Wh- what… what’s going on? Amy’s thoughts intruded into their minds once more, sounding weaker, more quiet than before, while her body stirred, groaning in pain. I feel like I got punched by God. After he took steroids for like, four thousand years.
Basil didn’t know how to reply, too focused on the standoff in front of him and so stayed quiet. The others didn’t seem to be in any better shape, staring at the new arrival.
Who the fuck is that? Amy asked in a groggy voice.
I have no idea, but he just saved Heck’s life, so I like him, Tyche replied, sounding greatly relieved.
That’s – ow – Journeyman! Polymnia told them excitedly, in between taking shots in the back. Gloomy – ow – told me – ow – about him!
Amy looked at her, and reached out with her right arm, causing the next shot to rebound off a force-field appearing above Polymnia’s back. And the next. And the next.
Thanks! Polymnia said earnestly, moaning in relief.
Thank me by telling us who this guy is supposed to be. Can he actually save our posteriors from that bitch? Amy shot back sharply.
I really dunno. Gloomy’s said he’s like, crazy-powerful, and a friend of her parents. Well, mostly of her mom. Anyway, I don’t actually know what his power really is, other than that he can ‘go anywhere’ and that no one’s ever actually put the hurt on him, Polymnia elaborated at the speed of thought, sharing it all before either the Ascendant, Elysium or ‘Journeyman’ acted at all.
“Who are you?” the Ascendant hissed at the stranger, clearly put off by his sudden appearance and ability to so casually block Elysium’s attack.
“I am a special news bulletin that interrupts your favourite show,” he replied.
“Huh?” said at least half a dozen people.
He sighed. “No one appreciates the classics anymore.” With a light tap of his foot, he caused Elysium to stumble back a step. Putting his foot down next to Hecate’s shoulder, he lightly tapped her with his heel, causing her to slide away until she reached Tyche and Spellgun. “Now, what do I do with you?” he directed his question at the empty-eyed blonde.
That question seemed to shake the Ascendant out of her state of surprised shock. Clenching her fists, she barked a new order: “Four-four-four, designate the person in front of you as Priority Target Lambda. Eliminate him!”
Elysium twitched, briefly, as Journeyman seemed to be content to simply watch with an air of polite curiosity about him; then she performed a high kick, seemingly at his head and he, predictably, did nothing to defend himself.
Basil recognised the move as soon as it began, and wanted to cry out a warning, but it was too late – the loop snapped shut, trapping Journeyman in the same motion of stroking Graymalkin’s ears. Trapping his freaking cat along with him.
The Ascendant breathed a relieved sigh, taking a step back as she relaxed. “Pfff. Not a problem after all. Just a delay.”
Journeyman flickered, reversing to his previous motion. Then there was another flicker, and then – a shift. His form twitched, as it was reversed, a second Journeyman overlapping the other, like an after-image only this one moved at the same time in a different way, not the same way at a later time, moving briefly as if it was straining against something.
The effect around him broke, popping like a soap bubble.
“A time loop? Really?” he asked, incredulous. “Maybe I do need to be a little more public, so people stop trying the same, tired old tricks against me,” he complained to the cat on his arm. “What do you think, pal?”
The cat looked up at him with a bored expression and opened its mouth in a huge yawn.
Elysium kicked him, her foot preceded by a slight distortion in the air, only to hit his left biceps to absolutely no effect – she didn’t even budge him, much less cut him apart.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said to Graymalkin. “Totally not worth the trouble. Anyway, best to focus on the situation at hand.” He looked up, at the same time as he turned aside. The one looking up crossed eyes with Elysium, stepping forward and making her take a step back as she tried to process what was happening, while the other one, still holding Graymalkin, walked over to Basil. “Go join your friends,” he told him, tapping him with a foot.
Basil found himself sliding over to where Hecate, Tyche and Spellgun – all three of them still quite thoroughly hurt, but not in any immediate danger.
At the same time, the other Journeyman and Elysium moved.
He struck at her from the right with his hand open, the fingers curled, which she blocked by raising her left arm, followed by a kick from the opposite side, aiming for his side. Journeyman used his left arm, pushing his elbow under her leg, then pushing up, deflecting her kick in a motion that would have unbalanced a lesser fighter.
Either due to her power, or else simply due to sheer skill – the original Elysium had been a master martial artist – the young woman managed to not only avoid that, but use it to her advantage, flipping backwards in a smooth motion that brought her heel up to strike at his chin; yet Journeyman was already moving to dodge it, leaning back just enough to make it miss him by a hair’s breadth.
Elysium landed on her back, and flipped back up onto her feet, just in time to see Journeyman’s fist fly at her chest and reacted by crossing her arms, blocking the blow – but it was still powerful enough to launch her backwards, a grunt escaping her lips as the air was forced out of her lungs.
Journeyman stepped forth to press the attack while she rolled back onto her feet, but was intercepted by a glowing twin spiral of green fire, emerging from thin air between him and Elysium.
