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Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
That thought was first and foremost in Brennus’ mind as he stood in front of the slowly regenerating Panthera Avis, the giggling and snarling Hastur… and the bloody Mary, who had just finished reattaching her head to her body, and was now rising from the ground, continuing to bleed from every pore.
In retrospect, I should have suspected this when she did not stop bleeding after I beheaded her.
Though, to be honest, he was also somehow relieved that he had at least not killed her.
Netsense, on the other hand, stayed dead. Good, except not really good.
He wanted to crawl into Amy’s embrace, have her hold him and tell him everything was alright.
You’re such a mess right now, mate.
Is it any wonder?
“Don’t worry, you’ll feel fine soon,” Hastur said between giggles – she had already dropped back to her ecstatic behaviour. “Love at first sight will blow away all your problems.”
Since no one was attacking him right now – and he needed a reprieve, even a short one, to recover a little strength – Brennus focused on trying to send for help. By now, someone must have told Hecate or Tyche that he had been taken, and he had given both of them the means to track him. The fact that no one had appeared yet was quite… worrisome.
Activating his emergency beacon… he found the signal being bounced back.
Mary was back on her feet, rolling her head as if she had a stiff neck. Panthera Avis was not that far, but he would soon be functional again.
“Just give up. Give up, and feel the love.”
He ignored Hastur and looked around, switching to X-ray vision. They were in an enclosed complex – a supervillain lair, if he had to guess – that was surrounded by lead-lined walls (and probably some other materials, so no signal could get through). There was one cube within the complex that was also isolated, just barely the size of the room he was in.
There was no door or other exit he could make out, except for the ventilation system – and contrary to all conventions laid down by decades of games and movies, the vents were far too small for even a child. No way he would fit through with his power armor.
It hit him that this had to be Avis’ lair. There must have been some means by which to look into the place to get in, maybe a window or special wall, so he could teleport inside.
He could not find a single part of the outer wall of the place that was not reinforced. So he either needed a lot of explosive ordenance, or Gloom Glimmer to pull his bacon out of the fire (Hecate had not yet figured out how to do teleportation). Maybe if h-
Mary slammed into him with enough force to shatter at least four more of his ribs (he heard them break) and slam him into the wall opposite the hole in the wall.
He made a sound that was almost a sigh, pain clouding his thoughts, as he slid down onto the floor. The floor covered with blood wall to wall.
Mary approached him, her face impassive.
Arms… broken in more ways than I can tell. Breathing is seriously hampered, ribcage probably more broken than not. Can barely feel my legs. Head… swimming. Armor compromised in more ways than I care to count.
At least his mouth controls still worked. Any fighting he did with them would necessarily be clumsy, simplistic.
But he would not go out without a fight.
* * *
Mary crouched in front of him, reaching for his helmet.
He studied her face, even as he tried to plan his next move. It was actually hard to tell how exactly she looked, due to both the mass and the temperature of the blood she was bleeding at any given moment from every pore of her body. At least it preserved her modesty, a little.
Switching to a time-delayed camera mode – the effects of Hastur’s power seemed to not agree with recorded images, and even if her actual power did, then she would first need to enter the room and have Mary move out of the way – and saw… an ordinary girl. Coated in running blood, yes, but she looked utterly normal.
And she was afraid. In pain. She was horrified as her hands closed around his helmet, almost gently cupping his face before she started to squeeze.
He almost saw red with rage – the person was still inside. She was aware. And she was still herself.
Hastur may have transformed her body, may have given her powers – or triggered a manifestation – may have been controlling her actions, but she had not changed nor subsumed the person itself. Herself.
And she intends to spread this.
A crack appeared on his visor as Mary continued to squeeze, trying to break the faceplate of his helmet off.
His left wristblade rose up into her throat and then, with a twist, up into her brain again.
Stupid. The same mistake, over and over. At least they are not really smart.
“Oh, come on! Will you just stop fighting it!?“
Almost passing out from the pain, Brennus rose on his feet, using the blade in her head to raise Mary up – her strength came from standing on blood, was his theory. Maybe her regeneration did, too.
