Rolling On the Floor Laughing

This is so much more amusing to me than you know yet.

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B012.3 Born At Sleep

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Melody stepped out of her room in her new work clothes – a loose, bright pink jumpsuit Irene had bought her as a present, a few days ago – and went towards her workshop.

She’d just showered thoroughly, after having spent most of the afternoon after that mortifying scene in front of the television demonstrating her dancing skills, of all things!

It was easy to forget, since he seemed to have a say in damn near everything around here, but Patrick Patrid was not only supernaturally creepy, he was also the Public Relations manager of the American United Heroes’ divisions. All of them. Primarily New Lennston, but he really did have a say nearly everywhere in the Western hemisphere.

That was a lot of PR to work on. And they got to bear the brunt of his attention. Joy oh joy.

In this case, it had meant that he felt it his duty to make absolutely sure each junior hero was a skilled enough dancer to not embarrass themselves (and by extension, the United Heroes, as he said) during the reception.

Furthermore, it was evident that Patrick Patrid had some very high standards when it came to determining who’s skilled enough, and who isn’t.

The result was that they’d spent three hours trying to convince him that they could dance in a satisfactory fashion, and everyone other than Aimihime, of all people, had failed to do so (apparently, she had learned how to dance from a friend and his older sister). Melody had, once upon a time, taken dance lessons (her mother had argued that, if she could not carry a tune in a bucket, she could at least dance to one), but that had been a long time ago, and she had not practiced since getting her new and improved (and far, far more top-heavy) body.

In the end, he’d stuck the lot of them with dancing lessons. Every morning and evening for the weekend, and the morning before the gala, too, for everyone but Aimihime (who’d participate with Goudo, anyway) and Irene.

Melody shuddered. Hopefully, Patrid wouldn’t actually supervise those lessons, because God knew she’d felt dirty enough already, dancing and sweating in front of his criticising eyes. It wasn’t even like he was actually doing anything creepy, or saying anything creepy, or even looking at her in anything but a perfectly professional way, yet she’d felt like she’d been forced to dance naked in front of strangers.

And then there was that other issue – Irene. After her little explosion, she’d gone quiet, barely talked and left as soon as Patrid had announced the demonstration.

She hadn’t even talked to Melody yet, which was worrying her – awkward as it could be, she was pretty sure that she was the only real friend Irene had, the only one close to her age she really hung around with outside of the occasional group meeting. So if she didn’t come to her for comfort, as she otherwise would, then…

I hope she went to her mom and not her dad, she thought quietly to herself, passing by Spellgun’s workshop on the way to hers, walking through the bright, clean white hallways of the building they all toiled away in. Even if Lady Light is working most of the time… she’d take time off for her daughter, surely.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she finally reached her workshop – and found that someone was inside.

It took her all of a microsecond to switch from residual discomfort and worry to utter outrage, as she touched her hand to the panel next to the door, opening it up.

When she saw the guy in the grease-stained jeans overall and black shirt, looking over her work on one of her tables, she pulled out her vocaliser and typed angrily into it.

<Hey, what’s the big idea!?>, she shouted, making him flinch. <Hands off my work!>

The man turned around to look at her, cocking one eyebrow. He was an African-American of middle age, somewhere in his mid-thirties, with some impressive scars on his face, hazel-coloured eyes and not a single hair she could see anywhere.

He blinked at the sight of the curvy girl in the bright pink jumpsuit and brown hair.

“Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jumpsuit like that, right?” he said instead of explaining himself. “Did you accidentally drop it into a vat of neon paint?”

She blushed a bit, but kept frowning at him, stopping once she was just five feet away from him. <It’s a present, it’s none of your business and what are you doing here!?>

He shrugged, averting his eyes again to look onto her workbench, picking up a piece of machinery – Melody recognised it, it was a part of the pacemaker Brennus had cobbled together for Prisca Fion during the Hemogoblin incident; they’d salvaged it and she’d requested to be allowed a look at it – not that she’d ever been any good with medical equipment, but she was curious about Brennus’ speciality and she’d hoped they’d hold some kind of clue (that had been a bust).

“Not looking at your work yet, Miss,” he replied. “Just got curious about this. Looks very familiar, right?” He lifted up one of the sketches she’d made of the gadget’s inner workings.

She relaxed – a little bit. Still outraged, but at least this guy seemed to be a techie. And besides, if he was here, then he was a member of the United Heroes, or otherwise allowed to be – security was tight. <I don’t know what you mean,> she replied honestly, though she did put an edge into her voice. <Do you mean that you know Brennus’ work?>

“Brennus? The new kid in town?” he asked, surprised. “This is his work, right?”

She nodded.

“Interesting…” He turned away from her and studied the pieces on the table. The pacemaker. The breathing apparatus. The dialysis machine. A few other pieces. “Hmm. You have more of the boy’s work, right?”

She nodded and walked to wheel-rack holding numerous metal baskets. With the push of a button, she rotated the wheel until she could pick out one particular basket and carry it over to the workbench.

<Here, I still have this raven,> she said, lifting a tray out of the basket and laying it out in front of him. She’d disassembled the raven, having hoped to adapt the design for herself (having drones to spread her acoustics would be a huge advantage), but it had transpired that her power just didn’t want to play ball.

The man looked through the pieces with practiced motions, barely touching them as his eyes flicked back and forth quicker than any normal human’s should when taking in this kind of technology. Most of his attention went to the burned-out computer chips, too.

Is he a gadgeteer? He certainly looked like a gearhead. But who was he?

“Interesting, right?” he said, his eyes going back and forth between the raven and the medical equipment. “They have almost nothing in common.”

<I know that much,> she admitted. <I mean, I don’t know much about his other equipment, but these ravens contain completely different technology compared to the medical equipment he made. I don’t know what that means, though.>

“It means it’s not his, right?” he replied, taking a step back and crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I’ve read up on the new boy. He’s an electrical engineer, so to speak. Not a medic. Nor a medical technician.”

<Maybe he has more than one spec?> she asked, getting a little excited now. This was getting interesting, even though she was still pissed at having a stranger in her workshop without her permission! <I’ve heard of gadgeteers like that, who have two or even three completely different specialisations they work with.>

“Possible, but unlikely,” he replied, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. “It happens, but it’s so fantastically rare, pretty much every other theory is preferable, right? Besides, I recognise this work.” He pointed at the medical equipment. “To be precise, it’s based on the work of another gadgeteer.”

<How can you tell that? The design is very elegant, but it does not appear to be that exotic.>

“Ah, but the elegance in itself is a hint to the original designer,” he explained. “And I have seen medical equipment derived from this particular source before – the really interesting question, though, is where he got it from. She isn’t the kind of person who’d freely share her technology on Toybox. In fact, she’s one of the few people banned from it.”