The attack splashed uselessly against his chest, where before it had very nearly broken Amy’s defenses entirely, failing to so much as make him flinch, much less slow him down at all.
“Pilfering’s always a pain in the behind,” the Journeyman holding Graymalkin said as he appeared next to Basil, grabbing him by the elbow to help him stand. He didn’t seem bothered by his weight at all.
The ground underneath the other Journeyman’s feet turned soft and malleable, causing him to sink in down to his knees, then hardened again.
“How’d she do that?” Tyche asked, her voice strained, before she started coughing hard.
“Pilfering rejected timelines,” Journeyman explained as they watched his other self get hammered aside by the very same telekinetic blast Amy had used earlier, only magnified many times, hitting him so hard he actually broke out of the floor and tumbled for several metre. “She can rewind time up to the point she started using her power, over and over. That’s why she knew all your moves in advance – she’d played the same fight out dozens of times, before she moved on to the final iteration. I assume she only looped Gloomy during the final one, as well – allowing her to perform a multitude of various attacks that she can now access, repeating them as necessary,”
As if to illustrate his point, several hundred softball-sized spheres, in all colours of the rainbow, appeared out of nowhere, filling up the twisted, shifting tower’s floor all around, followed by a black sphere that shot at the prone Journeyman, impacting him with the force of a cannonball – except that was nothing compared to what followed, as every single of the rainbow-coloured spheres suddenly moved, impacting him with such tremendous force, the shockwave bowled Basil over again, pushing him and the other heroes away by several metre.
The Journeyman hit by the attack disappeared in a cloud of dust, while the one who’d just stood by Basil remained still, unperturbed by what may have been his other self’s demise – the shockwave barely stirred his robe, at that.
“I wasn’t there myself,” he continued on in a conversational tone of voice as he turned around and casually walked towards Basil again. “But I guess that’s how she fought Bree. She kept pilfering attacks from everyone even tangentially involved in the defense of Old Lennston, including, I assume, Bree’s own attacks.” He reached down with his free hand, helping Basil up once more. “She couldn’t affect her directly, see, but she could replay the powers she was using.”
Elysium took a step back, away from the dust cloud, half-turning to look at the heroes, who were quite bunched up by now.
And then a grey-blue streak shot out of the cover of dust, resolving into the shape of Journeyman as he came to a halt behind her, arm raised.
His blow smashed her into the ground, face-first, and splattered blood, brain-matter and bits of bone all the way over to Basil’s feet.
Her remains flickered and she whirled around in a graceful pirouette which ended with her foot buried Journeyman’s stomach, another hammer-blow as before – to no effect.
Unharmed by both the earlier assault with the rainbow spheres and the powerful kick, Journeyman reached for her face with his left hand, his hand nearly closing over it, but she blinked away, reappearing a few steps away from him, while another burst of telekinetic force went off where she’d just stood, magnified many times over its original strength.
While the same attack had previously blown him away, and was still powerful enough to shatter the ground for almost ten metre around him, it had absolutely no effect whatsoever on Journeyman himself, other than making his robe flutter about.
He took a step towards her, crossing far more space than he ought to, and backhanded her head, decapitating her.
Her headless body fell over, blood spurting out of her neck.
She flickered, whole again, and lifted her feet even as she fell, putting them to his chest and kicking off to put some distance between them, sliding across the ground…
His foot came down on her head, crushing it to a pulp. Basil didn’t even see him move.
Elysium’s headless corpse flickered and disappeared, before she reappared near the Ascendant, looking both unharmed and unperturbed – not that Basil thought she really could feel worried, as she was now.
“Here, hold this will you?” Journeyman spoke to him, holding out Graymalkin, who was looking at him with bored eyes.
“Oh, certainly,” he replied and took his cat. “Long time no see, Graymalkin,” he greeted his cat, who responded by purring softly and deigning to pat his chest with one of his furry paws in a show of affection.
“Graymalkin? You know him?” Journeyman asked, surprised, as he looked closer at Basil and the cat, the images on his mask shifting to show… Basil, and Graymalkin, back in his home. “Talk about coincidence. Or perhaps it’s fate?” Journeyman sounded amused. “I found him in Esperanza City, during the Crocell attack,” he answered Basil’s question before he could even ask him. “Well, we can talk more about that later, I’ve g-“
Everything distorted, briefly, a strange sensation, like vertigo but not quite the same, coming over Basil as black spots appeared in his vision.
Then it was gone.
Polymnia growned and threw up, nearby, and Basil very nearly followed suit – only the fact that he hadn’t eaten in a while saved him from that fate. The others looked nauseous but not nearly as bad as he felt, when he looked around at them.
“Ah-ah-ah!” the other Journeyman admonished Elysium, wagging a finger at her. “I can’t keep you from rewinding yourself, but there’ll be no general rewind while I’m around, young lady!”
“What the fuck are you?” the Ascendant whispered, staring at him in fear as she hid behind her creation.
“I already told you,” he replied off-handedly. “I am the fingernail that scrapes the blackboard of your soul.”
