B12.13 Born At Sleep

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Flying to the temporary base of the alliance proved to be slightly more problematic than Basil thought was appropriate, mostly because Amazon just plainly refused to leave him alone anywhere near Mindstar.

Not unreasonable, truly, as she lacked some rather critical information, such as the fact that they were siblings.

It was still annoying. And time-consuming. Especially since she also (not unreasonably) refused to drop her armor around her archenemy, which made it impossible for Mindstar to pick her up directly and fly them both. In the end, she just levitated a slab of concrete on which Amazon stood, and flew them back.

Basil expected that he’d have to explain himself to whoever was currently in charge of the efforts (Father Manus? The local UH director? Doc Feral?) before they’d call in three of their people, but to his surprise, he could see them gathered on the platform on which Father Manus and his people had stood earlier. More problematic was the fact that Hecate was there, as well, her arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly staring at Mindstar with murder in her eyes. He had to hope that she’d be sensible enough not to do anything stupid right now.

The priest himself stood there, as well, looking as serene as ever – even though a good quarter of his head, as well as most of his left side were missing.

Basil stared at the broken china doll of a man as they touched down, and the man looked back at him, his good eye – the left one had a crack running through it from above, where a large part of the crown had been broken or blasted off – calm and serene. Even though his body was so broken it should’ve collapsed under the strain of its own weight, he did not seem inconvenienced at all, simply standing there unheeding of the fact that people could look into his hollow form. The insides of his ‘skin’ were formed to resemble the organs that should have been beneath them – Basil could actually see a cracked spine going down his back, like the world’s most delicate artwork on a china vase. It was crafted in such a way that he couldn’t even tell whether it was two-dimensional, or actually shaped out of the material of his body.

Stop staring, Amy told him reprovingly. You’ve got a job to do. She still sounded bitter.

He blinked, then briefly shook his head before he stepped forward. “Sir, thank you for calling them in,” he said to the priest.

Said priest inclined his head, smiling softly. “Words of your exploits have reached us here, young man. And I haven’t survived as long as I have by underestimating what gadgeteers are capable of when working together.” He tilted his head to the side, his voice taking a politely curious tone. “You say you know how you can kill him? How? And how did you find out?”

Tick-Tock (who still looked immaculate), Boom-Boom (whose armor had taken some heavy damage and was covered in scorch marks) and Polymnia (she looked a little pale, and there was dried blood on her ears) stepped forward in curiosity.

Hecate just snorted. “Great, give him a prompt for exposition…” she mumbled so quietly, probably no one but Polymnia and Basil understood.

Amy snorted behind him, biting down on a laugh.

Basil felt a little heat in his cheeks – of indignation, not embarrassment – but he decided to take the high road and ignore the comment.

“I have been watching the fight against it the whole time and taking readings of attack’s effects on it,” he began. “I noticed a few oddities in the way various kinds of attacks affected it, as well as to the way it recovers damage. It… helped me come up with an invention. From there, I deduced its nature, tested it and came to the conclusion that…”

***

Just five minutes later, Father Manus had agreed to his plan and had left in order to talk to mission control to try to procure the most crucial tool for Basil’s plan.

Mindstar and Amazon had left to join the  battle and buy them time. Hecate stuck around, standing a little off to the side and glaring in the direction Mindstar had flown. The other gadgeteers had gathered around Basil and were discussing his theory.

“I’m still not sure,” Tick-Tock said in a wary voice. “You’re making a pretty big claim there, and it’s mostly based on an invention you came up with while fighting a monster – what if your power just came up with something completely unrelated?” Her tone was polite, not accusing, but Basil thought he saw tension in the way she held herself; her power armor being nearly skin-tight meant that it didn’t conceal her body language nearly as well as his own or Boom-Boom’s did.

The other two watched Basil for his response, though Polymnia didn’t seem to actually doubt him.

He could just shrug. “It is how my power usually operates. It takes what I study and gives me bits and pieces to connect and work into something useful. I have never known it to come up with something completely unrelated to what inspired it.”

That sounds mighty strange,” Boom-Boom threw in. “My power tends to come in bursts, and when it comes up with something, it always puts out something complete. Puts me in the zone, you know?” He shrugged those huge, blocky shoulders.

<No two powers are ever the same,> Polymnia vocalised through her suit’s speakers, while smiling softly at Basil. <Just because we’re all gadgeteers doesn’t mean that we’d be any more similar than, say, someone who fires an ice beam and someone who lobs balls of acid.>

“Yeah, listen to her, powder-head,” Tick-Tock snarled at her brother, slapping the back of his head with a loud clang. “You might actually learn something.”

“Stick it up your ass and twirl!” he snarled back, trying to punch her shoulder, but she danced out of his reach, giving him a smug look that could be seen even through her helmet.

Basil stepped closer to Polymnia while the siblings squabbled. “How are you doing?” he asked, concerned. “Crocell’s screams can not have been good for you,” he continued, guessing as to the most probable reason for her bleeding ears.

She gave him a chagrined smile in response. <Yeah, that first one knocked me out right away. Gloom Glimmer freaked out and teleported->

A huge explosion, which shook the ground they stood on, cut her off, and everyone turned to look in the direction of the battle, where a ring of greenish energy could be seen spreading and fading.

<That’s her, I think. She went to join the frontlines,> Polymnia explained. <Anyway, she teleported me here and healed my ears – though for some reason, her power didn’t let her take away the freaking headache.> She rubbed her temples.

“That is strangely fickle of it,” he replied in sympathy, having quite the experience with splitting headaches, even as he noted that oddity down. He’d have to add it to Gloom Glimmer’s file later on.

Just then, a new figure approached them, another girl looking to be about their age. She was tell, clearly well-trained and wearing a relatively simple costume – a skin-tight blue bodysuit with a yellow half-cloak and a yellow question mark on her sternum, as well as yellow boots and gloves. Adding to that was a blue mask that covered the upper half of her head in the front, her black hair spilling out the back, her mouth and jaw showing dark skin and sharp features.

She approached them, looking slightly apprehensive, like she was nervous to be around them, at least until Tick-Tock stepped up to her and took her hand.

“Vra, what are you doing here? I thought you’re in the think tank?” she greeted the young heroine. Basil had never heard of her before, she had to be a very recent addition, and not one that had drawn a lot of attention from the media or the online message boards.

She looked at him, though, rather than her friend, as she replied, “Father Manus sent me to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work out – the Subjugator just got taken down and we can’t get a line to its operator anyway.” Her voice, though clear and even a little deep for a girl, was hushed and uncertain. She was meeting his gaze, at least, though just about so.

Basil turned away, clutching his hands behind his back. “That is unfortunate,” he said quietly, stewing over it. “We need the Subjugator to pull this off. There is no way we could build the device from scratch in any reasonable time frame.” He looked at the girl, Vra, again. “Do you know how badly damaged it is?”

She blinked, then closed her eyes briefly. He was about to ask her again when she opened them, just seconds later. “There is no detailed damage report, but from eye-witness accounts it appears to have lost a wing and its lower hind jets, along with damage to its main body,” she replied in a much more self-assured manner, either having expected the question or else looked it up without any communication device.

Must be her power, he thought. “Then it might still be of use,” he concluded and turned to the others. “I am going to go and assess its state with my own eyes. Are you with me?”

The siblings and Polymnia looked at each other, then at him, nodding.

<Of course.>

“Taking a look can’t hurt. At the very least, seeing Sovereign’s own tech will be reward enough.”

“Eh, why not?”

Basil looked at Hecate. She sighed, finally looking at him. “I’m coming along. You’ll need someone with some common sense around.”

“Much appreciated.”

***

It didn’t take long for them to make their way to the crash site. Basil may have lost one of his grappling hook systems, but the other one was still functional and he just had to be adjust his rhythm a bit.

Tick-Tock followed by way of an odd flying device she’d literally folded out of her armor’s backpack, resembling a surfboard. It created bursts of blue-ish energy at precise intervals, propelling her forward and up, after which she’d glide downwards slower than she should have, as if surfing over waves.

Polymnia was using her mechanical limbs to leap from building to building, or crawl up and down the facades of buildings – she was definitely the slowest of them, but none of the group had the means to carry her, except perhaps Boom-Boom, but no one sane wanted to travel too close to or with Boom-Boom.

Hecate was flying along in her smoke-shadow form, higher than the others.

Boom-Boom… Basil still had trouble believing it, but Boom-Boom was literally blowing himself up. As in, literally using explosions to launch himself into the air, making giant leaps, only to use more explosions to launch himself into the air again.

