B14.3 Breaking Point

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Basil stepped away from the tesseract, pleasantly surprised to notice that however this means of transportation worked, it didn’t leave him the least bit disoriented or otherwise impaired.

He’d arrived at a supermarket’s parking lot, in a circle of several dozen civilians who seemed to have been hastily getting food and other supplies out of the supermarket – a quick look showed that the place had been opened, electronic screens on the outside announcing that it was giving away its inventory freely, so it wasn’t looting – who seemed to have frozen in fear when the tesseract appeared, only to relax when they saw him.

A middle-aged man with a beard shadow on the very verge of turning into a short beard approached Basil after putting a stack of packages down on the ground, looking nervously at him, his eyes roving as he seemed to have trouble deciding what to focus on while looking at his mostly featureless mask.

“You… you’re Brennus, right? The superhero?” he asked, his voice nearly cracking with nervousness.

“Yes,” Basil replied, looking around. “You should all get to the shelters as quickly as possible. Do not take more than you can easily carry,” he continued, looking at a group of teenagers so ladden down with sweets and snacks they probably wouldn’t have made it home without an accident even on a good day.

And this wasn’t a good day, by any possible measure.

“We’ll… yeah, we’ll do that,” the man replied. “But… I mean, how’s…” He looked towards the distant battle, which even now was rather easy to make out, as beams of light lanced up again and ag-

He flinched, his fists clenching so tightly he thought he’d damage his gloves as another lance of pure agony shot through his head, overtaking the steady thrum of background pain.

At least no one noticed, as the onlookers got distracted by the sudden growth of… something… where the beams had just been.

Basil touched the button on the communicator the Dark had given him, creating a ping to notify them… not that he thought it was necessary, right now, but it was a good habit to get into in case they lost track of her.

“Go,” he spoke, voice hard, making people flinch. “Don’t waste time and get to safety, now!”

They got.

Basil turned away from the supermarket and left the lot, running at as fast a pace as he could maintain – he still had a way to go. The node he’d taken had been the one closest to his house, but it was still quite a ways away from it.

Nevertheless, there was nothing at all he could do to help in this fight if he was limited to his emergency equipment.

Frankly, there wasn’t much, if anything, he was likely to contribute at all, even with his best gadgets, b-

He stumbled, nearly falling over as he was hit by another spike of pain, barely a minute after the previous one.

Barely managing to turn the stumble into the start of a run, he sent another signal, just in c-

Another spike of pain, still just as painful and impossible to get used to as the first one.

This time, he fell actually fell over, his mask hitting the pavement hard enough he actually felt it.

He pushed the button, almost reflexively, before he pushed himself up again.

So fast… she usually keeps the same powerset for a minute or two at least, even when she’s under heavy attack, he thought as he scrambled forward, breaking into as fast a run as he could. Did Memento really manage to upgrade enough to pressure her so much more, or…

Another spike of pain, causing him to stumble, but this time he managed to stay on his feet and keep running.

Passing by a gap in the buildings to his right, he looked towards where the fight was going on and saw the reason for the rapid change.

Gloom Glimmer had engaged DiL. Even at this distance, he could make her black-clothed, white-cloaked form, thanks to his telescopic vision enhancements, unleashing a truly staggering display of power.

Pain flashed through his mind as Gloom Glimmer kept meeting every new set DiL expressed with another power, countering her at every step.

When she wasn’t able to react quickly enough, one of the Mementos would intercede instead, unleashing a different super-weapon.

DiL, meanwhile, showed no sign of concern. She simply floated left and right, sometimes twisting in the air, but rarely even bothering to face her opponents as she kept switching through powers. Her arms remained limply at her sides, while her hair twisted with her motions and the wind, the glowing strands destroying anything they came into contact with – including the occasional metahuman who ventured too close, or was unable to get away in time when she closed in.

Then he was past the gap, moving slower now that he was being attacked by those horrid headaches every half minute or so.

He just couldn’t get used to them.

Damn it… Damn it… I need to… to get home, he thought as he almost fell over, stumbling before he leaned against the wall of a bakery he often went to to get fresh bread, on better days. Get your act together, Basil. You can’t afford to be weak right now.

Another flash of pain cut off his attempt to psych himself up.

And another.

And another, again.

God damn it, it’s great that Gloom Glimmer can hold her sister off so well, bu-

He doubled over, dropping to his knees as yet another flash of pain lit up his brain.

Fuck.

The pain and disorientation were so bad, he almost missed the brief distortion which travelled over the ground of him, as if someone had dropped a pebble into a pond, waves radiating across the concrete… and the walls, coming all from a single point somewhere towards the centre of the city.

From the battle.

“Be advised that the Adversary has broken off contact,” Memento’s voice announced through his comms. “Due to the changed nature of her desolation field, pinpointing her location is no longer possible. Announce any sighting through your comms immediately.”

“Damn it,” Basil grunted, forcing himself up onto his feet – and then he jumped, leaping away from the bakery as a hand formed out of its brick wall and glass front, slashing at his throat with broken-glass-claws.

The creature emerged so quickly and seamlessly, it almost looked like a stopmotion effect – one moment, normal bakery, the next, a twisted gargoyle of brick, metal and glass stood there, the bakery’s front wrecked and scavenged for materials.

It stood as tall as Basil was, even hunched over and slumped, its posture more appropriate to a cartoon character than a living being. Its body was primarily made out of bricks, with metal at the joints and glass shards providing details, as well as claws and eyes.

When it opened its misshapen maw, it revealed a mouth full of countless metal and glass fangs, reflecting the light of the desolation field and the irregularly penetrating sun to create an almost rainbow-like glow.

Dozens of similar creatures rose out of the street and buildings around Basil, all roughly resembling gargoyles – humanoid, misshapen heads, claws, wings – but no two were similar beyond their basic frame, each made out of whichever materials were nearby when it was formed.

They all looked at Basil and opened their maws, hissing as they showed off their rainbow teeth.

Great. Now that I’d like another flash of pain, I’m not getting one.

Guess even DiL can’t help but kick you while you’re down, mate.

He couldn’t even dispute that.

The nearest creature, the one whose lazy swipe he’d just dodged, attacked first by throwing itself towards him, its maw opening so wide it very nearly reached a hundred and eighty degrees.

Basil shot it right down the throat before it could even come close, his snapping his rifle up for a one-handed shot which blew its head and a good chunk of its upper torso apart, throwing the remains back into the wrecked bakery, wrecking it further.

“The Adversary has produced a vast number of lesser agents,” Memento informed him, superfluously. “They appear to have only been formed out of material at ground level or above, so the civilians in shelters should be safe. Past instances suggest that destroying at least sixty percent of their number will cause her to switch up powers, which ought to reveal her location again, as well. Spread out and destroy as many as you can. If your comms order you to change location, do so immediately, you will be guided towards the biggest concentration of agents you are predicted to be capable of taking on.”

He dodged another gargoyle and placed another round in the back of its head, pulverizing it and the head of the gargoyle that’d been charging him from the other direction. The metal slugs his railgun fired were more than powerful enough at such close range to tear through these creatures.

Of course, there was the decidedly non-trivial problem that there were already more gargoyles visible on just this one street than he carried shots with him. And even though he could load nearly any object of approximate shape and size into his railgun and turn it into a lethal projectile, doing so limited him to one shot at a time before having to reload.

Not a sustainable long-term solution.

I wish I had my drone here right now.

Still, there was nothing else to do but fight. The creatures came towards him, not quite swarming him – only the nearest few were attacking, yet, with others seemingly content to tear down nearby walls, lampposts and other bits of construction – but there were far too many for him to stay in one spot and shoot them down one after the other.

Basil took a running leap, taking off the ground to place his boot on the foremost charging gargoyle.

Jumping off its shoulder, he brought his rifle around and shot its head apart even as he flipped over the row of charging gargoyles, landing just in time to whirl around and watch them slam into the opposite line of attackers with a cacophony of shattered glass and screaming metal.

One of the gargoyles had avoided slamming into another of its kind and came charging straight at him, its jaw opened as wide as it could go.

He raised his rifle, aiming at its throat, and pulled the trigger-

Thin arcs of blue-white electricity danced across the muzzle and down the rails, but nothing happened as several alerts appeared on Basil’s heads-up display.

The creature reached him, diving past the rifle as it apparently aimed to clamp its jaws closed around his head – only for his foot to instead slam into it, his armored boot easily withstanding the cutting power of mostly-dull metal and simple window glass, smashing the creature back before it could clamp its jaws closed.

Instead of following up on the attack, Basil retreated, one eye on the situation around himself, one on the readouts his mask was giving him.

He’d feared this would happen – DiL’s desolation field was infamous for screwing with electronics. It was one reason why most gadgeteers steered away from fighting her, as they would all too often end up as sitting ducks, rather than contribute meaningfully to the fight.

Basil had anticipated such a situation. He’d studied reports of the desolation field’s effects online – Toybox in particular had several threads revolving around just this one ability of DiL’s – and done his best to harden his inventions where possible against the electromagnetic interference it caused.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t done so for his emergency kit, as it had been built on a very tight budget and been meant as, well, an emergency solution only.

Which was why his mask’s display was starting to glitch so much, he was forced to deactivate it and flip a hidden switch on its jawline which caused the upper half to collapse into and over the lower half, revealing his eyes and forehead, with the mask now covering only his nose, jaw and mouth.

At the same time, he grabbed his rifle by its handle with one hand and by the barrel with another, as he whirled around like a dervish, cloak flying, dodging a pounce by another gargoyle.

With a twist, he folded the grip away from the trigger, nearly flat against the barrel, and pulled.

The railgun came apart as he drew a single-edged blade made out of gleaming metal from it – one of the rails meant to guide the shots, sharpened on the opposite side to provide a proper cutting edge. It was long enough to serve as a proper sabre, or perhaps a katana, though one with a straight blade.

He used the razor-sharp blade to cut the head off of another gargoyle, and pulled a second sword out of the upper half of his rifle, plunging it straight down the throat of yet another pouncing gargoyle.

That turned out to be a mistake.

The creature clamped its jaws shut, apparently unbothered by having a metre and a quarter of razorsharp steel piercing intos its chest, trapping it in there as it pressed on, easily overbearing Basil.

He was forced to let go of his sword and dive into a roll, barely avoiding being bear-hugged by the gargoyle and crushed against its shard- and spike-studded chest.

They’re not very tough.

His blade cut through the gargoyle’s legs in a single swipe, and once it hit the ground, he leaped over it and twisted around, reaching down to pull his other sword out of its throat before it could damage it.

Another slash took off its head, and that caused it to collapse into its constituent pieces.

So, you gotta destroy the head to stop them? How droll, the Man in the Moon commented.

More gargoyles turned towards Basil, and others got up on their feet again after having fallen over in that mass crash.

Others still were busy tearing apart their surroundings, gathering parts to…

With a start, he realised they were making new gargoyles. Taking debris and assembling it into vaguely humanoid, winged shapes.

They’ll likely animate them if we give these buggers too much time.

Yes, thank you, I do notice the obvious, Basil thought back at him, though he didn’t have much time to be irritated, being busy dodging a dozen gargoyles made primarily out of very hard and very sharp bits.

Unless it’s Vas’ humongous crush on you.

Not. The. Time. Basil grimaced, finding himself forced to retreat – there were just too many of them bearing down on him, he didn’t have enough space to swing his swords wide and hard enough to take off heads, except for the occasional opening their uncoordinated attacks gave him.

When is it ever? Notice how I only talk to ya now and then? Ever wonder why that is?

One of the newly constructed gargoyles rose up, its movements jerky, uneven. It looked at him and hissed, then came stumbling towards him. Less than the originals, but still dangerous.

I noticed. No idea as to why.

Another slash took a particularly large gargoyle’s head off; Basil followed that up by rushing forward, using its collapsing body to give himself a boost, leaping over the small horde of gargoyles that’d tried to corner him against a wall.

Well, I’m not sure either, but I can only reach you sometimes. And some other times you’re just… deaf to me.

Landing on the street, Basil rolled into a sprint. He was going to get overwhelmed if he stayed where he was – he needed the gadgets he’d left at home, it was the only way he was going to make a meaningful dent in these gargoyles’ numbers.

You’re saying you’re not sure, but that implies you do have some idea as to why.

I cannot say.

So we’re back to that, Basil replied with a mental sigh.

Holding a sword in each hand, he ran down the street, trying to get closer to his house, slashing at gargoyles whenever the opportunity presented itself, hoping that at least the other defenders would manage to pick off enough of them that DiL would switch her powers before they built up too much.

That brings up another point – if one of her powers is the ability to animate these things, and another one is, presumably, whichever power allows her to hide from everyone, then what’s the third one?

No clue, but it can’t be anything good. Especially since we don’t know whether her hiding ability is her defensive or utility slot, and whether the animation ability is her offensive or utility slot. The last one could be any of the three.

He dodged around two particularly misshapen gargoyles made mostly out of shopping trolleys and broken beer bottles, beheaded another that tried to cut him off and used its body as a spring board again, to leap over another line of advancing gargoyles.

Only to have another one slam into him, swooping down from above with its wings extended wide.

They can fly after all.

The gargoyle slammed him into the ground, its hands closing around his swords’ grips over his own hands, preventing him from beheading it in return.

The shards covering the insides of its hands failed to penetrate his gloves, but they still managed to hurt, and the creature was far stronger than its spindly build would suggest – and much heavier, as well.

Basil grit his teeth and pushed back, while the creature opened up its maw, trying to literally bite off his face – but it had him at a serious disadvantage and even though he could stall it, that didn’t change the fact that even more were closing in on them.

Suddenly, he heard a gun being cocked, followed by the gargoyle’s head exploding as it was blown apart by a shot coming from Basil’s left.

The lifeless form collapsed atop him, showering him in debris and briefly blinding him as he closed his eyes to avoid getting anything in them.

When he looked up, he saw a man in a costume dive in between the gargoyles that’d surrounded him, landing over Basil in a broad stance, ready to defend him.

Though, costume was perhaps a bit much. He was wearing polished black shoes and a pair of black pants held up by white suspenders worn over a horizontally striped black-and-white shirt with long sleeves. He was standing there as if he was holding a shotgun, aimed at the advancing gargoyles, but his hands were empty.

Basil couldn’t see the man’s face, only the back of his head and short brown hair that’d been cropped down to the scalp on the sides and back, leaving only a messy mass of shiny locks at the top.

Then the man cocked his invisible shotgun and let loose another shot, blowing apart another gargoyle’s head.

He cocked it again, and another one went down, then he reloaded it, and shot down another two.

Half the gargoyles around them were gone by then, but the others were too close, so he instead switched into a melee pose and swung his arms as if he was holding a sword, slicing the heads off of three gargoyles at once.

The hell?

His saviour finished his spin, coming to face Basil, and extended his left hand towards him, showing his face for the first time.

It was covered in white make-up, from his scalp down to his jawline. His lips were coloured black, and thickly so, with thin lines extending slightly out of the corners. His right eyebrow had been traced with a similarly thick black colour, while the left one was all but imperceptible under the white make-up. Black eyeliner made the right eye stand out, as did several triangles drawn atop and beneath it, like eyelashes, while the right eye merely had a black ‘scar’ running from the forehead above down over it and onto the left cheek.

He was completely silent as he looked at Basil with an urgent expression, his blue-grey eyes as sharp as they were intense.

Le Mime. He came all the way from France?

