ASH: Shadow Girls #6 - Outside The Cave

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Sun Jan 16 10:33:47 PST 2022

     [The cover shows paper cut-outs of the Morning Stars between a
      flickering fire and the wall of a cave.  The cut-outs look like
      their normal selves, while the shadows are distorted into the 
      superhuman "powered up" forms.  A shadowed hand withdraws to 
      off-screen, as if its owner has just placed the paper figures.]

 .|, COHERENT COMICS PRESENTS             An ASH Universe Story
 '|`   SHADOW GIRLS      #6 - Outside The Cave
			 copyright 2022 by Dave Van Domelen

	  		    The Morning Stars

     Tetra-Red		 Xueli "Julie" Li - The Leader
     Hexa-Blue		 Tamica "Tammy" Sullivan - The Brains
     Octa-Green		 Dhriti "Tee" Singh - The Fighter
     Dodeca-Yellow	 Jessica "Jess" Davies - The Scout  
     Icosa-Pink		 Olivia "Liv" Stuart - The Heart
     Black Opal II    	 Madelyn "Maddie" Chin - The Mentor...under protest


Dig Site 32 Item Inventory - Page 12
Date: 28 August, 2024
Item 32-012
Classification: Human Remains

     Item 32-012 recovered from excavation of the collapsed utility tunnel at
grid (23,19,-05), believed to have collapsed in early 1998 during an
unreported superhuman conflict.  (See page 1, Item 32-000.)
     Extensive damage makes positive identification difficult, but contextual
clues (Items 32-012-a through 32-012-g) suggest the remains are of the
superhuman vigilante known as Professor Shade, who normally operated out of
Boston but was known to visit Manhattan on occasion.  Estimated date of
tunnel collapse is within seven days of the last reported sighting of
Professor Shade, but no records are available to indicate why he was in
Manhattan on the date of the collapse.
     Minimal data available suggests that Professor Shade was not registered
with the Department of Super-Human Affairs, and while it was thought likely
he had supernormal powers involving shadows and general physical enhancement,
it was also plausible that all his observed feats were due to clever
application of low-level supertech.  Item 32-012-d seems likely to have been
the source of some or all of his abilities.
     Due to lack of information about the subject we cannot positively
confirm that this was the real Professor Shade, and not one of his allies, as
he was rumored to employ a team of unpowered assistants.  However, if he or
any of those allies survive, they have not been active in any way that we are
aware of.

Dig Site 32 Item Inventory Page 14
Date: 28 August, 2024
Item 32-012-d
Classification: Artifact
Tentative Subclassification: Mystic
Tentative Subclassification: Divine

     Despite extensive damage to Item 32-012 and most other items found on
that subject, Item 32-012-d showed no signs of damage, which in itself is
strongly suggestive of Violation effects.  Standard hazardous materials
protocol followed in retrieval and examination.  
     Item is a form of jewelry known as a pectoral, set with five gems in the
shape of the five platonic solids: a red tetrahedron, a blue cube, a green
octahedron, a yellow dodecahedron, and a pink icosahedron.
     Preliminary archaeological analysis is inconclusive, as the style does
not clearly belong to any known historical culture.  It has elements of
pre-Hellenic Greek design, but could plausibly be Mesopotamian as well.  This
ambiguity is consistent with the hard to place nature of other known divine
     The pectoral itself is an irregular but roughly rectangular shape 17.3cm
wide and 10.2cm tall, with a chain 36.1cm long connecting the two upper
corners.  It appears to be made of bronze, but the lack of damage suggests it
may be "orichalcum," the general term for a wide variety of magically
enhanced bronze or brass alloys.
     Initial study resulted in what one investigator termed, "weird vibes,"
and the item has been remanded to the study of Professor Upgrade.

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[April 21, 2025 - The Scott Building]

