About Comments…

Hello everyone,

this isn’t a story post, sadly, but one regarding some technical difficulties that have been ongoing for a while – it appears that wordpress has some kind of issue that keeps pending comments off the list for me.

Some appear, some don’t. Some come in days, weeks or, in a case I noticed today, months late.

If you’ve been commenting here for a while and your comments have yet to appear, that may be the reason for it. I’m trying to figure out how to fix this, but for now, it appears that whether or not I even get to decide whether to approve a comment or not is up to the RNG.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

15.5 All Masks Fall

Exposed – she was tough, but not very strong. If anything, she was weaker than her sheer mass would suggest. Defensive mutations, sacrificing power for survivability. She was tall, broad, closer to a male heavyweight lifter than any kind of woman, but was on record for only having the strength of a normal teenage girl. What made her problematic was how tough she was, her body adapted to easily resist temperature extremes and electrocution, as well as being slashed, stabbed and especially blunt impacts. What made her dangerous was her ability to generate fire or ice, the ‘or’ being operative, from her hands. She could shoot streams of flames that’d not only burn, but adhere to solid objects and, provided there was fuel available, spread out; alternatively, she could fire something halfway between a foam and a liquid, a substance which would absorb any heat it got into contact with and turn into ice. If she covered a person with it, they’d end up like the two preschoolers kneeling by the swings, arms wrapped around each other – frozen solid from head to toe, as all warmth was leeched from the victim, the liquid that’d covered them expanding into irregular icicles.

El Conquistadore – he was the real danger to watch out for. His power meant that he had complete control over any water outside of a living body, so long as he was in contact with it – and as Melody walked out from her hiding place and approached them under the cover of her cone of silence, she could see that he wasn’t just wet, he stood in a puddle of water which extended into multiple streams connecting him to the four pools of water and the pool of blood and gore. Smart, smarter than his lifestyle suggested he was, which bode ill for anyone facing him. Via those streams, he would be able to control all that water at will, move it around like an extension of his body, use it to smash people to paste, to drown them or otherwise to assault them. Worse, if he managed to make physical contact with exposed skin – and Melody was quite aware of the fact that most of her upper body was fully exposed – his power would extend into her body, and he could paralyze her, tear apart her insides at a moment’s notice or simply cause her to explode. Her physical toughness was unlikely to be sufficient to even slow him down.

I need to take them out fast. But first, I need to make sure I won’t hit the civilians, as well. Without the tuners in my armor, I don’t have the precision to take them down from this angle, without at the very least crippling the father and son, she thought, stepping closer, trying to stay behind the two villains.

If she could get close enough to strike, physically, then she might be able to take out El Conquistadore before the battle even begun; Exposed on her own was dangerous, but Melody was confident she could take her on by herself without endangering the civilians.

She was barely halfway along the way to reaching the villains – not making any sounds at all meant she was well-concealed from detection, so long as they didn’t turn their heads – when the young man that was bleeding out through his stump, his father unable to staunch the bleeding, looked up and straight at her.

He moaned, in pain most likely, almost certainly involuntarily, but it was enough. El Conquistadore turned his head and looked, only for his eyes to widen when he caught sight of her.

You,he snarled, his beautiful face contorting into utter hatred. “I remember you – you’re that cow that made me shit my pants in front of everyone!” he explaimed, speaking with an unmistakable, though easily understandable, Spanish accent.

“Oops,” she replied, feeling her face heat up a bit, actually. “I forgot I used my brown note, back then…”

Just as she had expected, those words only made him angrier, as a vein began to stand out and pulse on his forehead.

“You forgot!? You turned me into laughingstock, you coño!” he shouted, as the water and blood rose out of the pools around them, like fat, bloated spiders standing on spindly legs, ready to strike.

I’ve got to deal with this the same way Brennus took on Mindstar – an enemy who’s way more powerful than me, who only needs to hit once to beat me, so I only get one shot to do this right, she strategized in her head, even as she deliberately put a swagger into her step, the way she’d seen older performers walk when they wanted to appear extra-sexy. Add a sweet, but condescending smile, tune her vocoder for maximum mockery…

“Well, I just assumed you of all people would be able to clean up easily,” she said.

That did it. The bastard lost it, screaming, his pretty face distorted in anger; a gesture made the streams of water he was using to stay connected to the pools leap up into his hands, held like reigns or leashes, and he snapped them towards her.

“You puta, I’m going to…”

Four blobs of dirty water and one blob of blood and worse shot at her, but she was already moving, having expected a straight-forward, blunt attack like this.

If he’d been smart, if he’d retreated instead of attacked, put the hostages between himself and her, spread the water out to make the terrain impassable and hem her in… she could have been in serious trouble.

This, this was easy to deal with. Dude has a surprisingly thin skin.

She shot forward, low and fast, moving her legs as hard as she could; with strength far in excess of what would be needed to normally move a body as heavy as hers, that meant some serious burst of speed that she could generate, using it to close the distance between herself and him.

“… grab those fat cow tits of yours and…”

Melody dove underneath the attack, rolling past him. She was so close to the armless young man now, one of his feet was between her knees, as she came to a halt, twisting left at the same time that she stood up.

El Conquistadore was slow to react, turning at the waist, left arm trying to track her, but too slow to do so. His lack of actual training showed, because he’d have had a better chance of tagging her if he’d just lashed out with his power, rather than try to bodily turn and aim at her.

Exposed, on the other hand, was already in the perfect position to hit her, the civilians, or even both.

Melody didn’t give her the chance. As she came up, she grabbed the woman’s outstretched right arm. She couldn’t be sure that a punch or a kick wouldn’t be absorbed, or at least mitigated by her weird biology – but Exposed had been so kind as to publish her precise weight, and keep it updated to boot.

Seventy-eight kilogram and some change was far below the kind of weight Melody felt confident tossing around.

She pulled on Exposed’s arm, taking her off her feet, and swung the woman with all her strength at El Conquistadore’s legs.

He cried out, his legs smashed out from under him, flipping him over and disrupting his concentration on his power.

The blobs of water and gore collapsed, momentum causing the resulting flood to surge towards them, but at least the actual attack was foiled.

Melody continued her swing, then released Exposed’s arm, tossing her across the misshapen area and into one of the empty pools.

Dirty water washed over her feet, the prone El Conquistadore and the civilians, and Melody kept moving, knowing full well that she was one brief touch to her exposed stomach, arms or face away from being completely at the scumbag’s mercy.

She put her feet on his wrists, while he was still sputtering and spitting out water, and bent over.

He began to say something in Spanish, but she just thrust her hands down, crossing her arms. Her armored fists hit the wet, soggy ground next to his ears. She’d crossed them, so the back of her left gauntlet was next to his right ear, and the back of the right one next to the left one.

Speakers just a few centimeters away from his ears.

She dialed the volume way up and triggered them, even as the parts of her visor that fit like headphones over her ears clamped down and sealed themselves to protect her sensitive hearing.

Even so, the noise was horrible. A huge, sharp, high-pitched wail, so powerful that, even though the gauntlets were designed to focus sound only in specific directions – in this case, directly into his ears – she could feel the vibrations in her bones, in her teeth. Water was blown away all around them, and the father and son were thrown over, from sitting up on the ground to lying flat, followed by the mother and her child, whom threw herself over the boy and covered his ears with her hands for good measure.

Their reactions were nothing compared to El Conquistadore’s, whom bucked and strained, almost managing to dislodge her from atop him. His eyes were wide, and filling with blood already as capillaries burst, his mouth wide open as he screamed – but Melody doubted anyone could hear even a hint of it, next to the wail her gauntlets were generating.

The sight turned her stomach.

She still kept it up until he went limp, blood running from ears, eyes and nose, before she cancelled the shriek.

The sudden absence of her gauntlets’ wail plunged the area into almost painful silence – which was promptly broken by the roar of a stream of fire, coming right at Melody’s head.

She could have jumped up to dodge the shot, but that’d expose her to a follow-up attack while she was airborne and thus far more restricted in how to react. She could have used her sonic shield, but, it wasn’t very good at dealing with heat.

Instead, she threw herself forward, rolling out of the way as soon as she heard the roar of flames.

The stream cut through where her head had been just a second ago, and was then followed up by a spike of ice cutting through the air towards her.

Melody planted her feet in the soggy ground and slammed her forearms together, side by side, triggering her sonic shield – the one-directional version of her cage, as she lacked the multiple speakers of her power armor that’d allow her to project the more powerful version.

Even so, the icicle smashed into it and bounced off in pieces, failing to even push her back, in spite of the slick mud she was standing in.

Exposed climbed fully out of the pool that Melody had thrown her in, her odd face twisted in a snarl of anger.

“You’ll die for that, you fucking cow!”, she screamed, gathering flames around her hands, clenching them into fists.

Melody huffed at that. “You were going to kill me anyway, so that rings rather hollow as an added threat!” she replied, starting to walk slowly to the left, as if trying to circle her enemy, though mainly, she wanted to make sure the civilians wouldn’t be in either of their firing lines.

If I get close enough… could I repeat El Conquistadore’s takedown? Her physiology is clearly not entirely human anymore… frankly, she’s basically a Chimaera type, and mostly a defensive one at that, so… would it even work? she thought to herself, feeling far less confident than she pretended to be.

Fortunately, acting confident even when she wasn’t had been one of the first and most useful lessons she’d learned being a performer.

“Maybe I’ll draw it out now,” Exposed snarled, her hands filling with fire again. “Roast you from the toes up! I wonder how you’ll be singing while I do that!”

Fuck, these crazies are so boring to listen to, Melody thought to herself, feeling weary.

Not too weary to dodge the next blast of fire though – thank God for all those training sessions she’d hated for taking her out of her workshop.

Roll over shoulder, to the side – Exposed tried to anticipate that, using her other hand to add a second stream of liquid fire, but she’d either forgotten or not realized that Melody was physically enhanced as well; the second stream lagged behind her, missing wide.

Still, all was not well – too much of the area around the civilians was burning, and just one mistake on Melody’s part could spell doom for them, if they were caught in Exposed’s fires. Worse stills, the fire she created didn’t seem to stop burning. Rather, it spread, even with nothing to fuel it, flowing over the pavement like a thick, viscous fluid.

Melody ran, breaking out to the left, seemingly to circle around Exposed.

The misshapen woman tried to track her with her arm, but here a downside of her specific delivery method became clear – she was essentially shooting liquid, rather than some kind of beam; it was slow, like trying to follow a target with a water hose, the fluid lagging behind the nozzle.

Running a spiral let Melody evade it and close the distance, as the woman utterly failed to adapt, just standing there and spinning about trying to hit her, laying out an ever-tightening circle of fire.

Can’t get out of this without getting burned now, Melody thought, closing in.

“Stop running and stand still, already!” Exposed shouted, sounding a great deal younger than she looked – filled with an almost childish indignation that only made her seem more unhinged.

Fuck you, Melody thought, as she closed in and leapt onto her.

Exposed squealed, but was neither fast nor trained enough to react – being forced to take martial arts classes paid off, as Melody leapt onto the woman’s back, or to be more precise, she grabbed her outstretched arm while leaping, the same one that was emitting the stream of burning liquid, and used it like a lever to swing herself around her enemy, putting her whole weight into the motion to again plant her feet and lift her up.

“What the-“, was all that Exposed had time to say, before she slammed head-first into a patch of cracked pavement with such force, her head was half-buried in it.

She did not pass out, even with that; instead, she kicked out, wildly, catching Melody by the shoulder.

The kick was nothing special, it would not even have budged Melody, with her feet planted as they were – but indeed, raw pain shot through her body and she reared back, crying out, almost stumbling into the ring of fire around the two of them.

What was that? She looked at her left shoulder, and saw the skin there frozen, cracking open to show raw redness beneath. How? She looked at Exposed’s foot – it was oozing with a clear, white-blue liquid, sizzling with cold as it dripped to the pavement.

She can emit that stuff from parts other than her hands? A trump card she held back until now?

Exposed put her feet down and pushed with her arms, pulling her head out of the hole it’d made in the ground, whirling around to glare at Melody.

Though her strange physiology had saved her from having her head caved in or her neck snapped, she had taken some serious damage – her already misshapen face was smushed further, there was no other word for it, the nose ripped open and flattened, several of her flat teeth missing, visible through torn lips, and her forehead had been ripped so badly a flap of skin was hanging down, covering her left eye.

Even so, she was already, and visibly, starting to mend.

“Ahhhh’ll kiiiill youuuuu!” she screamed, mad with rage – but she didn’t watch her footing, nor the use of her power, and slipped on the very frozen gel her right foot was still spreading, forcing herself into splits.

Ain’t gonna get that good a chance again! Melody thought, jumping forward, and thrust her thumbs into her ears, as hard as she could, even though her shoulder screamed in blinding pain.

Exposed screamed in pain, as Melody felt the sickening sensation of her thumbs piercing the woman’s ear drums.

Go down already! Melody thought, screaming wordlessly at the same time, unable to form the words out loud, and triggered her gauntlets at the highest setting, channeling it through her thumbs and right into the villain’s skull.

It felt like her bones were cracking, breaking, but the effect on Exposed was nothing short of gruesome, as her widely-spaced eyes flew open and bugged out, going cross-eyed, blood vessels all over her face bursting, as the vibrations ran through her cranium and bounced around inside.

Melody was way beyond caring whether or not she killed. She could feel sick and rotten later, after she’d taken these monsters out.

To that end, she kept up the assault, even as bloody froth bubbled out of her enemy’s mouth, and she would have kept it up until Exposed’s brain liquefied, if she could.

However, as her punches and shoves proved unable to dislodge Melody – Exposed really did not have a lot of physical strength – the villain changed it up, pulling out another trick which wasn’t on her record.

Blue and red liquid, droplets and rivulets, oozed out of her skin, all over, and reacted against each other, before Melody could do more than lean back, her thumbs still stuck inside the woman’s ears.

Heat and cold reacted with each other, and there was a powerful explosion, which literally blew her off of the villain, a sharp pain in her thumbs making her feel like they’d finally snapped for good.

Melody tumbled across the ground, until she slammed into an outcropping of concrete, hard enough it stunned her even through her enhanced physique.

Exposed was even worse off – the woman was screaming at the top of her lungs, scrambling about, trying to get on her feet, yet unable to. Blood was pouring out of her ruined ears, and though Melody had been unable to kill her, she’d utterly destroyed her inner ears, completely robbing her of any sense of balance.

She lay there, dazed, watching the woman spew burning and freezing liquid here and there, her screams so loud they cut even through her daze and made her ears hurt.

Fuck, I didn’t mean to torture her, Melody thought, horrified at the display.

She got up, slowly, walking towards the trashing woman, as she stopped using her power and just rolled left and right on the ground, screaming way past the point where a normal human’s throat would have become too raw to continue.

“Don’t worry, I’ll put you to sleep,” Melody said, her artificial voice calm and soothing, as she reached the writhing woman. “It’ll all be over soon.”

She reached out with her right hand, idly noting that her thumb, while broken, was already mending, aiming to lull the woman to sleep with one of her slower melodies..

And then there was a spark, a tongue of flame, connecting with Exposed’s wide open mouth.

And the deformed villain burst into flames from the inside out.

Melody cried out, horrified, raising her arms to shield herself – but she was not burned. Rather, the flames which consumed her down to a charred skeleton roared up, almost like a burning snake, and before Melody could do anything to help, lunged over to El Conquistadore’s unconscious form, setting him ablaze as well.

“Well, I guess now I know why Hemming wanted to give these posers another shot,” a mocking female voice spoke up.

Melody turned left and looked up, her blood running cold as she saw the speaker – a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, if that old, standing atop a ruined building. Stark naked and clearly comfortable with it, she had bright red, nearly knee-length hair, which seemed to be threaded through with licks and flickers of real fire and a pair of eyes which, though green, seemed to burn from the inside, the green colors flickering with the illumination from within, her pupils turned to red-orange dots.

She would have been beautiful if it wasn’t for the contemptuous expression on her face, and the deranged look in her eyes, as she brushed her hair back behind her ears with both hands.

“That was bloody hilarious,” Fire Burial said with a childish grin on her face.

15.4 All Masks Fall

Melody had read a lot about how horrific telepathy was to those who’d fallen victim to it. To have someone else invade your head, your thoughts and memories – things that, above all else, should be sacrosanct. She’d read reports of people, civilians and heroes alike, who’d reported to have felt more violated by having their brains looked through than by straight-up mind control. Reports by psychologists, theorizing that the reason why telepathy in all its forms was so feared was because it was so far outside the human experience.

To have your body violated, horrific though it is, was something that, sadly, humans had had a long, long time to adapt to, both mentally and socially. But before the advent of powers, a direct violation of the mind had, to anyone’s knowledge, been impossible, and it struck right at the core of people themselves; thus the visceral, extreme reaction to it.

Mindstar’s career was emblematic of that. She had been just a B-Class villain, bordering on A, and then she’d been revealed as a telepath. She wasn’t the strongest mind-controller out there, she hadn’t even been the most powerful one on the East Coast, but the sheer fear that true telepaths generated had vaulted her up to S-Class, even before she’d managed to actually give Lady Light a fair fight.

Melody had never really absorbed all of that information, not really. Her only experience with telepathy had been through Irene, who’d mostly used it only as an advanced com-system in combat, and so they could chat and gossip while seemingly doing serious stuff, and who’d only ever read the surface thoughts Melody had concentrated on, that she’d been willing to share.

Now, though, now she understood. Better than she’d ever would have wanted to. All her power, all her gadgets, had come to naught. Mindfuck had, apparently, not even been anywhere close, and he’d slapped her down with literally just a thought. Riffling through her memories like they’d been an open book. Forcing her to re-experience her own fantasies, and the… the climaxes… she’d experienced, in the course of… her explorations… all at once.

She choked on that thought, only to realize it wasn’t just a mental choke. Scrambling up, she was barely able to turn away from the prone, curled-up mess that was Kizzy, and throw up.

Oh God…

Her skin was crawling, from head to toe, and she felt like she needed to take ten showers, and scrub until her skin was all gone to feel even remotely clean again.

And then he’d made her choke Kizzy, and there’d been nothing she could do to stop it, other than appeal to their own fucked-up rules.

Oh, Kizzy, I’m so sorry.

She turned around, still on all fours, and found Kizzy still curled up into a tight ball, sobbing.

“Kizzy. Can you… hear me?” she asked fearfully, as she reached for the girl, sitting back on her heels and pulling her onto her lap.

There were blackening bruises around her neck, and Melody’s heart broke all over again at seeing them.

She drew the girl to her bosom, hugging her… not too tightly. As gingerly as she could, like she was made of spun glass.

Kizzy sobbed and sobbed, and Melody cried with her. What else could she do?

***

After what felt like hours, but which her visor told her were only a few minutes, Kizzy went limp in her arms.

At first, Melody panicked, fearing after-effects of her choking her, that maybe she’d caused even more damage than the bruises betrayed – but no, she’d simply passed out, slipping into merciful unconsciousness.

I need to get her away from all this. Somehow. I need to get away, somehow.

She stood up, thanking whatever God there may be, that she’d been given some measure of super-strength along with her primary power, as it made Kizzy’s weight completely negligible to her.

Unfortunately, it didn’t make her any less unwieldy to carry. Especially since she needed to have her arms free, to be able to properly defend herself.

In the end, after some thought, she ended up taking off her hoodie – so much for covering up, but it wasn’t like that’d helped at all – and using it to tie a seat, of sorts, for Kizzy, so she was on her back, piggyback style. Not the most secure thing, but it’d have to suffice until she woke up again.

Then she set off once more, splitting her attention between her echolocator and trying to come up with some, any plan.

She couldn’t come under Mindfuck’s power again. She just couldn’t. Even now, just thinking of the experience, it made her knees weak, and her… tender bits, burn up in shame. If he got ahold of her again… she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get up again, even if she survived it.

But… he’d let some things slip. There’d been rumors for years now, that Mindfuck had lost a lot of power, or at least been holding back. For years, he hadn’t performed his favorite ‘game’, forcing an entire city’s population to live through the experience of him abusing a child, and the experience of being the child so abused, at the same time. His cruelties had become… far smaller in scale, though no less horrific.

What he said… some boy, someone managed to ‘break’ him? Cripple him?

If that was true… if she ever ran into that boy, whoever he was, she’d give him her first kiss, that was for sure.

Because that meant… she had a chance to get away. If he was too weak to send to an entire city, now, then perhaps, the reverse was also true – and he’d all but stated that. He couldn’t just connect to every mind at once anymore, nor find any mind within his range… he had to search. To look for someone.

All she had to do was find a way to escape his ‘sight’, however it worked.

Not easily done, at all, not when she didn’t know the exact mechanics and limitations.

What else do I know? I read up on these guys, but they make a point of obfuscating what they’re truly capable of.

One limitation that she did know about, with reasonable certainty…

She looked up at the false sky, and the ‘game show’ running above. It was currently quiet, showing ‘live feeds’ from various parts of the Six’ world… they weren’t pretty sights, but at least none of the ‘PCs’ had been slain or captured y-

Oh no.

She stopped, mid-step.

One of the screens, Atrocity’s ‘game cam’ she supposed, showed said demented disgrace to all gadgeteers, in a sleek, snake-like body, several children held hostage with her trademark reddish blades.

And just a few meters away from her, Harry knelt on the ground, one arm around Thomas’ shoulders, the other holding two redheads, a mother and a daughter going by their age difference and similar faces, spreading his power over them.

Red hair… and Atrocity is there… is that Tyche… and her mother?

She had barely processed all that, when Atrocity drew one of her blades diagonally across a little boy’s stomach, then nudged him forward.

The boy fell on his knees, guts starting to spill out of the razor-fine cut, his hands trying to-

Melody averted her eyes. She couldn’t look. If she saw the child’s face, she knew she’d never be able to forget.

Instead, she looked at the group, as far as that was possible, huddled under Harry’s power. Thomas had his face pressed against his love’s chest, clutching his rifle tightly. Dalia’s mother was holding her daughter, so she couldn’t look, and had her eyes averted.

Harry was wearing his helmet, so it was hard to tell, but she would have wagered anything he was watching that child die, and blaming himself, as if it was his fault.

It was just the right kind of wound, too. Lethal, but probably not instantly so, calculated to be survived, possibly, if immediate aid was given.

Aid they had all been trained on, to know how to provide it.

Harry’s power had originated from him trying to save children, at the risk of his own life.

It was a calculated move, trying to goad him into dropping his power to try and save that child.

Melody had never hated anyone or anything as she hated Atrocity then, upon that realization. Not Hastur, not the Panthers, not Dusu, not even Mindfuck.

And she couldn’t do anything about it, anything at all.

***

Even with her echolocation, it took her a while to find the portal. It turned out to be the door to a broom closet in the back of a small ice cream parlor, which, when opened, seemed to lead into a school classroom.

The edges of the door were kind of fuzzy, and Melody’s echolocation got a lot of static, though she was at least able to tell that there was no one in that room she couldn’t see, at least.

Of course, portals, especially interdimensional ones, interacted in the weirdest, most screwy ways with… pretty much everything. Powers, technology, you name it, portals messed with it.

She was counting on it. Mindfuck had, to anyone’s knowledge, never exhibited the ability to reach across dimensions. It was a common enough limitation to nearly every power she knew of, that’d had its interactions with such phenomena recorded.

Here’s to statistical probability, Melody thought, as she made sure she had a good grip on Kizzy’s arms slung over her shoulders, and stepped into the portal.

As she entered the interface, her power went wild. From the usual background musical score she could never quite blend out, which rose to the surface if she focused on it, it turned into an utter cacophony of discord. No coherent ideas at all, no analysis or inspiration, just mad discord.

Woo, this is worse than being teleported!, she thought to herself, and took another step, out of the interface between realities and into the school classroom.

The madness dropped away, her power stabilizing nearly instantly, back to its usual background hymn.

After she’d made sure, with her own eyes and her echolocation, that no one was nearby, she focused on her power, experimentally, and the music came into focus.

It was richer, somehow, like a new depth had been added to the notes, but it was fading even as she listened.

But for a few precious moments, at least, she caught a glimpse of ideas she’d never have considered possible, before. Principles of interdimensional transition, applied to sound, and more.

