B012.b Matriarchy

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Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Elouise was thinking about high heels as she walked down the hallway towards her ‘throne’ room. She considered how impractical it was to wear seven-inch heels in costume – even with her physical enhancements, she still had to rest every now and then to avoid getting cramps! The least said about wearing high heels in combat, the better.

On the other hand, they made her legs and her butt look awesome – well, even more awesome than usual – and they made up for her rather lackluster height. It was alright for the Matriarch to be shorter than her male enforcers, but to be shorter than her accountant? Unacceptable, even if it was just an inch.

Presentation is key. Always be aware of the effect your appearance has on people.

Her mother had pounded the lesson into her from an early age, along with many others. Elouise was to be her perfect heir, a daughter who would never bring shame to her mother’s name once she took it on; and despite some rather persistent rumors in the underworld, her taking over as the Matriarch had always been the plan, from the very beginning, her mother’s (apparent) unending youth notwithstanding. Her untimely death had merely accelerated Elouise’s inheritance.

She still didn’t know whether to thank her mother’s killer or strangle him to death.

Such were her thoughts as she entered her hideout’s main hall, built on the top floor of the Seventh Cloud Casino.

Click-click. Click-click. Click-click.

Maybe she should have her costume adjusted, shorten the heels a bit. Losing an inch shouldn’t be too bad. Maria would jump at the chance to do it, and the girl was good at these things, in spite of her atrocious fashion sense.

Every little advantage matters. Even after all these years, her mother’s voice would still whisper into her ear, advising her, reminding her of the lessons… and of the punishments that came with disregarding them.

Being spanked had only been but one of her many, many painful humiliations.

Perhaps she would not shorten her heels after all.

She shook her head, lightly, not to look ridiculous by throwing her long, pure white waves of hair around. Her people were watching, after all.

Walking up to and lying down on her divan, she surveyed her gathered people. The first one, immediately to her right, was Kakitsune – Maria, the closest she had to an actual friend – in her customary, ridiculous outfit (not that she hadn’t earned the right to look as ridiculous as she liked to). Elouise gave her a small smile, which was returned with quite a bit less refined restraint.

Her gaze moved on, tracking over her twelve costumed lieutenants, the second-largest single group of metahumans in the entire Great Lakes region. Some of them were carryovers from her mother’s time, but most were her own recruits, drawn to her for various reasons.

Among the twelve were four she was particularly close to, and whom she trusted above the others, her four chief enforcers – Kakitsune, Holdout, Ducktail and Horrendous. They stood closest to her, flanking her divan to the left and right, each of them one of her own recruits, and close enough to nearly be friends.

Attachments are a liability. Use them, but don’t let them bog you down.

Of course, there was also one more person present, a new addition to her staff, and one she wasn’t quite sure how to feel about.

It had been as great a shock to her as to her half-sister, she was sure, to find out that her grandfather, her grandfather, was none other than the Dark himself. Inbetween the barely restrained glee at finally, finally having a family, however messed up it might be, a family that didn’t spank her for having her make-up out of place or starve her for not walking right at an official function, she’d been quietly terrified at the thought. He was the Dark, she was his granddaughter and yet, her success as a supervillain was questionable at best; even having the largerst local group of supervillains, enough people to take on any two other teams and not be at a numeric disadvantage, she was really only holding onto the title of Queen Bee of Chicago’s underworld by dint of there not being any suitable challenger to the title; none of the other villains were interested in ruling as the Matriarch had since the inception of capes and cowls.

What if her grandfather considered her a failure?

Of course, there had also been another thing that had hit her back then, and which she’d been thinking about ever since.

Finding out about her grandfather had put pretty much everything about her mother’s behaviour into a new light. Elouise could see, now, how she had been groomed to be his granddaughter, to please his way of doing things; perhaps, even, to become his heir in the absence of anyone else to do so. The Dark was a known family man, a traditionalist in many ways, who valued loyalty and blood; and so Elouise had been raised to both give and demand loyalty, to value her family above all, to be an intelligent, successful villain without being a brutish monster.

Her mother had never joined the Syndicate proper, though they’d cooperated a lot. She’d never aspired to join the Dark Five, even though she had the skills and the power to do so. Because she could never have expected being a mere underling of the Dark. The Matriarch had to rule, she had to stand at the top.

But there was nothing objectionable to the Matriarch serving under the Dark as his heir presumptive, as a beloved family member taken into the family business.

In the end, her mother had been willing to pass on her beloved name for the chance, however slim, that the Matriarch may one day stand at the top of the Syndicate.

Now she’d met the Dark and he’d… been way less intimidating than she’d expected, and way more personable; though, she was his granddaughter, and unlike all other descendants of his that she knew of, she was actually ‘in the business’. So maybe her mother’s plan would pay off after all.

It usually did.

After the whole mess with the Ascendant had been over and done with, he’d sought her out and they’d spent a whole night talking and getting to know each other… or at least, he’d been getting to know her. He’d been quite sparse with information about himself, and he’d been so smooth about it that she hadn’t noticed, that even her shadow hadn’t noticed.

But it had been nice, nonetheless. And helpful. Once she’d described all the problems she found herself faced with, he’d offered his advice, and then, to send a trusted lieutenant of his to provide her with advice and support, as her subordinate, of course, until such a time as she no longer required his help or decided to recruit him permanently.

She’d agreed, happily, after only briefly thinking it over, and the man had appeared on her doorstep on the very next day.

She still didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted. She had certainly never expected that a man like this was so high up in her grandfather’s trust; especially as he had basically no history to speak of. He simply went by the name ‘Leopold’, and the most she’d been able to find out about him was that he was some kind of background character in the Syndicate, perhaps a secret enforcer of some sort, though mostly he seemed to just be an observer.

He was, however, undoubtedly skilled. From accounting and administration to planning capers, strategic decisions and tactical expertise, the man seemed to be able to do anything he wanted, and he was good at it. He’d almost singlehandedly increased her Casino’s revenue by a hundred and thirty percent within two weeks of arriving there, among other things. And he’d rooted out no less than a dozen plants in her organisation, both by law enforcement and by other villain groups; he now assured her that there were none left, and she was inclined to trust him.

To a point.

Right now, he stood a little apart from her people, close enough to make it clear she trusted him, not so close as to be thought of as one of her full lieutenants. He also stood apart in how he dressed, wearing a dark brown three-piece suit, with a black shirt and gold tie, and a golden pocketwatch in his vest pocket, tailored to fit flawlessly onto his rail-thin body. His hair was slicked back, shining almost like more gold, and his dark blonde mustache and goatee where so sharply styled she suspected that they might serve as bladed instruments. The former was also ridiculously twirled, each twist easily the size of the man’s eyes. Brown-golden eyes which were currently looking at her, twinkling with amusement like he was privy to some private joke. A very common expression on him, and one she’d grown accustomated to.

She finished surveying them all, and went on with her ritual.

“Good evening, my dear companions,” she spoke, carefully intoning every single word. “I’m glad to see you all gathered here. Let’s get down to business.”

Which one to call up first? The order in which they spoke was set by me, and I usually picked whichever one I favoured most first, and so on.

My shadow came to me, from where it had been drawing lazy circles over the walls, whispering. Leopold has good news, but it will offend one of your chief lieutenants. Kakitsune has nothing out of the ordinary to say, but she’s feeling left out since Leopold joined. Horrendous is looking forward to his turn. Ducktail has a problem and is hoping for help. Ducktail is nervous. Silverback is feeling guilty over something. The others have nothing out of the ordinary to say, it spoke to her, using her own voice, but with a different inflection, just enough to make it sound noticably different.

She thought it over, briefly, processing the information, as she mentally decided on the order. Maria had to be first, to soothe her ego; Leopold was going to offend someone, so she shouldn’t pick him last, or else the meeting would end on a sour note.