Out of his left lower wristmount, he fired a pair of bolas. They wound around her neck and then shot up, a simple command making them stick to the ceiling just like his grappling hooks, hanging the young woman – Stars above, she is still a teenager – two feet off the ground. Blood continued to run down her body as Hastur screamed and cursed again.
No discipline there.
He looked at Mary’s face and saw pain, and fear.
Cutting her apart was not an option – she might regenerate out of any piece that fell into the blood below.
So he pushed his blade into her chest, piercing her heart. Out, then in again, twice, piercing both lungs. Liver, both kidneys.
There is a small tendency for female regenerators to have a kind of ‘core’ in either their womb or their ovaries. Font of life and all that, mate.
X-ray vision did not betray any overt core, but he pierced her reproductive organs as well, and every other major organ in her body.
He must have done something right, because she sighed – as much as she could, with two pierced lungs and a pierced throat – and went limp. Her body stopped bleeding completely, even from the wounds he had inflicted.
I think I need to throw up.
Keep it together, mate! Left, door, now.
He turned left and ran towards the door. His rear cameras showed Hastur following – interestingly, despite the effect of her powers on others, she herself did not seem to have any physical abnormities – and Avis lumbering after her, still regenerating.
The door was closed. It was also made of wood, so he angled himself so his left shoulder slammed into – Ow – and through – Double Ow – it, then ran on through the hallway beyond.
His scans had shown him a room full of electronic equipment. Maybe he could contact someone outside with it, maybe he could improvise something (unlikely, considering the state he was in). But he needed to delay his pursuers first.
Again, he almost passed out from the pain, but he grabbed two of his flash grenades and threw them into the room behind him. Before they had even detonated, he threw an explosive grenade into Avis’ open ribcage, and his last two at the ceiling just behind him.
Rounding a corner, he set them off, collapsing that particular hallway behind him (and, going by his scans, wounding both Hastur and Avis, not that it mattered much in the former’s case).
They would need to take another route to get him, unless she had Avis dig through it.
He ran towards the computer room, every step sending tremors through his body that nearly knocked him out.
The suit’s impact absorbtion had been compromised, too.
* * *
He had collapsed two more hallways in the surprisingly luxurious lair – really, being a supervillain seemed to pay way too well, if even a B minus guy like Panthera Avis could have a bunker like this – and pretty much holed himself up in the computer room, finally switching over to normal vision again. Ultimately, thermal vision hurt the eyes after a while.
His estimate of Hastur’s Intelligence, low though it already was, dropped further. What possessed her to abduct a Gadgeteer and take him just a few rooms away from this. Without even locking the doors.
Panthera Avis probably was not a Gadgeteer, but he was a serious technophile. He had everything. Three linked up state-of-the-art computers, a 3D wallscreen, one of the best audio systems on the market…
And password protection.
Of course the tech-savy supervillain would think of that.
One – only one – of his many means by which to interface with electronics was still functional. A wireless transmitter. It was not his most efficient means of working through, but it was all he had.
Cracking the system took him a whole minute, a minute he spent musing on the last minutes.
He came to a singular conclusion.
Hastur, for all her power, was just an insane teenager – going by her actions thus far, she was skating by solely on her power. Not much in the way of tactical or strategic awareness, much less problem-solving under pressure.
The problem was that she had a lot of power. And depending on how intelligent her thralls could get, her lack of intelligence might get patched up soon.
Considering how much death and destruction she had already caused just by skating by on power and surprise, the idea of her starting to act competently was… disconcerting.
He accessed the computer system and yes, it had an internet connection!
First, he sent a package with a summary of everything he had observed, as well as his video- and audio-recordings to both his own main computer and the United Heroes’ headquarters. Along with a call for help.
Then, he located the lair’s internet access point – ever since the internet had become a network important enough to be used by supervillains against the good guys back in the eighties, the government had become rather paranoid about controlling access to it.
