Lifesigns

I’m still alive, even if I wish I wasn’t, at times. Sickness and all.

Will explain more soon.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn

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B13.f The Man Who Knocked Out Lady Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not all that much better, all things considered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Gladly, Sir. Lead the way.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glitter glitter.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not even for that.

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

Drunk Donkeys Don’t Die.

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

He actually felt some tears in his eyes.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B13.e 17 Good People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

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

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would never begrudge her that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chief nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She immediately regretted doing so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You’re going to die.

Sam half lay and half sat on the floor, curled up and whimpering, as the others gathered around Immanuel and the glowing sarcophagus-tank near him.

“Well, this went wrong,” the gorgeous young man – whom she’d only ever met once before, when he’d welcomed her to the Installation – said with a calm smile on his face, showing absolutely no discomfort at the stump of his left arm being poked at by the Tapirapé woman in the white labcoat kneeling next to him. “So, what’s the diagnosis, Fräulein Doktor?”

He’s going to die.

The middle-aged woman rolled her eyes and pulled the two needles she’d been poking around inside his biceps with out. “The diagnosis, Herr Schwachkopf, is that you pissed off the wrong centenarian demigod and you’re lucky it only cost you your arm,” the Ascendant told him in a biting tone. “But if you’re asking whether I can make you a replacement, the answer is probably. Whatever he did, thanks to Master Konrad’s swift intervention, it’s been neutralised.”

She’s going to die.

Sammy whimpered, looking down at the stump of her own left arm, where it ended just below where her wrist had once been, now neatly cut off and then bandaged by Tsukiko. Same as her left leg, just below the knee.

If it wasn’t for Konrad, she’d have lost more than that…

***

The tide of darkness was steadily advancing, grinding down their people. Chronicle was doing her best to stem it from where she stood next to Immanuel, along with Prism and Judicator, resetting the few she’d been able to record beforehand every time they took too much damage or died.

It wasn’t enough, not by a long shot. The shadow demons kept coming, over and over, and it wasn’t just their sheer mass that was slowly killing people, like they’d killed Brad, torn him limb from limb just out of her sight, so she’d been unable to reset him before he’d been dead for too long.

There was a mind behind them, one single mind. A malevolent intellect that wanted them all dead, dead and gone and she could see its hatred, his hatred, in every motion of his demons. Coordinating them, the small ones and the big, unique ones, the ones with powers of their own.

Fifty-eight people on their side, fifty-eight metahumans, and they were being beaten by a single enemy they hadn’t even been able to scratch yet.

Chronicle saw Karasuha reform out of her bird form, dropping down onto the Dark, only to be quickly dispatched like a fly to be swatted down, and reached out with her power, focusing on her love’s recording…

***

“Sammy,” Tsukiko spoke softly, kneeling down next to her in a graceful motion, having stripped off her armour and robe, wearing only the black bodysuit underneath and her boots. “Here, drink this,” she continued in that beautiful Japanese accent of hers, holding a flat bowl to Sam’s lips. “It will ease the pain.”

Look at her pretty face. It’s going to rot, after she dies.

Sam whimpered, drinking the slightly glowing, purple brew. It tasted… warm, and kind of earthy, and the pain in her arm and leg instantly eased.

You’re still going to die.

Tsukiko smiled, leaning in to kiss her on the forehead. “There, much better now, right?” she asked, looking down at her with warm, loving eyes.

Sam looked back with wet, tired eyes in turn. She didn’t trust her voice, so she just nodded, and got a hug in return.

You’ll both die, and never be together again.

Looking over her wife’s shoulder (her ring had been on her left hand… gone now…) she looked at the glowing sarcophagus. It was one of those used to store the Ascendant’s creations, repurposed to help its occupant recover from his wounds.

Within lay a nude man. He was tall and young, in his mid-to-late twenties, though she suspected he was much older.

Konrad, Immanuel’s partner and opposite, the right hand of their leader, where Immanuel was the left one. The sword, where Immanuel was the pen.

He was Immanuel’s opposite in appearance, as far as that was possible while still being from Germany. Tall and broad-shouldered, heavily muscled to the point where his abs had more abs, though his build was still slimmer than that of many a strongman, more like a ballet dancer who’d gone overboard with his workout. His face was merely attractive, instead of drop-dead gorgeous, with a slightly crooked, yet noble nose, visible beard-stubble and long, shaggy blonde hair. If Sam had been into men at all, she’d probably have already been crushing on him already, even before seeing his power.

He’s going to die.

His right arm had partially dissolved, scars of molten flesh winding up from his fingers all the way to his shoulder, but they were healing, even though he’d been touched more directly than either her or Immanuel, even though he’d struck the monstrosity…

***

A huge impact shook the Installation, causing Chronicle to stumble. She would’ve fallen, if Immanuel hadn’t reached out and gently pushed on her shoulder, allowing her to regain her balance. He hadn’t even been inconvenienced.

“Something’s coming up,” he said, stepping backwards, the group around him automatically falling into line. Sablo, the ribbon-haired, nude woman who’d been protecting them from the Dark’s wraiths, keeping up a glowing white circle on the ground that moved with the group as they retreated along the metal walkway they were on. Even the Dark’s greater demons had been unable to breach it yet, though they’d also been unable to focus on it to any meaningful degree, either. “All of you, brace yourselves!”

Chronicle did just that, grabbing a hold of the rail next to herself, as even the Dark’s assault briefly stalled.

Near the centre of the Installation, four objects burst through it in showers of metal and salt water, shooting up into the air above, the force with which they’d broken through so immense it briefly caused the entire floating city to tilt left and right like a ship in a storm.