The candles kept turning around them for a few heartbeats.
“That’s not an answer!” she shouted in outrage. “And it’s a different one from the one you gave before!”
He lowered his head, making a truly long-suffering sigh. “No appreciation for real art, at all,” he complained to no one in particular, both of his selfs speaking in synch with each other. The one who’d been holding Graymalkin walked up to the fighting one and simply stepped into him, fusing into one.
“Well, this was fun and all, but it’s time to put an end to this,” he said to Elysium. “I don’t know whether you’re the real Elysium or just a doll with her powers, but either way, I’d rather not allow the Gefährten to have access to powers like yours.” He cracked his knuckles, before he took a step forward with his left foot, entering a loose fighting stance.
“Four-four-four, go all out and kill him!” the Ascendant shouted at her slave, hurrying to step back and give her some space.
Elysium spread her arms wide, beginning a new dance, moving her shoulders and hips in hypnotic motions, causing dozens, then scores of distortions, none larger than a medicine ball, to appear in the air around her.
Each of them unleashed a different attack, from explosions to beams to streams of liquid, but they didn’t fire at Journeyman. Instead, all the attacks – even the explosions, which ranged from Amy’s force explosion to sudden, explosive growths of pink crystals – were twisted and gathered into a single spot in front of her, condensed into a jet-black sphere the size of a peach.
Journeyman tilted his head to the side, as if confused, before the sphere burst, unleashing a torrent of scores of interwoven effects, a beam broader than Basil was tall.
A beam that was flying towards Journeyman, and the heroes that stood a good deal behind him, yet still within easy reach of the massive attack.
“Now!” Immanuel shouted and leapt into the distorted space that made up the ‘walls’ of this tower, leaving Heaven’s Dancer – who, even in an expendable body, was not going to leap into that unless absolutely necessary – behind outside of it.
He closed his eyes as he traversed the space, knowing that it’d just give him an even greater sense of vertigo than he was already experiencing as his simple leap – barely enough to clear two metre of distance – moved him through the entire structure, taking advantage of the distortions like one would of river currents, depositing him just a metre or so behind the Ascendant, just as Elysium’s distortions appeared in the air, obscuring him from everyone’s sight.
Immanuel didn’t know how the stranger was going to react to the attack that was coming, if he even could, but he had a hunch that he could counter it. In fact, he hoped that he did, otherwise they’d lose everyone but Gloom Glimmer to this, and wouldn’t that be a waste?
He reached the Ascendant, grabbing her by the elbow, and kept running, pulling the startled woman along as he reached for the doll, his hand coming down on her shoulder.
Journeyman countered the massive blast in the most simple manner Basil could have imagined there, other than just standing still and taking it.
He punched it.
Except, ‘punched’ didn’t really cover it. Not by several orders of magnitude. He moved no faster than a normal person, struck with no more weight to his punch than one would expect of a man of his size, timing it so the beam and his fist met each other at the apex of his strike.
The blow caused such a massive shockwave it shattered the ground around him, spiderwebs of cracks spreading all the way to the twisted walls and up. The shockwave utterly blew Elysium’s interwoven super-beam apart, revealing – nothing behind it.
Elysium and the Ascendant were gone.
The shockwave moved on and utterly destroyed the far ‘wall’ of the structure, causing an ear-splitting cacophony as blew a building-sized hole through several dozen layers of materials.
Sunlight flooded the spatially twisted structure, moments before a lesser shockwave hit Basil and the other heroes; though not so strong it’d blow him over easily, he still had to brace himself against it, turning his shoulder into it so as to shield Graymalkin.
When the squalls died down and he looked up, he briefly felt a sense of vertigo again, if for a different reason than before.
Whether it was an effect of Journeyman’s strike, or due to Elysium fleeing, the tower she’d built had… flowed back, for lack of a better term.
Since the tower had been made of multiple parts of the structure layered together and condensed, this meant that the damage he’d done to seemingly just one wall was now spread out all throughout the Northern half of the structure – perhaps the Southern half, as well, but Basil couldn’t tell from where he stood.
He and the others were staring out through a colossal hole, as the entire Southern side of the lab complex was gone, along with part of its roof. A trail of utter destruction snaked its way through the visible buildings and connecting walkways, all the way to the central tower, which had been nearly split in half, a huge, irregular crack running from its base up to its tip.
“What,” Spellgun and Tyche said in unison. The others didn’t even say that much.
Graymalkin yawned and slapped Basil’s chest with his tail, so he used his free hand to scratch him behind the ears, making him purr happily.
Journeyman looked at what he’d wrought for a few moments – or perhaps he was just looking at where his foes had just stood – then he turned away and walked to the bubble of looped time containing Gloom Glimmer.
“Soft hearts,” he grumbled, barely audible over the distance. “Must run in the family.”
“Can you help her?” a desperate-sounding Polymnia asked him, stumbling closer, her wrecked power armour screeching its protests against the motion. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe her mouth clean, and there were some remnants of her rainbow yawn on her collar and chestpiece, as well, at stark odds to her cheerily multi-coloured, colour-shifting hair.