Only she didn’t know whom he would offend.

She took a glass of sparkling water off the small table next to her divan, drinking from it to buy herself a few more moments to consider it.

In the end, she decided to pick Horrendous last – he was the one least likely to get offended by anything, or hold a grudge if it did happen.

Yes, that will do. First Kakitsune, then Silverback, Leopold, Ducktail and finally, Horrendous.

She smiled. That would do. She put the glass down and turned to look at Maria, smiling.

“Maria, please start,” she said, smiling at her… friend.

The girl brightened up considerably at being picked first, standing up straighter… which wasn’t necessarily a good thing, considering her outfit. How she managed to get around without flashing her breasts every time she moved, Elouise would never understand. It certainly wasn’t her power’s effect, that was for sure. Nor did she use double-sided tape.

“Nothing’s changed since the last briefing, boss,” she said in her usual, chipper voice. “Really, the Ascendant kinda did us a favour; all the chaos and damage he caused has got the other gangs running ragged trying to re-establish themselves. We and the Misfits are the only ones who didn’t lose any cowls, and that’s mostly because their cowls were all in lock-up at the time, thanks in no small part to, well to your dad.”

Elouise smiled, nodding. “So your part of the business is running smoothly,” she followed, referring to Maria’s protection business.

Maria nodded, and then beamed when Elouise smiled at her. “Well done,” she said warmly, and she beamed even brighter.

Kakitsune’s worries have been soothed for now. She won’t be an issue for at least another two weeks.

Elouise frowned, briefly, masking it by coughing and taking another drink. Maria’s not just an ‘issue’. She is my friend.

There was no answer, and so she moved on, looking at Silverback, a man who certainly looked the part of his namesake, being a huge man, as huge as one could be as a normal person, with shoulders almost as broad as her legs were tall. He was wearing an impeccable, if very old-fashioned gray suit that made him look like a mobster from the prohibition era. Appropriate, seeing how his family had been part of the mob (and then of her mother’s organisation, and now her own) for a good five generations now.

“Silverback, how’s the gambling ring coming along?”

He cleared his throat, then ran a huge hand through his squarish, black beard. “Not as well as we’d hoped – the recent crisis has had people stay home more, though we’re seeing an upward trend again – but we’re making steady profits, and most of them are even legal, especially thanks to Leopold here,” he inclined his head towards the smiling man, who acknowledged it with a deferential nod of his, “Putting us in contact with that corrupt official at the mayor’s office.” He coughed again, uncomfortable.

“That’s good to hear,” she replied with a smile, then turned it towards Leopold. “Your support is really extraordinary, Leopold.”

“Think nothing of it, my lady,” he told her with a fancy bow. “I am merely fulfilling my duties.”

Leopold means what he says.

She nodded instead of continuing, and turned back to Silverback. Even without her shadow’s whispers, she could tell that he was rather uncomfortable. “There’s more, isn’t there, Silverback?”

He coughed again. “Well… there was a bit of an incident, last night.” The huge man shuffled his feet. “I… lost my temper with one of our patrons, and offended him rather heavily. We may lose him.”

Her eye twitched, annoyed. Silverback was everything one could wish for in a lieutenant, ambitious without being treacherous, steadfast, loyal, determined, powerful… but he was not calm. His temper was his greatest weakness, and perhaps the only reason why she hadn’t elevated him to be her right-hand man. “Which one?” she asked, her voice gone colder.

“Judge Martherson,” he replied, his head lowered in shame.

Elouise had to really fight with herself to avoid giving a biting retort to that. Martherson was a snake, but he was her snake, god damn it! Even disregarding the fact that he brought old Chicago money to the table, and was all too ready to gamble it away, he was a Judge. Always useful to keep around.

“That is… disappointing,” she forced out between clenched teeth, trying to catch herself. “I will have to… talk to Martherson, and convince him to… accept an apology. My apology, to be precise.”

Silverback flinched, opening his mouth again, but she cut him off.

“What is done, is done. I’m not going to hold this one slip-up against you, Silverback, but please do try to reign in your temper in the future.”

He nodded, biting his own lip.

This will do.

Leopold took a step forward, without saying anything, causing her to look at him. He clearly looked like he had something to say – and well, she’d planned to pick him next, anyway.

“If you have something to say, Leopold, please feel free to do so,” she drawled.

He bowed again, smiling. “Mmm, well, I just wanted to say, dear lady, that I already had a little… talk, with our judge, after I became aware of the incident last night,” he said, making Silverback stare at him in surprise – and Elouise, too, for that matter. “He has magnanimously agreed to accept an apology… from Silverback, here.”

“You… you just went and…” Silverback clenched his fists, snarling, as he looked at the far shorter, slender man. She could see the red creep into his eyes, towards his pupils, and decided to intervene.

So this is the subject that would offend another. He went and resolved Silverback’s problem without consulting with him, promising that the man give an apology without consulting him. She was relieved, really, that it was something so minor, in the grand scheme of things. Though she still had to do something, to save Silverback some pride. She didn’t need her power to figure that out, either.

Thus, she smiled at Leopold, though she made it a little sharper an expression than was strictly friendly. “Leopold, as usual, you amaze me with how… swift and efficient you are, resolving this little dispute,” she drawled, sipping from her glass. Be grateful, Elouise. He saved you the need to demean yourself to make an apology. “Thank you for that; however, I can not simply tolerate it that you intervene in Silverback’s business without even consulting him – much less allow that his apology be promised to another, like that. This will not happen again, understood? She underlined the last few words with a sharp glare at the man.

Leopold sighed, though he didn’t seem intimidated at all. However, he did make an apologetic face, and bowed at Silverback. “I am sorry, my friend, that I acted in so rushed a manner – I was only thinking of mollifying the judge, and did not stop to consider the insult it would bring to you.”

He is sincere, though still amused at the whole situation.

Annoying, but at least he was sincere enough to mollify Silverback… slightly. She would still have to deal with this in the future.

Worst of all, she was not at all able to tell whether Leopold was doing this deliberately, to test her. He was here on orders from her grandfather, after all, both to support and, perhaps, to evaluate.

The corner of her mouth ticked up as she considered just how problematic this could still become, having someone in her inner circle who didn’t answer to her, first.

She blinked, banishing those thoughts from her mind. There would still be time to pursue that line of thought later on.

Instead, she moved on with the evening’s business.

***

The rest had gone quite smoothly. Ducktail had some problem with the heroes coming after her underground fight rings, and Elouise had assigned Maria to help shore up security. Horrendous had only good things to report, as he was in charge of smuggling goods and the relatively high taxation on a lot of luxury items, due to the brewing war in Europe, was driving up their profits quite nicely.

All in all, even considering Silverback’s little blunder, and Leopold’s provocation, this had been a pleasant enough meeting.

Leopold will continue to be a problem, though he should be enough of an asset to justify keeping him around, her shadow whispered to her as she was walking towards her private suite.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Her grandfather had sent him, and she was more than willing to put up with the occasional annoyance – she trusted the Dark to have her best interests at heart.

She smiled to herself, as she opened the door to her bedroom’s antechamber, already looking forward to spending the rest of the night…

“Well, what are you smiling about like that?”

Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the man waiting for her in the room (how did he get inside? None of her security systems had noticed him!), sitting on a love seat next to the old fireplace (she rarely used it, but now there was a small fire going) with his cheek resting on a hand, his elbow on the armrest, as he smiled at her.

“Daddy!” she shouted, and leaped clear across the room, all thoughts of decorum forgotten as she wrapped her arms around his neck, nearly bowling him and the seat over.

Presentation is k-

She ignored the little voice as she hugged him tight. To her delight, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her.

She’d never known what it felt like to just be held by a father, had often imagined it, but never thought it’d feel this good.