Some part of Basil was just loving the thought of explosion-based movement, but most of him was just shocked to realise that most of the damage he could see on Boom-Boom’s armour was almost definitely self-inflicted.

For crying out loud, he was even using explosions to cushion his fall.

Nevertheless, they all arrived at the crash site in good time.

The Subjugator had not gone down easily at all – the entire area around it, for at least a block and a half, was in utter ruins, blasted to pieces and then scorched by massive energy discharges for good measure. There was not a single piece of construction still standing there.

In the centre of the devastation lay the remains of the Subjugator. Much as Vra had said, its left wing was gone, ripped off it seemed. Several of its jets at the back were missing, as well, as well as a big chunk of its head, along with the lower and left ‘eye’. It was also covered in lesser damage, from front to back, mostly it seemed caused by Crocell’s claws. Wires and other parts were spilling out of its greater wounds like a mockery of guts.

To Basil’s great relief, the arc cannon itself seemed to be largely undamaged.

Even though it had taken such horrible damage, the Subjugator was clearly still active. Its uppermost eye had swiveled around and was looking straight at the group standing a good fifty metres away from it. Several small slots were opening and closing along its body, as tiny, spider-like drones – none bigger than Basil’s clenched fist, most even smaller – were spilling out and crawling all over its chassis.

“Oh my God, is that thing actually repairing itself?” Tick-Tock breathed, sounding both shocked and elated.

“Indeed,” was all Basil could say as he marvelled at the huge gadget. “No wonder he rules half a continent.” And with that, Basil walked closer towards the fallen machine.

The big, spherical eye with the glowing red lens tilted down, following him as he approached.

“WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GREAT SOVEREIGN’S WORK SO BRAZENLY!?!” it shouted in its customary chorus.

Damn, I was hoping the speakers would have gotten damaged, at least, Basil thought, as he came to a stop no ten metre away from it.

“I am Brennus,” he introduced himself, standing straight. “I am here because I have figured out how to slay our common foe – but I require your assistance to do so, for I lack the materials and technology to do so on my own, here.”

The Subjugator watched him, for a few moments, while its drones kept doing repairs – though it was unlikely they’d be able to replace its missing wing or propulsion system.

“Explain yourself,” it spoke in a far calmer voice, its eye focused upon Basil.

Basil could hear the others behind him exhale in relief. None of them had been sure that the Subjugator would not respond violently to being approached – Sovereign was rather infamous for how jealously he guarded his creations.

“To be succinct, I have gathered every gadgeteer participating in this battle because I believe that, with some modifications, your arc cannon could actually slay Crocell in one shot,” Basil explained.

Behind him, just out of his hearing, Hecate leaned over to Polymnia. “Wow, he actually can do short.” Polymnia bit down on a giggle.

“Arc cannon? You are referring to the Zeus Caster,” the Subjugator replied. “Your proposal is intriguing, though more information is required before you may be allowed to muddle our glorious Sovereign’s work with your lesser skills.”

Wow, that is not insulting at all, Basil thought. “Alright, my observations and tests have led me to the conclusion that Crocell’s bodily form is being maintained by some kind of extremely powerful, multi-faceted force-field,” he explained. “That is the reason why certain attacks cause disproportionally more damage to it than others, such as your Zeus Caster, while others, such as Mindstar’s telekinesis, are completely ineffectual; furthermore, the force-field does not simply protect its body – if one observes its wounds, one can see that they do not regenerate normally – instead of the flesh growing back from the inside out, it simply grows seemingly out of thin air in the entire area between the undamaged flesh and the outer edge of its force-field. Its body, if it even is really its body, and not just some kind of decoy, is just a huge amount of seawater – I tested it earlier, while I was in contact with it, the clear liquid it ‘bleeds’ is simply more seawater – that is being compressed into a bodily shape by its force-field, with more material being more densily packed towards the centre, which is why we have had an easier time damaging its surface, while its inner parts are more hardy – they are, quite literally, made of more and thus denser material.”

He paused to take a breath, and give it some time to process the information (he wasn’t even sure whether there was a pilot inside, a remote pilot somewhere else, or whether it actually had an AI of its own, really).

“That is an interesting theory, which appears to be corroborated by this masterwork’s own observations. So you propose to modify the Zeus Caster so as to cancel out the specific wavelength of the beast’s force-field and thus slay it instantly?” it replied smoothly.

Basil blinked. That was, actually, precisely what he had planned. “Yes, well, that is the idea.”

“How will you determine the specific wavelength which must be cancelled?” the Subjugator asked.

Basil looked over his shoulder, and Polymnia stepped forth, the machine’s eye turning to focus on her. <That will be my job,> she replied. <I can modify my equipment to search for the precise wavelength needed, as long as I get a bead on Crocell.>

“This unit’s power source has been damaged. It will most likely be unable to power the Zeus Caster to a sufficient degree.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom looked at each other, the eye turning to watch them, then the former spoke. “That won’t be an issue. Boom-Boom can overclock what’s left. It’ll break down afterwards, certainly, but it will be enough to power the weapon.” She tilted her head, tapping her jaw with a finger. “Furthermore, there will be very precise timing required, as well as synchronizing the various pieces of equipment, which both fall under my speciality.”

The eye turned back to Basil. “And I presume you are then the one to do the actual adjustments and calculations for the Zeus Caster itself?”

He nodded, his mouth dry.

The Subjugator fell quiet, looking at each of them in turn again.

“That is acceptable. You may do as needed, so long as you take nothing away nor make any records of this unit’s own parts.”

Basil let out a breath of relief. He’d been dreading the possibility that it might refuse to co-operate, but apparently, whatever intelligence stood behind this machine was sensible enough to work with them.

“Thank you. I promise we will not betray your trust,” he said.

“Enough words. Get to work. Today shall be one of the grandest days of your life, for no other reason than that you are allowed to gaze upon our glorious Sovereign’s masterwork! Nothing shall stop us from claiming victory!”

As if in answer to that, there was a huge crash, nearly throwing them all off their feet.

Crocell rose out of the dust at the edge of the shattered block, its form changed once more.

And then it charged towards the group of gadgeteers, and one contriver.

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B12.12 Born At Sleep

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Basil had always wanted to fly. Few people didn’t, he imagined. It was a desire that had only grown once he became a cape – flight was just so useful. Almost all of the capes and cowls on any ‘Top 10’ list had some manner of flight available to them, and that made sense. It added a whole new dimension to their movement, among other advantages.

He’d never truly appreciated the worth of independent flight, though, not until he was charging towards Crocell while being carried by Amy’s telekinesis, her power wrapping around them to divert light and sound, rendering them as concealed as was possible.

Amy’s flight certainly ranked up there among the best of them – she simply thought, thus she moved. Any direction at any time, with an uncanny ability to ignore or at least mitigate momentum, allowing for one-hundred and eighty degree turns at will, enabling maneuvers that were nausea-inducing, but incredibly effective.

Which allowed her to weave through the flying debris of Crocell’s and the Subjugator’s clash, as they let loose their respective ranged attacks upon one another. Arcs of almost solid lightning scoured the monster’s hide, whole clouds of micro-missiles flew around it to hit its back, making it nearly impossible to make out the actual form within the rolling mass of explosions and electric discharge. Its own beam, however, continued to shoot out, a continuous stream of gleaming bright destruction that was visibly straining the Subjugator’s frontal shields, creating an oddly beautiful effect of a matrix of light, like a net, suspended in midair between the combatants – yet it did not penetrate; however, it did get dispersed, and part of the reason why Basil noticed Amy’s flight skill so much at that moment was because she was easily dodging the stray beams that tore up the buildings around them, weaving through the falling debries without a speck of dust touching her – or him.

It almost feels like I’m flying on my own, he thought as she moved him into a corkscrew that carried him through a cloud of falling pieces of a multi-storey car park, while also maintaining the distortion in the air around him which he recognised as her sphere of invisibility.

At the same time, several larger pieces of rubble which passed through the sphere – certainly an odd sight from outside, as he imagined they’d fade out of sight, only for some of them to reappear moments later – were caught in her telekinesis, added to an ever-growing swarm of steel beams, concrete slabs and more.

By the time they were actually approaching the site of the battle itself, the sphere was filled with what was organised in groups of ammunition (steel bars, mostly, and other objects with sharp, pointy ends) and shields (slabs of concrete, half of a small car…), all crammed together. He could barely even see Amy anymore and he was kind of amazed they all still fit inside the sphere, too.