Basil took the offered arm, hand closing around the man’s wrist as he was hauled up, then he activated the – fortunately still functional – magnets in his gloves to pull his swords back into his grip.

Le Mime whirled around and mimed drawing and firing a gun like an old west gunslinger. A shot sounded, blasting a hole through the head of a charging gargoyle.

“We need to go down the street that way!” Basil told him, gesturing towards his house when he had the french hero’s attention.

The older man – Basil thought he might be in his late twenties, or his early thirties – nodded to him and turned to face the other way, raising his arms and patting the air, before he leaned against an invisible wall, as if to brace it with both hands.

The charging gargoyles – both on the ground and flying – all slammed into said invisible wall, a few of the new ones doing so hard enough that they destroyed themselves.

Both Basil and Le Mime turned away from them and ran down the street – but there were yet more gargoyles in their way.

Le Mime ran ahead and reached into the air, grabbing a hold of something which allowed him to swing himself up and onto… a bike?

With a twist of his hand and a kick of his leg, he revved the invisible motorcycle, waving his other hand towards Basil in a beckoning gesture.

Basil didn’t stop to think, he just leapt onto the unseen machine, using Le Mime’s own position to judge where he’d have to land, while he crossed his swords behind his back, making them stick to the flat, flexible magnets worked into his cloak’s emblem.

Landing behind the silent hero, he grunted at the impact – it wasn’t exactly a well-cushioned motorcycle – and wrapped his arms around his waist, while seeking and finding a pair of footholds.

And then Le Mime drove off, shooting through a gap in the crowd of gargoyles before them.

They shot down the street as the hero drove like a madman, dodging their enemies by margins so small Basil was sure they’d be caught a few times.

Nevertheless, they got through another crowd, but there were still more gargoyles ahead of them.

“I need to get to my house and get several gadgets!” Basil shouted to be heard over the cacophony of their bike’s motor. “It is roughly five more kilometres down this road, followed by a turn left and another kilometre of road!”

The silent hero looked at him over his shoulder, his gaze determined, and nodded. Then he briefly took one hand off the grip and tapped Basil’s hands around his waist.

Taking the cue, Basil let go of him as the wind pushed hard against him, and Le Mime thrust his torso back, shoving Basil at the same time as he changed his own position.

And Basil landed in a hard, uncushioned seat in a very different vehicle, as they drove over the street, higher up than before on the bike.

The motorbike’s sound had been replaced by a strangely familiar one… a propeller?

A propeller-driven plane.

Le Mime mimed pulling a pair of aviator glasses down over his eyes, and then he pulled on a long stick in front of him, leaning back as their biplane rose up, shredding several gargoyles’ heads with its propeller before it was too high up to do so anymore.

Holy shit, I didn’t know he could do constructs this elaborate!

The biplane rose up, soaring over the sky, but Le Mime didn’t angle it directly in the direction of Basil’s house.

Instead, once he’d flown up high enough, he dove down again, one hand closed tightly around the control stick of the plane, while another held something else in front of him.

Before Basil could even wonder what it was – he was mostly focused on the sensation of his stomach rising up into his throat as they dove almost straight down towards the ground and the masses of gargoyles, the deafening combination of the biplanes ancient motor and the rush of air managing to daze even him for a moment – he clenched his fingers around it and the sound of a machine gun firing rose over that of the motor.

Le Mime simultaneously pulled them out of the dead dive, strafing over the hordes of gargoyles, dust and debris rising as their machine gun tore through dozens of them.

He repeated the process three more times before they approached Basil’s neighborhood.

“Fly by the building with the purple roof!” he shouted, hoping he’d be heard over the noise as he pointed at the out-of-place paintjob Amy had insisted on a few years ago. “I will jump onto its roof! You can keep going, I will be alright from here on out!”

He couldn’t be sure he’d be, but this guy was seriously too effective at taking down the gargoyles to be tied down babysitting Basil.

Le Mime looked over his shoulder, briefly, nodding again, and adjusted their flight towards the house.

Twisting the plane until it was nearly on its side, he flew a tight circle over it, just a metre away from having its wings hit the rooftiles.

“Thank you!” Basil shouted, and jumped, landing hard enough on the rooftop to crack some tiles and dislodge others, though he found his footing quite easily.

Waving at Le Mime, he briefly watched him fly away again, shooting up several gargoyles rushing towards the house, before he moved on.

Time to pull my own weight, he thought, walking to the edge of the roof and jumping down, only to hold onto the drain and swing himself feet-first through his own bedroom window.

The electronics were all down, as was his home’s security system, so he just broke through without much of an issue, landing on the soft carpet and standing up straight.

His room was as he’d left it – save for the broken window and glass shards strewn about – and his equipment was also exactly where he’d left it behind.

He could hear the hissing of approaching gargoyles, and the sound of their misshapen limbs upon pavement, so he didn’t waste any time, stepping towards where he’d embedded his force-field gauntlet into the wall…

And staggered as he walked throug the spot where he’d last held Prisca, a flash of green eyes and red hair conjured by his memory briefly occluding his vision.

Moments passed during which he just stood there, his arms limp down his sides and his eyes stinging.

He could almost feel her lips on his.

Almost.

It seemed so long ago, and yet like it had just happened.

Prisca, I-

Behind him, a gargoyle reached his window, fingers crushing glass as they wrapped around the broken frame, pulling it up.

Basil acted more on instinct than conscious thought, jumping onto his bed and grabbing the gauntlet.

The gargoyle pulled itself up and shrieked.

He pulled the gauntlet over his gloved hand, onto his left forearm, whirling around and raising it.

Please work.

The gargoyle leapt, just as the gauntlet fired, unleashing a burst of what was essentially pure force, smashing into the creature’s wide open maw – still the easiest target to aim at – and blasting it out the window in pieces.

Basil couldn’t bring himself to even feel proud of the quality of his work. Instead, he quickly exchanged his emergency equipment for his hardened gear and blasted two more gargoyles apart as soon as they raised their heads over the bottom of the window frame.

The heads-up display of his helmet booted up with only a few minor visual glitches before stabilising, and he was finally properly equipped for this.

Or as much as he could be, facing an opponent whom he couldn’t possibly harm or even truly inconvenience.

Despair later. Fight now.

And as if on cue, there was another flash of pain, and the sound of countless gargoyles collapsing into harmless debris outside, causing him to briefly flinch and nearly fall over.

He pressed the button on the communicator the Dark had given him, and then leapt onto the window sill, looking out over the city until he could see DiL’s figure in the distance, surrounded by a nimbus of blue light. Just four or five blocks away from his home.

“The Adversary has reappeared, W8. All forces, prepare for new powerset,” Memento announced in his mechanical monotone.

Guess it’s time to find out whether we can actually contribute anything here, ain’t it, mate?

Basil leapt out of the window.

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B14.2 Breaking Point

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“Commencing fifty-ninth attempt at completing the prime directive,” the Memento in front of them said, its brassy, electronic voice carrying easily across the plaza. “Assuming command of local operations as per pre-existing protocols established with the relevant Metahuman Combat Organisations.”

Irene watched the machine – could it even really be said to be a machine? – reach out and touch the pillar of tesseracts. Golden light spread from the point of impact, circuit patterns spreading over and through the tesseracts as they folded into themselves and disappeared, until only one was left, floating at about chest height above the ground.

Her power twitched, a sensory ability falling into place which traced the spatial distortions, locating the tesseracts across the entire area covered by the Desolation Field. They’d been spread out, though not uniformly, clustering closer at key areas while neglecting ones at the fringes.

“These constructs serve as nodes for a teleportation network,” Memento explained calmly. “Touching one will project a map of the nodes’ locations and the area in general into your mind, allowing you to choose a node as the destination.”

He raised a hand, which split open and retracted the fingers, forming a cannon of sorts, as Irene felt the sensory ability recede in favour of a form of defense… desolidification of some kind, but she didn’t get a chance to figure it out before it was gone, her power realising that she didn’t need to defend herself against Memento.

A silvery beam was projected out of the arm cannon, like the wave patterns on liquid mercury you dropped something into, only it was just the waves without the mercury. Where the beam concentrated, a huge metal crate… faded into view, becoming fully solid within a few seconds.

Once the beam cut off, the crate folded open, revealing hundreds of small, about palm-sized objects, looking like watches without hands or bands.

“Every combatant is strongly advised to take one of these communicators and affix them to their body by touching the flat side to whichever spot upon them that they want it to adhere to,” he explained, as people began to appear out of the node, seemingly blinking into existence out of nowhere, up to four at a time each touching a different side of the tesseract.

Irene paid them no mind and stepped forward, feeling the cobblestone beneath her feet, thanks to the sock-like bottoms of her suit that she wore in lieu of actual shoes; a choice she’d made for a variety of reasons, from having no need to walk where it would be impractical footwear, to just wanting something cute and unusual…

And she was deflecting, letting her mind drift rather than deal with the here and now. She had to focus, to get herself ready to dive back into the fight; so she took one of the watches, turning it about in her hand as she walked away from the crate – it was more of a container really, when looked at from close range, it’d only seemed like a mere crate due to Memento’s present body being so huge – and came to a stop a little apart from anyone else.

She didn’t feel up to interacting, right then and there. The last few minutes still weighed heavily on her, as she touched the contrivance to her left collarbone, just below where the cape she’d inherited from her mother was connected to her bodysuit, and it stuck to it under its own power, booting up with a barely audible hum.

Mother’s cape, Irene thought morosely, remembering the occasion when her mother had given it to her – just minutes before she’d fought the Rabid Eight in that stupid stunt the director and Patrick had cooked up to show New Lennston that the UH still had teeth, even with nearly the entire adult membership being away for several months (it had worked, of course – barring the two bizarre S-Class events which followed upon one another, and the Red Goblins’ idiocy, the crime rate in New Lennston had risen only slightly, way below the projections made by Argus Panopticos), the moment when her mother had pulled the cape off her shoulders and put it around Irene’s, followed by a kiss to the forehead, standing out far more in her recollection than the entire battle which had followed, than the entire rest of the day, even though it’d been the day she’d first met Melody.

“You will surpass us, my love,” her mother said, her words as clear as if she was saying them right now. “You are the best of me, and the best of your father, and one day you will be more than we could ever be.”

And she’d said that with such conviction, like it was an absolute truth, and yet so calmly and casually, like it was self-evident.

Her father had been there also, as he was now, when her mother was not. Just like then, now, he moved closer, wrapping his arms around her from behind, lifting her off her feet to give her a light hug; though his wraith had been more solid then, his power more present, not expended as it was now.

“What are you thinking about, zeiskeit?” he asked now.

“What your mother is trying to say is that, one day, she and I will be but footnotes in history books, our only notable achievement being that we gave birth to and raised you,” he’d said then. “Now go and show the world a glimpse of that.”

“I’m thinking about Bree,” she said softly, feeling his body stiffen briefly, a flinch she could only notice because she was pressed so tightly against him, half engulfed in the wispy mist of his wraith. “I tried to… to reach her.” Her eyes watered, though she managed to blink the tears away, moments before her power offered and then withdrew a power that’d deaden her emotions. “She didn’t even notice me.”

She’d been so proud, back then. To finally be stepping up to the task. To finally have enough control over herself and her power that her parents trusted her to put on a costume and go out and do good.

To finally be able to start working on the one thing she knew would delight her parents more than anything, perhaps even more than answering that question – to recover their firstborn, so their family could finally be whole, without Bree’s spectre always looming over them.

To prove to the world that no one was beyond redemption.

To save her big sister.

And on a more selfish note, to prove that she herself didn’t have to follow down Bree’s path and even if she did, that she could still be saved even then.

She used to have nightmares about becoming like Bree, about killing those near and dear to herself – first her parents, then those like Gruncle Jake or Uncle Neil or Journeyman. Later, others had joined them in her nightmares, Thomas, Harry, Aimihime, even Goudo and Jared. Even Basil and his teammates, though she knew them so little. Prisca.

Melody.

“She is beyond saving, Irene,” he spoke softly, as he put her down and gently turned her around to face him, lowering himself down on one knee to look her in the eyes as he put a hand on each shoulder. “Please, please, if you must fight here – and believe me, if I thought I could enforce it right now, I wouldn’t let you take part in this – then you must not try to save her. You must not try to reach her. The only way you can go if you want to stay here is to see her as the enemy she is and work to mitigate the damage she does… and protect yourself.”

He pulled her into a hug again, the mist-like shadows wrapping around her, engulfing her face as she was pulled tightly against his hard chest, his arms warm and strong around her.

Even as she felt her body relax a bit, even as she focused on him to center her thoughts a bit, to keep them from continuing to fly apart, she couldn’t help but remember and consider…

You’re her father. Shouldn’t you, above all, believe that she can be saved? Do everything possible to save her? If not you, then who?

“How can I be more than both of you, if I can’t even do this?” she asked instead, her voice barely audible even to herself, catching hold of a different line of thought.

“Maybe one day you will be able to do what we couldn’t,” he replied, his voice soft in spite of the manifold distortions worked into it. “But that day is not now. Please, Irene, promise me. Promise me that you won’t try to save her, not today. Promise me that you’ll prioritise keeping yourself safe.” His grip on her tightened, as if he was trying to pull her deeper into his shadows, restrain her so she wouldn’t be able to join in the fight. “If not for your sake, then for mine. I could not bear to lose you.”

Unbidden, powers rose to prevent even that. High-speed teleportation, gaseous desolidification, a crude yet immensely powerful form of telekinesis…

No, she didn’t need those. She pushed the powers back, preventing them… herself… her steward… whomever from lashing out at her father or escaping his embrace.

Still, it served to illustrate his point well. Perhaps, if he hadn’t spent himself fighting Marchosias, then the Gefährten, he might have been able to restrain her, but the way he was now…

All he could do was plead with her and she would be lying if she denied that his heartfelt plea – for it truly was such, there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his emotions – didn’t make a part of her want to just curl up in his arms and leave, abandon the fight and just shut out the world for a while, regardless of the consequences…

But that part of her wasn’t the part that was in charge.

“I’ve got to fight, daddy,” she said softly, as she pushed her hands against his chest.

He resisted, briefly, but then he let her go, his six-eyed ‘face’ completely expressionless as he remained on one knee, briefly, before standing up again. He remained quiet.

Looking up at him, she felt her heart break a bit as she admitted to herself that he was right… to a point. “I… I promise you… I won’t try to save Bree, today,” she said, knowing that if she tried, she would fail and most likely die… “Today, I will fight to protect others from her, and I’ll do my best to keep myself safe as well, as far as that’s possible.”

And if Irene died, then who would save Bree? Who would save everyone else?

Who would answer the question she’d been born to answer?

He looked her in the eyes, six red ones to two blue ones, and nodded. “Thank you, zeiskeit.”

She nodded to him, lowering her eyes again. “What about mom?” she finally asked, after a few quiet seconds passed, while around them the capes and cowls were moving out. Most of the junior heroes had left her alone to talk to her father, but Melody was still there, waiting, watching her with those big, soulful eyes of hers.

Probably hearing everything they said, too, not that Irene minded that.

“I’ve sent a messenger to recall her as quickly as possible,” he replied calmly, back to a more business-like demeanor. “Unfortunately, she had to move beyond the reach of most forms of quick communication… it may take a while for the message to reach her, and even more to make her way here. For the time being, we will have to deal without her.”

She nodded. “What about you?”