Individual data traffic was not to be tracked unless there was probable cause and a court decision (not that anyone really cared – heroes and government agencies both had rather loose concepts about privacy on the internet, especially when it came to hunting down villains) but access points were tightly controlled. And everyone had to use one, the system had been fortified (and was still being improved) against access outside of those points.
The internet was free of charge, but the access was not free. One needed a legal identity to get into it (or a really, really, really good fake access point and sufficient Gadgeteering, or at least Hacking, skills).
Panthera Avis had neither. He was using the legal identity of a lawyer, who did have a legal access. Meaning Brennus could track the address of the lawyer, then locate the specific router Avis was accessing the internet through…
Oh, come on, really!?
He was still in the city. The Undercity, to be specific – that strange part of the city that had been created mostly by supervillains, vigilantes and the odd neutral metahuman (Brennus’ base was a good example for a future expansion of the Undercity – if he ever abandoned it, it would probably be absorbed by the overarching underground structure).
Just below a high-rise office building… two blocks from the headquarters of the United Heroes.
Guy has to be either stupid or ballsy. Or maybe both.
Another mail sent the location to the headquarters, as well as every local hero’s communicator.
Behind him, he could hear crunching sounds. Rubble being crushed and shifted aside.
He took a look. Avis had regenerated again, and he was digging through one of the collapsed hallways, Hastur standing just behind him, hopping from one foot to the other.
I need to get out of here. Can not wait for a rescue.
There were no blueprints of this hideout on the computer, and he had no idea how exactly to get out of here.
Except maybe by blowing it up, but since it was probably underground, well… not plan A.
You’re fucked, mate.
Either be helpful or shut up, please. Hastur seems capable of eavesdropping on our conversations somehow.
Aye. Food for thought – the two of them are still back there, digging. Going back to silent mode now, ‘kay?
That was something to think about – why had they not simply teleported past the collapsed hallways (they had been kind of a desperation move).
He could not fight anymore. He could not tinker anymore – right now, he would not even trust himself to fix a broken radio. His body was broken in too many ways to count, and he was only just barely hanging onto consciousness – he might as well spend time thinking, if only to stay awake as long as possible.
Not like I can do anything else but wait.
So he lined up the facts:
First, just minutes ago, Panthera Avis had been able to teleport easily across the entire city, as if his power had been boosted far beyond his former limits.
Second, he had done so only while accompanied by at least Hastur and Netsense.
Third, Hastur had some manner of vastly enhanced awareness, probably very powerful ESP.
Fourth, Netsense had been capable of sharing senses between people within her range.
Fifth, they had only ever teleported around with at least the three of them together.
Sixth, Hastur had taken the loss of Netsense far harder than the loss of Mary.
The only conclusion he could make was that they had been using the interaction of Hastur’s ESP and Panthera Avis’ teleportation for beyond-line-of-sight teleport. Of which they were now no longer capable, thanks to him cramming a grenade down Ne-
He had to fight not to throw up when he remembered the results of that action.
Alright. They no longer have unrestricted teleportation. Next point.
He could hear the digging sounds come closer, but refused to look. No point. Instead, he sent another e-mail with that observation, then continued to analyze the information he had available.
Hastur had some limited telepathy. Apparently, she had listened in on his mental conversation with the Blazing Sun and the Man in the Moon. But she had not seen his surprise attack coming, nor shown any indication of having access to any memories of his.
Maybe… maybe her power is to eavesdrop on communication, he thought. Not reading minds, but listening in on people communicating – a semantically limited power.
Which made her a little less scary… but threw up a whole host of very, very scary questions regarding his two conversational passengers. So far, he had assumed them to simply be fractured off pieces of his own personality. But by that logic, conversing with them should not count as communication, only as a disconcertingly schizophrenic way of thinking.
Yet she could listen to them.
Alright, Basil, enough. Think about the matter at hand first, worry about possibly alien inhabitants of your mind later.
As if on cue, he heard Avis break through the collapsed hallway. He turned and looked just in time to see him teleport past the blockade with Hastur, using the line of sight provided by his digging efforts to get past it.