     "...most of the latest batch is interesting to your historians, but
that's about it," Kay Cameron aka Professor Upgrade swiped through a few
pages of the report she was summarizing for her patron, the King of Shadows
and ruler of the Manhattan Autonomous Zone, Rex Umbrae.  She was an
unremarkable-looking woman in her indeterminate post-middle-age, at least
until you noticed the fervent glint in her eyes.  "Fortunately, I'm not here
to completely waste your time, as I've finished my analysis of the Professor
Shade artifact your teams dug up last year."
     "And?" the hulking product of Khadam's genetics labs arched an eyebrow.  
     "Short form, meh."
     "Too short.  Please elaborate."
     "Okay, you talked me into monologuing.  Hopefully you read my progress
reports so a lot of this will be summary, but indulge me," Upgrade tapped on
the screen to bring up various images of a glittering bronze necklace set
with five colorful gems.  "The pectoral was almost definitely the source of
Professor Shade's powers, and I believe I've constructed a plausible timeline
of its origins, starting in the muddy and god-bothered land of ancient
Greece.  Probably their mythical age, circa figures like Hercules and Jason,
where the actions of the very real gods make a royal hash of scientific
archaeology and causal timelines in general.  Human technology did NOT do
faceted gems like these," she pointed at the geometric solids, "until much
much later.  The gems were probably direct creations of a divine entity, or
one of their favored servants.  The archaelogy team thinks it was probably
dedicated to the goddess Arete."
     "I can't say I recall her having a presence in the Godmarket," Umbrae
     "As far as anyone knows, she didn't.  Not every god participated, either
due to a too-weak position or personal reasons," Upgrade shrugged.  "And keep
in mind that Shade was active well before the Godmarket, so he found the
pectoral either by sheer chance, or because Arete guided him to it during the
years when the gods were mostly being subtle...aside from Set, anyway.
Arete's generally the goddess, not perfection, but of being an
exemplar.  The best you can be.  It would make sense that an artifact of hers
would provide the user with overall enhancement, but the shadow powers don't
really fit her portfolio.  My initial hypothesis was that the shadow stuff
was gadgeteering trickery, but our test subjects confirmed that the artifact
itself provides those powers, so maybe Arete has a side that didn't make it
into the myths."
     Umbrae frowned slightly.  He did recall the parts of Upgrade's reports
that mentioned what had happened to some of those test subjects.
     "Merely handling the pectoral did not have any effect, at least not in
the short term.  It had to be worn next to the skin for at least a few hours
before its effects began to manifest.  Unfortunately, it also bonded to the
skin, and passing it to another test subject required removal of the skin
itself.  Subsequent test subjects were taken largely from the ranks of the
Cybernostra and their wannabes, since they'd be okay with some body
replacement at the end of a trial."
     The screen now showed a series of scan results that were essentially
meaningless to a non-specialist, although Umbrae recognized some of them as
"para-quantum" scans, one of the current avenues of research into trying to
find an objective measure of Violation effects.  He wasn't sure it was any
more reliable than TwenCen "lie detectors," but Upgrade put great stock in
them and seemed to get results.
     "Female test subjects exhibited a greater response to the pectoral than
male, which would track with mythical sources saying Arete favored girls to
men...not in that way, just a patronage sense.  Matronage?  Whatever.
However, even in the younger women where the effect was strongest, it was,
um, unimpressive compared to what even basic subdermal cybernetics can
accomplish.  Either Professor Shade was a special case, or made the most of
very little actual power.  So I went looking more closely into the scans, and
if you look more closely here," she pointed at one of the squiggles, "you
might be able to see what I found."
     "For the sake of argument, assume I am unable to make that
interpretation.  And I believe this has reached new content since your last
     "Ah yes, right.  I guess it's really only obvious in hindsight.  You
see, the pectoral's para-quantum signature is actually adjoint to the
signatures of the gems, countering their unreality dimensions."
     Umbrae nodded.  "I think I see where you're going with this.  The
pectoral was designed to *contain* the power of a goddess, to block it.  What
one might do if they wished to destroy the gems, but didn't dare risk the
wrath of a goddess."
     "Yep!" Upgrade beamed, with the clear joy of a mad scientist finally
conversing with someone almost on their intellectual level.  "So I removed
the gems."
     Umbrae stiffened.  "That...sounds...unwise.  Might that not attract the
attention of Arete?"
     "Do you take me for a hack, like that suck-up Doctor Developer?  First I
replicated the hyperlattice of the pectoral itself for a containment cage, so
that the gems would remain neutralized as far as the outside world was
concerned.  And yes, I extended the five-branes properly."
     If Upgrade had not survived the end of the Godmarket, there were times
Umbrae wasn't sure she was a baseline human.  This was one of those times.
Paranormal or not, though, she was definitely a Mad Scientist.
     "Once I removed them via remote waldo, I carefully scanned them again.
They were not connected to any higher dimensions, or attempting to 'ping'
them.  While they match characteristics of crystallized ichor seen in other
divine gems, they are no longer an active part of the goddess.  They could
probably be made to reconnect, but it would take an act of *knowing* will.
Needless to say, I did not tell any of the test subjects any of this, in case
they prayed to Arete and brought her calling.  If we decide to use these, and
I can't really see a good use case, we need the user to believe they're from
some entirely different god."
     "Godly power, and you can't see a use for them?"
     "I decided we needed someone really loyal to test a bare gem.  Your
wife's Hangman friend Monica volunteered."
     "Ah.  That would, I suppose, explain her new arm?"
     "Precisely.  Once the red tetrahedron touched her flesh...and she didn't
have much REAL flesh left before her latest immediately
bonded.  Not the slow process of the pectoral.  She gained significant
enhancement, including a sheath of dark red shadow that tests showed was
highly durable.  It was quite promising at first."
     "And then the price?"
     "She became increasingly obsessed with justice.  Or, perhaps Rightness
would be a better way of describing it.  She started to express a desire to
get back out in the field and 'clean up the scum.'  Now, that's basically her
day job, but I know you don't let fanatics into the Hangmen."
     "Indeed.  They need to know when to look the other way, and I grant them
a great deal of latitude for that purpose.  So, you think the gem was
changing her personality?" Umbrae frowned.
     "It was making her over into a goddamned superhero, Rex.  I had to
activate the failsafe and blow her arm clean off.  The gem was fine, and
she's okay now, but she says she sometimes still feels it.  The gem, not her
old arm.  Oh, I did risk one more male test subject, but the gem just refused
to do anything for him, I guess that was a secondary purpose of the pectoral,
to subjugate a female power to a man.  Anyway, if you want to create a
divinely powered superheroine team, each of whom could probably go toe to toe
with you in a fair fight, go ahead and use 'em.  I've put 'em back on the
pectoral and sealed the whole thing in a Paraday Cage for now."
     "You just made that last term up."
     "I *invented* that last term," Professor Upgrade smirked.
     Umbrae thought for a moment.  "Very well, I defer to your judgement.
Keep them secure.  I agree with the motive you presume for the pectoral's
maker, destroying them outright would be a bad idea, but for now we can make
sure no one accidentally acquires them.  Much of our archeological effort
under the island is about securing and containing dangerous relics and
technology rather than using it, after all."