She looked at the portal, mournfully. There was no time. The new ideas were fading already, too incomplete to do anything with, and she couldn’t afford to hang around this place and hop in and out of the portal, as much as she wanted to.

Maybe I can talk Irene into making a portal in my lab, sometime, she placated herself, settling for making sure Kizzy wasn’t going to slip off, and held her left gauntlet into the portal, then slowly, carefully, pulled it out, as she engaged her scanners. She scanned the portal from the outside, just to be thorough, and then hopped in one more time, using  scanners built into her gauntlets to scan herself, focusing on her head, both within the portal, during transition, and right outside.

There was no time to even glance at the data, but at least she could be sure it would be there, waiting to be analyzed, once this mess was over.

Provided I’m still alive and sane enough to do so, she couldn’t help but remind herself. Either way, enough time spent on this. I need to move on and… survive, I guess. I have no earthly idea how I might actually get out of here, she thought, quietly. Maybe, if I can find Irene, or hold out long enough for her to find me, we can figure something out together.

Kizzy stirred, on Melody’s back, so she interrupted her deliberations in order to step into a different classroom and carefully lower her onto the teacher’s chair.

“Kizzy?” she asked in a worried voice, feeling, not for the first time, subtly wrong about it, as if she was pretending to feel these things, like a person whom deliberately pitched their voice in a way so as to convey something that wasn’t true – except for her, it was always the case, be it true or false. “Can you hear me?”

The little blonde stirred away, eyes fluttering open. Melody was expecting her to break down into tears, or scream, but what she got hurt her heart worse somehow.

Kizzy dropped her eyes down, and didn’t say anything. Didn’t show anything, her pretty face – she still had that angelic look young boys and girls tended to keep into their tweens, before diminishing baby fat and the progression of puberty matured their features – completely flat, showing no reaction at all.

She just nodded.

In spite of her earlier thoughts, Melody now felt glad that she couldn’t use her natural voice and had to rely on her vocoder. The voice it produced didn’t tremble, crack or choke up unless she wanted it to, and she very much didn’t want it to right then.

“I took us away from that horrid man,” she explained softly, running her right hand’s fingers over the girl’s left cheek, wishing she wasn’t wearing thick, electronics-filled gloves. “We should be safe from him, for now.” But not from whichever other monsters are around, she privately thought to herself. Though at least I ought to be able to do something against the others.

Kizzy nodded again, eyes downcast. Still not a peep from her.

“I’m sorry, but we need to keep moving. Do you think you’re up for walking, or should I carry you again?”

Instead of vocally answering, Kizzy stood up, and gave her another nod.

I’m so sorry I can’t just give you a thick, soft blanket and some hot chocolate and some music, but we really need to find help, she thought, rather than said, as she draped her hoodie over Kizzy’s slender shoulders. It wasn’t as nice as a proper blanket would have been, but at least it was warm, another layer between her and this cruel pseudo-world the Six had created.

Not that her problems didn’t start before, and will continue long after I get her out of here.

And she was getting her out of this place, even if it was the last thing she did.

She owed Jared at least that much.

***

The city outside the school looked as desolate as the last place they’d been to, if in a different fashion. More suburban, but the very geography had been shifted, distorted. Buildings were too close together now, streets snaking rather than straight, when they should have been a perfect grid.

Arsville Heights, she thought, recognizing one of the richest neighborhoods in New Lennston. The kind of area where several buildings were built of stone, three or four stories high and just a step short of being outright mansions, with generous greenery around them and high fences or walls encircling each property, side by side with less opulent, yet still rich single family homes.

Once upon a time, in the days of Old Lennston, it’d been the kind of neighborhood that the lesser Goldschmidt family branches had lived in, until the Dark’s reputation had driven his younger siblings and their families away from Lennston entirely.

Now it’d been twisted and distorted. Buildings had been moved together, the ground between them folded, literally folded away, or raised up and tilted, so one building lay on its side atop another, somehow without collapsing when it absolutely should have. Streets wound and twisted, few of them still level, none straight.

It was disorienting to look at, frankly, and even her echolocation had trouble mapping anything beyond her immediate surroundings – there were distortions in space, weird echoes and even less tangible disruptions in the way sounds propagated, which her program couldn’t possibly decipher in its current form.

In the end, she was forced to turn its range way down, just so she wouldn’t get disoriented by the discordant feedback. Down to just eleven point four-oh-five meters.

Still better than relying just on her eyes.

Is this place really this quiet, or is all the noise just not coming through? she wondered, while she and Kizzy walked down a street which should have been broad enough for two cars to drive down side by side, but which was now barely a back alley that’d fit maybe three grown men.

She kept looking over her shoulder, too, at Kizzy. To her consternation, the girl hadn’t made a meep, since rousing from unconsciousness, which was doubly problematic, because Melody, quite frankly, sucked at the non-vocal parts of communication. It wasn’t that she was incapable, when she focused, but ever since the onset of her powers, she’d been unable to take non-vocal cues in subconsciously (unless they were stupidly obvious), like people tended to do – she had to focus to do it, and she suspected that even with all her attention so focused, she stil fell short of what normal people could read.

Point being, with Kizzy refusing to talk, at all, even when prodded, she had no idea how to talk to her, how to help her.

Focus, Melody, she thought to herself. Get her out of this hell-hole alive, then worry about getting her some therapy. Because oh God, will she need therapy. And so will you.

Thinking of therapy only made her think of her handler. Stephanie. She’d been having a meeting with her, drinking tea and talking about Melody’s recent adventures and misdeeds (if she survived this, she was going to be in so much trouble over the Gefährten incident) when the alarms had gone off. Stephanie had taken one look at her and realized that she was going to fight, no matter what – it wasn’t like she could stop her, physically, anyway – and had just hugged her and wished her luck, before running for the bunker.

I really hope she’s alright, Melody though, as she lifted a half-open door that led nowhere off its hinges, and laid it out as a gangplank over some trashbags that’d burst open and spilled their reeking contents over the tiny alley they were walking through. I hope Irene is alright. I hope Harry and Thomas and Tyche and her mom will make it out as alright as is possible, and Hecate and AImihime and Goudo are alright, and…

And so it went, round and round and round, for several more minutes of silent progress in this twisted, uneven nightmare of a former city.

***

Two hours and eleven minutes later, Melody heard someone cry out in the distance. A young man, if she had to guess, analyzing what she heard while accounting for the omnipresent distortions.

Her tracking systems, meant to trace any possible call for help back to its origin, kicked in, only to flounder in the face of the twisted reality around them.

Then the young man screamed again, quickly joined by an older woman, and a child whom was too young to distinguish sex by the way their voice sounded.

Melody looked ahead – the ‘alley’ was sloping up sharply, far more so than any real alley or street would ever have been built, an angle over forty-five degrees, steep enough it would be easier to climb than walk – then behind herself, at Kizzy, caught in indecision.

Someone needed her help, but the only way to get to them would be to risk leaving Kizzy behind, then come back for her…

No. No way, I-

Kizzy looked up at her with those empty, dull eyes, and seemed to regain some measure of focus, reaching out to push against the small of her back.

Melody blinked, surprised. “You want me to go?” she asked, surprised.

Kizzy nodded, pushing again.

She leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be as swift as I can. Hide, until I come for you.” She should give her instructions for what to do if she didn’t come back, but frankly, she didn’t think Kizzy stood a chance to make it through this without her around.

Besides, she was determined to get her out, herself, and that meant coming back.

She ran, leaving Kizzy behind, swearing to herself that she’d be back.

***

You’ve got to be shitting me, was all she could think, at first, as she got close enough to the source of the screams. Those two!?

She’d only had to run for what would have been a single city block, if that much, before the alley opened up into a larger square, what must have once been a playground, or maybe a backyard with a swing and other toys, mushed together with two or three pools and various kinds of greenery.

There were several corpses strewn about the area – three people, burned beyond recognition, but adult by the size of the remains, two children who’d been frozen solid hugging each other. One of the pools was filled with blood and gore, as if several people had been torn apart, put through a blender – or perhaps, made to blow up.

There were only four civilians left, a woman holding a small boy, her son by the look of things, in her arms, kneeling. Her husband, kneeling as he held a younger man, probably a younger brother or perhaps an older son, trying to staunch the bleeding of the stump extending from his left shoulder.

Over them stood two all too familiar figures. One was a woman, all nude, not that there was much to see – her body was stocky in an unnatural way, the skin too smooth, bulging on her form, like extra layers of fat had been inserted between skin and organs, giving her a strangely flat, shapeless physique. Not fat, but far from slender or normal. No hair on her head, nor eyebrows, her facial features oddly spaced apart and dulled, flattened, making her look like a rough, yet perfectly symmetrical doll. She had nipples, but they too were off, too flat, like tea cup saucers, and it was impossible to tell whether the slit between her legs was her actual slit or simply another fold of her layered armor of fat. Flames danced in the palms of her hands, as she talked to her companion in a drawl, revealing a set of flat, blunt teeth, as if she had only molars, all around, no incisors or any other type of tooth. Her eyes, in contrast, seemed completely normal, in size and shape, only spaced too far apart, muddy brown and utterly unremarkable in and of themselves.

Not much would have been known about her background, if she didn’t feel compelled to utterly and completely expose herself to the public. She’d filled out her own wiki page, on every such site collecting data on cowls, metahumans in general, criminals, and so on, and as far as anyone had been able to tell, it’d all been truthful. Often painfully detailed. Her entire biography was known – once a teenage girl, she’d gone hiking and camping with family and friends, only for the entire group to be caught in a blizzard, cut off from the outside world. Long-ignored issues had flared up and people had turned on one another, until she’d snapped, gained powers and killed everyone else present, then walked out into the blizzard, naked, no longer bothered by the weather, and become a serial killer.

As if her presence wasn’t bad enough, next to her stood one of the prettiest guys Melody had ever met, a young spaniard just three years her senior, with the kind of haunting good looks that just screamed ‘metahuman’. He wore only a pair of faded, torn jeans, showing off the kind of body that’d make a girl’s knees weak, and a face that was prettier than most girls’ Melody had ever known, without being the least bit feminine. Bronze skin and tousled, blond-brown hair completed the look, as he grinned at the misshapen woman, flashing perfect teeth. He was wet, literally, from head to toe, his jeans only tighter for it, and didn’t seem to have any problem with her waving handfuls of fire so close to him.

If the woman had once been a normal girl who’d been caught up in a bad situation and snapped, this guy had been despicably evil long before gaining superpowers. A little over three years ago, almost four now, when he’d been a little younger than Melody, he’d lived in a Spanish village, near the border to Portugal, where a woman had disappeared, one day, only to be found five days later, having been raped and drowned in the river, left to be washed away. A week later, a younger woman suffered a similar fate, reappearing, dead, seven days after disappearing. It’d happened twice more over the following month, each victim a little younger than the last, before the case drew enough attention to cause a cape to come over, all the way from New Madrid. An esper, he arrived just days after another girl, barely a teen, disappeared, and quickly narrowed down the suspect pool to the husband of the first victim. He’d led the police to lay a trap where his power told him the girls were taken to be drowned alive, to catch the culprit in the act and save the girl.

He’d been right, the culprit appeared that night, and he brought the girl with him, still alive, if horribly battered.

Only it hadn’t been the first victim’s husband, but her fourteen-year-old son who’d been responsible.

They tried to capture him, but he gained powers, then, and used the very river they’d cornered him at to kill all of them, the cape included. He’d only spared his original victim, after subjecting her to even more abuse, before simply wandering off. What followed had been two years of vagrancy, alternating between laying low and committing horrible, heinous deeds. The kind of criminal Irene would describe as base, in the worst kind of way. His crimes had been so debased that, had he been caught, he’d have been executed, in spite of his age.

It wasn’t until an EU-wide death warrant had been issued that he’d decided things were getting too hot for him, and disappeared, only to re-appear months later as a member of the Rabid Eight in New Lennston.

He was the one responsible for the blood-and-gore pool, if she had to guess. He could only control water he was in contact with, but he could also control the water inside a person’s body, provided he touched them directly. Making people ‘pop’ like over-filled water balloons had been a signature of his.

Exposed and ‘El Conquistadore’. The two newest members of the Rabid Eight, before Melody, in her first ever engagement as Polymnia, had helped bring them down and in.

Well, she’d showed off against them, before Irene had shown up and slapped them down like the shitty little gnats that they were.

Now she’d have to deal with them all on her own. While they had hostages. And she had to worry about the Savage Six dropping down on her, as opposed to having a team of young heroes and the world’s most powerful BFF-to-be for backup.

And she didn’t have her power armor or speaker-arms either.

Fuck my life.

15.3 All Masks Fall

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This noise is killing me, came the unbidden thought, as Melody moved carefully through a ruined husk of a mall.

It was the same mall whose shelter Hastur had corrupted, killing thousands of innocents, and wrecking the building.

Bree’s attack had only made things worse, and the place now looked positively post-apocalyptic, with collapsed ceilings, dust everywhere, puddles of water from broken piping, and so on.

And above all of it, that horrid noise. It wasn’t as bad as Bree’s presence had been, it wasn’t making her ears bleed at least, but good God was it annoying. A constant background thrum and whine, always changing, so she couldn’t even get used to it.

Sometimes, Melody really hated her power.

At least it keeps me reasonably warm. After she recovered her senses within this place, she’d found that her power armor was wrecked beyond use. Damage from operating it within Bree’s field, more damage it had incurred during the attack on the Gefährten, which she probably hadn’t managed to fix entirely because power armor just wasn’t something she was that good at, and Hotrod had been busy with his own project, they’d all piled up and left her all but stuck inside immovable scrap.

So she’d hit the emergency release and gotten out of it. Then she’d detached the gloves and bracers where she’d concentrated most of her sonic equipment, from it, relying on her innate strength and stamina to carry them now.

Which, of course, also meant that she was left barefoot, wearing nothing else but her visor, an athletic (pink) bra and athletic (pink) briefs made of spandex, in a ruined city currently hounded by six insane serial killers and their habitually rapacious devotees.

Maybe I should’ve listened to Mister Patrid and gone with a proper impact suit. Looking hot as heck doesn’t exactly help me right now.

It had been a childish thing, now that she thought about it, to specifically insist on transparent armor panels, just to show off the body her powers had given her.

Going from a mousy stick of a girl to a sex bomb was one hell of a rush, which was why she’d never begrudged Aimihime her own escapades, nor Dalia’s hers.

Girls who’d been pretty to begin with, like Irene and, according to Dalia, Hecate, just didn’t get it.

At least her physical enhancements made her pretty resistant to heat and cold.

Not that it matters now. I need to figure out what to do – I have freaking Fire Burial coming after me!

She stopped, standing with her bare feet in a puddle of reasonably clean water, feeling glass shards crunch between her toes. Her skin was bulletproof to small arms fire and seriously resistant to anything short of armor-piercing rounds, so she didn’t have to really worry about anything she was liable to step on actually causing her harm. She still wanted to find some proper shoes. And pants, or at least a skirt. And some kind of shirt.

Then again, I am inside a mall… there ought to be at least some clothes left in one of the stores, right?

She looked around, eyes searching. Quickly finding her target, she took a running start, then leapt all the way up to the second level. Gloved fingers caught onto the railing, and vaulted her over it, metal bending slightly, but her landing itself was otherwise completely silent.

Score.

The clothing store she’d aimed for still had at least half of its inventory inside.

She went in, rifling through the womens’ section. Finding a pair of stretchy jeans that fit was easy enough, as were socks and sneakers – she quickly cleaned her feet with some low-level sonic waves before putting them on – but finding a top that actually fit her ridiculous (but still very much appreciated!) bust size in a comfortable way proved to be a challenge. In the end, she just grabbed a hoodie that was probably a size too big for her, all in sky blue, with a white flower in tribal style stenciled on the back.

Should I try to… no, I couldn’t try to hide as a normie without discarding my tech. And without it, I’d be far less able to protect anyone.

She tied her hair back into a knot. With the noise cancellation active, there was no sound to stimulate the dye, leaving her hair to be unnaturally black, without any lustre or shine to it.

Thinking about her looks put her to thinking about Jared. He sure had made a habit of commenting on them, particularly her bust. It’d annoyed the hell out of her; as much as she liked showing off, she liked some class, and he’d had none. Never quite crossing the line into harrassment, but gleefully dancing next to it.

And she was quite certain she was going to miss it.

The clockwork giant had been him, she was sure. A swan song. She’d heard the tune of his power before, and the giant had been the tune, made flesh. Or crystal clockwork, as the case may have been.

Working together with the Dark, of all people, to save them all from whatever DiL had done.

That terrible un-sound. She shuddered just thinking about it, remembered the utterly wrong way it had sounded to her ears, even in those seconds and minutes she’d been linked to Jared’s Giant, nevermind the sheer, mind-rending cacophony right after, as it had exploded, then imploded.

Whatever it’d been, she was certain it would have destroyed them, if not for Jared’s sacrifice and the Dark’s efforts.

Goodbye, Jared. You were an insufferable ass, but you were a hero, and you went out like a boss.

I just wish you’d shown me more of the hero and less of the ass, in the time we’d known each other.

She froze, as another thought rose up, suddenly, as if thrust up into the spotlight by some unseen hand.

And, oh God, what’s going to happen to Kizzy now? Jared was the last family she’d had left.

She’d be alone now. A foster family was nice and well, but…

Glass crunched outside. The sound of boot on shards. From across the mall, but within the main area.

The parts of her visor that extended to cover her ears, looking like concave blue metal disks, turned on at a subvocal sound of hers, little more than a very precise vibration along a specific frequency, transmitted to her visor via her jaw and ear bones.

Irene’s idea, not hers, as much as it embarrassed her a little to admit it, even to herself. Making use of the fact that, while she couldn’t speak, she could still hum and make other sounds, and not only that, but she could produce frequencies humans shouldn’t be capable of. Having a smart friend could be very enlightening.

Since she wasn’t talking anyway, it was only efficient to use her throat to control her gadgets, though sadly, the system was still in the prototype stage, and she could only control her visor with it, so far.

Still, the echolocators went online, and her gauntlets began to transmit sounds on a frequency far too high for most organic life to pick up.

She listened to the map it was creating, walking out of the store, squatting low so she wouldn’t be easily visible, and directed the sonic pulses in the direction she’d heard the sound come from.

A child! she thought, as her pulses traced the outline of a young girl, going by general body shape and the skirt she was wearing. All alone, and scared, going by body posture and heartbeat.

Melody jumped onto the railing and ran towards her, completely soundless and faster than a normal person could hope to move.

She only stopped when she was close enough to see the child, leaping off the railing onto a large support pillar, clinging to it hard enough her fingertips sank slightly into the concrete, causing dust to rain down.

Her eyes widened when she saw, and recognized, the girl.

No way!

She leapt down, straight off the second level, and landed, silently, a good distance away from the girl, trying not to startle her too much.

The girl still gave a squeak and stumbled, staggering back, to fall into a puddle of water and crushed glass.

Melody leapt forth, faster than the girl’s eye could likely follow, and grabbed her at the last moment before the pretty black pinafore dress touched the water.

The girl squeeked, ready to run – or panic, or both – before she recognized her.

“Melo- Polymnia!” the little blonde squeaked, her tear-stained face briefly lighting up.

“Hey there, Kizzy,” she greeted her, with a smile that she knew didn’t reach her eyes, after she’d pulled her up onto her feet again and gotten her hands free. “What are youujsglj-!”

She was interrupted when Kizzy threw herself at her with such vigor, it nearly bowled her over, wrapping thin arms around her neck and holding on for dear life.

Careful not to hurt her with her oversized, rigid gauntlets, Melody hugged her back.

They couldn’t afford the time to just stay there and hug, but she took the time anyway, because Kizzy needed it, and if Melody was honest, she needed it, too.

Her heart ached in a way it never had before. Watching so many people be slaughtered by Bree, unable to help. Losing Brennus, a colleague who was almost a friend, whom she admired as a gadgeteer and as a hero. Losing Jared, who’d been way too annoying to admire even as a hero, until he’d gone and died for them. Now this, trapped in a world of horror and evil, singled out to be a crazy, cannibalistic pyromaniac’s plaything.

She really needed a break from it all.

“I couldn’t find anyone,” Kizzy said, after a whole minute of them just clinging to each other. “I was with my family but then the world went weird and I was alone and I thought I’d find Jar Jar, but there’s no one around, and, and, and…” She trailed off, looking up at Melody with big, tear-filled eyes.

Melody felt herself choke, even as she seemingly spoke without issue, her fingers twitching to form words. “It’ll be alright. You found me, and together we’ll figure it out somehow.”

Except for finding Jared. Because I felt, heard him die, saving fucking everyone.

“O-ok. Yeah. We can do it,” Kizzy said, earnestly, nodding. “We’ll, we’ll find Jar Jar and w- what?” She looked at her, confused, as if she’d seen something.

Of course she had. Melody had felt the stab of pain and grief, when she’d spoken of Jared again. And she’d never been good about schooling her expression, even for lesser things than these.

“Kizzy, I’m sorry, but-“

“No,” the little girl whispered. Her hands slipped off of Melody’s shoulders, where they’d been resting, and clasped each other in front of her heart. “No, no, no…”

She wanted to lie, so much, but she couldn’t. She’d never been very good at it, and it would have been wrong besides.

It was too late, anyway, because Kizzy could clearly see the answer on her face.

Her expression crumbled in time with her heart breaking.

Melody closed her arms around the girl, as she began to scream, and held her together as well as she could.

***

The city outside of the mall was strange to look at. With the sky a pure black above, but for the ‘display’, it should have been as dark as night-time, or if it was illuminated, one would expect said illumination to come from the screens above, but it wasn’t. Instead, a kind of diffuse, source-less light filled everything, and cast strange, warped shadows that seemed to be somewhere else each time one blinked.

It was pretty disconcerting, and made worse so for Melody because of the background thrum of Heretic’s power.

“That song you say you hear around me? The bad feeling you get from Patrick? That’s our powers,” Irene had told her, one night while they’d cuddled up on the couch, with irresponsible amounts of sweets, chips and soda, binging on streaming shows. “That’s why it gets louder the more my power is in control – that means it’s closer to the… forefront, I suppose. Pressed against the walls of this reality, making them thinner. Creating… vibrations, I suppose one could say, only it’s not the air that vibrates, but reality itself.”

Answering one question by opening up a billion more. It was typical of Irene. Not that Melody could blame her – her parents had made her swear to be careful about what she shared with others, about powers, and Melody was quite certain she’d shared more with her than she should’ve.

It was quite possible that Melody was among the top ten best-informed people in regards to powers and transdimensional theory in the world, at the very least top twenty, by now, just on stuff Irene had let slip.

If only I had the chance to lock myself in my lab and just work out all the ideas this is giving me, she thought in the now, mournfully.

Looking down her left side, she saw Kizzy, holding onto her hand as they walked under the false sky. The girl had cried and screamed for fifteen minutes straight, and then she’d gone entirely silent. Not a peep from her since, empty eyes remaining downcast.

Instead of being able to just detach from the world and work on her tech, Melody had to take care of this poor girl, and she didn’t know how to. She’d never had younger siblings, only older brothers and a sister, and certainly no one who’d ever gone through anything like this. Or was still going through it.

All I can do right now is be there, and keep her safe from the monsters.

And so they trudged along, searching for other survivors. With her noise canceller and echolocator both active, she and Kizzy were as silent as ghosts, and she could hear everything happening within two city blocks.

So far, she hadn’t picked up any signs of life, other than a few very disturbed dogs she’d decided to steer clear of. As well as a ton of insects, which she also steered clear of.

I wonder just how many people got trapped in here hello my dears you’re a surprise.

Melody froze in place, as Kizzy gave a jump, squeaking.

That hadn’t been her own thought, at the end there. And looking down at Kizzy’s shocked face, she’d heard it t-

Not your thoughts but mine now all mine.

“P-polymnia, I, I’m hearing someone in my head,” the girl whispered, wrapping her arms around Melody’s waist.

“I know, I hear him too,” she replied, quietly, putting a hand on her back.

Like having something oily in her head, within her brain.