Toybox. The big online community for gadgeteers from all over the world to talk shop, share ideas, designs, resources and more. Every gadgeteer worth their title made it a point to register with the central message board, if only so as to access their public schematics – works from gadgeteers which had been released, not into the public domain, but the Toybox domain by their originators, for every (or almost every – one could restrict their designs to verified heroes, vigilantes, villains or neutrals, or any of at least a score of other attributes) gadgeteer to use; she was pretty sure that Brennus’ ravens were largely based on designs he’d taken from Toybox, and he did have an account on it. And then there was all the other help one could get from the various threads…

To have a good reputation on Toybox was a hallmark of being a great gadgeteer. To be banned from it…

She frowned. <I only know of four gadgeteers banned from Toybox. Merkabah, Mechorror, Dusu and…>

“Atrocity,” he spat the name like a curse, and for a moment she thought he’d literally spit out. “This is based on her work, I’d bet my gearbox on it.”

How in God’s name did Brennus get his hands on Atrocity’s technology!? She remembered the hemogoblin incident, and Hemming talking about this ‘Macian’ they’d been looking for… was Brennus this person, after all? Or was he just connected to him, having gotten the technology from that mysterious stranger?

Or was it something completely different?

“Be that as it may,” the stranger continued, “I did not come here to talk conspiracy theories with you.”

She focused on him again. <Ah, may I finally know who I am talking to, then? And for what purpose?>

He smirked at her. “My name is Hotrod. You recently requested a custom vehicle, to use in conjunction with your equipment. I saw your proposal and decided it would be a waste not to actually base it on your audio-technology, so here I a-“

He was cut off when she threw her arms around him in a nearly bone-crushing hug, her worries about Brennus’ technology already forgotten.

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B012.a.2 Les Aspirantes

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“My oh my, what a treat,” the cancerous monstrosity spoke, his voice unnaturally normal compared to his appearance, save for a slight slur. “I was wondering what I’d get when my little friend here,” he made the half-absorbed man raise his sole remaining arm like a kid in school, “warned me that someone was preparing an attack – but who would’ve thought it’d be you guys.” He chuckled, looking around at his assembled foes without even having to turn his head – his main gaze, so to speak, was focused on Pucelle, who’d after all just managed to cut him off of Sol-Sol. Meanwhile, Chantal was  cursing their luck – they’d specifically waited until now with their attack because they’d believed he wouldn’t have any powers other than his own anymore!

“Adolphe, old friend. So nice to see you again. I hope you’re not still sore at me for breaking your legs, last time we met,” the hulking monstrosity said in a conversational tone.

“Hardly, Abel,” Phalange said back, as more and more of himself flooded in, until all sixteen of his fractals were present and accounted for, surrounding the Blackguard – who didn’t seem to mind. “I am rather sore about you killing poor Fureur – she was just thirteen.”

The Blackguard… ‘Abel’ shrugged, a disgustingly unhinged sight as his misshapen shoulders moved as if the command to do so arrived a little quicker at one side than the other. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have allowed a little girl like that to think she was a superhero. Should’ve kept her out of the fight, you know?”

Phalange’s mouth twisted downwards in a frown. “You attacked her school!” he almost shouted at the man. “There was no one else there to protect the children! She was a hero attending school, and she defended it!”

“Eh,” Abel brushed him off. “You shouldn’t put her too much on a pedestal. I ended up breaking into the school through the bathroom, where your little hero was busy playing the flute of a boy at least four years older than herself.” He grinned obscenely. “To be fair, though, fighting a thirteen-year-old girl with her panties still around her ankle is the kind of experience I never expected t-“

“Be quiet already, you degenerate Disgrace of a man!” Phalange screamed, and all sixteen of him charged the Blackguard at the same time, before anyone else had any chance to react.

Chantal, who had just managed to manifest her third turret, cursed under her breath, but she knew it was futile to hold him back – Fureur’s death was a sore spot for him at the best of times, and the Blackguard knew which buttons to push; though she was rather surprised to learn the two of them had known each other well enough to be on a first name basis. Nevertheless, Phalange was not going to be deterred anymore.

At least Phalange’s immune to his power, she thought as she fired a volley of three metal bullets, aiming for the reforming limb, tearing off the flesh he was pushing out to reform the appendage before it could solidify.

The monster cried out, gleefully, as he rotated on the spot with his whole limb – the spears that had, just moments ago, transfixed it to the ceiling still stuck just below the elbow – whirling around, knocking two fractals to the ground while everyone else dodged by stepping back or leaping over it – except for Sol-Sol, who was still on the ground, unconscious, and Pucelle, who leapt onto the fallen heroine’s prone form as if to shield her with her slender slip of a body.

Chantal had kicked off the ground, sailing over the bone-shattering limb backwards, wildly firing her bullets in the direction of the Blackguard’s face (even he could not possibly survive massive brain damage), though her power was too inaccurate while in motion to really have a chance of the kind of critical hit they needed to put him down in time.

Instead, she watched in horror – and upside down – how the limb slammed into Pucelle’s side as she landed on all fours over Sol-Sol… and simply slid over her back without even budging her.

What the… no, no time! She landed on her hands, flipping back onto her feet; at the same time, Phalange closed the distance with the surprised-looking Blackguard, no less than eight fractals tackling the man so violently from one side he was slammed towards the inner wall of the office building, tearing open a long tear in the floor under their feet.

And then Casque Vert closed in and punched both of his gnarled arms into their enemy’s chest at an angle from above, driving him into the wall and closer to the floor.

Almost immediately, the Blackguard’s flesh reached into the wood, merging with it, knitting it to his body, far better at doing so with living material than with inanimate matter – but Casque Vert simple twisted his arms, snapping his own elbows.

Which caused his main power to kick in – from the breaking point, his arms regenerated nearinstantly with such force, they caused an audible boom as they drove his half-integrated forearms against their enemy’s chest; and while that would normally have served well to shoot two arm-sized holes into almost anyone’s chest, the fact that they had partially fused with him gave Casque Vert what he needed to instead smash him through wall and floor, and into the lower level.

The plant-man leapt into the resulting hole and towards him, screaming “Onwards, my friends!” as he landed with a foot on each of the Blackguard’s shoulders, which were so grossly engorged by now by all the additional material drawn up from below that even the huge hero had to spread his legs to land properly.

Though Chantal couldn’t see his face, she knew him well enough to imagine him sporting a savage grin as he snapped his own knees with a practiced motion.

His legs immediately grew back, catapulting him back where he came from as the angular position of his limbs caused them to tear the Blackguard’s shoulders off.

Chantal didn’t hesitate and started firing with all three turrets as soon as Casque Vert had cleared her line of fire, shooting into the space in between his shoulders and his torso, tearing through the reaching tendrils of flesh and nerves trying to reconnect them, breaking his jaw and crushing an eye.