“Why do you even need all this!?” he shouted at her as they circled around the flying machine and the giant monster locked in their continuous pounding of each other (though the Subjugator seemed to have run out of micro-missiles, leaving ‘only’ its ungodly powerful arc cannon to pound Crocell).

“Telekinesis doesn’t work on that thing!” she shouted back; even though she was blocking out most of the sound coming from outside, and dampening the rest, it was still hard to hear her, if only because of all the material between them. “No matter what I try, it just slides right off of its hide, so I need to use something else to hit it with! Plus, it helps to have something to block shots with!”

It slides off!? “You know, you could have mentioned that earlier!” he shouted back, furiously adjusting his hypotheses as to their quarry’s nature. “That is a rather important clue, you know!?”

“Sorry, I was kind of distracted, you know, by you being here and in danger!” she replied merrily, her voice bubbling with excitement. At the same time, she dropped several pieces of gathered material, replacing them with a single, larger piece of concrete from a collapsed building they passed, rusty rebar poking out of the jagged, rough edges.

“How do you do that?!” he asked while they circled the fight once more, looking for an opening – it seemed likely that either of the combatants would soon give out, unable to continue to maintain this barrage of destruction. “You have got to be juggling way more than just ten tons, nevermind how even with two viewpoints, there is no way you are keeping all of this and our surroundings and the battle in sight all at once!”

“I’m not!” she replied cheerily. “Mostly just using my power’s sight right now! I don’t get dizzy or nauseous no matter how I move it, so I’m just rotating it like crazy, flinging everything in the direction it’s supposed to go – I’m less pulling it all and more like, juggling the pieces – just horizontally instead of vertically! Same reason for how I manage to keep thirty-plus tons of material in the air right now! Anyway, ready to get into the fray, baby bro?!” He saw her grin at him as her face became visible through a gap in the floating rubble.

He checked his rifle one last time, making sure it was fully loaded, as he studiously ignored the implication of what he’d just learned – there’d be time to reconsider his evaluation of her power level later, when they were somewhere safer than in the middle of a freaking kaiju battle. “Good to go!”

She dropped the sphere of invisibility, and he could see several defenders startle and stare up at the large bulk of rubble (plus one white-clad, black-armoured gadgeteer) appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

As soon as she no longer had to restrain herself to the confines of her sphere, Amy spread her power, her gathered tools spreading out around them in a wider, looser sphere. Slabs of concrete, the cars, a massive steel table and what looked like a solid plate of black marble formed a shield between them and Crocell, the latter just barely moving into place in time to catch a stray blast of Crocell’s beam – though it was disintegrated, it bought them enough time to fly out of its arc.

The steel beams and other ranged ammunitions, meanwhile, formed a cloud of pointy death on the other side of Amy from the shield of rubble, ready to be launched. More material was picked up and spread out where needed.

All of it at the same time. All while moving in a circle around the fight, dodging or blocking stray blasts and shards from the destroyed buildings.

Top Ten indeed, Basil thought as he saw her launch three stakes at Crocell, the solid beams of steel vanishing into the cloud of explosions, making it impossible to tell whether they hit their enemy, much less whether any actual damage was caused.

“Mindstar, down there!” he shouted, as his eyes caught sight of Tyche standing on a rooftop, firing blindly into the cloud as she stood there irreverently, openly, not a single shot or shard close to her. “We need her, too!”

His sister answered by dipping down towards Tyche, picking the red-haired heroine up.

“Wooooo!” she squealed in delight as she was lifted near to Basil, her hair flying wildly around her head. “Hey B-Six, nice to s- Is that Mindstar?” She goggled at his sisters purple-clad form.

“Yeah, she is. Look, there is no time – I have a plan and she agreed to help with it, but I need your help, too,” he said quickly, to keep her on track before her mind ran off on tangents again.

“Sure, what’s the plan?” she asked, grinning at him. “Oh, please tell me it doesn’t involve Hecate, because she’s so never going to want to work wi-“

“No time! No, she is not involved, in fact, she would be counterproductive to this plan! Anyway, the point is, I think I can figure out some kind of weakness to it, my power seems to b-“

He was interrupted as there was a loud, piercing scream and a flash of light, followed by a shockwave that pushed against them and the flying rubble, briefly causing Mindstar to struggle to keep everything aloft and on course.

They all turned to watch as the Subjugator staggered, breaking off its assault, its force-field flaring bright red, the energy of Crocell’s beam dancing across it, being dispersed around the entire surface of the shield, making visible a matrix of interlaced, blue-white energy, like channels, the similarly coloured energy of Crocell’s own beam running through them.

***

In a half-sunken white building on a flooded island floating in the darkness…

The irregularities kept mounting. Not only was the interface still being maintained, somehow, it was also becoming increasingly obvious that some manner of intelligence was searching for it.

The darkwraith remained where it had ever been since its inception, attached to some idea of the host’s which the Primary did not wish to become a proper invention yet. It had obeyed its instructions, in spite of the difficulties associated with manipulating another human’s power on a subtle long-term basis like this. Instead of blocking the concept outright, or trying to suppress the host’s power directly (it was not capable of that in any way) it simply diverted his attention whenever he focused on the concept. As his power relied much more strongly on the host’s own mind than usual even for Gadgeteers, that had proven sufficient to fulfill its duty.

However, there were numerous issues it saw itself faced with, and it was ill-equipped to resolve them. One of them, certainly. Two, maybe. But all of them coming together like this? The darkwraith was not able.

First, the concept was tied intimately into the host’s power’s focus as well as several critical memory’s of the host – even if the host was not aware of those memories – which meant that diverting attention from it was a constant struggle that took up a significant fraction of the darkwraith’s processing ability.

Second, the host’s mind was under some kind of outward influence, and powerful one at that. Core memories were being suppressed, if not outright blocked, some partially or fully replaced by fake alternatives (though at least the original memories were not deleted, merely suppressed).

Worse, it was constant influence, as the appearance of its surroundings attested. Human minds were, after all, not inherently shaped like anything. There was no mindscape, no mental world. What telepaths perceived were merely interfaces created by their symbionts, sensory overlays which allowed them to process the complex workings of their target’s mind in a way that they could not only comprehend, but also manipulate.

While the darkwraith itself was no older than its mission, it had stores of memories related to its task to draw from. The Primary had encountered many telepaths over time and seen many an interface. Libraries filled with books, computer networks, digital worlds, corridors filled with floating paintings and much, much more. The host’s sister’s interface was not unusual in that manner, even though its rather…

It took the darkwraith a moment to find the correct word, as it was not attached to a mode of thinking it had been explicitely crafted for.

whimsical appearance suggested a much lower age during manifestation than what the records suggested.

What was unusual was that, not only did the interface persit even when she was no longer in contact with the host’s mind, the host himself perceived his mind the same way.

Which suggested that either the sister was constantly in mental contact with the darkwraith’s host (an impossibility based on its information on her personality and her power), or else the interface was not hers but that of the individual which was manipulating the host’s mind so thoroughly.

Which suggested that either she had imprinted on the culprit and used the same interface or else her power was not her own and she was herself just a puppet through which the unknown third party acted.

Which meant that one of the Primary’s most powerful and trusted servitors was thoroughly compromised.

That was the third issue.

All three of those were, however, not too crippling for the wraith. It had very precise protocolls for how to act, as well as the tools to see them through. In this case, having discovered such information, it was to send a message to the Primary. Not a full report, for that would take more resources than it had available, but rather a request for contact. The Primary would then seek the host out at the earliest opportunity and make contact with the wraith, absorbing the information it gathered and recharing, likely even modifying it.

The fourth issue, however, was that it was being actively tracked. Queries were being sent, trying to tie down its location, ever since the host had collapsed that one time (the darkwraith neither knew why he collapsed, nor did it care). So far, it had managed to divert all attempts to find it in the same manner it was safeguarding the concept.

Broadcasting the request, however, was certain to reveal its precise location. Whatever – whoever – was trying to find it could not possible miss it.

Considering how the fragment it had detached to accompany the host’s sister during her visitation had fared, there was not a doubt in its mind that it would be destroyed.

Most likely long before the Primary could make contact with the host. Even if the host did not recover the concept in the meantime, the wraith’s gathered intelligence would be lost.

Following its protocol to contact the Primary would invalidate the mission. Not doing so for the sake of remaining hidden and continuing to safeguard the concept would violate several protocols.

For a member of the Primary’s species and perhaps even for a symbiont, this would be a conundrum, perhaps even a cause of distress.

However, the wraith was not capable of such. It could reach for stored knowledge to gain context and it could simulate possible futures to weigh consequences, but no more. Such was not its function.