He shook his head. “I spent too much. The way things stand, I can’t even provide communications with my wraiths,” he admitted, his anger over his own impotence evident even through the distortions of his darkwraith. “I’ll stay in the back, use Memento’s network to help coordinate and guide our forces.”

“Alright.” Deep breaths. “I’ll… be getting ready, then.” Her power was roiling, as active as she’d ever known it, like a pond or a small lake over-filled with fish fighting and striving to rise to the surface. She turned around to move away, but he took her by the shoulder.

“Irene, I am all but powerless right now,” he said, his voice soft. “But you know there’s a way for me to recharge rapidly.”

“A monstrous way,” she replied without turning around or even looking over her shoulder, her voice less than a whisper.

“Nonetheless, if I deem it necessary to protect you, I will walk that way, no matter the price to me… or others. Do you understand?” he countered, his voice as hard as it had been soft before.

A shiver ran down her spine as she contemplated what he was talking about… and the real meaning of his words.

To openly use, perhaps even publically reveal the true nature of his powers, kept secret for almost a century, just for the sake of protecting her.

You’re my daddy, after all, she thought, not without some wistfulness. I just wish you’d feel the same way about Bree.

Then again, perhaps you did try, and that failed, too.

She reached up with one hand and squeezed his hand where it lay on her shoulder. “I understand. I’ll make sure it won’t be necessary, I promise.” She squeezed his hand again, then she moved away, letting it slide off her shoulder as she walked over to Melody, quietly taking her friend’s hand.

Her father looked after her for a few more moments, then he turned away and moved over to Memento’s instance.

“I’m sorry,” Melody spoke softly, using her vocoder. Irene’s power wasn’t volunteering any telepathy right now… rather, it seemed to be building up to something big, by the feel of it.

“It’s alright,” Irene replied, squeezing her friend’s fingers tightly enough to be felt through her thick, rigid gloves. “Everything will be well, you’ll see.” She tried to give Melody a reassuring smile, but it clearly didn’t work well, judging by her expression.

Melody didn’t press the point, however, and Irene averted her eyes, looking out over the plaza again just in time to see Basil… calling him ‘Brennus’ just felt wrong to her, somehow, like it was missing something… approach the node, looking over his shoulders at the two of them – they were the last ones of his fellow teenagers still on the plaza, everyone else having moved on.

Another lost one, she thought, feeling a wave of sympathy wash over her. She knew about Prisca’s death, of course. She had cried when she heard, and she would likely cry more and grieve properly, once she had the time, but right now, others needed her more.

Others, like Basil. Something about him… he’d always felt different to her. Not in any way related to powers, but in a far more primal way.

It was like she’d thought moments ago.

He’s lost, like I am, she thought quietly, watching him touch the node and disappear, then she looked up and into the distance, seeing lights flash and dustclouds rise in the distance where the fight was even now going on.

We all are, really. Capes and cowls, the lot of us. Basil and Prisca, Vasiliki and Amanda, Dalia and Bree, all the others and foolish little Irene, all of us, here in the city where it all began, all the lost ones.

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Of Seven, I only fear one…

Hello everyone,

this one has been a long time coming. I said I would try to explain my long absence and silence, so here it is.

Just to be clear, this is an explanation. Not an excuse. I’m not trying to excuse it because there is no excuse I could bring. I had every chance to at the very least make a short post and tell everyone what was going on, or write some short updates (or longer ones). I am not and will never try to excuse my failure to do so, only explain it.

Something happens when I’m starting to write, drawing my attention away. By the time it’s resolved I’m too tired to continue. The next day something else happens and I decide to put it off for another day. Then on the day after that some pleasant stuff happens which, nonetheless, takes up too much time for me to get to writing.

Then come exams. Some personal tragedies (five people dead and buried over the last six months, six if we count my grandmother about a year ago), including some really… baffling ones (two of those dead were suicides we didn’t see coming). More exams. Working on the side to pay the bills and support my family a bit.

Stuff keeps happening and at first I put writing – and responding on the blog – off for perfectly good reasons, but it quickly becomes a habit. I look at the comment count going up and I just think “I don’t have the energy to reply to all that today and I don’t want to reply to just some and ignore others”. That happens again the day after. The more often I put it off, the easier it gets to keep putting it off.

That pattern continues until I don’t respond to the blog, nor write anything but some random snippets, for half a year. It’s stupid, it’s laziness in its worst form, the kind of laziness a religious person knows as Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps the worst one of the lost – or at least the most ubiquitous one.

So in the end it was just… me being lazy, getting myself used to putting it off over and over until I had to get a reality check and realise just how long I’d ignored what may be my greatest passion and a bunch of loyal fans who’ve stuck with me for way longer than I deserve.

Thus, here I am. I fucked up. Mea culpa. There’s nothing profound to justify it with, but I hope this at least explains it.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

 

PS: Obviously I will not continue my Patreon as is. I will make a separate post in regards to it and how I intend to continue the blog from here on out once I figure out the details, so I can present a complete – and, I hope, reasonable – plan.

PPS: Rest assured, the serial will continue and will be finished. Only thing that could stop me from that would be death itself.

PPPS: The next chapter is about half-finished and should be up sometime over the weekend.

B14.1 Breaking Point

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Pain lanced through Basil’s head, again, only to remain there, like a nail that had gotten stuck in his brain, a steady throbbing sensation, making him feel like his head was about to burst, or perhaps collapse, or perhaps simply burn to ash.

Pain was an old friend, one he didn’t really remember, yet familiar none the less. It had made it easy to ignore the many wounds he’d suffered throughout his short career as a hero so far, helped him compartmentalise the experiences, focus on taking the necessary steps to survive, rather than be preoccupied with the pain.

It helped here, again, even though this was a purer pain than ever he’d known before, a pain that was not in his body, but his mind, yet without any emotion to cause it. Still, he looked away from it, focused on what lay beyond his inner thoughts.

Frankly, focusing on the pain seemed like a more pleasant option. Desolation-in-Light still floated above the street, seemingly blind and deaf to the world around her, not that there was much to hear as everyone near her was deathly silent save for the occasional sobs.

He’d heard rumors, read stories of eye witnesses, many put off as mere attentionseekers, liars or crazies, of DiL appearing in places, isolated ones usually, only to do nothing at all but stay a while, floating in the air, and leave again, causing harm to none. Usually it was only witnessed by one or two people, in those stories, but they remained remarkably consistent and most of the reports had had the ring of truth about them.

A small part of him, a very small one, dared hope that she would disappear here, too, leave them be – leave it at a mere scare, rather than the sheer namesake desolation that was sure to follow if she struck now.

The pain in his head redoubled as a shower of light, like liquid, glimmered around her, starting above her head from a single point, spreading into a glowing halo, before it ran down, tracing a sphere around her as it expanded until the halfway point, then collapsed again, until it gathered into a single spot beneath her feet again and disappeared, as the pain in Basil’s head returned to its earlier, more managable throbb.

Tiny spots appeared all around her, as if stuck to the surface of the invisible sphere the light had just traced, the spots growing as they spun in place, tiny rocks that grew, starting to make grinding sounds as they cracked into many smaller pieces that ground against each other even as they continued to grow and spin and dance about her.

Basil was still unbalanced by the sudden surge of pain, but Vasiliki, fortunately, was not and she didn’t wait to see what this power, or whichever others she had picked, could do. Rather, she threw something at the ground in front of them, and a cloud of greenish smoke rose up and encircled them, forming a slightly glowing dome around the bench they’d sat on.

Rising up, she reached into her purse and withdrew an elongated package wrapped in white fabric several times the size of the tiny purse, throwing it at him.

He caught it, more out of instinct than conscious thought, recognising the emergency package he’d entrusted to her a while ago, for occasions such as these.

Unwrapping it, the white fabric was revealed to be a replica of his cloak with the corvid uroboros upon the back, having been wrapped around a pair of boots and gloves, as well as a sleek, yet boxy rifle made of silver and black metal, as long as one of his legs from toe to hip and, finally, a slender mask.

Vasiliki, meanwhile, had stripped out of her clothes right next to him, revealing that she’d worn her bodysuit underneath her clothes, just with the sleeves rolled up – what he’d thought to be stockings had been her costume’s pants. She finished tugging it into place, putting her clothes into the purse before pulling the outside cover off said purse, revealing it to be her bag of holding.

They dressed up, both of them, with Basil’s shoes and jacket disappearing into her bag as well, while she pulled out her belt, her cloak, her staff, boots, gloves and various other odds and ends she’d crafted over the months, lesser contrivances compared to the power she’d concentrated into her staff, belt and bag, but formidable nonetheless. She didn’t wear a mask, rather, her hood was enchanted to always stay on and shroud her face in shadows, only showing her jaw and lips, and only if she wanted it to at that.

Basil was done before she was, finally just holding the mask in his hands, looking down at it. It was a simple thing, not a helmet but a mask, yet without straps. Rather, its insides showed a lot of moving parts, as it was designed to shift and clip onto his face, molding itself to its contours, hiding it from his hairline down to his chin. Designed to look smooth, almost glassy on the outside, its lines barely implying the shape of a face, it was of the same jet-black ceramic as his armour was, except he had left that back home.

He held it to his face and felt it shift, attaching itself to it so finely he barely felt its weight once it was done and his interface booted up, the mask becoming seemingly transparent to his eyes as the all but invisible channels worked into its surface captured light (as well as other things), serving essentially as a big camera that covered the entire front of his mask. Two small extensions had folded out the sides and covered his ears, though they quickly picked up the sounds around him and channeled them through, allowing him to hear as clearly as if there were no obstructions at all. The mask did not nearly have his full suite of sensors and communication technologies, even he could only fit so much into such a small space, but it had enough to give him half a dozen vision modes and an uplink to his own personal network, the one he shared with Eudocia, his sole remaining raven and the equipment back at his base.

The gloves and boots were simple things, too. Both were meant to let him stick to objects by manipulating the forces that allowed molecules to stick together, creating temporary bonds between their surfaces and whatever he was touching. Both could also serve as contact-tasers.

Picking up his rifle – a small railgun which could also fire a grappling hook – he looked at Hecate.

”Sound test,” he said, a flick of his eyes making it so he could only be heard through their communications network.

“Hearing you loud and clear,” Hecate responded. “Oneiros’ Shroud will be down in sixteen seconds. What should we do?”

They, of course, hadn’t just thrown up a smokescreen while within such close range to DiL, blinding themselves to any attack that may come. The spell which Hecate had named Oneiros’ Shroud was an expensive one – it had taken her nearly a whole week to prepare this one, and they’d determined to only use it in an emergency. According to her, the smoke it generated transposed whatever it enshrouded into the world of dreams… well, he definitely needed to brush up his knowledge of Greek mythology, some day.

Either way, they ought to be safe until it went down. The fact that they hadn’t horribly died yet spoke to that fact.

Still, they’d need to act, and they’d need to act in concert in order to survive and save as many people as they could.

Feeling bone-wearingly tired, Basil took a deep breath and focused on his friend. “We make a move for the civilians. Try to get as many of them as far away from DiL as possible. Try to get in contact with other capes and cowls, coordinate as much as possible.”

No point in making too elaborate a plan when there was no way to tell how the situation was going to be. For all of her appearances, DiL rarely created the same kind of chaos twice and was all but impossible to plan ahead for.

Hecate looked at him, her face unreadable beneath her hood’s shadow. “Alright. Don’t die, Basil.” She reached out and took his free hand, squeezing it tightly. “There’s still… a lot we need to talk about,” she finished, her voice thick with emotion.

He looked down at their joined hands, nodding, though he didn’t get a chance to reply properly as the shroud dissolved around them and they found themselves amidst a wasteland of jagged rocks and shattered trees.

Looking about, letting go of each other’s hand, they saw huge growths of jagged grey and black rocks which seemingly sprouted from the ground all around, utterly savaging the park and the street DiL had appeared above, as well as the buildings there. The rocks had smashed trees and cars and buildings and impaled no small number of people, and crushed others.

DiL was not in sight, but where she had been was in evidence as the rocks all seemed to have spawned from around her, and lead back and up to it, twisted rock formations forming almost hand-like shapes as they reached up into the air, wrapping around what was now just empty air.

The area that Oneiros’ Shroud had protected was unblemished, untouched by rock, the outgrowths forming a perfect circle around them, sheered off where they had reached into the mist.

“I did not know it could do that,” Basil whispered.

”Neither did I…” Hecate replied. “I guess… we got switched back… and the rocks jutting into the shroud were pulled along as it returned to its rightful place.”

Basil nodded, and looked out over the devastation, switching through various modes of vision. “Over there. Survivors!”

He took off, running towards a particularly dense concentration of body-shaped… mostly body-shaped… heat signatures, behind a wall of jagged rocks, but without his grappling hooks, Hecate easily overtook him, shooting past him as a mass of green-black smoke, surging across the wrecked park, the broken street and into the ruins of what used to be a toy shop.

By the time he got there, she was already triaging the survivors, applying her healing salve to only the most immediately dangerous wounds – she didn’t have much of it and it was by far one of her most expensive contrivances in terms of materials required to make it.

Basil joined in as she pulled a first aid kit out of her bag, throwing it at him. He caught it and went to work.

There were eight survivors in the toy shop, half of them children and more corpses than he cared to count.

Of the eight, two were in critical condition – one six-year-old boy had had one of his legs shorn off by a razor-sharp blade of stone and had nearly bled out before Hecate had gotten to him, and a woman had been impaled through the abdomen by a thin spear of the same material.

The children weren’t even crying yet, still not having processed what was going on it seemed.

Basil tied off the boy’s leg stump after Hecate applied her salve to it, and tightened the kn-

He gasped, bending over, as the pain spiked again, his vision briefly going white as his whole world was nothing but agony for a moment.

“Brennus, what’s wrong?” Hecate asked in worry as she reached over and finished tying the knot.

“I do not… some kind of headache… since she appeared… momentary spikes of white-hot pain,” he gasped, the agony dying back down to the steady throb of background pain he could actually deal with.

She spat some kind of curse in Greek and slid over on her knees, finishing his work on the boy’s stump. “Can you help her?” she asked with a nod towards the woman who’d been impaled.

Getting up and walking over, he took a closer look, as the woman looked up at him with eyes that were nearly delirious with pain, as she held onto the hand of a toddler in a stroller, the little girl staring at her mother in confusion – unable to understand what was wrong, but still grasping that something was off, he guessed.

He couldn’t help with that, but he could help the woman, and told her so, his voice calmer than he felt as he knelt down next to her.

She was young, just a little older than Amy if he had to guess and had the kind of thinness he usually associated with out-of-practice athletes – she no longer worked out to maintain the muscle tone, but hadn’t really put on much weight either. She was healthy though, clearly, and that might make all the difference.

A sharp spear – more of a rough blade, really – had thrust up out of the ground, impaling her through her green pullover. She was half bent over, on her knees and trembling from head to toe; fortunately, the blade had pierced her at an angle and had missed her spine, at the very least. It was, however, in position to have pierced through her intestines, her stomach and perhaps even a kidney.

”I can not remove the spike in these conditions,” he told her calmly. “I will cut it off beneath you, so we can move you someplace you can get the surgery needed.” Right then, the spike was likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding out, and he didn’t have the equipment on hand to operate.

She looked at him, blood running from her mouth over her lips and down her chin, nodding when she couldn’t find the strength to speak.

