15.0 All Masks Fall: Intro

Previous | Next

The Incursion spread, explosively, as Outstep disappeared from the world, red tendrils reaching out, groping about, cutting deep gashes into reality only for them to heal over in fits and starts.

Then it was gone, having fed upon itself until there was nothing left, in but a moment; not a single person had been connected.

The man sometimes known as the Dark breathed a sigh of relief. An Incursion was hardly a threat to him, personally, but it could harm his baby girl, nevermind all the other people within its range.

Or the long-term consequences to the world.

Another disaster averted. Let’s prepare for the next one, he allowed himself to think, sarcastically, before he put such thoughts out of his mind and turned to coordinating the clean-up, while also drawing all of the wraiths he’d created back in.

People get so testy about being possessed by eldritch shadow demons. Go figure.

He shook his head, beneath the cover of his shadow coat. Aaron was rubbing off on him again, making him indulge in sarcasm.

Since it was best to only indulge in such things sparingly, he instead focused on his tasks, trying to ignore the anguish he’d felt through his connection with Irene, while his wraith had been sharing Outstep’s time with her; she’d realized what was happening, of course.

She wouldn’t want him to come to her right then, though. No, she was all business, far too much like himself in that regard. Putting her feelings aside to rush back into the thick of things and help people wherever she could.

He’d have to make sure to be ready for the inevitable breakdown, once everything was done and she was back home.

Hopefully, Gwen would have found her way back to them by then – she was far better at actually dealing with this kind of emotion than he was, rather than just putting them aside to focus on something else, as he was wont to do.

And so he worked, using lesser wraiths to reach out to people and talk, coordinating more than he did anything directly, and his thoughts drifted to other matters. Once reality had settled down around the nucleus of the Incursion, he’d have to see whether anything was left of Mindstar. That girl had turned out to be full of surprises, even beyond what he’d expected; and she may yet become the key to finally putting that creature down for good.

Though he might have to brainwash her to put her to use; she was likely to be useless on her own, with her brother’s death.

Yet another thing Irene is going to be devastated by.

Other matters required his attention, as well. New Lennston had been devastated – not as thoroughly as Old Lennston had been, back in the day, but even so, it would take months to rebuild, and the loss of life, for all that the attack had been one of the briefer ones, was staggering. By his count, nearly a fifth of its population was dead or worse; a little over five-hundred and thirty-thousand people of all ages. That crystal power she’d expressed, had been one of her more devastating ones, in terms of civilian loss of life, accounting for a super-majority of the deaths among the populace. Most of his agents in the city were among the dead, as well.

And that was just the start of his problems, he-

Where is Irene?

Even after his wraith had let go of her – he couldn’t stomach possessing his baby girl, not even in such a situation – he had maintained an awareness of her, if not an eye on her, just in case she called for him or otherwise needed his assistance.

Now she’d disappeared from his awareness entirely, in the same moment that nearly all of the survivors had.

No.

He turned around.

Where the battlefield that was New Lennston had been, a vast, jet-black sphere stood; perfectly spherical down to the nano-meter and so black it made his shadows look bright, as if it was less an object that stood there, but rather an absence of anything, even empty space.

No!

He surged forward, slamming into the side of the sphere – his power washed over it to no effect, as it had so many times before.

The sphere had been placed precisely so it had captured nearly all the inhabitants of New Lennston that were left, while excluding those capes and cowls who’d retreated furthest back from the calamity… and, of course, so as to make sure he was not within.

But Irene was in there.

“NO! YOU FUCKING COWARDS!!!”

***

The sound of breaking concrete, steel and other materials died down, reduced to mere background groaning, as what had once been New Lennston settled into its new shape, divided up into six pieces, each in its own globule within the greater globule that was the Savage Six’ reality.

The skies above these fragments were of such a deep, unbroken black that one could get dizzy just looking up at them and finding no reference point, nothing for the eyes to focus upon at all; yet there was still light, a sort of diffuse kind that seemed to have no clear source, yet illuminated the landscape as a full moon might on a clear night.

People were still reeling, many of them having been thrown off their feet, or fallen onto their knees in horror, when a screen appeared in the sky above each fragment of New Lennston.

Through it, one could see a bright studio stage, full of blinking lights and loud sounds, sporting a set of huge glowing letters in the background announcing ‘THE 88th SAVAGE GAMES!!!’

At the center of the scene stood a man with carefully styled red-blonde hair, wearing an expensive suit made of glittery gold material, with a lacy shirt and a bright golden tie beneath, a rose made of pure gold, with diamonds between its leafs, poking out of his breast pocket and sporting a wide, fake, white-toothed smile, his once enthusiastic brown eyes devoid of anything but despair and misery.

Calvin Poth had once been Great Britains most popular comedian, a passionate libertarian and crown loyalist who’d often used his weekly evening show as a vehicle to make moral cases for and against various events across the world, condemning and ridiculing those he found to be repugnant and exalting (and ridiculing) those he found to be just, becoming quite famous for his understated style and dry, very british wit.

Until he’d taken aim at the Savage Six.

A week after a whole show spent making fun of each and every member of the six, he and his entire family had disappeared, in spite of the protective detail put on them.

In the four years since, he’d been forced to ‘host’ a demented game show for the Savage Six, accompanying each and every one of their ‘games’.

He never made a single joke during any of them, and only played up being bombastic and excited as can be.

“Good evening, New Lennston!” he shouted, spreading his arms wider than even his fake grin went. “And welcome to the eighty-eighth Savage Games! You, are the lucky ones who get to compete, one and all!”

“Oh, and to those whom have been here before – welcome back,” he added, leaning forward to wink at the camera.

Then he stood up again, throwing his arms out. “We have a great show prepared for you all – nay, a colossal one! Titanic! Divine! With all-new rules and stakes!”

He sighed, raising the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes closed. “You see, we do hear you. When you criticize us. When you demand we improve our show, that we innovate! And so, for all our most devoted fans, we have prepared all this – and without further ado, let’s get to it and not waste time!”

“First, you may notice that your beautiful, recently re-decorated city has been split apart – into six globules, in fact!”

