B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 3.1)

He would have to think about a teamname another time, because now they had to act. And carefully so.

The restaurant, which was innocuously called ‘Hong Kong Kitchen’, looked like it had jumped right out of the catalogue for clichéd Chinese restaurants. Lots of paper lanterns and cheap red dragons.

Tyche snorted at the sight. “Seriously? That’s where they meet? They’re the Black Panthers, not the Black Dragons.”

Brennus nodded, even if she could not see it from her position. “True. No respect for tradition,” he compained.

“Children, focus,” Hecate reprimanded with a long-suffering sigh. “Brennus, you said your ravens can’t get in?”

He had to take a few seconds until he finally remembered. “That restaurant only looks simple. Reinforced front to back, so no blasting through the walls. The windows are reinforced, too. Soundproofing as well. And they have protected their electronics, it is all locked down. No outside access without tipping them off. And they can probably call reinforcements the moment they realize that something is wrong.”

She nodded, thinking it over. “We should still try to sneak in. Can you pick the lock for the back door, Brennus? Without them noticing?”

He would have rolled his eyes if she could have seen it. “Of course. I should even be able to take down any surveillance they have, once we get inside. We just need to be silent. By the way, we should switch over to the communication system I worked up for us.” You always forget that.

<Alright, how do we proceed?>, asked Tyche. She was vibrating, anxious to finally get into some action again.

Like we haven’t had too much action lately, thought Hecate, but instead went over the plan again – as far as they had a plan. Sneak in, have Brennus hack any computers, try to spy on the meeting that was supposed to take place.

Then they jumped down from the building they stood on, landing two storeys lower – Tyche caught her fall with a fancy roll, while Brennus simply let Hecate levitate the two of them down, then cast her veil around them – it was fragile, useless if you moved too quickly or attacked others, but very useful for sneaking up to a back door undiscovered and letting Brennus pick the lock.

Once the lock had been dealt with, Brennus cracked the door open just enough for one of his ravens to look inside. Through it, he saw a simple, red-carpeted hallway with a cheap, ornate occasional table beneath an even more ornate mirror, and three doors. Also, three security cameras. Luckily none of them were currently looking directly at them. Brennus sent his raven out to the closest camera, the bird extending a prehensile cable from its beak to allow him to hack into the surveillance system – it was mostly proof against outside interference – mostly by just making sure that there was no outside point one could access it through – but once one got inside

As a rule of thumb, no mundane system could hold up to a Gadgeteer. Even an Exemplar-tier Gadgeteering power could easily work through even the most advanced security systems, provided they were not designed by any Contriver (though they could certainly destroy them simply enough) or a more capable (not necessarily higher-ranked) Gadgeteer.

The Black Panthers had neither, and thus their system fell within mere moments, giving Brennus full control of every appliance linked to it. Which wasn’t much, as it turned out. Cameras, telephones and the building’s internet connection, all his now. He put the cameras into loops – with Eudocia to monitor and adjust the loops if needed – and also put Eudocia to monitor any and all incoming and outgoing calls, as well as internet accesses.

They slipped into the building, closing the door and huddling together under Hecate’s invisibility charm, while Brennus took stock of the situation inside. Frustratingly, the blueprints showed three rooms which were not covered by the cameras he could access. Not good, those were the rooms most likely to hold sensitive meetings or items.

<I can not see the interesting bits. Kitchen, dining area, staff room… nothing interesting. At least the staff is bogged down by the customers – Friday night business and all,> he explained, half smug and half frustrated.

<How many rooms are hidden, and what could they contain?>, asked Hecate.

<Three rooms are hidden, only two of which – the customer and the employee bathroom – are included in the official blueprints. There is another room in an off-the-record subbasement which, according to what I can get from here, is completely locked down. Either a secret meeting room, or a storage vault for illegal merchandise.>

Tyche snorted. <So what? Let’s just go take a look, it’s not like they can stop us! No metahumans here, that’s the whole point why we chose this for the OP!>

Hecate sighed, having gone through this time and time again. <I told you, we only think that it’s unlikely that there are metahumans stationed here. And we’re not here for their merchandise, anyway. All we want is information, which we should get from their computer system. Speaking of which, did you find anything, Brennus?>

<Nothing on their wired systems. But the room in the subbasement is eating a lot of their electricity. And there is a separate computer in the manager’s office up on the second storey.>

Hecate and Tyche spoke at the same time:

<The manager’s office.>

<The subbasement!>

Brennus shook his head. How predictable. <I vote for the manager’s office as well. That is two against one, Tyche.>

<Alright, alright, jeez…>

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B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 2)

Okinawa was sinking.

It began slowly, barely perceptible at first, but soon one could see the island rumble, throwing up waves around its coast.

And then you could see it slowly sinking, even as the newslady grew frantic, and heroes and villains together did their best to slow the collapse down and evacuate those inhabitants who had yet to be evacuated.

“Why the fuck is the island sinking!? She didn’t use any uber-power before she vanished, right?” asked Dalia with some exasperation.

Basil squatted down, folding his fingers in front of is face to think. Then he looked up at the video feeds again. “The power she used to twist the buildings – it must have reached downwards just as quickly. Judging from her position… I’d say it reached about one-thousand-and-nine-hundred-and-fifty metres into the ground… more than enough to compromise the foundations of the island. It just took some time for the damage to spread further and have it break down.”

They both fell silent, just in time for them to see Fleur use her power to try and delay the collapse, her ‘garden’ spreading out much like DiL’s ‘Desolation Field’ did, a sphere formed by a green-and-pink haze.

And once again, we see the difference between an S-Class metahuman and us mere mortals, thought Basil with some sour grapes in his thoughts. Sometimes, he thought he’d have preferred to just get a straightforward superpower like that of Fleur or Lung Moo or Sky High or the Boogeyman or even Defender, boring though the latter’s power might be.

Tears in reality opened above and below water from which giant, no, titanic trees emerged, shoring up the crumbling foundation of the island.

“Doesn’t look like she can stop it,” said Dalia.

“No way. Holding up an entire island like that? Weisswald may have been able to do that, create enough trees to stabilise it. But Fleur is far, far more limited than he was – for one, her trees are not permanent, they cannot exist outside of her ‘garden’.”

“A shame,” she replied, without her usual snark at his exposition. “It’s funny, though, don’t you think? How they all use spheres?”

His gaze turned from the news feed to look at her. “What do you mean?” he asked, momentarily confused… then he started making the connections.

She continued. “DiL, the Savage Six, Fleur, Defender, they all…”

“They all work with territories.” He stood up from his squatting position and went to the closest keyboard, moving the news feeds aside to the left end of the screen to call up several older recordings.

DiL’s Desolation Field at Okinawa, of course. Followed by Fleur’s Garden, Defender’s… Defender Field (he had no imagination), the Boogeyman’s Metaphobia, Sky High’s Heroic Wind (he had too much imagination), Heretic’s Pocket Dimensions (the latest one had stolen Osaka two days ago – Japan had no luck lately, with the Six in Osaka, DiL in Okinawa and the Kaiju attack on Tokyo)…

“Not spheres, that is just the form, the shape… they all have territories, fields within which their powers work… and not just them. Lady Light’s Aura, Cataclysm’s Domino Field. Most god tier metahumans with outwardly aimed powers have effects that evoke the sense of a territory, an area around them which they can affect with their powers.”

“You think there’s a reason for that?”

He nodded, writing these thoughts down. “There has to be. There are so many themes that are repeated among metahumans, and this one seems to be another one.”

He looked directly at her, throwing her a wry look. “You really sell yourself short, usually. You are far more perceptive than one would think from your usual behaviour.”

She snorted, then smiled. “Don’t tell Liki, she’d have a heart attack.”

“Ha, tru- You call her Liki?”

“Drives her nuts. She’s so easy,” she explained with her trademark leering grin.