I t-t-take, offense to tha-tha-that. I… I am not… oily… smooth. Mmm…

Shivers ran down her spine.

And then more than shivers. Hands, all over her, under her clothes, on her back, her breasts, her buttocks, her-

Suddenly, the phantom sensations cut off, as quickly as they’d come, the absence so intense it caused her to drop to her knees, even as Kizzy cried and tried to push away hands that weren’t there.

T-t-too o-old. You’re w-w-wa-a-way too old for me. My little fire-ire-cracker would l-l-like you though. I th-th-thi-ink, the oily voice stuttered inside her head, and every time it did, it was like her own thoughts stuttered with it, like there was something broken there.

Br-broken. Yes. Broken. Ever since h-h-he broke me. He. That boy. Wretched boy, wretched boy, evil, evil, evil boy, he br-br-broke me!

What had been an oily, stuttering whisper in her and Kizzy’s heads became discordant screaming, like raw hate pouring forth from somewhere, into them, searing their brains.

Hate that boy! Hate him hate him hatehatehatehim! it, he, screamed, his thoughts seeming to grow both more coherent and more unhinged.

The pain was indescribable. Worse than being in Bree’s presence by orders of magnitude, it made her and Kizzy collapse, writhing and screaming for no one to hear.

Then it suddenly cut off, and they both went limp, breathing hard.

Melody felt like she’d nearly torn her own muscles off her bones. Sore from head to toe, and still with the memory of dozens of hands all over her, touching her where no one but herself had touched her before, at least since she’d been a baby.

It felt-

D-d-don’t l-l-lie. You, you, l-l-like that. You-you-you’ve fa-fa-fantasi-sized… I know…

Unbidden, unwanted, memories came up, as vivid as if they were real, of fantasies she’d had. Naughty ones, even some dark ones, after reading some screwed-up fanfiction about herself (she’d never read any again, after that one). And with them, the things she’d done to accompany them, the sensations…

Her body arched, mouth wide open in a sudden, unbidden squeal of pleasure-that-wasn’t-pleasure, like being force-fed one’s favorite meal until it became disgusting.

Dirty girl. I d-d-don’t like th-th-that… I pre-fer the in-no-ce-nt ones… well, with one… two ex-ex-ex-ceptions. My li-li-little girls. But not o-o-others that are, are… soiled.

Melody went limp again, as he stopped forcing her to relieve that pleasure, and curled up into a ball, whimpering with tears in her eyes.

Y-you’re both, too old… too, too old… if only… ca-ca-can’t… con-con-connect, to so, so so so many, anymore… not since… that boy… b-b-broke…

Melody’s body moved on its own, and even when she tried to stop it, after the initial shock and confusion, it didn’t listen to her at all, as she threw herself around, clumsily, and closed her hands around Kizzy’s throat, squeezing.

Kizzy’s eyes went wide, filled with fear, confusion, pain and worse, as she tried to push Melody off, but she doubted that the little blonde could’ve fought her off even if she wasn’t superhumanly strong.

N-no… please… please, don’t hurt her! she begged inside her own mind, as she watched her body squeeze, slowly, crushing the life out of the girl she’d just sworn to herself she’d protect.

Wh-why not? She, she, she’s too, too old to, play with. B-b-but… maybe… will hurt a little, little, little, less, for, for a bit, i-if, I, make you, you, hurt her.

Kizzy’s struggles grew weaker, rapidly, before they ceased altogether.

N-no! No… the rules! Melody cried inside her own mind, desperately reaching for the only way out she could think of. The rules say you can’t hurt anyone but your chosen target, until and unless you’ve taken them out! Did you take out Amazon?

Oh. Right. I forgot.

And just like that, she had control of her body again. Gasping, she immediately let go of Kizzy’s throat.

The little girl’s body shuddered as she gasped for breath, eyes fluttering open, looking aroudn wildly.

S-sorry. I forgot. Hrm… got to… to find her… used to be… easier… I used to be… so much… stronger… I I I wi-will… come back… to, to-t-to p-p-play with you, later, then. Un-unless, my firecracker, f-f-finds you, first…

The connection, so much more crude and coarse than Irene’s gentle touch upon her mind, cut off, gone as suddenly as it had come.

Melody fell down on her side, and drew a crying Kizzy into her embrace, curling up around her, as they both sobbed.

She’d never felt so powerless.

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15.2 All Masks Fall

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“I’m not sure I’m happy with how that went,” Vasiliki spoke up as she came out from the room Basil had set aside for her and Dalia to change clothes in (even if Dalia would have preferred changing right in front of him… not that he was likely to notice).

Basil was already changed and at his work station, of course. It’d likely taken him less time to take off full-body armor and a skintight impact suit, and change into jeans and a button shirt, than it’d taken her just to get out of her costume; nevermind the time it took to take care of her hair and put fresh clothes on.

At least I got him to stop wearing sweatpants and random t-shirts, she thought with some satisfaction, as her eyes roamed his blade-thin body from behind, and then the side as he turned around halfway to look at her, his fingers still tapping ceaselessly across three keyboards, only one of which sported letters and symbols she could make sense of.

She was just looking to make sure he was sticking to the ‘no sweatpants’ rule she’d set, of course.

Oh, who are you kidding, Vas? You like how he looks. A lot.

Well, I’m kidding him. He’s the only person dense enough to buy that excuse unironically.

“What did you not like?” he asked, looking honestly curious, without missing a beat on his keyboards.

He’s not the prettiest boy I’ve ever seen, or even met, but there’s something about that face that- Her thoughts came to a crashing halt as her eyes roamed upwards over his face and above.

“Your hair,” she hissed, staring at the horror.

“You did not like my hair?” His curiosity turned to confusion.

“No, I mean, what’d you do with your hair? I showed you how to properly style it, didn’t I!?”

“I was in a hurry to implement some coding I came up with during the fight,” he replied, calmly. “So I just combed it back and…”

She hissed again, and walked over to where the lab chairs had all been pushed into one corner, ever since he decided it’d be more efficient to raise his workstations up and work on his feet.

Dragging a rolling desk chair over, she pointed at it with a finger, glaring at him. “Sit.”

“Vasiliki, I really ought to-“

“Sit.”

He sat.

“I do not have a comb here,” he said, petulantly, pulling his cellphone out of his pocket. A few twists unfolded it into an eldritch horror of a keyboard that he held like a game controller, immediately going back to typing, even as he looked up at her.

“I do,” she replied simply, stepping up in front of him, pulling the comb she carried around for her brothers from her purse, and got to work with it, and her bare fingers, fixing the mess he’d made.

Can build AIs, swords that can cut through steel and railguns small enough to hide in a backpack, but he can’t comb his hair right, she thought, more fondly than she’d admit.

If only he’d actually spare a look at her cleavage, especially in this position, but he only ever looked up at her face.

Stop it, Vas! He has a girlfriend. A girlfriend you like, even! One that’ll almost certainly join the team, too, once she figures out her power.

After a few moments of untangling the worst of the mess he’d made – she really needed to get him a proper haircut, to make this easier – she got back to her main point.

“I didn’t like how violent you and Dalia got, when we took out that panther hideout,” she explained. “I know they were doing really horrid things, but was it really necessary to break so many bones? I know Dalia’s kind of a blunt instrument, but you could certainly knock some normies out easily, without causing unnecessary harm.”

“The harm was not unnecessary though,” he replied, once she’d finished. “To be precise, the pain and discomfort it caused, and will cause, is not.”

She frowned, looking down from her work to lock eyes with him. “Explain, please.”

“New Lennston is in bad shape, after Hastur and the Spiteborn. The city is better at bouncing back from such events than most, but two S-Class events in short succession are still catastrophic. The only reason the police spared the resources to come out and take them in is that they were Black Panthers and those are currently at the top of everyone’s hit list. The authorities don’t have the resources to even apprehend all the criminals running around right now, much less prosecute and detain them. The panthers especially have been breaking their people out of jails and prisoner transports almost as soon as they are taken in… but they can not break them out of broken bones and torn tendons. As an added advantage, it might discourage at least some of them from returning to such practices.”

He looked down, away from her eyes, though not to look at what he was doing with his hands. “Until New Lennston has properly recovered, we only really have three options – take them in only for them to break out and go back to their prior behavior, brutalize them to keep them off the streets or outright execute them. Option three is unpalatable to us, and seeing how the prior behavior we found them engaged in was snatching orphaned children off the streets to sell into slavery, option one is even less palatable, at least to me.”

He fell quiet quiet, focusing on his work, while she finished fixing the mess on his head into a semblance of style, and thought about what he’d said.

She’d had trouble holding herself back from really hurting those slimebags, if she was honest with herself. They’d been snatchers, vermin of the lowest order, but… to deliberately cause crippling damage…

Heroes are meant to protect, not to hurt people… but then again, we often have to hurt people to protect others…

“I… will have to think more about that,” she said, finally, stepping back.

“Take as much time as you need,” he replied, getting up again to smoothly transition to working on his three keyboards again. “No one will hold it against you, if you decide you are not comfortable with this level of violence, least of all I.”

***

Hecate’s form turned into unnatural smoke, mid-leap, letting several bullets pass harmlessly through her.

The woman that was nude under her transparent armor stepped in the way of her smoke form, using a two-handed sword to slice through her, but to no avail.

She rushed against and around her, reforming behind her and amidst the group of devotees.

Solidifying, she whirled around and ran the sharpened bottom of her staff through the woman’s knee with such force, it nearly ripped her leg off entirely.

The woman screamed and Hecate turned to smoke again, as the other devotees opened fire again, shouting something she didn’t bother to listen to.

She didn’t want to hear what they had to say.

One of the men had aimed particularly badly, and the shotgun pellets meant for her, instead blew away the face of one of his friends.

Meanwhile, the nude woman fell on her good knee and on the ruin of the other one, where thigh and calf were attached, barely, by nothing but strips of skin, meat and blood vessels, the ligaments and bones gone. Landing on that mess only caused her to cry out, hoarsely, in mortal pain.

Hecate solidified again, in front of the semi-nude woman, putting her between herself and the other devotees.

With a scream, she swung her staff, unleashing its power – but her emotions were so frayed, she didn’t just use the power within it, she also, at the same time, fed more pneuma into it.

By all rights, she should have lost control over the effect, using her magic in such a haphazard way, the energies requiring time and finesse to control; but she was so angry, she didn’t care, and just pushed through, pumping her pneuma and that oily blackness in her heart into the staff and the effect it unleashed.

Liquid green fire with black flickers within poured forth from the jewel at the tip of her staff, lashing out in an arc; not like water tossed from a bucket, but not like flame from a flame thrower either, it was something between liquid and gaseous, something almost but not quite real.

The flames struck seven devotees at once, at chest height, across biceps or shoulders, depending on their individual height.

Oily, black-green not-quite fire flared up, melting, consuming flesh, rushing up but not down.

The men and women so struck screamed, briefly, before the flames consumed their lungs, throats, tongues. Flesh melted off, except melting implied that there was something liquid left – there wasn’t, what melted off was consumed to fuel the flames, as they licked up, consuming faces, eyes, hair… and the brains in their skulls.

The corpses collapsed, reduced to pure white bones marred only by an oily, black liquid that shimmered green, from where they’d been hit and up, but left seemingly untouched below that line.

Blood poured out of the wounds, spreading quickly.

Everyone froze, and stared, especially Hecate.

W-what…

Then the woman in front of her screamed in rage and fear, lifting her sword to strike at Hecate, and she reacted without thinking, swinging her still-burning staff like a mace, smashing the crystal into the side of her head.

The woman barely had time to gasp, before the flames ran from her right ear over the right half of her face, into her skull, and burned out her brain, and the other eye, leaving the entire right half of her face just a bleached, oil-covered skull, the left seemingly untouched but for the missing eye, and she too collapsed, while the flame shot down her throat, consuming flesh and cartiledge, until it reached and consumed her heart, as well, creating an open channel down her middle, straight to it, that showed nothing but bones.

The remaining three devotees looked down at the defiled corpses of their companions… and turned tail, each running in a different direction, away from her.

You do all this, and you think I’ll just let you get away? So you can turn around and hurt others again!?

She screamed again, like a banshee, hate overcoming what revulsion or horror she felt at just having ended eight lives in about as many seconds, and contributed to the death of another.

More black, oily pneuma, thick, pregnant with hate, poured forth from her, more than she should have had access to, as if her goddess was rewarding her for being consumed by it.

Spreading out like a wave, it rekindled the embers of flame left in the corpses of her victims.

Green-black flames burst to life in their chests, where their hearts should have been, and licked up into their heads, flowing up and out of their necks to create collars of flickering fire, and gather in their empty eye sockets, like lidless, burning eyes.

The corpses sprang into action, moving… beyond unnaturally. Arms and legs moved as if independent of one another, bending every which way but the right one as they simply rushed, running, crawling, dragging themselves after the fleeing devotees. Even the half-naked woman, flames dancing, contained within the transparent shell of her armor, came after them, fire pouring forth out of the hole where her knee should have been, calf and foot moving as if still connected, but backwards, as she crawled with her chest up towards the sky, like a twisted bug.

Still, as wretched as their movements were, they were effective, and they caught the three survivors before they could even get out of sight, bore them down and…

… finished them.

Hecate felt the blackness in her rise, surge, only growing stronger.

It’s too much, I… I can’t control this…

It wasn’t meant to work like this. She was supposed to build her spells in advance, carefully design them, work them into carefully curated items. Without a focus, there was no way she could control this.

More black pneuma was pouring forth from her, searching hosts… crawling towards the corpses of the innocents, which the devotees had slaughtered, even while the bodies she’d reanimated were dragging their slaughtered victims back towards her.

No! Not them!

They’d been innocent. They didn’t deserve this.

With an act of sheer will, she pulled the black pneuma back, forcing it to coalesce inside her, like filling her throat and stomach with thick, burning hot oil.

I have to… have to st-stabilize…

She arched her back, then bent forward, vomiting sheer blackness onto her staff.

Mentally, she was pulling on her pneuma, weaving it into strands that were then woven into the pre-existing patterns of her staff, like threading new thread through old holes and nooses.

It was too much, easily as much pneuma as she’d ever had, before, and the only item she had which could possibly contain that amount of power, without outright exploding, was her staff, and so she vomited and wove, wove and vomited, black liquid seeping into the wood, wrapping around the wood, threading through the wood, and then all up into the crystal at the top.

She lost track of time, her entire concentration consumed in directing the pneuma into the right shapes, so it’d settle into her staff, rather than explode outwards without control.

Until, suddenly, it all snapped into place. The last adjustment she’d made having, apparently, been the final one needed, as the black pneuma settled deeply throughout her staff, which was now visibly pulsing with black-green light, a flame of the same color burning within the crystal at the top.

Hecate let go of it, staggering back, only to fall onto her butt and stare up at what she’d created.

Before the staff could fall, a hand in a transparent glove reached out and caught it. The woman in the transparent armor, she was standing now, a corpse with a burning skull and a burning heart. She and the other seven, they stood upright now. Somehow, stabilizing the spell into her staff had also stabilized them.

What have I done?

She stared up at the monsters she’d created, as they stood there, staring at her with green lights shining forth from empty eye sockets, crowned and collared by flames of the same color.

And then it hit her.

She’d killed people.

Not monsters. Not Spiteborn, nor Hastur’s victims. Not the mindless drones that made up the Skulls collective.

Real people. Criminals, murderers, yes. Supporters of monsters.

But people.

And she still felt the same.

She didn’t feel any more wretched than before. The blackness in her heart had neither increased nor decreased.

Like it didn’t matter at all.

She was more horrified at creating these creatures, than at just having killed eleven people, and contributed to the death of another. Killings done in anger, when she was fully capable of taking them down non-lethaly. She could have snuck up on them, and used her Hypnoic Dust to put them all to sleep.

Sure it could be argued that these people had long since discarded the right to live, having willingly joined the Savage Six. Or that she couldn’t afford to babysit them, and when they woke up again they’d just rejoin the rest and  go back to murdering.

Basil’s words about the three options they’d had dealing with the panthers, in those bad weeks right after the Hastur Incident burned bright in her memory, now.

But they hadn’t, earlier. None of that had. It had not been calculus that saw these people dead.

She’d just wanted them dead, for her own sake. To get some relief.

And so they’d died.

She did not feel relief.

She did not feel horror.

She did not feel sadness.

She only felt the same blackness as before.

Slowly, moving no less wooden than her creations, she stood up, grabbing her old, new staff from the burning corpse’s hand.

It felt so much heavier now. So much more powerful.

It was no longer just a staff she could leave nameless.

Walking over to the corpse of the man who’d had his face shot off by one of his fellow devotees, she touched the glowing, fire-filled crystal to his chest, right above his heart.

Green-black fire flared, and burned a hole in his chest, consuming his heart. Replacing it with a nucleus of fire, far more dense and uniform than it had been before she stabilized the new spell.

The fire did not ride up to consume his head, though flickers of flame did appear in his ruined eye sockets, and a collar of green flames appeared around his neck, dancing atop his collarbone and shoulders, as he got up, looking at her with burning eyes.

So, Vas. You skipped straight past Necromancy and into Necrothurgy. So much for having standards – good thing Legend isn’t here to see, right?

She could’ve laughed, if there’d been any joy left in her heart.

There was, still, only blackness.

She walked from corpse to corpse, raising the three her… vrykolakai, that was an appropriate name for these creatures… the three brought down by her vrykolakai.

Then she stopped and looked at her staff.

So much power. I can feel it pulse inside, like a black heart pumping green oil.

Twelve vrykolakai created, and it still had capacity left to make more.

It needed a name, though.

The right one came to mind, easily.

“Necrodulon,” she whispered, softly, and the staff flared with power, accepting its name.

To think she’d thought of her staff as a lightbringer once, a torch to hold up, to protect the living.

Now it was a torch that enslaved the remnants of the dead…

A soft, keening sound drew her out of her ever blacker thoughts. A whimper, the sound of a child in pain.

The girl they were tormenting!

She whirled around, dark intimations pushed aside, and rushed towards the noise.

It came from the crater she’d noticed earlier. The one that looked like it’d been made by the same object that’d blown a hole through one of the buildings surrounding this area.

A metahuman? Did she get blown here, during the fighting? She could be hurt.

She reached the rim of the shallow crater, where the devotees had gathered earlier, her vrykolakai following right behind in lockstep.

Looking down at the woman lying there, she felt her heart skip a beat.

The crater was shallow enough it only took her two steps to reach the center, and stand above the mostly nude woman clad in tatters of a velvet-like, purple suit, every inch of her exposed skin covered in disfiguring, aged-looking scars, curled up into a fetal position as she whimpered and keened.

The vrykolakai around her shuddered, fires flaring up, as the blackness surged inside.

Hecate lowered her head, letting cape and cowl envelop her form, as she whispered, “Mindstar.”

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15.1 All Masks Fall

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You’re a complete fucking failure, Vasiliki.

Vasiliki groaned, leaning against a piece of rubble four or five times her size, bracing herself and pushing, shoulder to brick and mortar. Even for her enhanced strength, it should’ve been too heavy, but it was precariously balanced atop a mound of smaller fragments, and so began to shift almost immediately.

Even so, she had to push herself, the soles of her boots literally sticking to the ground, thanks to a gadget in them, one of the few things she wore that she hadn’t made by her own hands; as long as a current was running through them, they’d bond with whatever they were in contact with, the connection strong enough to easily hold her weight even when she hung off a ceiling, upside down, and from just one foot. The switch to turn it on and off was built into her gloves, left to left, right to right, so she could control them individually.

Thinking of the boots reminded her of who’d built them for her – though she’d worked the leather herself, and the inlays, and pretty much every part that wasn’t the gadget itself – and that made her feel like someone was shoving a glowing hot poker through her heart.

With tears in her eyes and searing holes in her heart, she pushed the shattered wall section off the mound of rubble, lifting up her cape to cover her face against the dust that was thrown up.

The noise was almost welcome, as deafening as it was, for breaking up the eerie quiet that had descended upon New Lennston’s corpse.

Once the dust had settled, she let her cape fall and bent over, picking up her staff.

Greenish witch-light ran through the carvings of the staff, spreading out from where she gripped it, down to the sharpened bottom, and up to the crystal the wood was holding up top, eliciting a brief flash.

It pulsed in her hand, though if anyone else touched it, they wouldn’t feel its beat.

She’d put the better part of her power into it, fifty-nine percent of the pneuma she had earned so far. It was very nearly alive by now, at least she thought so.

It had been his idea to measure out how much she put into each of her artifacts. To keep careful track of how much pneuma achieved what kind of effect, and the rate at which she gained more of it to apportion.

His idea, to work tracking spells into each item, even if it cost her some pneuma that could otherwise go into greater abilities, just in case.

You’re a fucking disgrace. Do you really think avoiding to think his name will make it hurt even a little bit less?

It wasn’t another’s voice she heard in her head, admonishing her, rubbing her many, many failures in her face. It was her own, wholly from within her, for her.

He is dead. Not just dead – gone. Because you couldn’t even hold on to his corpse.

She’d tried. Oh, she’d tried.

With nimble steps, balancing easily on the loose rubble, she hopped onto the top of the ruined building whose collapsed wall had buried her staff.

Up there, a cold, harsh wind was blowing, even though they were completely cut off from the world outside. Still, the air within this globule was… restless.

She could feel it in the air. Magic. A dark, twisted pneuma, which seemed to be everywhere now, settling on her home city’s corpse, rising up from the cracks, raining down from the darkness above…

Everywhere, cloying, cold and hot at the same time.

Heretic’s power. She could see it move in the air, move across the firmament above instead of stars, though she doubted normal people could see it.

She could see the perverse patterns it had been woven into, twisting reality into shapes it was not meant to take; the methodology was not so different from hers – hermeticism, if in a different style, as she was drawing on theurgic energies, and he… wasn’t.

If only you were worth a damn, you might actually be able to do something about that. Break those enchantments, cut the threads of power, release New Lennston back into the real world.

Looking up, she couldn’t see it. The enchantments were vast, and they clearly weren’t something recent – no, there were layers upon layers, visible even from down here, built up over decades. Refined, reinforced… even if she managed to gain access to them, she wasn’t sure she’d have the raw power to break them, much less deal with whatever safeguards had been set up.

Guess Heretic at least does solid work, even if he’s a complete scumbag. Unlike me.

Her staff pulsed, like a living heart was beating inside of it. There were lesser amounts of pneuma in her other items, in her Hypnoic Pouch, generating more dust for her to use as she used it up, into her Bag of Holding (she hadn’t been able to think of a proper Greek name for that, and besides, a Bag of Holding was kind of a classic), which was the closest to the enchantments that generated and maintained this space, if on a far, far, far lesser scale; into her fantasmaic belt, which allowed her to transform into a smoke-like wraith, into her cryptic hood, so it shadowed her face while still letting her see with full peripheral vision, into several lesser charms and tools she carried around in case she needed to work quickly; it was woven into the very fabric of her deftodermic suit, the layer between her skin and the scale armor he… Basil, had made for her… but they were all less than her staff, which didn’t even have a name, because it wasn’t meant to have one, it was to be an extension of herself, a focus for her powers.

Basil

She shuddered, tilting forward, almost but not quite falling; thinking his name had been a mistake.

Her heart ached, her eyes swam in tears that made her see double. It hurt worse than when she’d found Gloom Glimmer holding his corpse. The sharp, soul-crushing pain she’d felt then, it had broken something inside of her – but it hadn’t gone away with that, no, it had stuck around, stuck to her, seeping in through the cracks of her broken heart; she’d held onto his corpse and wailed, because he hadn’t just been a boy she’d crushed on, he’d been a friend, a brother in arms, someone who’d… someone she’d clicked with, even if they’d both been too messed up to realize it properly, and even when she’d realized the depths of her feelings for him, she had held them back until the worst possible time to express them, when they’d both had even greater pain layered atop them.

His lies, his deceptions, the heartbreak of knowing he was in love with another girl, they hadn’t mattered then; when she’d held his body, riddled with holes by an uncaring, unthinking monster, all she’d been able to think of were the good times. The time they’d spent just talking, hanging out when Tyche hadn’t been around, or sometimes even while she’d been there, talking tactics, strategy, powers, society, science, philosophy… she had truly meant it, at the park, when she’d said he was the smartest boy she’d ever known. She’d become so much better a hero, for his help, the ideas and perspectives he brought to it – nevermind that it was only thanks to his inexplicable skills as a surgeon (and a heavy helping of Tyche’s luck, she was sure) that she’d even survived her first foray into being a vigilante.

