Brennus sat down at the circular war table, flanked by Hecate and Tyche. Somehow, without ever talking about it, they had elected him to be the leader, or at least the face of the group to the outside. Or maybe he had just fallen into the mold by necessity. Hecate was too pedantic, too slow to react in favour of thinking everything through twice and thrice over, while Tyche was just… Tyche.
Opposite of him sat Rising Tide, in between the delegations from the Triads and the mob. The Dark sat in between them, opposite of the heroes and completely alone.
Brennus was quite sure he did that intentionally, setting himself apart. A show of strength, of security even alone among so many metahumans. He had no illusions about what would happen if a fight broke out, even if everyone else present would team up against him.
Gloom Glimmer was the only one who could hope to match him, and she was the one most likely to side with him.
I need to study this guy. He is just sitting there, not even remotely the focus of the meeting, and he still gets all the attention. There is something to learn there.
Once everyone was seated, Amazon looked around. She threw Rising Tide a suspicious glance – the Foresters were never reliable when dealing with S-Class threats – he was not particularly bothered by. The Dark got some spillover from what she probably felt for Mindstar – he had recruited Amazon’s tormentor in response to said torments – and Brennus actually got half a smile.
For some reason, that bothered him. Not some reason, really. He was profiting from that recruitment, and his sister’s crimes, even if he was trying to put some distance between her and his cape.
Also, he’d got her real identity and what might be her greatest weakness out of it. And she probably did not realize that.
“Thank you all for coming here,” she began. “I’ve called this council into session due to-“
She was interrupted by a call. With a hastily murmured excuse, she took it, then said: “It appears that another party is going to join us, surprisingly enough.” There was a hint of distaste in her voice.
Within seconds, it became clear why as the doors to the elevator opened and six persons entered, all dressed in rather diverse clothing with a few commonalities – they all (except for one) wore black leather longcoats, they all had their chests bared underneath – even the women – and they all had a leering demon’s face tattooed over their hearts.
At least the women had their coats arranged so they just barely preserved their modesty. At least one of them had to be using double-sided tape or something, he was sure, because there was no way the coat stayed in place like that despite the excessive movement of certain parts of her anatomy.
One of the women, sporting fire-red long locks of hair and a pair of ram-like horns sprouting out of her head, sat at the table while the other five – three men and two women – took up position behind her in a row.
The other five were all superhumanly beautiful, and showing it off, especially the men. The only one who was dressed with any amount of decency was a girl who could not be legal yet, judging by her height and what little could be seen of her slender frame, her face half-hidden underneath a dirty, ragged red cowl. The rest of her body was hidden by robes of the same colour, only even dirtier.
Tyche leaned over to Brennus. <Who’re those?> she asked over their subvocal coms.
<Morning’s Children. Satanists who believe our powers come from hell and are meant as a prelude to the arrival of the Devil here on Earth. Their leader – the guy whose face they all have on their chests – paints himself as the Devil’s Herald. They’re villains, though they mostly just stay within their territory and celebrate orgy after orgy. Big on the drug trade, but otherwise tame. The girl with the red right hand is new, the others are paragon or exemplar tier metahumans. The woman with the horns is the current Succubus, a legacy villain. Can induce lust and influence anyone she’s had intimate contact with. Can morph into a more demonic form, too, for enhanced strength, toughness and flight. Don’t know the girl in the robe and cowl, though.>
While he had been explaining this, the new arrivals had settled down – Succubus was sitting between Elrik France and the Dark – and Amazon had greeted them.
“As I was saying, I called this council into session because of-“
“A little boy’s supposed information on a S-Class no one heard about before,” France cut in with distaste in his rich, slightly accented voice. He cut an impressive figure, despite his mundane clothing. He had no Physique power, but was powerfully built and very tall.
“Brennus provided some valid ev-” began Amazon, but she was cut off by the DDT men, who spoke in perfect synchronization.
“We are inclined to agree with Mister France – we came here simply due to the severity of the claim made, but we are disinclined to believe him simply because he has a few e-mails he may as well have faked.”
This looks suspiciously like they only came here to cause a stink, he thought.
“Brennus has yet to give us reason to doubt him. Considering the severity of his claims, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. We should proceed under the assumption that his information is valid until dis-“
“He has not given us any reason to doubt him because he is a complete greenhorn with little to no experience,” France continued.
“We are inclined to agree. Do you have any concrete proof regarding this supposed S-Class threat?” the DDT delegates chorused.