He just shook his head. Mostly because he realized that she’d just managed to distract him from the tragedy onscreen, if only shortly. And she might not have noticed it. Full of surprises, she is.

They both turned back to the newsfeeds, just in time to see a close-up of Fleur.

“That chick is so hot,” commented Dalia.

Basil had to admit that Fleur was very pleasing to look at. She was tall, even for a metahuman, somewhere between one-eight and one-ninety, with fair but slightly tanned skin, bright green hair, light pink eyes and an elf-like, slender body (and pointed ears). She didn’t so much wear clothes as she had flowers and leaves grow around her body, winding and twisting to form a dress that ended at her mid-thigh in front, but hung down to her ankles on the back, and exposed a good deal of her back. She had more flowers grow in and out of her hair, but wore no mask (only some subtle make-up) and was barefoot as well.

Currently, she was atop a piece of rock floating above Okinawa, together with the metahuman responsible for levitating said rock – her younger brother, Terre (a legacy hero, the fifth of that name).

“She is good-looking, yes. Also, did you notice that her trees a-“

“Oh God, you see an essentially naked super-hottie and you think about her trees? You really are hopeless – poor little Prisca…”

He snorted at her.

* * *

About half an hour later, Okinawa was gone, sunk beneath the waters of the sea.

According to what little information was available at the time – the situation was quite chaotic – more than sixty percent of the civilians on Okinawa had been evacuated in time. The rest…

Also, as was usual for a DiL-Attack, the secondary consequences were often far worse than the initial ones (barring Caracas and a few other notable disasters). Fleur, later boosted by Lady Light and supported by the Dark, as well as aided by several hydro- and terrakinetics, had slowed the collapse of the island, allowing it to sink beneath the waters without causing a tidal wave… only for the support of the island crumbling almost instantly the moment their endurance was exhausted, the moment their powers failed.

The resulting tidal wave had already devastated the Ryoko and Okinawa Islands, and would shortly hit the Japanese, Korean and Chinese mainlands. Worse yet, though, was the chain reaction started by this – three more islands had sustained critical damage to their foundations and threatened to collapse, too.

“This… this is one of the really bad ones, isn’t it?” asked Dalia, her tone subdued as she watched the images on the screen.

Basil, once again squatting, his forehead on his folded hands, replied without looking up: “Yes. And she did not even have to build her power up – she just used what she had intelligently.”

How? She’s not smart, that’s supposed to be her only real weakness!”

He had thought about that, and was pretty sure he had figured it out. “Invulnerability, flight and the devouring light that sticks to her hair and nails are her standard powers. There is also a theory that she has another permanent power, some manner of enhanced perception maybe, but her immunity to perception effects has prevented any deeper analysis. Apart from those, she usually has three powers, one offensive, one defensive and one for utility. Only, during the final phase, she only had that one offensive power, the matter animation effect. Or so it seemed.”

“You think she had another perception power, stacked onto the one she’s supposed to always have? And what was the defensive one?”

He shook his head, again without looking up. “She does mix it up sometimes. And we know from Gloom Glimmer, who seems to have an almost identical base power, that perception effects take a tremendous amount of potential to manifest. And that animation effect was far more intense from the very beginning than her usual offensive effects. She probably split the potential that usually goes into added defense between offense and utility.”

They both fell silent, watching the tragedy unfold.

* * *

An hour later…

Dalia had gone to sleep before school (she needed far less sleep than a normal human, though she was not sleepless), chosing to stay at the lair and sleep in what was supposed to be the emergency bedroom, but was quickly becoming her bedroom.

Basil himself went back to work – no reason to stop work on his new grappling hook system. Until he found a way to fly reliably (and without half a ton of extra equipment), swinging around the city was the most efficient (well, most fun) mode of transportation.

It took him another two hours of work. It was not that he had to invent anything anymore, it just was a lot of very fine, very delicate work he could not outsource. The bane of every gadgeteer, they had phenomenal technology at their disposal, but most of them could neither explain their work to others, nor find a way for easy mass production – even building a manufacturing machine from scratch rarely worked out (you’d need a speciality just for that to make that alone work).

Maybe that could explain why no one had built a space elevator yet. Basil at least had already figured out how, he just could not work out an execution of the plan that would not require him to work on it for years by himself.

Of course, the fact that he saw his designs in pictographs made it difficult to translate it into something normal people could work with. And as far as he knew, it was worse for others – Hotrod was supposed to see his designs all as stylized gears and other machine parts and Polymnia had once commented that she heard her designs as melodies and symphonies.

It would be really interesting to learn how Sovereign or this Macian perceived their designs.

By the time he was done, he had to fight to stay awake, but the new system was complete – well, half of it – and he still had to go to school. So he jumped under the shower, dressed, grabbed his backpack and ran off to take the bus.

* * *

We need laws to protect children from school.

He was walking into the hospital as he thought that, on his way to visit Prisca. Thankfully, with his power, he didn’t have to put any effort into the science classes, and everything else was quite trivial for him. But still, he had not slept for more than fifty hours now, and he did not think he would sleep anytime soon, either – too many ideas, too much to do.

If the ‘Blazing Sun’ was actually the manifestation or personification of his power, than he could finally understand why it had that name. More and more, he felt like there was a light behind his eyes, pushing, burning, illuminating. The only way to alleviate it was to use it. To make something.

So, after he met with Prisca, he’d finish the second half of his new grappling hook system, then catch up on sleep. No patrol tonight for him. He needed to recover.

I wish I did not need to sleep anymore.

He reached Prisca’s room – and heard giggling from inside. Two girls, giggling. He couldn’t remember hearing Prisca giggle before.

Not quite thinking about it, he just pushed the door open without knocking. “Hi, Prisca, who is your… friend…”

Prisca was looking at him, surprised, in her usual position on her bed, and with the tablet he had constructed for her in her lap.

The second set of giggles cut off abruptly. It had come from the tablet.

“Eudocia…” he growled, closing the door behind him. This had not been a part of his plan.

<Uh, hi dad. How are you doing? You don’t look too good, maybe you should go home and sleep… forget about everything…>

Despite only having a rather monotone, electronically generated voice, she still managed to sound like a little child caught trying to snitch cookies from the cookie jar.

Prisca gave him her best attempt at a cute smile, but he had practice dealing with those looks. “Don’t be angry at her, I tricked her into revealing herself,” she said when she saw him scowl.

“Quiet, please.” He pulled out a few gadgets and checked the room for eavesdropping equipment. Then he set up a white noise generator, that should confuse most mundane recording equipment. “All right, now I know that Eudocia is smart enough to not be tricked easily, especially in regards to revealing her true nature. I am not angry, not really, just tired. So please, just explain.”

<Well, we were playing a game, and I was also watching two movies she’d given me…>

“And I asked her a few questions about them…”

<And I answered as thoroughly as I could…>

“Which I found strange, because she answered like a human, not a machine…”

<So she started asking questions about that, and well, I didn’t want to outright lie at her, so…>

“I kept needling her until she couldn’t evade my questions anymore, and she told me the truth.”

Basil sighed, sitting down on a stool.

“Well, so much for the experiment,” he complained, rubbing his temples. He was really too tired for this. “No matter. Just do not tell anyone about her, alright?”

Prisca nodded, probably understanding the situation.

<Sorry Father.>

“Do not call me father.”

<Alright, father.>

Prisca giggled while Basil groaned. Then she pouted, even though her thin, cracked lips did not lend themselves to it.

“So, why does my boyfriend come in here, when he forgot our last two dates, and just talks about a computer?”

<Hey!>

He flinched. “Sorry, sorry.” Standing up and bending forward, he pressed his lips onto hers, a short, but passionate kiss.

When he pulled back, he smirked at her. “But I am pretty sure I forgot only yesterday’s date.”

She frowned at him. “No, we were supposed to meet on Wednesday as well, for movie night.”

Now it was his turn to frown. “Really? I honestly can not remember.” He tried to remember, but he really couldn’t tell what he had been doing at the time. “Actually, I can not remember what I did at that time, at all.”