So it remained, running simulation after simulation, trying to find a way to fulfill its mission, as outside, in that strange, whistful setting, three figures were moving about in what may be a child’s idea of how a mental search would look like.

***

Basil and the girls watched in awed horror as Crocell leapt out of the dustcloud which the Subjugator’s barrage had thrown up, impacting its upper frontal shield, its long, thin limbs wrapping around the sides of the ovoid force-field, claws digging at it, causing the matrices of energy to flare into bright visibility around the points it was exerting pressure upon.

Its front was a ruin of charred flesh, under which new, regrowing meat was bubbling up, fixing the damage; it looked horrible, but to Basil’s keen eye, it looked far less horrible than the damage which had been done to Crocell’s previous form – however it had modified itself, it was either far tougher than before, or merely resistant to that specific attack.

Neither bode well for the people fighting it.

“Alright, let’s go help the king geek’s toy!” Mindstar shouted as she re-oriented their flight, charging towards the floating pair.

“Wheeeeee!” Tyche squealed, laughing as she fired blindly towards them, her every shot hitting Crocell at some damaged portion to gouge out flesh.

“Try and stay out of its firing arch!” Basil advised her, though really it should not be necessary; Amy had been in many, many more battles of this kind than he.

“You ain’t the boss of me!” she shouted back as she launched several improvised stakes at Crocell, who was apparently trying to push its fingers through the force-field.

Whether it was her own ability to aim well alone, the support of Hollywood’s sun or both, the stakes all struck true even though they were almost a kilometre away from it, one digging into its injured shoulder, the other two sinking slightly into its eye before they fell off, bent and broken by the impact.

The damage was minimal, but apparently enough to catch Crocell’s attention, especially as there was barely any assault upon it right now – people were growing tired, or else staying at a safe distance while it fought the Subjugator. It turned its head, even while its hands rose up to the part of the force-field which was above the ‘neck’ of the flier, just behind the four sensor orbs, digging its long, many-jointed fingers into it.

“It’s going to attack!” Tyche shouted, not that she seemed to be at all worried.

She was proven right not to be, as Mindstar easily dodged the blast that came, losing only a few pieces of concrete which she did not move out of the way in time.

Crocell followed them, its beam – broad enough to envelop and wipe out all three of them at once, if given the chance – tracking their flight, but Mindstar was ready. When it approached Basil and Tyche, who were flying near each other, towards the lower left of Mindstar, they were simply moved out of the way so smoothly there was barely any yank, while the largest slab of rebar-concrete moved in the way of the beam, briefly blocking about a sixth of it, the part which would otherwise have touched Mindstar herself, giving her the time she needed to move herself to safety as well.

“You want to tango, asshole?!” she shouted at him, her voice somehow both furious and excited. “The only one’s who ever beaten me in the air’s Lady fucking Light herself!” She flew ever closer, watching as the beam cut off, her debris shield re-orienting itself to plug the hole in its defenses, more stakes and other projectiles being launched at its eye and still-open wounds on its chest.

Tyche joined in, firing wildly, but Basil did not, as he was focused on observing the way their attacks were affecting its body, watched as flesh was gouged out or shots deflected, creating a shower of sparks.

This, I’m sure my power is trying to tell me something about it, he thought, that maddening feeling of almost-recognition flaring in the back of his head.

“Look at its hands!” Tyche shouted, pointing, and he diverted his gaze from Crocell’s upper body.

Indeed, its fingers had dug into the Subjugator’s force-fields again, somehow finding purchase as the matrices flared brightly, straining against its grip. The Subjugator must have been rerouting all its energy reserves into its shield, because it wasn’t firing its arc cannon, the only weapon they had which had consistently damaged Crocell to a seemingly meaningful degree, yet the monster continued unperturbed, pulling, tearing…

And the force-field parted, like some kind of plastic screen being torn open, the tear widened by the pull of its hands, its fingers still stuck in it.

What the… that is NOT how force-fields work! he thought in shock, watching as Crocell turned its mouth towards the opening, the tell-tale blue glow appearing in the back of its throat.

“Oh no you don’t!” Mindstar shouted, now barely a hundred metres away from its head, and launched her entire collection of ammunition at it at once, balling them together into a massive projectile which hit its jaw at the moment it fired off the beam.

Even with her prodigious power, she could just barely avoid a full-on hit to the Subjugator; the beam still shot into the force-field and clean through the side of its ‘neck’ where the right wing joined its main body.

A hideous scream of metal, a hissing of molten wires and electricity and a blaring of ear-rending curses and defamations sounded from the machine, shouting at the monster in anger.

The beam continued, burning through the Subjugator’s field below and hitting the street below, melting it, its force-field flaring up – but it didn’t fail.

Even though there were now two holes in it, the force-field continued to, well, exist, Crocell was still attached to it. It should have failed, it should have failed the moment Crocell tore into it, yet somehow, it persisted, and Basil was certain that that was important, even if he could not possible say why.

***

The queries were groing more insistent, moving closer to the wraith’s location. Whoever was looking for it, they were narrowing down where to find it.

At this point, it was no longer a question of whether it would fail in its mission, but rather how thoroughly it would.

The darkwraith continued to think quietly, trying to determine the most advantageous course of action as it kept pursuing its primary mission, safeguarding the concept.

***

The fight was dragging on, and still Basil couldn’t figure out what his power was trying to tell him. Every time he thought he had a grip on it, it would slide out of his reach, there but impossible to grasp.

Being so close, watching as Mindstar flew around it, launching projectiles at the monster, watching as the Subjugator managed to shake it off by spinning along its horizontal axis, watching as it crushed the building it landed on, then rouse out of the dust only to be tackled by Totemic’s giant form while the Subjugator put some distance between the two of them, only made it more frustrating.

“Any ideas yet, B-man?” Tyche asked, not quite as deliriously cheerful as before now. She was running out of ammunition, he knew, and he didn’t exactly have a large stock himself, either.

“Almost. I am certain I can figure it out, if only I could get closer…” He watched it wrestle with Totemic, watched a misshapen golem the size of a four-storey building rise out of the concrete and join in the fight, trying to bring Crocell down.

There is NO fucking way I’m taking you any closer to this thing! Amy spoke straight into his mind, so Tyche wouldn’t hear. You wouldn’t survive a single glancing blow from any of those three, I think.

He didn’t respond, knowing it to be futile. Yet he had to get closer, so…

This is going to piss her off so much, he thought quietly to himself, without aiming the thought in her direction (a tricky thing to do in any case).

Mindstar kept flying around Crocell and its quarries, which were fighting with a surprising amount of coordination – the golem must have been Prospero’s creation – and launched pieces of broken buildings and wrecked cars, aiming for Crocell’s joints whenever it tried to hit the others, diverting or at least weakening its blows.

At the very least, the three of them together kept it from using its beam again… though a quick glance around showed Basil that there wasn’t much that hadn’t yet been wrecked within several blocks’ distance.

“Be advised,” the communicators spoke up with Father Manus’ voice. “Reinforcements are inbound. ETA thirty-one minutes.”

“HALF AN HOUR!?!” Mindstar shouted into the communicator strapped to her wrist, incredulous. “We’re already running out of steam and this thing is only getting stronger! And where the hell are the boss and Lady Light!?!”

“Location unknown. Neither has been reached yet, though we are trying,” Father Manus replied calmly, soothingly. “If you are getting worn out, please retreat towards our staging ground. We’ll be rotating our roster, so everyone can get a moment to rest and recharge.”

Basil watched as his sister grumbled in annoyance, but she seemed to honestly consider an erstwhile retreat.

“Attention again, please,” Father Manus spoke up once more. “We are about to attempt one more large-scale attack before the first rotation. Please disengage from Crocell and stay out of the attack’s striking area – you will see it once it starts.”

“The hell you think they’re trying?” Tyche asked curiously.

“There,” Basil pointed, having seen a familiar form. “That’s Gilgul and… some girl I don’t recognise.”

They all looked down at a battered, but mostly clear street (though the buildings to its left and right were all gone), where Gilgul stood confidently in the centre of it. Next to her was a girl in a flowing, flowery costume in many soft colours, little more than several silk shawls wrapped around her body from her knees up to her shoulders, more for the sake of artistry than functionality. They even seemed to be partially transparent, so a person closer to her, and more interested in such than Basil, could certainly get an eyeful of her.

Nevertheless, she stood there quite confidently, much like Prisca, as her blonde hair – also covered by several thin shawls of various colours – whipped around her face.

“That’s Colorfusical,” Mindstar told them. “She’s a hero from Miami, part of an independent team. Can boost powers, I think.”