Pucelle and no less than ten of Phalange leapt down to enter the fray, the young girl falling in a curiously weightless-seeming manner, while four more fractals took up positions around Chantal to provide protection, and the remaining two ran for Sol-Sol to get her to someone who might be able to save her life.

Ten supernaturally sharp spears bit into the snake-like form made of exposed muscle, bones and rotting patches of skin in all colours and hues, one sword with inner circuitry glowing blue sank into a twisted knot of muscle about a meter below the Blackguard’s torso, flaring with blue-white light once she pushed the button again to repel the flesh reaching into the item and half-bisecting their quarry as she swung to the right.

But for all of that, the Blackguard only seemed amused, grinning savagely as he used his intact limb to strike, not at the heroes attempting to take him apart but rather, at the walls around them.

Before Phalange or Pucelle or anyone could stop him, he’d torn through the supporting walls around him and the entire inner part of the building collapsed in on itself, right on top of the fighters.

Chantal cried out as she lost her footing, but the fractals around her grabbed her, leaping backwards just barely in time to avoid falling down. The two who’d been just about to get Sol-Sol to safety had to scramble instead to avoid the collapsing floor.

Dust rose along with a hideous cacophony of stones grinding against and crushing one another.

When it was over, the building had been gutted, only the outer walls still standing with a few pieces of floor along the edges still remaining on every level. Even the roof above had caved in, creating an oddly serene effect as dust danced in the rays of moonlight from above.

“Pucelle!” Chantal shouted, before she had a coughing fit. Next to her, the remaining fractals looked searchingly for any signs of the young heroine, while Casque Vert took a heavy step to join them at the edge, looking down as the dust cleared to reveal a mass of rubble and no sign of the two metahumans.

“Do you think she’s still alive?” Phalange asked, his shields all raised, spears ready to strike at a moment’s notice, though each of him – all six still up there with them – were now covered in cuts and bruises, their costumes mostly ruined as the damage done to the fractals below was shared in equal measure among them.

“Should be. Girl may look like a reed, but she’s tough as hell,” the pot-headed man replied as he flexed his arms just in time for the rubble to stir, then to burst, revealing…

The bloody, cancerous form of the Blackguard, rising up out of the collapsed building like a hideous, humanoid snake. He had to have been drawing flesh back from across the street, because his head, neck and part of his chest looked like his own again, those of a reasonably attractive man in his early thirties, his head topped by messy, sticky brown hair that had been neither cut nor washed in quite a while, covering most of his shoulders and neck around the head in tangled clumps.

“Two down, three more to go!” he shouted with undisguised glee, pointing at them with his newly restored limb. “Don’t think being immune to my power is going to save you, Ado-“

The rubble beneath him suddenly exploded with such force, the shrapnel would probably have hurt Fusillade badly, if Phalange’s shields hadn’t been up and protecting her. A quick glance showed her that Sol-Sol was also safe, before she looked at the source of the explosion.

The rubble between them and the Blackguard had been blown away, with some molten bits still lying around. Within an empty circle stood Pucelle, her sword somehow… bigger? No, not quite – more channels had opened on the blade, branching off from the central one to reveal even more circuitry underneath, the resulting shift expanding the blade considerably. A red-orange glow emanated from the circuitry, which quickly faded back to its previous blue-white colour as she let go of the fourth button at the grip, the blade pulling itself together again.

“Nice trick,” the Blackguard said, looking down from on high at the already slim girl. “A shame gearheads like you are useless to me.”

The girl flourished her sword, pointing it straight at him – but her gaze seemed to wander, her head turning left and right instead of facing her enemy, as if searching for something.

“She probably has a plan,” Casque Vert whispered. “Or at least I hope she does, because I sure don’t, and you guys don’t seem to have one yet, either.” He turned his head to look at them. “Let’s buy her some time, shall we?” And he leaned forward before snapping his knees, launching himself at the enemy.

“Fine by me!” Phalange said grimly, still visibly enraged by the Blackguard’s earlier words, and all of him, save for one standing by Chantal and one by Sol-Sol, leapt down onto the rubble and ran around the Blackguard to flank him.

So now we’re betting on the newbie, Chantal thought to herself, but she didn’t voice it – there was no point, anyway. Instead, she aimed as well as she could with her three turrets (sometimes, she managed a fourth one and, on one occasion, she’d even managed to manifest five at once – but today was not one of those days, it seemed) and started to shoot again, aiming high so she wouldn’t accidentally hit the others.

“Again? Guys, you can’t beat me, I can take anything you can dish out!” the Blackguard shouted, shooting several tendrils made of muscles and nerves into the rubble around him.

With a twist of his upper body, he heaved two long arms made of concrete, rebar, copper and wood, held together by flesh and nerves, and struck at Phalange, knocking most of his fractals back.

“At least try and make this interesting, will you!?” He struck at Casque Vert, but missed as the plant-man twisted in mid-air to kick off the huge, mostly inanimate limb.

As the Blackguard swung his body around, he used the momentum to strike at Pucelle – but the girl was ready and raised her blade, pushing the third button as she brought an overhead strike against the attack; it was almost comical, as the limb was thicker all-around than the girl herself.

But her blade flared red-orange, again, though without opening up, and it cut straight through the limb like a hot knife through butter – a particularly appropriate simile, as her sword had apparently heated up instantly to the point where it disintegrated all the material it came into contact with.

The Blackguard reared back in true pain for the first time, and took two of Chantal’s shots to the face, snapping his head further away – just in time for three of Phalange to close in, two swinging their spears to launch the third one, who jumped onto them, up onto the chest of the villain.

As they’d already known, the Blackguard’s power could not reach Phalange’s fractals, and so the one standing on his chest grabbed onto a ridge of bone sticking out of his shoulder and thrust his spear straight into his face.

The Blackguard stopped moving, stunned for a moment – and then he collapsed backwards, landing with a loud thunk, almost breaking through one of the outer walls by virtue of his sheer mass.

Everything stopped for a moment, as everyone stared at the fallen monster, everyone but Pucelle who’d turned away and was running for the opposite corner of the building.

We… we did it? Chantal asked herself as she watched the huge, unmoving form.

Phalange stepped off of him, his shoulders sagging, as his fractals gathered around him, the ten buried ones digging themselves out of the rubble.

He’ll have to reabsorb them, she thought idly as she sank onto her knees. Casque Vert landed on a piece of floor below her, but had to jump up and join her on the one she was on as it crumbled. Below, Phalange’s fractals began to rejoin into one, one after the other.

And then Pucelle’s voice cut through the descending lull. “His brain is not in his head!” she shouted with a clarion-clear voice as she stabbed her sword into the rubble-strewn floor of the basement level, pushing the fourth button again.