“Hey there, baby girl,” he said as he patted her back, before he kissed the top of her head. “How was your evening so far?”

“Oh, quite alright,” she replied as she pulled herself up to sit properly – on his lap, that was. They had almost two decades of cuddling to make up for, after all. “The aide grandfather sent to work with me went a little over the line and pissed off Silverback – you remember him, right, I introduced you – and I had to tell him off, but otherwise, everything’s going more or less smoothly.”

He smiled down at her, making her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. She just couldn’t get enough looking at him. He’d grown less haggart, ever since the business with the Ascendant had been done with, and he didn’t dress quite as formally anymore – or at least, not quite as often. Just jeans and a shirt with a rockband’s name printed on it, though she’d never heard of this particular one. He still kept his beard, though, which she liked – it made him look nicely mature and father-ly.

“Well, knowing my father, he’s likely sent someone who’s certain to be annoying and testing, just to see how you’ll deal with him,” he told her, confirming her own suspicion. He didn’t really seem happy about it, though. “I wish you hadn’t taken him up on his offer, though. It’s not healthy to get drawn into the Syndicate’s business, even for an established supervillain.”

“We’ve been over this, daddy,” she replied, pouting at him as she took her mask off. “I’m not going to give up being the Matriarch. Not even for you, or Henny.”

He sighed. “I know… just like you know that I won’t stop trying to talk you out of it.” He smirked, winking at her. “And I’m doing that just for you, not for Hennessy’s sake. Though that’s a welcome bonus, too.”

She giggled, glad that he was being light-hearted about it. “How’s Henny doing, anyway? She hasn’t really been replying to my e-mails much.” Finding out that her arch-enemy was actually her half-sister, and one with such a horrible trauma in her past, had been more than a small shock. Fortunately, though, they hadn’t clashed since finding out, in large part due to her being too busy with keeping her organisation low-key and out of the heroes’ eyes, so they’d focus on the other gangs instead.

Come to think of it, it’d been her dad who’d convinced her to pursue that course of action…

He doesn’t want his daughters to clash in battle, or otherwise, came the unbidden whisper, not that it told her anything new. It was almost annoying how good her dad was at confounding her shadow – he was just too controlled to be read, even with its power, perhaps even more so than her grandfather.

“Hennessy has recovered well,” he explained, looking away – focusing into the distance. “Now that the Ascendant is behind bars, she and her friends have… relaxed a lot. Hell, Dearheart has even forgotten to glare at me, a few times!” he laughed, and she couldn’t help but join in. “So, who’s this guy the old man sent to you? Maybe I remember him,” he continued.

“Oh, he’s a weird one, so you’d remember him for sure!” she replied. “He doesn’t use a codename, he just calls himself Leop-“

“Leopold!?! He sent you Leopold!?” he shouted, making her flinch. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.”

“So, uh, I guess you know him?” she asked, leaning against his chest as she threw her legs over the armrest. They’re the same age, likely to have interacted in their youth if he has such a strong reaction to him.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, he’s my age. Did a few jobs with him, back in the day. He is… an unending source of frustration.”

“He seems quite alright to me. Really competent. And almost as hard to read as you.”

“He would be. Guy’s an a- a jerk, but he’s competent, I’ll give him that,” he replied, editing his own swear-word out – like that’d bother her. It was really kinda cute.

“Yeah, that he is. But enough of that! Tell me what you’ve been up to – I was really surprised you and Henny didn’t go to help with this Crocell incident in Esperanza City!” she moved the conversation along, not wanting to dwell on her business for too long when he was around.

“There’s no way the authorities would allow Hennessy to participiate in an S-Class situation, unless it actually came here – and maybe not even then,” he explained, looking troubled. “She’s much too unstable.” He sighed, and she could tell that he still blamed himself for his other daughter’s state. It hurt her to see, but there was nothing she could do about it -she’d already told him that she, at least, did not blame him at all for being absent from her life until recently, and she was pretty sure he still beat himself up about that, even though she hadn’t gone through half as much horror as her little sister.

“And what about you?” she tried to move on, away from the subject of Henny. “What were you up to?”

“Oh, I was out of the country for a few days, down in South America to visit a few old friends who’d moved there. Came running as soon as I heard about the attack, but by the time I reached Esperanza, I could only help with the rescue efforts.”

He frowned, tapping his chin. “Gotta wonder about this gadgeteer boy everyone’s gushing about. He killed that thing in one shot – while dad failed to put the one he fought in Tokyo down at all.”

She shivered at the reminder of what had happened in Tokyo – that was… bad business. Far beyond any limits she was willing to come even close to.

“Brennus. I’ve heard, yeah. New Lennston never disappoints in producing some amazing capes and cowls,” she said, more subdued now. “He’s independent, isn’t he? I wonder how he’s managed to resist being recruited by either side.”

“I don’t know about the heroes,” her father said slowly, “but I was talking to my father, and well, he didn’t say anything straight out, but I get the feeling that he considers Brennus to be off-limits for some reason.”

Possible that he’s related to a Syndicate member, or else a high-enough ranked hero to not be worth the trouble.

“Curious…” she rubbed her chin, considering it. Maybe he was off-limits to the Syndicate, but she wasn’t quite a member yet, and who knew, maybe she could recruit herself an up-and-coming gadgeteer…

“Elouise, stop it,” her father chided her. “No scheming right now, alright? I didn’t come here for that.”

She pouted at him. “But I’m supposed to be a mastermind, scheming is what I do.”

He smirked. “Oh yes? Even if the alternative is going out for a late dinner with me?”

She leapt off his lap. “I’ll go get changed!” she chirped happily, making him chuckle as she all but ran into her bedroom. Spending time with her daddy was way more important than some new scheme, anyway!

Her heels clicked on the expensively wood-tiled floor, making her stop just beyond her bedroom door, looking down at them.

Hm, they really are too high, aren’t they? I’ll ask Maria to shorten them tomorrow.

She smirked, ignoring her mother’s angry rebuttal, and walked into her wardrobe to pick out something for her impromptu dinner-date.

The night could only get sweeter.

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Update 30/01/17

The new chapter, B012.b Matriarchy will be up tomorrow around 2 pm.

After that will come the rewrite of the Dreaming, starting from 2.2 Sam onwards, which should be complete, along with another chapter, by February 4.

Also, there is still an ongoing Patreon vote regarding the third interlude slot for Brennus, before B013 Call of the Sleeper starts! To those of my patrons who maybe didn’t notice it, please check the Patreon page in order to vote on that!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

Patreon Vote coming up

The Patreon vote on the upcoming interlude chapters is coming up today. A while ago, though, I sent a message (over Patreon) to my Tier 2 patron, and haven’t gotten an answer with his suggestion for Interlude content yet.

If you could answer me briefly (maybe patreon just didn’t notify you) within the next 4 hours, I can include your suggestion in the vote!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B12.14 Born At Sleep

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According to Basil’s theory, Crocell’s outward appearance was merely cosmetic – merely a drawn-together matter compressed and shaped into an apparently living form. It’s actual appearance was random, or perhaps influenced by whatever impressions it got from its surroundings – that would explain why it had, at first, imitated whatever material it had come into contact with. Perhaps now it was simply drawing on the appearance of the humans around it.

Perhaps it wasn’t even really antagonistic towards them, but had merely reacted to the antagonism of the metahumans who’d opposed it.

Basil really, really hoped that his theory was accurate, because otherwise, the implications were more than a little disconcerting.