“Oh, sure, sure,” he mollified her. “I’m something of an expert when it comes to weird temporal effects.” With no further ado, he reached into the bubble of looped time and grabbed Gloom Glimmer by the collar, simply pulling her out and causing the bubble to pop, disappearing.
Gloom Glimmer flailed around in confusion, until he lifted her up by her collar, holding her like a naughty puppy so her head was on a height with his, facing his mirrored mask.
“J-journeyman!” she squealed in surprise. “What, how, who… Diantha! Diantha was here! Where is she!?” She looked around wildly, then suddenly went limp. “Oh. She got away.”
“Worry about yourself for once, will you?” he told her, sounding fondly annoyed. “If you’d been paying attention, then you could’ve at least dodged that attack.”
“Journeyman, that was Diantha!” she whimpered, her hands clenching into fists. “Mom still… we have to catch up to her! Take her to mom! Please, you’ve got to help me!” she begged, sounding far younger than usual as she looked at him with big, shiny, wet eyes, her lips trembling.
“Spare me the puppy dog eyes,” he replied, though he did rather pointedly look away before dropping her. “You’re not going after anyone right now, other than whom you came here for.”
Gloom Glimmer looked up at him, looking shocked and betrayed, but didn’t get a chance to voice either before Polymnia fell to her knees behind her and wrapped her arms around her friend’s arms and chest, pulling her tight against her hard armour.
“You frwskung idior, you scaeed the carp out of me!” she wailed, her control over her vocoder slipping, distoring her voice.
“Mel- Poly, what, what happened!?” Gloom Glimmer cried out softly, clearly able to sense the damage her friend had suffered in some way.
“After she looped you,” Basil explained, having approached with Graymalkin in his arm. “Elysium kicked our collective posteriors.”
The others approached right after him, including an incredibly ashamed looking Bakeneko, who’d shrunk down to two thirds her usual height, with lusterless fur, hugging herself with her shoulders hunched. Osore stood next to her, the shirt he customarily wore underneath his jacket – his only real costume was his Oni-styled mask, even now – stained with blood and sporting a big hole, though he seemed to have recovered entirely from the gut shot he’d taken earlier.
“Oh God, let me-” Gloom Glimmer rose up, her hands glowing, and touched Polymnia and Osore first, the glow spreading from where she touched and over their forms, visibly repairing any damage to their bodies and their equipment, then did the same for everyone else.
Basil felt her power course through his body, fixing the bruises he’d accumulated over the last two hours, as well as the damage to his knee and his armour there. Even his fatigue disappeared – or at least, the physical part of it.
Soon enough, Gloom Glimmer had fixed them all; while they were all still quite tired, they weren’t hurt anymore. She even fixed Polymnia’s ruined equipment.
“Hey, what about that badass drone of yours?” Tyche asked Basil, when it didn’t look like he was going to let her put it back together.
“The pieces were in the path of Journeyman’s and Elysium’s attacks,” Basil replied regretfully. “I doubt there is enough left to fill a thimble.”
”Sorry about that,” Journeyman apologised. “I didn’t even think about retrieving it first.”
Basil waved it off. “Hardly a reason to apologise. You saved us. Losing just a drone to Elysium is an amazingly lenient outcome, all things considered.”
Tyche gave him a sympathetic look, and Polymnia even more so, though he honestly didn’t feel all that bothered by it… compared to everything else that had already happened and was still going to happen, losing a drone, no matter how sophisticated, was nothing at all.
“You should go after Dusu,” Journeyman told them, interrupting Basil’s increasingly morose train of thought by pointing towards the door they’d originally come in through. It was a mangled, broken mess now, revealing another heavy blast door on the opposite side of the hallway. “She’s in there, along with Syrinx.”
”And our blood,” Basil added, drawing startled looks from half the occupants of the room. “They drew some of my blood, earlier. And they had three other syringes, all filled with blood, when they left.”
“That can’t possibly be good,” Spellgun muttered, before he spoke up louder. “Dusu’s a bio-gadgeteer. There’s no telling what she could do with blood from us… especially since they seem to like cloning, or whatever these things are supposed to do.” He gestured at the numerous sarcophagus-like tanks strewn about the laboratory. Most of them had been destroyed by Journeyman’s attack, but there were still some left s tanding. Not to mention several bodies (or body parts) strewn about.
“Hrm, right, those,” Journeyman grumbled, raising a hand. He snapped his fingers, and all the remaining tanks in the room instantly heated up red-hot, melting into slag. The bodies that’d been strewn about by the earlier devastation were also incinerated, reduced to ashes.
Basil and the others stared at the casual display, feeling the heat wash over them. Graymalkin mewled in Basil’s arms, the only one present to enjoy the extra warmth.
”Uh, yeah, I think with you along, this won’t be a problem anymore, Mister Journeyman, Sir,” Tyche said in a small, respectful voice.