The sword flared red-orange, expanding, and the floor was blown apart in a huge explosion of dust and steam – she must’ve hit a water pipe.

“And how do you know that, little one!?” the Blackguard shouted, half amused and half annoyed judging by his tone of voice, twisting around to slam the arm she hadn’t cut off down on Phalange, who’d just reabsorbed his last fractal – rendering him as vulnerable as any other human.

“NO!” Chantal shouted, firing bullets at the limb to repel or at least divert it – but she just didn’t have that much stopping power – while Casque Vert launched himself straight at it, leaving his lower legs behind with a booming sound.

Phalange could not possibly dodge in his state, still disoriented from rejoining with all his fractals, but he raised his shield in a futile gesture.

Five glowing golden projectiles slammed into the descending tower-like limb, blowing it apart just in time for Casque Vert to fly through the small dust cloud it generated and slam into the Blackguard’s chest, pushing him away from Phalange just as the villain reacted to the assault on his limb, lashing out with his lower body to catch the weakened hero with his flesh while he could still affect him.

Chantal looked aside to see Sol-Sol, lying prone on a bit of floor still attached to the wall, curled up limply – but her eyes were open, aware and angry, and another set of glowing projectiles were forming above her form in an arch, building up to another powerful attack.

Fuck, she’s still going, she thought to herself and resigned herself to thinking kinder thoughts about her fellow heroine in the future. I have to step up my game, too. Unfortunately, at such short range, her power lacked both strength and accuracy, but by the time she’d get far enough away to be really effective, the fight would most likely already be over, so she instead began to take pot shots at the many eyes that were still open all over their quarry’s body, trying to at least inconvenience him.

Casque Vert, still on top of the Blackguard, tried to get away, but the villain apparently didn’t want any piece of that – instead, his chest folded up, muscle strands lashing out to strike all over Casque Vert’s form, only gliding off of his helmet but otherwise fusing themselves to his body.

Sol-Sol was still building up her volley, unwilling to waste a premature shot that wouldn’t cause any real damage – nevermind that she couldn’t possibly have many shots left in her state – Chantal didn’t have the accuracy or the power to save him and Phalange was just now splitting into fractals again, just three of them out and not nearly ready to get in close with the Blackguard again.

But then, Pucelle came to the rescue, leaping out of the dust and steam she’d thrown up in her odd, weightless way and cut off Casque Vert’s head just below the rim of his pot-helmet as she passed by him.

Before his head could even begin to drop, he’d already regenerated his entire body, the sheer force he hit his own neck with throwing him out of the Blackguard’s reach.

“Oh, come on!” said villain shouted as he tried to hit Pucelle – and this time, his blow connected, throwing her towards Chantal.

Damn! She threw herself to the side, intercepting Pucelle’s flight with her body, and the two of them hit the wall, though with far less force than she would’ve expected, as if the girl had somehow been able to reduce the force of the hit.

I have to ask her how this actually works – if she’s really a bricoleur, then she might be able to make me something like that for protection! she thought idly while she pushed herself up, her turrets still floating in place and firing stubbornly at their enemy, though, really, there was only one real advantage to her power right now, and that was the fact that her bullets vanished moments after impact, so he couldn’t absorb and repurpose them.

Pucelle got up onto her feet and turned to her, her sword loosely at her side. “Water… coming. Get everyone… higher up,” she squeezed out between deep breaths.

“I hope this plan of yours is a good one,” Chantal said without rancour, catching Phalange’s and Casque Vert’s attention by shooting a bullet near their feet and then signing them to come up – fortunately, they’d all made an effort to adapt their sign language so it wouldn’t be the usual code that the Blackguard most likely still knew.

The two heroes – well, nine, now, with all of Phalange – alternatively climbed and leapt up onto higher ground, as the Blackguard rose again.

“What are you planning? You do know it’s futile, right?” he said self-assuredly, though he was eyeing Sol-Sol with a wary look, as she was still building up her volley. “How about you lot just run along for now, and leave me that little morsel to snack on? Best offer you’re going to get, today!” He threw out both arms, shooting tendrils in a huge net aimed at covering all of them with at least small parts of his flesh.

“No deal, you cretin!” Phalange shouted as he split off his sixteenth fractal – none of them was looking too well, but at least better than before – and they linked their shields, while everyone else but Sol-Sol (who was on the ground, anyway) ducked behind them.

The tendrils impacted the shields and the wall above them, some shooting out of the windows – eliciting cries from outside.

Oh shit, the media! Chantal thought. They’d obviously have noticed the battle going on here, and some of them had apparently been brave – or stupid – enough to try and get closer.

Phalange hacked at the tendrils above them with his spear, Chantal shot at them at point-blank range (they couldn’t affect her turrets, to her relief – she didn’t even know what’d happen if she lost one of them) and Pucelle cut into them, pushing the first button again to neatly cut through with only the clinging blue-white light to mark her cuts as the tendrils retreated again, many of them still glowing faintly at their tips.

Fortunately, it seemed like none of them had actually hit a bystander and dragged him or her back in to be assimilated.

The heroes and the villain stared at one another, the strain apparent on all of them but Casque Vert, who looked as unperturbed as ever.

Just then, the Blackguard glanced down and Chantal followed his line of sight for a moment – the ground was filling up with water, which already stood nearly knee-high at the basement level, grey and muddy from all the dust and dirt mixed into it.

“Keep him there until there’s at least three metre of water in total,” Pucelle said quietly, but firmly. “Then bisect at about the height of his waist – his brain must be somewhere in his chest right now. Let him drop into the water and I’ll do the rest.”

“I’m not going to ask where you learned so much about his power right now,” Phalange replied just as quietly, his countenance grim. “But I’ll be very curious to know afterwards.”

Pucelle did not reply and instead leapt up onto a higher piece of floor, landing light as a feather.

“Let’s give the little lady a chance,” Casque Vert said. “I want to see what she has planned, if nothing else.” And he launched himself onto another piece of floor that put the Blackguard nearly exactly  between him and the other heroes.

Chantal and Phalange traded a look and came to a silent agreement. Then they turned to face the Blackguard again, just as Sol-Sol let loose another volley of five projectiles.

This time, the Blackguard saw them coming – but obviously, he didn’t know too much about Sol-Sol’s power, because he dodged them simply by leaning to the side with his entire body – only to look utterly dumbfounded when they curved in mid-air and slammed into him in five separate impacts from his chest on down to the point where his fleshy body vanished into the water, and the rubble below.

Shaken, the man cried out in pain, and they took that as their cue, all of them attacking all at once.