Everyone paused and stared up as the water streamed off what appeared to be four perfect, kind of liquid spheres, each of a different colour – white, red, black and green. Each seemed to be about twice the size of a person.

“Oh, Heng, what were you thinking?” Immanuel complained. “Blindly injecting so many samples at once… now we don’t even know which ones produced these.”

The four spheres hung in the air for a few moments, then they suddenly shot in four different directions, away from each other, without the slightest sound.

Chronicle stared up, dumbfounded. What’d just ha-

“Watch out!” Judicator cried, pointing ahead, causing her to look towards their enemy again – only to feel her blood run cold. Colder.

Several of the individualistic shadow demons had gathered up. One, humanoid with wings instead of arms and but a single red eye in the centre of its face, was floating above the others, staring resolutely at their small group, while smaller demons circled around it, absorbing attacks upon it with their own bodies, sacrificing themselves to keep it safe from the attacks of the remaining defenders – twenty, at best, by now.

Beneath it, a muscular demon with a lop-sided build, upper body far thicker, heavily corded with pulsing muscle, while the legs seemed almost comically thin, was holding a sword that was easily twice as long as the demon was tall, and half as broad, holding it two-handed and pointed at their group. Another demon, a curvy female shape with twisted, almost U-shaped horns growing out of its smooth, six-eyed head and standing on her toes, was pointing its clawed hands at the sword, eldritch blood-red flames streaming from them to wrap around the blade in a double-helix that continued to grow more and more dense, more and more bright. A third demon, featureless save for its six eyes and tentacles instead of legs, was spinning some kind of web between its long-fingered hands, casting out strands of it to form another, larger web in the air in front of the pointed blade.

“If that is what it looks like… I don’t think I’ll be able to hold out, Sir,” their protector admitted in a strained voice, without looking away from their enemy. “I’ll try to lessen the blow, at least,” she affirmed, her arms still raised, fingers together in a box-like shape.

“Wait for it,” was all Immanuel said in response.

“We need Konrad,” Judicator spoke in a mellow voice, though the note of worry underneath was unmistakable. “He’s our only hope to beat the adversary, or at least manage a proper retreat.”

“Wait for it,” their leader repeated.

“Sir, something is sapping my shield’s power!” Sablo cried.

Chronicle could do nothing but stare as the Dark’s demos built more and more energy up to unleash at them – the ribbons of almost liquid fire around the blade were so dense the sword beneath could no longer be seen, and so massive they more than doubled its size. The web between them and the sword had grown fantastically elaborate, as well.

Beyond the demons, the Dark himself stood, seemingly impassive as he stared at them, his form writing softly, dripping shadows – only it was dripping them up, rising towards the sky and fading away. A small detail, but like everything about the sight of him, about his whole presence, it profoundly unnerved Chronicle.

Then he made a gesture with his hand, casually dismissive, and his demons loosened their attack.

The muscle-bound demon raised its sword high, the blood-red flames of the female sticking to it, and swung it down with all its strength, unleashing the stored-up energy. The flames formed a huge, bloody fireball, which hit the web of light the third demon had woven – and was multiplied, huge becoming gigantic, a sphere of almost liquid flames coming straight at them, big enough to swallow a city block whole before it even exploded.

Chronicle didn’t see her whole life pass before her eyes, as the saying went. No, she only saw Yukiko, and…

A figure dropped out of the sky, wearing a black longcoat over broad shoulders and wielding a curved short-sword in his left hand. Chronicle saw long, messy blonde hair, for a moment, before the new arrival swung their blade at the incoming fireball, striking it at the very moment it came within reach of the blade.

The entire fireball was reversed and swelled in size, flying back towards the demons and their master, twice as big as it had been before.

“Friss das, Goldschmidt!” Immanuel cheered, throwing his arms up in the air, as everyone else just stared.

They couldn’t see the effects of the fireball upon the demons, as its own flames obscured the sight, but Chronicle was sure it had already passed over their position, hopefully destroying them, and was now rapidly nearing the Dark himself…

The fireball fell apart, dispersed in every direction, leaving behind a molten scar along its way; at its end stood the Dark, right arm extended towards them, the hand clenched into a fist, as if he’d just grabbed the gigantic sphere and crushed it.

Within the path of the fireball lay the molten remains of a gigantic sword, with no sign at all of its former wielder. To the left lay half of the demon who’d woven the glowing web, its left arm and most of its lower body gone. There was no way for Chronicle to tell whether it was still alive – if it had ever been to begin with – so long as it didn’t move . The female demon stood where she had, completely unharmed – clearly, she was immune to her own power’s flames, no matter how amplified.

Their savior stood up, dusting himself off before he made what Chronicle assumed to be a playful salute towards the Dark – and then he turned his back to him, facing them with a smile.

He was tall, almost two metre in height if not a little above it, and very muscular, wearing what must have once been a very expensive longcoat, now frayed and partially torn along its edges. It was unbuttoned, showing off a chest and stomach you could grind meat on, as he seemed to wear only a pair of black pants underneath, and brown boots.

Chronicle would have been deliriously happy to see a face as friendly as his, the easy, confident smile even in the face of one of their greatest enemies, but there was just something off, about those dark red, almost black eyes. Like something was… missing.

“Konrad, deine eklige Fresse ist zur Abwechslung mal höchst willkommen!” Immanuel greeted him, as their savior bowed deeply.

“Ach mein Freund, wir wissen doch beide, dass du dich stehts nach meinem Antlitz sehnst!” Konrad replied with a smile. “Jetzt beruhigt ihr auch alle mal während ich unseren Gast des Grundstückes verweise!”