Crocell’s form had become even more humanoid; now coloured a dark purple, which darkened to jet black towards the tips of its limbs, it stood about twenty-five metres in height. Its legs and arms were fully formed, ending in human fingers and toes, even including toe-nails, though all of the same, uniform colour. Its body had become more angular, with sharp edges around the waist, ribs and shoulders, covered in odd, almost circuit-like patterns from top to bottom. The head was properly shaped now, though smooth, without openings for the nose, mouth, or eyes, though it was shaped so as to hint at them. It lacked ears entirely, however. From its left shoulder extended a scarf-like length of skin which was draped around its neck, once, then rose nearly to its chin before winding around its head one more time, weightlessly hovering in the air, coming down from the upper right of its face towards where its right eye should be, as if held up by an invisible force.

Its… or perhaps his, now that his appearance was more defined?… eye had moved from its spot on the head. Instead, there was now a large hole in Crocell’s chest, circular, twice as wide as the eye was – and the eye floated in its centre, without any visible support, moving around to look out the front and back of the gap.

He stood straight now, rising up from the dust his landing had thrown up, his eye searching around briefly – before it focused on the Subjugator.

“Uh, I don’t meant to alarm you people, but I, for one, can not do the gadgeteering thing while being pounded into paste,” Boom-Boom asked nervously.

“Then get to work now and finish before he pounds you into paste!” Tick-Tock shouted. “Let’s see what we can do!” She turned to the Subjugator. “Where’s your power reserve?”

“This masterpiece is powered by a compact cold fusion generator located… here,” it spoke, as a red light started to flicker about two thirds down its hull. “Though it is currently running purely on reserve power, as the reactor has been damaged too far to continue operating.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom leaped to it. “We’ll get this thing powered up again! You two work on the rest!”

<What about him!?> Polymnia asked, as Crocell advanced towards them with an unnaturally light-footed step, barely stirring the dust where his foot came down, even though the ground ought to be shaking.

“Leave that to her,” Basil told her, pointing towards the left and up as he walked up to the base of the ‘Zeus Caster’ (he preferred Arc Cannon himself. Way less pretentious), squatting down on an up-jutting piece of the shattered wing, ignoring the repair drones that were crawling around trying to get the Subjugator functional again.

The others all looked up in the direction he’d pointed.

A tiny figure, wreathed in white was approaching from the air, levitating more than she was flying, as dozens upon dozens of spheres in all colours of the rainbow were pouring forth from beneath her cloak, each about the size of a big marble when they first appeared, growing to the size of a medicine ball by the time they reached the ground, bouncing lightly and rolling around in the rubble. Her white hood was drawn deeply over her face, hiding all but her lips and chin from sight.

Even at this distance, it was easy to tell that she was frowning.

<Gloomy!> Polymnia shouted with a smile, recognizing her friend.

That’s their girl?” Boom-Boom asked. “Well, let’s hope she takes after her ‘rents, we could use some muscle here,” he continued as he turned back to his work, ripping a warped hatch off with the sound of screaming metal, then using the superior strength of his suit to pull the damaged reactor up out of its container. Tick-Tock nodded in agreement.

Polymnia cheered, though it didn’t keep her from doing her own work, her fingers flying over the keyboard she used to manipulate her technology, every microphone and speaker she had aimed at Crocell, projecting soundwaves with the latter whose reflections were then picked up by the former for analysis.

Basil just quietly reached for a metal plate about the size of his forearm, ripping it off to reveal circuitry and wiring underneath. He’d have to work fast, much faster than he liked to work on something as complex as this, but what had to be, had to be.

Crocell seemed to be the only one who didn’t notice Gloom Glimmer approaching, instead continuing on his way towards the downed machine. One of his hands rose, palm up, his fingers wriggling like he was just now trying them out for the first time. Water vapour condensed above his palm, gathering into a tiny sphere of water that was rapidly growing in size.

Before anyone could react to that, Gloom Glimmer raised her own hand in a motion mirroring his, palm up, and a single, jet-black marble-sized sphere appeared above it, while the stream of multi-coloured spheres continued to pour forth from the folds of her cape. The sphere grew to the size of a football, roughly, as she pulled her arm back, winding up for a throw, her body twisting side-ways at the waist. The sphere was thrown with perfect form, flying towards the unaware Crocell, slamming into the right side of his waist to no particular effect.

The very instant it made contact with his body, every single coloured sphere which Gloom Glimmer had spread over the ground shot towards it faster than the eye could follow, without a single sound, thousands of them all at once.

The cacophony should have been deafening, yet there was nothing, only a great mass of vapour and dust thrown up, the force of the massed impacts sending out a shockwave which caused a dust cloud to wash over everything in the rubble-strewn plaza.

When Crocell became visible again, a good chunk of his right side was gone from just below the shoulder all the way to his upper thigh, the flesh torn away leaving jagged edges behind, bleeding sea water as coils of muscles and other, stranger organs became visible within.

Crocell stumbled, nearly toppling over as he finally seemed to acknowledge his foe, turning his torso and thus his eye towards her, his posture betraying no emotion whatsoever, while his wound began to regenerate immediately.

Damn that was a nice hit,” Boom-Boom commented from where he and his sister were  working on the reactor. “Do it again, scary girl!”

<No, she’s going to change powers,> Polymnia disagreed.

***

Water vapour began to condense around Crocell, drawn into numerous ribbons winding around his body.

Gloom Glimmer raised her arm, palm turned flat towards the sky. A tiny dot of light appeared above it, expanding into a glowing ring of pure light, which remained afloat above her head like a halo, even when she lowered her arm again, bringing her hands together as if in prayer.

Crocell’s head tilted to the side, as if confused, water gathering about him.

The halo flared up, a single beam of impossible brightness lancing forth, as thick as a pencil, perhaps. It blasted through the ribbons of vapour, burning through Crocell’s left hip, the hole it burned far bigger than the circumference of the beam.

He shook his head left and right, as if screaming in pain, though obviously, no sound came out. He tried to get away from the beam, but it simply followed him, shearing through his body at an upward angle, as if to split him from waist to shoulder, lancing clean through to melt whatever was unlucky enough to be in its path – until it moved up towards Crocell’s spine, and suddenly, it no longer penetrated him. Vapour rose explosively from the wound as the beam continued on its path, blowing through his body again once it had moved past the body’s core, leaving a burned scar behind, like a channel dug across his body, finally blowing through his shoulder and away from his body.

Gloom Glimmer, meanwhile, had been charging up another power between her hands, which she’d moved apart by a few centimetres, a tiny mass of black matter spinning slowly between them, like a cube that had burst by more material growing from within, covered in sharp edges.

The beam winked out, though the halo remained, as the tiny mass flew out towards the nearly-bisected Crocell, flying into the gaping wound between its spine and waist, where the flesh was just starting to reconnect.

Accompanied by the booming sound of explosively expanding matter, the tiny speck became a block of obsidian-like matter the size of a house.

Already unsteady, an arm dangling off just a strip of meat attached to a ruined shoulder, Crocell’s upper body leaned further to the side, as the gash was widened. His spine resisted, too dense to be torn in half just like it had been too dense to be melted through by the beam, but it bent, making him look almost ridiculous.

Almost, because he retaliated immediately, throwing his unharmed arm out towards her. The water he’d been gathering instantly condensed into a double-helix, tightly wrapped into spear form, as thick as a human arm, as long as Crocell was tall, and flew out towards Gloom Glimmer with such speed, it broke the sound barrier as soon as it began to move, spearing through her chest before anyone could react.

The young heroine looked down at her chest, her lips parting in a stunned expression, as the spear turned to simple water once more, falling away to leave a gaping hole behind.

Then she flung out her hands at Crocell, three more of the tiny, irregular seeds flying out into his wounds, as they were still closing; one into its shoulder, where it was trying to reconnect its arm, one into the gash it had just previously widened, and another into the continuation of that wound on the other side from its spine.

All three seeds grew explosively, tearing flesh and bone, though only the one in his shoulder managed to actually sever a part of its body, separating the arm from the rest of the body.