He shook his head in response. “I won’t be coming with you, I’m afraid,” he replied, sounding guilty. “I’m afraid my assistance ends here. I’m sorry.”
Both Tartsche, Hecate and Tyche opened their mouths to respond to that, but Gloom Glimmer spoke up first.
”It’s about that backlash you sometimes talk about, right?” she asked in a small voice. “You overused your power, or something.”
He looked down at her – even floating five centimetre off the ground, she was easily a head shorter than he was, and he stood firmly on the ground, with flat boots and a relaxed posture. His mask was a riot of reflections, moving too fast to be made out in any detail, until they settled on a simple, shifting pattern of glowing white circles moving across the mirror, reflecting only what he saw in front of himself.
”Kind of,” he replied, his voice just a little sad. “Suffice it to say, as much as I’d like to help you all more, I can’t do so, right now.” He sighed, sounding incredibly frustrated. “Power like mine comes with its caveats.”
“But… Diantha…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her hands clenching around her cape, drawing it closer around her body.
“Can you sense her, Irene?” he inquired softly. When she shook her head, he continued, “Neither can I, right now. I’m not all-powerful, and neither are you. We could try, you and I – but it’d mean allowing Dusu to get away, all for the chance that we might locate that clone, or whatever it may be,” he explained calmly.
Though he was being nothing but gentle, she still shrank with every word, hunching her shoulders and looking so miserable, Polymnia stepped up and wrapped her arms around her, drawing her in tight.
“Even if we found her, it’s unlikely we could easily subdue her,” he pressed on in that same, gentle, even tone of voice. “You’re nowhere near the point where you could face someone as powerful as your sister and I… am limited in other ways.” He shook his head. “No, you must finish what you began. Dusu is near. Go.” He gestured towards the door.
“Come,” Polymnia spoke to her friend, turning her away from Journeyman.
The others looked at the two girls, then at the tall, strange man who’d just saved them. He was just standing there, his hands clasped behind his back, facing in their direction, though with his mask, it was impossible to tell whether he was actually looking at them.
Amy stepped forward, making all the junior heroes tense up as she walked to stand in front of Journeyman, her hands on her hips. Even in those ridiculous heels, she was still shorter than he was – and she wasn’t a short woman even without them.
“Thank you, for the save,” she said, sounding oddly subdued.
”You’re quite welcome, Amy,” he replied softly, making her flinch. “Yes, I know you. No, you don’t know me. No, telepathy doesn’t really work on me at all.”
She blushed, even as she took half a step back. “Who are you? How come I’ve never heard of someone like… like…” She gestured at the devastation he’d caused to the floating city.
He shrugged. “I guess I’m just shy,” he quipped casually.
“Yeah, right,” she snorted softly. “Well, either way, I owe you big time. So if there’s anything I can do for you, just say the word,” she finished with a smile.
Is she… flirting with him? Basil shuddered at the thought, even as he noted Hecate’s hand clenching tightly on her staff, staring at the two of them; her jaw, the only visible part of her face, was set into a tight frown.
“There is, indeed, something you can do for me,” Journeyman replied, leaning in closer.
“Oh yeah? Say the word, big guy,” she grinned, looking curious.
”You could…” he began, almost whispering as he leaned even closer, until his face was next to her ear. “Stop being a villain.”
Hecate sputtered when she heard that, nearly dropping her staff.
Her grin faded, replaced first by confusion, then annoyance, as she stepped back.
”I can’t do that,” she hissed at him, looking like he’d insulted her. “Don’t make impossible requests.”
”Impossible?” He seemed quite amused. “All I’m asking is that you be yourself.”
”I am myself!” She turned around, stalking away from him. “Weirdo.”
Journeyman remained in the same position, as if she still stood where she had. “No, you’re not,” he spoke quietly, barely audible. Yet it still made her stop. “You’re many things, Amanda, but you’re not yourself.”
He shrugged and turned around, while Amy just stared at him, slackjawed.
”It doesn’t matter,” he concluded, making a dismissive gesture. “All masks fall, eventually.”
He stepped over to Basil and reached for Graymalkin, scratching the huge cat behind the ears. “Goodbye, big guy. It was a pleasure travelling with you.” He raised his head, looking at Basil, who was quite certain that this strange man could see right through his mask. “Go. Bring an end to this.”
Basil nodded, numbly, finding himself rather unable to say anything meaningful. So instead, he turned around and walked towards the door, overtaking Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer.
Amy scrambled to catch up to him, before she remembered that she could fly and lifted off the ground, and the others finally turned away from Journeyman, to follow along, all save for Hecate.
”Yes, dear?” he asked her in a friendly tone of voice, speaking with only a handful of them at once now.
She took a short breath, and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Sir.”
“It was my pleasure,” he replied with a magnanimous nod.
The others who hadn’t yet scrambled to thank him, as well, following her example, save for Basil, who found himself in a strangely pensive mood, and Polymnia, who was focused on Gloom Glimmer.