Now she looked concerned. “Why could that be? You never forget anything!”

He shook his head, confused. “No. I just have a better memory than most. And I have been…” Again, he shook his head. “No matter. I will deal with whatever is going on myself. Let us enjoy ourselves for now, alright?”

“Are you sure? This sounds pretty serious.”

He nodded. “I will handle it, promise.”

She nodded, too, conceding the point. Then, he pulled the stool over next to her and sat down.

* * *

1:12 AM

He looked down at the restaurant, then shook his head. What? Where am I?

Assessing the situation, he got bits and pieces of his memory. Full armor. He looked at the two boxes at his hips. Full new grappling hook system. Stun gun, batons.

He looked around. Tyche and Hecate where to his left and right, each with full equipment, and currently using binoculars to scout the place out.

Right. The Black Panthers. They’ve been moving a lot of merchandise and capital lately. Hit a minor hideout to get info on them.

What did he know of them again? Black Panthers. Started as a violent pro-civil rights group. Lost traction when King survived his assassination by manifesting metahuman powers. Devolved over the years to a simple, if powerful crime gang – not even exclusive to people of African-American descent anymore. Current leader supposed to be a major morpher, but no other details known.

And they were going to declare war on them tonight.

We really need a teamname.

B006 Big Game Hunt (Part 1)

“Desolation-in-Light was sighted four minutes ago, floating over the South coast of Okinawa. So far, she has remained inactive, though her Desolation Field has already been erected.”

Basil listened to the newscast while watching more than thirty video feeds – all recorded from outside of her field – on his wallscreen.

He’d been staying up late, working on his new grappling hook system late into Thursday night – now Friday night – and had thus caught the emergency broadcast, having let the television play on the side. It usually helped him keep track of time, without really distracting him from work – 99.9% of eveything on TV did not require any attention or brainpower to consume.

Of course, a DiL attack was more than that. He immediately stopped working and instead had Eudocia track down every broadcast and throw them all onto the wallscreen.

There was one, taken by a professional it seemed, that showed her floating in the air, her glowing white hair flowing and winding around and beneath her body, ten times longer than her tall body – she’s got to be almost two meters tall – looking away from the island to the sea, apparently not even noticing the town behind her. But her field was already present, spreading nearly three kilometers in radius, a flickering haze of light that had given her her name, enveloping her surroundings. He knew it blocked all transmissions from entering or leaving it – as well as all powers. No teleporting in or out of her field, or using long-range powers to attack her. And it also necessitated the use of long-range recording equipment to follow her attacks, as electronics within the field tended to malfunction.

I wonder if my equipment would work within her field. Gadgeteers were notoriously ineffective against DiL. Sometimes, mundane technology worked, but rarely for any significant stretch of time.

As he watched, more information came in. The UH DiL Response Team had already arrived at the site – Lady Light, all five members of the Cabal, The Dark and… Oh no… his five.

As if on cue, he got a message from Amy.

<Deployed against DiL. No worries, powers useless against her, support only.>

He took a deep breath. That was… not all that good, but better than he’d have hoped.

<Be safe. Wish I could help.>

Her power isn’t useful against DiL, they won’t put her on the front lines, her power isn’t useful against DiL, they won’t put her on the front lines, her power isn’t useful against DiL, they won’t put her on the front lines…

<You get to fight in a DiL battle over my cold, dead body, stupid.>

That stung. It was a condition that might be fulfilled after today.

<Just be safe, or I will be really angry at you.>

<We’ll have an ice-cream evening later on, alright? Don’t worry too much, the boss-man is giving each of us a Darkwraith for personal protection.>

Alright, alright, they’re taking precautions.

<Good luck.>

She didn’t reply.

Stretching, he walked a few circles – he’d foregone using any seating and instead raised the tables and workbenches to work on them while standing, since he spent so much time working here and he didn’t want to end up a couch potato.

Then, just as the newscast announced the arrival of several independent heroes, as well as the majority of Japan’s Sentai teams. Several video feeds switched over to short introductions of the participants.

Basil knew about the UH division (and about the Dark Five, of course), but he’d never paid much attention to the Sentais. They never operated outside of Japan unless they absolutely had to.

“Alien, Dino, Ninja… the three teams for the Tokyo area… and the smaller ones for the other areas,” he mumbled, watching. He mostly only knew about Alien Pink and Ninja Blue, both of whom were rather accomplished Gadgeteers – and the only ones among the Sentai’s ranks, at least in their combat line-up.

Then, he heard someone come down the stairs. Surprised – no one was supposed to be here – he grabbed a nearby stun baton and got battle-ready… only to feel silly when he saw Dalia enter the workshop, wearing a bathrobe and a ridiculous pair of bathroom clogs, her hair still wet.

“Dude, did y- Oh, you’re watching!”

“When did you get here?” he asked. His security should have told him she’d entered the base.

She looked at him, surprised. “What are you talking about? I got here hours ago! We talked, remember?”

He didn’t, actually. He remembered getting into the base at nineteen thirty-six, then starting work on… on what? And what had he done later… he remembered walking up to his worktable and then his next memory was of two hours ago, when he started working on his new grappling hook system…

“Oh, right, sorry. A bit overworked. Want to watch together?”

She nodded, pulling a chair over to sit down, never caring about how the robe was exposing her cleavage and legs (though he wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t notice in the first place).

Basil turned back just in time to see DiL begin her attack, opening up with a blue energy blast that levelled an entire row of houses.

* * *

The gathered heroes and villains entered the fray, opening up on DiL with a barrage of various attacks, looking for a flaw in her current powerset.

The attacks slammed into her current defense – or rather, they almost did, as space itself seemed to bend to divert them around her and back towards the attackers. Redirecting her blast, she aimed for the gathered long-range combatants, but they evaded her easily even as she flew further into the city, her hair flowing after her.

“Why’s she doing that?” asked Dalia.

“Huh?” Basil had almost forgotten about her, enraptured by the display of raw power.

“I mean, she’s supposed to be totally untouchable – why does she bother with a defense like that, instead of taking another offensive power?”

He looked at her, once again surprised about how observant she could be when she put her mind to it.

“No one really knows. But she usually splits her power set between three powers apart from her permanent defensive ability. One offensive, one defensive and one that is for utility. Though she does mix it up every now and then.”

They fell silent as someone erected a massive concave force-field to block DiL’s blast (Basil noticed that even this force-field cut off at the edge of her field above, despite looking like it could go further up) and she abandoned the power, a flicker of light marking the shift of her powers.

Basil and Dalia watched in awe as the heroes and villains – the latter were bolstered by a delegation of Yakuza villains, as well as some independents – engaged her with a massive display of powers, working in tightly organised groups to counter whatever effect she expressed, interfering with her every move and action until her aura flickered once more and she switched to a wholly different set of powers.

In short, the defender’s strategy aimed less on attacking DiL – they had long since given up on trying to harm her – so much as on distracting her, as she usually switched powers the moment something new popped up that somehow interfered with her actions, resetting her powers before they could build up to catastrophic levels.

“Why does no one ever try to hurt that bitch again?!” asked Dalia with incredulous disbelief. “I mean, I know she’s, like, untouchable, but there’s got to be some way to penetrate her defense! Some power that punches through?”

Basil thought it over. Has she never studied up on Desolation-in-Light? Maybe she just preferred to blend her out, ignore the danger.

“They tried that, but it has never worked. And it’s more important to keep her changing her powers – after each shift, they start out weak (by her standards) and gradually build up. If you let her build up for too long, you get nuclear wastelands like LA or tears in reality like the one in Caracas. So they keep throwing her off until she leaves, hoping that it’ll be enough to prevent any lasting damage.”

“Damn, I hope we never have to fight that monster,” she replied, pensive.