The limb fell off, beginning to melt before it even touched the ground, bursting into copious amounts of a thick slurry which quickly broke down into simple sea water.

Crocell looked up at his foe, whose wound had already disappeared, leaving only the hole in her costume, looking down at him. His body was warped obscenely by the huge chunks of matter stuck in his wounds, twisting his spine, making him look even more misshapen than he already did.

***

“Wooo-hoo, why the hell didn’t she start doing this earlier?”, Boom-Boom asked as he stepped up to Melody.

She looked at him while she kept taking readings off of Crocell, trying to narrow down the frequency of his force field. And there truly was a force field there, now that she knew to look for it, it was impossible to overlook it. Whether it was truly as crucial to his existence as Brennus theorized was another matter, of course, but it was there.

<She’s got her limits,> she replied curtly, not liking the tone in his voice, distorted as it was. As if he was accusing Irene of holding back deliberately. <Shouldn’t you be helping to rig up the Subjugator?>

He shrugged, which just looked weird on that blocky, crude armor. How had he managed to make armor articulate enough to allow for shrugging, yet still looking so crude and, and cobbled together?

“I’ve done my part,” he replied to her question. “Reactor’s rigged up to produce one last, big shot, then tear itself apart. I’m not one for the delicate stuff those two are doing now.”

Melody looked over her shoulder, briefly, to see Brennus and Tick-Tock bent over the core of the Zeus Caster. They had pulled bits and pieces out, still connected to the machine through wires, and were working with the fanatical focus most gadgeteers – Melody herself – could pour into their work when going to the bat.

She was kind of jealous she wasn’t a part of that. Collaborating with Brennus had given her the idea for one of her best inventions yet (though she hadn’t managed to complete it in time for this battle).

Then she turned to observe the fight again, feeling oddly both fearful for her friend up there and at the same time, not so. Irene should be totally safe, even if she was pushed too far, her power would just put her into that safe mode of hers again; but on the other hand, Crocell was an atypical foe if there ever was one, and there was no telling whether he had some way of circumventing her defenses.

Besides, she just plain didn’t like seeing her friend get hurt, and the sight of that spear sticking out of her chest had nearly made her hurl.

She kept collecting and correlating data as she watched Irene lift her arms, creating a jet-black sphere above them which rapidly grew to the size of a building.

***

Another impact shook the city, the battle continuing in the distance. This one was particularly violent, causing several already unstable buildings to finally crumble.

In an alley near a now-abandoned parking house structure, it disturbed a long-haired, darkly furred cat, which had somehow managed to sleep through the fight so far, causing the large tomcat to leap off the trashcan he’d been curled up atop…

Only to be caught out of the air by two strong, yet gentle arms.

He tried to fight the grip, briefly, clawing at the thick, tough material covering them, but subsided quickly as his captor’s smell reached him. It wasn’t a smell he’d known before, yet it was somehow… nostalgic.

***

“There you go,” spoke the man known as Journeyman, looking down at the black-furred cat, its rather considerable weight settling easily into his arms. “You know, I get the oddest feeling that I know you from somewhere…”

Another shock shook the ground, making the buildings around him groan. The robed man turned his head towards the battle, even though there was no line of sight between him and them. Not that that was any hindrance to him.

He sighed, tickling the cat behind his ears. He couldn’t intervene in this battle, not directly, so he’d limited himself to reducing casualties in more subtle ways, roaming the streets to help with evacuation efforts and treat any wounded people he came across.

The ground shook once more, the buildings to his left and right beginning a slow, almost ponderous collapse.

He looked down at the purring tomcat, untroubled by the slabs of concrete that fell towards and yet never came close to touching him.

“I’m going to have a lot of work to do, soon enough. You mind helping me out, big guy?”

The huge cat purred happily.

***

The battle continued mercilessly, and at first, Crocell was very clearly on the backfoot. Gloom Glimmer’s black sphere had pounded him with blasts of concentrated gravity, twice over. Though it had dislodged two of the seeds in his body, leaving only the one trapped just above his hip, it had also destroyed the growth that was supposed to become his new arm, and cracked his skull.

However, as the fight continued, it became clear that while the daughter of the world’s most powerful hero and villain was in a league of her own in power and versatility, she was quickly running out of steam, while Crocell just kept getting back up, trading blows with her – sometimes literally, sometimes at range, with his vapour constructs.

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders were slumped, her breathing quick and shallow, as she dodged another one of those double-helix spears. She had never expected to be able to kill this thing, not since she’d seen it fight off both Kraquok, Charybdis and the Ferals – though she had tried to manifest a force-field nullifying power, after she’d heard of Brennus’ theory (she had, but it hadn’t worked on the damn thing!), but at least she was managing to keep its attention, buying her friends and the other two gadgeteers time to get that damn megalomaniac’s weapon working again (Irene had never met Sovereign before, but she knew enough to never want to make the experience; even her dad thought he was bonkers).

Finally, reinforcements were coming in, heroes and villains who had newly arrived for the battle, and a few who had recovered enough to dive back in. The Ferals were among them, though reduced in number to nearly a fourth of what they’d started at; she could see Lamarr and Mindstar, flying close together (the former standing on his own cape like it was a flying carpet), and the hulking forms of Totemiac and Kraquok approaching from further behind, though the latter had unfortunately lost a good chunk of his size, and was now only slightly larger than the Australian shapeshifter.

I wish Maddie was here, she thought as she dove down below a swiping, black-skinned arm, flying around the back of Crocell to blast him with a beam of concentrated gravity (not as powerful as her earlier gravity bomb, but way less prone to collateral damage, too), I wish Mom and Dad were here, too. I wonder what’s got them so distracted that they didn’t rush here.

She’d have to ask them what happened later, after this fight. At the very least, it’d be good to be able to tell Melody.

A precognitive danger sense kicked in, making her body move automatically to dodge another of those freaking painful double-helix spears – they did something to the fluids in her body, when they hit, it had fucking hurt – briefly locking eyes with the girl in question, who had now connected her equipment to the downed Subjugator, while Brennus’ fingers were dancing in the air, undoubtedly using the keyboard function in his bracers to do something way too complicated for her (or anyone sane) to understand.

Just a little more time.

Kraquok and Totemiac joined the fray, taking some of Crocell’s attention away from her, though the beast didn’t seem bothered or intimidated at all by the increasing pressure brought to bear against it.

Perhaps it wasn’t able to feel that kind of emotion, or any emotion at all.

Perhaps it had reason to believe it could beat them all.

Considering how it had decimated their forces already, and shrugged off their strongest fighter’s attacks, it may even be justified in thinking so.

***

Crocell pulled his arm back, hand clenched into a fist, ignoring the minivan-sized spheres of sizzling green acid which the Feral family was lobbing at it, causing a steady amount of damage all over the afflicted areas.

His motion was ponderous, as if he was performing this particular movement for the first time like this, and was paying extra attention to how it felt, and how it worked.

Of course, that meant that his intention was telegraphed to a ridiculous degree, and one of his two viable targets in front of him, Totemiac, quickly leapt out of reach, while Kraquok advanced forward, intent on taking the blow so as to spark new growth.

Perhaps Crocell had simply intended what he did next, or perhaps he truly was learning as the battle came along, because that didn’t work out at all. Instead, he punched – downwards. His fist hit the ground with unnatural strength, cracking it below him and Kraquok.

The ground caved in, as Crocell himself stepped backwards. Kraquok tried to do the same, but his enemy showed another new move, coating the crumbling blocks of concrete in water, making them slippery enough for the pseudo-reptilian villain to lose his footing and fall partly down into the Undercity below, along with the rubble.