The next five minutes were a haze of screaming, flowing blood, torn muscles and horrible impacts that shook the reinforced walls of the former office building, as they coordinated as well as they could to tie the Blackguard down – or rather, just survive him, because the man seemed to have dropped his casual attitude after that hit he took from Sol-Sol, and he was attacking wildly – it took all they had to just to survive, and protect Sol-Sol as well!

In the end, though, the water had reached high enough up, almost at ground level now, and Pucelle shouted “Now!”

She grabbed her sword with both hands, having just landed next to Casque Vert after another teamed assault, and her comrade grabbed and threw her at their enemy as she held the blade ready to cut, a thumb already on the first button of her hilt.

But the Blackguard obviously saw it coming, ignoring the shots coming from Fusillade and the fractals being repeatedly launched at him by their kin, cutting into his body and climbing all over him trying to reach his chest, to twist out of the way, dodging her slash by a hair.

“Useless, y-“

Sol-Sol’s full volley slammed into his midsection, all projectiles concentrated on one spot, blowing him clean off the tower of flesh he’d been on top of.

Finally, he lost his composure, screaming in outrage and pain and sheer surprise as he fell towards the water – and then a lucky shot from Chantal hit him square in the mouth, shutting him up.

Pucelle landed on the wall and kicked off, straight down towards the water, as the tower of flesh began to topple over and away from where its main body had just splashed into the water.

She was just a metre or two away from the water when the Blackguard burst out of it, flying towards her, his face twisted by rage and pain.

The girl did not let that shake her and she plunged her sword into the water below her, pushing the second button for the first time.

The sword expanded, there was a burst of blue-white light – and then a massive sound, like an inhuman scream that shook the walls and made Chantal close her eyes as her hands flew up to her ears.

When the cacophony abated, she opened her eyes again – and she saw a pond of solid, dirty ice that had filled the basement and most of the first floor of the former office building. Jagged ice crystals had formed where the water had been thrown up by the Blackguard, encasing most of his cut-down form in ice, with only most of his chest and head, as well as one mostly-destroyed arm sticking out, torn to shreds by several sharp ice crystals.

Whatever kind of insane science – whether real or pretend – Pucelle utilised, she’d just instantly frozen what had to be a swimming pool’s worth of water in a mere second.

Said heroine was kneeling on the ice, her sword compressing itself again, allowing her to easily pull it out of the ice as she stood up straight.

“Pucelle, get away!” Chantal shouted in horror as the girl slowly approached the frozen enemy, her posture straight as a figure skater’s. “He’ll use the… ice…”

But he wasn’t. He should’ve merged with the ice – it was certainly solid enough now – but he wasn’t doing it.

Instead, the feared Blackguard was trashing around with his one available limb, trying to break himself free – but Sol-Sol’s assault and the ice explosion had cost him too much mass, leaving him extraordinarily weakened.

“H-how?” he asked, his voice raspy. “How’d you know… I wouldn’t be able to… integrate ice?”

Pucelle simply walked up to him, quietly, raising her blade. Without comment, she pushed it right into the centre of his chest, her thumb holding down the first button, the cold blue-white light of the blade protecting it from bonding with his flesh.

The Blackguard exhaled, a sigh that was almost normal, and looked down at the weapon in his chest, then at the slim girl who’d delivered it there. “Huh,” was all he said.

Pucelle looked up at him without another word, while everyone else just stared in shock at the sudden ending.

“W-well done, woman,” the Blackguard said as his remaining flesh began to visibly shrink, slowly falling apart. “You have… won. But… how? How!? Who… who are you? Tell me, before I go!”

Pucelle looked up at him, and then she reached for her helmet with one hand, grabbing it by the front.

The back of the helmet parted, opening up to allow her to pull it off. A mass of micro-braids was revealed along with a darkly skinned, slender neck which was quickly covered up as the countless small braids spilled over it and down all the way to her waist. Unfortunately, from where Chantal stood, she could not see the girl’s face, but the Blackguard certainly could – and his eyes widened.

“Y-you,” he said as he seemed to recognise her. “I… I did not know you had… powers. When did you get them? Before, or after… but no… no matter.”

He coughed, continuing to wilt. Then he…

He chuckled, as if he just now got a joke. “Heh. How… appropriate.”

The girl tilted her head to the side and might’ve said something, but Chantal couldn’t hear her – she didn’t raise her voice.

“I guess,” the Blackguard replied. “That I always knew… deep down… that you… would be… my Angel… of Death.”

The girl said something else, making him shake his head.

“No. I had my… reasons,” he said, his voice growing weaker, harder to understand. “And they… shall remain… mine.” But that was not a problem, because Chantal knew how to lip read (a necessity, as she had enhanced sight, but not hearing).

Pucelle said something more.

“I’m afraid… no… I have… no regrets,” he replied as his hair turned white and started to fall out, his one free limb almost down to near-human size. “I did… what I did… in the name… of my… legacy… whether you… believe it… or not…” He laughed to himself again, looking down at his own, dissolving body. “Who knows but that… in the future… history shall… judge me… the greatest… Chevalier.”

He looked up, his eyes glued to Pucelle’s face, while Chantal was just dumbfounded by the insanity of that statement.

“Well… perhaps not… the greatest,” he continued, his voice no longer audible at all. “After all… I doubt… I shall shine… brighter than… you. I have no… doubt that… you shall… shine brighter, even… than the First.”

And he reached up with his rapidly shrinking limb, touching her breastplate. Pucelle didn’t seem to fear what he might do, as she made no move to intercept him, and by this point, Chantal was just plain too stunned to react herself – as was Phalange next to her. Casque Vert seemed as inscrutable as ever.

Then the man smiled, for a moment, making him look almost… normal, as the rest of his surplus mass melted off of him, leaving him an emaciated, hairless figure so thin each bone could be seen.

His whole body sagged, and he went still.

Chantal fell to her knees, the air leaving her lungs in an incredibly relieved sigh, only to catch her breath as Pucelle pulled her unmarred sword out of the small man’s chest and put her helmet back on – her micro-braids still hanging out of the back – and she saw that the Emblem of the Chevalier now decorated her breastplate, made of thin gold on the dull silver metal, a final gift of sorts from the fallen Blackguard.

“Heh…” Sol-Sol said meekly, reminding Phalange and Chantal of her presence. “The Chevalier… is dead,” she said as her eyes slowly rolled up into her head, Phalange crying out and rushing over to her to try and help. “Long live… the Chevalier.” And then she, too, went still.

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B012.a.1 Les Aspirantes

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Two people, a man and a woman, sat on office chairs in an empty, dust-ladden office room on the second storey of a building in one of the ‘sensitive quarters’ of the Seine-Saint-Denis department North of Paris proper.