While he waited on them to finish, Basil recalled his last raven, which had been drawn into the shifting space of Elysium’s tower, and had only now found its way back to him. With its fake feathers ruffled and quite a lot of scratches all over, it looked kind of… outraged, as it landed on his shoulder, as if even the tiny machine was getting fed up with things.
Graymalkin looked up at it, sniffing the air with a hungry look in his eyes, but was apparently able to tell it wasn’t edible – he sneezed, looking even more annoyed than usual as he dismissed the mechanical bird and looked away again.
Finally, they gathered together again (though Amy kept a certain distance from Basil, throwing rather fearful looks at the cat in his arms) and made their way towards Dusu’s lab, leaving the strange, powerful, irreverent man with the mirrored mask behind amongst the wreckage of the lab.
“Hey kids!” he shouted, suddenly, making them stop. “Remember – the only thing you need to blame yourself for are your own choices!”
The gathered heroes and villain turned around to look at him, confused more than anything, but he was gone, leaving no trace behind.
The final door between them and their target did not hold for more than a second or two, after Gloom Glimmer, Mindstar and Hecate all blasted it, utterly shredding it apart.
Beyond it, a huge lab was revealed that looked like a cross between a chem lab, an animal testing lab (though the appliances they could see were disturbingly fitted for humans, not smaller animals) and a cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream.
The latter was due to the huge structure dominating the laboratoy: Hanging above a wide hole in the ground that seemed to lead all the way down to the seawater, it looked like a gigantic mass of tree-trunk-sized metal cables, several spheres made of some kind of see-through material that didn’t seem to be glass, filled with various liquids and one with some kind of gas, and a multitude of other mechanical parts that were nigh-impossible to identify, even for Basil. From that, dozens of thick cables – really more like flexible pillars – wrapped in a black, fabric-like material reached down into the hole in the ground, disappearing into the water below.
At a console in front of the hole stood their target and her colleague, Syrinx, working on several dials and a keyboard. The syringes they’d stored the blood in had been inserted into fitting slots on the console and, just as they entered, a light next to them turned green and they were emptied of their contents.
Whatever it was meant to do, Basil decided not to give them time to complete it. Before he got to act, though, Mindstar and Gloom Glimmer did.
A single gesture of Amy’s pulled them both away from the console and lifted them into the air, followed by Gloom Glimmer gesturing with both hands, causing numerous gadgets to simply fly off their bodies, shooting out of their sleeves and pockets.
Syringes, wrist launchers, throwing darts and more were gathered together in the air before a spherical force-field snapped shut around them, followed by it heating up red-hot, destroying everything contained within.
Hecate raised her staff, aiming at the console, but Basil reached out with his right arm, pushing it down. “No. We might need it for the cure. Besides, there is no way to tell what might happen if you just blow it up.”
She growled, jerking her staff away from him, but subsided.
Well, here we are, baby bro, Amy spoke into his mind as he turned to look at Dusu and Syrinx, who were looking at them with varying degrees of surprise and shock.
“How are you here!?” Syrinx asked, staring at them like they’d come out of a nightmare. “You should be-“
“Shut him up, please,” Basil said softly, and someone – either Amy or Gloom Glimmer – complied, causing his jaw to snap shut. Putting Graymalkin down, he advanced towards the two villaneous gadgeteers.
He came to a halt, just a few steps away from them, looking up at the immobilised and declawed Dusu, who looked down at him with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. What the others behind him were doing, he couldn’t tell.
“Please put her down,” he said, and Amy did so, lowering Dusu onto the floor in front of him. Basil reached up and threw his hood back, before he unlocked his helmet and took it off.
Lowering his arms, the helmet dangling off the fingers of his right hand, he dropped it, causing it to hit the floor with a loud clang.
Looking down, he beheld the woman he’d wanted to hurt for so, so long.
She was… average. A short Chinese woman with small, almond-shaped brown eyes, a perky nose and thin lips. The only thing that even remotely stood out about her was her long, silky black hair, formerly in a tight bun but now loose, as Gloom Glimmer had removed the chopsticks she’d used to keep it in shape.
Something’s wrong, the thought came up through the simmering rage rising up from where he’d kept it down for so long. Something about the way she looked, it was… off. In a way he couldn’t quite put into words.
However, there were other things he had to take care of.
“Dusu,” he said her name, his voice as calm as he could keep it, his black eyes boring into her brown ones. “I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time.”
“Aw shucks, you’re waaaaaaay too young for my tastes, sweetie,” she replied in unaccented English, speaking it the way someone who’d learned it as a second or third language would, as she grinned up at him, seemingly unperturbed by the situation. “Still, I’m flattered.”
The sound of heels on the floor alerted Basil to the fact that Amy had walked up to stand just behind his left side. “Want me to just get the info out of her?”
Tearing her mind apart would be a good start, Basil thought to himself.
But it’d be too quick, now wouldn’t it? the Man in the Moon countered.
“Not yet,” Basil replied to Amy, still focused entirely on Dusu. “Maybe she’s going to be reasonable. Then we get what we want and we take her back home, to stand trial.”