Looks like I somehow need to hold out a little while longer.
He did send another mail though, only leaving out the information on his internal discussions – the logic got a little inconsistent without it, but he could live with that. No use wasting good information.
* * *
He switched to thermal vision and let his wristblades slide out again, moving his armor’s arms to test their function despite the mind-numbing pain it caused.
And you always hear people tell that you get used to pain. What a load of bullshit.
Nah, it’s true. Believe me, y’can get used to a lot of shite, mate. Talking from experience here.
Care to share some of that experience right now? I could use being able to ignore the pain a little.
No can do, mate. Sorry.
Avis entered the room and vanished in a flicker. But he had seen that coming, and was already turning around, making a left jab to try and impale his brain (that seemed to at least slow them down).
As if on cue, his left arm seized up both on the flesh-and-blood side (not much of a problem, though really painful) and on the power armor side. A bare second later, sparks flew and the motors made a cracking sound, the whole arm going limp as the sparks burned his arm.
Panthera Avis took the chance to swing both his arms in an arc, slamming them into his right arm and sending him flying into his wallscreen.
Even while he delt with feeling his right arm break completely, the armor there being destroyed, his ribcage further cracking and losing the last bit of feeling below his waist, he also slammed through the screen and the surge of electricity attacked his faulty systems, shorting out… pretty much most of it.
Including his camera system. His entire field of vision just went black, except for a few cracks he could just barely make out.
At least the insulation protected him from being electrocuted himself.
Well, that was a short last stand.
At least you tried.
Oh, shut up.
Someone said something – he recognized, just barely, Hastur’s childish voice, through the cracks of his armor, but not what she actually said.
Joke is on you. Can not hear you anymore.
Something – well, there were not many choices, so it had to be Avis – grabbed his helmet and began squeezing. The already damaged ceramic groaned, but did not break. He had made sure that the helmet was very sturdy.
After all, his brain was his only real advantage against most anyone he was likely to fight.
Still, it would break eventually.
Alright, open session here – any idea how to get out of this?
My expertise is largely limited to inventing technology.
Huh? Who was that last one?
What the hell?
Calm down, mate. That’s just the… weird one of the bunch.
You call someone weird?
Aye. Call’im the ‘Raging Heart’.
Uhh, yeah, not really helpful.
He’s kinda singleminded. You can ignore him most of the time.
Yeah, any more ideas?
Yes, mate, we c- hey, do you feel that?
Something warm and prickling was pressing against his body all of a sudden, enveloping it. There was a loud crash, but the vibrations did not hurt his mangled body as the prickling feeling seeped beneath his skin.
And the pressure on his helmet vanished.
Two more crashes, then silence.
He could almost feel something other than pain by now.
Someone pulled him – gently – out of the screen, and then took his helmet off, the locking mechanism opening by itself (and despite a short hiccup due to the deformation it had suffered from). The faceplate was taken off, and…
And he saw a red-eyed angel’s face, with a halo of white light framing i-
Stop waxing poetry and look, mate!
He blinked, and suddenly he was looking into the horrified face of Gloom Glimmer, framed by the white glow of the lamp behind her, her own eyes glowing red with black sclera.
“Thanks. Passing out now,” he tried to say, but only blood came out of his mouth, and he finally passed out.
* * *
He blinked, then opened his eyes completely.
Then he shut them again, blinded by a white glare.
He was lying on something soft and warm. A bed. He could feel his legs. Wiggle his toes. His hands responded to his commands to curl his fingers, and there was barely any pain in them. His ribcage did not feel good, but neither did it really hurt all that much anymore. He was still wearing the mask from his impact suit.
And there was something soft and warm pressing pretty much against his groin, while something else was pressing on his chest, with warmth spreading from the point of contact.
“He’s waking up,” said a familiar voice with some odd harmonics in her voice.
“Yeah? Great. You can stop dryhumping him then!” said an even more familiar voice. Vasiliki… Hecate.