And she’d never been, and never would be, able to repay him. She couldn’t even drag his body to the Protege, to revive him. When that wraith had connected her to the clocktower titan, it hadn’t allowed her to move his body, and the impetus to flee had been too strong. She’d come back, later, rushing to his remains, only for the world to be swallowed up into darkness so complete, so empty and disorienting, it’d made her hurl. She’d crawled on all fours to his corpse, as the world fell apart around them, only for his body to slip through her fingers, into a crack in reality, swallowed up, chewed up, lost in the nothing between worlds.

She couldn’t even give him a proper burial. Any grave she visited to remember and mourn him would be empty.

Oh Basil…

She clenched her hand, hard, causing her staff to flare with power, the carved wood groaning under the stress.

Up above her, the emblems of the Savage Six and their targets circled.

Targeting heroes… and Mindstar. Amy.

She hated her so much. It was a black, oily kind of hatred, that was always in the background, had been, even before she’d gained her powers. After gaining them, it’d become the source of her darkest spells, the kinds she’d consciously steered away from, until she’d needed to harness death utself to overcome Legend.

Being the fifth of eight siblings, she’d often been overlooked. The older ones were more active, they got more money for things, because what they bought, especially in terms of clothing, could be passed down to the younger ones – except for her, of course, because she was the only girl of the lot. The younger ones had always demanded more attention from her parents, and her parents had been busy to begin with, jointly running a popular restaurant.

Mariette had always been the one to make time for her. Her awesome big cousin, the only person in her family who understood fashion, who understood girl things. Who she could talk to. Who didn’t laugh at her, when the business wasn’t doing so well and they didn’t have money for new clothes, so Vassiliki had been expected to wear handme-downs from her brothers, and she’d taken to teaching herself how to tailor them to actually fit her.

Her cousin had encouraged it, even joined in, helping her learn, practice and do, though she herself had been horrible at it, while Vassiliki herself had ended up discovering a surprising talent.

Before long, Vassiliki had been tailoring and mending everyone’s clothes, and even making some of her own from scratch. She’d dreamed of becoming a professional tailor and a fashion designer, and Marietta had taken it seriously, encouraging her and even spending some of her own money to get her raw materials, tools and patterns.

And the books. How much time had they spent cuddled up together, reading books and talking about them?

Then, suddenly, Marietta had gained powers. She’d never told her how, why, and she still wondered what kind of trauma must have struck her cousin, that she wouldn’t share it with her.

Still, at first, it had been awesome. Her awesome cousin had gotten the most awesome power, creating orbs of light that she could connect to form various constructs who’d obey her commands; like constellations come to life.

Wolves had been her favorites, and so she’d become Lupus Maior, running with a pack of star-wolves through forests and national parks, hunting poachers and fighting people and companies who’d pollute and exploit the environment.

Until she’d run up against Mindstar, Amy, and been killed, her body crushed and torn so badly, the question of an open casket funeral hadn’t even come up.

The cousin who’d taken her out to the woods, when she’d been heartbroken over being rejected by a boy, and given her a ride on a pony made of stars, crushed into unrecognizable pulp that’d required a DNA test to identify.

It’d been one of the biggest levers behind her origin. Oh, the event itself had been pretty innocent… smoking some weed in the same cabin the two of them had hung out in so often… but what’d driven her there hadn’t been. Losing the one family member she felt understood her, being the odd one out in her family… the only girl among eight siblings, the academic overachiever, the bookworm who didn’t ever get into sports… pretty much the only thing she and her brothers could use to relate to each other was their love for Polymnia’s music.

But that’s not all, isn’t it?

She walked through the desolate ruins of her home town, alone. There was no one there, no one she could see, no one she could detect with her sense for the pneuma around her. A sense that’d only grown stronger, sharper, over the last two days, even as her other senses had dulled from the lack of sleep, from the exhaustion and grief. Now she could even sense the pneuma within people, if at a shorter range, which she hadn’t been able to do before.

There was no one there, no one in reach. No one to reach out to. She sought support and she found none.

Isolation.

It cast her thoughts back to another time she’d been isolated. When she’d reached out for support, for succor in her grief and her family had failed her. It’d come out that she’d been the only one in the family whom Marietta had confided in, which in itself would have been yet another thing to put her apart from her family, but it had only gotten worse.

Shards of glass and bits of concrete and gravel crunched underfoot; she was walking through parts of the area which’d once been the Brights, only it looked like someone had cut through it, dividing it at an angle, then fit part of the old docks in, a sharp line running down the street, visible by how the tarmac of the docks did not at all mesh with the newer, cleaner streets of the Brights.

There was nothing to do, and so she reminisced how her uncle and her aunt had taken the news that she’d known badly. In their grief, they’d blamed her, condemned that she hadn’t tried to stop Marietta, hold her back from her path.

No one had come to her defense.

Eventually, she hadn’t been able to take the condemnations, both explicit and subtle, the whispers, the looks anymore. She should have confronted them, she should have called her family out on its bullshit, on that count and so many others.

Instead she’d turned away from it all, sought reprieve. To rest and recuperate, she’d told herself, to find a moment of peace and gather her strength. She wasn’t sure she’d meant it, or whether it’d just been an excuse.

She’d bought a joint from a schoolmate of hers, whose eyes had nearly dropped out when Vasiliki had approached him. It’d taken her longer to convince him she was for real than to actually buy the stuff. She’d wanted the joint, because Marietta had smoked, sometimes, though never in her presence; she’d known that she’d done it with friends she’d had in costume, though she’d never met them, because of secret identity concerns.

So she’d gone to the cabin, to smoke and try to feel closer to her cousin again. Take a step away from her family. She’d… gone a little overboard in her preparations, setting the place up like she was going to perform surgery in it, or else a magic ritual. Had even stripped naked, and packed her clothes into a trash bag, so none of the smell would cling to them.

She’d lit her joint and tried to smoke it, but even having researched online how to properly smoke weed, she’d coughed and messed up the first few drafts – it’d been disgusting. But she’d stuck to it, with single-minded determination, until she’d felt the effects set in.

Her mind had taken a step back from the world, to relax, but it’d missed a step somewhere along the way, and tripped, falling…

She didn’t know whether she’d passed out and just imagined the rest, or whether she’d actually gotten up and walked out into the woods, stark naked, but she remembered walking through a forest that was much different from what the forests around New Lennston were like. All hills going up and down, big gnarled trees, colorful bushes, silver light falling through thick leaves… it wouldn’t have been out of place in a fairy tale at all.

Strangest thing of all had been, it’d been day when she’d gone to the cabin, noon, but it’d been deepest night in the forest, the stars burning bright above, far, far more visible than they should have been this close to a major city.

Her goddess had come to her, then, as she’d been standing in a clearing, staring up at the milky way. Three women, titanic in stature, their heads had been so high, she’d initially mistaken their eyes for more stars, their flowing hair for part of the milky way. They’d stood in a triangle around her, each so vast, she had to crane her neck back all the way to see their heads, and then she couldn’t see what was below.

Their dresses, in a style of Ancient Greece, had been identical, dark green and jet black, contrasting their milky, pale skin and almost platinum blonde hair; and in spite of their size, the goddess’ bodies had looked youthful, like women in that perfect age that most of them either dreamed to reach, or fought so hard to get back to, when youth and maturity was perfectly balanced.

And they’d talked to her, in choir-like fashion, in a language that wasn’t a language, words that held so much more meaning than a mere combination of phonemes could hope to convey.

They’d talked to her of the past, the present, and the future. Of stories that’d been and stories yet to come. They’d told her that she was going to have a hard road, if she was to accept their blessing, but that that road would be one that’d lead her to the reward she sought above all others.

They’d talked her of stars that would go to war against each other. Of five that would burn brighter than any other. Of a dead sun and a black one, of a blazing one. Of a sleeping snake and a slumbering storm that would become a star. Of friends, of love and heartbreak, of victory and loss, of all the lost ones, the brave ones and the bright ones.

Above all else though, they’d been there, for her, impossibly vast and eldritch, and yet closer to her heart than her own family had been, at that time. Giving her the succor she’d craved.

Accepting her blessing had hardly been a choice at that point.

And so here I am. She did warn me that I’d experience heartbreak and loss.

She’d lost Stephanie, somewhere along the way. Her childhood friend, BFF, almost sister. They’d grown apart in the few months of her career as a cape, a gulf forming between them, as much as they’d tried to stay connected. Now she spent most of her time with her other friends, or with her new boyfriend Tim, who’d experienced the same gulf forming between himself and his friends, Aimihime and Basil.

She’d grown more and more apart from her family. The sting of having had to bear her grief alone, it hadn’t allowed her to accept her uncle and aunt’s apologies, when they’d moved past her grief enough to realize how monstrously unfair they’d been to her.

Rejecting them had meant rejecting her parents and brothers, too.

Tyche, Dalia, was now pulling away, horrified by her own power; what had drawn them together, once, was now pushing them away.

Then Prisca had died, in spite of all the blood they’d shed, literally and metaphorically, to save her. Considering the devastation, there might not even have been a body to bury, anymore.

Now Basil, too. Gone beyond all hope.

And there was little Vasiliki, walking through the corpse of a dead city, serving as a graveyard to the people still within, all alone, with the black ichor of grief and hate in her heart and pulsing witch-power in her staff.

She-

People.

She felt it, at the very edge of her range. The pneuma of humans.

No time to grieve. If there’s survivors, they’ll need me.

She broke into a run, through the ruined streets, her heart pounding in her chest.

Only to skip a beat, when she heard a dull gunshot sound, and felt pneuma be released into the air.

Then, another.

And another.

Mentally, she reached for her belt – all it took was a thought, and she dissolved into black smoke with green lights flickering within, shooting down the street and towards the people.

She shot into a storefront that’d still retained its glassfront, shattering it, her smoke form flowing through and around shelves of groceries, past storage in the back, and out the backdoor into a kind of courtyard with a single access, to which several stores connected, for trucks to drive in with deliveries without disturbing the customers out on the street.

It was surrounded by the buildings of the block in a U-shape, with the opening of the U being the access way for trucks and the like, barely wide enough for a truck and a normal car to fit in side by side, if that much. One of the buildings around the area had collapsed as something had apparently shot through it and slamming into a parking space, creating a crater from which cracks spider-webbed out over the concrete.

There were people there, like she’d sensed, and corpses besides.

A dozen men and women, in clothing she recognized from documentaries and news reports, from images and videos uploaded to the internet. They wore normal clothes, mostly, except for two in bodysuits and one woman whom was nude but for her armor. They all had see-through armor panels strapped to their torsos, their shoulders and arms, forming skirts around their hips, and more such panels on their legs. The panels were shaped to evoke the shape of a nude woman, both on the men and women wearing it, and they also had helmets of similar make, with clear, transparent visors in the shape of a woman’s face, most turned up, not revealing their faces – the visors hid nothing – but freeing them, as a few of them smoked, and others drank or ate, stuff taken from an upturned delivery truck lying nearby, wares spilling out of its broken backside.

They were armed, too, with some with guns, some with swords, and some even with rifles.

Devotees. Fans of the Six who’d joined them to live in their demented horror show of a reality. The people Poth had described as ‘Mobs’. These ones seemed to belong to Pristine’s faction, going by the style of their outfits.

Someone was there, amidst their group on the ground, lying on the ground as their tormentors occasionally kicked them.

Several men lay or knelt in a row, blood and other fluids pooling around them. They’d been tied up, made to kneel and… her stomach turned, and flipped.

It looked like guns had been shoved into their mouths, and the triggers pulled, blowing holes in the backs of their heads and necks. They were all far beyond her ability to save them.

Her body reformed, standing atop an abandoned car with shattered windows, causing it to groan and squeak lightly as her weight suddenly settled atop it.

In the otherwise dead-quiet false night of this land, it was more than enough to be heard by everyone in this dead-end behind the facade of the Brights, and the Savage Six’ devotees turned to face her, all together, some raising their weapons.

The person they’d been tormenting – Vasiliki couldn’t see her, but she sounded like a woman, a girl perhaps – sobbed softly, behind them.

They stared at her, stunned, and perhaps, at least a little intimidated.

She, meanwhile, stared at the scene, and felt something inside of her snap, as black ichor bubbled up to fill her gorge, black, dark, toxic hate.

Marietta, dead.

Prisca, dead.

Basil, dead.

Dalia, marked for death and worse.

Her family, possibly dead.

So many people, dead dead dead.

But these people, this scum, was alive?

Hecate’s hand clenched around her staff so hard, the wood groaned, flaring up with excess energy, and she threw her arms back, screaming her hate and grief at them, before she threw herself into the fight.

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15.0 All Masks Fall: Intro

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The Incursion spread, explosively, as Outstep disappeared from the world, red tendrils reaching out, groping about, cutting deep gashes into reality only for them to heal over in fits and starts.

Then it was gone, having fed upon itself until there was nothing left, in but a moment; not a single person had been connected.

The man sometimes known as the Dark breathed a sigh of relief. An Incursion was hardly a threat to him, personally, but it could harm his baby girl, nevermind all the other people within its range.

Or the long-term consequences to the world.

Another disaster averted. Let’s prepare for the next one, he allowed himself to think, sarcastically, before he put such thoughts out of his mind and turned to coordinating the clean-up, while also drawing all of the wraiths he’d created back in.

People get so testy about being possessed by eldritch shadow demons. Go figure.

He shook his head, beneath the cover of his shadow coat. Aaron was rubbing off on him again, making him indulge in sarcasm.

Since it was best to only indulge in such things sparingly, he instead focused on his tasks, trying to ignore the anguish he’d felt through his connection with Irene, while his wraith had been sharing Outstep’s time with her; she’d realized what was happening, of course.

She wouldn’t want him to come to her right then, though. No, she was all business, far too much like himself in that regard. Putting her feelings aside to rush back into the thick of things and help people wherever she could.

He’d have to make sure to be ready for the inevitable breakdown, once everything was done and she was back home.

Hopefully, Gwen would have found her way back to them by then – she was far better at actually dealing with this kind of emotion than he was, rather than just putting them aside to focus on something else, as he was wont to do.

And so he worked, using lesser wraiths to reach out to people and talk, coordinating more than he did anything directly, and his thoughts drifted to other matters. Once reality had settled down around the nucleus of the Incursion, he’d have to see whether anything was left of Mindstar. That girl had turned out to be full of surprises, even beyond what he’d expected; and she may yet become the key to finally putting that creature down for good.

Though he might have to brainwash her to put her to use; she was likely to be useless on her own, with her brother’s death.

Yet another thing Irene is going to be devastated by.

Other matters required his attention, as well. New Lennston had been devastated – not as thoroughly as Old Lennston had been, back in the day, but even so, it would take months to rebuild, and the loss of life, for all that the attack had been one of the briefer ones, was staggering. By his count, nearly a fifth of its population was dead or worse; a little over five-hundred and thirty-thousand people of all ages. That crystal power she’d expressed, had been one of her more devastating ones, in terms of civilian loss of life, accounting for a super-majority of the deaths among the populace. Most of his agents in the city were among the dead, as well.

And that was just the start of his problems, he-

Where is Irene?

Even after his wraith had let go of her – he couldn’t stomach possessing his baby girl, not even in such a situation – he had maintained an awareness of her, if not an eye on her, just in case she called for him or otherwise needed his assistance.

Now she’d disappeared from his awareness entirely, in the same moment that nearly all of the survivors had.

No.

He turned around.

Where the battlefield that was New Lennston had been, a vast, jet-black sphere stood; perfectly spherical down to the nano-meter and so black it made his shadows look bright, as if it was less an object that stood there, but rather an absence of anything, even empty space.

No!

He surged forward, slamming into the side of the sphere – his power washed over it to no effect, as it had so many times before.

The sphere had been placed precisely so it had captured nearly all the inhabitants of New Lennston that were left, while excluding those capes and cowls who’d retreated furthest back from the calamity… and, of course, so as to make sure he was not within.

But Irene was in there.

“NO! YOU FUCKING COWARDS!!!”

***

The sound of breaking concrete, steel and other materials died down, reduced to mere background groaning, as what had once been New Lennston settled into its new shape, divided up into six pieces, each in its own globule within the greater globule that was the Savage Six’ reality.

The skies above these fragments were of such a deep, unbroken black that one could get dizzy just looking up at them and finding no reference point, nothing for the eyes to focus upon at all; yet there was still light, a sort of diffuse kind that seemed to have no clear source, yet illuminated the landscape as a full moon might on a clear night.

People were still reeling, many of them having been thrown off their feet, or fallen onto their knees in horror, when a screen appeared in the sky above each fragment of New Lennston.

Through it, one could see a bright studio stage, full of blinking lights and loud sounds, sporting a set of huge glowing letters in the background announcing ‘THE 88th SAVAGE GAMES!!!’

At the center of the scene stood a man with carefully styled red-blonde hair, wearing an expensive suit made of glittery gold material, with a lacy shirt and a bright golden tie beneath, a rose made of pure gold, with diamonds between its leafs, poking out of his breast pocket and sporting a wide, fake, white-toothed smile, his once enthusiastic brown eyes devoid of anything but despair and misery.

Calvin Poth had once been Great Britains most popular comedian, a passionate libertarian and crown loyalist who’d often used his weekly evening show as a vehicle to make moral cases for and against various events across the world, condemning and ridiculing those he found to be repugnant and exalting (and ridiculing) those he found to be just, becoming quite famous for his understated style and dry, very british wit.

Until he’d taken aim at the Savage Six.

A week after a whole show spent making fun of each and every member of the six, he and his entire family had disappeared, in spite of the protective detail put on them.

In the four years since, he’d been forced to ‘host’ a demented game show for the Savage Six, accompanying each and every one of their ‘games’.

He never made a single joke during any of them, and only played up being bombastic and excited as can be.

“Good evening, New Lennston!” he shouted, spreading his arms wider than even his fake grin went. “And welcome to the eighty-eighth Savage Games! You, are the lucky ones who get to compete, one and all!”

“Oh, and to those whom have been here before – welcome back,” he added, leaning forward to wink at the camera.

Then he stood up again, throwing his arms out. “We have a great show prepared for you all – nay, a colossal one! Titanic! Divine! With all-new rules and stakes!”

He sighed, raising the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes closed. “You see, we do hear you. When you criticize us. When you demand we improve our show, that we innovate! And so, for all our most devoted fans, we have prepared all this – and without further ado, let’s get to it and not waste time!”

“First, you may notice that your beautiful, recently re-decorated city has been split apart – into six globules, in fact!”

A hologram appeared in front of him, showing the six pieces, each floating in a separate sphere.

“Fear not, these fragments are not entirely lost to each other – there are ways to cross from one to another, by walking through any passage marked by this symbol!”

A symbol that looked like six red chevrons arranged in a circular pattern replaced the image of the broken city.

“Any passage so marked leads to a matching passage in another globule; there are exactly five passages in every globule, leading to a matching passage in another globule. However, the connections are not permanent – they rotate, based on this lovely contraption!”

He skipped joylessly over to a contraption that looked like a lottery machine had mated with a distillery, then been set in the middle of two dozen funhouse mirrors, before the most distorted and weird reflection was pulled out of its mirror, which became then the object he was now gesturing at.

The only parts that were easily recognizable was a handle attached to a crank, which could be turned, and a disk with six smaller disks arranged in a circle along its rim, each containing an image of the various globules. Hundreds of tiny golden rods were affixed to the greater disk between the smaller disks, connecting them in a wild pattern – but there were exactly five such lines of rods that were aligned for each globule, connecting them together.

“Every so often, I shall turn this beautiful handle,” he explained, stroking the golden rod that made up the handle, with the red sphere at the tip, “and this shall happen!”

He turned the crank, and the rods spun chaotically, before realigning in a different pattern.

“And so the connections will change – don’t worry, it’s all purely random, no one, not even our beloved game masters will be able to predict it! Not even Heretic himself, who set it up! Because we are, after all, nothing if not fair!” he shouted at the screen.

“Now, I’m sure you’re asking what the point of all of this is – well, I’m glad you asked, because we’re not going to have our usual setup this time! You see, this time, our much-loved game masters are not going to be playing directly against you!”

He snapped his fingers, and six smaller screens appeared in the air above each fragment of the city, arranged in a circle and rotating beneath the greater screen that showed him.

Each one sported a different symbol.

One was partitioned into two squares, one white, one black; the white one showed a black smiling mask, the black one a sad white mask.

To the right of it, a black background, with a red point in the center, within a golden ring.

Next to that, a pair of vermilion eyes within a white gear, beneath which a pair of vermilion blades were crossed, all on black ground.

Then, a stylized pink brain on blue ground, with a spike being driven into it at an angle.

After that, a black ring on a white ground, with nothing else.

Finally, a white skull on black ground, with a crown of flames.

“For this special game, we are going to split all participants into four groups! Yes, four of them – the Game Masters, the PCs, the NPCs and the Mobs!”

“The Game Masters, well, you all know them – our beloved Six!” The six rotating emblems blinked, briefly highlighted.

“The Mobs, you know them too – our many, many staffers, supporters, die-hard fans and hopeful pretenders to the GM spots! They will be out in force, as they usually are, and raisin’ hell and fun among PCs and NPCs alike!” Images of various minions in all kinds of outfits and styles flickered quickly across the screen.

“As for the NPCs, well, those are… all of you, but for the PCs!” He grinned, snapping his fingers to point at the screen, and thus at his terrified audience below.

“Ah, but now you’re asking, Cal, aren’t we usually the PCs in these games? Why are we being demoted? What the hell is this!?” he said, miming listening to the screen. “Well fear not, for being an NPC still means you get to participate – just in a different way! Just wait and see!”

“Now, the PCs, they are going to be special this time. Because…” A drumroll played. “There will be only six! Yes, six PCs, one for each GM!”

New screens appeared beneath the emblems, empty for now but for the letters ‘PC’ blinking across them.

“And here’s the thing – the GMs will only be going after the PCs! Yes, my dear audience, for once, you need only fear the Mobs… well, mostly.” He snapped his fingers into airguns again, grinning at the camera.

“Now, let me explain – each GM has chosen one person among those drafted into the game, whom is going to be their target for the next one-hundred and forty-four hours – six days, that is!” A digital display appeared, floating around the circumference of the jetblack sky, showing a static 06:00:00:00.

Calvin continued: “And while their respective PC is still alive, the GM is not allowed to harm any NPC, directly or indirectly – unless, of course, they are attacked first, or the NPCs actively protect or hide their respective PC. If, however, a GM manages to capture and kill their chosen PC, they are henceforth free to do as they please, so long as they do not kill the PC of another GM! If at least one PC survives to the end of the time limit, the GMs will admit defeat and cut the game short, returning you to the boring outside world, with no Seventh Day taking place.”

He leaned in towards the screen, wagging a finger. “And if, by some miracle, all six PCs are still alive by the end of the time limit, not only will the GMs release you all, but they will also turn themselves in with the authorities – yes, for the first time, we are offering a Total Party Kill Ending for the Game Masters!”

An unseen audience gasped and cried out inside the studio.

“However! If all six PCs die before the time limit is up, well… then there will be an extra special penalty for the NPCs – namely, a whole day, a Seventh Day, of the GMs and Mobs hunting you to their hearts’ content, with no restrictions whatsoever!”

“But what is this – ‘Calvin, should we not, then, do our level best to make sure the PCs all survive? Even if some of us die protecting them, we could at least cut the game short, or even force the GMs to turn themselves in to the authorities, or else be known to have become the most despicable of despicables – rulebreakers!'”

He nodded sagely, standing up straight and fussing a bit with his jacket and tie. “Yes, yes, dear hypothetical querist, that may be so – but things are rarely so simple. Because, you see – there are some special rules regarding the consequences of a PC’s death.”

“First! If a PC is slain by a Mob, said Mob and their entire troupe will get a special reward!”