He had barely finished his speech – not that Chronicle could understand either of them, she’d only just started learning German – when he whirled around and slashes his short blade in a wide, horizontal arc, just as a literal tide of demons closed in on him.

They were all obliterated, the entire mass of demons simply blown away into Nothingness, all the lesser ones gone. Only the greater demons, the ones which differed from the formless mass and had stayed back, still remained.

“Los gehts!” Konrad shouted and jumped, a single leap taking him across a hundred metre towards the nearest demon – the horned female – at such speed he seemed to all but teleport.

The demon raised a hand, bloody flames wrapping around it, but she was too slow – Konrad swung his blade and she was obliterated. Not slashed, not split in half, just entirely obliterated, leaving nothing behind.

“I rather liked that one,” the Dark complained, his voice barely restrained, bubbling with hatred just underneath the surface.

“I rather liked Brad and Rhoda and Jonas,” Konrad replied with a cheerful shrug. “But you k-“

“I really don’t care,” he interrupted him, as he suddenly appeared right in front of Konrad, looking down at the shorter man, as Konrad looked up with a smile. “Ich habe viele Geschichten über dich gehört, Konrad.”

“Nur gute, hoffe ich?” Konrad replied in a conversational tone, making no move to attack.

“Man erzählt mir du wärst der Stärkste der Starken. Stärker als dein Meister, falls es ihn überhaupt gibt. Stärker, sogar, als Gwen und ich.”

“Ich weiss nicht, ob ich stärker bin als ihr beide,” the shorter man replied, then chuckled. “Aber stärker als einer von euch beiden? Das könnte gut sein.” He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Lust, rauszufinden ob die Geschichten wahr sind?”

The Dark struck him, delivering a right-handed punch to Konrad’s face with such force, it created a sonic boom and distorted the air around them.

Konrad didn’t even move from his spot, though the punch did snap his head to the side.

“Ow,” he grunted, touching two fingers to his bloody lip. “Been a while since I took a hit that strong.” He looked up at the Dark, smirking. “My turn.”

He raised his blade, swinging with his left hand – but the Dark reached out, pushing his hand against Konrad’s wrist, arresting the motion before he could hit.

“No fair, I gave you a free shot,” the swordsman complained, though he didn’t sound particularly put off.

“I’m not here to play games,” the Dark hissed. “Now be a good lad and d-“

Konrad’s right fist connected with the Dark’s chest – he was just plain too tall to easily reach his head – and launched him across the ruined Installation, until he slammed into the remains of the Ascendant’s and Dusu’s lab, twisting and shattering them further than they already were.

“I think my punch was bigger than your punch,” Konrad said, as they watched the remains of the structure collapse, burying the Dark beneath the rubble.

***

Konrad opened his eyes, looking around inside his healing pod, and through the clear glass front. He made no move to cover himself up at all, rather, he just smiled at everyone.

“Yeah, this is everyone who made it out,” Immanuel answered an unspoken question. Konrad frowned down at him. “Thanks to you – if you hadn’t shown up when you did, none of us would’ve made it,” the one-armed man consoled him. “Except, possibly, for Bira and her doll, here.” He looked at the Ascendant, who’d moved away from his side and was kneeling next to the quietly breathing form of Elysium, who was lying on her side, and was pushing a gadget which looked like some kind of gun with a long needle coming out of the muzzle into her ear, not paying any attention to the rest of the room.

Konrad relaxed, shrugging those huge shoulders of his.

“I don’t know that you two should be so happy,” a new voice spoke up, as a stocky, plain-faced Japanese woman with brown hair in a bun entered, her heavy, practical work boots, jeans and dark green jacket contrasting greatly with the way everyone else in the room looked.

She’s going to die.

“For all your talk, we got ourselves kicked in our collective posteriors by one enemy, after getting ourselves completely shown up by a bunch of teenagers,” Heaven’s Dancer snarled at Immanuel and Konrad, her new host’s rough appearance making her look even angrier than she otherwise would.

“Totally worth it, though,” Immanuel replied with a smile.

“Worth it? Worth it!?” Heaven’s Dancer almost shrieked at them, clenching her caloused hands into tight fists. “How, in the name of God, was this worth it? What, exactly, did we gain?”

Immanuel opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, don’t tell me yet.” She reached into her jacket’s pocket and pulled out a phone. “He wants to talk to you lot.” She pressed a number and then held the phone out towards them.

“Immanuel,” a raspy, deep voice spoke through it. It was so deep, it was actually kind of hard to make out what the man – and it was very clearly a male voice – actually said. A voice so deep, it made one feel like their bones ought to vibrate.

Sam had never heard it before, but Tsukiko tightend up in her arms, as if afraid. “W-what?” she asked her wife in a whisper.

“That’s him,” Tsukiko replied, but before she could elaborate, Immanuel replied.

“What an honour to hear from you so soon, oh fearless leader of mine!” he greeted him, standing up just so he could bow with a fancy flourish of his one good arm. “I thought you would be busy-“

“Save the theatrics, please,” the leader cut him off, sounding exasperated, though not unfriendly. “I already know what happened. Tell me how we profited from it.”

He’s going to die.

“Well, first of all, we know about a herefore unknown metahuman factor – the so-called Journeyman,” Immanuel began to enumerate as he sat down once more. “Someone who’s not merely a blank to Espers, but is, in fact, completely invisible – I could not perceive him even when I knew where he was, could not even perceive a blank like with DiL. I’ve already combed our records and he shows up nowhere.”

“Such information is valuable, but limited and hardly worth our losses.”