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[March 15, 2027 - The Scott Building]

     "Any luck on the Hero of New York project, love?" Maria slinked into
Umbrae's working office.  It was just as orderly as his public office, but
built more for his preferences when it came to productivity, rather than to
impress others.  Both offices were functional, but they had different
     "I think so.  How's Monica doing lately?" he asked.
     Maria blinked.  "You want her to play at being a superhero?"
     Umbrae chuckled, a low rumbling sound like tectonic plates slipping.
"Remember when she got that new arm back in '25?"
     "Yeah, she just said she felt like it was time for a change.  What, was
this a 'Maria doesn't need to know about it' project?"
     Umbrae raised his hands to protest innocence.  "It was one of Professor
Upgrade's projects.  Monica volunteered, I found out later.  I didn't quiz
you on it, because your relationship with Monica is your business.  But the
new arm was made necessary as a result of Upgrade's tests...which had no
direct connection to cybernetics.  And Upgrade did not oversee the
     "Good.  I do not trust that hag around my cybernetics, or those of my
friends.  Sounds like you're saying that Upgrade chopped off Monica's arm,
     "It was more of a detonation, but Monica knew that was likely to happen
when she agreed to the experiment.  She wasn't lying to you about wanting a
change, but saw it as an opportunity to get one last bit of service out of
that piece of flesh before replacing it."
     Maria sat down in the only other chair in the working office.  The chair
that was there specifically for her.  "Fine, so what was this project, now
that it's relevant?  I'm guessing you didn't just bring her up for no reason,
and it and that old experiment are connected to the hero project?"
     "You presume correctly," Umbrae nodded.  "I've just dumped the files to
your internal server, but here's the precis: our archaeology teams found an
artifact connected to the goddess Arete, which can give impressive powers to
women, but bonds permanently *and* infuses them with a sense of justice.  It
was a few years ago, so I didn't immediately think of it yesterday.  If we
finesse it correctly, we can create an entire superhero team, and I think
it'll give me the hook I need to get one of the Hellhound ladies back in the
game to ride herd on the new heroes."
     "And they need a minder to keep them from going after you?"
     Umbrae frowned slightly.  "I think I can prevent that via judicious
choice of hosts and careful control of the information I give them.  But I
don't want them going after Bathory on their first day out, they'd get
slaughtered.  Madelyn Chin would not let that happen, and would be much
better positioned to pull them back from the edge if the gems have too strong
of a mental effect.  Especially since Jessa Dumont is still available as the
second leg of the Hellhound.  Additionally, I think I could risk the camel's
nose in the tent if I asked the third leg to come and remove some troublesome
young vigilantes to the Academy where they could be properly trained, in the
worst case."
     "Um, I think the worst case is this goddess being summoned by her new
worshippers," Maria had that slightly glazed look she got when she was
reviewing files housed inside her onboard storage.  
     "Correct, but I believe that has been taken care of, with a plausible
cover story.  I did ask our archaeotheologists to work on one as a
contingency when I shelved the project in '25.  The Mesopotamian goddess
Inanna was known in myth to have a pectoral that she lost in her descent into
the underworld, we can pass this off as an artifact of hers.  Better yet,
Inanna herself did not get involved in the Godmarket, suggesting that the
syncretism with Ishtar represented Ishtar defeating Inanna and nearly wiping
her out.  So, if there really is an Inanna...other than the one my sources
say embodies the spirit of Venus..."
     "Wait.  Venus the planet or Venus the goddess?" Maria shook out of her
reading trance.
     "The planet.  Its spirit was awakened by certain actions of the Academy
of Super-Heroes, and decided to name itself Inanna.  I am reasonably
confident that very few people on this island are aware of that, however.  In
any case, any worship directed to the mythical Inanna is unlikely to do
anything to alert Arete...and if merely using the power of the gems would do
that, it strikes me that poor deceased Professor Shade would have become a
full-blown avatar and not been ignominiously crushed to death."
     "Now we just need to pick some women to turn into superheroes," Maria
     "Girls, to be specific.  Teenagers would work best, based on both
Professor Upgrade's data and my desire to activate Ms. Chin's protective
instincts.  Grown women would be less likely to seek out a mentor, and Chin
would have an easier time saying no.  At least one candidate should be
someone known to her, perhaps a regular customer at 'Grocery Store.'"
     "In that case, I have two suggestions," Maria stood up and walked over
to the desk.  "One, Olivia Stuart.  She's a little young, but her parents do
good work for the Cybernostra, and she's been begging them to get turned into
a cyborg so she can be a superhero...she thinks Hangmen are basically
superheroes.  She'd act as a second voice against any 'Let's go take down Rex
Umbrae' plans, since her sense of justice is aligned better with our
legitimate government."
     "And, I suppose, if we have to free her from the gem's influence she
would not be averse to cybernetic replacement of any lost limbs," Umbrae
nodded.  "The other?"
     "Let Monica scout out the high schools for the rest of the girls.
Upgrade's report," she tapped the implant on the side of her head, "says
Monica still feels a pull towards the gems.  She might also be sensitive to
who might also be a good gem-wearer.  I'm sure she can come up with a good
cover story for why she's hanging around...."