“We ran it by our precogs, and came up with a sixty-five percent chance of it being valid,” Amazon replied.
The DDT snorted (which sounded quite strange in a chorus) and France looked like he was going to say something more, but instead Rising Tide opened his mouth.
“A sixty-five perchent chance ot his information being valid is not quite enough for us to act on, considering the general unre-” Succubus spoke up in a rich, sultry voice.
Gloom Glimmer, who had been quietly sitting on her chair right next to Amazon – the most powerful person in the room, and the one most likely to get the Dark to cooperate – cut her off.
“I double-checked the numbers and came up with a positive result by myself. Considering the devastation any S-Class metahuman can cause, that’s more than enough reason for a serious meeting and decisive action,” she explained.
Succubus opened her mouth to retort, as did France and Rising Tide, but the Dark shifted on his seat, raising one hand to rest his chin on it.
Everyone went quiet and looked at him.
“I am ‘inclined’ to agree with both Amazon and my daughter”, he said in his usual inhuman voice, putting gentle emphasis on the word ‘daughter’. “Since I was notified in advance through an independent channel, I did what I could to verify the information – and my inquiries support young Brennus’ claim.”
The present villains all calmed down, after a fashion. Better to say, they did not dare contradict him.
I really need to get some lessons from that guy. Ah well, you can not have everything.
“Are you willing to share what information you found?” Amazon asked.
He looked directly at her, his glowing eyes somehow conveying amusement. “Would I be here if I were not?”
She just looked him straight in the eyes, showing no sign of intimidation.
<That woman’s got balls of steel,> Tyche said.
<Agreed. Not the wording, but the sentiment,> Hecate agreed.
“Somehow, I still don’t know how, the Black Panthers managed to scrounge up two hundred and ninety-five million dollars and bought a verified S-Class metahuman from a South European slaver who somehow managed to restrain her and transport her across the Atlantic. Before he did so, however, she wiped out an entire Italian village within minutes. No survivors.”
He paused to let that sink in.
“She is supposed to be used as a deterrent against the other groups in the city, and they apparently believe her power – whatever it might be – to be capable of intimidating even the United Heroes… and even me.”
“How the fuck do you restrain an S-Class threat like that?” Outstep asked, only to get shushed by Tartsche.
“Not all S-Class threats are moving engines of physical destruction,” Brennus said. He was so tired of having to stay silent. “I have been thinking about this for a while, and it actually tells us something about her – if she can be restrained in a manner safe enough to transport her across half the world, then it means that her power probably is not physical, or perhaps requires some manner of fuel to work.”
“Agreed. Her power may be limited to affecting people within a certain range, or requires organic fuel, or… actually, it doesn’t tell us all that much, seeing how… interesting powers can get. However, the codename they gave her does tell us something. She is called ‘Hastur’.”
“Hastur? That name means nothing to us,” chorused the DDT.
“Hastur, also known as the King in Yellow, though sometimes the latter is merely an avatar of the former. Either a Great Old One or an Outer God, or the Avatar of an Outer God. Part of the collection of works known as the Cthulhu Mythos,” Brennus threw in.
The Dark nodded, seeming somehow pleased, while Gloom Glimmer just groaned.
“What are you talking about, boy?” asked France.
“A classic work of horror literature. Most of it is not important right now, but the overall themes revolve around insanity and apathy in the face of the utter insignificance of humanity. Hastur in particular is attributed with three specific abilities – it can create a yellow sign that drives people looking upon it insane, it drives people who look directly beneath its cowl insane and it has written, or somehow generated a play in written form that does the same to anyone who reads it,” Brennus continued.
The robed girl leaned forward to whisper something into Succubus’ ear, and then the older villainess said: “He, or it, is also connected to Decadence, it seems.”
“Finally, people who appreciate the classics!” the Dark exclaimed. He threw a glance at Gloom Glimmer. “You should take a leaf out of their books, dear.”
She just ignored him and instead looked at Amazon. “I believe it is safe to assume that she has some manner of mind control or involuntary transformation of others. Or both.”
Before Amazon could say anything, however, Rising Tide said: “I believe this meeting has gone off track. If the poor girl’s restrained in a way that would allow transatlantic travel, then we should concern ourselves more with the Black Panthers, since they presumably have the key.”
Sensible advice from the wannabe-genocidal treehugger. The world gets weirder every day, was all Brennus could think in response.