The woman was wearing a figure-hugging blue-and-red suit with flat boots and gloves, as well as a blue domino mask with a red rim. Her hair was black, long and tied into a high ponytail, and her dark brown eyes were focused on an old, derelict apartment building just across a narrow green strip and a four-lane street. A weak breeze barely stirred her hair as she shifted around on the old, worn-through seat, trying to get comfortable, while her left foot tapped a steady rhythm on the floor. Judging by her figure, and what could be seen of her face, she ought to be in her mid-twenties; but that was always hard to tell with metahumans.

Though her companion lacked the stunning heroic build of the heroine, he made up for it with his elaborate costume, a white bodysuit with red-and-gold armor on top, in a style that mixed Greek hoplite armor and knightly plate, with a long red cape as well and a Greek-style helmet. He sat more stiffly than the woman, the chair groaning under the weight of his armor.

“When is he supposed to show up?” the woman asked, as she had not five minutes ago. Her voice, unlike her body, was quite average – not unpleasant, but certainly nothing special.

“He said he’d be here by eight o’clock,” he replied with a deep, steady voice. “Along with Sol-Sol and maybe one more. Relax. There is no reason to drive yourself insane already.”

“How can you say that, Phalange?” she asked, annoyed, though her eyes remained fixed on the apartment building. “You’re going to be the one who’ll have to go toe-to-toe with him, you and the pothead!” She spoke like someone who’d brought the point up repeatedly in the past, and had little hope that it’d be acknowledged this time.

Phalange smiled at her, his mouth the only part of his body that was exposed by his costume. “This is what I signed up for, Fusillade,” he answered. “I’ve dreamed of a chance to become the Chevalier since I was six years old. And today will be the day that I’ll get my chance to honour its legacy.” His smile grew into a white-toothed grin.

Chantal couldn’t see it, but she knew him well enough to picture it, and she groaned, though without taking her eyes off the building. “You’re way too cocky. It’s gonna get you killed.” This, too, appeared to be a common comment of hers.

“Or maybe it’ll end up making me the next Chevalier,” he countered. “It’s too late to turn back now, anyway. What is he doing?”

The young woman sighed, but focused her gaze, looking across the park and the street, and through the walls of the apartment building. “He’s listening to music and reading a comic book,” she replied dutifully. “I hope he doesn’t turn on his television; I still think we shouldn’t have called in the press.”

“The people of France need to know that the Blackguard is going down,” Phalange said firmly, his voice rising as if in preparation for a speech. “They need to know that there are heroes who’ll defend the honour of the Chevalier. That a m-“

“Right, right,” she cut him off. Spare me the the speech, she added in her mind, though she didn’t voice it out loud – he tended to take criticism like that too seriously. “Well, with some luck, and a lot of excessive violence, they’ll see just that soon.”

“I’d rather like it if the violence wasn’t necessary,” he said earnestly.

She felt her lips tick up into a smile, and she was glad he couldn’t see her face right now. It was wrong, it was demeaning, but she just thought it was cute how honestly and earnestly he could say things like that; never with a moment’s hesitation.

And he really means each word he says, she thought to herself and once more reflected on how well the mantle of the Chevalier would fit him… though she hoped, desperately, that he’d not share their short lifespan.

Thinking about that did not help with the matter at hand, though. Better to focus on more productive subjects. “Are your sentries all in place?”

“Yes, of course. Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” he reassured her.

They fell silent as they continued to wait for their compatriots, Chantal’s eyes fixed on the Blackguard in the otherwise abandoned building.

***

“They’re here,” Phalange spoke up a few minutes later, tilting his head to the side as if listening to something. “Casque Vert, Sol-Sol and some newbie.”

The heroine frowned, though without averting her eyes from the target. What was that pothead thinking, bringing in an amateur? Sol-Sol was almost too inexperienced for her taste, and she’d been in the game for three years!

Four sets of footsteps came up the old, bare stairs; she recognised Phalange’s heavy, armored boots, Casque Vert’s creaky bare feet and Sol-Sol’s heels. The fourth set was unfamiliar, and quite weird beside – muted to the point where she could only tell there were steps and nothing in particular besides that.

Phalange – his clone, duplicate, extra body (she wasn’t sure how exactly to classify what his power did) – came through the door with the others.

First after him was Casque Vert, a man who’d started out as a joke among the caped (and cowled) community of France, but had worked his way up the ranks and gained the respect his name and chosen costume had denied him at first. Chantal still felt a little uncomfortable around him, mostly because she’d been on of the ones to make fun of him, back when he’d just been starting out; but she had to admit, she’d rather have him with them than not. The man was a tank if there ever was one.

He was tall, so tall he had to stoop over to get through the door and even afterwards, his helmet (an upturned green pot with two holes for the eyes cut into it) brushed the ceiling. It wasn’t his height, though, that made him stand out – it was also the fact that he was, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, a living plant. Chantal didn’t know whether this form was permanent or if he had a human form to live a civilian life in (she’d never heard anything about his private life, and his current appearance was impossible to conceal; so she assumed that he had a more human form to fit in with), though she didn’t know why he’d bother wearing that ridiculous pot on his head if he didn’t have to worry about a secret identity anyway. His body beneath the pot was made up of fresh, thick wood, with tightly coiled roots as the joints, looking almost like exposed muscle. Though he didn’t seem to be uncommonly massive for his height, she knew that his body was so dense, the wood compressed to a degree which a friend of hers with a liking for the sciences had described as ‘insane’ that he weighed a good ton and was as tough as if he’d been made of steel. And that didn’t even touch on his actual main power, which made him one of the oddest cogneurs (not to mention déplaceur) she’d ever encountered.

Next to him, Sol-Sol was positively normal, even though her ever-changing costumes tended to cause quite an uproar among the more conservative cape watchers and moral guardians. Today, she was fashionably practical, wearing light brown spandex pants and a matching crop top, their creamy colour meshing with her dark skin in a way which even Chantal had to admit was quite attractive. Dark brown boots with heels and elbow-length gloves, along with a matching domino mask, completed the outfit. Her black hair had been tied into countless micro-braids which fell to her elbows, and she was walking like she was still on one of the runways she used to frequent before her manifestation, putting her slim, professionally trim body (unlike Chantal, she had not had the luck of her power improving her looks, much to her chagrin) on casual display.

Her gold-coloured lips spread into a white-toothed grin when she saw Phalange, and Chantal felt her own lips tilt downwards – that kind of distraction was the last thing they needed here.

At least Phalange missed the undertones (if one could call them that, they were so obvious) with the unerring practice of a man completely oblivious to female interest.

Still, Chantal felt more than a little annoyed now. Sol-Sol was a tireur, much like herself – only she packed a much, much bigger punch and she was also tougher than she had any right to be.

Annoying, but efficient.