“Secondly, he inadvertantly preserved a major asset for us,” the one-armed Esper continued, standing up. “Though Bira is probably better suited to explaining this one.” He walked over to Konrad’s healing pod and began to shut it down, draining the liquid he was floating within.

“Huh?” Bira looked up, confused for a moment, then seemed to realise what was going on. She went back to work, looking at the small screen on the back of her needle-gun, as she poked around inside Elysium’s head with it. “Oh, yeah. This. Turns out, I know how Elysium actually died, way back then.”

“She was killed by DiL,” their leader stated simply. “Are you saying that is not true?”

“Precisely so, Sir,” Bira replied politely. “DiL never defeated her – Elysium killed herself, through overuse of her power.” She clucked her tongue. “It appears there was a flaw to it, after all – prolonged usage put a strain on her brain. Not enough to be a danger under normal circumstances, but after stretching two hours of real time over what must have been several years, fighting the abomination, it became too much and caused a lethal stroke.” She frowned, looking at the readouts as she held the needle still. “She probably never had to push her power far enough to notice it before, and so didn’t know to pace herself in the battle.”

“Interesting,” he said, sounding pensive. “How did this Journeyman preserve her for us, then?”

“Simply put, their battle pushed her far enough that I was able to notice the side-effects when I did a quick scan of her immediately after our escape, but not so far as to kill her and ruin the last ten years of work I did to actually get her working,” the Ascendant explained. “Now that we know, we can look out for it. I might even be able to make some modifications which will eliminate her weakness entirely.”

“Which brings me, neatly, to our greatest prize!” Immanuel butted in after stepping back from the pod, the glass sliding out of the way to let the now merely moist Konrad step out, unbothered by the temperature or his own nudity. “No, I’m not talking about us finding out about the Dark’s little rage mode,” he cut Heaven’s Dancer off before she could even speak, pointing a finger at her. “Though that’s certainly good to know…”

***

Chronicle pushed herself up, having fallen to her knees without even realising it, as she tried to get a better look at the pile of rubble the Dark had been buried underneath. “Is, is it over?” she asked, her voice shaking, holding out a hand to grab Karasuha’s as she joined them on the metal platform they’d ended up on.

Beyond them, the few remaining demons – greater ones, each and every – were standing there as if frozen, not sure how to react after their master was so suddenly punted aside.

“I can still feel his power,” Konrad replied to her question, joining their little group and grabbing onto Immanuel’s forearm by way of greeting. “Definitely a no, unless he decides continuing the fight is too big a risk and bails out.”

“Perhaps we should ‘bail out’,” Judicator spoke firmly, still holding his scales and his crystal ball up in front of himself. “Whether or not the Dark intends to continue, we have to assume that more opposition will arrive soon. Perhaps even her. I don’t think I have to tell you how ridiculously non-existent our chances of survival are if we have to fight both of them at once…”

Immanuel stroked his chin, then nodded. “Yes, that would be for the best,” he replied, looking aside towards where his former aide, currently Heaven’s Dancer’s host, joined them, her clothes torn to near-indecency, her shoes lost, but otherwise unharmed. “Let’s fall back to-“

Konrad whirled around to stare towards the rubble he’d buried the Dark under, a mere moment before all the demons let out howling screams and charged – straight towards their master.

Dozens, hundreds of demons, most of them lesser, but a few more of the greater ones, which Chronicle hadn’t even noticed before, crawled out from their hiding places around the city-sized Installation, some literally stepping out of walls or other structures, all of them charging into the rubble and digging into it, disappearing where their master had gone; the rubble beginning to shake as soon as they’d done so, pieces of it getting dislodged and tumbling down.

“What is he doing?” Immanuel asked, a hand held over his eyes for some shade as he tried to look closer.

“Whatever it is, it’s big,” Konrad replied to him, sounding quite relaxed, all things considered.

The rubble burst apart, blown skigh high in a fountain of dirt and debris as, with a titanic roar, a monster arose from amidst it.

Chronicle blinked, briefly believing that she was imagining this, yet even when Karasuha squeezed her hand hard enough to hurt, the image didn’t change.

A colossal, jet black dragon rose ouf of the dust, shrugging rebar and steel girders off its wings before it unfurled them.

A hundred feet long at least, from its head to its tail, it seemed to made out of solid darkness, its body oozing with shadows – oozing up, just as the Dark had. Scales could be made out which extended into razor-sharp spines, much like its wings, whose many sharp spines and scales made them look almost feathery. Its head sported six glowing red eyes in two rows of three, and half a dozen twisted, crown-like horns which extended backwards.

It raised one of its forelimbs, its upper torso configured more like a human’s than a lizards or any other kind of animal’s, putting five-fingered hands with razor-sharp claws up onto the remains of the building’s wall in front of it, then the other, propping itself up as it spread its wings wide, it thrust its head forward, extending its long, sinuous neck and roared.

The roar was like a physical force extending forward, distoring the air, the metal, the concrete, everything and with it came not sound, but a thought which slammed into their minds like the hammer of God.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast beat its wings and leaped forward, not landing on all fours before it pushed itself off again, half running and half gliding across the city towards them, the world itself distorting in the wake of its passing.

“Because of course he can turn into a damned dragon!” Immanuel ran his fingers through his hair, as the beast simply charged on, shedding the attacks the remaining companions were raining on it as if they weren’t even there.

As it reached the first group – five metahumans – they ran apart to dodge out of its way, but it paid them no mind, simply charging on.

One of them was clipped by its wing as it passed, and Chronicle watched in horror as the young man withered and died, dissolving into ash that seemed drawn towards the rampaging dragon.