“I don’t really relish the idea of a trial,” Dusu interjected, as she shifted her position to sit more comfortably. “But I’d rather have that than getting mindfucked, thank you very much.”
The others moved up, taking position around Basil in a rough half-circle, all looking down at Dusu with varying degrees of contempt. Syrinx was ignored entirely, spinning slowly in the air, still gagged by having his jaw held shut.
“Why’s this bitch so calm?” Tyche asked, her voice almost a snarl. “She ought to be shitting herself right about now.”
“I feel fear,” Osore noted, breaking his silence for the first time in quite a while. “Not much, but there’s some.”
“You may have noticed that this place is crawling with terrifyingly powerful people,” Dusu quipped light-heartedly. “You guys are really rather adorable in comparison. Though I would like to know how you managed to beat the Ascendant’s doll back.”
Gloom Glimmer flinched, black veins creeping over her sclera, but Basil, who saw it through the eyes of his raven, raised a hand, cutting her off.
“We are not here for that,” he told Dusu. “You have something we need.”
“Ohhh?” she focused on him again, her cold, uncaring eyes studying his face. “What is it, sweetheart? What can I do for you? It’s not like I have much of a choice, huh?” she asked with a smirk.
It took all of Basil’s considerable restraint not to strike her across the face, just to wipe that smirk off.
Instead, he clenched his fists, his arms trembling due to the tension. “No, you do not,” he spoke quietly. “I am here because of the Hawaii plague. I want you to give me the antidote, or cure, or whatever y-“
He didn’t manage to finish his sentence. As soon as he mentioned Hawaii, her eyes widened – and then she started to laugh.
What? He stared at her, surprised, as she laughed and laughed, loud and shrill as she shook back and forth, wrapping her arms around her stomach.
“That’s… what you… came for?!” she gasped in between bouts of laughter. “You attacked this place… risked your lifes… wrecked our operations… a decade of research… all for that!?” she doubled over with laughter, her head nearly hitting the floor.
“What the fuck is wrong with this putana?” Hecate breathed, looking like she was afraid to catch something from the woman on the ground.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” Amy said resolutely, leaning in as she focused her power on her…
Only to recoil, staggering back. “What the fuck!?” she shouted, staring at the madly laughing woman with wide, shocked eyes. “How dare you… you… how could you? What kind of monster would do that!?” she screamed at her, lunging at the laughing woman with a snarl on her face.
Everyone stared in shock, completely taken by surprise by the sudden, violent reaction, and Basil barely managed to step in between them, blocking Amy’s lunge. “Amy, wait!”
He caught her in his arms, and would have gotten thrown aside or bowled over, had he not locked himself to the floor with his boots.
She struggled briefly against him, snarling. “Let me at her! That bitch, she’s… she has to die!”
“Amy, what is going on? What did you see?” he asked her, confused and more than a little worried. She’d never lost it like that before – she was very nearly frothing at the mouth.
The others stepped back from her, clearly intimidated – the only one who appeared to be unaffected was Dusu herself, who was still laughing like a loon.
“Heh. Heh heh hehahaha!” she shook all over, tears in her eyes. “I’ll show you! Look, look, I’ll show you what’s so fucking funny!” she half screamed, half gasped the words, having trouble speaking past the torrents of demented laughter.
Basil let go of Amy, who stepped back again, staring at Dusu with outraged eyes, and looked down at her.
The demented woman reached to the collar of the turtleneck sweater she was wearing underneath her labcoat, and grabbed an intricate, silvery charm hanging off a chain around her slender neck.
A single tuck broke the thin chain, tearing the charm off.
Her form distorted slightly, the wrongness he’d noticed earlier becoming more profound as he realised that he’d, however unknowingly, picked up on the fact that her appearance wasn’t real.
Beneath the disappearing distortion, a horrific sight became visible, making everyone, except for Basil, step back in horror and disgust. Even Syrinx, seeing it from a distance, gasped, sounding like he was about to throw up.
On the ground before them sat a woman who was barely more than a corpse. Lush black hair had turned pure white, mostly fallen out, leaving her haggard, flesh-less head – just skin drawn taut over bones – looking oversized, like a misshapen egg, the skin pale, greyish and thin as rice paper. Her eyes looked bigger here, due to the eyelids having become so thin and shrivelled, the eyeballs seemed to bulge out of her skull, their brown colour threaded through with grey, the sclera showing pink veins.
But that wasn’t nearly all. Her nose was gone, leaving a gaping wound in the centre of her face through which she drew air with a wheezing, sharp sound. Her lips had shrivelled and thinned, lacking any colour to distinguish them from the rest of her skin, revealing entirely toothless gums as she shook, laughed and gasped. Her cheeks had rips and holes in them, as if partially rotten, stretching obscenely as her jaw moved, distorting her laughter further into an inhuman, wheezing sound.
Her hands were similarly shrivelled, with chipped nails where they weren’t outright missing, the knuckles and wrists swollen as if infected by something. Her veins stood out starkly on her papery, greyish skin, where it was visible.