Basil switched places with Hecate again, telling her what needed to be done. He checked over her work on the boy – he’d passed out – and then went on to apply first aid where needed, while Hecate used one of her charms to simply disintegrate the spike beneath the woman as a store clerk helped hold her steady, then lowered her gently to the ground.

It was good, but it wasn’t enough. The woman, the boy, at least three more, they weren’t going to make it unless they got them somewhere sa-

He flinched, briefly stunned by another spike of white-hot pain, before it receeded again.

They had to get them somewhere for proper treatment, else they’d die. But they were in no state to be transported and survive it.

As cruel a catch twenty-two as any-

White-hot pain.

He shook his head, trying to centre himself again. A shorter interval, this time. Is it just going to get more frequent, until there’s nothing but the pain?

He’d counted the seconds between episodes, in the back of his mind, and he could not yet see any regularity to them. No pattern.

Not that he had the time to really analyse what was going on…

He looked up, moments before the air before the shattered storefront window twisted, condensing into a whirl of shadows, then snapped apart again, a familiar figure appearing out of it and landing nimbly on her bodysuit-covered feet.

The people in the shop, especially the children, looked at her in awe, some cheering weakly as Gloom Glimmer smiled at them, trying to look reassuringly friendly, even as Basil could see a pain that put his headache to shame behind those brilliant blue eyes.

She looked at him and Hecate. “We’re gathering up at the Memorial Plaza. Make your way there while I take these people to the medical camp.”

Basil and Hecate exchanged looks, then nodded to Gloom Glimmer, briefly telling her the most crucial details on the people there before they made their way out of the former toy shop, not even taking the time to look back as they heard the twisting snap of Gloom Glimmer’s teleportation.

***

The Memorial Plaza stood where the centre of Old Lennston had once been, making up one of the three central points of New Lennston, the others being the Town Hall and the United Heroes’ headquarters, the three of whom were connected via a ring road encircling a big, circular park with several small lakes and ponds within.

While the plaza had originally been designed for the sake of remembering Old Lennston, it had evolved past that singular purpose – there was now also a memorial to Lennston’s fallen superheroes, as well as those of its scions which had gone off to war and never returned alive. There was also one for the casualties of the police force… the place had in general become a place for remembering all that had been lost to Lennston, both Old and New.

Nineteen capes and cowls stood in front of the obelisk which made up its centrer, at the steps of which stood the unmistakable figure of the Dark, who was addressing the others.

Basil and Hecate landed near the group, just in time for another surge of pain to nearly knock him off his feet.

If this goes on I may well grow used to it…

The Dark looked at them, his expression as unreadable in its absence as ever – but his form was unlike anything they’d ever seen before – rather than the thick, almost liquid darkness of his customary wraith, his form now was smoky, billowing around his form; just as hidden as before, but somehow less… substantial, both in appearance and presence.

Exhaustion? From the fight against the Gefährten?, Basil asked himself, and immediately felt guilty – they needed the Dark in this, he was one of the most effective and efficient counters for DiL, and if it was his utterly failed excursion which drained him just in time for his deranged daughter’s attack…

Hecate punched his shoulder, staggering him out of his contemplation.

When he looked at her, he couldn’t see her face but he could tell she was glaring at him. “You can’t go around blaming yourself for everything. We each made our own choices,” she said firmly.

Basil looked away from her and down, taking a moment to absorb her words. Then he nodded, quietly, which seemed to please her as she grunted in a rather unladylike fashion and turned away to focus on the other gathered capes and cowls.

He only looked around briefly, but he didn’t see Amy… he hoped she was alright. He hoped she’d gotten out of that hellscape. He hoped she hadn’t gotten hurt.

How did I not worry about her? he asked himself as he followed Hecate quietly, staying behind her as they joined the Junior Heroes. All this time, I was just thinking about myself, while she was out there fighting, risking her life because I dragged her into that madness. I…

There was a hard impact on the ground nearby, causing Hecate and the Juniors to stagger, while Basil just adjusted his stance slightly, turning towards the source – only to get a face-full of Amy’s spandex-clad breasts as she drew him into an almost literally bone-crushing hug.

I heard. I’m sorry, she whispered softly into his head, even as she squeezed the life out of him. Deliberately, surely – she was still angry with him.

Basil raised his arms, giving her a light hug back – he really didn’t care whether more people found out about their relationship now; anyone who mattered already knew or would know regardless.

He saw Amazon glare daggers at the two of them through his raven, but most people were focused on the Dark.

Another spike of pain caused him to flinch, his legs buckling briefly at the sudden interruption to the soothing embrace.

”Brennus! What’s wrong?” Amy asked worriedly, looking at him with wide eyes as he let go of her and staggered back. Our connection was interrupted for a moment!

”Pain… ever since she showed up, there’s been this constant pain in my head,” he replied, holding his head with one hand. “And sometimes there’s a spike of even worse pain, but I don’t know why.”

”When did you first feel the increased pain?” the Dark interjected suddenly, having moved closer. At the same time, Rounds and the other adult heroes – save for Bismuth, who stood apart from the rest for some reason – came closer as well, their leader looking worried and more than a little suspicious.

Basil looked up at him, too numbed by… by everything, to really feel anything at his presence. Cycling through his raven’s memory, he found the moment. “When she first assumed a power-set,” he replied, his mind already leaping apart to a possible explanation…

The Dark nodded, as if a thought was confirmed. “You’re reacting to her power changes,” he replied with the tone of absolute certainty. “It might be useful to know if we lose sight of her to be able to tell whether and how often she changes powers.” He reached into the shadows enveloping his body, causing strands of jet-black mist to drift off, then held his hand out. “Wear or connect to this communicator.”

Basil reached out and took the flat, disc-like gadget – he wasn’t sure whether it was actually made by a gadgeteer, but it looked so compact and well-crafted, he strongly suspected that it had been – and turned it over. The palm-sized disk was smooth and silver on one side, but had several exposed circuits on the other.

Touching the circuit-covered side to his mask’s forehead, he found that it activated and synchronised with his mask’s systems easily – too easily. Wyrm’s, I suppose, he thought to himself as he pulled the disc away and attached it to his belt, where it stuck by itself.

”You’re now connected to our local network. Send a single ping whenever you sense a power change and we’ll route it through to everyone with a communicator,” the Dark instructed him.

Before Basil could reply in any fashion, even to agree, the wispy figure turned away and walked up the steps towards the monument, turning around to talk to the gathered capes.

“If I may have your attention, please,” he spoke, his voice deep and powerful enough it easily covered the plaza without any obvious amplification. Once everyone had turned to look at him, he went on. “We don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. Most of you have never fought a battle like this before. You all think you know what to expect, from television, reports, books and whatever else told you about these fights. Most of them don’t know much. Here’s the facts as we know them: DiL is utterly invulnerable to damn near any effect ever used against her. Her personal, permanent defense makes it impossible to affect her with anything, including moving her in any way she does not wish to be moved. Sensory and mental attacks are just as useless as spatial and temporal ones. Her hair, teeth, finger- and toe-nails glow with a bright white light which acts as disintegrating contact poison that can eat through most defenses and constitutes a certain death unless you sever the affected portion of your body. She can fly and she has no known top speed – it ranges from walking speed to what is effectively short-range teleportation, especially since her invulnerability means that anything in her path will be obliterated rather than stop or even slow her. She does not rely on mundane senses whatsoever and appears completely unresponsive to such stimuli. It is theorized that she senses powers in some fashion, though she has demonstrated the ability to perceive baseline humans in the past, as well. However her sense or senses may work, they appear to pierce any kind of shroud. She is an impenetrable blindspot to Espers of all kinds, particularly Pretercognitives. Do not rely on danger senses or their like.”

“Your goal must not be to attack her but to interfere with and, if possible, counter whichever other abilities she assumes,” he clarified, looking around at the gathered capes and cowls. “She always assumes three distinct powers which can broadly be classified as offensive, defensive and utilitarian, respectively. Her powers start out world-class and grow from there. Whenever at least one of her abilities is interfered with to any meaningful degree, she changes her entire loadout and the new abilities she assumes start out at base level again. Why she acts in this fashion, we don’t know. If she’s allowed to build up for too long, the consequences tend to look like Mexico, Old Lennston, Portland or Okinawa. Do not let her build up.”

He stopped, giving them a moment to digest that. “Furthermore, the Desolation Field. Normally it extends to a radius of roughly two miles around her person. This time, she appears to have simply extended it over the whole of New Lennston and left it stationary, though fortunately she has not ‘hardened’ it as she did during her last appearance. The field blocks any kind of signal from crossing its boundary. This includes powers – Espers can’t perceive into or out of the field, even precognition is blocked. Power effects can travel across, but powers can’t reach through it – so if your power lets you, say, create a fireball you lob somewhere, it will travel across, but you won’t be able to, say, target someone for teleportation across the boundary, or affect them with any kind of mental power. Any such power will work properly within the field itself. Also, though it’s likely not useful to know, but maybe it’ll spark an idea somewhere, no one has ever manifested while within range of her Desolation field. People have manifested during her attacks, but only while outside the range of her sphere of influence, never while within it. Heterodyning also appears to be impossible while within range of her desolation field.” He paused again, looking out over the gathered crowd, as if searching for something, his gaze briefly stopping on his daughter as she stood together with most of the other teens – Outstep was missing – before moving on.

Basil looked around, once it seemed that the Dark was taking a break, and what he saw was a mixture of determination, resignation and sheer hopelessness spread liberally and to varying degrees over any face and body he could see. They all knew that this was a fight which could at best end in a phyrric victory which could only delay the destruction, not eliminate its source.

He would likely have felt some such emotions himself, but he was still blissfully numb.

“In spite of all this, our situation is not hopeless,” the Dark drew everyone’s attention back to himself. “Our biggest advantage is that DiL is not intelligent. She has no sense for tactics, forethought or subterfuge. Any such instances perceived in the past were ultimately just coincidences, never to be repeated – and they are incredibly rare to begin with. Furthermore, we-“

There was a shout, followed by another, as people pointed upwards at the sky, interrupting the Dark.

Basil looked up just in time to see a huge figure drop through the Desolation field, its descent slowed by blue-hot jets of flame shooting out of its feet.

And then another.

And another.

And more besides.

Dozens of hulking, glimmering figures dropped out of the sky, some of them accompanied by strange objects and weaponry – the closest one, which dropped down and lended with a pavement-cracking thud a dozen metre away from the gathered capes and cowls was reaching out, its hand laying flat on the side of a pillar as thick as two people and twice as tall as a schoolbus was long, made apparently from hundreds of chest-sized, silver-and-gold tesseracts shifting and moving into and through each other in a dizzying display of reality-defying engineering.

The figure next to it was no less impressive, though more familiar. A hulking humanoid made of steel, brass and gold, crafted as much for aesthetic appeal as raw functionality, was twice as tall as the Dark himself, easily four times as wide if not more and moved with mechanical perfection as it looked around them, its head encased in a dome of what read as see-through diamond to Basil’s sensors, holding a human-sized mechanical head within, its inner workings exposed, showing wires, chips and lots of clock-work-like bits which moved to give it the illusion of facial expressions, a pair of glowing red lenses making up its ‘eyes’. It looked out over the gathered capes and cowls, its expression neutral, as dozens more of its kind landed all across the city, each accompanied by a different device, some of them immediately joining in the battle against DiL in the distance.

“Huh,” the Dark looked at him in what appeared to be surprise, while a ripple of pure relief went through the other gathered metahumans. “Good to see you’re not sitting this one out again, Memento.”

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B13.f The Man Who Knocked Out Lady Light (incomplete)

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LL Shield.jpg

“Can’t believe they’re letting one of you freaks out,” the young warden said, his tone going past deriding and straight into hateful. “Can’t believe you actually managed to get out on good behaviour, either.”

Philip just smiled, his metallic face betraying only a kind of calm serenity, as he nodded to the younger man in the uniform, holding the release papers he’d just been given. “All thanks to your exceptional guidance, Sir,” he replied, his voice sounding serene, but strange – even at the best of times, he was a ponderous talker, the transformation imposed upon his body making fast talking all but impossible. “I wish you well.”

The man snorted, throwing one last look at the figure in front of him, looking like someone had put a steel statue into a cheap suit and tie, then he turned away and walked back into the prison.

Philip put the documents into the cheap suitcase he’d bought just for this occasion, which also contained what few other possessions he had accumulated throughout his stay in prison. Though even after a few months past twenty years, it wasn’t that much. A few books. A hand-carved chess set from that nice banker fellow, who’d ended up breaking out. A few other odds and ends.

Turning around, he walked across the prison’s front yard, as he heard a few cheers from the prisoners in their cells, those who could look out onto the yard. He waved at a few, approaching the gate, and smiled at the guards there. They smiled back, congratulating him on his early release and his good conduct, and he thanked them quietly, though he was elsewhere with his thoughts.

Outside, a heavy van was waiting for him, to drive him back to civilisation. Feeling the gravel crunch underneath his heavy steps – even in a suit, he wore heavily reinforced boots, as normal shoes could not possibly have survived his prodigious weight – he approached the van whose door was already open, and got into the back.

The driver – an employee of the Corrections Office – nodded to him, and the door slid shut on its own, while Philip leaned back. The electric engine started up, so quietly he barely noticed it before they started moving.

When he’d gone into the slammer, electric cars had just started replacing the old gas engines. He could still remember the sound of them, the smell. He wondered how the big city smelled now, after almost twenty years of having no car exhausts to dirty the air.

Probably not all that much better, all things considered.

The ride was quiet, neither he nor the driver trying to have a conversation. The destination was set, and he’d honestly felt like he’d talked enough already, for one day. Nevermind that he still had to talk to his parole officer, before he got set up in whatever housing the government had arranged for him.

Not that he intended to stay there for long. No, he was going to find himself a job, and get himself a nice, quiet place of his own. He may have lacked much in the way of desirable job skills, but he had power and there were always job opportunities for people with powers.

Outside the car’s window, the landscape flew by, even though he couldn’t hear the rush of the wind or much of anything else, on the inside. It was all so quiet.

“May I open the window a bit?” he asked his driver. “I haven’t felt the air rush by in years.”

“Sure thing,” the younger man replied. “Just, do it on the right side of the car, please. I get a stiff neck if the air blows against it all the time.”

“Of course, of course,” Philip said, and carefully slid over to the right side of the car – one always had to be careful, when they were made of over a ton of metal – to press one of the buttons on the door, lowering the window.

The wind blew against his face – they were going really fast – and brought with it the early November cold.

He could’ve tried to describe the feeling, to describe what it meant to him to feel this again, after two decades of being stuck inside a prison, but he’d never been any good with words. It was nice. Proof that he was free again, or as free as a former supervillain with a dozen murders – even if all but one of them had been accidental – on his rap sheet could be.

Letting his arm hang out of the window, stretching, feeling the wind rush through his fingers, as the van took him towards New Lennston, the city built upon the grave of his childhood home.

***

“Building’s got wi-fi like every other place,” the tired-looking woman told him as she unlocked the door to his erstwhile home. “Free access, of course. Phone’s functional and so is the electric heater. You can come and go as you please, but no bringing trouble home. No parties, no drugs… well, no violating your parole in general. Don’t disturb the other tenants and you’ll have a nice, quiet time here, until you’re back on your feet.”

She stopped, looking him up and down. “Though I doubt there’s much that could knock you off your feet in the first place,” she observed with a surprisingly friendly smile.