The others were only a little more lucky than he, as the distortion around the dragon passed over them. When it was past, they had all visibly aged, some to the point of death, falling over as their bodies were left too weak to live; the others simply crying out in agony and horror.

“Don’t get near it!” Immanuel shouted at Prism, to have him relay it to everyone else. “Everyone, retreat in orderly fashion! Sablo, keep your circle up, it ought to repel this form!” He started moving backwards, but the Dark had become too large, was moving too fast.

“I’ll take care of him!” Konrad shouted, exhilerated and leapt at the beast, drawing his sword back for a big slash. “Have at you!”

The Dark slammed his forelimbs into the ground, violently arresting his charge as he used them like a pivot, whirling around; his tail slapped Konrad out of the way, all the way across the Installation and nearly into the sea, repaying him in kind for the earlier hit.

As the monstrosity completed its spin, facing them once more, it roared again.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

Chronicle cried out in horror as that horrible voice slammed into her mind once more, staggering back and falling, even letting go of Karasuha’s hand.

Someone was screaming as the dark dragon charged onwards towards them, everyone it passed by simply… dying.

There was Arresto, who’d once survived a nuclear explosion, if a small one. The dragon simply brushed him with its wing, and he fell apart.

Radger, who could regrow even his own head, fell just as easily. So did four others, before the dragon broke through their lines entirely, simply ignoring any power thrown its way as it bore down on their group.

When its hand came down on their group, its claws slamming into the circle of protection which Sablo had pulled up, pressing against it to slowly sink into the sphere of its effect, Chronicle realised who was screaming.

She was doing it herself, screaming as loud as her lungs would allow her, completely helpless to do anything – she couldn’t even rewind herself, if he got to her, not only would she be irrevocably dead, but so would Karasuha, her Tsukiko, and all the others whose records she’d kept.

Sablo cried out in pain and her protective power shattered, the clawed hand breaking through. One of the claws cut through the nude woman, splitting her from head to groin, the two halves dissolving into nothingness as they fell apart.

Chroncile lost hold of her book, and of her bladder for that matter, as she looked up at the colossal beast bearing down on them, reaching for Immanuel with one of its huge hands.

“Cover me!” Karasuha shouted and charged towards the beast at the same time as Immanuel dodged backwards, slashing at its exposed palm.

Her blade flared up with purple light and bit deep, cutting through the black, spiny scales to sink into the flesh beneath, but the Dark did not rear back – he simply pushed on, crushing her underneath its paw.

Chronicle cried out in despair – she couldn’t reset her if she couldn’t see her – but the beast ignored that and raised its hand again, the sword already falling apart, consumed by the same effect as the one that was breaking down Karasuha’s crushed remains.

At the last moment before they fell apart entirely, Chronicle pushed her power out towards her, and she snapped back to her previous, recorded state, sword in hand – and promptly burst into numerous crows which flew apart, away from the beast.

Several of them grabbed onto the shoulders of Chronicle’s robe, pulling her away with madly beating wings, while the dragon pressed on, reaching for Immanuel, too fast and with too great a reach to dodge entirely.

Immanuel had reached Chronicle, who’d stood several meters behind him, when the claws came down on him, and though he avoided a direct hit, one of them nicked his left hand.

As it began to fall apart, another claw touched Chronicle’s hastily held-up left hand – a stupid gesture, like that would achieve anything – and then her left foot, before it slammed onto the platform, cracking it and breaking through, briefly arresting the beast’s charge by sheer dint of the sudden loss of footing.

Sam screamed, louder than she ever had, as she watched her hand and foot dissolve, the flesh blackening before it fell apart, the blackness slowly spreading up her limbs-

A sharp, clear pain came next, and her corrupted, dying limbs were severed from her body in a single stroke, along with Immanuel’s arm, halfway down his biceps.

Konrad was back, looking as serene as before and no worse for having been hit directly by the abomination. though his coat was even more tattered and torn.

The Dark roared at him, pulling himself out of the wrecked and twisted metal of the platform they’d just been in.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

And it swung its free fist at him, but this time, Konrad was ready, and he dodged, leaping forward to slide under the strike, before he launched himself up.

Using both a long wind-up and the momentum of his leap and spin of his body, he punched the colossal monster in its sternum and hit with force way beyond his size and proportion.

The dragon was blown away, launched through the ruins behind it, through walls of steel and concrete, almost all the way back to where it had first burst ouf the rubble.

Konrad landed on his feet, then flinched, looking at his right arm – it was starting to dissolve, too, though very slowly.

Clucking his tongue, he shook his arm out, visibly expelling a black mist-like substance from it.

His arm was mangled, but not gone, and he was still alive.

Chronicle fell onto her side, starting to feel cold as her blood escaped her through the raw stumps of her arm and leg, feeling Karasuha reform behind her and pull her into a warm, comforting hug, before she began to do something with her numb limbs.

Looking around, there was barely anyone left. Prism had been reduced to a mummified corpse, Heaven’s Dancer had lost both legs and was bleeding heavily. Judicator still stood, if shakily so, but his crystal ball lay shattered all around him.

Immanuel was using his own belt to tie off his remaining arm, looking pale and not entirely self-assured anymore.

There were less than ten of their number left, gathering around him and Konrad, looking for orders, for direction, for protection.

He looked around at everyone, then at Konrad. “We retreat,” he said simply. “Everyone, move to the nearest escape pod. We have to get away before he pulls out whatever next trick he has in… store…”

His eyes grew wide as the dragon rose out of the shattered rubble, howling in rage.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast rose up on its hind legs, spreading its arms and wings wide as it roared to the heavens, even more of its body oozing upwards and dissolving into the sky.