“Second, and this is the big one – if an NPC slays a PC, that NPC will be allowed to choose five other NPCs, and will then be released from the game arena immediately, along with a generous cash prize of six million pounds sterling each! Yes, we are actually offering you an early way out – all you need to do is kill one of the designated PCs and you and five people of your choosing – family, friends, whoever, as well as any assorted pets, will get off early! Aren’t we generous?”

Calvin’s grin had by now become rictus-like, looking like it ought to split his head open and let the top half fall off the bottom. “And with that, let’s see whom will be the stars of this week’s show!” He rubbed his hands together. “Oh my God, I can’t wait!

The screen beneath the flame-crowned skull began to rapidly scroll through an indeterminable sequence of images, until it settled on a pink musical note within an equally pink outline of a heart, upon a blue ground.

At the same time, the image of a technicolor-haired, busty teenage girl in a partially transparent armor appeared on the screen next to Calvin, along with some stats of hers, and of course, her name.

“And our first star, the world-wide sensation before she was thirteen, and one of New Lennston’s rising stars – Polymnia, the Metahuman Pop Princess!” A fanfare played, taken from one of her own songs, as if to add insult to injury. “Will her beautiful music manage to soften Fire Burial’s heart, or will she end up just another flash-in-the-pan pop star? We shall see!”

The screen beneath the black ring scrolled through all the options, and then settled on a purple starburst on black ground.

The image of a tall, slender woman in purple spandex, with rich black hair (with purple highlights) and purple eyes, as well as unnaturally pale, almost pure white skin, appeared.

“Ohhh, Pristine has picked a real challenge – the dreaded, the sexy, the mysterious, the unpredictableeee… Mindstar!”

Next came the screen beneath the spiked brain, scrolling through options until it settled on a stylized hoplite’s helmet, in gold, on red ground.

An image of the athletic interim leader of the New Lennston United Heroes appeared, in her red spandex outfit, without her power’s armor active. “Turns out Mindfuck might be barely with us anymore, but he is still capable of some sweet, sweet irony – the great and greatly disgraced Amazon! Will her defenses suffice to keep him out, or will she once more lick the boots of someone with a mightier brain than hers?”

He’d just barely finished his spiel when the screen beneath the eyes-within-a-gear began to flicker through the images, finally settling on a pair of red dice showing snake eyes on white ground.

“Yet another beautiful lady – my, we seem to have quite the estrogen brigade at hand already, don’t we?” Calvin asked the audience, as the title card showed a young red-head in skintight scaled armor, whirling upside down around a black staff like an exotic dancer; her armor was partially transparent around her cleavage, midriff and legs, and she wore a short, black leather jacket, sporting an infectious grin. “Will Tyche’s luck suffice, or will she become the victim of a true Atrocity? Only time will tell!”

The screen beneath the golden ring and red circle began to flicker, and then settled on a a variation of Lady Light’s famous symbol – the downwards pointing moon sickle within a circle, from which three lines radiated; but while Lady Light’s was traditionally gold on white ground, this one was colored pure white upon a black ground.

The title card showed Gloom Glimmer, floating in the air; wearing her skintight, yet rather thick bodysuit made of an almost velvet-like material, all in black, and over it, the pure white, hooded cape that’d been passed down to her by her mother, her jet-black hair flying free while her eyes glowed red on black sclera.

“No surprises there – of course our MVP Heretic chooses to challenge the big unknown, the greatest challenge, the Princess of Power – Gloooooom Glimmer! Who shall emerge victorious from this battle of titans? We are all waiting with bated breath to find out! But really now, five ladies? Dear GMs, please, we need some testosterone here, else people will start thinking we’re weird and prejudiced!”

The last screen, beneath the sock and buskin scrolled, and then settled quickly on the last image. A metal-grey gear on bright yellow ground, trailing flames as if racing at great speeds.

On the title card, the image of a black man leaning on a car that could best be described as three hot rods and a monster truck thrown together and somehow made to be a single vehicle showed. He wore a stylized race car driver’s jumpsuit, in yellow, with stylized red flames on the cuffs, lower legs and diagonally across his chest, wearing a yellow-and-red domino mask underneath a shaved head, flashing bright teeth and holding a heavy-looking, yellow-colored, red-flamed helmet with stylized exhausts flaring out like wings.

“Can this be… I can’t believe it! Yes, our glorious leader has chosen to re-ignite the old rivalry – speed junkie versus speed junkie, speedster racing speedster, pedal-to-the-metal action unlike anything we’ve seen since the glorious days of the Speedfreaks and the Swift Simians – Hemming vs Hotrod!”

Another fanfare played, trumpets and drums, while an unseen audience cheered and whistled.

“And that’s it, folks! You know the players, you know the rules – let the 88th Savage Games beeeeeegiiiiiiiiiin!!!”

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14.a.5 Out of Time

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Now

Jared ran through slowed, sluggy time. Over rubble and around rubble, vaulting over people frozen in place, most still oblivious to what was coming.

Not that he himself really knew what was coming, other than that it was bad.

And so he ran, pushing as many seconds into his time as possible, and it still didn’t feel like it was enough – the calamity, whatever it was, was edging forward, spreading; it had already enveloped Mindstar and was reaching the edge of the crater, towards the Dark and the others whom had gathered there.

I could help them, came a treacherous little thought. Maybe, if I use up all my stored time, I could save one or two.

But doing so meant splitting his time. Taking just one other person along for the ride, it’d halve his remaining time. Two people, he’d be down to a third.

The city was too damaged, even if he found his bike, he could not possibly use it to speed things up. Even now, running away on his own, even with time slowed to such a degree that even the most precariously unstable rubble could not shift beneath his weight, or at least not in time to matter, even now it was wearisome and difficult, to run and climb over it all – and his power actually boosted his endurance a great deal!

No, he couldn’t help anyone, except maybe himself. Not even his team.

As if on cue, he caught sight of the boss and the buttboy, the former standing tall, stalwart as ever, a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder as the latter knelt over another cape he didn’t recognize. One of the boss’s feet was touching said cape’s shoulder, spreading his power over them as well.

He could tell, because here, in this world, it actually had a visible effect, causing the three of them to look washed-out, colorless. He could no more affect them now than he could outside his power – he couldn’t even give them any of his time, to bring them up to his speed.

At least you two’ll be safe, he thought, with that usual stab of jealousy he got when he saw the two of them together. It was a small one, the kind he often felt when he saw people his age in a relationship, but it was there, nonetheless. Why can’t I have that? was what it said, each damn time.

At least the Kitty and Osore were so weird about their relationship, he didn’t feel jealous of them, too. Most of the time. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if Osore didn’t give a crap about her, and was just so apathetic he didn’t care when she hung off of him or kissed him.

Dude was scary.

And also likely to die, along with his girlfriend, if I don’t help.

He shook his head, and focused as he got to a particularly difficult section – a collapsed building that stood in the way of the straightest line away from the time-explosion, too broad to feasibly run around and be faster than try to scale it.

And scale it he did, leaping and crawling as necessary, using broken bits of concrete and cracked glass that should never have borne his weight as footholds without even shifting them, scaling a good twenty feet of rubble to reach the peak.

From there, he could finally see the area beyond the desolation. The suburbs to the South-West of New Lennston, to be precise. Where he’d taken Kizzy, to keep her out of the fight and as safe as can be.

There was no telling, though, how far this explosion was going to reach. The normal rules clearly didn’t apply here.

So, he was going to run there, grab Kizzy, and take her as far away as he could. Carry her, running, away from the devastation, like he had before, and like he was likely to again, in the future, as long as that monster persisted.

He looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come. The slow-motion explosion had spread further, crawling forth. He couldn’t say what’d become of the Dark, he’d been on the other side of the explosion from where Jared had started running, but tendrils of it were already reaching for some of the people standing at or near the edge of the crater. They were too far away to tell whether any of them had even started to react to it. If they’d even get a chance at it.

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Not just his team, but everyone else within reach. Well, maybe not the princess. Certainly not the Dark. But the rest of his team, sans the boss and the buttboy. Jugs, Kitty, Osore. Bismuth was probably still somewhere in there. The adults. Hecate and Tyche, though he hadn’t seen Tyche earlier.

Now there was a girl he thought he could have a relationship with. Heroic, gorgeous, fun-loving, easygoing, just the right amount of crazy and flirty.

I hope your luck doesn’t run out here of all times, Red.

He looked down at his feet, feeling shame well up within him. He couldn’t possibly help. Even if he might have, at first, he’d run too far away by now, and every second he dithered up here was another second lost. All he could hope to achieve was to die together with his friends.

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

I’m sorry, everyone. I wish I was stronger.

With tears in his eyes, he turned away from the battlefield…

***

… and found himself staring at his clock, red digits floating before a pure white background, measuring the minute and a half of time he had left to spend.

What?

He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the digits were no longer floating freely before the whiteness. Instead, he saw an incredibly long display, like what one would see on an old-fashioned digital clock, stretching to the left and right, circling around him as he turned his head – a perfect ring of a display, filled with bright red numbers separated by blinking colons.

And there weren’t just the seconds and minutes he was used to seeing whenever he closed his eyes. No, the digits continued to the right, and circled nearly entirely around the display, back to the minute digits at the front. He didn’t even know the words for the measurements, and he wasn’t sure there were any. Hundreds of thousands of digits, millions, time defined and measured out to an incredible, impractical degree, measured out far, far past the point of practicality for human action, thought, even conception.

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

Most of the numbers weren’t moving, but for the digits at the very end, that is to say, directly to the left of the minute digits. The smallest measure of time his power knew, ticking down at what felt like a snail’s pace, the display changing so slowly he could see the old digit fade out and the new one brighten up in slow motion.

… : 31

… : 30

He blinked again, and once more the sight was changed. Where before there had been but a white backdrop, there were now shapes, barely visible. Like looking at something move within a bank of mist, except one couldn’t see the thing itself, only the way it affected the mist.

Vast, vast shapes moved in jerky motions behind the display. Gears, spools, levers. Disconnected, seemingly, as if pieces between them were missing, or perhaps simply not visible yet.

As he watched, one of the largest gears shifted a little bit, a fraction of a turn; it set off a lever that seemed to need at least one more gear between them to be set off, snapping up to strike at and bounce off of… nothing?

… : 29

“What the hell is going on!? Hello!?!” he shouted, turning around in place, looking for a clue.

As he did, the scenery changed again, the giant gear shifting one more position ahead and causing the lever to bounce off of something, audibly this time, like a giant clockwork making all a single, vast motion; and by the time he was looking at the ‘front’ again, the gears and levers and other pieces had become visible, made of strange metals that didn’t look right to his eye, with fine strands of something spun between them, being threaded through the titanic clockwork.

Time. It’s threading time, he comprehended, without knowing why or how he did so.

… : 28

He himself stood atop another giant gear, made of some kind of brassy-golden material that was too rough to be metal and too smooth to be stone.

And then something else moved. Something vast, so vast he could barely comprehend its motion, and not just because it was effectively invisible, an outline in the mist, only this was an outline in the light; something that’d been draped around and over some of the gears, levers and the display itself, lazily, like some kind of gargantuan snake.

He thought he saw the outline of a hand, fingers, though he couldn’t make out how many fingers; but certainly more than five.

The… whatever it was, it almost seemed to reach for him, and he took an instinctive step back, raising his arms in defense – not that it would’ve done any good.

But it stopped short of reaching him, and instead, pointed down at the display directly in front of him (yet so far away he wasn’t sure he could ever reach it).

The numbers there, they flickered, as Jared lowered his arms and stared; shifting through numbers, letters, then disappearing, nearly all but a few to form a single message.

RUN UP THE CLOCK?

YES || >NO

The little triangle pointing at the ‘No’ disappeared, and appeared next to the ‘Yes’, then faded and appeared at the ‘No’ again, flickering back and forth between them.

His jaw worked, wordlessly, for a moment, as he processed it all, intuitions coming into his mind he’d never have thought of on his own. “I…”

“Beware,” a new voice spoke, from the left.

Jared jumped and squeaked in a way that his friends would certainly have had a laugh about, whirling about to look at the intruder in a place he’d never, ever have expected to see one.

The figure before him was… indistinct, though in a different way to the  thing on his clock. It was humanoid, certainly, human-like even, but it was hard to make out more; completely white from head to toe, it seemed to consist of dozens or more people, all overlapping each other, but no two of them quite the same in dimensions, blurring the outline of the gestalt into a flickering, shifting mess. There were no facial features he could make out, nor any other identifying features at all, really.

It turned its head away from the clock, and looked – he presumed – straight at him. “You should think again, whether you want to say yes,” it spoke, its voice an inummerable chorus. “This is not a choice you can walk back.”

“I, I think I know that,” he replied, looking away from it and up at the question on the clock’s display. “This, this is what they call a swan song, right?”

“It’s the option of one,” the figure clarified. “A choice, you have to make, here, beyond the reach of other people. To give your life, in a way, in exchange for power. A great deal of power, if for a limited… time.”

“Enough power to save everyone?” he asked, choked up.

The figure seemed to pause, for a moment. “No. Not everyone, not by yourself. This area’s always been fragile, ever since the Beginning; the incursion she’s set off will spread, unless counter-acted appropriately.”

“Spread, how far?” he asked, dazed. This was all, too damn much.

“Far enough you may not be able to get Keziah to safety, without this power,” the strange thing retorted.

It was like a drop of super-freeze dropped into a bucket of water, causing ice to spread all throughout Jared’s body, as he imagined those eldritch bolts and tendrils spreading far enough to reach his little sister and…

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

“There’s no way to stop this?” he asked, hoarsely. There were tears in his eyes, that he wasn’t bothering to wipe away.

“None you could walk on your own, nor one I could tell you of.”

“Who… who are you?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at the stranger, his shoulders slumping. He felt so tired.

“Merely a friend,” it replied, simply and with finality.

The mechanism advanced one more step, and Jared found that the entirety of their surroundings were now taken up by titanic a titanic clockwork engine.

“I never would have thought a swan song would look like this,” he said, when it became obvious it wouldn’t further elaborate.

The stranger shrugged, and turned away to look up at the clock and the still-invisible giant sprawled all around and over it. “It is different for everyone whom this offer is extended to. Everyone’s world is quite different after all.” It looked around at their surroundings. “This clock of yours is quite interesting, really. So many details, hidden beneath the surface. Still, it is hardly the time for idle chatter.” It turned its head to look at him. “What is going to be your choice?”

Jared looked away again, up at the clock. If I’d been asked a few seconds earlier…

He would have said no. It was the only thing he could have said. No matter what else, Kizzy had to take precedence, and he had to be alive to take care of Kizzy.

But now… this stranger, this ‘friend’ had said that he might not be able to get her to safety on his own. Certainly not with his power as it was, and maybe even accepting a swan song wouldn’t be enough? But it would be more likely to be enough.

Then there was the question of whether this… person… was even trustworthy. There were two reasons, mainly why he accepted what he said, though – one, it just fit how shitty the world was too well, and two, if someone untrustworthy had access to him here, at what felt and seemed to be the very center of his power, well… then he was fucked, anyway.

So in the end, it all came down to the whether he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kizzy’s sake.

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

He reached out with his hand, pointing at the ‘Yes’ option, and the triangle switched over.

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.

ALL THAT WE DO, WE DO FOR HER.

The invisible thing rose up – and then came down, smashing through the gears and springs and levers of power.

Again.

And again.

As if in a frenzy, it struck and lashed out, like a snake – or arm – possessed, smashing the machinery around them, the cacophony of destruction utterly defeaning, driving Jared to stagger back and nearly fall over.

Time that had before been threaded carefully through the system poured forth like liquid light, rushing towards him, as the display flickered, danced with disjointed lights, and then went black, all black, save for a single red symbol.

The light rushed forth and into Jared, faster and harder than he could react, into his mouth and down before he could even gasp for breath, let alone screaming, filling him to bursting and beyond.

***

He exploded into motion, leaping off the giant mound of rubble he’d been standing upon. Still in the air, he felt his vision change, sharpening; even with his helmet’s visor set to let him see beyond the boundaries of his power’s sphere, at the cost of being unable to see his immediate surroundings as anything but a blurry mess, the two halves of his vision focused, independently, until an equilibrium was reached, and he could see clearly, both near and far – further than ever before, all the way to the horizon.

Reaching up with one hand, he touched his helmet, to pull it off – but he could not move it, and when he touched it, he felt his hand, like he was touching his face; except he felt the helmet, through his hand.

Even as he touched it, it smoothed out, shifted. Merging with his face, he realized, as he felt the air rush past his body on the approach to the ground, as if naked.

My costume is becoming a part of me?

He’d heard the stories about Swan Songs, how weird things got. That people who underwent one, they changed before dying. It was a poorly understood thing, unsurprisingly. Swan Songs were rare to begin with, they could not be triggered deliberately (and who would want to, really?) and they rarely lasted for long, on top of only really happening during times of crisis.

His thoughts were disrupted as he landed on the broken ground, on all fours. The impact was barely a consideration, even lighter than it would usually be. Less than ten percent effect.

Time was pouring out of him, beyond any reason, extending his seconds beyond what he’d ever been capable of.

His body moved, lightly, as if he was weightless, leaping forth away from the suburbs. Arms and legs moved in strange synchronicity, bending oddly, the forelimbs lengthened to let him run on them properly.

He didn’t have much time, he knew that. And just grabbing Kizzy and running with her, he didn’t think that was going to be enough.

No, if he was doing this, he had to do it smart.

His power was such that, he was quite certain he could have grabbed Kizzy and run halfway across the continental United States, if he’d so wished. Or the other way, across the ocean.

And yet, the stranger had said that may only maybe save her.

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

There was only one person he could think of, that might be able to tell him, who was also within reach.

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

It looked different, now. Its rate of progress had slowed, almost to a stand-still, but where before it had looked like some kind of negative light, black cracks spreading like slow-motion lightning, it now looked alive to his eyes. Red, like molten rubies, and pulsing, ripples running up and down the stuff at such speeds, he could barely follow them even now, with time slowed to a near-stand-still.

It looks like blood, he realized. Pulsing like there’s a heart, somewhere in there, beating.

He ran towards the tendrils of bloody light, soon entering the area where the glow they gave off tinted everything a deep, shimmering red. Entering it was like suddenly plunging into water, as if the light it gave off had real mass, impeding his motions; but he pressed through regardless, forcing himself to keep going.

And the closer he got to it, the more he felt his body change. Saw his body change, as the arms that were reaching ahead of him, to grab onto the ground and propel him forward, elongated and smoothed out, what had once been his suit becoming his skin, his skin becoming like crystal; and the crystal cracked, cracks spreading through it, through which came forth a stark white glow that seemed unaffected by the red glow of the incursion, pushing it away, even, rather than mixing together.

That wasn’t even the weirdest part. As he passed other people, he found that they, too, looked changed. The metahumans, at least. From a distance, they just looked as he would have expected them to, merely washed out in red, but whenever he passed close enough to one or some for his bubble of light to cover them, if partially, the oddest sight took place. He saw things, beyond them, as if they were lenses that refocused his light, projecting strange visions beyond them.

There, a girl he’d seen on some show before, in a black bodysuit so tight it would have been utterly indecent, if not for the red, brown and orange leafs stuck to it in swirling patterns, some of them covering the most critical areas. As he passed her by, she became a lens that showed him a vast, autumn-colored forest, only it was a forest without a sky, without earth or animals or anything but the trees and their leafs, growing everywhere, above, below, to the sides.

He ran past her, and then past his two teammates and the cape they’d been helping, but yet again, they were dead to his power, washed out grey figures whether they were within or without his bubble.

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

He ran in a loping kind of gait through this silent, red world, the light shining forth from him growing stronger, until it reached as far as his bubble usually did, casting his immediate surroundings in stark clarity, while everything beyond the bubble was frozen redness and shadows. As the red light was pushed away, it became easier for him to move; still underwater, perhaps, but now he was running inside an air bubble that moved with him.

Soon, his path took him around the red stuff, and there he saw what he’d been looking for – the frozen form of the Dark, a tall, jet-black mass of shadow, legless, as if fused to the ground, the tendrils of red stuff curving around him.

Jet black.

Even standing right in front of the glowing red stuff, its light did not seem to touch him at all – not only was the Dark himself as, dark, as usual, but there was an entire area around him, a bubble two times as big as the one around himself, that the red stuff could not penetrate – instead, it had wrapped halfway around it, enveloping the Dark like amber around an air pocket. Where Jared’s bubble was filled with incandecent light, however, the Dark’s was filled with something much bleaker, much harsher, casting everything within the bubble in stark relief.

He immediately found a new obstacle – the bubble was nearly solid, to him. His own bubble deformed around it, rather than overlap, and when he came up against it, it was very nearly solid, denser by far than the Incursion’s own… whatever it was. Aura. Presence.

A problem, whatever he chose to call it. Pressing against it was like trying to push spun glass into old, extra-thick honey – he felt like his spiffy new crystal arms were going to snap, any moment.

He looked at the ground to cover, before he could reach the Dark. His new arms were about ten feet long, and he could cover about as many feet with a single step. There were about sixty feet of harsh, bleak-lit space between him and the Dark.

Five steps and then reaching out. You can do it, Jared.

He leaned into the Dark’s bubble, shoulder first, to spare his fragile-feeling arms the pressure, slowly, laboriously, forcing his body into the oppressive light.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt, not quite. He wasn’t sure he could feel real pain anymore, with his body the way it was. But he felt the pressure, constricting him, pressing against his body from every which way, unevenly – far more heavily on the parts of him closer to the Dark than not. The increase in pressure was so rapid, so intense, he actually could feel the difference, inch by inch, compacting him, crushing, restraining, cracking the crystals of his body, so dense it seemed to actually dim the light shining from within, rather than have more of it spill forth from the fresh cracks.

He was less than a foot in yet!

Thank God I don’t need to breathe anymore, he thought, as he took his first, laborious step into this oppressive bubble. Cracks spread further over his red-and-white skin, shining with dim, almost condensed light.

It felt like he was dying. Even without the need to breathe – he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t breathing anymore, until he wasn’t able to and found he didn’t need to –  the pressure was too much. One step, but he’d ended up taking less than five feet with it, for he just couldn’t force it in that far. Three feet crossed, at best. He’d need nearly double the steps… more, if the pressure increased even further.

Nevertheless, he took the next step. He was dying anyway – what was there left to lose?

The only thing that could still scare him now was the thought of failing to save Kizzy, and that was certainly a reason to move forward, and not retreat.

Step by step, he wandered deeper into the oppressive bleakness, feeling his body break down, pieces of crystalline costume-flesh flaking off to reveal more of the glowing innards, and yet, he somehow kept finding the strength to move on, step by laborious step.

It took him ages – in a second – to finally reach the Dark’s towering, time-frozen form. By that point, his body had broken down nearly entirely, leaving him as a dim, solid silhouette of white light, framed by an irregular lattice of silvery crystal strands.

Even now, grown to more than twice his height, he was smaller than the Dark, stooped over as he was, pushed down by the oppressive weight.

As he approached him, strange strands became visible, tendrils of… something, that extended out from his form in every direction, frozen in place – they did not seem solid, but rather made of some kind of black mist, frozen mid-swirl in some places, solidified into strands in others, until they trailed off into nothingness…

He could not guess as to their meaning or purpose, but there had to be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, though curiously, there were none in the direction he was approaching from.

Those barely visible faces were still all over the Dark’s form, as well, frozen in place, rather than constantly shifting, which made it easier to make them out.

He tried really hard not to make them out.

Instead, he reached out, laborious inch by inch, until he could put his hand onto the Dark’s left arm, at the elbow.

His form flickered, the light within pulsing, from his core to his arm, from his arm into the Dark. The entire form twitched, shuddering from head to… bottom, the faces animating only to disappear into the greater darkness, as the strands came alive, extending every which way, twisting, twitching, dissolving and reforming, still trailing off into nothing.

The tall, shadow-wreathed figure turned his head, looking down at him, while pulses of white light kept flowing into him, providing him with a share of Jared’s time.

Six glowing red eyes focused on him, as the pressure mercifully disappeared.

Jared shuddered, nearly losing his grip on the man, as his entire form unwound, no longer restricted – like a spring that’d been compressed, only to suddenly be released, he nearly doubled in size, all parts of him swelling as his inner light blazed forth.