Dust rose, briefly, but less than it should. When a gust of wind dispersed that, the gathered capes and cowls saw the unperturbed Crocell standing at the edge of the sinkhole he’d created, while the broken concrete and earth had trapped Kraquok himself, only part of his back and his head sticking out of what now appeared to be a grimy mud, the material having suddenly become super-satured with water.

Everyone stared at the elaborate trap that Kraquok had been caught in, then at their foe, who stood there, straight, his posture almost relaxed… almost human, his head tilted to the side as if studying his work closely, his chest-eye roaming the sight.

Then he turned towards the others, as the seed above his hip was finally dislodged, falling down with a huge thud, flesh regrowing rapidly until he was back to top condition. He walked towards them, light-footed step after step.

A car came sailing towards him, bouncing off his head. He turned his eye to look, saw the approaching Mindstar and Lamarr, and turned towards them.

Then they vanished from his sight, causing him to stop, hesitate – and be wide open when Totemiac leaped onto his back, the comparatively small pseudo-dinosaur digging his claws and teeth into Crocell’s necks, causing him to bend over backwards, his eye rotating to look out the back at his foe.

Totemiac was bleeding out of countless wounds, one of his arms missing outright, but he was not to be dissuaded, clinging onto the monster, even when Crocell simply reversed his arms’ joints and started punching him, left and right, each blow cracking bones – until one arm was suddenly arrested in his motion, nigh-invisibly threads stretching from it towards the trapped Kraquok, pulling on his back as the heroine known as Weaver added more of the same to Crocell’s other arm.

The beast would not be deterred though, for he simple began to walk backwards, pulling on them as strongly as he could. Kraquok shuddered, straining against the muddy concerete and rebar holding him in place, as the strands were stretched to their limit.

Ignoring the continued assault by his foes, Crocell took another step away from Kraquok, making the villain groan as he was partly lifted out of the mud-trap, even as the fewer strands attached to his left arm snapped, nearly making him fall over as his left side suddenly shot forward, whereas his right one was still trapped.

And then a bright red glow appeared, bathing the battlefield, and Crocell in particular, in its light.

He turned his torso, slightly, looking at the source of it – the Subjugator he had downed earlier, its huge gun was now glowing inside, glowing bright red as matching red arcs of lightning danced along its long barrel. Three figures in power armor – Boom-Boom, Tick-Tock and Polymnia – were holding the barrel up, aiming it at him, while Brennus stood  on the side of its base, attached by one of his grappling hooks so he wouldn’t fall off, his hands dancing furiously as if he was playing some kind of piece on a piano, his arms limp down his sides as he stared at his foe.

Perhaps something in Crocell recognized a new threat. Or perhaps he remembered that, until fighting with Gloom Glimmer, nothing had caused nearly as much damage to him as that weapon. Either way, he reacted, and strongly at that, leaning towards it, straining against the webs holding his arm.

A line appeared across the lower part of its head, as if someone was drawing a cartoonish mouth – only for his skin to split along the line, from back to front, a maw filled with countless shark-like teeth becoming visible behind the torn skin. Blueish-white light appeared in the depths of its gullet as it charged up an attack of its own.

***

Basil finished the last calculations, inwardly praying to all the gods and stars that Polymnia’s readings had been accurate, that his calculations were accurate, that his theory was not a heaping pile of dung, as he saw Crocell wind up to what was undoubtedly a killing blow for him and the three other teens with him.

Here goes nothing, he tought as he raised his right arm and snapped his fingers towards their foe, triggering the first and only shot of their collaborative effort – the Arc Caster.

***

A blazing red beam shot forth from the long gun barrel, flying across the air even as behind it, the reactor in the Subjugator tore itself apart, melting at the same time it was partly imploding, disabling the wrecked machine for good.

It hit Crocell in the chest, right on top of his floating eye – only instead of reaching the eye, it splashed against an invisible barrier which had not impeded any other attacks before.

It arched, gathering, spreading all over Crocell’s form, tiny bolts of red lightning reaching out from the main beam to dance all over his body, to no apparent effect.

There was a cry, a scream, only it wasn’t a scream – it was not someting heard with the ears. Instead, it was a scream that resounded within the heads of every metahuman within a good twenty miles, making them cry out in pain, each and every one of them.

Then the glow in Crocell’s throat disappeared, and he stopped moving.

His entire body turned black all over.

Then he began to swell, rapidly, his flesh distorting obscenely into a giant, irregular, growing blob of black… something, growing into obscene heights, forty, fifty, seventy, a hundred, two hundred metres into the air, a tower of bulbous, swollen flesh-water-stuff looming over the city.

And then it all burst into a titanic mass of sea water, slamming down on the battlefield like a mini-tsunami, rushing through the streets and alleys, both above and below into the Undercity, washing everything that wasn’t nailed down away.

***

An hour later

Irene stepped into the infirmary, walking past everyone else right to the bed Melody was on, her best friend sitting there propped up against several pillows, working away on her armor’s detached keyboard even though she was in a hospital gown, only her visor and coloured hair protecting her identity right now.

She still looked up and smiled at Irene, as she came to a halt next to the bed, a part of her unwinding from the worry she’d felt for the teenage songstress, even though she herself had been the one to pull her out of the deluge-like mess which Crocell’s death had caused. Irene knew she hadn’t really been hurt, other than swallowing too much salt water, but she’d still been worried after dropping her off at the infirmary, going out to help with clean-up and recovery (save for one brief detour).

Melody reached out with both arms, and Irene leaned in, the two hugging each other. “How’re you doing, Mels?” Irene asked as she felt her power settle around them, a privacy screen of sorts, blurring both sight and hearing.

<I’m quite alright, really, just have a really sore throat,> she replied, typing on the keyboard to speak. <The irony of which is not lost to me.>

“Funny, yeah. Hah. I was really worried there for a moment, you know?” Irene complained as she sat on a stool next to the bed.

<Worrywart,> her friend accused her, sticking her tongue out at Irene, who stuck her own out in kind. Then Melody grew serious. <So, how are things out there?>

Irene took a deep breath. “Better and worse than expected. Crocell’s death flooded most of Esperanza City, but this place was built to withstand an attack by my sister – the water is already draining, only the salt deposits are going to remain soon. But there was horrible structural damage all over; it will take months to repair it all.”

<What about civilian casualties?>

“Surprisingly light. Someone – it’s not official, but it was Journeyman – was going around the city helping with the evacuation, getting people away from hot zones before they even became hot zones. And besides, Esperanza has the world’s best evacuation and S-Class protocols.”

Melody nodded, visibly relieved. <How’re the others doing?> she asked, clearly referring to Brennus, Boom-Boom and Tick-Tock.

“The locals are safe, and helping with clean-up,” Irene replied. “Brennus… he got out of the water on his own, but… I don’t know, I think that thing Crocell did, that scream, it hit him harder than you, me or anyone else I know.”

Melody shuddered, remembering the head-splitting pain and the torrent of twisted, alien images and impressions that washed over them in Crocell’s final moments. She’d nearly drowned because she’d been too stunned by them to do anything, would have drowned if not for Irene pulling her out of the water.

<Is he alright?> she asked, injecting a note of worry into her synthetic voice.

“He demanded I take him to his lab, ASAP, so I did,” Irene replied, as if it was no big deal that he’d let her see his lab (oh, how Melody wished she could take a look at it!), or that she somehow had known how to get there. “Last time I saw him, he was diving into some kind of invention of his, babbling something about an engram or such. But I had to help in Esperanza, so I teleported back and I’ve been helping them until I was told to stand down and take a break.”

Melody took a deep breath, wondering just what Brennus had seen to react like that. Then she remembered another thing that had been bothering her. <Um, Irene… don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know where your parents were the whole time? We could really have used their help here.>

Irene looked away, looking uncomfortable. “Well… there’s a good reason they weren’t here… you see… Crocell wasn’t… wasn’t the only monster to appear today.”