Chronicle’s consciousness was rapidly fading, darkness creeping across the edge of her vision…

No, that wasn’t just her fading consciousness… a shadow was spreading across the Installation, as something above blotted out the sun, causing the others to look up in horror, but she was too weak to do even that…

“Du willst mich doch wohl verarschen…” was the last thing she heard, an utterly disbelieving whisper from Immanuel.

Then, Darkness.

You’re going to die.

***

“Don’t look at me like that,” Immanuel complained as the others glared at him. “I had no idea he could do that!”

“Hey hey, relax,” Konrad calmed him, patting his back. “I took care of it, and we got something out of the whole thing, right?”

“Took care of it? Took care of it!?” Heaven’s Dancer shrieked. “You nearly died! He destroyed the Installation, beyond any hope of recovery! He killed everyone we had left, except those in this room, including my body, with one blow!”

Calm down,” the leader admonished everyone, and silence fell. “Immanuel, how is this worth losing the Installation and so many of our companions? Don’t tell me it’s because you figured out the Dark’s weakness, we already know several.”

“No no, oh wise and fearless leader of ours,” Immanuel assured him with a smile. “It’s not his weakness I figured out. It’s hers.” He grinned, and it went all the way up to his eyes. “Ironic, that it would be the Dark who’d finally betray her, if unwittingly – but now I know Gwen Whitakers one true weakness.” He made a fist, pumping that arm. “Now we can-“

“Leave it be for another time,” the leader cut him off. While he – probably – couldn’t see Immanuel’s face, Sam was quite sure he heard Heaven’s Dancer’s amused giggle at the sight of it.

Even Sam felt a smile tug at her lips, seeing it.

“Skyfall’s project is complete,” he continued, unperturbed. “And she has workable results to show for it. We are thus moving Project Chainbreaker to the top of our priority list. You are to provide her every resource she requires, including yourself.”

“B-but… Whitaker and Goldschmidt…” Immanuel stammered, looking, for the first time, like he was truly not sure what was going on.

“The Abomination has just appeared in New Lennston,” the leader pressed on. “While it’s unlikely either of them is going to die, they will be far too caught up in dealing with that, and with the aftermath, to interfere with Chainbreaker. Once that is complete, we’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to dispose of the both of them at our leisure.”

“But, seriously, we-“

“That was an order, Immanuel,” the leader cut him off. “Whitaker and Goldschmidt are ultimately of no consequence to our greater plans. We need merely make sure they don’t interfere with the steps leading up to our goal, which the current deluge of crises shall provide. Now be about your work.”

And just like that, he hung up.

Sam looked at Tsukiko, feeling endlessly relieved – anything, not to have to face the Dark again.

It won’t be enough, and you’ll die.

“Alright people,” Immanuel said, finally, after taking several deep breaths, his usual cheerful disposition returning slowly. “You heard our fearless leader. Let’s all get to work.” He looked at the stump of his arm, then over at Sam, who was curled up against her wife, still. “Bira, please start work on replacement limbs for Sam, first. I can make do with just one arm for the time being.” He nodded to the two of them, before looking out over everyone else in the room. “I thank you all for your bravery today. Fear not – our brothers’ and sisters’ sacrifice will not have been in vain, nor go unavenged.” He bowed his head to them. “Have a good night.” And with that, he left the room, followed closely by Konrad, who threw them a playful salute.

Sam sniffed, looking up at Tsukiko with a weak smile.

Her wife’s response was almost blinding, as she leaned down and kissed her, hard.

Sam wrapped her arms around Tsukiko and held onto her for dear life. They may have been doomed, but she was going to stay brave and fight on, even in the face of invincible opponents. Maybe they were all going to die, but she would try, at least. Even if it was pointless.

***

The cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean made for a mostly uniform background over which Amy flew, trying to make her way back to the base of the Gefährten – though she was rapidly starting to think that it was pointless, as she had no way of making out where exactly it was.

Before, she hadn’t truly thought about it, having been beside herself with rage and worry, mindlessly flying in the direction her power told her Basil’s mind lay, but now that he wasn’t there, anymore, she had no way of tracking the place, other than flying straight towards the West, hoping to trace back the route they’d taken flying out of it.

Even so, she did it, focusing on casting her power out ahead of her, scouting for any signs of her goal, even if the largest reason she did so was not to support her boss, or make up for her lackluster performance, but simply so she wouldn’t have to think about what Basil had said to her, and what’d happened, and the ramifications of both.

However, with no goal in sight, those memories and the thoughts attached to them were beginning to creep back into her consciousness. She wouldn’t be able to ignore them for long.

Just then, though, she saw something which simultaneously filled her with elation – if the base of the Gefährten wasn’t there, then she’d never find it – and dread.

Who the fuck had summoned a meteor?

She flew towards the gigantic, glowing rock falling from the sky, tracing its trajectory towards its impact site, and could soon see, faintly, the glittering that indicated the huge metal city she was looking for.

What the fuck is going on? I hope the boss is still alive…

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Progress Update 8/12/17

So, I just wanted to let you all know how things currently stand.

I’m about 50% through the next chapter, “The Empty Dragon – Act 2” (of 3), but it’s turning out to be one of the most difficult to write to my satisfaction, as it deals with some seriously dark subject matter (take a look at act 1 to see just a few hints of it), which is why I haven’t finished it just yet.

I’ve also done about 20% of the work on the following chapter “Bad People”. That one… won’t be a big problem to finish, once I get to it. About a third of it is mostly just the Dark fighting the Gefährten.

Outlines for “Good People” and “The Man Who Knocked Out Lady Light” are complete, and the latter already has several scenes done in very rough first drafts.