He would have lost his grip on the Dark, by his own sudden growth, but his arm split, from the elbow up to between middle and ring finger, only for light to pour forth and form two whole forearms and hands, one still holding onto the Dark with unnaturally long fingers.

Crystal began to grow atop his glowing flesh, like ice forming on a surface when the temperature fell sharply, and soon he was – mostly – whole again, covered in crystal with pulsing vein-like cracks running through it.

“One would think I would get used to this, but even after nigh-on a century, I still can’t quite stomach a child dying in front of me,” the Dark spoke, pensively.

“It was either me, or everyone else. I think,” Jared replied.

The Dark seemed to hear it, though. “Ah. Did a Friend tell you that?”

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

The Dark sighed, and looked over his shoulder. “An Incursion… of course,” he spoke, and even through the distorted chorus of his many voices, he sounded incredibly, unbelievably tired.

“What’s going to happen?” Jared asked, while he kept sharing his time with the Dark.

“The Incursion will reach out for every metahuman within a radius of… four and a half miles, just about,” the Dark said, hand raised to stroke his shadowy chin. “Each metahuman it connects to will then become an amplifier, extending the effect – exponentially so. Every other metahuman whom falls within the extended range will extend it in turn, and every baseline within that range will also become connected, though they won’t boost the effect further.”

“That… what… and then what?” That sounded horrific, considering how this thing already looked.

“Something worse than mere death, young man,” the Dark replied, simply. “Fortunately, thanks to the choice you made, we have a chance to avert the worst of it, by moving every metahuman here beyond its initial reach.”

Jared shuddered, his new form creaking with the motion, still growing, though not as explosively as before.

“What about, Mindstar?” he asked, looking towards where the woman still ought to be – if there was anything left of her.

The Dark looked in the same direction. “We cannot reach her, I’m afraid. Perhaps her shields will be enough to prevent a connection… she is clearly far more powerful than even I suspected, which is frankly rather disconcerting when- ah, no matter.”

He made a dismissive hand motion, as if he was tossing the thought aside.

“Let us focus. You could share your time with other people, in the past, to pull them into your pocketed timestream. Your capacity to do so ought to have increased considerably now.” It was a statement, not a question. “We need to extend your power to everyone else here, so they can move out of the Incursion’s range.”

“I’m not sure I have enough time left to do that,” Jared replied, looking down at the Dark – he’d grown a few feet, since they’d started talking. “This thing is spreading, even now, even though we’re progressing at one hundredth of a second!”

He looked at the tendrils of redness extending from the central mass that filled out the crater. They’d crept closer already.

“Even if I had time enough to spare, I don’t think I could get to everyone in time, I’d still need to run to everyone, pull them into my time, get them to safety, run back, over and over and the way you described it, if it connects to just one person…”

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

“Fear not,” the Dark said, calmly, moving away from the Incursion, his bottom half sliding over the rubble without disturbing it. Jared followed, keeping his hand on the Dark’s shoulder, as those strange tendrils flowed out behind him, trailing his path. No matter which way the Dark turned or moved, it seemed like the tendrils always extended every which way around him, but towards Jared. “You were wise to come to me, first. Together, we can save everyone.”

There was not a doubt in his voice that Jared could detect, and he felt oddly reassured by it, which was just freaky because the Dark was being reassuring. His parents used to sing poems about how horrible a monster he was, to get him to behave, telling him that the Dark would come for him if he stole cookies from the cookie jar or didn’t pick up after himself.

“Cool. Great, I mean… yeah,” he stammered, unsure of what to say, while they put distance between themselves and the Incursion. “Speaking of saving everyone…”

The Dark looked over his shoulder at him, and there was something strangely sad about the expressionless shadow one could see, crushing Jared’s faintest hope before he could even speak.

“I’m sorry, but no, young man. Saving you, is beyond me at this point, beyond any means I am aware or even suspecting of,” he replied, his choir-like voice tender, like many greaving people layered on top of one another. “You have tipped over the edge… like an object which has crossed a singularity’s event horizon, there is now only one way to go for you, and that is not the way back.”

Jared lowered his head, briefly. It had been a faint hope, barely hope really, but still, it hurt to have it squashed.

“Focus, now. We have a great task to perform.” As he spoke, the Dark raised a long-fingered hand and put it onto Jared’s side – he had grown so tall, even the Dark could no longer reach any higher, as toll and long-armed as he may have been. “Do you have any last words you wish me to know or convey? Any last wishes?”

Jared looked at him, and if he’d still had eyes, they would have been staring. If he’d still had a mouth, it would have been slack-jawed. Entrust his last words to the Dark? Yet another thing he’d never ever have dreamed.

There were some things, though, that he would want to say, some things that… that mattered…

“Tell, the boss and… I mean, tell Tartsche and Spellgun… and the others, on my team, tell them goodbye. Tell them not to miss me too much, but not too little, either. Tell Polymnia I’m sorry I was such a jerk to her, and… tell the princess the same. I should’ve been nicer to her. And… that she’s not stupid, for the things she hopes for. Honestly, I think it’s rather awesome that she can hold on to that kind of hope.”

The words were spilling out of him, faster than he could think about them. “Tell Amazon she was a rockin’ boss, and tell Bismuth thank you, for everything she did for Kizzy. She’s awesome, and I’m sorry about what happened to her sister. And… tell Kizzy, that… that I’m sorry.”

He hesitated, because entrusting the Dark with words was one thing, but asking for something more… I hope to God you’re right about your dad, princess.

Jared raised his head – slightly, for he was too tall to see eye-to-eye with the Dark anymore, but enough to look him in the eyes. “And, my sister, Kizzy… she doesn’t really have anyone, won’t have anyone, once I’m gone…” A foster family is not the same as having a family. There won’t be anyone to watch out for her once she’s older. The UH will make sure she won’t lack money, but…

“I shall provide what protection and resources I can. You have my word,” the Dark spoke, and it was with the same casual conviction with which he’d said they could save everyone.

Something within Jared relaxed, like a knot, slightly unwound. He still wouldn’t be there for her himself, but at least, this way, he’d done all he could.

Almost done, all he could. He still had to stop this ‘Incursion’.

“How are we going to do this?” he asked, once he’d regained his composure.

“Behold.” The villain gestured dramatically with his free hand, and a shadowy form burst forth from the mass of shadows that ringed the pillar of his lower body.

A spindly, emaciated humanoid figure, made of an oily black substance, wreathed in shadows, burst forth – a Darkwraith, but a small one, it was basically just a torso, arms and an eyeless head, using its arms to drag itself forward at an impressive speed.

As it separated from the Dark, a strand of darkness remained, like the countless others that extended from his form, except this one seemed more – it was solid, rather occasionally dissolving into dust-like darkness before reforming, and it extended, at first, from where the Dark’s feet ought to be, to beneath the wraith’s form… to its stomach?

An umbilical cord? As if this couldn’t get any more disturbing.

Light pulsed down the cord, from the Dark to the wraith… from Jared to the Dark.

He’s sharing my time with the wraith. Holy-

The wraith rushed forth, trailing the umbilical, which moved up the Dark’s body as it extended, as if pulled out, until it connected to the pinky of his free left hand.

Jared could feel the drain of time, as he was now sharing it between three.

Four, as another wraith burst forth, fed pulses of time through its umbilical.

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

His growth accelerated, as he found his thoughts drifting into a strange state, the sensations his body was feeding back to him changing in ways he had no words to describe.

The Dark moved, pulling himself up to stand atop Jared’s left shoulder, right hand on his head, hundreds of cords extending from his left hand, like a puppeteer’s strings, with pulses of time-light trailing down their length.

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

Even with his thoughts becoming strangely dream-like, he could still draw the implication.

There were thousands of currently inert cords extending from the Dark’s form, and more joined them every passing moment as Jared grew in stature, and his awareness expanded in breadth and depth.

“Just how many wraiths do you have out there?” he asked, and his voice was huge, booming forth in strange ways, as if it produced its own echo; his body was as large now as Crocell had been at its biggest.

The more of my power I draw, the more I change, he realized. The less human I become.

“Never enough,” the Dark answered his question, even though Jared had already half-forgotten he’d asked it. He sounded resigned. “There’s never enough of me to go around. Never enough of anyone.”

Hundreds of wraiths were running to the people around the area, and merging with them.

The people came to life, as the wraiths became a part of them, connecting them to the Dark’s hand, fingertips to their navels.

The first few looked confused at first, then horrified at what they saw, as they looked either at the cords of oily darkness connecting to them, or up at the titanic figure that was Jared, or at the Dark, whom stood upon his shoulder like some kind of twisted pet.

Then they moved, and the motion was strange, starting suddenly – after a moment’s confusion, Jared’s new senses allowed him to see what was happening, the Dark’s intent moving down the cords, along with the time they were meant to convey, pushing everyone to flee.

“What about them?” Jared asked, pointing with one of the dozen arms he now sported at the little group under the aegis of Tartsche’s power. No wraith had connected to either of them.

No, his name was… what was his name, I don’t…

“We cannot connect to them,” the Dark replied, calmly, his attention focused on managing his many, many wraiths. “Neither can the Incursion – they will be safe.”

Jared tilted his head, only he didn’t tilt it spatially, but in a different way, like tilting it in time, and he looked ahead.

The Dark was right. He couldn’t see any future in which they were harmed by these events.

Since when can I look into the future? he asked himself.

“Don’t focus too hard on that,” the Dark told him, firmly, his voice somehow able to penetrate the dream-like haze that the boy’s thoughts were descending into. “We are already using up your time too quickly – don’t waste it on looking ahead.”

Did I say that out loud?

“There is no longer a distinction between what you think and what you express. Be very careful,” the Dark explained, patiently, as heroes, villains and bystanders were moved out of reach of the Incursion.

The awareness of the thing that had once been a boy extended in twists and turns that would have made no sense to the human it once was; and it could perceive, though not see, everyone within a great distance. People were moving to safety. Some faster than others, but all were moving, either under their own power, or being helped by others whom could move quickly and carry loads.

It wanted to help, to reach out with its many arms and help those whom were wounded, those whom were weak or just naturally slow, to get them to safety, but it knew the truth of the Dark’s words – it was spending time in colossal amounts, and anything it did threatened to spend even more, to make it even less human; and deep down inside it knew, once the process was far enough along, it would slip away and be drawn in to… to whatever was to come.

“Focus on what matters,” the Dark commanded, his alien voice cutting through the daze and straight to the mind of the boy within the thing. “Cast out your anchors. As long as you have at least one, you can prolong your existence, and save so many more people.”

The thing did so, seeking the boy’s memory’s for what mattered.

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

Yes… a promise made, at the start and at the end of it all. A promise the boy made to himself, for the sake of his sister.

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

Kizzy had once had a brother… had a brother… and that brother’s name had been…

Jared. My name is Jared. I am Kizzy’s big brother, the boy thought as he awakened from the daze of power.

His titanic form shuddered, and shrank down by nearly half – and instead, time slowed even more, as he squeezed nearly twenty more seconds into each real second.

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

“Impressive. What a tragedy, that one with such fortitude of mind is to die.” The Dark actually sounded genuinely aggrieved by it.

“It’s alright,” Jared said, slowly, his voice rumbling along, echoing off of nothing… or at least, nothing in this reality, at least. “I’ll last long enough to finish this.”

“As you say, young hero,” he said, and then turned away again, focusing on his wraiths and the people they connected to.

Meanwhile, Jared held onto his memories, his self, for as long as he could… piece by piece, losing them, as they moved on ahead to await him on the other side.

Finally, the Dark managed to move the last person out of reach of the Incursion. By that time, Jared had long since forgotten speech entirely, and so the shadow man merely bowed, deeply, and shot away.

With there no longer being a need to conserve time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend what he had left to look ahead, to see what would become of Kizzy.

Pain and heartbreak, grief and sorrow, horror and despair. But also… pushing past that… he got a glimpse, of a girl, a young woman, in costume, standing tall among a line of heroes.

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

Jared closed eyes he no longer had. His final thoughts were of his parents and his sister.

And then he was no more.

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.4 Out of Time

Previous | Next

Not so long before the Crocell Fight

Jared stood in the elevator, holding Kizzy’s hand. He was wearing his costume, without the helmet and gloves, while she was wearing one of her favorite outfits, a red and white sweater dress with a built-in hood, white pantyhose and equally red-and-white sneakers that were so clean, they looked to be brand new. Her blonde hair was done up in a complex arrangement of loops and braids that their step mother had had way too much fun working on, framing her freshly scrubbed face, with just a little lip gloss to add an accent.

He’d just slicked his hair back with some gel, as he usually did. The style carefully chosen and maintained, but only requiring minuscule effort to do so, unlike Kizzy’s ever-changing, ever-evolving looks.

Her grip on his hand tightened as the elevator approached the Junior’s common level, though even if she’d put her all into it, she could never have achieved anything remotely sufficient to even discomfort him.

„Are you nervous?“ he asked, doing his best to sound casual, rather than concerned.

She looked up at him like he’d just grown a second head. „Of course I’m nervous, Jar Jar! How can you not be? We’re going to meet the princess of pop! THE Polymnia! The one who made ‚Armaterrium‘ and ‚Cascade of Moonglow‘ and, and, and are you laughing at me?“ She pouted, glaring upwards at him.

It was freaking adorable. Moreover, it was… it was heartwarming in a way he’d have trouble putting into words, if he’d even ever tried.

After a whole year of not talking, barely making a sound except to scream, she’d finally, finally started to recover. Now she mostly behaved like a normal girl again. More restrained and quiet than she’d used to be, but still, worlds ahead of where she’d been for the first year after their parents‘ death.

The team had helped, a great deal. Particularly Bismuth, who’d taken a particular interest in the situation and had made a point of building a relationship with her. She’d involved her in stuff Jared could not for the life of him figure out how to do right, like taking her on one of those overly elaborate and stupidly over-plotted shopping sprees she tended to organize once a month, and other stupidly girly stuff that Kizzy seemed to just adore.

Whatever makes her happy again. Even if it drives me insane.

The elevator stopped and let them out into the antechamber, of sorts, to the Junior’s lounge. Just a small, oval room leading to a sliding double door, for visitors to wait in case the Juniors had to put masks on (or do some last-minute cleanup, a task which usually fell on Jared, for obvious reasons, or lately also the Princess, for equally obvious ones).

Not that it was an issue here. Kizzy already knew nearly everyone on the team by name, excluding Kitty (whom rarely wore her own face anyway),  Osore (who didn’t care), the Princess (she didn’t have a secret identity anyway) and Jugs, whom had agreed to unmask to her.

“You ready, Kizzy?” he asked, barely able to keep acting cool now that they were so close to springing the surprise.

“Yesssss!” she replied, nodding her head like only younger kids could, like there was less bone and more rubber in their necks. “Best Birthday Present!” she added, looking up at him with shining eyes.

Agh, so adorable! he thought, but just grinned. “Well, let’s not keep her waiting, she is kind of a busy person.”

Which was an understatement. Sometimes he wondered whether that girl would get out of her lab at all, outside of going out in costume, if it wasn’t for the Princess or the Buttboy dragging her out for this or that.

And he’d thought a Contriver like the Buttboy was obsessive about his work…

“Yes, let’s!” She gave that boneless nod again, eyes fastened on the door.

Time to shine.

He kicked his power into effect, adding the whole nine seconds he’d trained his power up to be capable of onto each second that passed.

The world beyond his immediate surroundings blurred, as if his eyes were bad again, and he wasn’t wearing his helmet to have the visor counteract the effect, but it didn’t matter.

He’d made sure that Kizzy wasn’t gripping tightly onto his fingers, as otherwise, he’d have been stuck – each second he added cut down the effect he could have on the world outside his power, and the effect the world had on him. Add one second, cut it down to half. Two seconds, and it’s cut down to a third.

Nine seconds, and he only had one tenth of the effect he ought to have on the world – and was protected from nine tenths himself.

Sliding his hand out of Kizzy’s, he sauntered forward and touched the doors, pushing more seconds from his store into them, to bring them up to his time and be able to affect them normally.

He opened them, one after the other, immediately releasing them from his power, so as not to waste precious seconds on them. The room beyond was decorated all over with streamers, balloons and a huge banner saying ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!’ in rainbow-colored, glitter-covered letters.

The others were all lined up, in costume but with their masks off (save for the princess, whom didn’t wear one anyway), already poised to cheer; Melody stood in the center, arms spread wide, an infectuous smile on her face, in just those skintight pink pieces she wore under her power armor, basically an athletic crop top and biker shorts, as well as a pair thigh-high pink socks and blue shoes.

Damn, she looks good.

He often wished his power would let him stop time for real, so he could just walk over and take a closer look, freely, but unfortunately, they’d still see him move as a blur, and…

Well, he had to stick to subtler ways of using his power to oogle the ladies, when he bothered to hide it behind his power at all.

Anyway, today’s not the day for that, dear hormones.

He sighed, jogging over to his team and taking up the empty spot to the left and slightly in front of the songstress, dropping down on one knee, gesturing at her with both hands in a theatric fashion, finally taking a deep breath before he allowed time to resume.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KIZZY!” everyone shouted, except for Osore, whom just said it in his usual deadpan tone.

Still, it all but bowled Kizzy over.

***

Half an hour later, Jared was leaning against the wall, a chilled bottle of root beer in hand, watching and listening as Melody played a song she hadn’t yet released for the wide-eyed, slack-jawed Kizzy perched atop Bakeneko, whom looked like an over-sized, rainbow-furred unicorn-cat.

The song was pretty nice, even if he preferred music with lyrics and a beat.

He was so absorbed in watching and listening, he didn’t immediately notice it when the princess slid, literally slid over to lean against the wall next to him, nursing a glass of fizzy cherry juice.

Like always, he felt both excited and nervous at her proximity. On one hand, she really, truly, was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, and that skintight bodysuit she always wore, though thicker than was usual, did little to hide and a lot to emphasize it. She’d told them about her power, how it worked, how it had aged her up and matured her, in body and mind, then frozen her for years, then given her another growth spurt, then kept her prepubescent for years again… and so on, point being that her power had literally reshaped and refined her appearance from day one.

Jared hadn’t said so out loud, but he quietly disagreed. He wasn’t anywhere near as smart as the princess, or jugs, or even buttboy and boss man (Jury was still out on Osore, but he was at least sure he was smarter than the kitty), but God damn it, he was a dedicated student of the female form, and he’d always paid particular attention to female Adonises (and wasn’t he glad that they now had a new term for that, calling females Adonises was weird), so he knew all the signs of an Adonis power’s effect. There were always tells, that let him pick out whom was beautiful due to their power and whom was merely naturally gorgeous with near-perfect accuracy – he’d even caught a supervillainess once, that way, when he’d realized the hottie whose butt and legs he’d been oogling also had a too-perfect face, and…

Well, it was mostly in the face. And he could tell, looking at the princess’ face, that she was most likely just plain that pretty. For one, she looked almost exactly like her mother, to the point where the two of them could probably pass for twins, with some hair dye, or at least as siblings rather than mother and daughter and oh god the images that conjoured in his head quick think of baseball, think of baseball.

He blinked, averting his eyes from her, almost missing the knowing smile on her lips.

Point being, there was precedent for beauty in her family (even if no one knew what the Dark looked like, there were pictures of his mother, and his sisters, and of Lady Light’s mother, and of course of Lady Light herself, so…

That was strike one against that theory.

Strike two was that her face was interesting. The faces of Adonises, particularly female ones, could get kind of… repetitive, even with racial differences in the mix. The same ideals were applied to them all. It wasn’t like they were always perfect, but… close enough.

The princess’s face was not quite so ideal. Her lower lip was a little too thick, her mouth just a touch too wide, her eyes just a hair too big, her cheeks not quite full enough. Tiny imperfections which actually made her look even better than most Adonises, because one’s eyes would get hung up on them, instead of just passing over her face. Drawing attention and interest.

Especially those lips. God damn do I wish I could kiss them…

He realized that his eyes had drifted over to her again, to her lips in particular. Which turned up at the corners in a smirk.

“Having naughty thoughts again, Beach Boy?” she asked with more amusement in her voice than on her face, which was blushing lightly.

“Can you blame me? I never said I had an issue with your appearance,” he replied, a little more caustically than he’d intended to in is effort to cover up his own embarrassment.

“Nah,” she said with a shrug, which of course drew his eyes downwards for a few precious moments. “I’m used to it. There’s like, four boys in our age range that I’ve met who’ve never oogled me, and two of them are gay.” She nodded towards said couple, whom were cuddled up on a couch and enjoying

Four?” His eyes felt like they were going to pop out of his skull. He looked her up and down, from head to toe, with as meaningful a look as he could muster. “And only two of them are gay? Who’re the other two, Eunuchs?”

She blushed, rather adorably he had to say, looking away. “B-brennus and Os- Goudo.”

His eyes snapped over to the tall Japanese boy – almost a guy, really, he was going to be eighteen soon – standing behind the festivities, watching without watching, completely expressionless while he wore a red, white and blue party hat not unlike Jared’s own (even the princess wore one, though he’d missed it at first as his eyes had been focused… lower) and just… stood there, with about as much motion about him as a stone statue, holding a tray with drinks and snacks up within easy reach of his girlfriend and Kizzy.

Jared could totally buy that he wouldn’t show any reaction to the princess, even if she were to walk around stark naked.

The princess… stark naked…

Naked…

A sharp snap of black-clad fingers in front of his eyes pulled him out of Heaven and back onto the cold, dreary Earth.

“Earth to Beach Boy! You’ve literally started to drool,” she admonished him, sounding half annoyed and half amused.

“Uh, uhm… sorry. Uh. You didn’t…” He looked at her, worriedly. They’d already established that she could simply follow along into his time dillation, so if she got pissed, there’d be nothing at all he could do to get away.

“No, I didn’t look. I don’t want to know, though I can imagine what kind of thought got you distracted,” she explained, while he wiped the drool off of his chin.

“W-well… anyway, uh… I guess I  can totally buy Goudo acting like that… but Brennus, too? Are the hotties he hangs out with enough for him, or what?”

She giggled, at that, hiding it behind taking a sip of cherry juice from her glass. “Actually, according to Tyche, he won’t even look at her, even when she’s trying to get his attention by prancing around their base in the nude. He just tells her to put some clothes on.”

The sight of the red juice on her lips, and then her tongue licking it off, distracted him thoroughly enough that it took a few seconds for those words to register to him.

“Wait, what!? Is he a robot, or what?” he asked, incredulous, as he imagined that red-headed hottie Tyche trying to get his attention by going around in the nude…

She wouldn’t really have to try.

“No, he’s flesh and blood,” she replied, flatly. “Maybe some guys can control themselves, eh, eh?” She poked his side with her elbow, playfully.

He could only snort in response. “Yeah, no. Maybe there’s one guy out there whom can do it, but two, and in the same city? There ain’t no odds steep enough to describe how unlikely that is.”

She leaned away from him again, raising her glass. “How do you explain that we have two of them around, then?”

“Osore’s clearly secretly a robot built by Brennus to infiltrate the UH,” he stated, just as she was taking a sip of juice.

Irene sputtered something between a laugh and a groan, as cherry-red juice shot out of her lips and nose, and onto her costume’s top.

“Oh God that hurrrrrrrtssss!” she complained, raising a hand to her nose, as the fizzy liquid dripped out of it.

Jared couldn’t hold it in, he started to laugh at the sight as she shook her head like a wet dog, silky black hair whipping this way and that.

Then her power kicked in, and an odd distortion started at her head and travelled downward, distorting any parts it travelled over slightly, as if one was looking at them as a magnifying glass went over, drawing the juice away from her lower face and out of her nose.

The effect travelled downwards, distorting and unraveling the part of her cloak that was clasped around her throat, pulling the juice right out, drop by drop, from among the threads, then it travelled downward (along with Jared’s eyes), unravelling the portion above her chest, giving him the briefest glimpse of her… assets… as well as something glimmering between.

Before the effect could travel further downward and reveal them in full, though, it finished its work and dissipated, taking the juice along to nowhere.

This time, the princess blushed properly, wrapping her arms around her ample charms.