The last newcomer was the only one in the room which Chantal did not know, though it was easy to tell which class she fell under – she wasn’t simply wearing a costume, but rather equipment, and it was so obviously handmade, she could only be a génie or a bricoleur; considering how flimsy her ‘armor’ appeared to be, Chantal was tempted to bet on génie, but one could never be sure with bricoleurs.

She seemed young, definitely younger than Chantal herself, though not by much; her body was entirely covered by her costume, but the contour suggested either very good genes, regular workout or some supernatural influence – or perhaps all three; though if it was the latter, then she had at least dodged the bullet and gotten a slim bodytype, and not an impractically voluptuous one. Her ‘armor’ was really just jet-black bodysuit, skintight but so thick it obscured her natural contours quite a bit. The whole of it was covered in strange circuitry which was invisible to the naked eye, but would flare up in a stark white colour as energy pulsed through it in a rhythm which suggested a heartbeat. Over that bodysuit, she wore a dull silver breastplate, greaves and bracers, as well as a slim helmet with a mirrored faceplate. A sword was attached to her left hip by no visible means, and it, too, looked rather futuristic, the blade uncommonly thick and made of the same dull silver metal as her armor; channels that ran down the side of the blade revealed circuitry within which pulsed in the same odd rhythm as her bodysuit. Several barely perceptible buttons were built into the hilt where it met the crossguard, and the woman’s delicate fingers were running over them almost tenderly, as if to reassure herself that they were still there and whole.

Chantal had never seen this woman before, nor heard anything about a metahuman who would run around like that, and she didn’t like that Casque Vert had brought along an utter unknown. At all.

Before she could open her mouth and voice her disapproval, Phalange took charge.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters!” he said, his voice filling the room as easily as it could fill a square or a mall, “I’m glad you made it for this his-“

“Yeah, we’re all here,” Casque Vert cut him off quickly enough. “Is anyone else coming?”

“Not that I know of,” Chantal headed Phalange’s reply off. “There aren’t many people left willing and able to face the Blackguard, not with how things are on the Iron Wall right now.”

There was a  moment of contemplation, as they all thought of the countless heroes (and quite a few villains) patrolling on the Iron Wall, while the Sovjet Union was tearing itself apart – and lashing out at the rest of Europe like a wounded animal while at it.

However, despite the lack of manpower, him bringing an unknown into this was just plain irresponsible, and Chantal voiced her thoughts on the subject.

Casque Vert looked at her, then turned his head to look at the newcomer.

The girl looked at him, then at the others present – everyone, even Sol-Sol, who’d been trying to catch Phalange’s attention, was looking at her – and she seemed to shrink into herself, her fingers fiddling nervously with the buttons on her swordhilt.

Chantal was almost ready to ask her to leave, for her own good, hen Casque Vert spoke up in her stead. “I vouch for her,” he said simply, as if that was enough.

“I’m sorry, but this is the Blackguard we’re talking about, there’s no way I’m taking a greenhorn who can’t even look me in the eyes along!” she protested. “She’ll get herself killed – and maybe the rest of us, as well!”

Phalange was frowning as well, now. “I’m not one to deny a young hero the chance to prove themselves, but this is hardly the time for such – even th-“

“We get what you mean,” Casque Vert cut him off. “But I’m telling you, she’ll pull through. She’s just not very eager for the talking part, you know?”

“Unlike some people…” Sol-Sol whispered, though Chantal was pretty sure everyone heard her – not that she disagreed.

“Anyway, I’m telling you, I’m vouching for her. She’s one hell of a Bricoleur…”

“A Bricoleur? Really?” Chantal asked, surprised. She hadn’t expected that.

The girl looked briefly at her before averting her eyes, somehow conveying annoyance, despite her utterly featureless look.

“Yes, really,” the plantman confirmed, before he leaned in a little closer and spoke in a conspirational whisper: “Better not call her a génie – she hates that.”

The young woman nodded, though she kept her gaze averted, apparently preferring to watch the leg of a nearby desk rather than facing the other heroes.

Casque Vert straightened up again. “To get back to the point, she’s powerful, she has had an excellent teacher and she assures me that she’s ready to take part in this – so how about we focus on the Blackguard, now?”

“Can we at least get her name?” Sol-Sol asked, rolling her eyes. “Rather hard to work with her, otherwise, if we don’t know what to call her.” She leaned in closer to the girl, who cringed away. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

The girl remained quiet, fondling the buttons on her sword – a nervous tick if there’d ever been one.

“She doesn’t really have a persona, yet,” Casque Vert admitted, looking aside as if embarrassed. “This is the first time she’s out in costume.”

Oh, how wonderful, was all Chantal could think to that. “Great. A complete greenhorn. We’ll just call you Pucelle, then.”

The girl looked at her for all of two seconds before looking away, and just nodded. Even though her helmet did not show her face at all, her stance relaxed slightly.

Damn, I was just kidding.

Sol-Sol giggled in amusement. “Oh, this is just glorious – we must be the most pathetic ragtag bunch of heroes ever, going into battle against a seasoned supervillain with a complete newcomer. You sure the Blackguard is going to fight us and not just laugh his ass off?”

“Speaking of which – Fusillade, what is he doing?” Phalange asked, his voice as warm and steadfast as ever, even though he was still clearly annoyed at continuously getting cut off – or perhaps he was more annoyed at how the discussion kept getting sidetracked, because he completely ignored Sol-Sol’s question.

Chantal gave a start, and immediately turned around – she really ought not have let herself be distracted!

Fortunately, the Blackguard was still engrossed in reading his comic book.

“Still just sitting around and reading comic books.”

“Really? What kind of comic books does the Blackguard read?” Sol-Sol asked curiously as she pulled an office chair over to sit by them. “Smutty schoolgirls? Hardcore porn? Those weird Japanese ones?”

“Asterix, actually,” Chantal replied with a roll of her eyes. Not that she would’ve been surprised if he read that deviant crap from Japan. “Asterix in Corsica, to be precise.”

“Well, he’s got taste, at least,” Sol-Sol admitted.

“So long as we still have the time, we ought to discuss how we’re going to proceed,” Phalange stated. “Let’s make this clear,” he looked at Pucelle, then at the others, “We are here to stop this monster. It is not about deciding who’s going to be the next Chevalier – we can take care of that after we’ve dealt with him.”

Everyone nodded or, in the case of Chantal – who was splitting her attention between watching the enemy and paying attention, and had been watching him at that moment – agreed verbally.

Phalange put his hands behind his back, hiding them beneath his long cape. “This isn’t going to be easy and chances are good that at least one of us is going to die today – probably more. This man is a monster, plain and simple, and he has never been beaten.”

And we’re just five people, Chantal added in her thoughts. And far from the best-qualified, too.