Philip took the time to take a closer look at her, as well, having paid her little attention beyond basic politeness yet – his mind was still with his parole officer and the talk they’d had – and found himself surprised to realise that she was actually younger than him. A thin, short woman wearing a cheap brown-and-gold dress, shoes with heels trying to make up for her lack of height, with frizzy brown hair, she couldn’t be older than forty, at most.

“You’d be surprised, ma’am,” he replied, speaking as slowly as he ever did, taking extra care to clearly enunciate every word. It made him seem stupid and slow, he knew, but it was better than garbling everything he said and being completely incomprehensible. “I’m C-list at best, as they say. Lots of guys and gals out there who could make mincemeat outta me. Not that I intend to get into any brawls or anything.”

She put her fists onto her hips, glaring up at him – she was five foot nothing in heels and he stood at six-five, so she had to crane her neck to actually look him in the face. “I sure hope not, good man! You’re here to better your life, not get thrown back into prison!”

He nodded with a smile. “Of course, ma’am. I’ve learned my lesson, even if took way too long for it to happen. And don’t worry about no drugs, they don’t work on me anyways.”

“Oh, that’s good, then,” she said, calming down. “Alright. Well, go in. Get yourself comfortable. If you want anything new for the place, you’ll have to pay for it yourself, but I figure you ought to save that up for when you get a place of your own.”

He nodded his head. “Will do, ma’am. Thanks. I’ll say goodbye for now, then.” Then he remembered an earlier thought of his. “Ah, and if there’s any heavy liftin’ or stuff that needs lots of muscle to do ’round here, don’t hesitate to ask. Child’s play for me.”

“Hm, that’s actually quite useful. I’ll keep it in mind, Mister Dudkins,” she said with a smile. “Have a nice evening.”

After a moment of watching her go, he entered the tiny basement apartment. There’d been no way he could have gotten one above the ground. Modern buildings were pretty heavily reinforced these days and New Lennston was nothing but modern buildings, but even so this apartment building was rather cheap and even if there was no threat of him breaking through the floor, he’d still cause a ruckus by walking around, tormenting anyone who lived below him. A ground floor apartment would have solved that, but the ground floor had only the housekeeper’s apartment and a communal area, so that was out, too.

Still, this was clearly not just something thrown together for him at the last minute. The apartment he found himself in was clearly meant to be here, and nicely (luxuriously, by prison standards) furnished. It had a tiny kitchenette in a corner, a door leading, presumably, to the bathroom and a heavily reinforced bed in the corner opposite of the kitchen, on the side of the room opposite of the door leading in. A counter split the room in two, with a gap in the middle to step through. There was a tiny table in the front area with several seats around it, including one that was clearly added for him – a heavily reinforced monstrosity of a chair, made of steel pipes and the kind of heavy, thick cloth-like stuff they used for military equipment.

Philip couldn’t help but smile, letting the door fall closed, taking his boots off and walking around barefoot (socks were just useless to him, nevermind that his nails always tore them up anyway). His own room. Sure, it was temporary, a place provided by the correctional office, but still.

After twenty years in prison, he finally had some privacy again.

He stopped briefly at the chair, and at the bed. Seeing them was both amusing and touching to him.

Amusing, because he didn’t really need either – a side effect of his transformation made it so he couldn’t really feel uncomfortable easily. He could sit anywhere, or stand still for hours, like a statue. He could sleep anywhere, in pretty much any position, with no real discomfort and he only had to sleep a little, anyway. And he knew that those facts were in his file.

Touching, because it meant his parole officer – who’d been responsible for arranging this – or someone else involved, had gone out of their way to get him some creature comforts, for no other reason than to make him feel more comfortable. They didn’t have to, there was no need to supply him with anything but the standard stuff. No law that said he had a right to appropriate furniture.

He remembered something, something his dear mum had said, long ago. Scratch off the glitter of them people, my boy. Don’t let it blind you. Scratch off the glitter and the grime, and you’ll see that most people are pretty decent underneath.

His jacket came off, hung up on the coat stand next to the door. Meanwhile, his mind was occupied reminiscing about his mother, as he sometimes did – though not nearly as much as he had over the first few years in prison.

She’d been wrong, of course, but not in the way he’d thought. After everything had fallen apart, he’d thought that she’d been completely wrong, that there was nothing but more grime underneath, and grime underneath the glitter, too. He’d thought, if most people were decent, why had his life become such a nightmare?

It had taken him many, many years of therapy and introspection to realise that it wasn’t people as a whole who sucked. That just misery sought its like, and so he’d grown up amongst mostly just miserable people, because they’d gathered together to wallow in their misery rather than try to improve their lives.

His mother, too, had been like that. Admitting so had taken him years to do, and it had hurt worse than almost anything else he’d ever experienced. He’d only made peace with it a few years ago, really.

She’d talked about such a nice, good world, about how people were decent, but she hadn’t really believed it herself. Or if she had, she’d let it blind her to all the grime around her.

Glitter and grime, they both blinded in their own way.

Looking past the door to the bathroom, he found a small shower cabin with enough buttons to fly a jetplane, it felt like, a sink and a toilet. Hot water came quickly, upon testing. Another luxury which meant little to him, yet was still much appreciated.

The kitchen was also functional. He had everything, a microwave, an oven, a stove, a sink, a fridge and even a freezer on top of it. Small, but good enough to put some beers in.

Drugs – alcohol included – couldn’t affect him at all, but that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the taste, now and then. Good food was also appreciated, especially after two decades of prison goop.

Behind the counter, facing his bed, was a small desk without a chair – he was likely meant to move the reinforced one there, to use the computer atop it.

Said computer was one of the new ones, as different from the ones he remembered (but hadn’t really bothered with) back in his youth as a space ship was from a row boat. There was no… what was the term… tower. No tower. The whole thing was just the screen, and it was as thin as his middle finger. A keyboard that looked thin enough to roll up lay in front of it, with no visible connection to it, as well as a mouse, also cordless.

Fortunately, he’d taken a computer course a few months back, so he knew that the screen was also touch-enabled, and he knew his way around all this modern tech these days, though he had to take great care with the delicate keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.

He tapped the screen, and it booted up, taking barely a second to show the desktop. The indicator showed that it was already connected to the internet. That was going to be useful.

Internet everywhere. Not something he’d ever have imagined, back in the day. And free, at that. They’d declared it to be a necessity, like access to water and such, about ten years ago.

He still remembered the ruckus it’d caused in the prison, because it’d meant that everyone would get more Internet privileges. Or so they’d thought.

In the end, it’d just provided some distraction, for him, before things had settled down once more. He hadn’t really cared, having never really found much use for the web himself, while in prison.

Now though, he figured he could take some time to get to know it. The Internet had just started getting wide-spread, in the early eighties he’d (mostly) grown up in. It wasn’t until after he’d gone to prison that it’d really picked up.

Having completed the exploration of his apartment, he unpacked his suitcase – he’d have to go buy some clothes, soon, though at least he had less problems with that, too, as he didn’t sweat or have any real body odor – which contained just his chess set, his books (they were put into a small shelf next to the bed) and a few figurines he’d carved throughout his time at the prison. None of them was even remotely good-looking (he’d never developed any real skill at it) but they were dear to him, anyway, so arrayed them on a higher shelf, basically just a wooden board lying on two large nails driven into the wall.

He’d spend years working on these, though they’d ended up barely resembling their inspirations. Probably no one but him would recognise any of them except for the last one.

The first, his mother, who’d brought him into this world.

The second, his brother, who’d raised him.

The third, his father, who’d broken him.

The fifth, his friend, who’d guided him.

The sixth, Lady Light, who’d changed him. She was the only truly recognisable figurine, but only because he’d carved her crest onto it. The circle and moon, radiating light.

“You’ll see. I’m not going to screw it up this time,” he spoke to the figurines. “This time, I’ll do it right.”

***

Part of his parole was that he needed to have a job. For paroled metahumans, that often meant joining the army or a government-sponsored super-team.

However, he’d decided against that, and gotten support on it from his therapist. The whole point of his rehabilitation was to get away from fighting and violence. To find a more constructive application of his power.

In his case, that turned out to be construction work, for now. It wasn’t what he intended to stick to, for the long term – he wanted to do something else, something more exciting. He may have been in his late forties, but he wasn’t willing to settle down with a boring, if stable job just yet.

Still, it was kind of nice, having a light workout and making money the honest way. Right now, he was only getting very basic pay, but his parole officer had said that, with his powers, he’d likely earn a ridiculous amount of money once he was fully employed. He could even freelance, let construction companies lease him for his power.

Wearing a pair of heavy jeans pants and his custom boots, his steel-grey hair slicked back, he looked like a statue of the quintessential worker, the kind they tended to put up everywhere in the Sovjet Union, wiry muscle under metallic, unyielding skin. He’d never been too hard on the eyes, though he wasn’t exactly an adonis. Still, his transformation had made his body at least flawless, and cleared up all the marks and scars on his face.

Some people might have resented turning into a being of living steel, permanently, but Philip had never found issue with it. So he didn’t quite fit in anymore. He’d never fit in as a normal human, either, so no loss there.

Besides, it made construction work really easy when you could just pick up a nail and push it into whatever material it was supposed to go into.

So there he was, sitting on his heels as he pushed nails into the junction of steel beams, fifty feet above the ground. He was secured by a safety line that wrapped around his waist, though it wasn’t for his own safety. A fall from this height wouldn’t even inconvenience him, but it would be lethal for anyone he fall onto. And then there was the property damage that a solid ton of metal could cause, falling from such a height.

And so he worked there, doing in minutes the work it took a whole team to do over an hour.

“Hey, Dudkins!” the foreman shouted from below, making him stop and lean over the edge to look down.

“Yes Sir?” he shouted down, looking at the short, stocky man with the moustache (he’d tried growing one himself, once, but having to use a steel grinder to shave and trimm had been a chore, so he just stuck to a smooth finish).

“Just how much can ya lift? One of our machines got stuck in the mud!”

“Shouldn’t be a problem, Sir! I’ll be right down!” he replied, and took the safety line off, before he aimed carefully and jumped.

For the briefest moment, he felt weightless again, but it was over all too soon and he slammed into the ground, throwing up dust as he absorbed the impact with his knees. “Where’s it at, boss?” he asked the foreman.

Said man was staring at him, startled. Maybe he shouldn’t have jumped, but taken the slow way down.

“Um, yes, right. Fucking rain’s made the ground too soft – wish we didn’t have to continue work at this time of the year – and our excavator’s gotten stuck after some earth slide out from under its tracks. We could probably get it out with some effort, but I figured, maybe you can fix this faster for us.”

”Gladly, Sir. Lead the way.”

***

They walked across the construction site – some kinda new mall at the outskirts of New Lennston. The city was growing fast, even after what he’d been told were some pretty horrific S-Class events that’d come one after the other, but they had delayed construction, which was why they were still working at it rather than take a winter break.

Of course, construction work could get quite tricky when you had to deal with the kind of heavy rainfall – soon to turn into snow, certainly – that New Lennston had to deal with every year.

They walked across the muddy site, which was actually harder for him to do than driving nails into steel beams, because his feet kept sinking into the mud. Weight-to-surface-area-ratio and all that.

The excavator stood in the mud, tilted to the side. It’d been driving by a square hole dug to be filled in with concrete later, when the weather got more dry, but part of the side had collapsed, sliding in and almost causing the excavator to get stuck.

Several of the guys were standing around it, looking quite curious as they saw him approach. Even the driver of the excavator, sitting in the driver’s cabin, was looking at him with more curiosity than annoyance.

Of course. A prime opportunity to see what the new metahuman on site could do.

Philip couldn’t help but smile. It’d been a long time since he’d been able to put on a bit of a show. It didn’t exactly excite him as much as it had used to, but still.

No reason not to give them something to talk about later.

”I’ll get that out of there in no time, Sir,” he assured the foreman, walking forward, ignoring the light rain that fell on his bare torso. With his power, it was just smarter to be topless when he thought it likely he was going to use it.

That, or have something which could stretch, which he did not, currently.

He reached the excavator and stopped. He didn’t need to prepare to use his power, didn’t need to focus on it or reach for some kind of inner reservoir. He’d heard of such things, from others with powers, but it had never been an issue for him.

No, for him, his power was a part of him. It was him. To use it, he had to think no more than to breathe. The only reason he was stopping to do this was to put on a show.

Lifting his arms, he flexed them, casually – and each time he did, his muscles grew a bit, all over.

Metal groaned as it expanded, but it wasn’t true growth, like some he’d seen who actually grew bigger – his skeleton, his organs, none of it grew. Just his muscles.

Another flex, another increase. He’d gone from tightly muscled to the kind of build which other men used steroids to reach, his muscles bulging, almost overflowing.

Some of the men laughed, some rolled their eyes, others looked impressed or envious as he flexed a bit more, without growing his muscles any more, posing a little for effect with a broad grin.

Then he reached down and grabbed the track that’d been submerged in mud and, using his knees more than his arms, lifted it up.

Really, he could’ve done it one-handed, but he did want to put on a show.

Glitter glitter.

Taking a few careful steps, making sure he didn’t sink into the mud himself, he moved the machine back onto safe ground, and carefully put it down before he stepped back.

The man gaped, then started to applaud, some of them laughing as he flexed again, shrinking his muscles back to their normal size, and bowed theatrically.

”Alright, alright!” the foreman shouted. “Put a sock in it, people! I know he’s all shiny – literally – and new, but we are already way behind schedule, so get back to work!”

And that put an end to it, the group breaking up so everyone could get back to their tasks, a few taking a detour to thank him and invite him to drinks later.

Philip accepted, gladly, setting a date for tonight, and got back to work.

***

It was only many hours later – two hours past the usual closing time – that they were let off work. The others were all quite thoroughly worn out, and even Philip had started to feel a little strained towards the end.

Superhuman stamina was not the same as endless stamina, and construction work was exhausting at the best of times.

Still, he couldn’t complain too much. He’d put in a honest day’s work and he’d won, if not the affection, then at least their curiosity and some camaraderie.

And so it came that they left the construction site in a group of twelve men – the others had begged off to get back to families or prior commitments – walking towards a nearby bar which the guys swore was the best around.

Philip stayed quiet, mostly, watching and listening to the others, occasionally answering a question or laughing at a joke – most of them dirty – but mostly just observing as the younger men around him – there was only one other guy his age with them – joked and walked to their goal, sweaty and worn out after a long day’s work.

He was neither sweaty (he couldn’t sweat anymore) nor worn out and this was one of those rare times where he wished he could at least be the former, to relate better to these yougn men.

Still, he wouldn’t trade his powers for nothin’, except perhaps a chance to redo his life from the beginning.

Probably not even for that.

Finally, they approached the bar, and he froze, his jaw dropping as he saw the name spelled in dimly glowing letters above the wooden entrance.

Drunk Donkeys Don’t Die.

”Holy… the Deedeedeedee is still there?” he exclaimed, staring at it as countless memories came up.

He actually felt some tears in his eyes.

“Huh? Yeah. It got rebuild barely a year after Old Lennston croaked it,” one of the younger guys, Daniel-something, explained. “Why, you know it, Oldtimer?”

“Know it? Son, I basically lived in there, back in the day,” he croaked, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands, creating a piercing noise of metal grinding on metal, making everyone flinch. “Or at least, I left a liver or two behind.”

