whole city down.  No, it can't look like I'm
cracking down on her, not yet.  Maybe in another year I'll have neutralized
enough random factors to start moving openly against Bathory, but I doubt
she'll give me that long."
     Maria slinked over to the desk.  "And dropping some hints that Bathory
might be looking for Dangerous Artifacts to get ASH on her furry ass might
work, but..."
     "But it would come with all sorts of complications I don't wish to deal
with," Rex nodded.  That conversation they'd had before.  While STRAFE still
had some "covert" assets in the East Village, MetaPsych still reported to
Combine intelligence on occasion, and maybe there were even some spies Rex
didn't know about (although he doubted it), opening those cracks even a
little could result in the Combine deciding not to renew the agreement next
time the "lease" came up.  "If you can't manage your own affairs, we're
afraid we'll have to let the autonomy lapse, Mister Umbrae."  That sort of
     "It's a shame we can't just steer Hellhound at Bathory, now that we know
who they were," Maria tapped her gloved fingertips on the desk.  
     " a thought," Rex mused, crossing to the desk and calling up
the display embedded in its surface.  "I did try to create a new Hellhound a
few months ago, but without the actual powered members of the trio available,
I didn't press the matter when rebuffed.  But one of Professor Upgrade's
projects might be just the thing to throw in the mix...."

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[June 24, 2026 - Chinatown]

     "See you next week, Mister Li," Maddy said as one of the Grocery Store's
regular customers walked out.  The store was actually just called Grocery
Store, the rest of the sign got blown off decades ago and her father had just
left it as Grocery Store.  The store over the secret entrance to her
grandfather's old hideout was actually a profitable concern these days, what
with the upswing in the island's population and economy.  It seemed like
every day she got another new regular customer, and she'd had to hire several
part-timers to cover things while she was off on...extracurricular
activities.  But those had been curtailed in light of recent events, so she
was steering her part-timers towards ideas of starting their own store.
     One such new customer was the middle-aged woman who was only now
approaching the counter.  She had the stamp of a mid-level government
functionary, probably one of the people Umbrae had brought in to help manage
the increasingly "respectable" city government.
     "I am interested in a dog," the woman said.
     "Er, this isn't a pet store," Maddy blinked.
     "Oh, I know.  But this is a very particular sort of hound, and I think
you can help me with it.  Especially now that your business partners may no
longer be able to take care of the hound, yes?  Miss Dumont has a few too
many eyes on her now, and Marshal Willot is far too busy with her day job."
     Maddy stepped back and started to reach behind her for a concealed
shotgun.  "What are you..."
     "Relax, Miss Chin.  I represent some interested breeders, if you will,
and I think I can help you find new partners with a bit more time on their
hands for taking care of animal control here in Manhattan.  People who aren't
under any...shadows...of suspicion, at that...."
     "No...thank you," Maddie schooled her face to impassivity.  "My
'business partners,' as you put it, have their own lives now, and I have
mine.  We're out of the 'breeding' business.  Your new government will have
to find another source for police dogs."
     "Very well.  We're not interested in coercion, we merely thought you
were still interested in that particular side occupation," the woman smiled
mildly and nodded.  "If you get bored with this mundane life, however, I
believe you know where to find us," she nodded in a roughly northeasterly
direction.  "Good day, Miss Chin."

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[April 30, 2027 - Chinatown]