“You know, you could at least pretend not to stare, sometimes,” she complained with the cutest pout and glower this side of Kizzy.

“Naaah,” he replied with his best shit-eating grin. He was going to enjoy this memory for a long time.

She grumbled in response, pulling out her small canister of pills, popping one of them, then a second one right after, and washing them down with a more careful sip of juice. “You have no shame at all, do you?”

“Oh, I have plenty of shame all around, just not when it comes to appreciating the fair sex,” was his answer to that question.

This time, she could only roll her eyes. She didn’t leave, though, and it wasn’t like she had to hang out around him, so he figured she either wanted something, or else he wasn’t being too much of a jerk.

“So, speaking of stuff I just saw…”

“If you make a crack about my breasts, I will turn you into a guinea pig, wrap you up and give you to your sister as her new pet,” she threatend him with a glare.

He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Never. Your boobs are perfect, what is there to joke about?” That got him another blush.

“So are Melody’s, and you constantly tease her.

“She’s a fourteen-year-old with size G’s bordering on H, there is a LOT to make fun of,” he defended his humor. “You’re a B+ to C-, there’s really nothing to say there other than that they look just perfect.”

Her blush was getting positively fluorescent now. “How the fudge do you know our sizes? Have you been going through our underwear drawyers or what?!”

“You don’t have an underwear drawyer I could go through, on account of the fact that you don’t wear underwear, which, by the way, I completely approve of.” He gave her a double thumbs-up. “I wouldn’t need to anyway, though; I’m a devoted student of the female form and my uncle taught me long since how to tell any woman’s sizes at a glance.”

“Your uncle sounds like a perv.”

“That’s because he was a super-perv, by his own admission,” he shot back with a wistful smile.

She deflated again, probably putting together why he was speaking of him in the past tense.

So he pressed on in order to distract her, before things could get uncomfortable. “Aaaa-ny-way, what I meant to say is, I saw the one thing you do wear under that costume. Is that just for show, or are you actually a believer?” he asked her, in a much softer tone of voice.

“Oh. Um… yeah. I mean… it’s complicated, but… I do believe in something. Just not entirely sure what, exactly,” she explained. “Not sure how much I believe, either. But I like the teachings – care for others, don’t get hung up on the short term – and I like the music.”

“Can I see it?” he asked curiously.

She nodded, pulling on the collar of her costume to reach within. This time, he did avert his eyes, not that he could’ve seen much.

Taking the thin, golden chain off her neck, she held it out to him, and he picked up the small cross, looking at it on the palm of his hand.

It was only about as long as half his middle finger, and apparently wrought out of pure gold, three strands of the metal wound around each other in an elaborate pattern, tightly, forming the cross like a living tree that’d been shaped as it grew; it held a single jewel at its center, a tiny sapphire of the exact same shade as her eyes. The chain was much simpler in design, yet no less delicately worked.

“This is gorgeous,” he spoke, in awe at the artistry. “Where’d you get it?” He handed the precious jewelry back to her, and she put it on again.

“Dad made it for me,” she explained softly. “It’s a family tradition – every male Goldschmidt is supposed to know how to work gold, so when he was young, he spent a week learning it from his father and mastering it.”

“That’s… an interesting tradition. Though I guess it is in the name, and all,” he observed, quietly, as always feeling rather weird to talk about the freaking King of Supervillains like he was just another dad, or hearing her talk about him that way.

She nodded. “I’m not really a Goldschmidt, nor a boy, but I’ll learn it, too, once I can figure out how to practice it without my power just giving me the skill.”

“Cool,” he replied simply, handing it back to her.

“What about you?”

He drank from his cup, looking away to focus on the festivities. Kizzy was still listening to the music, looking just ecstatic.

“My parents used to send me to Sunday school every week, after making me sit through the service. I hated it. So many of my friends didn’t have religious families and got to hang out and play, and I had to study the bible and listen to that boring old priest talk about God and Jesus and stuff.”

The words summoned memories, of the room sunday school had taken place in, a room in the old community center that’d been built right next to the church. Red brick walls, red tile floor, wooden chairs with aged cushions that were sat through so thoroughly, they may as well have sat directly on the wood, and Father Maximillian, one of the most boring people he’d ever known, with those horrible horn-rimmed glasses, droning on and on about stuff.

“Then came… well, you know. Your sister,” he continued, trying not to be biting about it for once. She still flinched at the mention. “And I guess if I wanted to fulfill every stereotype, I could take that either as confirmation that God didn’t exist after all because why would he allow it, or it was God’s will, or… whatever… I still prayed, for Kizzy’s sake, even though I didn’t and don’t believe. She’s better now, though, so…”

He shook his head, interrupting his rambling. The princess’s eyes were focused quite intently on him, for a change, rather than the other way around, and he just knew she was taking it in in detail, rather than just acting like she was listening.

“Anyway… dunno,” he summed up his feelings on the matter. “How do you do it? Believe? Why do you think it makes sense?”

She shrugged, and then smiled at him, and it was the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen, short of Kizzy’s every one, of course.

“I don’t know. But if I ever do figure out God and Faith and all those things, I’ll be sure to tell you.”

He snorted. “Well, you’re way brainier than me – maybe you will figure it out.”

“That’s so nice of you to say.” She actually batted her eyelashes at him.

They fell quiet again, both of them focusing on and enjoying the performance.

Well, she might have been. Jared himself felt… contemplative. There was a question at the tip of his tongue, and he kind of didn’t want to ask it. Didn’t want to spoil the mood, because damn it, she could be such good company and this wasn’t supposed to be a heavy kind of day.

“Hey, Jared.”

He turned, a little surprised she’d actually use his name.

She smiled, wrily, at him. “I don’t need superpowers to tell you’re bothered by something, so out with it,” she told him.

Well… might as well…

“So,” he temporized, taking a deep breath. “You’re… kind of Christian. You believe in the lessons it teaches and all.” She nodded. “And you’re, quite obviously, a superhero,” he continued, turning his head away to seemingly watch the show, though he wasn’t really paying attention to it. She nodded again. “So, um… and I guess, feel free to tell me to fuck off, but… how does that work… with your Dad?” He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes.

“Ah…” Her shoulders slumped, her usually flawless posture gone. With her head lowered, her fine black hair hid her facial expression from him, like a black curtain, though he was pretty sure it wasn’t a happy one. “It’s… complicated. I mean… he’s still my dad, you know? I know he’s done horrible things… and he still does pretty bad things… though everyone always tells me he’s been much nicer and way less villainish since I was born… but I don’t want to use that as an excuse, like I’m being nice to him just to keep him on the straight and narrow-ish… but… you know…”

It was kind of cute how she flailed to find the right words, even if the subject matter was heavy.

“I think, what it comes down to, is two things. One is, and it’s not a good thing, but it’s a true thing, he’s never been evil to me or in front of me, not really. Not beyond being a really annoying jerk prone to pranks and poking people until they snap. Everyone always tells me what a horrible monster he’s been, and still can be, but it doesn’t feel real, you know? It doesn’t match my lived experience, and while he and mom are probably the only people whom can interact with me on a regular basis and still keep secrets from me, I’m not blind, and I’m not stupid, so… yeah. Doesn’t feel real.”

She stopped, after that torrent of words, her breathing a little sped up, while he digested her words.

“Also, um, as a side note, quite a few of the people who’ve warned me against him have done it right to his face – but if he really was so bad, would they actually dare? Even if he wouldn’t lash out at them while I was around, if he really was so petty and monstrous, wouldn’t he track them down after? It’s not like I’m, surveilling him all the time, or even some of the time, really. But they’re still around.”

“That… hm. Dunno. But I gotta say, it takes cojones of solid uranium or something, to say such things in front of the Dark,” he said with a slightly exaggerated shudder.

“He really isn’t so bad… when you get down to it, past all the masks and names and stuff, he’s just big, goofy nerd,” she replied, with an annoyed pout, arms crossed again.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure no one else’s lived experience matches yours, in regards to him, he thought, but didn’t say, and he kept it off his face as well as he could.

“What’s the second reason?” he asked, instead.

“Whether or not my presence in his life makes him a nicer person, the simple truth is that if I removed him from my life, opposed him, I’d relinquish any influence upon him I do or might yet have,” she said, in a much more collected manner, only to flounder again on the next part. “I don’t… I mean, it might be arrogant of me to say so, but… I’m kind of hoping… I wish… it could  be possible to…”

“Redeem him?” he finished the sentence for her, causing her to blush and nod. “Redeem the Dark?”

“It’s arrogant, I know, maybe even hubris… there’s no one he cares about, or for, nearly as much as mom, not even me, even if they both try to claim otherwise, and even she hasn’t been able to, but,” she gulped, swallowed, “maybe, if I add my own efforts to it… even if neither of them will tell me what drove him to be a villain in the first place… maybe it’ll finally be enough? Isn’t that… a good reason?” Her voice was barely a whisper by the final bit.

Fuck, she  sounds so young. Easy to forget she’s only Kizzy’s age, no matter the power shenanigans involved.

“Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but all things considered, I think your dad’s a pretty bad person, even if he’s a good dad to you,” he answered, after a minute of thinking it over. Also, fuck, this is ending up heavy anyway. “Even if he’s not the worst villain out there… I know there’s even worse… he’s still pretty bad. Anyone else who’d done half as much as he has, they’d be executed for it, anywhere on the planet… and man, I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be a jerk to you today,” he finished, as he saw her shrink into herself (figuratively, not literally… this time). “Sorry. Shutting up now.”

“If that is the right thing to do… then I can’t do it. Ever,” she said, softly, her eyes seemingly aimed at the others having fun together, though he was pretty sure she was gazing far further away.

“I, um, I never meant to say… no. No, you shouldn’t. Others sh- no, enough. I’m sorry I even brought it up,” he said, awkwardly. Mouth, insert foot here.

There was (relative) quiet for half a minute, or so, before she finally spoke again, with some mirth in her voice, even. “You know, I used to think you were just a jerk, at first. Now, I’m not sure whether you are, or whether you’re just horribly apt at repeatedly inserting your foot into your mouth.” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, looking at him.

He crossed his arms, acting offended. “I’ll have you know, I am perfectly capable of being both, at the same time even!”

She chuckled, fortunately, and he felt the tension ease. “You’re such a dork. And an ass.” Her fist lashed out, punching his shoulder.

It didn’t really hurt, and he more than deserved it.

“So, in the interest of you not being the only one that’s insensitive and asking stupid questions, may I ask you one?” she asked, raising her head up and looking at him out of the corner of her eye in a curiously bird-like motion.

He looked back, and shrugged. “It’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“One might say so. Still, feel free not to answer, if it cuts too close.”

Jared couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “C’mon, princess, out with it already. Can’t be as bad as half the stuff I’ve said just in this conversation.”

She seemed to think it over, and nodded.

“Why don’t you ever talk about your parents?” she finally voiced her question.

Alright, that actually is pretty uncomfortable.

Still, as much as it hurt to think about, and as much as he instinctively wanted to lash out over it, he owed it to her to give her a proper answer.

It would be no less than she had done, after all.

“Well… there’s a lot of reasons… it still hurts to think about them… I miss them… but, I think… the biggest reason is…” He took a deep breath, as he realized he’d never said it out loud before. Not even to his handler, nor to his psych guy. “Because I’m still so damn angry at them.”

“Angry that they died?” she asked, her voice so soft again, he barely heard it over the music.

“Yes. No.” He crossed his arms, looking up at the ceiling. “Actually, yes, but not mainly.” He held it in for a moment… then it all poured out of him in one big go. “I’m angry because they fucking knew their powers wouldn’t be able to help! They knew they’d be little better than cannon fodder!”

He puts his hands up on his head, all but pulling on his hair as his vision went blurry. “They had Kizzy! And me! They were supposed to be there for us, but instead they fought and died! When they could’ve run! When, when-“

Suddenly, he found himself enveloped in a tight hug, his face pressed against her chest, her arms holding him tightly, close to her heart. So close, he could hear, feel, her heartbeat.

His arms went around her midsection – she had to be floating to pull this off – and he clung tightly, grateful that no one had to see his tears, or hear his sobs.

An indeterminate amount of time passed, before he calmed down again, and they loosened their grip on each other.

She floated back a step, while he looked away, rubbing his face to get rid of the tears.

It seemed that no one else had noticed the whole scene, or else they were pretending marvelously not to have.

Neither Jugs, Kitty, nor the boss were that good at pretending.

He looked at the princess again, as she smiled at him in an almost motherly fashion.

“I won’t do that,” he said, still choked up. “I’ve got Kizzy to think about. When the time comes, I’ll fucking run.”

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.3 Out of Time

Previous | Next

6 minutes ago

He ran over a cracked road and jumped over the rubble of a collapsed building, straight at a pair of figures he’d seen while running away from the Dark.

It didn’t surprise him much, that these two had survived, even though one of them was pathologically self-sacrificial and the other was insane.

”Yo, boss. Boss’s wife,” he greeted them as he came to a halt, arm up.

Tartsche raised an arm and high-fived him, though Spellgun didn’t follow up on it.

It was then that he noticed the blood.

“The fuck? Did you fall asleep on the job, boss?” Jared asked, before he could rein his own mouth in, squatting down next to them.

Spellgun’s – Thomas’s – left leg was a mess and the only reason he was upright at all was because he was leaning heavily on Harry’s shoulder, and also using that wicked rifle of his like a crutch.

It looked like something had taken a huge chunk out of him – nearly the entire upper half of the back of his calf, the meatiest part of the lower leg, was just plain gone. Torn away so thoroughly, bone showed, where it wasn’t just frayed flesh and fat.

Jared’s stomach threatened to empty itself as he looked at the damage, pulling his first-aid kit off the back of his belt.

Strangely enough, while it was bloody, there wasn’t much, if any, blood flow, even though they hadn’t tied the leg off.

“One of DiL’s beams,” Harry explained, as he gently lowered the wounded boy onto the ground, using one hand to hold his leg up so the wound didn’t touch the dirty rocks and concrete. “Got him before I managed to reach him and put my power up. He shot himself with some kind of experimental bullet he of course hadn’t gotten approved beforehand, to prevent himself from bleeding out.”

Jared looked at Thomas sweaty, pale face with an incredulous stare. “You shot yourself?”

“Medical… bullet,” Thomas explained, grinning through the pain, only to arch his back and bite down on a scream when Jared sprayed some disinfectant on the huge wound. “Didn’t… oh God that burns… didn’t work… quite one-hundred percent yet… but it stopped the blood flow… and ah think… ooooowwwww… it should disinfect the wound, too.”

Jared worked quickly, having gotten a lot of practice recently, packing as much sterile cotton pieces into the wound, followed by wrapping it up in this new kind of bandage they’d started using a while ago, that supposedly both disinfected and allowed for proper airflow and stuff. Or something, he’d been sleeping through the advertisement, but the higher-ups had clearly thought it worthwhile, because all the United Heroes’ issued kits now used them.

“Well, let’s not take any chances here. Dunno when we’ll be able to get you some healer to look at it,” Jared said.

“Think Ah can get Gloomy to fix it, even after how Ah p-pissed her oooaaaaaaah! Monkeyballs! Fuck!

He bucked, nearly kicking Jared as he affixed the bandage properly. The only reason he failed to was that his lower leg physically couldn’t kick him anymore. Major muscles and other bits were just gone.

“Maybe you could make yourself a peg leg that’s also a gun?” Jared asked, trying to inject some levity into things. “You know, as a holdout of sorts.”

“Maybe re-brand with a pirate theme in mind. I could be the honorable knight, and you the knavish pirate I’m trying to bring down and-or reform,” Harry suggested – and managed to keep a straight face.

Thomas batted his eyelashes at his boyfriend, sprinkling drops of sweat around. “You know, y’can bring me down any time you like, whether or not it’s, ah, thematic. Though I admit a little rolep-“

“Dudes! No homo, please!” Jared interrupted them. “If you gay it up any more, I will barf all over your wound!”

Thomas, sweaty, pale and barely conscious, winked at him with one hell of a shit-eating grin. Harry at least had the grace to blush.

“Also, ‘knavish’? Really? Did someone buy you a thesaurus? Who the hell uses ‘knavish’?” he asked his blushing boss.

Harry mumbled something unintelligible, rubbing the back of his head with the hand he wasn’t using to hold Thomas’ leg up.

Whatever he said sounded suspiciously like ‘calendar’, but Jared decided to take the high road and not press it.

“Alright, I think this’ll hold. Let’s get you to the princess, see whether she can fix you up for good, butt boy,” he said instead, once he was sure the bandage would hold.

“Much appreciated, beach boy,” Thomas replied, then groaned as they lifted him up again, one of them under each arm of his.

They got on their way, following the signal of the Princess’s tracker via Jared’s HUD.

“How’d you of all people piss her off so much?” Jared asked, recalling how she’d gone off on him, just recently, when they’d laughed about the idiot who’d died proposing to the freaking bitch.

The residual grin dropped off of Thomas’ face.

“Ah… yeeeeaaaahhh, that one’s not mah proudest achievement,” he spoke with a note of guilt in his voice. “We’d, ah, gotten to talk about… identity, and some other things. Not gonna betray the details. But she wanted mah opinion on some stuff, ’cause of… well, mah little manifestation-related hickup. The subject of her sis and stuff came up. Ah should’ve known what our behavior would mean to her, and ah messed it up.” He lowered his head, sighing.

Jared didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t say anything. Neither did Harry, though he did put an arm around Thomas’ midsection, squeezing him in a one-armed hug, before transitioning to holding him up that way.

They walked in silence after that, navigating the rubble, cracked streets and occasional residual power effects – one in particular drew Jared’s attention, a spot where a store front and the sidewalk in front of it had crinkled out into razor-sharp petals.

Just like in Miami – I never knew she re-used powers.

He shook his head, unsure of what to feel at the sight, and the reminder. Thomas’ words were sitting heavily with him, too.

Hell, it’s not like there’s anything about today that hasn’t been a huge kick upside the head in one way or another, he thought, his exhausted mind wandering as they drudged on.

***

Not so long ago

“You’ll freaking pay for this, beach boy!”

“Dream on, butt boy!”

Jared and Thomas snarled at each other, their chosen combatants locked in deadly combat upon the screen in front of them.

They each had a flat box on their respective lap, with a control stick and six buttons arranged the same way as on an arcade machine, and were furiously working their sticks and pounding their buttons, while Ma’al Gahurak, Supreme War Champion of Mars fought in a deadly battle against the original Doc Feral, Gentleman Adventurer.

Not a fight that’d ever happened in real life, the Doc had been long dead by the time the Martians invaded, but it sure looked real on the screen.

“God damn it this fucking Martian is so broken!” Thomas complained, as he tried and failed to break through Ma’al’s defenses – a bevy of counter moves which, with the right timing, allowed Jared to reflect almost any attack in the game back at the attacker.

And timing was something he knew very well, even when he wasn’t using his power. Much.

“You just say that ’cause you suck!” he shot back with a grin.

“Oh, I do suck, but not at this!” came the response in a lewd tone, and it came at just the right moment to make Jared sputter as the mental image asserted itself.

Which of course meant that he flubbed the all too vital timing on his next full counter.

“Oh fuck no, you asshole!” he shouted, but it was too late.

Doc Feral’s attack connected, and Thomas was quick to exploit the increased stun damage Ma’al took when he flubbed a full counter.

The old-school hero struck a pose and downed a glowing red concoction – the Nature Red formula – which caused him to tear out of his clothes, turning into a giant, red-clawed, red-toothed lion-ape-human, and lay into the stunned Martian.

A ‘K.O.’ followed quickly, on the screen, colored green instead of the usual red.

“Oh, come on! One combo? One? Ma’al wasn’t such a glass cannon in real life!”

“Game balance, beach boy. It’s fine to have people who’re just plain better than others in real life, but you gotta balance them to have a healthy meta in these games,” Thomas pontificated with a smirk, while they went back to the character selection screen.

“Like I don’t fucking know,” Jared groused, looking over the character options. The new CvC 6 had a huge roster, seventy-nine characters if you included all the expansion packs (and they had them all, on account of it being a UH license and them getting free copies), but with a field that large, game balance was a big issue, and the game devs didn’t always nail it, especially when they overcompensated. Case in point, Lady Light had been so overpowered in the fifth game that they’d overcompensated in nerfing her for this one, putting her in the bottom tier of characters, so he skipped right over her and went for one of the top tier characters.

“You’re taking fuckin’ Weisswald now? C’mon dude, that’s just petty!” Thomas complained, while he made his own selection.

“Says the guy picking the Fungal Eve,” Jared shot back.

“What can I say, I’m a romantic – they just belong together,” Thomas replied with a smile, hugging himself and swaying left and right.

“Dude! That’s just, one hell of a sickening mental image!”

“Pipe it down you two, will ya? We’re trying to focus here!” Rosalie shouted in annoyance, turning away from the electronic whiteboard showing a map of New Lennston’s shopping district.

Scribbles, circles, crosses, lines and arrows showed how far she, Harry, Jessica and Rachel had already plotted out their latest shopping trip.

“You know, normal people just go shopping now and then, and all is fine! They don’t have to plot out a precise campaign for the sake of clothes shopping!” Jared shot back.

“Normal people are idiots! Now pipe it down or I’ll tell your sister you’ve been trying to keep us from taking her shopping!” Rosalie of course had to skip straight to the lethal weaponry.

The others offered no help either, showing just varying degrees of annoyance, amusement and contriteness.

Jared rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Freaking blackmailers…” He turned down the game’s volume, for good measure; best not to risk provoking Rosalie when she was in that kind of mood.

She’d probably visited her own little sister, earlier. That always left her in an… irritable mood, afterwards, which was why she was still being kept as a Junior when she had the age and the skill and power to advance into the big ranks already.

Not that Jared could ever blame her for that.

Not that he’d ever say so out loud.

Instead, he turned to Thomas, distracting himself by focusing on another matter.

“So how come you’re not over there, planning the thirty-fourth great New Lennston Shopping Trip?” he asked. He didn’t have to come up with the number – they’d written the title up over the map. “You’re girlier than most girls I know.”

Thomas shrugged. “Harry’s already planning for me, Ah’m sure. And I was never the kind of girl who was into going shopping a lot, it never really appealed to me.”

“Huh. Guess you’re not quite trying to fit into every gay stereoty- hey, what you mean with you were never the kind of girl?”

The young contriver looked at him in surprise. “What, you didn’t know? I thought everyone around here knew – Ah used to be a girl, before Ah manifested.”

Jared’s eyes nearly bugged out, getting so distracted from the game, he barely managed to pull up Weisswald’s White Fortress and block the Fungal Eve’s Mycoloid rush.

“You don’t have to stare so hard, beach boy,” Thomas complained, blushing a bit. “Surely you’ve heard about metahumans switchin’ sex when they get powers.”

“Well, duh. And that’s not… I mean, I guess it’s no weirder than turning into a pink furry or a living statue or something, but… just trying to wrap my head around you having been a girl once.” Jared replied with a bit of a blush.

There was another thing he wanted to ask, but that would jut have been bad form, even by his standards.

“You’re wonderin’ now how I manifested, eh?” Thomas pressed the point, grinning, though his eyes remained fixated on the game screen.

“Yeah. Wasn’t gonna ask, though.”

“Ah don’t mind. Even if you hadn’t told me yours before.”

“Only reason I’m so open about it is because everyone knows these days,” he replied, gnashing his teeth. “Fucking Miami Wire.” That stupid rag had fucking outed his identity, in the course of a ‘memorial edition’ about the Miami heroes whom died fighting the glowy bitch. Then someone had somehow gotten a copy of an UH internal report in which he’d described his Origin, and… national news.

“Still. Ah guess it’s only fair. Tit for tat, and all that.” He paused, for a moment, taking a deep breath. “So, yeah, Ah was born a girl. Real sweet Southern tomboy, if Ah may say so. Ah wasn’t a girly girl by any measure, but Ah didn’t mind being a girl and Ah never wanted to be a boy, Ah just wanted to be with boys.”

“Mhmm,” Jared temporized, trying to picture Thomas as a girl.

It wasn’t very hard to do, really.

“So, what happened? How’d you go from… uh, whatever your name was then-“

“Denise.”