Melody stared dumbly at her. <What?> she asked flatly.

“Yeah. Mom was in Hong Kong, fighting one off pretty much on her own. Dad had to help in Tokyo, along with Huong Long. And Queen Madeleine had to move in herself to fight one that came ashore in the north of Australia.”

Melody shook her head. <My God, that’s just… but they were all defeated, right?>

Irene looked uncomfortable. “Mom killed the one in Hong Kong, after it devastated a good fourth of the city. Maddie killed the one in Australia before it could reach any settlement and do any serious damage. But Tokyo…”

She sighed, gesturing towards the air at the end of Melody’s bed. A rectangle of light appeared, quickly turning into an image straight out of a television – a news channel, in fact.

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

Its streets were bathed in blood, corpses strewn all about.

“Tokyo is dead. More than fifty percent of the population died.”

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

“And worse… the thing that did it escaped. It’s still out there, and even Dad hasn’t been able to track it.”

She dismissed the image with a flick of her wrist. “This was just a prelude to what’s to come.”

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B12.13 Born At Sleep

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Flying to the temporary base of the alliance proved to be slightly more problematic than Basil thought was appropriate, mostly because Amazon just plainly refused to leave him alone anywhere near Mindstar.

Not unreasonable, truly, as she lacked some rather critical information, such as the fact that they were siblings.

It was still annoying. And time-consuming. Especially since she also (not unreasonably) refused to drop her armor around her archenemy, which made it impossible for Mindstar to pick her up directly and fly them both. In the end, she just levitated a slab of concrete on which Amazon stood, and flew them back.

Basil expected that he’d have to explain himself to whoever was currently in charge of the efforts (Father Manus? The local UH director? Doc Feral?) before they’d call in three of their people, but to his surprise, he could see them gathered on the platform on which Father Manus and his people had stood earlier. More problematic was the fact that Hecate was there, as well, her arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly staring at Mindstar with murder in her eyes. He had to hope that she’d be sensible enough not to do anything stupid right now.

The priest himself stood there, as well, looking as serene as ever – even though a good quarter of his head, as well as most of his left side were missing.

Basil stared at the broken china doll of a man as they touched down, and the man looked back at him, his good eye – the left one had a crack running through it from above, where a large part of the crown had been broken or blasted off – calm and serene. Even though his body was so broken it should’ve collapsed under the strain of its own weight, he did not seem inconvenienced at all, simply standing there unheeding of the fact that people could look into his hollow form. The insides of his ‘skin’ were formed to resemble the organs that should have been beneath them – Basil could actually see a cracked spine going down his back, like the world’s most delicate artwork on a china vase. It was crafted in such a way that he couldn’t even tell whether it was two-dimensional, or actually shaped out of the material of his body.

Stop staring, Amy told him reprovingly. You’ve got a job to do. She still sounded bitter.

He blinked, then briefly shook his head before he stepped forward. “Sir, thank you for calling them in,” he said to the priest.

Said priest inclined his head, smiling softly. “Words of your exploits have reached us here, young man. And I haven’t survived as long as I have by underestimating what gadgeteers are capable of when working together.” He tilted his head to the side, his voice taking a politely curious tone. “You say you know how you can kill him? How? And how did you find out?”

Tick-Tock (who still looked immaculate), Boom-Boom (whose armor had taken some heavy damage and was covered in scorch marks) and Polymnia (she looked a little pale, and there was dried blood on her ears) stepped forward in curiosity.

Hecate just snorted. “Great, give him a prompt for exposition…” she mumbled so quietly, probably no one but Polymnia and Basil understood.

Amy snorted behind him, biting down on a laugh.

Basil felt a little heat in his cheeks – of indignation, not embarrassment – but he decided to take the high road and ignore the comment.

“I have been watching the fight against it the whole time and taking readings of attack’s effects on it,” he began. “I noticed a few oddities in the way various kinds of attacks affected it, as well as to the way it recovers damage. It… helped me come up with an invention. From there, I deduced its nature, tested it and came to the conclusion that…”

***

Just five minutes later, Father Manus had agreed to his plan and had left in order to talk to mission control to try to procure the most crucial tool for Basil’s plan.

Mindstar and Amazon had left to join the  battle and buy them time. Hecate stuck around, standing a little off to the side and glaring in the direction Mindstar had flown. The other gadgeteers had gathered around Basil and were discussing his theory.

“I’m still not sure,” Tick-Tock said in a wary voice. “You’re making a pretty big claim there, and it’s mostly based on an invention you came up with while fighting a monster – what if your power just came up with something completely unrelated?” Her tone was polite, not accusing, but Basil thought he saw tension in the way she held herself; her power armor being nearly skin-tight meant that it didn’t conceal her body language nearly as well as his own or Boom-Boom’s did.

The other two watched Basil for his response, though Polymnia didn’t seem to actually doubt him.

He could just shrug. “It is how my power usually operates. It takes what I study and gives me bits and pieces to connect and work into something useful. I have never known it to come up with something completely unrelated to what inspired it.”

That sounds mighty strange,” Boom-Boom threw in. “My power tends to come in bursts, and when it comes up with something, it always puts out something complete. Puts me in the zone, you know?” He shrugged those huge, blocky shoulders.

<If you think that’s strange, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,> Polymnia vocalised through her suit’s speakers, while smiling softly at Basil. <Besides, how we do it is not as important as what we do, especially right now.>

“Yeah, listen to her, powder-head,” Tick-Tock snarled at her brother, slapping the back of his head with a loud clang. “You might actually learn something.”

“Stick it up your ass and twirl!” he snarled back, trying to punch her shoulder, but she danced out of his reach, giving him a smug look that could be seen even through her helmet.

Basil stepped closer to Polymnia while the siblings squabbled. “How are you doing?” he asked, concerned. “Crocell’s screams can not have been good for you,” he continued, guessing as to the most probable reason for her bleeding ears.

She gave him a chagrined smile in response. <Yeah, that first one knocked me out right away. Gloom Glimmer freaked out and teleported->

A huge explosion, which shook the ground they stood on, cut her off, and everyone turned to look in the direction of the battle, where a ring of greenish energy could be seen spreading and fading.

<That’s her, I think. She went to join the frontlines,> Polymnia explained. <Anyway, she teleported me here and healed my ears – though for some reason, her power didn’t let her take away the freaking headache.> She rubbed her temples.

“That is strangely fickle of it,” he replied in sympathy, having quite the experience with splitting headaches, even as he noted that oddity down. He’d have to add it to Gloom Glimmer’s file later on.

Just then, a new figure approached them, another girl looking to be about their age. She was tell, clearly well-trained and wearing a relatively simple costume – a skin-tight blue bodysuit with a yellow half-cloak and a yellow question mark on her sternum, as well as yellow boots and gloves. Adding to that was a blue mask that covered the upper half of her head in the front, her black hair spilling out the back, her mouth and jaw showing dark skin and sharp features.

She approached them, looking slightly apprehensive, like she was nervous to be around them, at least until Tick-Tock stepped up to her and took her hand.

“Vra, what are you doing here? I thought you’re in the think tank?” she greeted the young heroine. Basil had never heard of her before, she had to be a very recent addition, and not one that had drawn a lot of attention from the media or the online message boards.

She looked at him, though, rather than her friend, as she replied, “Father Manus sent me to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work out – the Subjugator just got taken down and we can’t get a line to its operator anyway.” Her voice, though clear and even a little deep for a girl, was hushed and uncertain. She was meeting his gaze, at least, though just about so.

Basil turned away, clutching his hands behind his back. “That is unfortunate,” he said quietly, stewing over it. “We need the Subjugator to pull this off. There is no way we could build the device from scratch in any reasonable time frame.” He looked at the girl, Vra, again. “Do you know how badly damaged it is?”