The others all nodded.
“So, what do we do? Introducing an S-Class into the city with the express purpose of using her as a weapon for what sounds like a takeover of the local underworld breaks the rules, I think,” Succubus commented, shifting around on her seat. She seemed… uncomfortable, for some reason.
“I agree. This goes above and beyond anything any of us can tolerate. The risk of her breaking loose and repeating whatever she did in that village is too great,” Widard said, speaking for the first time in this meeting. “We need to track this Hastur down and take her into protective custody. She may be but a victim of her power, and-“
“You want to restrain her, turn her into one of your safe little drones,” Rising Tide said. “We should see about setting that girl free in a safe environment, teach her to control her powers and let her-“
“We all know your party line, Rising Tide. And we are not interested. It would be preferably to lock her away, or neutralize her in a more permanent-“
Brennus slammed his open hand onto the table, restraining himself just enough not to damage it. “Could we please focus on the matter at hand, that being the fact that the Black Panthers appear to be completely out of control? Even discounting the recent loss of their local leader – which only makes the situation worse – they have apparently been working on this for a long time, somehow conjured up a ridiculous amount of money and bought what is more like a bomb than a subordinate, as I doubt they will be able to restrain her once she is let loose. They have never been the most restrained villain group, but this is just completely out of character for the organization as a whole!”
The others all looked at him with surprise, except for Gloom Glimmer (who just looked amused), the robed girl (whose face and body were concealed) and the Dark (who had no body language or facial expression to begin with).
“Could we please focus on dealing with them?” he continued.
“He’s right. We need to organize a fast and decisive response, track down their current leadership, take them into custody and secure Hastur,” Widard agreed. “Are all agreed?”
Everyone but Rising Tide nodded, and the others all looked at him.
“I agree that the Black Panthers have gone too far, and that they need to be put down. But I disagree on what you probably mean with ‘securing’ her. But we will cooperate.”
Only to stab us in the back and get your hands on her. But they needed the manpower the Foresters could provide.
“We will deploy everyone we have,” Patrid chimed in, leaning forward from his relaxed position to rest his elbows on the table and staple his fingers in front of his face.
<That guy so gives me the supervillain-creeps,> Tyche commented.
Gloom Glimmer raised a hand and pointed at the Dark. “Don’t say it,” she told him.
He looked at her, then at Amazon. “Deploying these children in an unforeseen emergency like the Spiteborn attack is one thing. Deploying them into a war against an established villain group, especially with the threat of an unkown S-Class threat, is unacceptable.” He was almost growling at the end, and almost everyone edged away from him.
Only Amazon, Gloom Glimmer and Brennus remained calm, and the former both stared the villain down.
“We do not respond well to threats. Either way, we were not going to deploy the Junior Heroes. Nor are we going to allow you to deploy,” replied Amazon, looking at Brennus and his friends.
“What the fuck?” shouted Tyche, rising from her seat. Tartsche reacted the same way (though without swearing), and started protesting.
“This is non-negotiable. The children stay-“
“You don’t get a say in this, Sir! May I remind you that you’re a villain and that, even if you had a say in this, you have employed teenagers before, which calls your motives into question!?” Tartsche all but shouted at him.
“Young man, I admire your conviction, but I would advise you to guard y-“
A flash of light, followed by a pulsing airwave shook the room. Gloom Glimmer had slammed her hands both onto the table, her eyes aglow. “You don’t get to threaten my teammates!” she shouted at her father.
He did not shout back. Instead, his body – well, his darkwraith – erupted in an expanding cloud of darkness that reached over the table and enveloped him and his daughter.
“What the fuck!? He’s attacking his own daughter?”, Tyche shouted as she, along with most everyone, fled from the darkness.
“Calm down,” Brennus replied, who had remained seated (when you wear full power armour with a limited power source, you do not move unless necessary). “I would say he wants a private eye-to-eye chat.”
The darkness vanished after about a minute. The Dark was still in his seat, and Gloom Glimmer was sitting to his right, now noticably subdued (if still looking like she wanted to rip a few heads off).
And the robed girl was still standing unmoved, apparently unconcerned.
Amazon is not the only girl with balls around here, it seems. That, or she is simply powerful enough to feel secure.
Brennus honestly did not know which possibility was scarier.
“I apologize for the disturbance,” the Dark said to everyone.
Amazon looked at him suspiciously, then at Gloom Glimmer, who nodded at her.