A hologram appeared in front of him, showing the six pieces, each floating in a separate sphere.

“Fear not, these fragments are not entirely lost to each other – there are ways to cross from one to another, by walking through any passage marked by this symbol!”

A symbol that looked like six red chevrons arranged in a circular pattern replaced the image of the broken city.

“Any passage so marked leads to a matching passage in another globule; there are exactly five passages in every globule, leading to a matching passage in another globule. However, the connections are not permanent – they rotate, based on this lovely contraption!”

He skipped joylessly over to a contraption that looked like a lottery machine had mated with a distillery, then been set in the middle of two dozen funhouse mirrors, before the most distorted and weird reflection was pulled out of its mirror, which became then the object he was now gesturing at.

The only parts that were easily recognizable was a handle attached to a crank, which could be turned, and a disk with six smaller disks arranged in a circle along its rim, each containing an image of the various globules. Hundreds of tiny golden rods were affixed to the greater disk between the smaller disks, connecting them in a wild pattern – but there were exactly five such lines of rods that were aligned for each globule, connecting them together.

“Every so often, I shall turn this beautiful handle,” he explained, stroking the golden rod that made up the handle, with the red sphere at the tip, “and this shall happen!”

He turned the crank, and the rods spun chaotically, before realigning in a different pattern.

“And so the connections will change – don’t worry, it’s all purely random, no one, not even our beloved game masters will be able to predict it! Not even Heretic himself, who set it up! Because we are, after all, nothing if not fair!” he shouted at the screen.

“Now, I’m sure you’re asking what the point of all of this is – well, I’m glad you asked, because we’re not going to have our usual setup this time! You see, this time, our much-loved game masters are not going to be playing directly against you!”

He snapped his fingers, and six smaller screens appeared in the air above each fragment of the city, arranged in a circle and rotating beneath the greater screen that showed him.

Each one sported a different symbol.

One was partitioned into two squares, one white, one black; the white one showed a black smiling mask, the black one a sad white mask.

To the right of it, a black background, with a red point in the center, within a golden ring.

Next to that, a pair of vermilion eyes within a white gear, beneath which a pair of vermilion blades were crossed, all on black ground.

Then, a stylized pink brain on blue ground, with a spike being driven into it at an angle.

After that, a black ring on a white ground, with nothing else.

Finally, a white skull on black ground, with a crown of flames.

“For this special game, we are going to split all participants into four groups! Yes, four of them – the Game Masters, the PCs, the NPCs and the Mobs!”

“The Game Masters, well, you all know them – our beloved Six!” The six rotating emblems blinked, briefly highlighted.

“The Mobs, you know them too – our many, many staffers, supporters, die-hard fans and hopeful pretenders to the GM spots! They will be out in force, as they usually are, and raisin’ hell and fun among PCs and NPCs alike!” Images of various minions in all kinds of outfits and styles flickered quickly across the screen.

“As for the NPCs, well, those are… all of you, but for the PCs!” He grinned, snapping his fingers to point at the screen, and thus at his terrified audience below.

“Ah, but now you’re asking, Cal, aren’t we usually the PCs in these games? Why are we being demoted? What the hell is this!?” he said, miming listening to the screen. “Well fear not, for being an NPC still means you get to participate – just in a different way! Just wait and see!”

“Now, the PCs, they are going to be special this time. Because…” A drumroll played. “There will be only six! Yes, six PCs, one for each GM!”

New screens appeared beneath the emblems, empty for now but for the letters ‘PC’ blinking across them.

“And here’s the thing – the GMs will only be going after the PCs! Yes, my dear audience, for once, you need only fear the Mobs… well, mostly.” He snapped his fingers into airguns again, grinning at the camera.

“Now, let me explain – each GM has chosen one person among those drafted into the game, whom is going to be their target for the next one-hundred and forty-four hours – six days, that is!” A digital display appeared, floating around the circumference of the jetblack sky, showing a static 06:00:00:00.

Calvin continued: “And while their respective PC is still alive, the GM is not allowed to harm any NPC, directly or indirectly – unless, of course, they are attacked first, or the NPCs actively protect or hide their respective PC. If, however, a GM manages to capture and kill their chosen PC, they are henceforth free to do as they please, so long as they do not kill the PC of another GM! If at least one PC survives to the end of the time limit, the GMs will admit defeat and cut the game short, returning you to the boring outside world, with no Seventh Day taking place.”

He leaned in towards the screen, wagging a finger. “And if, by some miracle, all six PCs are still alive by the end of the time limit, not only will the GMs release you all, but they will also turn themselves in with the authorities – yes, for the first time, we are offering a Total Party Kill Ending for the Game Masters!”

An unseen audience gasped and cried out inside the studio.

“However! If all six PCs die before the time limit is up, well… then there will be an extra special penalty for the NPCs – namely, a whole day, a Seventh Day, of the GMs and Mobs hunting you to their hearts’ content, with no restrictions whatsoever!”

“But what is this – ‘Calvin, should we not, then, do our level best to make sure the PCs all survive? Even if some of us die protecting them, we could at least cut the game short, or even force the GMs to turn themselves in to the authorities, or else be known to have become the most despicable of despicables – rulebreakers!'”

He nodded sagely, standing up straight and fussing a bit with his jacket and tie. “Yes, yes, dear hypothetical querist, that may be so – but things are rarely so simple. Because, you see – there are some special rules regarding the consequences of a PC’s death.”

“First! If a PC is slain by a Mob, said Mob and their entire troupe will get a special reward!”

“Second, and this is the big one – if an NPC slays a PC, that NPC will be allowed to choose five other NPCs, and will then be released from the game arena immediately, along with a generous cash prize of six million pounds sterling each! Yes, we are actually offering you an early way out – all you need to do is kill one of the designated PCs and you and five people of your choosing – family, friends, whoever, as well as any assorted pets, will get off early! Aren’t we generous?”

Calvin’s grin had by now become rictus-like, looking like it ought to split his head open and let the top half fall off the bottom. “And with that, let’s see whom will be the stars of this week’s show!” He rubbed his hands together. “Oh my God, I can’t wait!