“I’m not dry- oh shit, I did, didn’t I?” The other voice sounded embarassed now.
“You didn’t even notice?” Hecate sounded disbelieving.
What is going on?
“Uhh, I have been using my power constantly on him for… how long? Too long. It tends to do weird minor stuff like this.”
“W-what are you talking about?” he asked, opening his eyes. “I sure hope there is an explanation for this.”
Gloom Glimmer was straddling him, sans her cloak. Without it, she looked… younger. Smaller.
She blushed (more) and slipped off of him, though without taking her hands off his chest. For which he was very thankful.
“I… uh… I’ve been healing you. Good God, how did you manage to stay alive, let alone conscious? I’ve been working on you for hours.” She was so very obviously trying to steer the discussion away from her earlier… position. And for once, he picked up on that.
“How long was I out? Did you get Hastur and Avis?” he asked, then looked at Hecate. She was wearing her cowl, but her cape had been torn off, and beneath that she wore a standard-issue jumpsuit. “What happened with you? And where’s Tyche?”
The two girls looked at each other, then Hecate answered: “We got into a fight, me, Spellgun and Tartsche got nearly killed and, loath as I am to admit it, Tyche kicked ass. I mean, really, really, ruined that monster’s day. She’s totally off on her power, and last I heard she’s been cutting her way through Hastur’s newest minions. Hastur and Panthera Avis got away from that hideout and are keeping us on our toes. I’m stuck here because my foci got destroyed, as did my costume, so I’m pretty much useless right now. Gloom Glimmer here has been fighting to save your life, because it looked grim there for a while. You’ve been unconscious for five hours.”
“Five hours? Damn. Wait, what new minions?”
They both evaded his gaze. “You got my data? Did you sound the air raid sirens?”
Gloom Glimmer took her hands off his chest and flexed her fingers as if they had gone numb. “We did. People went into their shelters and all, but… Hastur got into one of the public mass shelters – the one under the Menstall Galerie. She showed her face to nearly a hundred civilians, then went off to three more shelters she somehow broke into. Four hundred people, all in all. Including a Chinese cape who’d fled the SU and had just arrived here. God-Tier, it turns out, and she went on a rampage through the entertainment district before she burned out and dropped dead.”
“Stars above, did anything go right?” he asked. “Do you at least have any idea where Hastur is now? Or how to take her down?”
They shook their heads.
“Dammit.” He tried to sit up, but all that got him was a pain attack.
He almost screamed.
“Careful! I healed the worst, but my healing is limited – you’ll be benched for a while,” exclaimed Gloom Glimmer.
“Ugh. Feels like it,” he groaned, trying to relax. “But it does not matter. I need to help, and you know it. Hecate, can you get me my spare suit? The light one.”
She nodded. “Sure. I need to do something useful,” she said, sounding angry. But she left quickly, leaving him alone with Gloom Glimmer, who was still blushing a little.
“She’s selling herself short,” Gloom Glimmer commented once the other heroine was gone. “She only lost her staff in a later battle, not against the Geokinetic, and she kicked mighty lots of ass, going by what I heard through mission control.”
“Hecate is not one to boast,” he commented. “We’re at the UH HQ?”
“Should you not go out there and help?”
She opened her mouth, closed it, then spoke up again: “I’m quite drained. Need a few minutes.”
He nodded, leaning his head back. Reaching out with one hand, he found the controlswitch for the bed and raised the headpiece, so he could look at her more easily. “Should we not have gotten reinforcements by now?”
“N-no. The… the battle with DiL ain’t going well. She somehow hardened her field, and nothing is getting in or out now. No word from Dad.” Suddenly, she looked way younger than usual, pulling her legs up to rest her face on her knees.
He had no idea how to respond. Was he supposed to hug her again? “No word from the Dark… what about… your mother?”