     Boring was still good, Maddie thought.  Life around Warden, and then as
part of Hellhound, had been like a roller coaster ride.  Exciting as hell,
fun when it wasn't terrifying, but eventually you needed to get off for a
     New York was quieter now, she was doing good just by running the store
and being an upstanding member of the community.  Sure, it was a brittle and
false peace, but sometimes people needed to heal even if the wolves were
still at the...yeah, the metaphor got away from her there.
     "Welp, store's empty, closing time was five minutes ago, guess I'm done
for the day," Maddie said to the lack of people present.  She always stayed
open a little late on the last day of the month, in case anyone got off shift
and needed to spend some of their paycheck.  "Friday night, karaoke time,"
she added, arming the security system, locking the door, and heading up the
back stairs to her publically known apartment.  She hadn't had reason to go
down the hidden stairs to the not-publically-known rooms for a while now,
just the regular checks on idling systems and light housekeeping.
     Nightlife in Chinatown wasn't much to speak of, but it was safer by far
than wandering farther afield in search of hotspots and the paragang-tinged
clubbing scene.  Maddie was probably the youngest regular at Mama Cho's
restaurant for Friday night karaoke, but it was at least something social
that didn't run the risk of meeting someone she used to punch.
     Other than old man Manny Xu, but that was his own fault for getting
     She changed just enough to not look like she came straight from the
shop, then headed out the back.  Three blocks at night, but it was pretty
safe these days...and she could handle any freelancing mugger well enough.
     "Where is it?" growled a voice from the shadows.
     Literally growled.  As in, one of Bathory's werecritter followers.  Snow
Leopards, because even after Cockatrice was gone, Bathory didn't change the
name of her gang back to the Oblivious.  Sentimental, Maddie figured.
     "Where is what?" she asked, reaching into her bag for the extendable
baton.  It was nastier than the commercial variety, and might be enough to
let her drive off the furry paraganger.  She could make out the white-furred
shape in the shadows between the alley's lights, and started to edge around
into a more defensible position.
     "The Black Opal," snarled a second voice.  Behind her.  That's what she
got for taunting Murphy.
     Maddie moved to put the wall to her back, but couldn't see the other
werecat.  Probably black furred.  
     "What black opal?  I run a grocery store, not a jeweler's."  Not good.
No one should think she had any connection to a black opal.  That was her
grandfather...and he didn't have any actual black opals, just an armored
black glass helmet and inborn powers not related to any gems.
     Oh, she really wished she'd inherited those powers right about now.
     "We don't think you're dumb enough to be carrying it," the first Snow
Leopard snarled.  "But you probably have it in the shop, or up in your
apartment.  Hand it over, and we don't have to tear both apart looking for
     "Or even tear you apart," hissed the voice from the darkness.
     "Or maybe not!  TETRA-KICK!" shouted a girl's voice from behind the
shadowed Snow Leopard.
     With a dull crunch, the black-furred cat-man flew into sight, followed
immediately by a slender girl seemingly dressed mostly in dark red shadows,
save for her eyes and a glowing gem on her right fist.
     "You really should be more careful, Miss Chin," the girl winked,
flashing a V-sign before jumping at the still-standing Snow Leopard.
     Maddie blinked.  "What.  The.  Actual.  Fuck.  When did we get Magical


Author's Notes:

     Yes, magical girls.  Well, *a* magical girl right now.  But they do tend
to come in packs.  This series started with the goofy idea of Rex Umbrae
somehow granting power to a mahou shojo team to use them as a deniable
resource against anyone still not playing along, since he had to be trying
hard to go as fully legit as any real government ever gets.  A few days of
mulling over the idea got me the plot devices and core conflict, and I went
through the ASH Wiki ( to find existing places to connect
     Most of the third scene is copied from the end of ASH #92 (and then
tinkered with a little), a dangler I set up over a decade ago and that has
just sort of dangled since then.  As a result, this issue might be a little
longer than I intend to write going forwards, the sheer size of ASH issues
tended to make them daunting and I want to work shorter form for a bit.
While I won't go all the way down to drabbles here, I figure 200-250 lines is
a decent target for installments.  After City of Night, I think the big
players deserve some quiet time, if and when I return to the main ASH title
it'll likely be after a time jump.
     Way back in STRAFE #12, in 1999 realtime and 2024 in-story, the Combine
government ceded the "lost cause" island of Manhattan to Rex Umbrae.  He's
technically part of the Khadam governmental structure, but given the
upheavals there since 2024 he's mostly his own agent at this point.
Manhattan is not the only Autonomous Sector, with Detroit and its
surroundings ceded to Doctor Developer at some time in the past as well.
It's a curious legal arrangement that probably wouldn't pass muster with the
U.S. Constitution, but the North American Combine has been selective about
what legal structures and rights they restore over time.
     As RACC regulars will know, I tinkered with some magical girl stuff in
The School and its subsequent drabbles, playing around with some ideas (see for those stories), but that's an
entirely separate world.  This series is more about getting magical girl
tropes into ASH, in the same way that the Otakuza bring sentai teams in.
     What's the team theme?  Who are the other girls?  Well, you'll have to
wait for that.  (I haven't decided if I want to dump the entire missing six
weeks in March and April 2027 into next issue, or parcel it out as flashbacks
as the story develops.  I've literally only been thinking of this whole thing
for a few days at this point.)  Also, I still need to come up with a team
name, as "Shadow Girls" won't be it, but it'll be a few issues before I
really need one.
     If anyone wants to really help me out, they could go back and figure out
what all the surviving Paragangs are and their territories, as I didn't keep
careful track of those in the wiki (oops) since I mostly saw them as
something for the other ASH writers to play with.  But given that there
haven't been other ASH writers for a few years, I'm taking a stab at 'em.

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