The screen beneath the flame-crowned skull began to rapidly scroll through an indeterminable sequence of images, until it settled on a pink musical note within an equally pink outline of a heart, upon a blue ground.

At the same time, the image of a technicolor-haired, busty teenage girl in a partially transparent armor appeared on the screen next to Calvin, along with some stats of hers, and of course, her name.

“And our first star, the world-wide sensation before she was thirteen, and one of New Lennston’s rising stars – Polymnia, the Metahuman Pop Princess!” A fanfare played, taken from one of her own songs, as if to add insult to injury. “Will her beautiful music manage to soften Fire Burial’s heart, or will she end up just another flash-in-the-pan pop star? We shall see!”

The screen beneath the black ring scrolled through all the options, and then settled on a purple starburst on black ground.

The image of a tall, slender woman in purple spandex, with rich black hair (with purple highlights) and purple eyes, as well as unnaturally pale, almost pure white skin, appeared.

“Ohhh, Pristine has picked a real challenge – the dreaded, the sexy, the mysterious, the unpredictableeee… Mindstar!”

Next came the screen beneath the spiked brain, scrolling through options until it settled on a stylized hoplite’s helmet, in gold, on red ground.

An image of the athletic interim leader of the New Lennston United Heroes appeared, in her red spandex outfit, without her power’s armor active. “Turns out Mindfuck might be barely with us anymore, but he is still capable of some sweet, sweet irony – the great and greatly disgraced Amazon! Will her defenses suffice to keep him out, or will she once more lick the boots of someone with a mightier brain than hers?”

He’d just barely finished his spiel when the screen beneath the eyes-within-a-gear began to flicker through the images, finally settling on a pair of red dice showing snake eyes on white ground.

“Yet another beautiful lady – my, we seem to have quite the estrogen brigade at hand already, don’t we?” Calvin asked the audience, as the title card showed a young red-head in skintight scaled armor, whirling upside down around a black staff like an exotic dancer; her armor was partially transparent around her cleavage, midriff and legs, and she wore a short, black leather jacket, sporting an infectious grin. “Will Tyche’s luck suffice, or will she become the victim of a true Atrocity? Only time will tell!”

The screen beneath the golden ring and red circle began to flicker, and then settled on a a variation of Lady Light’s famous symbol – the downwards pointing moon sickle within a circle, from which three lines radiated; but while Lady Light’s was traditionally gold on white ground, this one was colored pure white upon a black ground.

The title card showed Gloom Glimmer, floating in the air; wearing her skintight, yet rather thick bodysuit made of an almost velvet-like material, all in black, and over it, the pure white, hooded cape that’d been passed down to her by her mother, her jet-black hair flying free while her eyes glowed red on black sclera.

“No surprises there – of course our MVP Heretic chooses to challenge the big unknown, the greatest challenge, the Princess of Power – Gloooooom Glimmer! Who shall emerge victorious from this battle of titans? We are all waiting with bated breath to find out! But really now, five ladies? Dear GMs, please, we need some testosterone here, else people will start thinking we’re weird and prejudiced!”

The last screen, beneath the sock and buskin scrolled, and then settled quickly on the last image. A metal-grey gear on bright yellow ground, trailing flames as if racing at great speeds.

On the title card, the image of a black man leaning on a car that could best be described as three hot rods and a monster truck thrown together and somehow made to be a single vehicle showed. He wore a stylized race car driver’s jumpsuit, in yellow, with stylized red flames on the cuffs, lower legs and diagonally across his chest, wearing a yellow-and-red domino mask underneath a shaved head, flashing bright teeth and holding a heavy-looking, yellow-colored, red-flamed helmet with stylized exhausts flaring out like wings.

“Can this be… I can’t believe it! Yes, our glorious leader has chosen to re-ignite the old rivalry – speed junkie versus speed junkie, speedster racing speedster, pedal-to-the-metal action unlike anything we’ve seen since the glorious days of the Speedfreaks and the Swift Simians – Hemming vs Hotrod!”

Another fanfare played, trumpets and drums, while an unseen audience cheered and whistled.

“And that’s it, folks! You know the players, you know the rules – let the 88th Savage Games beeeeeegiiiiiiiiiin!!!”

Previous | Next

vote for brennus

14.a.5 Out of Time

Previous | Next

Now

Jared ran through slowed, sluggy time. Over rubble and around rubble, vaulting over people frozen in place, most still oblivious to what was coming.

Not that he himself really knew what was coming, other than that it was bad.

And so he ran, pushing as many seconds into his time as possible, and it still didn’t feel like it was enough – the calamity, whatever it was, was edging forward, spreading; it had already enveloped Mindstar and was reaching the edge of the crater, towards the Dark and the others whom had gathered there.

I could help them, came a treacherous little thought. Maybe, if I use up all my stored time, I could save one or two.

But doing so meant splitting his time. Taking just one other person along for the ride, it’d halve his remaining time. Two people, he’d be down to a third.

The city was too damaged, even if he found his bike, he could not possibly use it to speed things up. Even now, running away on his own, even with time slowed to such a degree that even the most precariously unstable rubble could not shift beneath his weight, or at least not in time to matter, even now it was wearisome and difficult, to run and climb over it all – and his power actually boosted his endurance a great deal!

No, he couldn’t help anyone, except maybe himself. Not even his team.

As if on cue, he caught sight of the boss and the buttboy, the former standing tall, stalwart as ever, a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder as the latter knelt over another cape he didn’t recognize. One of the boss’s feet was touching said cape’s shoulder, spreading his power over them as well.

He could tell, because here, in this world, it actually had a visible effect, causing the three of them to look washed-out, colorless. He could no more affect them now than he could outside his power – he couldn’t even give them any of his time, to bring them up to his speed.

At least you two’ll be safe, he thought, with that usual stab of jealousy he got when he saw the two of them together. It was a small one, the kind he often felt when he saw people his age in a relationship, but it was there, nonetheless. Why can’t I have that? was what it said, each damn time.

At least the Kitty and Osore were so weird about their relationship, he didn’t feel jealous of them, too. Most of the time. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if Osore didn’t give a crap about her, and was just so apathetic he didn’t care when she hung off of him or kissed him.