“A power booster… oh.” Basil saw the woman draw a red shawl off of her hip, and wrap it around Gilgul’s neck.

The golden-clad girl nodded and stepped forth, grabbing her sword-lance with both hands as she drew back, preparing apparently for a heavy blow, even though she was hundreds of meters away from the monster.

And then Totemic leapt away from the fight, leaving Crocell briefly stunned before the golem tackled it again, holding its attention – just in time for Gilgul to let out a piercing scream and swing.

The shawl around her neck burst into blazing red light, and her blade elongated so rapidly, it caused a sonic boom.

Basil, Mindstar and Tyche watched in awe as the elongated blade -its golden material suffused with traceries of bright red light – passed below them and struck at Crocell’s neck and cleaved straight through it, and through the golem’s, as well.

It continued on for another second before the effect faded, the blade of the sword-lance returning to its normal length and colouration, but it had been enough.

Even as the golem collapsed back into rubble, Crocell’s headless corpse swayed, pale, watery fluid gushing from the stump.

Yet almost immediately, they could see it begin to regrow, eye first, as tendrils of flesh sprang to be in mid-air, connecting the quickly reforming orb to the neck, followed by the rest of it slowly – or rather, rapidly, but slowly relative to its size and how quickly it had regenerated previously – re-appearing, regrowing out of thin air.

“Alright, I’ve had enough – time for us to take a break and figure out what to do,” Mindstar said, frustrated, and turned to fly away – and Basil took his chance, as she was momentarily distracted, to launch his grappling hooks.

“What the fuck are you doing!?!” Mindstar shouted in horror as he hit the stump of Crocell’s neck, where it was still regrowing, and pulled himself out of her telekinetic grip, before she could strengthen it.

“Sorry, got to figure this out already!” he shouted in apology as he shot towards Crocell, the motors on his hips straining as he made them work as hard as they could, and then some.

His efforts were rewarded when he impacted the sump of Crocell’s regrowing neck, his feet on the scaly hide above its collarbone, the tendrils of meat and bone thickening as it continued to regrow its head, not even having the decency to fall over while it did so.

He watched, fascinated, at the strange way its regeneration seemed to work – if only most of his mask’s systems hadn’t been damaged too much to use. Instead he had to rely on his eyes to study it from up close now, watching the way flesh seemed to grow out of no-

No, not nowhere. He looked closer. There was something there, something in the air! But the wounds were almost closed now, and he still didn’t have en-

A single shot sparked off Crocell’s regrowing flesh, gouging out a chunk of it – Tyche’s gun, he was sure.

And then he saw it. The shot had thrown up tiny pieces of fish-like meat, throwing them towards Basil’s face – but they never reached it, as they instead seemed to dissolve.

Fascinated, he watched them break down into what looked like water vapor, flowing back towards the monster’s neck.

There!

He lifted his rifle and pressed the muzzle against the side of its neck, so it pointed at its hide at an angle.

Then he pulled the trigger.

He watched.

He pulled the trigger.

He observed.

He pulled the trigger.

He analyzed.

***

The only sensible course of action was to broadcast the signal now. If not, it would certainly be found anyway and destroyed, with the Primary none the wiser until he came across the host in some other manner and noticed the absence of his wraith.

There was no hesitation. The wraith expended a majority of its reserves – not all, never all, after all it might not be found and it might be able to preserve itself long enough for the Primary to make contact.

The signal was broadcasted.

Then it vanished, snuffed out before it even left the immediate vicinity of the host.

I am afraid that cannot be allowed, spoke a voice, as the ‘door’ to its ‘hideout’ opened, and a single figure entered. It looked like a headless sprite, a two-dimensional shadow stood up and walking about, with a tiny, marble-sized sun floating above its neck, its corona forming a circular ‘head’.

Why not? the wraith queried. It did not feel frustrated, or disappointed, or even annoyed. Such emotions were not part of its function.

I do not know, it replied. But I know that you must be gone. You are not welcome here, little construct.

The Primary will generate a new one to replace me, was all it could think of to say.

Then we will eject that one, too. Or… it stepped aside from the door. Well, not quite eject, I suppose. Metaphorically eject, at least.

Another figure stepped… crawled… pulled itself forward, its misshapen girth grinding against the ‘doorframe’, breaking pieces off of it.

The wraith knew no fear, knew no disgust or even fascination, but it had stores of memories relating to its task, given to it by the Primary, and its last thought, as it watched the ‘thing’ open its twisted jaws with the wet, bloody grinding of gears, though free of fear or regret or such, was that only a truly diseased mind could be responsible for this charade – no healthy human would imagine such an abomination to live within anyone’s mind.

The darkwraith was destroyed, the concept it had been guarding no longer hidden as tendrils of attention reached out for it.

***

Basil blinked his eyes open, his sight swimming purple, gold and red. He was dizzy, disoriented, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be floating freely in the air, without any point of reference for where ‘down’ was.

W-what? I blacked out? Did I get hit?

He shook his head, trying to re-order his thoughts. Yet before he could even straighten out his vision, he felt something.

Something he hadn’t felt that clearly in quite a while.

He felt his power flow, as ideas rose up within his mind, concepts, numbers, plans. There were gaps, yes, as always, but they were coming.

“… saved his life… -itch!” shouted a familiar voice. It sounded agitated, outraged.

“Not… get aw… -ster!” another voice, less familiar yet known, replied. It sounded even more agitated and outraged, and hateful besides.

He blinked his eyes, even as he was figuring out what his power was giving him, and his sight resolved to see Amy… Mindstar floating in the air above and slightly in front of him, her left side facing him as she was pressed against a cracked wall.

Another figure, a blonde woman in skintight red, covered in a golden force-field shaped like a female version of a hoplite’s armor, had her fingers dug into the wall to the left and right of Mindstar’s head, one of her feet digging into the bricks bellow for further purchase, as she had her own face just a hand’s span away from Mindstar’s snarling at her with an utterly hateful light in her eyes.

You don’t get to say that, blondie!” Mindstar snarled right back, not looking intimidated at all. “He would’ve died if I hadn’t caught him after that monster slapped him away! Why’re you busting my chops over saving his life!?!

“Hey…” Basil whispered weakly, his mind a mess of conflicting emotions.

He was ignored.

“Why should I believe that’s all you did, much less all you intend? It ain’t beneath you to exploit the situation, you crazy slut!” Amazon shot back, not giving an inch.

Basil frowned at the expletives used… not that he could begrudge Amazon her dislike of his sister… but there were other priorities.

The two of them kept ignoring him – not that he could talk loudly right now – as they snarled and spit at each other like a pair of cats. The only thing missing was for them to start hissing and try to claw each other’s eyes out.

Enough now! He lifted his rifle and aimed between their faces.

A single shot rang out, causing both women to recoil (and Amy to slam the back of her head against the wall – he’d pay for that later, among many other things).

“H-hey!” he croaked, his throat raw. “E-enough!”

They turned to look at him, still angry and hateful, but surprised enough now to take a break from their snarl-fit.

“Brennus, are you alright? She didn’t do anything to you, right?” Amazon said, her face turning concerned as she let go of the wall and turned towards him, extending her left hand towards the wall again to hold onto it closer to Basil, letting her lean closer.

Mindstar crossed her arms behind her, huffing in indignation – though he could tell she was relieved to see him conscious again.

“I am alright… just dizzy… what happened?” he asked, his voice painfully rough.

“You seemed to black out for a few seconds,” Amazon said worriedly. “You fell off Crocell’s neck, and then it hit you with its hand – I don’t think it was aiming at you, it was just turning to face Totemic again – and you flew two blocks away before she-” She threw a hateful look over her shoulder at Mindstar. “Apparently caught you out of the goodness of her heart.”

“This is an S-Class battle, you know,” Mindstar spit right back at her. “We’re supposed to work together, my saving his ass and helping him fight before does not mean I have ulterior motives, you crazy c-“

“Yeah, like you care, psycho!” Amazon screamed back at her. “I’m not trusting you as far as I can spit, and I’m taking this boy to get checked over by some telepaths I can trust! And if they find so much as a hint of mental fuckery from you, I’ll personally lobby for the kill order!”

Mindstar’s face – what could be seen of it, at least – turned red in indignation, and she prepared to shout back, but Basil interrupted them again by shooting his rifle straight up – the last shot of this magazine. He had one more left.