The men laughed, some reaching out to pat him on the back. Punch him, really, so it’d get through.

”C’mon, let’s go in. Maybe you’ll even recognise some people!” another one said, and they all but dragged him into a memory.

***

Drunk Donkeys Don’t Die looked exactly like how he remembered it, except for the pictures on the walls that’d changed, photographs of famous customers – both good and bad – often with rap sheets or wanted posters added, and new screens to show sports games on, or shows from the arena fights.

He was looking around, drawing no small amount of stares as he did, until a cry split the silence inside the smoke-filled pub.

”Ferrolit!” a man in his thirties, standing behind the counter, shouted, leaning forward onto it. “God fucking damn it, is that really you!?”

Philip gave a start, surprised to hear his old cowl, and looked back at him.

Young – in his thirties, really, but young-looking – thin as a stick with messy, curly brown hair…

”I’ll be darned,” he breathed, his voice carrying through the room even though he was whispering. “Jonas? Jonas Winfield?”

The boy – now a man – grinned from ear to ear and leapt over the counter, running over to him.

”Fucking Ferrolit! I never thought I’d see you again, you crazy badass!” he shouted, grabbing his extended arm and slapping the other on his shoulder.

”Likewise,” Philip replied, still stunned to be seeing him again.

”Who’s that, Winfield!?” some of the patrons shouted, watching the scene with bemusement on their faces. The guys he’d come in with were staring as well, quite obviously surprised by the reception he was getting.

”Seriously?” Jonas asked them, turning around as he leaned against Philip’s side. “You’re seriously asking that? Does none of you look at the Wall of Fame?” He gestured at a part of the wall that was separated from the rest, showing several wanted posters and photographs. The men looked, quickly finding his image – a shot of him sitting in a booth of the old bar, leaning back, arms spread like the world belonged to him and grinning, a scantily clad girl on each arm.

”This is the Ferrolit! The Man who knocked out Lady Light herself, with one punch, and got away with it!”

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B13.e 17 Good People

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“I really don’t see how that’s your fault, Jess,” Jake spoke over the phone, his voice soothing her upheaved mind. “It’s not like they told you and you gave permission.”

”But I’m in charge of them, Jake. I’m supposed to notice this stuff and reign them in,” she countered, putting her head down onto her desk – well, it was Rounds’ desk, usually, but since she didn’t have an office of her own, she’d been using his – while still holding the phone to her ear. “I’ve been a pretty horrible leader, but this, this is beyond the pale. Rounds is going to put me on a spit and roast me over a fire. Slowly.”

”Now there’s an image I’d rather do without,” a mellow, smooth voice butted in.

Jessica, known to most as Amazon, fearless melee fighter of the New Lennston United Heroes, screamed like a little girl and nearly fell off the office chair she’d been sitting in.

”Jess? Jess, what’s going on?” Jake asked through the phone, though she was too focused on the new arrival to reply.

Percy Norton was an odd sight amongst superheroes. He was tall – that was quite common – with naturally messy dark blonde hair, muddy dark-blue eyes and a body that could best be described as scarecrow-ish: tall, thin, the limbs seemingly a little too long to really fit. Wearing thick winter jeans, boots and a red sweater, he looked like any guy you might see on the street, especially now, leaning against the frame of the door to his own office, his arms crossed, his mouth smiling.

”B-boss,” Jess stammered, shooting up onto her feet. “I, I didn’t know you were back already! Where are the others? Did you have a nice journey? Why didn’t you tell me you’d arrive sooner, I’d have welcomed you all back, and probably organised the ju-“

She stopped when he raised a hand, making her blush as she realised how she’d run her mouth.

”Jess, breathe,” he spoke calmly, walking closer to pick up the phone. “Hi! Jake, right?” There was a response which Jessica missed and Oh God my Boss is talking to my boyfriend.

”So, did Jess finally get the nerve up to asking you out?” Rounds asked, making Jess blush furiously.

”I’m still in the room, you know…” she mumbled, embarrassed.

”You were the one? Good for you, young man,” Percy continued as he walked around his desk, shooing her out of  his office chair and sitting down, sighing as he did so.

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

”Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he kept on talking, leaning back on his chair, while Jessica moved around the desk, self-consciously fiddling with her sleeveless red bodysuit.

Then he suddenly turned serious, the cheer leaving his face. “But just to be clear – break her heart, and I’ll break you, got it?”

Jessica sputtered and threw herself across the desk to get the phone, but was stopped when he raised a leg and pushed against her shoulder, pushing her down onto the desk instead.

”I’m not a little girl!”  she complained, flailing weakly, the phone out of her reach.

Of course, Rounds ignored her as he listened to Jake’s response, breaking out into a smile again. “That’s the spirit! Anyway, I actually have some business to attend to with your beau, but we definitely need to meet soon. I’ll introduce you to the folks around here and we’ll tell you every embarrassing story relating to Jess that we know of.”

“Hey!” said woman protested in outrage, but was summarily ignored.

”Have a nice day, Jake,” her boss finished. “Yes, I’ll pass it on. Goodbye!” And he hung up, before he focused on her ag ain. “I’m to pass on his love and the promise that he’ll prepare your favourite dinner food tonight.”

The thought of Jake’s molten-cheese-and-jalapeno covered nachos made Jess’ mouth water and slightly eased her outrage and embarrassment. Slightly.

”That’s nice, but I’m not some little girl that needs to be protected!” she complained petulantly, only to receive a sharp sting to her butt, making her yelp and leap off the desk, her hands flying to her butt.

”I don’t know, you’re still pretty defenseless, as usual,” a sultry voice all but purred at her.

”Rachel,” Jess said, recognising her without even needing to turn around. Though she did that, to keep her butt out of the older woman’s line of fire. “You suck.”

Despite her words, she was honestly glad to see her again. Rachel was the true second-in-command of the team, Rounds’ right-hand woman and his most probable heir, once he moved up to take the Feral Family’s place as a Shining Guardian (that he would, none of his team members doubted). It was doubly impressive, because Venatrix had been a villain, once, until she ran into Rounds and he recruited her for their team, about two years before Jess herself joined.

Even though she’d changed sides, Venatrix – Rachel to her friends – had kept the basic  style of her old costume (as a reminder of how far she’d come, she said), wearing a one-piece sleeve- and legless bodysuit in black with blood-red accents, mostly arranged to emphasise the curves of her slender figure. Her arms were covered in black gloves reaching up to her biceps, leaving only a little skin exposed, and matching thigh-high spandex socks covered her legs. Her feet were bare, the socks only extending into stirrups for the feet, rather than cover them fully. She wasn’t wearing her equipment, other than her right gauntlet, a slim metallic one which glowed with an inner light, a glowing, crackling whip – like electricity – dangling from her hand.

Jess’ butt was intimately familiar with said whip, as were those of all the other team members – Rachel really enjoyed whipping them into shape, as she called it – save for Rounds himself.

Rachel’s ruby-red lips stretched into a grin, her mediterranean features currently free of her usual mask, her blonde hair tied back into a simple ponytail. “I’d make some lewd joke about just what I’m sucking or would like to suck, but honestly, I’m just glad to see you again, Applebutt,” she replied, letting her whip retract back into the glove as she spread her arms.

Jess rolled her eyes, but complied and walked over to hug her. “I’ve missed you, Gutterbrain,” she said, feeling misty-eyed.

Rachel chuckled and rubbed her back. “I’m back now. We all are,” she said softly, before pulling back a bit to kiss Jess on the cheek. “And what is this I hear about my third-favourite butt having found a boyfriend?”

Jess blushed again, looking aside. Oh God, I have to keep her away from Jake, no matter the cost!, she thought in quiet horror, while she replied out loud, “It’s not such a big deal. M-me and… Jake… got together.”

“Finally!” her mentor-slash-molester exclaimed, rolling her eyes while holding Jess at arms’ length. “I thought you two would never get to it.”

”I’ll say!” bombastic voice exclaimed, followed by steps that shook the floor.

Before she knew it, Rachel had let go of her and Jess was enveloped in a literal (and two-fold) bear hug, lifted clean off her feet by the huge figure currently busy squeezing the life out of her.

Ursa Gemini was a giant of a man in any sense of the word – his manifestation had caused him to grow to a good two and a half metre in height, his frame filled by enough dense muscle to make a whole Mister Universe pageant feel inferior and his body covered, mostly, in dense, yet not coarse fur, leaving only his hands (except for the backs) and his face uncovered. As well as his butt, as he liked to joke, but Jess tried not to think about that. He was followed everywhere he went by the other reason for his name, a silvery glowing after-image which was actually bear-shaped, usually mirroring his actions – currently adding onto the hug, partially phasing through him to hug her tightly.

”Marcus… air… breathe…” she gasped, even while trying to return the hug – though even on the best of days, her arms didn’t fit even halfway around his mighty torso.

“Sorry Jess,” he replied, though he neither sounded nor looked sorry as he put her down again.

She looked up at him with a grin and gave him a hug around his (slightly slimmer) waist. “Glad you’re back, fuzzball.”

”Glad to be back,” he replied, scratching the back of his head. “Wall duty is not the way I wanna spend my time. Nevermind that Faith and the kids are ready to put me in chains so I can’t go away again.”

”Have you seen them yet?” Jess asked, then looked at Rachel. “What about Tony?”

”Of course,” Rachel replied, snorting in mock indignation. “We arrived here in the morning, we just didn’t tell you so we could surprise you.”

”Well, Rachel was supposed to call you,” Marcus corrected her with a grin. “But I guess she was so busy sobbing over finally being with her master again she forgot.”

Said crybaby hissed at him and kicked his shin, to no effect – it’d take armor piercing rounds just to tickle the furry giant.

Jessica chuckled, and turned away from the two of them and their antics to look at Rounds, only to turn and come face-to-face with another member of her team.

”Eeeeek!” she cried out, as he’d moved up to stand right next to her, his face only inches away from her own when she turned. “Laurence! I’ve told you not to sneak up on me!”

The slender man with the blindfold sporting his eye emblem over his actual eyes – or rather, the lack thereof – stood there in casual jeans and a black sweater, having eschewed his usual costume much like Percy had (even Marcus was wearing his customary armoured silver-and-green briefs and boots), having of course managed to sneak in unnoticed, at least by her. He liked living up to his name, Eyespy, in more ways than just the one his power allowed him to.

”You told me so,” he agreed, nodding his head with a sly grin. “I never agreed to it, though.”

She tried to slap him over the back of the head, but he ducked under it with a cackle, easily dancing out of her reach.

Still, she was feeling way too happy to get too annoyed at him. Looking around at her friends, grinning, she noticed that one was still missing. “Where’s Bismuth?” she asked about their team’s heavyweight; using her cape out of habit, as she preferred it over her real name.

”She’s on her way,” Percy assured her. “She’s visiting her sister, first. Seems like there’s not much time left.”

That put a stop to the good mood in the room, as they exchanged looks.

”Have you heard about what happened last night, yet?” Jessica asked in a subdued voice.

Percy’s gaze turned stern. “I have, in general. But I’d like you to give us all the details.” He looked around the room. “Well, almost all of us. We can fill in Bismuth later.”

She nodded, feeling a weight return to her shoulders, and sat down on a chair in front of his desk. The others sat or leaned against the walls.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

The key slipped into the door’s lock, but she stopped there.

I shouldn’t have told Heck to leave, Dalia thought, though it was really too late to reprimand herself for refusing her friend’s offer to accompany her and help her explain everything.

Vasiliki had enough on her plate, already. Who would’ve thought Amy’s Mindstar? And B knew.

That was another thing on her mind. She’d been crushing on Amy – though she’d told no one – pretty heavily, ever since that night at the club (even if she’d been too drunk to remember most of it). Now she knew that that gorgeous, witty, sexy, nice older girl was a major supervillain. That put a damper on her fantasies. A bit.

Is my crush even real? Or did she make me feel that?

She wanted to believe that Basil’s sister wouldn’t have done that to one of his friends, that she wouldn’t have done that, period, but considering her reputation…

So much for supernatural luck, she thought, and that brought her back to her current problem.

She closed her eyes, lowering her head. Deep breaths. Opening them again, seeing her current getup – she’d switched her costume for some clothes she’d stashed at Vasiliki’s place (at B’s insistence) for emergencies, in her case skinny jeans that she’d thought were sexy when she bought them but right now just seemed ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t bend over in them without half her ass sticking out. Her top was similarly tight, showing more cleavage than she’d intended to show, when she’d bought it and she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to button up her jacket if she’d tried. The only sensible part of the outfit were the winter boots she was wearing, and that was because the shoes she’d stored there weren’t up to the weather at all, and so Vasiliki had lent her one of her many, many, many pairs of boots.

I’m just procrastinating, she thought at herself. C’mon Dalia… you weren’t nearly so skittish attacking a floating city full of mass-murdering supervillains…

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

She took another breath and turned the key, unlocking the door, pushing it open with the same motion.

The apartment was a mess, as always. Maybe a little less so – at least the dirty underwear wasn’t present, currently.

”M-mom? I’m home,” Dalia said, her voice nearly breaking as she couldn’t immediately see her mother on her customary spot on the couch in front of the TV.

Was she alright? Had her power done something worse than usual to her? Surviving at the villain’s city, getting away safely… that must’ve taken huge amounts of luck.

Oh God… Her eyes filled with tears. I-is mom even, is she, did my power…

Her arms began to shake, tears running down her cheeks as she started to hyperventilate…

”Dalia?” a rough voice spoke, as the door to the bathroom opened, and her mother walked out, dressed in her night clothes and an alcohol-stained bathrobe. Her hair was a mess and her face blotchy and she was the most beautiful sight Dalia could ever remember seeing.

Her mother’s eyes widened when she saw the tears on her face. “What’s wrong, b-“

She was cut off when Dalia all but leapt across the entire room, throwing herself into her mother’s arms, nearly bowling her over.

”You’realrightyou’realrightI’msosorrysorrysorryI’msogladyou’realrightI’msorry…”

***

Percy was drumming his fingertips on his desk, his gaze never leaving Jessica’s face, his own utterly unreadable.

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

”I’m not sure whether those kids deserve a pat on the back for their achievements, or a thorough spanking for their misdeeds,” Laurence spoke up next. “Either way, though, this is going to be Hell of a shitstorm.”

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

”I am disappointed, Jessica,” he spoke gravely, using her full name as he rarely did. “You handled the crises that befell this city well enough, but I am disappointed in how you dealt with our juniors.”

Every word was like a slap in the face, and she felt tears threaten to leak out of her eyes. Stop it, stupid eyes! Don’t cry! You want them to stop treating you like the team kid!

”That they came up with this idea, that is on them,” he continued, leaning back on his chair, folding his fingers in front of his mouth. “That they went through with it, also on them. That you did not foster a relationship with them in such a way that they would at least have tried to gain your approval. That you didn’t impress unto them the discipline and forethought needed to see what a colossally stupid idea it was. Those, those are on you.”

”I… know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You trusted me to deal with these things… and I failed.”

”That, you did,” he agreed, his voice soft. “Learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again next time.”

”N-next time?” She looked up, surprised, only to find him smiling sadly at her.