She looked away from him. “The Sovjet Union declared war against the PATO just two hours ago, ’cause they refuse to let them try and bring the Red Council’s remains to the Protectorate. The Califate is declaring another Jihad, Maddy is staying neutral but also demanding to be allowed contact to Ember and Sovereign has gone silent – apparently, there were nine seperate spiteborn attacks in the GAIN over the last week. We got a powderkeg and no outlet, except…”
“World war. Great,” he sneered. “So, Lady Light’s tied up with a coming world war, the Shining Guardians are probably in Kansas, the Dark is stuck there too along with… the Five,” Including Amy, “And we got an insane S-Class in the city. What else could go wrong?”
His communicator – it was still in his ear – suddenly spoke in Eudocia’s newest voice (she changed it almost daily): “Father, Hastur just attacked the Petal Memorial Hospital! She’s in Prisca’s room!”
* * *
“I’ll show that asshole, how dare he deny me, I’ll make him pay, I’ll make him regret not falling in love with me, I’ll…”
Hastur had been ranting for hours now. After that wretched bitch (and they called her a monster! She was normal, compared to that freak) had taken him away from her, she’d wanted to go after his useless little whore, but Nathaniel had finally started speaking properly and insisted that they make more people fall for her first.
It sounded smart. Of course, it didn’t go as planned, at all. Which was why she was limping down the hallway towards that asshole’s sweetheart, instead of skipping along like she wanted to. Nathaniel was with her, as he should, as well as Toby, Jake and Jill (those were some freaky twins).
She had her hood down, and lots of people were falling all over her on the way. But she only wanted the one.
But that bitch was talking to someone, though she could only hear half the conversation. Who the fuck is she talking to!?
Toby kicked the door open for her, then stepped back and made a flourish for her to enter. He was sweet that way. And he even looked like a gentleman, all suit and tie and stuff.
She walked in to find the scarecrow with her eyes closed.
“He-he-hello, Prisca,” she greeted her, giggling. The prospect of punishing Brennus was making her giddy again. “It ain’t polite not to look at your guest!”
“I know what you do. Why are you here?” the ugly stick figure – Seriously, why does he like her, but not me? – asked in a calm voice. Too calm.
She ain’t taking me serious! I’ll show that bitch, no one mocks me!
“I just want to love you! Look at me, and I’ll make you right again!” she said sweetly, hopping over to stand by the foot of the large bed, looking at her. She could also put her hands on the frame that way, taking some weight off her left leg.
“Pretty please? With sugar on top?”
“No. Never again.”
That gave her pause. What the fuck does she mean? “What do you mean, sweetiepie?”
Her already ugly features twisted in pure, loathing hatred that gave even Hastur pause. “Someone did that to me before. Change me against my will. Violate my body. Not. Again. Ever.”
Hastur only snorted in response. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll love me. Love what I do to you. Just open your eyes and look at me, sweetie.”
Prisca’s features were still twisted with hatred. “No. You can torture me, you can kill me, you can do whatever you want to me – except this. I won’t let anyone change me again!” She coughed, putting a spindly hand to her chest.
“You don’t have much of choice, sweetie. Jake, Jill, be two dears and open her eyes, will’ya?” she drawled.
Jake and Jill lurched forward, their bellies and backs shaking and waving left and right.
Prisca moved faster than she’d have thought possible, taking a dull knife – one of those hospital knives for people who might drop them accidentily – and before anyone could react, she plunged the knife into her left eye.
Screaming, even as they all stopped moving in surprise, she ripped the knife out of the bleeding, oozing wound and cut into the other eye, opening her eyelids just a fraction as she bent over, to plunge it in without harming the lids.
When she pulled the knife back and looked up, shaking all over, her eyes were just bleeding and oozing ruins. Blind. “Never. Ever. Again. Ev-” She seized up, then threw up a glob of bile and blood, her whole body shaking as Hastur could hear her heart start to go crazy.
“Whoa. Hardcore,” she whispered. This… was way too impressive to spoil. Besides, she was dying anyway. “Let’s go, my lovelies.”
They left the dying girl behind.
Maybe I’ll go after his sister… once I find that bitch somewhere…
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