She blinked, then closed her eyes briefly. He was about to ask her again when she opened them, just seconds later. “There is no detailed damage report, but from eye-witness accounts it appears to have lost a wing and its lower hind jets, along with damage to its main body,” she replied in a much more self-assured manner, either having expected the question or else looked it up without any communication device.

Must be her power, he thought. “Then it might still be of use,” he concluded and turned to the others. “I am going to go and assess its state with my own eyes. Are you with me?”

The siblings and Polymnia looked at each other, then at him, nodding.

“Taking a look can’t hurt. At the very least, seeing Sovereign’s own tech will be reward enough.”

“Eh, why not?”

Basil looked at Hecate. She sighed, finally looking at him. “I’m coming along. You’ll need someone with some common sense around.”

“Much appreciated.”

***

It didn’t take long for them to make their way to the crash site. Basil may have lost one of his grappling hook systems, but the other one was still functional and he just had to be adjust his rhythm a bit.

Tick-Tock followed by way of an odd flying device she’d literally folded out of her armor’s backpack, resembling a surfboard. It created bursts of blue-ish energy at precise intervals, propelling her forward and up, after which she’d glide downwards slower than she should have, as if surfing over waves.

Polymnia was using her mechanical limbs to leap from building to building, or crawl up and down the facades of buildings – she was definitely the slowest of them, but none of the group had the means to carry her, except perhaps Boom-Boom, but no one sane wanted to travel too close to or with Boom-Boom.

Hecate was flying along in her smoke-shadow form, higher than the others.

Boom-Boom… Basil still had trouble believing it, but Boom-Boom was literally blowing himself up. As in, literally using explosions to launch himself into the air, making giant leaps, only to use more explosions to launch himself into the air again.

Some part of Basil was just loving the thought of explosion-based movement, but most of him was just shocked to realise that most of the damage he could see on Boom-Boom’s armour was almost definitely self-inflicted.

For crying out loud, he was even using explosions to cushion his fall.

Nevertheless, they all arrived at the crash site in good time.

The Subjugator had not gone down easily at all – the entire area around it, for at least a block and a half, was in utter ruins, blasted to pieces and then scorched by massive energy discharges for good measure. There was not a single piece of construction still standing there.

In the centre of the devastation lay the remains of the Subjugator. Much as Vra had said, its left wing was gone, ripped off it seemed. Several of its jets at the back were missing, as well, as well as a big chunk of its head, along with the lower and left ‘eye’. It was also covered in lesser damage, from front to back, mostly it seemed caused by Crocell’s claws. Wires and other parts were spilling out of its greater wounds like a mockery of guts.

To Basil’s great relief, the arc cannon itself seemed to be largely undamaged.

Even though it had taken such horrible damage, the Subjugator was clearly still active. Its uppermost eye had swiveled around and was looking straight at the group standing a good fifty metres away from it. Several small slots were opening and closing along its body, as tiny, spider-like drones – none bigger than Basil’s clenched fist, most even smaller – were spilling out and crawling all over its chassis.

“Oh my God, is that thing actually repairing itself?” Tick-Tock breathed, sounding both shocked and elated.

“Indeed,” was all Basil could say as he marvelled at the huge gadget. “No wonder he rules half a continent.” And with that, Basil walked closer towards the fallen machine.

The big, spherical eye with the glowing red lens tilted down, following him as he approached.

“WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GREAT SOVEREIGN’S WORK SO BRAZENLY!?!” it shouted in its customary chorus.

Damn, I was hoping the speakers would have gotten damaged, at least, Basil thought, as he came to a stop no ten metre away from it.

“I am Brennus,” he introduced himself, standing straight. “I am here because I have figured out how to slay our common foe – but I require your assistance to do so, for I lack the materials and technology to do so on my own, here.”

The Subjugator watched him, for a few moments, while its drones kept doing repairs – though it was unlikely they’d be able to replace its missing wing or propulsion system.

“Explain yourself,” it spoke in a far calmer voice, its eye focused upon Basil.

Basil could hear the others behind him exhale in relief. None of them had been sure that the Subjugator would not respond violently to being approached – Sovereign was rather infamous for how jealously he guarded his creations.

“To be succinct, I have gathered every gadgeteer participating in this battle because I believe that, with some modifications, your arc cannon could actually slay Crocell in one shot,” Basil explained.

Behind him, just out of his hearing, Hecate leaned over to Polymnia. “Wow, he actually can do short.” Polymnia bit down on a giggle.

“Arc cannon? You are referring to the Zeus Caster,” the Subjugator replied. “Your proposal is intriguing, though more information is required before you may be allowed to muddle our glorious Sovereign’s work with your lesser skills.”

Wow, that is not insulting at all, Basil thought. “Alright, my observations and tests have led me to the conclusion that Crocell’s bodily form is being maintained by some kind of extremely powerful, multi-faceted force-field,” he explained. “That is the reason why certain attacks cause disproportionally more damage to it than others, such as your Zeus Caster, while others, such as Mindstar’s telekinesis, are completely ineffectual; furthermore, the force-field does not simply protect its body – if one observes its wounds, one can see that they do not regenerate normally – instead of the flesh growing back from the inside out, it simply grows seemingly out of thin air in the entire area between the undamaged flesh and the outer edge of its force-field. Its body, if it even is really its body, and not just some kind of decoy, is just a huge amount of seawater – I tested it earlier, while I was in contact with it, the clear liquid it ‘bleeds’ is simply more seawater – that is being compressed into a bodily shape by its force-field, with more material being more densily packed towards the centre, which is why we have had an easier time damaging its surface, while its inner parts are more hardy – they are, quite literally, made of more and thus denser material.”

He paused to take a breath, and give it some time to process the information (he wasn’t even sure whether there was a pilot inside, a remote pilot somewhere else, or whether it actually had an AI of its own, really).

“That is an interesting theory, which appears to be corroborated by this masterwork’s own observations. So you propose to modify the Zeus Caster so as to cancel out the specific wavelength of the beast’s force-field and thus slay it instantly?” it replied smoothly.

Basil blinked. That was, actually, precisely what he had planned. “Yes, well, that is the idea.”

“How will you determine the specific wavelength which must be cancelled?” the Subjugator asked.

Basil looked over his shoulder, and Polymnia stepped forth, the machine’s eye turning to focus on her. <My equipment records and analyses audio-wavelengths. I can adapt it to read his,> she replied.

“This unit’s power source has been damaged. It will most likely be unable to power the Zeus Caster to a sufficient degree.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom looked at each other, the eye turning to watch them, then the former spoke. “That won’t be an issue. Boom-Boom can overclock what’s left. It’ll break down afterwards, certainly, but it will be enough to power the weapon.” She tilted her head, tapping her jaw with a finger. “Furthermore, there will be very precise timing required, as well as synchronizing the various pieces of equipment, which both fall under my speciality.”

The eye turned back to Basil. “And I presume you are then the one to do the actual adjustments and calculations for the Zeus Caster itself?”

He nodded, his mouth dry.

The Subjugator fell quiet, looking at each of them in turn again.

“That is acceptable. You may do as needed, so long as you take nothing away nor make any records of this unit’s own parts.”

Basil let out a breath of relief. He’d been dreading the possibility that it might refuse to co-operate, but apparently, whatever intelligence stood behind this machine was sensible enough to work with them.

“Thank you. I promise we will not betray your trust,” he said.

“Enough words. Get to work. Today shall be one of the grandest days of your life, for no other reason than that you are allowed to gaze upon our glorious Sovereign’s masterwork! Nothing shall stop us from claiming victory!”

As if in answer to that, there was a huge crash, nearly throwing them all off their feet.

Crocell rose out of the dust at the edge of the shattered block, its form changed once more.

And then it charged towards the group of gadgeteers, and one contriver.

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