“Denise. How’d you go from Denise to, well, Thomas?” Jared asked, his voice softer than it tended to be, even while they fought each other in-game at their best.

“Mmm. Gotta give you a bit of background to explain. You know about the Smith-Jackson Range?”

“Nope.”

“It’s a theory, or Ah guess a kind of rule, set by these two really famous metahuman researchers, Smith and Jackson. People usually manifest in between eight to thirty years of age. Like, ninety-nine percent of metahumans do. All the common rules and stuff we have, for how people manifest, how they get powers and stuff? They apply to that range.”

Jared frowned. “I can think of a few cases of people manifesting way younger than that.” One in particular, he thought, but didn’t say.

Thomas nodded. “There’s exceptions of course. And here’s the interesting thing: If you manifest earlier, your powers tend to come out… bigger. Broader. Less restrictions, but also more chances for things to go wrong. Mutations, physical and mental, weird powers, you name it. Also, the younger you are, the more likely it is for your power to have a Meta-aspect, even if it’s otherwise not a Meta-power, if it ain’t a pure Meta power to begin with.”

Huh. That… fits really well. Fuck, does that mean she’s not unique? There could be more like her?!

Scary thoughts.

Thomas went on, unperturbed, lost in telling his tale (if not lost enough to give Jared an edge in the game).

“Things are flipped if you manifest after you’re thirty. Not only is it spectacularly unlikely, but like, almost all the post-thirty origins we know of lead to really wimpy and strangely direct powers. Like a guy who fell off a cliff, and he gets the power to slow his own falls. Or a woman who ended up outside naked, after getting drunk, and just when she’s about to be discovered, she gets the power to camouflage herself, so long as she doesn’t move at all, even to breathe or look around. Though on the upside, it also seems that post-thirty manifestations are pretty much safe from getting any bad stuff along with their power, either. So Ah guess it kinda balances out. Theres exceptions, of course, but in general, that’s how it works.”

“That’s really interesting to know, but what’s that got to do with you? From what I got, you manifested just a few years ago.”

“Ah’m getting to that, beach boy. Patience. Ah know it’s hard for you. So, to get to the other part of my depressing little tale, what do you know about the Trans community and powers?”

“Uhhhh…”

“Yeah, well, thought so. To be brief, they loooooove powers. Getting superpowers is like, the Holy Grail every Transsexual person seeks. And the reason is simple – in like, nine out of ten cases of a Transsexual getting powers, they also get the Adonis trait, and they pretty much always switch to their preferred sex when they do. So, ever since the Trans community went public around the seventies, getting powers has been the thing for them.”

“Guess I can see why…” He was getting pretty damn curious about how all that related to him switching sex.

“Makes them really desperate, a lot. There’s tons of stories of Trans people giving all their money to con-men or shady ‘researchers’ promising powers, or going Origin-chasing and dying. Anyway, so, that’s the background you need, to get my story.”

“I dunno why I’d need it. From what you said, I got that you weren’t Trans, then or now. Though I’m no longer sure about the now.”

“Welll… Ah wasn’t… but my pops was.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘oh’. So Daddy dearest, in spite of boning me mom and marrying her, felt like he should be the lady in the family. But no matter what he did or in what way he blew our money or how hard he beat me mom when she complained, he never got powers. And he continued not to get powers until he turned thirty-one. And that’s when shit got really bad. Cause you see, even when you do get superpowers at over thirty, Ah don’t think there’s a single case of someone manifesting at that age and getting the Adonis package to go along with it.”

Jared hit the pause button on the game, and half-turned on the couch, pulling one leg up on it to look straight at Thomas.

The young blonde had his head lowered, looking down at the arcade stick resting on his jeans-covered lap.

His eyes were a hundred miles away, even when Harry sat down next to him, his Samaritan-radar having pinged as soon as his boyfriend started feeling distressed.

Harry put an arm around his slender shoulders, and then Thomas continued to talk, more quietly. “So, my pops had a problem. He’d moved out of the Smith-Jackson Range. Surgery and hormones weren’t a solution, he was too proud to do that. It’s seen as an admission of defeat and surrender, in the Trans community. Plus, he wanted to be a woman for real, so he could have kids of his own and all. Kids who’d really be his, he said. The arsehole.”

“Worse than an arsehole,” Harry said, softly, and Jared couldn’t help but nod.

Every time he heard about someone else’s Origin, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d gotten off lightly somehow.

“So, what’s pops dearest do, the genius? He goes and joins Pinhead’s group.”

Jared’s eyes went wide. “Wait, Pinhead as in, the supervillain!? Guy’s a major menace!”

“Aye. He could transfer… attributes, between people, with those pins of his. Drain the strength from one, give it to another. Same for intelligence, or charisma, and other traits. Like… masculinity and femininity. Sex.”

“Oh no.”

***

Three minutes ago

“Oh no.”

Harry’s words drew him right back to reality, as they crossed over a portion of the street that’d bulged up without cracking, the concrete remaining solid in spite of the deformation.

Gloom Glimmer knelt on the ground, in front of a collapsed building’s front, where it looked like a balcony had come down. She was on her knees, her head lowered, face hidden by gossamer-fine, straight black hair.

Polymnia knelt by her right side, one hand on her friend and teammate’s shoulder. Her face was visible, and twisted up in grief, the expression made all the more pronounced by her color-shifting hair, which had come out of one of its pigtails, but not the other.

Her other hand rested on the back of the third girl present.

Hecate was on her knees, bent over to the point of being folded in half, her lowered head very close to her knees, as it seemed to actually touch the ground. Her cowl was pulled back, revealing well-cared for black hair with natural curls, her hands buried in it its thick mass as she wailed like a wounded animal, no poise, no control, emotions bared totally.

The reason for it all was readily apparent: lying on the ground, its head cradled on Gloom Glimmer’s lap, was Brennus’s corpse, three arm-thick holes going through his armored chest and another, finger-thick one through the left side of his forehead, the wounds neatly cauterized and quite obviously fatal.

There was blood on his lips, which Gloom Glimmer wiped off with a thumb as the three of them approached.

Jared looked closely at the strange boy they’d all wondered about, getting his first good look at his exposed face.

He wasn’t pretty, exactly, though he may have ended up on the attractive side of the spectrum, had he been allowed to live through his puberty; for now, he was merely… striking, in an oddly put together way. Even though he was clearly younger than Jared – fifteen, maybe sixteen, at most, there wasn’t an ounce of baby fat on him to soften his features. Cheekbones one could use to slice steel with and a sharp, slightly pronounced nose gave him something of a hawkish look that actually fit his chosen animal theme well, broken up only by surprisingly full lips. Though death had relaxed it, he looked like someone with a naturally serious, even severe expression. His hair was as black as Irene’s, though not as fine, nor as glossy. Naturally messy, it fell down to his shoulders, but there was no style to it, like he’d just let it grow long, then taken a knife or sheers to it to hack off the bits that fell into his face, once they got to be annoying.

Based on his limited interactions with the vigilante, Jared could totally see him do it exactly like that.

They reached the small group, moving towards Gloom Glimmer’s left side.

Hecate didn’t seem to notice their arrival, nor did the princess, but Polymnia raised her head, eyes widening in simultaneous relief at the sight of the three of them, and horror at the misshapen, bloody bandage around Thomas’s calf.

Before anyone could ask, Gloom Glimmer reached out with her left hand and touched Thomas’s knee. Red, blood-like liquid emerged from where her fingertips touched his bared skin, spreading onto and under his bandage.

Thomas made a guttural sound of discomfort and relief in one, while Jared and Harry watched, seeing the bandage fall apart as the glowing, bloody liquid filled out the space where his calf ought to be, only to recede back into Gloom Glimmer’s fingertips, leaving unblemished skin behind. A crippling-for-life injury, restored in seconds.

“I can only heal living organisms,” Gloom Glimmer said in the soft, broken voice of a lost little girl, pre-empting the question Jared was about to ask. “His body doesn’t register as alive anymore.”

Hecate’s wails intensified for a moment, before lessening in volume, if not in intensity.

Jared and Harry let go of Thomas, who tested his freshly restored leg, briefly, even as they lowered their heads.

There wasn’t really anything they could say. None of them had known Brennus, beyond a few brief interactions, and neither did they really know Hecate. Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had connected far more closely with that group, the former due to being a gadgeteer, mostly, Jared suspected, the latter because…

He didn’t know why, really. Maybe she’d just gone along because Polymnia had liked Brennus. Maybe her power had told her something she hadn’t shared with the rest of them.

Harry moved over to kneel down between Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, putting an arm around each of their shoulders. He didn’t say anything, he just knelt there, like that.

They seemed to take comfort from that, a little bit.

Jared looked down at the shaking, wailing Hecate, raising his hand, thinking about maybe giving her a hug, would that even be welcome or helpful, but…

Before he could choose to do it or not, Thomas knelt down next to her and hugged her.

Not that she seemed to notice.

Fuck, what am I supposed to do here?, he asked himself.

He was so fucking tired. Tired, and worn out. Hours and days, spent fighting Crocell, then DiL. Living hours in minutes. He was too worn out to even put the numbers together and figure out how much time he’d spent being awake and active, in the last two days.

Had it been just two days? He wasn’t even sure. He’d laid down to sleep after helping with the clean-up and evacuation in Esperanza, post-Crocell, only to be awoken by the sirens announcing his recurring nightmare come to life.

It was fine while he was moving, but whenever he stopped, whenever he didn’t have anything more to do, he felt it catch up to him, his senses starting to grow fuzzy around the edges, his mind starting to drift.

What the hell am I supposed to do? I feel so fucking useless…

***

Shortly after the Miami Attack

He felt so fucking useless, looking at his sister.

They’d been moved to New Lennston, after he’d revealed his power to Bandersnatch. A foster family had been found, to take care for them, and he was to be placed with the local junior team of the United Heroes. A dream come true, for many a teenager, to serve as a hero in New Lennston of all places.

If only it hadn’t been soured to begin with. His identity revealed before he could even get a secret identity, leaked papers revealing even the nature, if not the details, of his power, as he’d described it to Bandersnatch, as she’d put it into her report.

None of that helped with his biggest problem, though, in all fairness, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference even if none of that were an issue.

He was leaning on the side of the doorframe, looking into the living room of the Woads family, now technically also his family and his living room, though he was pretty sure that was never going to feel natural.

Kizzy sat on the floor in front of the television, knees drawn up against her chest, her arms around them, as still as a statue as her eyes seemed to look straight through the television in front of her, through the wall behind it and then even further.

He’d never really imagined what a thousand-yard stare would look like, but now he didn’t need to. He saw it every day in his sister’s eyes.

Worse than the gaze, though, was the silence and the stillness. She just… sat there. Never talked, never made a sound, at all, except when she woke up screaming in the night.

Post-traumatic stress, the therapist called it. They both had one, though not the same.

Jared spent most of his sessions talking about Kizzy.

There’d been a scary four days, early on where, she’d acted… normal. Too normal. Pretending none of it had happened. That mom and dad were just away because of the job, and they’d be back soon.

For three creepy, heart-rending days she’d smiled and laughed and been her usual bubbly self.

Then she’d collapsed, without warning or apparent cause.

It was afterwards that the screaming at night and the silence by day started.

Needless to say, she hadn’t sung a single line, ever since that day.

Why? Why the fuck did you have to go and fight? he thought angrily, once again. Couldn’t at least one of you have decided that we were more important than the fight? Just one of you.

He felt his hand clench into a tight fist, without his conscious direction. Clenching so hard, his entire arm trembled, and his nails, as short as they were, still dug painfully into the palm of his hand.

Closing his eyes, he sought to center himself by focusing inward, at his power.

He’d always read a lot about powers, and listened to his parents sharing their experiences, so he knew that, in many ways, he’d lucked out. He didn’t have any physical mutations, no derangements, no real issues with his power. There was even a matter of sheer convenience – others might have gotten an abstract feeling for the ‘gauge’ of their power, when it dealt with some kind of limited resource, or might have been among those unlucky enough to be blind or only get the most general feeling for it.

He could just focus and see a digital display in his field of view, red numbers on a black background, counting the seconds he’d saved up.

60:00

One hour. Sixty minutes. Three-thousand and six-hundred seconds.

That was his cap. Every second that he did not use his power was a second added to the pool, another second he could then squeeze into a normal second, to stretch it out. He could add up to four seconds to each one, so he lived five seconds when others only lived one.

Some mad science types had even done some tests and determined that his power shifted his body into a state of ‘quasi-reality’ so he didn’t age faster than a normal person, no matter how much he used his power. It also boosted his endurance, so he didn’t tire himself out nearly as quickly as he should have.

All in all, a pretty good power.

Tapping into his reserve, he slowed down time. One second beccame five, as he stepped forward into the living room; he’d be just a blur to anyone watching, too fast to even be heard unless he was spectacularly clumsy.

He strolled over to Kizzy, her blurry form growing sharp as his little bubble of sharpness came over her.

Irony of ironies, becoming an Adonis had fixed his eyesight, obviating the need for glasses or contact lenses – but as soon as his power kicked in, everything beyond his immediate surroundings came out of focus again.

At least the eggheads of the UH thought they could do something to help with that, with the right equipment.

Taking soft steps, he looked at his sister. There was no reason to do this while using his power, she’d have barely, if at all, reacted to his presence anyway, but…

Well, he liked using his power.

Kizzy just sat there, seemingly watching a bunch of cartoon space animals fight a planet-eating robot or something. There were a lot of primary colors on the screen.

Except she probably knew less about what was going on in that show than he did, and he knew next to nothing.

Time slowed down again, the world coming into focus.

He reached out to hug his sister, but hesitated. What good did it even do, to-

***

Two minutes ago

“-good it did.”

Jared blinked, refocusing on the present. The others seemed to have talked about something, but he’d completely missed out on it.

A brief look at his timer showed him that he’d missed forty-two seconds, as his thoughts drifted.

Fuck, I need to do something, or I’ll drift off entirely.

“I’m going,” he announced, interrupting whatever the ongoing discussion was, causing everyone but Hecate to look up at him in surprise.

Thomas had moved while he’d been distracted, sitting down between Harry and Polymnia, to give the latter a one-armed hug. He’d taken his brassy helmet with those freaky scopes and visors off, wearing only the simple domino mask he had underneath, his hair shiny and slick with sweat.

“There might still be people in need of help. Hell, there almost certainly are. And I still have a few minutes saved up, so I’m going to use them and see what I can do,” he explained, though his voice came out much weaker and scratchier than he would have liked.

“Y-yeah, you’re right,” the princess answered, her voice still having that lost hollowness to it that tugged on his supposedly non-existent heartstrings. “There’s people in need, and I can help. B-besides, I need… need to see wha-“

“No,” he cut her off, as soon as he realized what she was getting at, his voice much sharper than before. “No, you don’t need to. You shouldn’t.”

She glared at him, a hint of black veins creeping into her eyes from the corners, opening her mouth to respond. He didn’t let her.

“No. Irene, trust me,” he said, rocking her back. He’d never actually addressed her with her first name before. “You don’t want to see this.”

He could remember asking, all but begging Kizzy to keep her eyes closed. Later he’d found out that she hadn’t, and the things she’d seen… they’d nearly broken him. They’d certainly contributed to breaking her.

If there was one thing about the Dark he could get, it was why he didn’t want the princess to see that. He could completely, wholeheartedly, agree with it, even.

“Go to the field hospital, while you still have that healing power. You can do the most good there,” he continued, tiredly keeping up the eye contact.

It took a few moments for her to process his words and see the logic in them. A few moments before her eyes returned to normal, the black veins retreating back to where they’d come from.

Finally, she nodded, lowering her head as if in admission of defeat, though it may have just been to take one last look at Brennus, as she puts his head down on the ground, slipping her legs out from under him.

He thought he heard her mumble something, but the only word he caught was ‘monster’.

“He’s right. I’ll go to the field hospital. What about you all?” she asked, with a little more strength in her voice. “Need a lift somewhere?”

Though she was addressing everyone, she seemed to focus her gaze on Hecate in particular.

Maybe the grieving witch knew, somehow, because she was the first to respond, finally making a sound other than a wail.

“G-go. Go help. I’ll be fine,” she choked the words out in between more sobs. “I… I would like, some time… time alone, anyway. With him.” Her hands clenched into fists where they lay on Brennus’ chest, green-gloved fingertips sliding across dull black armor.

Jared didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded and turned around, kicking into his power.

4:23

He drew on his reserve, adding a single second to each real one. Twice the amount of time to move, when his power had developed enough that it could add up to nine seconds to each real one, these days.

This wasn’t about being faster, though, so much as it was for the sake of exploiting his weird, quasi-real state to stay awake and active. And so he jogged off, after saluting the others, intending to circle around the area where that monster had fallen and look for anyone still in need of rescue.

Two fucking S-Class events in the same week. God, I hope this will be it for a while now, he thought, as he jogged and occasionally leaped onto and over particularly nasty section of rubble and left-over power effects. God damn it, NL’s been hit by three in about as many months! What the hell, that’s insane even by local standards! Karma’s gotta be done by now…

***

He was busy pulling a bruised cowl out from under some rubble – not one he knew, she was definitely from out of town – when karma decided that New Lennston hadn’t yet, in fact, suffered enough.

Lightning flashed, almost immediately followed by a weirdly warbling sound of thunder, and the sensation of something being torn open washing over him.

Even though he was still holding the woman’s hand, and trying not to stare at her too much because her flowing robes were in tatters and, damn, she didn’t seem to be an Adonis – someone with a Physique power, as was now the nomenclature – but she sure was fit and he wasn’t picky about which beauty to appreciate, well, even in spite of that, he kicked in his power.

Nine seconds added to every one, the woman came to a near stand-still, and his grip on her hand slipped; the downside of his power, when it was up his effect on the real world (and the real world’s effect on him, in turn) was reduced by a factor equivalent to how much his own time was sped up. With him now living ten seconds for every one of the outside world, he only had one tenth of the effect on anyone not on the same time as he. He’d have to touch her and give her seconds from his store to bring her up to his speed, for them to fully interact, and his stores were low enough as they were, already.

He turned around, and saw that the bolt of lightning was still there, stationary, flickering without disappearing, like a lasting connection between the cloudless sky and the shattered ground. He could see it as clear as day, even before his helmet’s visor shifted polarity and the world beyond the bubble of his power became sharp and visible again, like he was seeing the light with something other than his eyes.

Just then, something more happened, and he wouldn’t have seen it if he wasn’t in his fastest mode – even at ten times the speed, he almost missed it as a crack ran up from the ground, where the first bolt had origininated and was still connected to, like reality itself cracking, from the ground up to the sky, only for lightning to then run down that same crack and connected heaven and earth in the same flickering, warbling, dancing manner.

The place those cracks are coming from, that’s…, he thought with a sensation of rising dread inside of him, even as he refused to finish the thought.

The cowl he’d just been helping forgotten, he ran straight towards the origin of the cracks, watching as yet another formed, this one going up only to arc back towards the ground making a bow of sorts that was then filled out with dancing lightning so bright and white it hurt to look at.

He knew that shade of painfully pure white all too well, and his stomach plunged down into his feet, making them feel leaden and clumsy.

Finally, after what felt like ten minutes to him, but was likely more akin to a little over half of one to the real world, he reached the crater.

Another crack had spread up into the sky, calling down stationary lightning.

He came to a halt, halfway around the crater from where the Dark still stood, his form mostly frozen place, save for some slow-motion oozing up, his eyes seemingly focused, still, on the purple eye laying amidst the gore.

Mindstar, his new personal hero (which he was never going to tell Amazon about), was also still down there, frozen mid-wobble, a force-field so dense it was visible to the naked eye as a purple-tinged half-ovoid behind her back, which was pointed towards the… the…

Jared’s eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at.

It looked like nothing so much as a twist in reality, a see-through snarl that twisted up the view of everything beyond it, kind of like jabbing a fork into your noodles and twisting them up, only without the fork and without the noodles. The cracks he’d seen, they’d spread from it, and even now he could see yet another crack form.

Sped up like he was, he could see that it didn’t actually shoot up from the snarl – no, the entire crack, snarl to heaven, simply faded in all at once, followed by something like semi-liquid lightning filling out the crack. It travelling down from above must have been a trick of the eye, something his brain had added in to make sense of it.

The lightning seemed to run through parts of the snarl, like an elaborate, twisty pipe-system, only to arc out again below, thousands and thousands of tiny, hair-thin arcs reaching out like fingers, touching seemingly every piece of flesh and bone, every drop of blood, every… everything.

Worse than all of that, though, was that he recognized the feeling that washed over him, a wave like a distortion of reality, rippling through everything it passed without seemingly causing any effect.

He felt the snarl even more vividly than he saw it.

Time.

Someone, or something, was twisting time. And judging by what those lightning arcs seemed to point at, Di-fucking-L was the focus of it.

His eyes flickered over to the Dark, panicked thoughts telling him that it would be preferably to see some obvious signs of power usage from him, some sign that he be the one responsible.

Because, for all that he’d mocked her for it, repeatedly, he really hoped the princess’ assurances that her ‘papa’ was a good person, deep down, were not just the naive delusions of a daddy’s girl.

Because then it might just be a case of him cleaning up, removing the traces. Getting rid of whatever may be left, rather than…

He didn’t even want to think the alternative.

Unfortunately, for all he could tell, the Dark seemed to just be staring at it, for all that it fucking said about the animated mass of living, soundlessly screaming shadows that was him.

Another ripple washed over reality, a distortion in time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to feel, if his power wasn’t what it was, yet another branch of frozen lightning joining the others.

That seemed to push things over a threshold, a tipping point, as the entire mess of lightning collapsed in on itself with such speed, it looked fast even from his point of view.
The arcs were sucked into the swirling distortion they had originated from, both the ones above and below, and everything they’d touched was… not drawn in, really.

It was odd to see, like seeing ghost images, overlapping everything, shifting; like someone was holding a prism in front of a flashlight, breaking the beam up into a kaleidoscope of colors, and then turned and twisted the prism in their fingers, shifting the patterns being projected, except instead of light, it was time and the effect only touched what had been connected to the distortion via lightning.

Jared’s brain tied itself up in knots and twists, trying to parse the non-motion he saw, ghostly images overlapping themselves, shifting through, through various states, the kaleidoscope being turned and twisted.

With each shift, a different configuration was seen, the individual plateaus coming and going so quickly, his power was the only reason he had a chance to see even glimpses of them.

DiL’s body, torn to pieces on the ground.

DiL’s body, in pieces, frozen mid-air on the way to where the pieces had ended up.

DiL’s body, lying on the ground, the face already bashed in by Mindstar’s fists, the eyes still glowing even as one of them hung out of its socket by nothing but the nerve and blood vessels.

DiL, whole, kind of. Floating in the air, hair and eyes and nails glowing, but dismembered, arms and legs and head not connecting to the trunk of the body, floating in different places, yet clearly aligned with each other, the stumps glowing bright.
DiL, but younger, a prepubescent girl rather than the young woman she usually appeared as.

DiL, prepubescent, torn to pieces that were spread around the floor.

And now he wasn’t sure whether it was just time that was being twisted here.

DiL, teenaged, but with chunks missing, as if someone had scooped out a part of her head, her chest, her buttocks, one thigh, that same unearthly glow that was her trademark blazing forth. Even mutilated and with half of her glowing, she looked disconcertingly like the princess. More like a twin than a normal sister.

DiL, prepubescent and teenaged at the same time, forms overlapping, unevenly, looking even more like a freak than usual.

DiL, but inverted, her eyes, hair and nails the only parts of her that weren’t made of blazing white light.

DiL, whole and healthy, but the pure white glow replaced for an even more sinister blackness, like some sort of anti-light.

DiL, whole and healthy, a woman in her early to mid-twenties with white-glowing hair, eyes and nails, looking no worse for wear for all that had happened today.

Just as Jared’s heart started to plunge down to join his stomach by his feet, the distortion disappeared with a snap, the frozen lightning and the distorted reality disappearing into a single point right in front of DiL’s chest with a sensation that felt like how a snap sounded.

And with the Snap came an explosion of distorted time and space, as if reality itself could no longer bear the abuse.

Jared had already turned around and was running, running away.

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