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[March 16, 2027 - West Village]

     "Do you need any of the student files...?" the principal of Manhattan
Unified Secondary School 1 asked.
     Monica shook her head.  Today, her normally vibrant red hair was colored
an unassuming brown.  She looked like just another school security officer,
no visible cybernetics, although anyone working that job at MUSS-1 would be
expected to have some sort of ace up their sleeve given the paranormals in
the student body.
     "I downloaded all of that before I got here.  This is more of an eyes-on
operation anyway.  I'm not looking for trouble, that's all you need to know."
     Well, all he was going to get to know.  He didn't even know what her
position was, just that she had authorization from the Education Secretary to
be here...and he was not going to know that her job came directly from the
     He nodded nervously, and she returned the nod before leaving his office
to walk the halls.  
     Monica couldn't really say she'd had a normal high school experience,
she was already running with the CyberNostra even back then, but she did know
that this place felt too empty.  She knew it was because they'd built
optimistically, hoping to fill the halls within a few years, but right now an
entire wing was closed off, and the rooms in use were rarely more than half
full.  Still, there were enough students that she should be able to find
some good candidates. 
     The bell between classes would be ringing soon, and that would give her
a first look at the student body.  She assumed the standard "slightly bored
security guard" pose and waited.
     Monica hadn't felt the pull of the gems in a while, so she didn't know
how much that would be helpful, but she still had her regular systems and
skills, and reviewing the records had given her a few dozen girls to watch
out for.  Body language didn't say as much as people liked to think it did,
but it said enough.
     The bells rang, and the halls filled.  A few students actually noticed
her as more than just background clutter, but none actually approached her.
Some of the likelies came into view...interesting, one talking to the Stuart
girl.  Yes, Dhriti Singh definitely had something about her that the gems
could work with.  And being connected to Stuart was a plus.  

     A few hours and a few more changes of classes later, and Monica had a
short list to pass on to Umbrae.  She hadn't felt any kind of magical tingle,
but that was probably a good thing for her own long term health....