Dude was scary.

And also likely to die, along with his girlfriend, if I don’t help.

He shook his head, and focused as he got to a particularly difficult section – a collapsed building that stood in the way of the straightest line away from the time-explosion, too broad to feasibly run around and be faster than try to scale it.

And scale it he did, leaping and crawling as necessary, using broken bits of concrete and cracked glass that should never have borne his weight as footholds without even shifting them, scaling a good twenty feet of rubble to reach the peak.

From there, he could finally see the area beyond the desolation. The suburbs to the South-West of New Lennston, to be precise. Where he’d taken Kizzy, to keep her out of the fight and as safe as can be.

There was no telling, though, how far this explosion was going to reach. The normal rules clearly didn’t apply here.

So, he was going to run there, grab Kizzy, and take her as far away as he could. Carry her, running, away from the devastation, like he had before, and like he was likely to again, in the future, as long as that monster persisted.

He looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come. The slow-motion explosion had spread further, crawling forth. He couldn’t say what’d become of the Dark, he’d been on the other side of the explosion from where Jared had started running, but tendrils of it were already reaching for some of the people standing at or near the edge of the crater. They were too far away to tell whether any of them had even started to react to it. If they’d even get a chance at it.

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Not just his team, but everyone else within reach. Well, maybe not the princess. Certainly not the Dark. But the rest of his team, sans the boss and the buttboy. Jugs, Kitty, Osore. Bismuth was probably still somewhere in there. The adults. Hecate and Tyche, though he hadn’t seen Tyche earlier.

Now there was a girl he thought he could have a relationship with. Heroic, gorgeous, fun-loving, easygoing, just the right amount of crazy and flirty.

I hope your luck doesn’t run out here of all times, Red.

He looked down at his feet, feeling shame well up within him. He couldn’t possibly help. Even if he might have, at first, he’d run too far away by now, and every second he dithered up here was another second lost. All he could hope to achieve was to die together with his friends.

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

I’m sorry, everyone. I wish I was stronger.

With tears in his eyes, he turned away from the battlefield…

***

… and found himself staring at his clock, red digits floating before a pure white background, measuring the minute and a half of time he had left to spend.

What?

He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the digits were no longer floating freely before the whiteness. Instead, he saw an incredibly long display, like what one would see on an old-fashioned digital clock, stretching to the left and right, circling around him as he turned his head – a perfect ring of a display, filled with bright red numbers separated by blinking colons.

And there weren’t just the seconds and minutes he was used to seeing whenever he closed his eyes. No, the digits continued to the right, and circled nearly entirely around the display, back to the minute digits at the front. He didn’t even know the words for the measurements, and he wasn’t sure there were any. Hundreds of thousands of digits, millions, time defined and measured out to an incredible, impractical degree, measured out far, far past the point of practicality for human action, thought, even conception.

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

Most of the numbers weren’t moving, but for the digits at the very end, that is to say, directly to the left of the minute digits. The smallest measure of time his power knew, ticking down at what felt like a snail’s pace, the display changing so slowly he could see the old digit fade out and the new one brighten up in slow motion.

… : 31

… : 30

He blinked again, and once more the sight was changed. Where before there had been but a white backdrop, there were now shapes, barely visible. Like looking at something move within a bank of mist, except one couldn’t see the thing itself, only the way it affected the mist.

Vast, vast shapes moved in jerky motions behind the display. Gears, spools, levers. Disconnected, seemingly, as if pieces between them were missing, or perhaps simply not visible yet.

As he watched, one of the largest gears shifted a little bit, a fraction of a turn; it set off a lever that seemed to need at least one more gear between them to be set off, snapping up to strike at and bounce off of… nothing?

… : 29

“What the hell is going on!? Hello!?!” he shouted, turning around in place, looking for a clue.

As he did, the scenery changed again, the giant gear shifting one more position ahead and causing the lever to bounce off of something, audibly this time, like a giant clockwork making all a single, vast motion; and by the time he was looking at the ‘front’ again, the gears and levers and other pieces had become visible, made of strange metals that didn’t look right to his eye, with fine strands of something spun between them, being threaded through the titanic clockwork.

Time. It’s threading time, he comprehended, without knowing why or how he did so.

… : 28

He himself stood atop another giant gear, made of some kind of brassy-golden material that was too rough to be metal and too smooth to be stone.

And then something else moved. Something vast, so vast he could barely comprehend its motion, and not just because it was effectively invisible, an outline in the mist, only this was an outline in the light; something that’d been draped around and over some of the gears, levers and the display itself, lazily, like some kind of gargantuan snake.

He thought he saw the outline of a hand, fingers, though he couldn’t make out how many fingers; but certainly more than five.

The… whatever it was, it almost seemed to reach for him, and he took an instinctive step back, raising his arms in defense – not that it would’ve done any good.

But it stopped short of reaching him, and instead, pointed down at the display directly in front of him (yet so far away he wasn’t sure he could ever reach it).

The numbers there, they flickered, as Jared lowered his arms and stared; shifting through numbers, letters, then disappearing, nearly all but a few to form a single message.

RUN UP THE CLOCK?

YES || >NO

The little triangle pointing at the ‘No’ disappeared, and appeared next to the ‘Yes’, then faded and appeared at the ‘No’ again, flickering back and forth between them.

His jaw worked, wordlessly, for a moment, as he processed it all, intuitions coming into his mind he’d never have thought of on his own. “I…”

“Beware,” a new voice spoke, from the left.

Jared jumped and squeaked in a way that his friends would certainly have had a laugh about, whirling about to look at the intruder in a place he’d never, ever have expected to see one.

The figure before him was… indistinct, though in a different way to the  thing on his clock. It was humanoid, certainly, human-like even, but it was hard to make out more; completely white from head to toe, it seemed to consist of dozens or more people, all overlapping each other, but no two of them quite the same in dimensions, blurring the outline of the gestalt into a flickering, shifting mess. There were no facial features he could make out, nor any other identifying features at all, really.