Basil turned back to the screen, watching the battle go on for another minute before DiL switched from her current powerset – a reflecting force-field that threw all attacks right back at her attackers and an aerokinetic power that created razor-sharp blades of wind – to wrapping her long, long hair around her body to form an all-concealing glowing armor and engage three sentais – Alien Blue, Alien Yellow and Dino Red – as well as Lady Light in close combat, flying faster than any of them, stopping and turning as if things like momentum or conservation of energy meant nothing to her.

The heroes engaged her in close combat – or rather, led her on, trying to keep her distracted without taking any hits. It worked for a few moments, until what looked to Basil like a momentary lapse in attention on Alien Yellow’s part led to DiL brushing her hip with a punch – and the heroine’s body disintegrating almost explosively.

The other three now kept more of a distance, until a winged-devil-shaped darkwraith joined the fray, DiL’s strikes disintegrating only small, quickly regenerated chunks of its dark flesh as they actually seemed to lead DiL back towards the sea.

But then, DiL’s hair loosened up, revealing her nude form again as she flickered and changed powers.

Light poles reached out for defending heroes and villains, crushing or piercing as many as they could, the streets opened up to swallow defenders unable to fly or evade, houses twisted around like baseball bats to swat fliers out of the air. Chaos spread as the effect built up, spreading from underneath her even as she weathered enemy attacks, all attempts at striking her simply not affecting her.

A close up of her (which seemed to focus on her bare chest, inappropriate though that may be in this or any situation), taken by what had to be a Gadgeteer-made long-range camera showed that all the attacks simply stopped about an inch from her skin, as if reality itself was simply saying ‘No’. Not to mention what happened to whoever or whatever touched her hair (slow and painful death as the light of her hair stuck to them and ate them up).

“Basil?” Dalia spoke up, sounding pensive.

“Yes?” he asked, annoyed that she would distract him right now, turning his head to look at her.

“That’s her permanent defense, right?”

“Yes.”

“It looks a hell of a lot like Tartsche’s Absolute Defense Stance, don’t you think?”

Basil turned back to the screens, tapping a few buttons to zoom in on some shots.

She really can be very perceptive. “You are absolutely right. And now that I see this…”

He pulled up a recording of Pristine fighting some Italian superhero, the latter’s attacks completely useless against her.

“It is the same. Pristine and Tartsche, they have the same defense, only weaker. Tartsche cannot be harmed or moved, Pristine cannot be harmed and can move, Desolation-in-Light cannot be harmed and cannot be moved against her will while still retaining full mobility.”

This has to mean something. Because the Pro- no, Ember – and why did he hate using that stupid other moniker instead of his chosen codename? – was supposed to have had a similar defense, according to eyewitnesses of the London Nightmare.

“We will have to look in-“

They were distracted again as Alien Red charged right at DiL even as her warping effect had spread nearly two kilometers out from her, slamming a large blue-black papersphere right into her chest.

The sphere imploded into a black marble-sized ball, then exploded like a reverse black hole even as another, smaller papersphere slammed into Alien Red, making him vanish in a flash of light, evading the black explosion that spread to nearly the size of a compact car. Another videofeed showed Alien Red reappearing next to an elaborate dressed, tall and broad-looking character in some manner of traditional Japanese robes coloured black, blue and gold, with a bucket-like helmet and mask. But none of that mattered as another shot showed the explosion and DiL from the side.

Basil dropped his remote as Dalia lost one of her clogs she’d been dangling off her toes.

The blast had made DiL flinch back, the warping effect that spread from her ceasing immediately as she roared, screaming so loudly it disintegrated a city block in every direction and spread devastation across the city, then vanished in a single flash of light.

Her field faded with her. The attack was over, and nearly a fourth of the city had only taken light damage and could probably be repared.

That guy, he made her flinch.

“Who the FUCK did that!?” asked Dalia.

Basil pulled up an image of the robed Japanese metahuman. He noticed him carrying what looked like one of those traditional Japanese pipes for launching fireworks. “I know that one, now that I think about it. Hanabi XII or XIV. A legacy cape, usually villains apart from two exceptions. First Hanabi was one of the very first Japanese capes and the first Japanese supervillain. Current Hanabi is supposed to be a low-level Contriver specializing in paperbombs of varying purposes. Contriver two or three, maybe.”

“That didn’t look like anything below a freakin’ eight to me!”

“No, that was… impressive. We can just hope that he can replicate that bomb.”

Switching the screen to show various newscasts, Basil judged that this attack had ended up being rather light on the casualties – DiL had spent a comparatively long time between her arrival and her attack just being inactive, allowing for a very thorough evacuation of nearly two thirds of the city’s population (though none of the rest had survived the warping effect that turned the very city hostile). And she hadn’t been able to build up her power to the point where it could have lead to a catastrophe.

“Well, this went rather well,” he commented. But Dalia looked unconvinced. “What?”

“I got a bad feeling about this. Dunno why…”

“We will s- Oh shit.

B005.5 They Called Us Mad!

December 31st, 1899

St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital was always rather empty around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, even in a city the size of Lennston. In fact, they had grown so used to not having much to do during that time that they were just giving most of their staff off for the holidays, retaining only a skeleton crew.

Another reason for this was that the hospital had fallen on some pretty hard times, with funding being cut and people in general preferring private practices, mostly due to various superstitions about the inefficiency of hospitals and the impersonal treatment. The fact that the local medical university was top-notch and produced an abundance of private doctors who were all too willing to make house-calls at any time didn’t help.

What this meant was that, twenty-one minutes before New Year’s Eve, during one of the worst snowstorms in recent memory, when most of the world was celebrating the beginning of the new century, there were only one doctor and two nurses in the emergency unit. The doctor, a portly man in his early fifties named Quentin Tressman, was there because he had a wife and three children to support, as well as a mistress and an illegitimate child, and the hospital paid a little extra for the holiday time. The older nurse, Anna Smithens, a matronly woman, didn’t have any family left, nor any real friends she cared enough about to spend the holidays with, so she opted for the holiday shift – it was highly unlikely she’d have to do much, anyway. The younger one, Estephania McSmithee (Steph to her few friends) – the similarity of their names had been noted and abused for cheap jokes since the first time they had met – was just twenty-one and also had no family save for a father she didn’t want to ever see again. She’d also decided to try and befriend Anna, wanting to alleviate the older woman’s loneliness.

So they sat behind the counter at the entry to the empty hospital – there were, literally, no other people there except for Jake the Janitor, a reed-thin old man in a janitor’s suit who’d joined them for a New Year’s drink.

And then someone barged into the room. Several someones. The four hospital workers jumped off their seats, except for Jake, who always said that getting too excited had never helped anyone, and so he finished his drink before turning to look.

Two men had barged in, different as night and day, each carrying a woman in their arms.

The first man in was the kind of person they often got here, if they got any patients at all – a working class man, probably from the settlements immediately around the hospital. Early thirties, short, heavy-set, not really attractive nor ugly, close-cropped brown hair and a dirty blue overall. Steph recognized him as Michael Whitaker, the mechanic who always fixed up her shoddy car for half the price anyone else set. In his arms, he carried a rather young woman, no more than nineteen, with dirty blonde hair and a figure that needed a few extra pounds, dressed in an old creme-colored nightgown. His wife Diana, Steph knew.

The second man, only Jake recognized (he was old, and he got around a lot), though all of them could see that he was not part of their usual clientele. Abraham Franz-Frederick Goldschmidt was, without much doubt, the patriarch of the oldest and richest family of Lennston, a city with a lot of old rich families. He was dressed in a formerly immaculate three-piece suit that was worth more than all four of them made in a year, probably. Tall, slender and hook-nosed, with naturally tan skin and neatly parted black hair, he looked the very opposite of Michael. His wife Jennifer, too, could not have been more different from the young Diana – she was very nearly the same age, maybe one or two years older, but where Diana was bright and sunny, she was dark and sultry, dressed in an expensive evening dress that had seen better days.

Both women were heavily pregnant, their faces strained and red, making the reason for the panicked expressions of their husbands very clear.