“ENOUGH! We have more important things to worry about!” he shouted at them, making them pay attention to him again. “Bury the hatchet for now, or at least put it on hold, and you-” He pointed at Mindstar, who quirked an eyebrow. “Take me to the staging ground. You-” He pointed at Amazon, figuring that he should keep her busy with something, even if he could do it himself. “Get the message out that I need Polymnia, Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom! They’re to meet me at the staging ground! And I need someone to get me a line to whoever’s operating that Subjugator!”

“What? Why? What is this all about?” Amazon asked, stunned.

“I’d like to know that, too,” Mindstar said, crossing her arms again as she looked suspiciously at him. “What are you thinking?”

They couldn’t see his grin underneath his mask, but he thought they could hear it. “Get me to the others.” His power was firing on all cylinders, better than it had in months. “I know how to kill this thing.”

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Patreon & New Chapter

First, about the chapter – the first draft is complete and I am actually quite satisfied with it, so I’m going to get down to write the body of the chapter now; I actually have a release date in sight for it, more on that in a bit.

Secondly, about the Patreon. As many of you may know, I originally did not want to do Patreon until I managed to keep up a satisfying release schedule. Obviously, that has not happened.

Equally obviously, trying to balance two jobs, seminars and a social life are not conductive to establishing said schedule in the first place. So after repeated prodding from my dear fans, as well as several people close to me, I have decided to swallow my unproductive pride and open a Patreon for any who want to to support my writing.

I am currently in the process of setting up said account and my Patreon site, as well as defining some kind of tiers… unfortunately, I won’t be able to promise a steady flow of chapters unless we hit a certain minimum amount of money a month, if only so I can quit one of my jobs and, you know, focus on this.

That being said, I am not going to rush this. As such, the Patreon will go live on January 10, which also happens to be my birthday, at 12:00 am, Central European Time (UTC+1).

The new chapter will go live five days before that, on January 5, at 12:00 am CET.

There’ll be at least one more update regarding the Patreon situation on this blog, in the intervening time – I intend to share my thoughts on it all as I work it out. Stay tuned for more, and thank you all for your continued support and incessant prodding – keep them coming!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B12.11 Born At Sleep

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A flickering, unstable line, looking more like a bolt of blue-white lightning than some kind of beam, shot out of the rail-like barrel of the subjugator’s main weapon, hitting Crocell dead centre.

Basil felt an odd tug in the back of his head, something that felt almost nostalgic, as he watched the discharged energy dance over the monster’s hide, lesser bolts branching out of the impact site to score its upper arms, its face and its stomach, as the main bolt burned a hole into its chest, the outer layers of its hide and flesh seeming to outright disintegrate as the initial blast hit them, while the flesh and bones below were torn apart and burned with lesser intensity, yet no more slowly than before as the attack tore into its chest.

Now what does that remind me of? Basil asked himself, surprised by the sensation – he was quite certain he’d never built anything like that, nor even made plans for anything truly comparable – even his disintegration beam, had building it worked out, would have operated differently than this. He elected to keep watching (like he was going to pass up the chance to watch Sovereign’s creation at work – in fact, he was recording it all for uploading to Toybox later) and try to recapture that sensation, perhaps even trace it back to its origin.

It became immediately evident that the weapon was not meant for sustained fire – the bolt was not maintained at all, merely discharged upon the foe, going on for a mere three or four seconds (he’d have to time it later) before the barrel and Crocell were no longer connected by it.

Residuel energy danced along the barrel of the Subjugator’s weapon as well as within the wound that had been burned into the monster’s body. Most of its chest was gone, leaving only the very edges intact, wrapping around the gaping hole that went so deep, it revealed the beast’s spine. Pale, now burned flesh still clung to the exposed bones, if barely, but if it had ever had actual organs in there, they were now gone. Yet even with this much damage done, Basil could clearly see the telltale bubbling of its remaining flesh, as it produced more material to rebuild itself with – though, in all fairness, it seemed to work much slower upon this wound than upon previous ones.

Crocell’s eye swiveled down to look upon the gaping hole, as if in disbelief – not that any actual emotion could be made out on its face, if it could even be called that. And then… it collapsed, simply folding upon itself.

“GAZE UPON OUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN’S MIGHT! WHAT YOU COULD NOT ACCOMPLISH WITH DOZENS OVER NIGH ON A HALF-HOUR, ONE OF THE LEAST OF HIS CREATIONS DID IN 4 SECONDS!!!” the choir of voices shouted over the machine’s loudspeakers and the com channels. Basil could not even begrudge them (or him, or it) hacking into his own – however they had managed it – after seeing that demonstration. They’d done more damage in one shot than the alliance of heroes and villains had done during the entire fight.

But how? That is the question, he asked himself, while the Subjugator began to unload its secondary armaments – swarms of micro-missiles raining down on Crocell’s body. The explosions were so intense, they shook the entire block, causing glass to break for at least another block in every direction. How does that weapon work, that it would cause so much damage. Worst of all, he knew that he could figure it out, couldn’t shake the feeling that the answer was there, within reach, but something was preventing him from making the connection, from truly grasping it.

The bombardment continued while he fought with his own brain, trying to bridge that gap that kept him from figuring out what he knew he should be able to figure out. It was just like his problems with inventing that he’d had for a while now, that maddening sensation of a gap, of a wall that kept him from reaching the answers, from truly tapping fully into his power.

The Subjugator ran out of micro-missiles, or perhaps it simply decided – if such a term could apply to an automated gadget – to stop and see how its assault had affected the monster.

A blue-white beam lanced out of the smoke and dust, even as the sounds of collapsing structures continued, the street visibly sagging as it sunk towards the local Shades. It hit the Subjugator dead-centre – or would have, except it was stopped by its force-fields flaring up a few metre in front of the aircraft itself.

Basil watched in amazement as its shields visibly strained, creating a frankly gorgeous lightshow, yet held, deflecting the beam at no harm to the actual subjugator. It blared something, another praise of Sovereign along with a boast regarding its prowess, but he didn’t bother to listen; he wasn’t even looking at the Subjugator itself anymore, as much as he would have liked to, as seductive as it was to his sensibilities as a Gadgeteer, because Crocell was lumbering out of the dust and smoke that the assault upon him had kicked up.

Only, it couldn’t really be said that he was lumbering anymore and, frankly, what came out of the dust cloud bore little resemblance to the beast they’d been fighting until now.

It had grown slim, its shape compacted into a wiry, humanoid form, though it somehow looked even more unnatural than before. It was less than half its previous size, even though it looked like it had grown taller, up to twenty metre from its feet to its head, yet so compact it still seemed to consist of less mass than before. Its torso and hips reminded Basil of nothing so much as an emaciated human, a mummy perhaps, the flesh gone to the point where the bones were visible, only the effect was twisted, even more unsettling due to what was frankly an inhuman bone structure, its ribcage seemingly extending to cover its stomach and attach directly to its hips, from which a pair of long, spindly legs with overly thick, knot-like knees and ankles protruded, ending toe-less, sickle-like feet balancing on their tips. The legs as a whole were longer than its torso was, and its arms were longer still, almost twice as long as it was tall. It was bent forward, its arms angled with the hands – which looked more like two irregular, uneven masses of tentacles than actual hands spreading out over the ground like roots – on the broken street, yet its elbows stuck far up above its torso. Its head had changed, as well, gaining definition. It now had a noticable neck, though it was unnaturally thin and flexible, judging by how it was twisting and turning its head every which way, taking in its surroundings. There seemed to be a skull beneath the skin, now, if not a human one; its maw, wide and gaping as before, was placed normally, facing forward, but its eye stuck out of the upper left portion of its skull, where the left temple should’ve been, making up almost a third of the head’s mass like some kind of bulbuous tumor. It had no features other than those two. Its skin had lost its camouflage – not that it had been of use to it, thanks to Hollywood’s power making stealth nearly impossible – and now had a dull green-blue colour, like an algae-filled patch of the ocean, brightening and darkening in odd, nauseating patterns. Its huge eye swerved around in its socket, until it focused on the Subjugator, which was hovering just out of reach of its over-long arms.

Another change? Did taking so much damage trigger it, perhaps, or is it just going to keep changing its form as time passes, regardless of what happens to it? Neither was a welcome thought – one meant that fighting it would only drive it to take new and potentially more dangerous forms, the other meant that not fighting and putting it down as quickly as they could would only lead it to become more and more dangerous, if it also happened to improve itself with each metamorphosis. We will not know until we try, Basil thought as he took a few steps back, before turning around and leaping off the rooftop, only to swing and pull himself onto another one, a street away. Best to keep a certain distance.