It turned its head away from the clock, and looked – he presumed – straight at him. “You should think again, whether you want to say yes,” it spoke, its voice an inummerable chorus. “This is not a choice you can walk back.”

“I, I think I know that,” he replied, looking away from it and up at the question on the clock’s display. “This, this is what they call a swan song, right?”

“It’s the option of one,” the figure clarified. “A choice, you have to make, here, beyond the reach of other people. To give your life, in a way, in exchange for power. A great deal of power, if for a limited… time.”

“Enough power to save everyone?” he asked, choked up.

The figure seemed to pause, for a moment. “No. Not everyone, not by yourself. This area’s always been fragile, ever since the Beginning; the incursion she’s set off will spread, unless counter-acted appropriately.”

“Spread, how far?” he asked, dazed. This was all, too damn much.

“Far enough you may not be able to get Keziah to safety, without this power,” the strange thing retorted.

It was like a drop of super-freeze dropped into a bucket of water, causing ice to spread all throughout Jared’s body, as he imagined those eldritch bolts and tendrils spreading far enough to reach his little sister and…

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

“There’s no way to stop this?” he asked, hoarsely. There were tears in his eyes, that he wasn’t bothering to wipe away.

“None you could walk on your own, nor one I could tell you of.”

“Who… who are you?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at the stranger, his shoulders slumping. He felt so tired.

“Merely a friend,” it replied, simply and with finality.

The mechanism advanced one more step, and Jared found that the entirety of their surroundings were now taken up by titanic a titanic clockwork engine.

“I never would have thought a swan song would look like this,” he said, when it became obvious it wouldn’t further elaborate.

The stranger shrugged, and turned away to look up at the clock and the still-invisible giant sprawled all around and over it. “It is different for everyone whom this offer is extended to. Everyone’s world is quite different after all.” It looked around at their surroundings. “This clock of yours is quite interesting, really. So many details, hidden beneath the surface. Still, it is hardly the time for idle chatter.” It turned its head to look at him. “What is going to be your choice?”

Jared looked away again, up at the clock. If I’d been asked a few seconds earlier…

He would have said no. It was the only thing he could have said. No matter what else, Kizzy had to take precedence, and he had to be alive to take care of Kizzy.

But now… this stranger, this ‘friend’ had said that he might not be able to get her to safety on his own. Certainly not with his power as it was, and maybe even accepting a swan song wouldn’t be enough? But it would be more likely to be enough.

Then there was the question of whether this… person… was even trustworthy. There were two reasons, mainly why he accepted what he said, though – one, it just fit how shitty the world was too well, and two, if someone untrustworthy had access to him here, at what felt and seemed to be the very center of his power, well… then he was fucked, anyway.

So in the end, it all came down to the whether he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kizzy’s sake.

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

He reached out with his hand, pointing at the ‘Yes’ option, and the triangle switched over.

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.

ALL THAT WE DO, WE DO FOR HER.

The invisible thing rose up – and then came down, smashing through the gears and springs and levers of power.

Again.

And again.

As if in a frenzy, it struck and lashed out, like a snake – or arm – possessed, smashing the machinery around them, the cacophony of destruction utterly defeaning, driving Jared to stagger back and nearly fall over.

Time that had before been threaded carefully through the system poured forth like liquid light, rushing towards him, as the display flickered, danced with disjointed lights, and then went black, all black, save for a single red symbol.

The light rushed forth and into Jared, faster and harder than he could react, into his mouth and down before he could even gasp for breath, let alone screaming, filling him to bursting and beyond.

***

He exploded into motion, leaping off the giant mound of rubble he’d been standing upon. Still in the air, he felt his vision change, sharpening; even with his helmet’s visor set to let him see beyond the boundaries of his power’s sphere, at the cost of being unable to see his immediate surroundings as anything but a blurry mess, the two halves of his vision focused, independently, until an equilibrium was reached, and he could see clearly, both near and far – further than ever before, all the way to the horizon.

Reaching up with one hand, he touched his helmet, to pull it off – but he could not move it, and when he touched it, he felt his hand, like he was touching his face; except he felt the helmet, through his hand.

Even as he touched it, it smoothed out, shifted. Merging with his face, he realized, as he felt the air rush past his body on the approach to the ground, as if naked.

My costume is becoming a part of me?

He’d heard the stories about Swan Songs, how weird things got. That people who underwent one, they changed before dying. It was a poorly understood thing, unsurprisingly. Swan Songs were rare to begin with, they could not be triggered deliberately (and who would want to, really?) and they rarely lasted for long, on top of only really happening during times of crisis.

His thoughts were disrupted as he landed on the broken ground, on all fours. The impact was barely a consideration, even lighter than it would usually be. Less than ten percent effect.

Time was pouring out of him, beyond any reason, extending his seconds beyond what he’d ever been capable of.

His body moved, lightly, as if he was weightless, leaping forth away from the suburbs. Arms and legs moved in strange synchronicity, bending oddly, the forelimbs lengthened to let him run on them properly.

He didn’t have much time, he knew that. And just grabbing Kizzy and running with her, he didn’t think that was going to be enough.

No, if he was doing this, he had to do it smart.

His power was such that, he was quite certain he could have grabbed Kizzy and run halfway across the continental United States, if he’d so wished. Or the other way, across the ocean.

And yet, the stranger had said that may only maybe save her.

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

There was only one person he could think of, that might be able to tell him, who was also within reach.

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

It looked different, now. Its rate of progress had slowed, almost to a stand-still, but where before it had looked like some kind of negative light, black cracks spreading like slow-motion lightning, it now looked alive to his eyes. Red, like molten rubies, and pulsing, ripples running up and down the stuff at such speeds, he could barely follow them even now, with time slowed to a near-stand-still.

It looks like blood, he realized. Pulsing like there’s a heart, somewhere in there, beating.

He ran towards the tendrils of bloody light, soon entering the area where the glow they gave off tinted everything a deep, shimmering red. Entering it was like suddenly plunging into water, as if the light it gave off had real mass, impeding his motions; but he pressed through regardless, forcing himself to keep going.