The next few minutes were a haze of hasty explanations and hurried movements. The husbands were panicked, afraid for their wives and unborn children, as both of them were racked with pain (also, over the last few months, there had been a disproportionate amount of deaths during childbirth). Since the Goldschmidt’s house doctor hadn’t shown up – probably got stuck somewhere in the snowstorm – and the Whitakers didn’t have the money to pay a private doctor, they’d both come here in a hurry. Unfortunately, they’d gotten very worked up, which didn’t help the mental state of their wives, who were barely coherent at this point. Doctor Tressman had never before assisted during childbirth and had to act purely out of theoretical knowledge, and he was already imagining the kind of lawsuits a man like Goldschmidt could bring down on him. Anna was just concerned for the young mothers, remembering the three children of her own she’d all lost to complications during childbirth. Steph was just afraid she might not be able to help them. Only Jake remained calm, mostly because he knew he couldn’t do much anyway, other than offer words of encouragement. And he never got excited, anyway.

For convenience’s sake, they put both women into the same room and began their work, while Jake sat with the husbands, trying to calm them.

* * *

January 1st, 1900

On the very eve of the new century, two healthy young children were born.

A boy, already dark and with a decidedly sultry look on his hook-nosed face that spoke of future troubles with self-restraint. He had his mother’s amber-coloured eyes, and his father’s thin lips and too-big nose, that made him look like the baby-hawk to his father’s papa-hawk. And he was even as agitated as his father, crying and screaming for all his little lungs were worth.

And a girl, bright and curly-haired, with her father’s bright blue eyes and her mother’s blonde hair. What struck the onlookers the most wasn’t however her cute looks, but rather the fact that she wasn’t crying – she just quietly let Nurse Smithens wash her and give her to her mother for nursing.

Their parents named them Ismael Franz-Peter Goldschmidt and Gwen Diana Whitaker, respectively.

Then, however, it turned out that there was only one crib around to put the children in, and since the mothers needed to rest and the fathers were not trusted by the women present to keep their cool and let the children rest, they were put into the same crib while Jake ran off to procure a second crib (he always knew where to find anything).

When he returned, however, it was unanimously decided that separating the two had to count as a capital offense. Quiet little Gwen had almost immediately calmed down the little Ismael, and the two of them ended up holding hands and fall asleep.

Jake predicted that the two of them would become inseparable as they grew up, and everyone agreed with him, swept up in the emotions of the occasion.

* * *

Sometimes, great people witness little events. And sometimes, little people witness great events. Most of the time, you can’t really tell which one is big and which one is small, but they all have their own stories, even if they’re absorbed into a larger narrative.

Quentin Tressman went on working at the St. Mary’s Mercy Hospital, as it was granted a second spring by Abraham Goldschmidt, who donated a very generous sum to the hospital his first son had been born in (and in which all of his later children would be born in). The doctor finally came clean with his wife about his mistress and the daughter he’d had with her. After a few years that nearly ended with a divorce – which, at the time, would have been beyond scandalous, and likely have ended his career – she forgave him and even raised the girl as her own after her mother passed away in an accident. Quentin himself, while never becoming a star doctor or anything, became a local fixture, a reliable, dedicated man of medicine. More than three hundred people came to his funeral when he died peacefully at the age of seventy-nine.

Estephania McSmithee succeeded in her goal of befriending the older Anna Smithens, and even found herself a loving husband. Even though they never quite made enough money to live without worry, they held on to their little slice of happiness, and she gave birth to two children. Anna Smithens spent a lot of time with her younger co-worker, and when she died in nineteen-o-nine, she named Estephania as her only heir. To Steph’s and her husband’s surprise, Anna turned out to be the last scion of one of Lennston’s oldest and richest families, and they never had to worry about money again. Instead, the Widard family became another one of Lennston’s fixtures.

As for Jake the Janitor, after working in the hospital for five more years, he retired from it, but ended up hired by Goldschmidt to work as a gardener at his mansion, after the previous one passed away. He later went on to… well, that is a story for another day.

* * *

True to Jake’s prophecy, the two children became inseparable. Their parents, especially their fathers, became fast friends, despite the disparity between their social and economical status. In fact, Goldschmidt and Whitaker became a well-known duo around the city’s pubs, as they drank and performed – they were both passionate hobby-musicians – their way through the city, if they didn’t just brag about their children.

The two mothers didn’t become quite as close, though they often met for tea or coffee, mostly while their children played with each other. Though they did make a point of attending each other’s birthday celebrations, as well as those of their children.

Gwen and Ismael – or Petey, as only she was allowed to call him – grew up together, spending more time together than apart. At first, it was simply because of their shared birth and their parents’ sentiment. But soon, as it became clear that something was off about them – they learned to speak their first words months before they learned to walk, and little Gwen even learned how to recognize a few simple written words before her second birthday, closesly followed by Ismael – they found themselves unable to really appreciate other children their age as friends, and thus grew closer still.

Their families watched in awe as the two seemed to grow smarter every day, learning to talk and write at an almost adult level by the age of four. They seemed to soak up knowledge the way other children soaked up attention, and Michael often joked that he would have gone bankrupt if he’d had to pay his daughter’s teachers (and books) all by himself.

Unfortunately for everyone, the two seemed determined to use their intelligence to cause their families and teachers as much of a headache as possible, frequently breaking out of their rooms to meet up even when their parents wanted to keep them at their respective homes, or to go exploring, which often ended in total chaos.

And that was before they started spending their free time playing heroes.

* * *

December 11th, 1913

I was cursing and cussing as I left the auditorium with Gwen right behind me. “This is just pathetic!”

“Petey, please, calm down,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, as it usually was. Not that I ever had trouble understanding her. Unfortunately, it didn’t help.

“But they’re just… we’re right, and they know it! They just don’t want to admit that two children are smarter than all of them put together and cubed!” I threw my arms up in exasparation, almost throwing the folder I’d been carrying . In fact, I felt like punching something. A lot. Preferably something with headshots glued on of all those stuffy, idiotic, self-centered, moronic…

Gwen hugged me from behind, immediately dissolving the anger. She’d always been able to calm me down, no matter what mood I was in. My parents said she’d done that the very first time we’d been together in our crib.

“They’ll come around,” she whispered. “You just need to keep on going, and they won’t have a choice other than to accept our work, ne?”

“And in the meantime, people die! Adults and children! Just because no one wants to admit that two children came up with it before anyone else did!”

“Shshsh.” She rested her forehead against my shoulder. Damn, I hated when she did this. And loved it, too. Mind Control. Definitely mind control. She’s been conditioning me since birth.

“I feel like eating. A lot. Are you in the mood for Greek food?” Food always helped stave off indignation at human idiocy.

“Always. You know I love it, ne?”

I threw the damn folder into a trashcan. Just a stupid little fungus. So many lives it could save…

* * *

Petey and Gwen had always been brave, even reckless in their little adventures, to the point where their parents fully expected themselves to die of heart attacks before their children grew up.

At first, it started with them going into the forest to explore it, hunting and catching animals to study them, even some dangerous ones. Or getting them used to the two of them over days and weeks, so they could observe them during their natural day-to-day business.

Things got more extreme from then on, with them even breaking into buildings like the library or the university for various reasons.

At age seven, they ran into a burning building together, saving two little toddlers from a fiery death. They were grounded for four weeks (not that that stopped them from doing whatever they wanted) and got a medal each, as well as a pair of firemen helmets they’d wear from then on whenever they went on an adventure together.

Over the next year, they found five lost children, uncovered a drug dealer ring, caught a serial murderer and wrote a collection of poems that became quite popular all across America.

They never slowed down, only increasing their newsworthy actions year after year, until, to their parents collective relief, they decided to focus on scientific research instead of playing detective or firefighter (not that they stopped doing that, they just didn’t seek it out anymore).