”Jess,” he began to reply, and she felt herself instantly relax again, as he went back to using the short form of her name, “I am well aware that I left you in a difficult position. And that many of the things that happened under your watch were beyond your control. Even if they’d been and you’d genuinely messed up this badly, I’d still refuse to condemn you for it.” He sighed, parting his hands to run them through his hair. “There will be consequences for this… Patrid will become utterly horrid, at the very least, and there’ll be consequences both for our juniors and for you, personally,” he continued, making her flinch again. “Child Protective Services, the DMA, our own Board of Directors, all those and more are going to raise a stink over it.”

She paled, especially at the mention of the DMA. They could very well have her locked up, if they determined that she’d been negligent in her duties to oversee the juniors to the point of criminality, or at least ruin any prospect she might have to advance her career as a hero anywhere in the United States…

”We’ll stand behind you, of course,” he pressed on, his eyes remaining focused upon her face. “We’ll do whatever we can to smooth the, ah, ‘shitstorm’, as Laurence would say, out.” He stopped taking a deep breath.

She looked up at him again, feeling just a little hopeful that this would be it, for now – she really needed to get to Jake and have him hug her a bit to feel better – but his gaze only became more stern.

”Now let’s get to these youths. Brennus, Hecate and Tyche,” he moved on to the other subject, and she felt her bowels clench up. “What were you thinking letting them run around freely?”

She clasped her hands tightly, lowering her head once more.

Then a pair of arms wrapped around her, from behind, as Rachel leaned over the back of said chair and gave her a hug.

Jessica had seen this one coming a long time ago, though, and she did have a response prepared.

“I did talk to them about joining up,” she replied calmly. “Only Hecate showed the faintest interest, but she claimed that she had personal reasons to refuse. Tyche showed no interest in joining any group which didn’t involve her friends and Brennus wasn’t interested at all. While I could’ve pushed to force them in, it’d likely just have driven them further towards the villain side and I didn’t want to risk that.”

Percy frowned. “I know it’s rather… customary to turn a blind eye towards vigilantes who toe the line, but I’ve always tried to impress upon you that just because something has become a habit, perhaps even a necessary one at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Vigilantism is illegal and teenager vigilantism doubly so.” He took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’ve often butted heads with certain parts of our organisation which prefer to toe the government’s line and be lenient over this, and I stand by my point – children should not be on the frontlines. When I left you in charge in my stead, it was with the understanding that you’d do your level best to do with it as I would, which you haven’t.”

Jessica turned pale, averting her eyes from him. If he’d slapped her, it’d have stung less.

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

“This isn’t just your fault, Jessica and believe me when I say that I’ll make my opinion known to everyone else involved in this, particularly that stunt with the Rabid Eight.” His eyes grew even harder. “Though I would like to know why you let them talk you into allowing the juniors to confront a group of super-powered serial killers.”

“I…” she started to speak, but cut herself off. It felt so long ago, even though it had only been a scant few months. “We-“

“We decided that a show of force was necessary,” a new spoke up, startling everyone but Laurence.

Jessica turned around and looked at the newcomer. Patrick Patrid, in his customary white three-piece suit, of course.

What was not customary, though, was the heavy frown on his attractive face (she’d had a crush on him, when she’d first joined the team, until she’d realised just what an asshole he could be).

“A show of force… involving children,” Percy replied, locking eyes with the man.

“Brrr,” Rachel shuddered, still holding onto Jessica, and she felt she had to agree with the sentiment. When these two met, the room temperature always seemed to drop. They almost always clashed in terms of ideals and opinions as to matters at hand. They both wanted to do the right thing, but Percy cared about doing the right thing right, and Patrid wanted to do the right thing and have it look right. PR clashing with morals.

It didn’t help that Patrid was such a damn enigma. What the sense was behind a PR manager being one of the most powerful members of the US division – and by extention, the United Heroes as a whole – Jessica could not, for the life of her understand. Nor how such a sly man – watching him give interviews and manipulate everyone without anyone noticing was as creepy as it was impressive – apparently stood high in Lady Light’s trust.

“The children were all we had,” Patrid replied, unfazed by Percy’s glare as he stepped in, carrying a file folder under one arm. “I told you that going to the Wall was a mistake, did I not? But no, you said dodging the draft would’ve been wrong.” He threw the folder onto Percy’s table. “Here’s some uncomfortable truth, Rounds. New Lennston was on the verge of a gang war. If it wasn’t for the Hastur Incident wiping out the majority of the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children, said war would have happened. While you all were off playing soldier. We had to make a show of force. Show people that even with the adults gone, the juniors could still hold the fort.”

He stopped, smirking as he adjusted his tie, before unbuttoning his jacket and sitting down on the sole remaining chair facing Percy’s desk, to Jessica’s right. “Besides, with Irene finally cleared for action, we just had to take advantage of the chance to give her one hell of a debut. That we managed to do the same for our pop princess was a bonus. And before you complain, Mrs Whitaker was there the whole time, merely invisible. None of those crazies would’ve come close to actually hurting any of the children.”

I don’t care if all the Shining Guardians were there as well!” Percy shouted, slamming a hand on the desk. “You put those children into battle against serial killers! Then you allowed them to assault an Acre with nothing but a bunch of other children as support! The Hastur incident was out of your control, perhaps, but don’t you think all that contributed to them thinking last night’s stunt was a good idea instead of a suicidal one?”

Patrid’s smile turned into a frown again, and he put his hands together in front of his face, almost as if to pray; one leg crossing over the other.

Even his shoes are white, Jessica noticed, having decided a long time ago that it was better to stay quiet whenever these two clashed.

There’s something you and me agree on, for once,” Patrid groused. “Last night was a disaster in too many ways to count. However, I still stand by my decision to advise the director towards the fight against the Rabid Eight; and the Acre had to go down before they managed to grow a Blossom – I would have loved to call in reinforcements, but there simply was no time, Rounds.”

“And is that why you didn’t call in adult professionals to deal with the Rabid Eight? To discourage the gangs? There’s roaming teams specifically for such situations! When I left New Lennston, I thought you’d call in one, maybe even two of them,” Percy replied, calming down as well.

“We – by which I mean, the Director, Jason and I – considered but dismissed the idea,” Patrid explained. “For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that all our roaming teams are currently tied up, we chose not to dislodge a team from another crisis herd.” He tapped his fingers together, looking around at the others in the room. “You all know about Irene Whitaker by now?”

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

“That girly seems to be pretty amazin’,” Marcus hollered. “I thought people were dreamin’ it up at first.”

“It’s all true, the good and the bad,” Patrid said. “She’s incredibly powerful, even more versatile, occasionally unstable and very much dedicated to being a hero. Numerous parties within the UH expect her to become one of our top capes within a few years, so the director wanted to give her as impressive a debut as possible. After a long discussion on the subject, we decided that the Rabid Eight, while dangerous, where not a serious threat to her, nor to the other children while both she and her mother were present.”

He stopped, looking up at the ceiling. “To be fair, there’s barely anyone in the Northern Americas who’d be a threat with Mrs Whitaker around, but that’s beside the point.” He shifted a bit on his seat, turning slightly towards the others. “Anyway, we decided it was worth the minimal risk, for the sake of showing the gangs that we don’t even need outside support to overpower them. This whole discussion is quite thoroughly beside the point, however,” he pressed on, glaring at Percy. “It’s not their lawful, if risky, deeds that we should be focusing on, but the utter catastrophe of last night. Whether or not you agree with me on whether or not we should employ teenagers in combat against supervillains, we both agree that last night should not have happened and we must make sure it does not get repeated. Can we prioritise that, for now?”

Percy glared at Patrid, who only gave him a smirk in response, the air between them crackling with tension.

Jessica sat there quietly, all but holding her breath as she waited to see what’d happen next. Leaning against her back, Rachel was doing the same, and she was pretty sure the guys were no more relaxed.

Patrid’s and Percy’s arguments had a tendency to drag on for a while, and jump from subject to subject, over and over. The last time, they’d ended up shouting at each other for nearly four hours.

This time, however, it seemed like they’d be spared the experience, as Percy averted his eyes and sighed, leaning back on his chair again.

“Fine,” he replied. “This isn’t over, though.”

“It never is,” Patrid agreed, looking almost pleased.

***

At some point, her mother had pulled Dalia over to the couch and sat down, guiding the girl to lie down on the couch, her head on her mother’s lap as she sobbed bitterly.

Jana was looking down at her baby girl, her face showing both worry and affection, stroking her hair and humming some half-forgotten tune to her, trying to soothe her.

Strangely enough, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Not that she was feeling all that well, but compared to the alcohol-fueled, half-conscious nightmare that the last few months had been, being able to just be a mother to her child was like a balm upon her soul.

Even the pain that seeing her baby girl so broken up caused her was welcome, because it meant there was something she could do. It was a good pain, a pain that was not a punishment but a signal, that she had something important to do.

Taking care of her baby, as it were. Something she’d neglected for far too long, to the point where she’d nearly killed herself.

Her heart still clenched up at the memory, when she’d found her baby girl on the floor in her bedroom, an empty pill bottle beside her. Sleeping pills, which Jana had bought to help herself sleep between shifts at work. According to the doctors, her baby had survived by sheer, incredible, stupendous luck – that it was more than just luck was something she’d realised later, not that it had made her feel any better.

That her own life had fallen apart shortly thereafter, even as her baby girl was met by such a string of incredible luck, had felt… just. She’d deserved worse, for failing her so.

But the cuts, the bruises, the occasional broken bone, the lost tooth, the hangovers and the burns… none of it hurt as much as realising how badly she’d failed as a mother. None of it continued to hurt as much as seeing her baby pull away from her, just when she’d realised how much she’d neglected her, when she’d finally seen that she had to make amends and be a mother again.

She’d been happy for her, of course. To hear that she’d made friends, that she’d won entry into the most prestigious school of the entire state, and that her marks were up near the top of her class.

Even when she’d realised that her baby girl had become a hero – oh, she hadn’t told her, but neither had she been too careful about what she’d said and what she’d held back, and Jana had drawn the connection the first time she’d seen ‘Tyche’ on the television – she’d been relieved, not worried. Her baby had found something good to do, something to dedicate herself to.

She would never begrudge her that.

Now her baby had walked in, wearing clothes that were far too tight and revealing, both for the weather and for Jana’s heart, and looking like the world had ended.

But she was unharmed, and she was there, with her.

Jana gave her as much time as she needed, stroking her hair and humming the melody to a lullaby she’d used to sing her, back when she’d been little, before she’d screwed everything up. She didn’t even remember the text to it, or the title. Something about a bridge.

It took over half an hour for Dalia to calm down. Finally, she pulled back, kneeling on the couch as she rubbed her face with her hands. Jana only pulled her hand back slowly, letting her fingers run through her gorgeous red hair.

“S-sorry,” Dalia said, before hiccuping the way she usually did, after crying.

“You have nothing to apologise for, sweetie,” her mother said, standing up carefully – she didn’t want to ruin things now by stepping on a shard or something, she had to worry about Dalia, not be worried over by her – and leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead, just as the younger redhead hiccuped again. “Let me get you a cup of water.”

She walked over to the kitchenette of the decadently large apartment that they shared – said kitchenette being a corner of the huge living room which was larger than the whole kitchen in their old place had been – to pour some water into a plastic cup – she’d locked all the glassware away a while ago, not that it’d helped much, as she’d just found other stuff to break and hurt herself on – and take it back to her hiccuping baby, picking up a towel along the way that she wetted in the sink.

Dalia was still kneeling on the couch, looking miserable as she leaned against the backrest, so Jana held the cup to her lips rather than hand it to her, and helped her drink. Once the cup was empty, she used the wet towel to clean Dalia’s face up with gentle touches, sitting down and turning so as to face her.

“There we go,” she spoke softly once that was done. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

Dalia looked away from her. “You’re not even asking why I’m wearing this costume…”

Jana chuckled, brushing some strands of hair away from her face, pausing to look at them – she really needed to take better care of her hair, it was starting to look truly horrendous and she had neither Dalia’s youth nor her power to make up for the lack of care. But that was for another time.

“Dalia, I may not be the best mother out there, but if you think putting on a skintight outfit and a mask is enough for me not to recognise you, then you’re quite thoroughly wrong,” she replied, putting the towel and cup aside. “So, what’s got you so tied up in knots? You know you can tell me anything, right?” She reached out to touch Dalia’s cheek, but her baby flinched back. “Dalia?” she asked, worried.

Dalia started to take deep breaths, almost as if about to hyperventilate as she tried to look everywhere but at her.

Jana was about to try and calm her down, to prevent her from actually hyperventilating, when she something seemed to give in, and the words began to spill out.

She stared at her daughter as she shared everything that’d happened since she’d gone out to be a superhero the first time. Everything, even things she probably shouldn’t have told her, about her friends and other heroes, but she let her speak anyway, as it was clearly important to her to tell it all.

When she heard about the insane stunt they’d pulled last night, she almost shouted at her for being so reckless, but her outrage quickly got lost in the rest of her tale.

And then, the true reason she’d been so broken up.

Jana listened in quiet horror as Dalia explained to her how she now believed her power to truly work. What it’d done to the girls who’d tormented her. What it’d done to Jana, herself.

She felt a pain in her heart, hearing of what’d happened to those girls, though she couldn’t find it in herself to feel too bad, not after what they’d done to her own daughter. Though she did sympathise with their parents, even if they’d been responsible for raising those girls to be what they’d become.

But what it’d done to her, and why Tyche believed it had happened…

“No,” she said, simply, firmly, and pulled her startled baby into the tightest hug she could manage, crushing her against her chest. “You’re wrong, baby girl,” she spoke, sobbing, as a huge weight fell off her heart.

“W-what?” Dalia gasped, surprised by the sudden gesture and the words, wiggling to tilt her head up and look at her.

Jana looked down at her baby, and smiled. “I thought… what I was going through, that it was just punishment for having failed you… but instead, instead it something much, much more important.” She leaned down, kissing her baby on the forehead. “I’m not angry at you, Dalia. I’m glad. If me suffering like this is all it takes for you to be safe and happy… then I’ll take that bargain, and be grateful as well.”

***

It had taken nearly an hour before Percy had sent Jessica out of his office, to pick up the juniors.

Now she’d brought them back, all seven of them. From the stoic (as usual) Tartsche all the way to Gloom Glimmer, who was looking incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around and looking at everyone and everything but Patrid, as if afraid of what he’d say or do.

She wondered about that – Irene had never shown herself to be uncomfortable around or fearful of Patrid; then again, she’d never screwed up like this before.

They filed into the office, the space in front of the desk having been cleared of its usual seats – those stood by its sides, so the adults could face the juniors, and were currently taken by Rachel and Patrid – with seven simpler chairs standing there in two rows, upon which they sat down quickly, Harry sitting front and centre.

Jessica felt proud of him. Whatever anyone might say, Harry had been a great leader, after Bismuth had graduated from the juniors. He’d taken to it with the same calm determination that ran through every aspect of his life, from the way he made breakfast in the morning to how he’d wooed and won over Thomas.

She wasn’t so sure that’d help him now.

“Hello, kids,” Percy greeted them with a pained smile. “Especially you four,” he looked at Irene, Melody, Goudo and Aimihime, the four who’d joined after he’d left the city. “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Percy Norton, also known as Rounds.”

They all replied with variations of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to meet you’, except for Irene who just nodded, fiddling with one corner of her heavy cape while chewing on her lower lip, and Goudo, who barely inclined his head, sitting on his chair with a rigidity that belonged on a statue, not a human.

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

Jessica walked around their group and joined Marcus and Laurence, leaning against the wall on the left side of the office, from Percy’s point of view.