Hopefully, Act 2 will be finished this weekend.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

Brennus File 17: Shifters

There was a full story update just a few hours before this one. Click here to read it, if you haven’t done so yet.


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Depending on how broadly one is willing to define, the Shifter classification (which coincides but is not completely encompassed by the Morphing rating) is the single most common type of power there is, outnumbering even Espers two to one, if not more so.

To understand why, one must understand the nature of Shifters. In simple terms:

A Shifter is a metahuman capable of changing their physical state.

This encompasses both shapeshifters and numerous other kinds of powers, which will be enumerated later in this document.

An important distinction, which will be touched upon later, goes to One-Time Shifters, metahumans whose shape changes exactly once, during their manifestation, and thereafter remains constant. While one may consider that to not be a dedicated power, nor worthy of the ‘Shifter’ label, there are certain common elements that justify it being included in this document.

Furthermore, there is a large number of metahumans who have Shifting as a required secondary ability to support or enable their main power, or to protect themselves from the effects of their own power (such as a fire manipulator whose body has adapted to be all but immune to heat, or a metahuman with aquatic powers being able to grow gills). These may often come to be from Origins which have little or even nothing at all in common with the kind of factors which normally lead to Shifter powers.

***

Common Origins

Almost all forms of Shifting powers come from Origins which involve an issue with form or image, be it physical and mental.

The physical ones are the most simple and tend to produce the most straightforward Shifter powers: imagine a girl, trapped in a burning building, slowly being consumed by flames; a man lost in the desert, slowly dying of thirst. Another who falls off a boat in a storm, going under the waves and drowning. A researcher in Antarctica whose base was destroyed by a storm, lost in the cold as she freezes to death. Or turn it around: a man has spent his whole life training to lift weights, against all derision for such a barbaric, backwards hobby until he, finally, wins the World Championship for Strongmen, manifesting upon receiving validation that, yes, his form is truly exceptional.

On the other side, there are mental triggers; in the age of body image issues, these often play a role in Origins, leading to the vast number of Physique powers amongst metahumans, usually as a lesser aspect of the ability (interestingly, there are about as many male as female Physique-powered metahumans out there, in spite of common cliches). Such are the single most common type of One-Time Shifters, and perhaps the most common power type of all.

On a more extreme level, severe mental pressure relating to one’s identity can result in some rather disturbing Shifter powers. A feeling of entrapment, relating often to one’s body, can also result in a Shifter power, or at least a Shifter element attached to other powers. Imagine a boy who’s bullied daily at school due to being overweight, having cruel pranks played on him that continually embarrass and humiliate him, until he’s pushed too far; a young girl tries to live up to her late mother’s image, only to always fall short, particularly in the looks department, seeing herself as far uglier than her mother (whether or not that is true is irrelevant to the example), until one particularly painful reminder that she’s just not as pretty as her mother was that makes her snap. A man was born to a purpose, raised to fulfill it, saddled with restrictions which bind him to the will of another; his whole life is just one, long series of reminders that he belongs to someone else, and he snaps, manifesting in a moment of weakness after being reminded by someone or something that he’s merely a plaything of a greater being.

***

Many Forms

Physique/Adonis
The most simple and common type of Shifter, and a One-Time Shifter at that, and also perhaps the single most commonly appearing power, these are abilities which permanently and lastingly improve and change the recipients’ body, usually to adhere to their beauty ideals (though they also at times come with a twist – it is not unheard of that a person may have their sex changed in this way). Like all One-Time Shifters, these variations can not be negated, dampened or enhanced, as they appear to be permanent, viable modifications to one’s biology.

Chimaera
While technically a subset of the Physique type, Chimaera’s can get strange enough that they deserve being listed separately. A Chimaera appears to be an inversion or carricature of the Adonis, a person whose manifestation has left them twisted, often to the point of being truly inhuman in body. It is particularly common for drug-related Origins (or those involving the incipient metahuman’s own death) to create Chimaeras, though they are far from the only causes and, in fact, a Chimaera trait may appear completely on its own with no clear reason why, appended to another power.

Transformers
Another very common type of Shifter, the Transformer has a basic, often plain human form and can switch into a single (or sometimes several related but distinct) form(s), often with powers which are only available in their alternate form.

Kimotas
A partially tongue-in-cheek subclass of Transformers, Kimotas need some manner of trigger in order to transform, be it a ‘magic word’, a particular substance or anything like that.

Darwins
These shifters do not (or do not entirely) control their morphing, but can morph in a variety of ways based on outside influence (be it environmental, or otherwise). Often crosses over into the Meta-rating.

Modals
The most common type of free-form shifters, these metahumans can shift within certain limitations, but are bound to these, such as a shifter who can take on any animal form, or who can take on any form but it’s always made of concrete.

Toolboxes
Less restrained than Modals, Toolboxes have a collection of options which they can mix and match at will. Depending on which options they have available, they can be incredibly versatile and even edge into a Meta-rating.

Freeforms
Can take any shape, with only minor limitations. Extremely dangerous.

***

Traits

Generally speaking, there are certain traits by which Shifters can be classified and rated. These are:

Consistency
Do they shift into a single fixed, or a variety of fixed forms, or can they come up with new ones on the fly (even if it’s just repurposing the same basic elements)?

Permanence
Are their changes permanent, or maintained by their power? If the former, than nullifying their power will only prevent them from changing away from their current shape, not force them to change into their ‘true’ form, as whichever form they’re currently in, is their true form. One-Time Shifters are always permanent.

Mass-Limitation
Is the Shifter limited to a fixed mass (usually that of their true form) or can they increase or decrease it? If so, within what limits (there is no known unlimited case).