Unfortunately, they weren’t quite taken seriously, at least in the beginning. This caused a lot of damage, in hindsight, even if they managed to work through their colleagues’ prejudices by the time they turned fifteen.

In 1915, when World War I had just entered into its most gruesome phase, Ismael entered the army, lying about his age (he was very tall for his age and had a very adult face, anyway), and shipped off to the front. As did a young, very effeminate looking boy named Oliver Polliver, aged 18 (though he looked like he was fourteen at best, he had all the documentation required).

The two of them racked up two medals of honour each, as well as at least three of each military honor the Allied forces had to offer – until 1917, a year before the end of the war, when Oliver was wounded during battle and revealed to be a young girl. The two of them were sent back to America immediately.

While they could neither be convicted (they were both still minors) nor be denied their military honors, and most of the public admired them for their deeds, many also did not take kindly to their actions, especially Gwen’s participation in the war as a combatant. No small number of ‘concerned citizens’ demanded that they be put into mental institutions, and most of Lennston’s upper crust demanded that Ismael be kept apart from the ‘bad influence’ that was Gwen Whitaker (in truth, they hoped to free him up for one of their daughters instead of the daughter of a mechanic he was so very obviously in love with).

To avoid further scandal (and keep their children safe), their families made them promise to return to their research and focus on it in full.

In hindsight, it might have been better to send them off to the war again…

* * *

17:13 – December 31st, 1922

This is going to be the best birthday, ever. And nothing would spoil that, I told myself.

I was standing in my room in front of the mirror, a small box in my hand that felt like it was made of lead. I felt like hiding it away.

So stupid. I know she’s going to say yes. So why am I getting to nervous?

I opened the box, looking at my mother’s engagement ring. She’d given it to me two years ago, just a month before she passed away. It was made of pure gold, fashioned like roses that wound around each other into the form of a ring, with a ruby, an emerald and a sapphire held in between the winding stems.

It was really, really easy to imagine it on Gwen’s ring finger. I had toyed with the thought of taking it to the best goldsmith I knew – that being me – to make it smaller, so it would fit her thin fingers. Two reasons I had left it as it was. One, It would have felt wrong to change it away from the form it had when father had proposed to mother and two, it might encourage her to eat more and finally put on some of the weight she needed.

Gwen had always been too thin for my taste. I mean, my taste pretty much was Gwen, but I’d have preferred her to have a healthier weight.

“Come on, Ismael. You fought your way across half of Europe with her. You’ve literally spent your whole life with her. Why is it so hard to ask her this one stupid question!?

She lived in my house – she only had a room at her parent’s place for form’s sake, really. Neither of us had ever had any doubt about where we wanted to take our relationship. Really, it was only a formality. We’d done everything a married couple did, and more, I just haven’t asked her yet, damn it!

It was ridiculous that we were almost twenty-three and I still hadn’t asked for her hand in marriage. One of the many aunts I didn’t care about had warned me against it, since our children wouldn’t be Jewish then, but who cares?

You’re wasting time. Intentionally. Go and ask her, you idiot!

* * *

17:19 – December 31st, 1922

She said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes, she said yes!

* * *

18:20 – December 31st, 1922

We’d shared some pretty intense, long kisses before, but never one that went on for an entire hour without any interruption.

Damn that fucking pet of hers for breaking that vase. I’d strangle it if she didn’t love it so much.

But now it was – she said yes, she said yes! – time to finally get on with the machine. Finish it. The plan was to finally prove our theory on New Year’s Eve, the moment of our birth.

Twenty-two years. Twenty-two years times two, but really one. And now, today, we would finally do what we were always meant to do. We will change this world together forever. And no one will ever laugh at us again.

We’d constructed the machine underneath my family’s mansion. My mansion. Ever since father’s death a year ago – he hadn’t taken mother’s death well, not even with Uncle Michael’s help – I’d been the owner. Most of the staff was gone, since Gwen and I lived mostly by ourselves and didn’t socialize much. Too many stigmata on us, especially her. And I refused to accept guests who looked down on her. Only her, and me, and Jake ‘I’m still the Janitor’, the crazy old man who had been there at our birth and would probably be there when we died of old age, as well. He pretty much took care of the entire mansion and the surrounding lands himself, only hiring outside help every now and then for the stuff he simply couldn’t do himself anymore.

Anyway, as much as my parents’ deaths had hit me – without Gwen, I probably would have gone insane and done something stupid like try and bring them back to life – it had provided us with a remote, secure and discreet research facility. Gwen wasn’t worried about spies and thieves, but I still couldn’t forgive that asshole who fished my folder out of the trashcan and sold my invention for his own, all those years ago.

I’m petty like that.

Now I was connecting the final high power cables to the core of the machine, the human-sized doorway without a door.

Another invention that could already have changed the world, I thought as I checked the batteries over. We’d charged them using Tesla’s bladeless turbines. The entire mansion was completely independent from the outside, electrically. We had a big waterfall right underneath the cliff it stood upon. The turbine was only now getting the attention it deserved, even though Tesla had invented it an entire decade ago, and our batteries were still not being accepted. Not due to any problems with the technology. But because we had invented them. And I was too proud to pass them to someone else to publish the technology, damn me.

All will change after tonight. No one would just ignore us anymore. No more demeaning articles about Gwen in the newspaper, trying to smudge her achievements.

* * *

23:57 – December 31st, 1922

“Everything’s ready,” I said to Gwen. Not that it was necessary.

“Yes. Finally…” She wasn’t looking at the machine, but at the ring I’d given her. Good God, even in a simple labcoat, she made me crazy just by looking at her.

“Gwen?”

“Yes, Petey?”

“The machine?”

She blushed, moving her hand behind her back. “Yes, of course, it’s all ready. I checked everything, three times.”

I nodded.

“It’s time.” Finally.

“It’s time, ne?” she agreed. “But Jake’s refused to leave the mansion. What if-“

“Nothing will go wrong. Even if I‘d made a mistake, your calculations are always flawless. And even if there was a chance, we have no right to deny him his place here. No one has shown us more support than he has.”

She nodded, her bright blond hair briefly obscuring her face from me. When she looked up again, she was smiling, her eyes bright with that spark that always made my knees weak.

“Let’s do it. Let’s open the door.”

I pulled the first two levers and the machine began to wind up. “Let’s open it. Together.”

I took her hand and put it on the third and final lever, putting my own over it.

“Gwen?”

She looked at me, her face just inches from mine. “Yes, Petey?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

We pulled the lever down. And we opened the door to our dreams.

* * *

00:00 – January 1st, 1923; “Point Zero”

As pure white light flooded the room, we both broke out in laughter. It was beautiful.

And they called us mad! Those fools!

B005 An Ember of Hope: Little Giants (Part 8, Final)

Again, Henry’s mind reeled at the impression of Macian’s world, the endless activity of his power. No wonder he seems unhinged. His power alone is completely out of control.

This time, however, he noticed a system to the madness. All the pictographs were showing… well, inventions. Or rather, the process of inventing. Most of them were dropped pretty quickly, but there was always something that came of them, even if it was something different than what they’d started out inventing. Sometimes, they’d split into several lines of invention, sometimes merge into one. And there was a source to it, as well as a destination. They all moved in a kind of loop around the strange reality, whether they were black pictographs on white ground or white pictographs on those black geometric forms – they all flowed from a central core and fed back into it, a blazing sun at the centre of Macian’s world, the source of all of its light. A light which did not cast any shadows, as Henry noticed.

“Well, this explains why I always feel like I’ve got a flashlight behind my eyes,” commented Macian, making Henry jump. He hadn’t even noticed the other boy standing right in front of him, looking around within his own world.

“You recognize this?”

“Sure thing. That’s how I always work out my inventions. Pictographs and stuff.” He was looking around as much as he could while having Henry’s hand on his shoulder. “Sure looks crazy, huh?”

Henry nodded.

“So, this is the second world. I guess everyone has their own?” Macian asked, his face focused on the scenery. Henry noticed that two pictograph-lines had collapsed into one as Macian’s eyes focused on them.