And the closer he got to it, the more he felt his body change. Saw his body change, as the arms that were reaching ahead of him, to grab onto the ground and propel him forward, elongated and smoothed out, what had once been his suit becoming his skin, his skin becoming like crystal; and the crystal cracked, cracks spreading through it, through which came forth a stark white glow that seemed unaffected by the red glow of the incursion, pushing it away, even, rather than mixing together.

That wasn’t even the weirdest part. As he passed other people, he found that they, too, looked changed. The metahumans, at least. From a distance, they just looked as he would have expected them to, merely washed out in red, but whenever he passed close enough to one or some for his bubble of light to cover them, if partially, the oddest sight took place. He saw things, beyond them, as if they were lenses that refocused his light, projecting strange visions beyond them.

There, a girl he’d seen on some show before, in a black bodysuit so tight it would have been utterly indecent, if not for the red, brown and orange leafs stuck to it in swirling patterns, some of them covering the most critical areas. As he passed her by, she became a lens that showed him a vast, autumn-colored forest, only it was a forest without a sky, without earth or animals or anything but the trees and their leafs, growing everywhere, above, below, to the sides.

He ran past her, and then past his two teammates and the cape they’d been helping, but yet again, they were dead to his power, washed out grey figures whether they were within or without his bubble.

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

He ran in a loping kind of gait through this silent, red world, the light shining forth from him growing stronger, until it reached as far as his bubble usually did, casting his immediate surroundings in stark clarity, while everything beyond the bubble was frozen redness and shadows. As the red light was pushed away, it became easier for him to move; still underwater, perhaps, but now he was running inside an air bubble that moved with him.

Soon, his path took him around the red stuff, and there he saw what he’d been looking for – the frozen form of the Dark, a tall, jet-black mass of shadow, legless, as if fused to the ground, the tendrils of red stuff curving around him.

Jet black.

Even standing right in front of the glowing red stuff, its light did not seem to touch him at all – not only was the Dark himself as, dark, as usual, but there was an entire area around him, a bubble two times as big as the one around himself, that the red stuff could not penetrate – instead, it had wrapped halfway around it, enveloping the Dark like amber around an air pocket. Where Jared’s bubble was filled with incandecent light, however, the Dark’s was filled with something much bleaker, much harsher, casting everything within the bubble in stark relief.

He immediately found a new obstacle – the bubble was nearly solid, to him. His own bubble deformed around it, rather than overlap, and when he came up against it, it was very nearly solid, denser by far than the Incursion’s own… whatever it was. Aura. Presence.

A problem, whatever he chose to call it. Pressing against it was like trying to push spun glass into old, extra-thick honey – he felt like his spiffy new crystal arms were going to snap, any moment.

He looked at the ground to cover, before he could reach the Dark. His new arms were about ten feet long, and he could cover about as many feet with a single step. There were about sixty feet of harsh, bleak-lit space between him and the Dark.

Five steps and then reaching out. You can do it, Jared.

He leaned into the Dark’s bubble, shoulder first, to spare his fragile-feeling arms the pressure, slowly, laboriously, forcing his body into the oppressive light.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt, not quite. He wasn’t sure he could feel real pain anymore, with his body the way it was. But he felt the pressure, constricting him, pressing against his body from every which way, unevenly – far more heavily on the parts of him closer to the Dark than not. The increase in pressure was so rapid, so intense, he actually could feel the difference, inch by inch, compacting him, crushing, restraining, cracking the crystals of his body, so dense it seemed to actually dim the light shining from within, rather than have more of it spill forth from the fresh cracks.

He was less than a foot in yet!

Thank God I don’t need to breathe anymore, he thought, as he took his first, laborious step into this oppressive bubble. Cracks spread further over his red-and-white skin, shining with dim, almost condensed light.

It felt like he was dying. Even without the need to breathe – he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t breathing anymore, until he wasn’t able to and found he didn’t need to –  the pressure was too much. One step, but he’d ended up taking less than five feet with it, for he just couldn’t force it in that far. Three feet crossed, at best. He’d need nearly double the steps… more, if the pressure increased even further.

Nevertheless, he took the next step. He was dying anyway – what was there left to lose?

The only thing that could still scare him now was the thought of failing to save Kizzy, and that was certainly a reason to move forward, and not retreat.

Step by step, he wandered deeper into the oppressive bleakness, feeling his body break down, pieces of crystalline costume-flesh flaking off to reveal more of the glowing innards, and yet, he somehow kept finding the strength to move on, step by laborious step.

It took him ages – in a second – to finally reach the Dark’s towering, time-frozen form. By that point, his body had broken down nearly entirely, leaving him as a dim, solid silhouette of white light, framed by an irregular lattice of silvery crystal strands.

Even now, grown to more than twice his height, he was smaller than the Dark, stooped over as he was, pushed down by the oppressive weight.

As he approached him, strange strands became visible, tendrils of… something, that extended out from his form in every direction, frozen in place – they did not seem solid, but rather made of some kind of black mist, frozen mid-swirl in some places, solidified into strands in others, until they trailed off into nothingness…

He could not guess as to their meaning or purpose, but there had to be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, though curiously, there were none in the direction he was approaching from.

Those barely visible faces were still all over the Dark’s form, as well, frozen in place, rather than constantly shifting, which made it easier to make them out.

He tried really hard not to make them out.

Instead, he reached out, laborious inch by inch, until he could put his hand onto the Dark’s left arm, at the elbow.

His form flickered, the light within pulsing, from his core to his arm, from his arm into the Dark. The entire form twitched, shuddering from head to… bottom, the faces animating only to disappear into the greater darkness, as the strands came alive, extending every which way, twisting, twitching, dissolving and reforming, still trailing off into nothing.

The tall, shadow-wreathed figure turned his head, looking down at him, while pulses of white light kept flowing into him, providing him with a share of Jared’s time.

Six glowing red eyes focused on him, as the pressure mercifully disappeared.

Jared shuddered, nearly losing his grip on the man, as his entire form unwound, no longer restricted – like a spring that’d been compressed, only to suddenly be released, he nearly doubled in size, all parts of him swelling as his inner light blazed forth.