“The plan is for me to lead the charge – his power doesn’t work on me – while Fusillade and Sol-Sol strike from a distance to whittle him down,” he explained their very basic battle plan. “Casque Vert is the most mobile among us, so he’ll use hit-and-run tactics to keep him off-balance.” He looked at Pucelle again. “I’m not sure what your classification is, or how you can contribute, so…”

Casque Vert spoke for her again. “With her current loadout, she’s a minor mateur, a strong modificateur and a major cogneur – probably the toughest one among us,” he replied. “We’re not sure how the Blackguard’s power will interact with her equipment, though.”

Chantal lifted an eyebrow, though she was still looking at the Blackguard. Casque Vert was probably the toughest cogneur in France, yet he considered the girl tougher than himself? Maybe she would actually be useful and not a lethal hindrance.

Phalange didn’t seem to be as taken aback by the claim as Chantal – though he was honestly quite good about hiding that kind of thing, anyway – and continued without losing a beat. “Well, that’s good. We should still assume that his power works on you if he manages any direct contact, so focus on his inorganic bodyparts and don’t try to take a hit you could dodge, if that hit is made with an organic part of himself.”

The girl nodded, still looking at the table leg. Sol-Sol had dropped the grin and stood up, starting to limber up. Casque Vert looked the same as ever, though he did reach up to straighten his pot. All-black eyes peaked through the holes he’d cut into it, looking as serious as he could with his limited facial movement.

“Uh, a question,” Sol-Sol said, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I know it’s kind of a touchy subject, but seeing how most of our best are currently on the wall or in the Near East, shouldn’t we ask Fleur for h-“

No!” said everyone but Pucelle, all at the same time, looking at her with outrage.

Chantal was the first to continue, “The last thing we want is that sellout taking credit for this – retrieving the name of the Chevalier is a French matter, there’s no room for a traitor like her!” she snapped at Sol-Sol.

“Though I disagree with the precise terminology,” Casque Vert added, “I have to agree with Fusillade. This is a French matter, pertaining to a purely French symbol. If we call in Fleur and she helps, that’ll mean the next Chevalier will owe the United Heroes his persona.”

“And the UH, noble though their intentions may be, are everything the Great War taught us we should not be,” Phalange continued. “Weisswald showed us what happens when metahumans form a single, unified organisation.”

“Well, yeah, but Fleur is a Frenchwoman, after all,” Sol-Sol defended her suggestion in a smaller voice. “I’m sure she’ll understand…”

“She lost her right to this when she became Lady Light’s sidekick,” Chantal countered with venom in her voice. “Now she’s supposedly the chief protector of Europe – as if! No, we’re not going to ask that whore for help, not for this! This is a French matter, not something for bootlickers like her!”

Everyone but Pucelle (who seemed to have ignored the argument) nodded, though Sol-Sol did so reluctantly.

They took a minute to calm down, then everyone except for Pucelle looked at Phalange again.

Their erstwhile leader took a deep breath, as four of his duplicates (Chantal really didn’t think the term applied, considering how his power worked, but she couldn’t think of a better term – refractions? mirror images? fractals?) joined them in the room – she didn’t know where the other eleven were, but they were probably already around the apartment building they’d be storming in a moment.

“Alright, my friends,” he spoke up. “Before we go, let me just say briefly that I’m damn proud to-“

“Enemy from below,” the new girl whispered, leaping back from where she’d been standing.

Casque Vert reacted instantly, grabbing Chantal – who was closest – and leaping towards Sol-Sol, but-

Before he could reach her, before Chantal could get her bearings, the floor beneath the spot Pucelle had been standing on cracked and a huge, long mass of eye-studded flesh, concrete and twisted rebar shot out, slamming straight into Sol-Sol’s bare stomach.

The young woman made a soft gasp as the air was knocked out of her, her eyes rolling up into her head.

“No!” shouted Phalange, as he and his duplicates materialised a spear and a round shield each.

More of the ground broke, as the body behind the monstrous limb rose, a cancerous mass of raw muscle and bone, topped by a skinless human head. Another man’s body was growing partially out of its left shoulder, like a desiccated husk; his waist looked ridiculously thin compared to the sheer mass of muscle it packed onto its upper body, nevermind the mass of concrete, rebar and steel pipes it dragged after itself with its left arm – its right had just attached itself to Sol-Sol. It had no legs, or even a lower body, instead continuing into a mass of flesh and concrete.

How did he get here! He was across the street just a moment ago! Chantal thought as Casque Vert evaded the other limb’s casual swipe.

She threw one last look across to the apartment building, only to still see the Blackguard there, looking just like how his old pictures showed – but this time, she looked below, too, and saw that his feet and lower body were actually fused to his cushioned seat, which extended through the floor.

He’d worked his way down the apartment building, under the street and up to them, all while leaving his own skin behind to act as a decoy, probably stuffed with useless bits of concrete and older, rotten flesh.

The Blackguard opened his mouth, the bloody, dripping muscles of his face stretching to imply a grin, but before he could say whatever he meant to say, Pucelle had kicked off the table she’d jumped towards, vaulting over the limb reaching for Casque Vert and Fusillade in a graceful leap that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Olympics, segueing seemlessly into a roll as she detached her sword from her hip, bringing it up to cut at the limb attached to Sol-Sol’s stomach.

Chantal realised that denying the Blackguard Sol-Sol’s power could spell the difference between victory and defeat, and so began materialising her turrets, the first gun-metal coloured, soccer ball sized sphere appearing in the air next to her shoulder as Casque Vert let go of her.

She fired, the metallic surface of her turret distorting as it fired another sphere the size of her fist at super-sonic speed, deflecting the Blackguard’s second limb so that it flew over Pucelle’s head, instead of hitting her and slamming her into the other one.

Two of Phalange nailed that limb into the ceiling with their spears, as it crossed over his right limb, and Pucelle’s sword bit into the underside of the Blackguard’s limb, just an inch away from Sol-Sol’s flesh.

It’s eating it, Chantal saw to her dismay, as the flesh began to worm its way into the sword…

And then Pucelle pushed the first button on her grip. The pulsing circuitry inside the sword flared a stark blue for a moment and the flesh trying to fuse with the sword simply slid off of it as it cut straight through the trunk-like limb as if it was just air.

The Blackguard reared back, pulling his neatly cut limb away from the offending sword. Whatever effect the girl’s sword used, it clung to the edges of the wound for a second or two, blue-white light eating away at it before it faded away.

Sol-Sol collapsed, Pucelle whirled around into a flawless fencer’s stance, all five of Phalange took up positions around the Blackguard with their shields and spears raised, Casque Vert stood between her and the enemy and Chantal herself had just finished materialising her second turret over her other shoulder.

Everyone looked at each other for just a moment, the Blackguard’s many, many eyes taking them in, them taking in his monstrously warped appearance – he used to look so noble – and looking for a weak spot.

And then he opened his mouth and began to laugh.

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