“Yeah. How did you know?” replied a startled Henry with another question.

“You said that you pulled people into the second world and that you could move within it. I doubt that my world is the whole second world. So there must be other places, or even several distinct worlds. And why the hell can’t I focus my power on this?” he suddenly shouted with an annoyed expression on his half-face.

“What do you mean?” asked Henry, startled from the sudden outburst.

“I mean that I can’t analyze this with my power! I was trying to figure out how to make an invention that messes with this, but it runs into the same blindspot I had when I tried to figure out how to bestow powers!” He was actually pulling at his own hair with his good hand, frustrated as several lines of pictographs just cut off without feeding into anything else. “I hate it when that happens!”

“Calm down! Let’s focus – this is about my power, remember?” Henry tried to bring him back on track.

Macian nodded, rubbing his temple. “Yes. Right, right. You said you can see in both worlds? This and the real one?”

Henry nodded. “Yes. I can see both at the same time.”

Macian seemed to think about it, closing his eyes and opening them again. For a moment, Henry could tell that his senses weren’t in the second world anymore.

“I can see either the first or second world. If I try to see both, I just get dizzy. Your power must compensate for the added strain to your mind due to the doubled sensory input.”

He just nodded.

Macian went on: “You said you have control over whomever you touch? Try and turn my hair white.”

Henry nodded, concentrating, picturing Macian’s hair turning white.

Nothing happened.

“Won’t work,” he said.

“Alright. Two possibilities, in my opinion. Keep in mind that I can’t use my power on this, so no super-science support. Either you can only affect peoples’ powers, or you can’t affect me inside ‘my’ world. Can you pull me into ‘your’ second world?”

With a mere thought, Henry did so, and they stood in a far more colorful place, his wide plain of grass and flowers. The sun was still down, so they could see the starry sky above.

“Woah! Can’t feel my power!”, shouted Macian, staggered. Henry felt a profound feeling of emptiness, of calm, which simply hadn’t been present before in Macian. From one moment to the other, the turmoil of his mind just lessened down to the point where he was just merely off, instead of completely deranged.

Macian looked around, curious, and got hung up on the stars above.

“Man, I’ve never seen stars before, not unless you count my manifestation,” he whispered.

Henry’s eyes widened as he heard that. What? “How could… no way. No way, Macian.”

The boy looked at him with a sad eye, reflecting the emotions Henry could feel from him. “Did I say that out loud? Damn.”

Henry thought furiously. The minions that tried to take him knew and feared Macian. Fire Burial and Heretic were familiar with him. And he with them. With all of them, judging from his comments. Henry was sure he’d been mutilated by Fire Burial. He had extensive combat experience, as far as Henry could judge something like that. And he had never seen the stars before.

“You’re with them. The Savage Six,” said Henry, careful to only speak in the second world.

The young boy’s right eyelid twitched, as did his good hand. Anger, Indignation, Loathing. “I’m not one of them. I’m just… stuck dealing with them.”

“How long have you been in this place? And why?”

Macian, still looking up at the stars, started to say something, hesitated, then said: “Can we not talk about that?” His voice was soft, sad, even though there was a storm of emotions inside him.

Henry would have loved to skip this conversation, but he needed to know who he’d been travelling with. “Please, you can trust me. Just tell me…”

The cyborg boy turned to look at him, his eye sad and yet… relieved? Henry couldn’t begin to figure out the feelings behind the face. “I warn you. This is dangerous knowledge. With Mindfuck around, they’ll probably know I told you. Do you want to take the chance?”

He thought about it. Worried, hesitating. Then he remembered a line he’d heard, or maybe read, once.

Macian seemed quite put off when he started smirking. “What is bravery, without a dash of recklessness?”, he asked.

The other boy paused, thought about it too, turning the words around in his head as the feelings behind the face changed, though they were still too convoluted for Henry to truly define them. Then he smirked back. “Alright, Mister Proverb. Listen close, I’m not going to repeat this…”

* * *

They entered the building once Dunstkreis gave them the signal, Macian a bit out of balance due to carrying both his artificial arm and the other implants in his arms, trying to get used to the changed weight.

“Was zum- What happened out there!?” asked Dunstkreis when he saw the changed boy.

Even his hair was back and he looked, for all intents and purposes, like a normal eight-year-old boy. Even the madness behind his eyes had lessened, though it still made everyone who looked at them uneasy. He looked up at Dunstkreis, grinning a most boyish, normal grin. “Seems like Henry over here could be the most powerful healer ever. By my humble estimation, that is.” His voice had changed, drastically, sounding far more like a humans, without the electronic intereference or what Henry now knew to be off-sounds due to a burned throat.

Henry blushed, rubbing the back of his head as he looked around the room they were in. A back room of a tailor, judging by the equipment. How I’d love to work on a new coat. His old one had vanished together with Fire Burial.

There were seven more people there. The two adults – terrified, more for their offspring than themselves – and four children – just plain terrified, crying if they hadn’t fallen asleep from exhaustion, as well as a dark-skinned lady with an eye-catching pink-and-green peacock-pin on her strapless red dress. He remembered seeing her for just a moment back during the gala. Right now, she looked rather dishevelled – physically. But her face only showed composed interest, as she was holding a young girl’s head in her lap, softly stroking the child’s hair.

“Henry!”

He gave a start, turning to look at Dunstkreis, who’d been trying to catch his attention. “Yes, Sir?” He noticed that the older man was holding himself awkwardly, and remembered that he’d been wounded earlier. “Do you want me to heal you?”

Dunstkreis nodded.

“Alright, just relax, ’cause this is going to be a bit strange…” He put his hand on the older man’s forearm.

Dunstkreis looked around at the serene scenery of Henry’s world, but said nothing.

Henry concentrated. They’d found out that he couldn’t just imagine someone healed – the effect would be reversed the moment he let go of the other person (though he didn’t seem to have the same limitation in regards to non-attended objects, but to stuff like Macian’s gear) – but just like with the punch he’d delivered to Fire Burial – negating her powers as well as enhancing his own strength – the results of his power’s use remained.

After some very uncomfortable (for Macian) trial and error, they’d figured out that it worked best with symbolic effects. In Henry’s case, he imagined a golden ember that set fire to his patient, healing them – the healing effect faded after he let go, but Macian’s body remained healed (Macian had also insisted to make it so the fire first expelled foreign bodies from the patient’s body, so he’d retain his equipment).

And it worked. It worked exceedingly well, far better than any of the other effects they’d tried to manifest. Macian had only a few ideas as to why his power worked so much better with healing, since he couldn’t apply his power to the subject. One of them was that his power was simply primed for healing, another that it was Henry who was primed for healing, or rather for positive applications, and finally because humans naturally wanted to be whole and since his power was interacting with the “worlds” of other humans, they might be reinforcing the healing effect. Either way, it worked and Henry had been able to heal his friend, even regenerate his arm.

And now his fire spread over and into the older man’s body, burning the pain and the damage away, making him – within the second world – glow like a soft, warm bonfire.

The experience was thoroughly strange to Henry, so much so that he couldn’t even feel Dunsktreis’ emotions while doing so. There were no real words to describe it, apart from ‘an all-encompassing feeling of freedom and companionship’ mixed with ‘a strange eldritch (Macian’s word) touch’ unlike anything he’d felt before.

When the fire began to die down, Henry let go and stumbled backwards, still dumbstruck by the intense emotions of the process. When he looked up, he felt like fainting – Dunstkreis looked like he’d aged several decades – backwards. Not to the point where he was young again, but… twenty, maybe thirty years had been taken off by Henry’s estimation.

“Wha- what did you do, my boy?” the rejuvenated man whispered, looking at his hands in wonder. More than half of the liverspots that had covered his body were gone, and he looked closer to mid-fifty now, his hair having partially turned brown, his face, his entire body, gained muscle and strength. Fortunately, he’d been wearing rather wide clothes, so they still fit, if barely. He’d been an extremely fit man.