“We were not going to deploy the Juniors, nor allow for Brennus, Hecate and Tyche to participate in the action,” she said.
Figures, Brennus thought. He did not say anything, as Hecate and Tyche both voiced their protests.
He waited for a few moments until everyone had calmed down, then he said: “I agree.”
Everyone – even the Dark – looked at him with surprise. He looked at his teammates, then at the others as a whole. “We are not ready for this. The three of us would have died fighting Panthera Rex, were it not for the intervention of an unknown third party. I will agree to stay out of this, and my teammates will, as well.”
<Brennus, what are you saying?> asked Hecate over the comms.
He ignored the question and looked at Amazon.
“I would agree that we remain here, in the headquarters, along with the junior heroes, for the duration of the crisis,” he continued.
“That is very reasonable of you,” the Dark said with a hint of admiration.
“I agree to your terms,” Amazon said.
“Then, may I suggest that we and the juniors be allowed to leave?” he continued. “There is no point to us taking part in this meeting. I have already provided all the information I have.”
Amazon nodded, then looked at the Morning’s Children. “That girl.” She looked at the robed girl. “She is clearly a minor. I demand that-“
Succubus cut her off. “Phasma does not concern you. Her power makes her all but untouchable, and she is completely immune to all mental powers while using it. We will not agree to any restraints on her deployment.”
They stared at each other, while Brennus rose from his seat. “Hecate, Tyche.” They fell in step behind him as he walked towards the junior heroes. Gloom Glimmer rose from her seat and followed them, too.
The entire group left the war room.
* * *
They walked down a pristine hallway.
<What’s with the new cloak?> Polymnia had fallen in step next to him, clad in an unflattering overall covered in hooks. She was looking at his new white cloak and cowl.
“Black-on-black does not work on everyone. I thought the contrast would look good.”
<And that symbol on your back?>
He turned to look at her while he walked. “The ravens? Do you like them? Flash of inspiration of mine, and I liked it so much I thought I’d make it my emblem.”
“Is that an… uroboros? Made of ravens?” asked Spellgun with a curious tone.
“H and M, the divine ravens of memory and thought that perched upon Odin’s shoulder and provided him with advice,” Gloom Glimmer chimed in, sounding quite sullen.
“Correct,” Brennus replied. “Now, on to other topics. Since I believe that this situation will go down the slammer, so to speak, I would appreciate a chance to coordinate our groups.”
“You planned this,” Gloom Glimmer said.
They all stopped walking and looked at her.
“You knew they were not going to allow you to take part in the battle and you came here anyway – for what?” she continued.
“Coordination. Preparation. I have a very bad feeling about this situation,” Brennus replied calmly. “And I would also very much like to compare notes with another Gadgeteer – this was the easiest way of facilitating that without outright joining the group,” he continued while looking at Polymnia.
He looked at Tartsche. “You are the leader of this team. Do you agree?”
The older boy just stared at him.
Tyche snorted. “So you just wanted to geek out with her. You could have said something.”
“There are other concerns. We do need to prepare,” he insisted.
“True. But, I insist on one thing,” Tartsche said.
“What would that be?”
“Gloom Glimmer will stand guard, and you will take off your power armor. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust you enough to leave you with her, in her laboratory, while fully armed and unsupervised.”
Brennus nodded. “I take no offense, and I agree to your conditions. Though I, of course, will keep my mask on.”
Tartsche nodded, and Polymnia just clapped her hands together in glee.
Things are going to get interesting, he thought. And maybe I’ll even find out why you insisted on this.
All will be made clear in time, replied the man in the moon.
* * *
…in time, mate, replied the man in the moon.
She flinched, then drew her legs up underneath the shroud that was covering her body. With a painful act of will, she gathered her senses, pulling them back from the outside so she could focus on her immediate surroundings again.
The container was dark, but that did not concern her. She could see in the darkness, without trouble.
Crawling on all fours, she bit into her fingertip, then put it to one of the few free spaces left, drawing a pair of ravens, biting each other’s tail.
The picture did look good, just as the boy in the armor had said. Only his version was black on white, not blood on rust.
She sat back down and let her senses spread, splitting in two, looking into this ‘war room’, observing the meeting, while also following the younger heroes and vigilantes. It was difficult, her senses were so big now, so all-encompassing, and she had to fight to focus them on one or two places in one time, in one possibility.
But she had to watch, to listen.
Maybe these people would be the ones to set her free?