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[March 17, 2027 - The Scott Building]

     "I might quibble with one of your picks," Maria mentally reviewed the
files, "mostly because I agree with Monica's top four, and you went for the
Davies kid who barely made the short list."  Pause.  "Isn't she kind of bad
for group coherence?"
     "I want them to get in Bathory's way, but I don't want them coming out
of that conflict and deciding to clean up the rest of the city, my love.  I
suppose it's possible Jessica Davies will overcome her...issues...over time,
but a little internal strife should keep the girls easier to manipulate and
distract when necessary."     
     "Do we want any parental buy-in?" Maria asked.  "Maybe clue in the
     Umbrae shook his head.  "No.  I can have the gifts prepared and
delivered with none the wiser.  Let's give the girls the full superhero
fantasy, secret identities to protect, team friction, mysterious benefactors
and all the trappings."
     "Shall I arrange for them to get a tuxedo-wearing stalker?" Maria
     "Oh, a cartoon I watched when I was a kid.  You do realize we're not
just making superheroes, we're making magical girls?"
     " appears my pop cultural education has some holes in it
that I should rectify before finalizing these plans...."

	       *	      *		     *		    *

[May 8, 2027 - The Scott Building]

     Rex Umbrae looked over the report that the Hangmen had just submitted
regarding the day's disturbance in Central Park.  
     "So, I'll just have you know it was quite difficult keeping Al Mirage
alive long enough for this to play out," Anatole Mabuse noted.  "I am pleased
that you appreciate the results."
     Umbrae nodded to his "personal assistant" and chief Hangman.  "He was
bound to be an Example soon enough, I appreciate you keeping him around to be
used to help introduce the city's latest heroes."
     "And the Truce?  Being broken by unknowns because of Meraz damages it
the least amount possible, but it *has* been damaged," Mabuse pointed out.
     "For now, hands off from the Hangmen, but the mundane police have been
given no special instructions.  A little trouble with the law will keep them
on their toes, and the media will make sure they're treated as a mixture of
hero and Dangerous Influence.  How that mix plays out depends on whether Miss
Davies sets the tone for their subsequent activities, or if she's reined in,
of course...."


Author's Notes: 

     Before I wrote the first issue, I knew that I needed a True Origin and a
Cover Story, not just because it wouldn't do for Umbrae to own up to it.  As
noted in this issue, when messing with divine artifacts you wanna be careful.
So my initial weekend of making notes in preparation for the series included
both the Inanna story and the Arete truth.  Of course, after just completing
an epic story involving obscure Greek goddesses, I was a bit reluctant to
drag in yet another, but ultimately I decided that I didn't know enough about
other potential candidates and I wasn't comfortable with appropriation of
mytholgies that might still be taken seriously by living cultures (and yes, I
am in retrospect still a bit nervous about Poniente).

     Is there overlap between Hellhound's tunnels and Umbrae's archaeology
digs?  Probably a little, but since Umbrae's people started before Hellhound
went active, Hellhound would have simply avoided any areas too close to a
dig, at least until everything was tagged and bagged and the site closed back
up.  Umbrae's archaeologists are probably somewhere between outright
graverobbers and actual professionals...they document things with
professional level care, but mainly because this is the kind of archaeology
where you can find really dangerous artifacts or superscience, so it's the
care taken by a minesweeper.  Or, you know, SCP.

     Professor Upgrade was mentioned once or twice in LL&DD as a sort of
"More a rival in her mind than in his" rival to Doctor Developer.  I did ask
Andrew Burton for a civilian ID for her, which is intentionally a reverse of
DD's real name (although she could have changed her name as part of the
rivalry, and he has no idea he lives rent-free in her head).

     In case anyone reading this is totally unfamiliar with magical girl
stuff, the "tuxedo-wearing stalker" is a reference to Tuxedo Mask (Tuxedo
Kamen), from Sailor Moon.  His costume was a tuxedo, top hat, opera cape, and
mask, and he was functionally Sailor Earth (his civilian name is even a pun
on the idea).  Will the Morning Stars get a Tuxedo Mask?  Time will tell.
Well, I will say that I won't directly rip off Princess Holy Aura by having
such a character be a plant by Bathory.

     Monica was part of the bridal party for Maria Incarnata in ASH #74, and
Anatole Mabuse was introduced a couple issues before that.

     I have now reached the end of the rough plot I worked out at the start.
I still have unused ideas, but as far as actual stories I've used up the
initial creative burst.  So there may be a longer gap before the next issue,
while I cogitate.

     Finally, yes, the actual Morning Stars barely appeared this issue, only
two kind of on-camera and one other mentioned.  They'll be back next issue.


     For all the back issues, plus additional background information, art,
and more, go to ! is the official ASH Wiki, focusing on the Fourth
Heroic Age, but containing some information about other Ages.


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