B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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B13.17 Call of the Sleeper

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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 off their bodies, flying 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.

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B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

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They really like bringing back the dead, don’t they? the Man in the Moon asked in a mocking tone, though it was clear he was feeling just as freaked out as Basil did. What’s next, is fucking Weisswald himself gonna walk out of one of those tanks?

Don’t jinx it, Basil thought furiously as he felt the world slow down around himself – his every heartbeat seemingly as loud as a canon shot. How the fuck are we supposed to get out of this?

The worst part was, for all he knew, they’d already lost – there was no way to tell for him, or anyone except maybe Gloom Glimmer, whether Elysium’s power was already in effect, until she wanted them to.

He’d studied her, of course. Nearly everyone who went to Diantha High did, usually without even meaning to – Lady Light had turned the school into a shrine for her fallen daughter. So he knew all of her achievements and he’d, in the course of studying high-end powers – particularly ones like Ember’s, which seemed to control a certain ‘territory’ – looked up every scrap of information he could find on her power.

The only fight she ever came close to losing was the one that killed her, he thought, observing their foes… foe, really. The gadgeteers behind her didn’t even matter. And none of us is as powerful as DiL, not even Gloom Glimmer.

Fuck DiL! Amy snarled into his mind. If that’s really the Elysium, then she’s also the one who stomped the fucking Dark into the ground!

Get out of my head! Hecate shouted, mentally, making Basil realise that Amy must’ve linked them all up together, especially once similar exclamations came from everyone but Gloom Glimmer, Tartsche, Tyche and Spellgun.

Shut it! Amy shouted right back, louder than everyone else combined, to the point where Basil physically flinched in response. We don’t have time for this! We need to work together or else we’re done for!

No one, not even Hecate, had a rebuttal for that.

“Diantha, can you hear me!?” an anguished voice pulled Basil’s attention back to what was right in front of him – Gloom Glimmer had taken another step closer towards her unresponsive half-sister. “Is that really you? Please, say something!”

Behind the… clone? Zombie? Was it a cyborg of some sort?… behind the maybe-Elysium, the woman they only knew as the Ascendant leaned back against the open tank’s side, crossing her arms as she watched the scene with obvious glee and pride in her eyes.

“Four-four-four, designate the last speaker as Priority Target Alpha,” she spoke in level tones. “Designate the others from left to right as Priority Targets Beta through Kappa. Disable and capture Alpha as priority task. Disable Beta through Kappa.”

The empy-eyed beauty raised her head, her eyes moving over the gathered heroes – and one villain – without showing any emotions. Then she took a step forward.

Gloom Glimmer matched her, stepping closer. “Diantha! Diantha, you don’t have to listen to her!” she begged the older girl. “You don’t know me, but I’m your sister! Come with me, I’ll take you to mom – she’ll be so happy to see you!”

“Gloomy, stay away from her!” Polymnia shouted as she raised her arms, unleashing twin blasts of focused sound straight at Elysium.

The famous dancer reacted with an elegent step to the side, twisting her body in a single, fluid motion. The barely-visible blasts curved around her, drawn into the motion, and flew straight back at Polymnia, who just barely managed to counter them with another pair of matching blasts, creating a brief, shrill scream that staggered those not under the protection of Tartsche’s power – that being, Tartsche himself, as well as Tyche and Spellgun.

Elysium kept moving, her bare feet making barely any sound on the cold metal floor as she closed the distance to her little sister, the graceful motions of her legs in stark contrast to her limp arms as he turned and made a high kick towards the stunned girl.

Though she was clearly struggling to think straight, Gloom Glimmer reacted immediately, but not to defend herself but rather, reaching out towards her sister.

Elysium didn’t hit her, though – instead, her kick flew above the younger heroine’s head and continued on in a downward arc; her torso nearly horizontal, she turned on her one leg, to continue the kick all the way down to the ground, as a distorting haze enclosed Gloom Glimmer mid-reach.

As her foot touched the ground again, the trap snapped shout, a hazy bubble around Gloom Glimmer entrapping her in the middle of reaching out with her right hand, her mouth open to call out something.

Then the image flickered and she was back to the beginning of the motion, reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out…

The loop continued for all to see, a sphere of looped time around their friend and her half-sister standing in front of it, looking at it with an empty-eyed gaze.

Polymnia cried a wordless scream of rage, unleashing a steady, ululating sound towards Elysium, but it never reached her. She took a single step towards it, placing the toes of her foot a measured distance forward, like a ballerina and the distortion in the air that was Polymnia’s attack split in two around her.

Moving forward, twirling on her toes, the attacks crossed through each other without any effect, then curved back towards Polymnia, forcing her to counter them again.

Is she holding back? Amy asked into their mental link, as Basil detached his drone from his leg, causing it to project a stream of octagonal force-fields from one end, riding them the way Sovereign’s Subjugator had. She’s only reacting.

If we are lucky, whatever process they used to bring her back has left her without her previous experience and skill, or any memories at that, Basil replied. Hecate, I am going to attack from the left. Try flanking her. As pissed as Hecate must be at this point, he was quite certain she’d be able to look past it in such a situation.