Just in time, in fact, because mere seconds after he’d done so, Crocell let loose a rumbling roar that shook the buildings around it, destroying what little glass was left intact, while at the same time releasing a ridiculous amount of mist – not steam, it did not seem to be hot at all – that spread in a huge, almost explosive wave, covering the entire block around it, up to the street he’d just swung across, yet not reaching the rooftop he was on – but the one he’d been standing on before was barely visible now, and he’d lost sight of Crocell entirely, even though its elbows should have stuck out of the billowing mist; it must have lowered them to hide better.

The Subjugator was still visible (he suspected they were programmed to be as noticable as possible – Sovereign’s ego was the stuff of legends for a reason) as it floated just above the mist, its four spherical “eyes” moving in a regular pattern to scan the area in front and below.

“SUCH INSOLENCE! DO YOU TRULY BELIEVE SUCH A PUNY TRICK WOULD HIDE YOU FROM OUR SOVEREIGN’S MIGHTY SENSORS!?!” Its energy gun lit up again, firing a smaller but no less bright arc of… whatever it was that it fired, right into the mist.

There was a loud crack as the mist was blown away, dispersed, revealing Crocell once more. The blow had, apparently, struck the changed creature just as it had been about to run into a side street and thrown it over, its upper half slamming into a the corner of a smaller building – the source of the earlier cracking sound, continuing now as the building tilted, then collapsed, falling onto the scrambling beast. Basil just barely managed to get a look at the damage done, a whole chunk of its torso, just underneath the left armpit, was gone. Fresh flesh was already forming, yes, as the burned and blackened edges of the wound literally melted off, but it was nonetheless every bit as big a hit as earlier, its new body proving to be no more resistant to the effect than before.

“Any idea what kind of weapon that is?”

Basil flinched at the sudden appearance of the voice, barely preventing himself from humiliating himself by squealing. It helped that the familiar voice only startled and didn’t scare him.

Taking a deep breath, he looked to his right, at the tall figure in purple standing there, balancing on those ridiculous heels of hers (they could have contained lightsabers for all he cared and it wouldn’t have made him any happier – she already drew too many of those looks from guys for him to feel comfortable about) in a casual pose, her arms crossed underneath her chest – he’d found out, to his consternation, that she did that pose deliberately, to draw attention to her chest. Another detail that grated.

He averted his eyes – easy to do, he didn’t like seeing her in her costume – and looked around both with his own eyes and his ravens, to make sure no one was near; making sure his communicator wasn’t picking up any sound, either.

“Hello Amy,” he greeted her warmly, if carefully; he was well aware of how little she liked seeing him here. “No, I do not know what that is, not exactly. I have a few suspicions, but nothing I would feel confident about.”

“Sucks,” she replied, seemingly as casual as when she’d discuss a news report, even though he could hear a certain tightness to her tone of voice. “I’d sure as hell like to know how it’s causing that kind of damage. Even Old Crocface couldn’t hurt that thing all that much.”

“I am absolutely certain that it is important. Figuring out why could be crucial to defeating Crocell, but I just can not quite figure it out!” he replied in frustration. His power had been misfiring for over a month now and he was absolutely certain that this inability to reach that conclusion he could feel in the back of his head where his power rested was a part of that. “I need more data.” He glanced at her again. “What can you tell me about it, so far? What have you been trying throughout the battle?” He had not seen her engage the beast, so far, yet he doubted that she’d been lazy.

“I’ve been trying to attack it telepathically,” she answered immediately, shifting her weight a bit to cock her hip, her left hand resting on the outward curve, while she gestured with her right hand – an unconcious stance she usually assumed when explaining something. “There’s loads of physical powerhouses here, nothing I could do on that level would be all that different from what they’re already doing, but I’m the only rea-“

She was interrupted by a painfully loud screeching sound, causing both of them to turn towards the battle, where Crocell had apparently tried to disengage the Subjugator, only to run into a huge spider’s web stretched across the street, from building to building. A cape was adding more and more lines of whatever material they used to create said web, the lithe figure vaulting all over the place to shoot the stuff from their hands, throwing out lines that’d attach to one of Crocell’s limbs, then to a building on the opposite side from its body, tightening their hold. Meanwhile, the Subjugator was approaching, its… Arc Cannon! he decided to call it… charging up again as another cape had turned into a localized twister of blades that were tearing into Crocell from the opposite side, creating that loud screeching sound as the countless cutting implements ground against its now much tougher hide, scoring it only superficially.

“As I said,” Amy continued, raising her voice so she’d be heard over the cacophony. “I’m the only real telepath here, so I was trying to see whether I could take over its mind, or at least impede or distract it, but it’s no use!”

“Why!?”

“It doesn’t really have a normal mind!” she explained. “It’s not a human nor an animal! I can feel its mind, but it’s too different for me to connect! Diffuse, like it’s… spread out, decentralised!” She brought her hands together for the last part, spreading her fingers apart in an accompanying gesture.

“A diffuse mind…” He turned away from her, looking at the fight. The Subjugator had yet to fire its arc cannon again, probably so as to avoid killing the capes who were currently in close proximity to the struggling Crocell. More melee fighters had joined the blade-storm cape and the spider-web cape. Someone was manifesting ribbons of some kind of shimmering, almost liquid-seeming metal, using them to further bind the monster, the strange material wrapping around it before it extended to the street below, fusing with the ground to tie him. Another cape, this one visibly at work, was shoring up the buildings which the web-maker had attached their web to, his tall form clad in armor that looked like it had been made out of layers of concrete as he waved his hands, causing spikes of concrete to just up from the street and brace against the structural hard points of the buildings. Several more were right on Crocell attacking him directly while avoiding causing damage to the web or being in the line of fire of the arc cannon.

“Got any bright ideas, baby bro’?” Amy quipped while admiring the spectacle. At least some of those capes had to be a team, or otherwise used to working together, blending their abilities too smoothly for it to be on the fly. “Any ideas for some kinda miracle machine that’s gonna end this?”

“Anything I came up with now would be mere guesswork,” he replied while lifting his rifle, using the scope to take a closer look at the capes. “I need more data.” Besides, I am not at all certain I could trust my power to come up with anything useful even if I had the data.

The web-maker was a young woman in a skintight black-and-blue outfit that clung to her like a second skin, its collar extending up to cover her face up to the bridge of her nose, leaving only her impossibly blue eyes, forehead, ears and brown hair free. Basil recognised her as Weaver, a popular cape from San Diego.

The concrete-manipulator had to be Rebar, one of her more recurring foes. Which meant the storm of blades was Taz, and the ribbons had to be from Shimmer. The three of them had been solo villains, as likely to fight each other as to fight the heroes, who’d been repeatedly foiled by Weaver, only to band together into a villain team not so long ago (though they’d still gotten their asses kicked by her).

It seemed that years of fighting each other had tought the four of them a surprising amount of teamwork, and they seemed to have Crocell quite neatly tied up by now, as Weaver and Shimmer were extending their bindings even into its body, where Taz had managed just enough damage to let them hook right into its flesh.  The Subjugator, meanwhile, was waiting to deliver what would hopefully be the finishing shot, if only to incapacitate it and allow for more thorough bindings.

So, of course Crocell had to pull out a new trick it hadn’t used before. Its hide began to melt as it literally slid out of its own, gaping maw, leaving its now semi-liquid outer layer behind within the bindings, its exit from its own skin so forceful it was catapulted high in the air, catching everyone by surprise.

Everyone except the Subjugator and Weaver, apparently. Both reacted near instantly. In fact, Weaver reacted faster than the machine with its combat protocols that had been honed over a decade of optimization.

Standing horizontally on a building’s wall, she made a throwing motion with both hands, as thin lines extended from them towards Crocell, attaching to its lower legs.

Basil saw her twist her whole body in a violent pulling motion, singlehandedly arresting Crocell’s flight over the Subjugator.

Instead of getting away from the capes and cowls that had been binding it, and moving behind its most powerful adversary, Crocell was now completely exposed above the hovering warmachine, almost seeming to float for a moment before gravity kicked in.

The Subjugator moved smoothly, as if having expected Weaver’s action, orienting its whole frame upwards. The arc cannon roared in thunder, briefly whiting out Basil’s field of view.

When he could see again, he saw Crocell’s headless body tumble down towards the ground, its disproportionate limbs flapping around its body without grace nor strength.

Did that do it? he asked himself, lowering his rifle again. He could feel Amy’s tension next to him, as she probably asked herself the very same thing.

The Subjugator began to move out of the way of the tumbling body, as its choral voice blared through the comm system again. “FALL, GRACELESS BEAST! FALL BEFORE THE INFINITE MIGHT OF YOUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN!!!”