“In case you don’t know yet, these are the other members of our team – that’s Rachel, also known as Venatrix, Marcus, wo’s clearly Ursa Gemini and Laurence our Eyespy. Some of you may remember Bismuth, though she’s not currently present – she’s visiting family,” he introduced them all, with each adult raising a hand or just plain smiling at the teens when their turn came up. “And you already know Jessica, Amazon, and Patrick, who’s our public relations manager.”

Percy didn’t leave time for any further pleasantries, though. “Now, while I’d love to take the time to talk to each of you and get to know you better… and I’d certainly like our first real gettogether to be under a better star… I must say, what I feel primarily right now is disappointment.” And with that, his mirth at seeing the teens faded into sadness and anger, making almost all of them cringe. “What in God’s name where you thinking!?”

The junior heroes exchanged looks, briefly, before Harry spoke up.

“We wanted to help, Sir,” he said, his voice betraying the nervousness his face so stoically hid. “We talked to each other and… we decided that it was worth the risk, since the director said that it would take time to verify the information and muster a proper strikeforce, but Dusu’s victims were, are, dying now.”

“So you set out to assault the fortress of a group of mass murderers capable of creating city-destroying monsters, without verifying the information, without adult supervision, relying on the words of a boy you barely know, whom as it turns out you didn’t know the first thing about, according to this report!” Percy stabbed said file on his desk with his finger, before flipping it open, leafing to a particular page. “Reacts with unstable berserk state to Osore’s power… possible split personality… supposedly Mindstar’s brother, if that’s even true as we don’t have the means to check whether they actually are related, or she just made him believe so. Did any of you have any inkling of any of this?” He looked at everyone in turn, getting headshakes one after the other, except for Osore – who’d obviously known of Brennus’ response to his power, to use it deliberately – and, perhaps not so surprisingly…

“I knew about that,” Irene admitted in a small voice. “Not the split personality thing, but him being Mindstar’s brother. It’s true. Daddy told me, shortly after I first met him.”

Jessica gulped, crossing her arms as her hands clenched into tight fists, trembling as the mention of that bitch brought up memory upon memory…

Not now, Jess, she admonished herself, taking deep breaths to force that down. She could have a meltdown later, when she was with Jake again. Right now, she needed to focus.

Meanwhile, Irene shrank a bit into her chair under the looks she got from the others, including the juniors, except for Melody, who just reached out to take and squeeze her hand.

It’s not her fault, she’s just twelve, no matter what she looks like…

“And you didn’t think it was necessary to bring that up?” Percy asked in a soft voice. “Irene, please look at me,” he pressed on when she didn’t respond. When she did, he continued to talk softly. “According to this file, there used to be a standing order to consider Mindstar for a death warrant, if she was found to try and subvert the boy; which may appear harsh to some, certainly to me, but makes some modicum of sense, seeing how she is based in this city, he is unaffiliated and she’s subverted many people before. Don’t you think you should have told us, to prevent a tragedy?”

“W-we’re not supposed to… talk about secret identities,” she stammered, looking both guilty and… distracted? What did she have to be distracted about. “I would’ve told people, if it’d come to that, I swear.”

Percy pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is such a mess… and on top of the disaster this turned out to be…”

“Disaster?” Melody spoke up, her artificial voice sounding confused. “I know we failed to find a cure, but we have Dusu. She can be tried for her crimes now! And the Dark’s probably pulling the rest of those villains apart as we speak, if he hasn’t already. And we all got away safe and unharmed. This was far from a disaster, in my opinion.”

Percy focused on her, but she didn’t flinch back, looking at him with polite defiance on her face.

“That’s one way to look at it. May I tell you how I see things?” He waited for her to nod, then said, “You assaulted these monsters without a plan, got captured, broke out purely because they underestimated you, then you only survived because, let me enumerate – the gods-damned Godking of Mars happened to be in a generous mood; Brennus turned out to have a hidden, violent personality that could mop the floor with some mooks who were otherwise taking you apart; Mindstar flew in to protect her brother; a complete unknown showed up to fight off some manner of time-and-space-bending mad science creation-” For some reason, the teens all flinched or threw confused looks at each other, but Jessica didn’t have time to ask what was wrong, before Percy pressed on, “and then the Dark happened to save you because Irene’s power, against her will teleported her to him rather than face what appears to be a major combat esper. There was so much luck involved in you surviving this, if you hadn’t also found out that Tyche’s power is literally supernatural luck, I’d seriously recommend you each buy a hundred lottery tickets right now!” He leaned back, nearly throwing his own chair over as he tried to calm down. Then he looked at them again, still furious. “Nevermind that two of you violated your parole – you are aware that this may cause Goudo, at least, to be convicted of violation and be sent to juvenile prison, are you?” Most of them paled at that, looking at the Japanese teenager – who showed no reaction at all, looking calmly ahead. “As for capturing Dusu – Mister Patrid, don’t you want to take that one?”

Patrid nodded, as Jessica felt her stomach drop. It was not a good sign that the two of them were together on this. Poor kids

“So, you captured Dusu,” Patrid said in his usual calm, smooth tone of voice, looking no more agitated than ever, even slightly amused, as was his default expression. “Did any of you bother to consider what to do with her next?” He stroked his chin with one hand. “While she does have more warrants on her head than I can easily enumerate, the fact of the matter is that now, publically prosecuting her is going to be a clusterfuck,” he spat the curse like a grenade, making everyone but Percy and Goudo flinch. “You took her from Japanese territory, during an illegal, unsanctioned assault on a villain base. You are all underage and mostly untrained, two of you being on parole for being members of a criminal gang in one case, as well as that and a number of offenses in another case. When all that comes out, the press, the justice system, perhaps even the Japanese government are going to go on the warpath.” He ran his fingers through his hair, showing agitation for the first time. “Kids, we’re already on incredibly thin ice with the Japanese, for numerous reasons,” Laurence’ head snapped up, suddenly, turning towards the door of the office, but no one but Jessica seemed to notice. “They’ve only been waiting for an excuse to boot us out of Japan, and you may have just given them a perfectly legit one! We may well l-“

Running steps came closer to the office, and then Widard all but tumbled inside, stumbling as he nearly fell over. “Rounds!” he shouted, white-faced. “Bismuth! The police precinct! Dusu!” he gasped the words, bending forward to put his hands on his knees, as everyone stared at him in surprise.

Jessica felt her stomach drop down into her feet as she almost instantly made the mental leap to what was going on.

Percy didn’t seem to be far behind. “But… she’s visiting her sister…”

“She’s dead,” Irene whispered in a small voice. “She’s dead and Bismuth…”

Jason nodded, looking up at Percy. “She walked into the precinct’s metahuman containment cellblock and, and sealed the entrance up. There’ve been screams heard, from inside.”

Percy leapt up from his seat. “Everyone, costume! NOW!” And just like that, the adult heroes all rushed out of the room.

***

Widard finally caught his breath, standing up and looking out over the juniors, as Melody looked at her friend, squeezing Irene’s hand. She didn’t know why Irene was so torn up – or why she’d edited Diantha out of the report like that, it had to have been her – but she was clearly distraught.

“Kids…” Mister Widard said, looking at each of them in turn with great sadness in his eyes. “I’m… so glad you’re all alright. Please don’t do that again.”

Somehow, Melody felt worse about saddening him than she’d felt about being chewed out by… damn near everyone else, since coming back. Even Steph and the other handlers had been outraged.

He didn’t give them a chance to apologise, though. “I’ve got to go… help take care of this situation. You all… we’ll talk later. There’s going to be a big meeting, I’m sure.” And with that, he, too, left, leaving them alone with Patrid.

Whose mere presence was still making her skin crawl, especially now that he was just quietly sitting there, studying each of them in turn.

“You are dismissed,” he said, finally. “Go to your rooms, I’ll… also need to take care of this. Another nightmare…”

They all filed out as she shook his head, looking calm yet seeming quite tired, somehow.

“Patrick,” Irene said with a soft voice, not moving from her perch atop her chair, drawing his gaze to her, even as she let go of Melody.

I’m sorry, but please, I need to talk to him alone, she whispered into Melody’s mind.

Feeling even more worried, Melody nonetheless did so, getting up and leaving the room, listening to both Jared calling everyone else idiots for going along with the raid, and the two in the room, as they walked away…

“What is it, Irene?” Patrick asked, his voice far gentler than she’d ever heard it be.

She couldn’t see Irene, but she could just imagine her fidgeting on her seat, holding her cape in her hands like a security blanket, or a comfort one, avoiding his gaze.

“W-we need to talk,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s…”

And then they were too far away to hear, and Jared too loud, especially since no one felt up to telling him to shut up… it wasn’t like he was wrong, really, either…

***

The entire UH New Lennston division, minus Bismuth, entered the building that served the central police precinct – a fortress-like building itself near the centre of New Lennston, with a wide, open area around it covered in cobblestones, rather than being squeezed in amongst other buildings – as a prison to hold super-powered criminals until they could be processed and sent to wherever they were to be held.

It was generally considered to be one of the most secure and heavily defended buildings in New Lennston, but it was mostly designed to keep criminals in and villains out – not to prevent the lawful heroes of the city from entering and talking to the villains, for whatever reasons they had.

Clearly, Bismuth had had no problem getting past the considerable outer defenses and into the building, which was currently swarming with police officers.

They approached the Chief of Police, an older, broadly built man with a broom moustache. He stood in front of one particular wing of the small, compact prison, whose entrance was blocked by thick, irregular crystals that seemed to have partially fused with the concrete around them – or rather, been grown out of it – shimmering in all colours of the rainbow as light reflected off of the grayish growths.

The whole place was almost eerily quiet and there were certainly none of the screams Jason had been talking about.

Jessica felt sick to her stomach, praying quietly to God that her friend and teammate was alright, that she hadn’t…

“Rounds, you know what’s going on?” Chief Mason asked, glaring at the arriving heroes like this was all their fault.

“I’m pretty sure I do, Sir,” Rounds replied, resplendent in his shining knightly outfit, silver and gold armour atop a royal blue bodysuit, a shield and lance-sword strapped to his back. “Please, we’ll explain everything presently, but we should get in there first and get Bismuth out before-“

“Less talking and more breaking through,” the Chief agreed, stepping aside. “Everyone, clear the area! Let the capes handle their own!”

The police officers grumbled, though some, at least, didn’t look too broken up about what was going on. Jessica didn’t have time to wonder about that, though.

Instead, they gathered in front of the crystals, and turned towards Eyespy.

The slender man frowned, crossing his arms. “Everyone in there is either dead or has their eyes closed,” he said. “Can’t see a thing.”

Rounds looked at the Chief. “Dusu was the only prisoner held in this wing?”

The Chief nodded.

Their leader looked at the team. “Amazon, Ursa, Venatrix, break through the crystal.”

They nodded in unison, stepping forth. Jessica reached for her power, pulling up her trusty translucent armour, feeling herself instantly relax and become calmer as it sprang up, protecting her from the rest of the world.

Rachel’s equipment – her boots, both of her gauntlets, her visored helmet, her chestplate and armoured skirt, it all flared and crackled with electricity, as she clenched her heavier left gauntlet into a fist, building up energy.

Ursa Gemini just flexed briefly before they began to pound the crystal, quickly joined by the two women.

It was no easy work – no one of them could have broken through Bismuth’s crystal on their own, not when she’d grown it apparently as thick as the entire doorway, and anchored so firmly in the surrounding concrete – even when they broke it, it just grew whole again, and again, and again.

But all together, they managed to make headway, slowly digging through, destroying it faster than it was regrowing…

Then it suddenly shattered, all at once, shards flying inwards as it all crumbled away, Jessica having to briefly fight to be stay on her feet. Ursa Gemini just stumbled into the floor outright.

They didn’t waste a second, all of them rushing in in coordinated fashion, Rounds ahead of the others. They could see Dusu’s cell, and the blood-red crystal’s growing out of it, wrapping around the doorway, the door that was supposed to seal it off so that not even air could escape lying in crystal-covered shards nearby…

Rounds and Ursa Gemini, who’d made up the vanguard, froze as they reached the cell, looking inside.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Ursa Gemini gasped, staggering back and blocking Rachel from getting a look by accident.

Behind them, in the foreroom, Eyespy bent over and vomited.

Jessica didn’t want to see what was inside… but she had to, and so she did, stepping around Ursa Gemini to take a look.

She immediately regretted doing so.

Dusu wasn’t dead. But she certainly wished she was, that was for certain.

She was there, clothed in tatters of an orange prison suit, all but crucified upon a crystal growth. One that was as red as blood. Her blood.

A single clear, rainbow-hued crystal pierced her sternum, next to her heart. That was not what had killed her, though.

Her body had been… pulled apart, from the inside out. Crystals of various red hues had literally grown out of her, tearing, cutting, pulling… It was the most grisly sight Jessica had ever laid eyes upon, and that included everything Hastur had done to her victims.

The crystals had pulled the cadaverous woman apart and spread her out over the wall. The crystal she’d seemed to have been crucified on was actually numerous, branch-like growths come from her back, connecting her to the wall and lifting her up. Her limbs had been pulled apart, stretched, the nerves visible, fused to the crystals. Her muscles torn, her bones turned almost entirely into bloody white crystal branches within the mess of red branches. Her torso… was open, her heart still there. Still beating, somehow, even though crystals were growing out of it, leaking blood, connecting it to other crystals. Blood flowed through veins that had become like transparent, rigid tubes. Two jagged, long branches grew out of her eye sockets, branching out, like a stag’s horns sharpened into points. More crystals stabbed out of her gums, giving her a bloody grin.

Worst of all were her nerves, spread out throughout the entire construction, interwoven with the branches and her body… clearly still functional, as she twitched soundlessly, her lungs all but entirely gone, her brain sustained… barely… somehow…

No, not anymore. Her twitches grew faint as they watched; within seconds, just as Jessica was starting to take in the entire scene, she expired with a last shudder.

Almost as one, they all turned away from it, the others looking as numb as Jessica felt. Looking at the cell opposite of Dusu’s, whose door was unlocked, open, giving the one sitting inside free view into the cell to watch Dusu’s suffering.

The crystal Dusu had been crucified upon extended like red veins along the ground, leading into the cell, towards a pair of bare feet, attaching to them.

Moving up the bare shins and knees, they joined the thin sheet of crystal which was currently the only clothing Bismuth had, a kind of one-piece bodysuit that covered her torso entirely, almost like a second skin of symmetric crystals, looking like her namesake, covering her from neck to thigh and halfway down to her elbows.

Red hair hung over her face as their teammate looked up at them, her uncovered face blotchy with tears, eyes red and… empty.

Jessica’s heart went out to her, even as she felt disgusted and horrified at what her friend had just done to a defenseless prisoner.

“Bismuth… what have you done?” Rounds asked in a heartbroken whisper.

She looked at him with those painfully empty, despairing eyes. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stand it. The thought that, that she was alive… alive while my sister… while all the others, died… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I’m not sorry. I can’t be. I had to kill her, else I would have killed myself, because I couldn’t… couldn’t stand to know, to even think, that she would live, while… while my… while Prisca is dead,” Rosalie Fion spoke in a soft, broken voice.

In the distance, and nearby as well, the emergency sirens went off. The special ones, made specifically to announce DiL’s appearance. Then another set, announcing that she was here.

Not one of them could bring themselves to react, as they stared at their teammate in horror and sadness.

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