The rest of her body, though hidden by her coat, sweater and pants, was visibly emaciated, her clothes, formerly fitting tightly to her slender frame, now hanging off her bony shoulders, her pants legs so loose it seemed like she only had sticks within them.
Basil stared down at her in horror, recognising the symptoms. She looks just like… like… like Prisca…
“W-why?” he breathed the question, his voice nearly breaking as he felt his stomach turn cold.
“It wasn’t, wasn’t a plague!” she hollered, tears running from her bulging eyes as she looked up at him, the expression on her face, distorted as it was, dripping with sadistic glee. “I was… I wanted to be an Adonis! So jealous, of all these pretty boys and girls prancing around looking like they’d jumped out of a wet dream!”
She fell back, barely catching herself on her arms and leaning her negligible weight onto her hands, as if she was just relaxing among friends.
“So, you see, I got stupid. Too eager!” she continued, appearing to enjoy herself greatly. “I figured, well, I can do poisons real well – what if I do one that’s meant to make the victim better, rather than worse? I mean, that’s what medicine is, in the end, right? Just a poison turned on its head!” She tilted her head to the side, calming herself a bit. “Got in a real goooooood craze. Three days of work, non-stop. Didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, hell, I didn’t even shit the whole time.” She made a coy smile, though it only made her look even more disturbing. “Didn’t turn out so well. I was so fucking off the rocker when I came out of the craze, I really, really wanted to be strong and beautiful and all so much… I just injected myself with it. Didn’t test it on anyone.”
She shrugged. “You can see the results. I’ve been trying to find a way to fix myself, but… no luck, so far.” She sighed, shaking her head as if disappointed at how the world was treating her.
“Hawaii,” Basil cut in, his voice barely a whisper. “Why Hawaii?” Why’d you destroy Prisca’s life?
“Well, I couldn’t find a cure myself!” she proclaimed, waving an arm in an exasperated gesture. “So I figured, hey girl, why not outsource that?” She grinned, an unmistakable note of pride on her distorted face. “All these rich vacationers, all in one place. I figured, even if the heroes didn’t come up with a cure out of the good of their hearts, all those richies would pay enough to get someone to fix them. And then I could swoop in and get myself fixed, too!”
The bottom dropped out of Basil’s stomach, his blood running cold as he followed the evidence to its inevitable conclusion.
“Of course, I hadn’t quite thought it through,” she admitted, pouting – not that she had much of a pout, with her lips as withered as they were. “I blame it on all the painkillers I was on at the time. But, you see, I’d custom-made the stuff to affect me. To work with my genome, not that of other people. So… it was rather more lethal than I had expected it to be.” She shuddered. “You won’t believe how worried I got, before the first news of survivors came through! Y’see, I’d only made one batch of the stuff, and I spent it all on that bomb, so if no one’d survived Hawaii, I’d have been royally screwed!”
She sighed, again. “Of course, my luck remained as rotten as ever. No one found a cure. No one. Been waiting for years. I even released what little I’ve been able to reconstruct about the serum on the internet, using pseudonyms and all.”
He’d found some of those. Downloaded the information, hoping it might help him, wondering who had managed to figure even that much out, as little information as it was.
“Well, that didn’t pan out. Turns out I’m way too awesome. Not even the Gefährten, with all their mojo, have been able to fix me,” she complained, sounding like a little child, averting her eyes. “Body’s gonna last a few more years, tops. Only chance I’ve got left is getting to that retard in Britain, only even if I could get close enough, I doubt that faggot would be willing to heal me, you know?”
She looked up again, grinning at Basil. “So, you wanna know what’s so funny? This is! If you want to find a cure for my serum… sweetie, you can have everything I got! You can use my lab! Hell, I’ll fucking assist you myself! If you succeed, I’ll fucking blow you!” She leered at him, waving one of her arms at the equipment all around her. “Use the computer! I got all my files on it there! Use my equipment, if you can! By all means, find a cure for all those poor, poor victims!” She started to laugh again, her torso shaking, head dipping up and down with each gasp. “You never had to attack this place! You never had to fight! You could’ve just called me up, sweetie, and I would’ve sent a fucking plane!”
Basil staggered back, his vision tilting oddly. His whole body was cold, barely felt at this point, even something as simple as stepping back becoming an unstable, uncoordinated stumble.
The scarecrow on the floor kept laughing, shaking all over. “So, can you do it, sweetheart? Can you… do… what all the others… have failed to? You can’t… can you?” She looked up at him, her eyes wide, nearly glowing with the insanity now unconcealed behind them. “I looked you… up… when you built… that equipment… for the little… Fion bitch… you’re no bio-gadgeteer… you only do mechanical stuff.”
She lowered her head, shaking with barely restrained laughter. “Well, too bad!” She suddenly looked up at him again, eyes as wide as they could go. “Because the only way you’re getting a cure is if you come up with it yourself! I sure as hell have no idea how to do it, I tell you!”
And she threw her head back, laughing, mocking, as Basil’s world spun around him.