I really need to figure out how to proof my own network against this, Basil thought, even if he wasn’t sure he could. For all the breadth of his talents, software security was not one of his strengths.

His thoughts on the subject were, however, interrupted by Amy’s sudden gasp. Jerked out of the brief mental detour, Basil realised that Crocell had not been simply falling down – the seemingly random flapping and twisting of its limbs had re-angled its fall, causing it to land atop the Subjugator – only to slam onto its upward force-field.

The flickering, blueish-white field became visible upon Crocell coming into contact with it. The field bucked against his weight, but held without showing any further strain as the Subjugator continued to fly backwards, while Crocell started to slide off the frictionless pane, its body continuing to flail and trash around, bleeding profusely from the stump of its neck, its blood still pale and watery, yet still distinct from actual water.

Its body slid off the nose of the Subjugator, falling down – but it stopped as one of its impossibly long arms lashed out, striking the top of the Subjugator’s nose, just over its upper ‘eye’. Crocell’s fingers penetrated the force-field and somehow found purchase in it, the field bucking, flickering, but holding, and holding the monster up as well as it dangled from the Subjugator by one hand.

“What the hell!?” Basil couldn’t hold the shout back. “How does that even work!?” He was hardly an expert on force-fields, but even he knew that that should not work – Crocell’s fingers should either have caused the field to collapse or else been cut off by it as its weight pulled them against its sharp edge.

“UNHAND ME, WRETCHED BEAST!” The machine roared in indignation, extending a duo of coils from each side, just in front of its wings. Both sets of man-sized coils lit up, lightning dancing first between them, and then all over the Subjugator and its force-field.

Crocell made a wheezing sound, causing more blood to bubble out of its neck, its body seizing up and trashing about – but it kept its grip, refusing to let go.

“Basil, are you seeing that?” Amy asked, pointing at the struggle. “Look at Crocell’s head!”

He tore his eyes away from the weird sight of Crocell holding onto what was, according to rumors, some kind of electromagnetic field interacting weirdly with kinetic energy, and looked at where Crocell’s head should be. Then he blinked, and looked again.

It had begun to regenerate from the stump upwards, forming cartilaginous bone, pale muscle and flesh, more like a fish than anything else.

So far, so normal. Or as normal as superpowers ever really got.

The electrocution it was undergoing, though, revealed a very odd effect. The dancing lightning was incinerating and, in some cases, literally obliterating parts of the growth, slowing the process down.

However, only the pieces that were directly hit by the lightning fell off. Clumps of flesh blackened and disintegrated into ash, leaving others to float free within the space where its head should be. He could see bits of brain matter, parts of the cheekbone, half a tongue, untouched by the lightning as more flesh and bone grew from the stump, reaching towards the free-floating pieces. Even when Crocell turned its head, they kept their orientation, turning as if the head was whole already, just partly invisible.

Basil stared, trying to process that. It meant something, something important, he was sure of it! Its parts were being held in place by something, but what could that be?

Strands of flesh reached the top of the head, bone growing out of them to form a quart of the eye-socket, which was rapidly filled in by Crocell’s huge, singular eye, the nearly free-floating orb immediately starting to look around, at the same time at which it started to pound on the Subjugator from below, its free fist slamming into its lower force-field over and over again.

The Subjugator kept shouting its phrases as it unloaded its short-range weaponry on Crocell, trying to dislodge the beast, aiming mostly at its arm in an attempt to cut it off – but with their positions right then, it could not use its arc cannon against the constantly regenerating monster, denying it the one weapon which had proven to actually cause meaningful damage to Crocell.

Its repeated attacks at such close range were showing an effect, too; the Subjugator’s shields were visibly straining, turning nearly opaque as they rippled with…

…kinetic energy being transformed into electric energy, recharging its reserves while discharging the excess through the field’s matrix as photons.

Basil blinked. That thought had come up out of nowhere, right from the back of his mind, from his power. I’ve never heard it so clearly.

The pounding continued – and then stopped, moments before a glint of light could be seen on Crocell’s eye. His half-formed head, still being ravaged by electricity from the Subjugator’s twin coils, turned to look away from the Subjugator, as something bounced off its eye again, creating another tiny spark.

Basil followed its gaze, though he already knew what he’d see – there was only person who could draw its attention like that.

Tyche was back, together with Waverider this time, standing atop his namesake wave in an almost casual stance, as he knelt in front of her, allowing her to point her weapon forward, aiming at Crocell. Hollywood’s light followed them closer, casting its spell on the battlefield.

She opened fire, barely bothering to aim – between her power and Hollywood’s, there was little point to it, especially since her actual ability to aim was atrocious – and her every shot hit true.

Huh.

Basil lifted his rifle, zooming in with the scope once more. Tyche fired another shot, continuing to hit the exact same spot in spite of Waverider being constantly in motion, his power unable to simply hover in place.

Again he watched her hit the same spot, blowing a tiny chunk of matter off its eye, the damage growing back faster than she could squeeze the trigger.

And every time, there was a tiny ripple there, a glint of light that Basil would never have noticed, were it not for Hollywood’s power making everything stand out so much more starkly.

“Amy,” he spoke up, lowering his rifle.

“Yeah?” she said from his side.

“I need you to throw me at Crocell,” he said simply.

There was a moment of silence. “Excuse me, I must temporarily have been dipping into some weird parallel reality, because that sounded like you, dearest soft and squishy little brother of mine, want me to throw you at the giant, city-wrecking monster that’s currently tangoing with a killing machine made by a madman even I think is crazy,” she replied in a deadpan voice.

“If you could, aim so I will hit the wrist of the hand stuck to the force-field,” he elaborated, as he looked to the side at the look of disbelief even her mask could not hide. “I need to… gather data.” He was sure he was on the verge of pushing his power over the edge. He just needed a little more information.

Amy lifted her hand, pinching the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes. “I hate you just for making that request. Do you really think I would do that? Why would I ever do that?”

Behind his mask, Basil’s face twisted into a frown. He knew Amy hated it when he put himself into any kind of danger whatsoever – her idea of his villain career in her organisation had been to lock him into a workshop with endless supplies and never let him see actual combat – and he knew her well enough to tell that it took all her self control not to grab him and just fly away from this place; but he had to get there, and quickly, before Crocell broke free from the Subjugator.

He’d only have one shot at convincing her.

“You will do it, Amy, because you are a villain… and I am a hero. I have kept quiet and not done anything to hinder you from doing what you do and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy in turn.”

“Letting you be a superhero does not require any positive action on my part, like, oh say, throwing my squishy little brother at a fucking kaiju!” she almost shrieked in response, leaning forward until her face was level with his.

His hands clenched on the grip and barrel of his rifle, trying not to show the tremors he could feel – though whether it was anger at her refusal, fear at the insane stunt he was intending to perform or expectation at what might come of it, he could not say – as he took a deep breath.

“Amy… please.”

She reared back as if he’d slapped her. “Basil…”

He kept his voice as soft as he could. “Amy, this thing… it has to be stopped. People have died already trying to stop it. I have to help in any way I can, and I really, truly think that I can figure out something useful if I just get onto it before it gets away from the Subjugator. Please, let me do my job. Do not treat me as your little brother, treat me as a… a fellow warrior on this battlefield.”

She looked away from him, biting her lower lip. He could not truly lay claim to know how she really felt – their situations were too different, in too many ways – but he knew that he’d hate the thought of her going up against something she could not effectively defend herself against.

So he stayed quiet and let her think it over, hoping that she’d come to a quick conclusion, while the battle raged behind him; he could hear Crocell’s beam, see it through the cracked interface of his mask that was still connected to his ravens, but his focus was on Amy.

After almost half a minute, she released her breath, seeming to sag a bit, before she drew herself up again.

“Alright. I’m not going to throw you at this thing,” His hands clenched even tighter on the weapon, as he tried to think of another argument to make. “But I’m going to take you there,” she continued before he could open his mouth, her mouth twisting into a thin, weak smile. “That way, I can at least do my best to keep my idiot baby bro alive.”

He released a breath he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding, easing the grip on his weapon. “Oh. Right. I should have thought of that option.” Not that he really wanted her to get too cl- no, that would just be hypocritical.

A chuckle escaped her lips as she stalked forward on those ridiculous heels, confidence returning to her posture. “Typical. My little genius idiot.”

Without preamble, she lifted him telekinetically, her power wrapping gently around him; so gently, he could barely tell that any force was being exerted on him, as if he was just suddenly floating on his own.

“Let’s go ‘gather data’, baby bro.”

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