He would have lost his grip on the Dark, by his own sudden growth, but his arm split, from the elbow up to between middle and ring finger, only for light to pour forth and form two whole forearms and hands, one still holding onto the Dark with unnaturally long fingers.

Crystal began to grow atop his glowing flesh, like ice forming on a surface when the temperature fell sharply, and soon he was – mostly – whole again, covered in crystal with pulsing vein-like cracks running through it.

“One would think I would get used to this, but even after nigh-on a century, I still can’t quite stomach a child dying in front of me,” the Dark spoke, pensively.

“It was either me, or everyone else. I think,” Jared replied.

The Dark seemed to hear it, though. “Ah. Did a Friend tell you that?”

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

The Dark sighed, and looked over his shoulder. “An Incursion… of course,” he spoke, and even through the distorted chorus of his many voices, he sounded incredibly, unbelievably tired.

“What’s going to happen?” Jared asked, while he kept sharing his time with the Dark.

“The Incursion will reach out for every metahuman within a radius of… four and a half miles, just about,” the Dark said, hand raised to stroke his shadowy chin. “Each metahuman it connects to will then become an amplifier, extending the effect – exponentially so. Every other metahuman whom falls within the extended range will extend it in turn, and every baseline within that range will also become connected, though they won’t boost the effect further.”

“That… what… and then what?” That sounded horrific, considering how this thing already looked.

“Something worse than mere death, young man,” the Dark replied, simply. “Fortunately, thanks to the choice you made, we have a chance to avert the worst of it, by moving every metahuman here beyond its initial reach.”

Jared shuddered, his new form creaking with the motion, still growing, though not as explosively as before.

“What about, Mindstar?” he asked, looking towards where the woman still ought to be – if there was anything left of her.

The Dark looked in the same direction. “We cannot reach her, I’m afraid. Perhaps her shields will be enough to prevent a connection… she is clearly far more powerful than even I suspected, which is frankly rather disconcerting when- ah, no matter.”

He made a dismissive hand motion, as if he was tossing the thought aside.

“Let us focus. You could share your time with other people, in the past, to pull them into your pocketed timestream. Your capacity to do so ought to have increased considerably now.” It was a statement, not a question. “We need to extend your power to everyone else here, so they can move out of the Incursion’s range.”

“I’m not sure I have enough time left to do that,” Jared replied, looking down at the Dark – he’d grown a few feet, since they’d started talking. “This thing is spreading, even now, even though we’re progressing at one hundredth of a second!”

He looked at the tendrils of redness extending from the central mass that filled out the crater. They’d crept closer already.

“Even if I had time enough to spare, I don’t think I could get to everyone in time, I’d still need to run to everyone, pull them into my time, get them to safety, run back, over and over and the way you described it, if it connects to just one person…”

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

“Fear not,” the Dark said, calmly, moving away from the Incursion, his bottom half sliding over the rubble without disturbing it. Jared followed, keeping his hand on the Dark’s shoulder, as those strange tendrils flowed out behind him, trailing his path. No matter which way the Dark turned or moved, it seemed like the tendrils always extended every which way around him, but towards Jared. “You were wise to come to me, first. Together, we can save everyone.”

There was not a doubt in his voice that Jared could detect, and he felt oddly reassured by it, which was just freaky because the Dark was being reassuring. His parents used to sing poems about how horrible a monster he was, to get him to behave, telling him that the Dark would come for him if he stole cookies from the cookie jar or didn’t pick up after himself.

“Cool. Great, I mean… yeah,” he stammered, unsure of what to say, while they put distance between themselves and the Incursion. “Speaking of saving everyone…”

The Dark looked over his shoulder at him, and there was something strangely sad about the expressionless shadow one could see, crushing Jared’s faintest hope before he could even speak.

“I’m sorry, but no, young man. Saving you, is beyond me at this point, beyond any means I am aware or even suspecting of,” he replied, his choir-like voice tender, like many greaving people layered on top of one another. “You have tipped over the edge… like an object which has crossed a singularity’s event horizon, there is now only one way to go for you, and that is not the way back.”

Jared lowered his head, briefly. It had been a faint hope, barely hope really, but still, it hurt to have it squashed.

“Focus, now. We have a great task to perform.” As he spoke, the Dark raised a long-fingered hand and put it onto Jared’s side – he had grown so tall, even the Dark could no longer reach any higher, as toll and long-armed as he may have been. “Do you have any last words you wish me to know or convey? Any last wishes?”

Jared looked at him, and if he’d still had eyes, they would have been staring. If he’d still had a mouth, it would have been slack-jawed. Entrust his last words to the Dark? Yet another thing he’d never ever have dreamed.

There were some things, though, that he would want to say, some things that… that mattered…

“Tell, the boss and… I mean, tell Tartsche and Spellgun… and the others, on my team, tell them goodbye. Tell them not to miss me too much, but not too little, either. Tell Polymnia I’m sorry I was such a jerk to her, and… tell the princess the same. I should’ve been nicer to her. And… that she’s not stupid, for the things she hopes for. Honestly, I think it’s rather awesome that she can hold on to that kind of hope.”

The words were spilling out of him, faster than he could think about them. “Tell Amazon she was a rockin’ boss, and tell Bismuth thank you, for everything she did for Kizzy. She’s awesome, and I’m sorry about what happened to her sister. And… tell Kizzy, that… that I’m sorry.”

He hesitated, because entrusting the Dark with words was one thing, but asking for something more… I hope to God you’re right about your dad, princess.

Jared raised his head – slightly, for he was too tall to see eye-to-eye with the Dark anymore, but enough to look him in the eyes. “And, my sister, Kizzy… she doesn’t really have anyone, won’t have anyone, once I’m gone…” A foster family is not the same as having a family. There won’t be anyone to watch out for her once she’s older. The UH will make sure she won’t lack money, but…

“I shall provide what protection and resources I can. You have my word,” the Dark spoke, and it was with the same casual conviction with which he’d said they could save everyone.

Something within Jared relaxed, like a knot, slightly unwound. He still wouldn’t be there for her himself, but at least, this way, he’d done all he could.

Almost done, all he could. He still had to stop this ‘Incursion’.