Sympathy
A strange term, admittedly, but it refers to a very important trait – if one form of the Shifter is harmed, does that harm (wounds, power effects, etc) carry over to their other form(s) as they shift? Can make a huge difference in a fight.

Forms Per Minute (fpM)
The term for a Shifter’s speed – how often can they change their form within one minute? The record-holder here is definitely Hemming with the ability to assume hundreds of wholly distinct forms (usually assumed to be about 300 in a single minute).

***

A Common Issue

There is an issue, an ailment, a problem, which haunts many a Shifter, particularly those with multiple forms or the ability to assume any form; a problem so common it has its own scientific name that is widely used in literature dealing with powers, particulary the psychological toll they take on metahumans.

Shifter Dissociation.

Many a Shifter suffers due to feeling that their body is not their own anymore, or that it no longer truly represents their identity, due to changing so drastically whenever they use their powers. This can range from a slight unease whenever they are reminded of the fact to full-blown suicidal depression and has claimed many a life (for a variety of reasons) throughout metahuman history.

It is most common in more powerful Shifters and often appears so immediately and so powerfully that it may be considered, at times, to be a full-blown Power Derangement, though it is not always so, and most often develops over time as a Shifter comprehends the extent of their powers.

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for this, and no standard treatment has yet been invented, due to the highly individualistic nature of every single Metahuman’s power as well as their individual issues and personalities playing into this particular disorder.

***

Exemplary Shifters

  • Kraquok: One of the oldest and most famous of Shifters, Kraquok is a founding member of the Dark Five and one of the few people to repeatedly fight Lady Light and walk away (though he’s never actually defeated her). He also happens to be Severance’s archenemy and rival, an enmity that stretches back to the early 1920’s. His power allows him to grow in size and power the more damage he takes, growing faster proportional to the amount of damage he took relative to his size at the time, with no known hard limit. As he grows, he eventually develops the ability to use the Mortal Coil, one of the most lethal attacks known, a breath weapon which ages anything it touches at a frightening rate – it is all but always lethal to take even a glancing hit from it, as it is a true temporal effect, and so cuts through most defenses. His only limitation seems to be that, as he grows larger, attacks which previously caused great harm cause less and less so, and once he stops taking a sufficient amount of damage, he not only stops growing but also begins to shrink again.
  • Severance: While most of his abilities are unknown, one that is known is that he is capable of contorting and deforming his body to a ridiculous extreme, to the point where he can actually fold himself into a briefcase, for example, or squeeze himself through the gap between a door and the floor.
  • Bakeneko: Aimi’s power allows her to assemble any form she wants within the limits of her own mass out of a toolbox of options she gains through her power scanning nearby living beings (animals or plants). She ‘assembles’ a form out of several options offered to her by her power and then shifts into it and can potentially take on any form that could possibly be assembled out of pieces of all living beings, though she can not change her mass (though she can compress or stretch it, if need be, within limits).
  • Ares VII: Possibly the member of the Olympians who most closely matches his namesake both in personality and power, Ares is a brute of a man, both literally and figuratively; his power allows him to absorb non-living material in order to transform into an armoured, heavily armed form which closely resembles a warrior in arms, growing larger, denses and generally more powerful the more material he absorbs, though he can only absorb one kind of solid material at a time (he prefers steel).
  • Dionysus: The original (and current) Dionysus is a grab-bag if there ever was one, with one of his powers being the ability to take on any human or animal shape, though only one at a time. He likes to get very naughty with it.
  • Dolphin Blue: A current member of Japan’s Okinawa Sentai team, Dolphin Blue has the power to transform his body into a semi-fluid state, reshape it, then solidify into this new form. He is limited by both his total mass and the amount of time it takes to do so (several minutes per change).
  • Chrysalis: A woman or girl of unknown origin (even their original sex is unknown, though she identifies as a female now), Crysalis is a mercenary villain with the ability to spin a cocoon around herself, going into a kind of incubation period during which she designs a new shape, which she then takes on before bursting out of her namesake chrysalis. It takes hours to change form and she appears to be limited to organic ones, but she can vary her size widely (ranging from cat-size to building-size) and take on very eldritch forms.
  • Hemming: Probably the most powerful, likely the most dangerous and definitely the most evil Shifter known, Hemming is the founder and leader of the Savage Six and generally considered to be one of the single most reviled humans to ever live, rivalling if not surpassing even Weisswald. He is a monstrously powerful Shifter, capable of taking on any form he can imagine, be it organic, non-organic, solid, fluid or even gaseous. He can decrease his mass down to that of a very small mouse, or increase it to the size of a very large elephant, if not more so. He is capable of taking hundreds of forms within a single minute, morphing so fast he often eschews normal movement in favour of simply shifting himself forward, which allows him to move at super-sonic speeds. He can recreate simple technology (he’s been known to masquerade as kitchen appliances, cars, weapons; though whether he can actually be functional or merely takes on said appearance is a different matter) and adapt his body to counter anything thrown at him, meaning that most attacks will only work once or twice before he gets used to it. Being able to shift at very nearly the speed of thought (and he thinks very fast), he is effectively less of a Shifter and more of a mobile, super-fast damage effect that adapts to any resistance he meets. And that’s his lesser power, as both he and those in the know consider his Super-Intelligence to be his most dangerous ability.
    He has never been beaten and never failed to kill a target he actually went after, save for one. Pound for pound, he’s the one member of the Savage Six you least want to face in combat and anyone who knows him claims that he lacks any true weaknesses. He is also considered the benchmark against which all other Shifters are measured, as his abilities are unprecedented and unsurpassed.

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