Maybe one of these Adonises?

“His power probably identified the degradation of your body due to aging as ‘damage’ and thus did its best to reverse it,” explained Macian with an audible smile in his voice, even as he was reconstructing his Kinetic Repulsor, having deconstructed the mechanical arm in less time than it had taken Henry to heal Dunstkreis. And he’d already reworked his eye into one-eye goggles that attached to his left ear. “Congratulations, you look like you’re literally thirty years or so younger.”

Everyone in the room save for Macian (who was quite pre-occupied) and the peacock-pin lady (who just looked intrigued) was staring at him.

“Umm… I…,” he turned beet-red, reaching for an excuse to get out of the spotlight. “I… I’m tired! Need to sit down after this…” Not even a lie.

He scrambled over to sit so Macian was working in between him and the others, while Dunstkreis was stretching, wondering at his newly rejuvenated body.

“I’ll keep them off your back. You just relax, mate,” whispered the young gadgeteer as he was reconfiguring his former arm into an armored glove.

“Yes… relax…” He knew some tricks for that, though he usually needed his coat or one of his self-made blankets. Still, it should help at least a bit, and he now had his power as well…

* * *

Henry opened his eyes, focusing almost entirely on his second world. Meditating was far easier when you could literally retreat from the world. He just kept some of his focus on the first world, so he’d react if anything happened – he couldn’t cut himself off, even if he’d wanted to.

Now he took a deep breath, taking in the fresh smell of clean air, green grass and fresh water. He was sitting under a tree, leaning against the trunk, with a small spring right next to him, coming up from between the roots of the tree and forming a thin stream down the hill it stood upon.

Looking up, he could see the brilliant night sky, filled with all the beautiful stars of mankind. No matter how many times he saw them, the sight still enchanted him.

I wonder…

A thought caught him. Everything in this world was his – but everything outside of it, all that was part of the firmanent, was from other people.

So what’s the sun stand for?

He focused on turning his world, until the sun stood in the skies, blotting out the stars around it. And there was something more…

Two suns. There are two suns. One was barely visible, a sun barely different from the surrounding blue of the sky. A sleeping sun. As bright, as massive as the main sun, but not awake, not shining.

He imagined a giant magnifying glass above him, to take a closer look. And, for the first time, he noticed something that he hadn’t before.

Turning the world around again to look at the normal night sky, he saw what he only now noticed, because it was so omnipresent, he hadn’t even noticed it before. They’re all connected.

A network of glowing tendrils connected the worlds of humanity among each other… and he was reasonably sure they represented relationships. And the reason he was noticing them now was because…

He turned the world around again, to look at the two suns. … because that one… it doesn’t have them…

The bright sun had none. No relationships, no connections whatsoever. It was brighter enough to blot out all the other worlds save for the sleeping world, unless he interposed his world to take a look at the others.

Could that be… Desolation-in-Light?! Zooming in closer, he could see the haze of light that accompanied DiL’s attacks – he’d seen them on TV often enough – only a million, billion times more concentrated. She’s… so alone…

But he couldn’t reach her world, not without touching her body, first…

* * *

It was many hours later, after they’d all slept in shifts (save for Henry and the other children, who had been allowed to sleep through and Macian, who it turned out never needed to sleep, at all), that Henry was suddenly woken from his reverie of exploring his second world and the firmament above it.

Someone had just appeared out of nowhere within his range. A world that had been too remote to feel before, but now he could sense it, and extending a thought, he tried to feel her out…

He was shaken awake again. “Mate! What happened!?” Macian propped him up against the wall, one hand shaking his shoulder. He still preferred to use his right hand for this, it seemed.

“Wu-what?” asked Henry, groggy and with a headache.

“You just bent over, retched and passed out!” said Macian with worry in his tone.

“I… Someone dropped into my range… it was… it was awful. Demented,” whispered Henry with a tone so serious, so fearful it made the gathered civilians flinch back.

“What? Tell me what you felt! It’s time for the next round, who did you feel!? I described them to you, remember?”

Henry nodded. “Yes, yes, I know. Let me… let me concentrate.” Macian pulled his hand away and Henry straightened, closing his eyes to concentrate on the second world.

He found the demented world again, a twisted, wrong star, oozing with greenish-black ichor, dripping instead of shining – seven tendrils extended from it, five of them to remote worlds, which Ember recognized as those of the other Six, one to a faded one… and one to Macian, an asymmetrical, but intense relationship. Black on Macian’s side with just a little red, and lots of red and green on the other worlds side.

Which one… He thought back to Macian’s descriptions.

“Heretic you’ve already met”, said the young boy, looking up at the brilliant starry sky. “He’s their security, in a fashion. The most powerful and versatile member in direct confrontation, a nigh-immortal nightmare. He’s smarter than you’d think, but willingly follows Hemming’s lead, mostly due to their friendship.”

“Fire Burial is their mad dog, a wide-area combatant and master of guerilla tactics, even if she’s usually too stupid to fight smart. She obeys Hemming because he’s good at manipulating her, but mostly because Mindfuck does, and she’s pretty much addicted to her father’s power. More of a pet-owner relationship than a daughter-father one.”

“Mindfuck is… pathetic. Massively powerful telepath, the strongest one ever. But he’s stuck, a nine-year-old in a thirty-year-old’s body who’s reenacting what his father did to him, over and over and over. Prime case for high-level mental powers completely messing up their owner. He follows Hemming because Hemming knows how to push his buttons just right and because he’s smart enough to know that he wouldn’t survive in the real world. He needs the Six, so he’s loyal and reliable. So long as none of them get between him and his new target boy.”

“Pristine is their heavy hitter, their first and major line of defense, apart from Heretic’s spells. She’s long gone insane from sensory deprivation and just does whatever Hemming tells her to, simply because he’s installed himself in her mind as the one person who understands her. Her power is the same as the one DiL uses for defense, only weaker. She’s untouchable, but she can be moved against her will, as well as restrained – if you can overpower her. And she’s really strong.”

“Hemming is… a mystery. He was Britain’s prime superhero, until he and his right hand, Hermetic, just switched sides all of a sudden. Massively powerful shapeshifter, most people think he’s also a probability manipulator, because things seem to always go his way – but he’s actually a perception-type. Super-smart. Smart enough to set things up so it always looks like luck, but it’s all planned. He’s a master at finding peoples’ psychological weakpoints and exploiting them, preferring to break people by talking instead of by physical force.”

“Finally, Atrocity… she’s a monster. Completely and utterly insanely evil. Even Hemming can’t really control her. Even Mindfuck is disgusted by her. She doesn’t have nearly as much combat power as any other member, she isn’t as smart as Hemming, she doesn’t have any kind of game-breaking technology or something… but she’s adaptable, incredibly fast and utterly unpredictable, to the point where even Hemming just cuts her loose and hopes for the best.”

Henry opened his eyes. “Atrocity. She’s coming.”

* * *

They left the building minutes later. Macian had insisted that staying in an enclosed space with Atrocity on the loose was no different from suicide.

“I hope we’ll get a chance for another ice-cream-and-chips-orgy,” said Macian as they walked away from the direction Henry felt Atrocity move in, flinching every time she reached another human and started to… do things to them. She didn’t kill, but they quickly wished she’d had.

“Me too…” replied Henry, tears in his eyes as he was forced to try and block out the mental screams of what felt like a little girl.

“Have you thought about a codename?” asked Macian casually.

Henry looked up, eager for a distraction. “Hm… I did, actually…”

Macian turned to him without stopping. “So, what is it?”

“Ember. Call me Ember,” said the newly minted superhero. “It fits on so many levels, it would just be wrong to take anything else.”

The other buy chuckled. “Well, it fits you, anyway. And… Ember & Macian vs. The Savage Six! Sounds like a good title for a comic book!”

Ember grinned back. “Yes. It does.”