“How are we going to do this?” he asked, once he’d regained his composure.

“Behold.” The villain gestured dramatically with his free hand, and a shadowy form burst forth from the mass of shadows that ringed the pillar of his lower body.

A spindly, emaciated humanoid figure, made of an oily black substance, wreathed in shadows, burst forth – a Darkwraith, but a small one, it was basically just a torso, arms and an eyeless head, using its arms to drag itself forward at an impressive speed.

As it separated from the Dark, a strand of darkness remained, like the countless others that extended from his form, except this one seemed more – it was solid, rather occasionally dissolving into dust-like darkness before reforming, and it extended, at first, from where the Dark’s feet ought to be, to beneath the wraith’s form… to its stomach?

An umbilical cord? As if this couldn’t get any more disturbing.

Light pulsed down the cord, from the Dark to the wraith… from Jared to the Dark.

He’s sharing my time with the wraith. Holy-

The wraith rushed forth, trailing the umbilical, which moved up the Dark’s body as it extended, as if pulled out, until it connected to the pinky of his free left hand.

Jared could feel the drain of time, as he was now sharing it between three.

Four, as another wraith burst forth, fed pulses of time through its umbilical.

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

His growth accelerated, as he found his thoughts drifting into a strange state, the sensations his body was feeding back to him changing in ways he had no words to describe.

The Dark moved, pulling himself up to stand atop Jared’s left shoulder, right hand on his head, hundreds of cords extending from his left hand, like a puppeteer’s strings, with pulses of time-light trailing down their length.

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

Even with his thoughts becoming strangely dream-like, he could still draw the implication.

There were thousands of currently inert cords extending from the Dark’s form, and more joined them every passing moment as Jared grew in stature, and his awareness expanded in breadth and depth.

“Just how many wraiths do you have out there?” he asked, and his voice was huge, booming forth in strange ways, as if it produced its own echo; his body was as large now as Crocell had been at its biggest.

The more of my power I draw, the more I change, he realized. The less human I become.

“Never enough,” the Dark answered his question, even though Jared had already half-forgotten he’d asked it. He sounded resigned. “There’s never enough of me to go around. Never enough of anyone.”

Hundreds of wraiths were running to the people around the area, and merging with them.

The people came to life, as the wraiths became a part of them, connecting them to the Dark’s hand, fingertips to their navels.

The first few looked confused at first, then horrified at what they saw, as they looked either at the cords of oily darkness connecting to them, or up at the titanic figure that was Jared, or at the Dark, whom stood upon his shoulder like some kind of twisted pet.

Then they moved, and the motion was strange, starting suddenly – after a moment’s confusion, Jared’s new senses allowed him to see what was happening, the Dark’s intent moving down the cords, along with the time they were meant to convey, pushing everyone to flee.

“What about them?” Jared asked, pointing with one of the dozen arms he now sported at the little group under the aegis of Tartsche’s power. No wraith had connected to either of them.

No, his name was… what was his name, I don’t…

“We cannot connect to them,” the Dark replied, calmly, his attention focused on managing his many, many wraiths. “Neither can the Incursion – they will be safe.”

Jared tilted his head, only he didn’t tilt it spatially, but in a different way, like tilting it in time, and he looked ahead.

The Dark was right. He couldn’t see any future in which they were harmed by these events.

Since when can I look into the future? he asked himself.

“Don’t focus too hard on that,” the Dark told him, firmly, his voice somehow able to penetrate the dream-like haze that the boy’s thoughts were descending into. “We are already using up your time too quickly – don’t waste it on looking ahead.”

Did I say that out loud?

“There is no longer a distinction between what you think and what you express. Be very careful,” the Dark explained, patiently, as heroes, villains and bystanders were moved out of reach of the Incursion.

The awareness of the thing that had once been a boy extended in twists and turns that would have made no sense to the human it once was; and it could perceive, though not see, everyone within a great distance. People were moving to safety. Some faster than others, but all were moving, either under their own power, or being helped by others whom could move quickly and carry loads.

It wanted to help, to reach out with its many arms and help those whom were wounded, those whom were weak or just naturally slow, to get them to safety, but it knew the truth of the Dark’s words – it was spending time in colossal amounts, and anything it did threatened to spend even more, to make it even less human; and deep down inside it knew, once the process was far enough along, it would slip away and be drawn in to… to whatever was to come.

“Focus on what matters,” the Dark commanded, his alien voice cutting through the daze and straight to the mind of the boy within the thing. “Cast out your anchors. As long as you have at least one, you can prolong your existence, and save so many more people.”

The thing did so, seeking the boy’s memory’s for what mattered.

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

Yes… a promise made, at the start and at the end of it all. A promise the boy made to himself, for the sake of his sister.

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

Kizzy had once had a brother… had a brother… and that brother’s name had been…

Jared. My name is Jared. I am Kizzy’s big brother, the boy thought as he awakened from the daze of power.

His titanic form shuddered, and shrank down by nearly half – and instead, time slowed even more, as he squeezed nearly twenty more seconds into each real second.

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

“Impressive. What a tragedy, that one with such fortitude of mind is to die.” The Dark actually sounded genuinely aggrieved by it.

“It’s alright,” Jared said, slowly, his voice rumbling along, echoing off of nothing… or at least, nothing in this reality, at least. “I’ll last long enough to finish this.”

“As you say, young hero,” he said, and then turned away again, focusing on his wraiths and the people they connected to.

Meanwhile, Jared held onto his memories, his self, for as long as he could… piece by piece, losing them, as they moved on ahead to await him on the other side.

Finally, the Dark managed to move the last person out of reach of the Incursion. By that time, Jared had long since forgotten speech entirely, and so the shadow man merely bowed, deeply, and shot away.

With there no longer being a need to conserve time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend what he had left to look ahead, to see what would become of Kizzy.

Pain and heartbreak, grief and sorrow, horror and despair. But also… pushing past that… he got a glimpse, of a girl, a young woman, in costume, standing tall among a line of heroes.

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

Jared closed eyes he no longer had. His final thoughts were of his parents and his sister.

And then he was no more.

Previous | Next

vote for brennus