She didn’t reply, but she did switch into her smoke-form, moving into flanking position in the same instant that he leapt forward.

At the same time, Amy shot up before gesturing with her right hand at Elysium, unleashing an unseen blast of raw force which didn’t travel like a projectile, but appeared right on top of the dancing woman – only to vanish without a trace. Furthermore, a twin spiral of green fire, so bright it hurt to look at, appeared behind her out of nowhere, slamming into Amy’s back and making her cry out at the unexpected attack – though her shields held true, the attack nearly overloaded them with its force and he could see that her back had gotten burned when she turned around to look for the source of the attack – but there was none.

Dumbfounded, yet not hesitating, Basil used the distraction – Elysium was on one knee, currently rising up again into what was perhaps going to be another pirouette – to launch his drone at her back, hoping that her power would fail to protect her against an attack she didn’t see coming; or perhaps it might create an opening, at least, for Hecate or one of the others to hit her. She was just human, after all, once one got past her power, as had been discovered painfully during the fight against DiL, all those years ago.

The drone shot forward, projecting an oscillating, arrow-head-like force-field so dense it was completely opaque over its tip. Hecate cried a single phrase – he missed the words, but they were clearly Greek – and unleashed a twin spiral of green fire so bright, even Basil had trouble looking straight at it. An attack he instantly recognised.

It was completely useless, of course. Diantha rose, then bend over, the leg she wasn’t standing on kicking out towards the drone, toes pointed. Where they came close, the force-field, then the drone, simply parted in half; for just a moment, he thought his force-field was hold, but it was a vain hope – it parted like water before the prophet, and the drone itself offered no more resistance as the space between its molecules was expanded, causing it be cut in half with such a perfect, straight edge, it was almost beautiful, revealing its glowing innards before the pieces tumbled to the ground and went dark. An attack that knew no defense, other than a spatial effect of equal or greater power.

Reaching forward, her body still horizontal, she caught Hecate’s attack in both hands, then kicked off the ground, rotating in the air and causing it to disappear in between her hands.

Something hit Basil’s right knee from the side, very nearly shattering the armor and causing a sharp pain to shoot up his leg, before he lost all sensation but that of cold. Looking down, stunned, he saw his right leg largely encased in ice, and bending the wrong way at that.

He looked at Spellgun, who was staring at him in shock and confusion, holding his rifle up – he hadn’t even fired yet.

There was a scream, causing him to look up only to see Hecate be blown away by Amy’s earlier attack, the massive blast blowing her aside and causing one of the jewels sewn onto her chest to flash in a bright, red light, then shatter as it overloaded her defenses, conveying enough force through them to both hurt her and send her hurling across the room, slamming into a wall.

A flicker, and she was lying where she’d started, crumbled into a heap.

Fuck, it wasn’t that strong! Amy shouted in confusion, before she startled, finding herself right in front of the twirling blonde.

Before she could react, Elysium jumped from one foot onto the other and brought her knee up, connecting with Amy’s stomach; the blow was so powerful it created a sonic boom, causing Amy to spit blood as she was launched away, slamming through half a dozen steel tanks, crushing them and their contents, before she impacted the wall, leaving a sizable impression on it, then fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Amy!” Basil shouted, trying to take a step towards her – but all he achieved was that he fell over, his half-frozen, likely broken leg giving out under him as soon as he put any weight onto it.

Elysium continued the motion with which she’d kicked Amy, and the tanks returned to their previous state, while Amy appeared in front of them, still unconscious.

Basil fired his grappling hooks towards Amy’s body, intending to draw himself towards her, but they barely crossed a metre – seemingly – before they fell to the ground; somehow, they’d spooled out entirely to their very limit, leaving two heaps of super-strong black cable on the ground.

The whole room began to shift, as if drawn into a whirlpool with Elysium at its centre, space bending in a disorienting, vertigo-inducing fashion, slowly forming a huge spiral, the centre of which began to lower itself deeper – or perhasp the edge rose up, it was hard to tell through the vertigo-inducing distortions all around.

He saw Bakeneko try to escape, in a quadrupedal form, running for the edge of the effect towards the door, but whatever Elysium was doing to the space, it made it look like she was running in place, unable to move a single step closer to the exit no matter how much effort she put into it, trapped in what could only be described as a sinkwell of space, unable to go anywhere no matter how she moved.

Osore was on the ground, groaning in pain, several limbs broken and numerous gashes and holes across his body, which were mending slowly – When did he go down? – and Tyche and Spellgun were staring helplessly at their surroundings, while Tartsche was glaring towards the villains on the far side of the room, standing in a pocket of undistorted space.

Basil watched helplessly as Elysium kept dancing, her movements not nearly as joyous and graceful as he’d seen in recordings of her many performances, yet still beyond the ken of even professional dancers; she was dancing in a circle, leaping from foot to foot, never touching the ground with both at once, sometimes dipping down while standing on her toes to draw a wide circle around herself.

All around, the room continued to twist, folding up even as the ceiling itself folded apart, opening up to show not the sky but rather, a continuation of the room itself, rows upon rows of steel tanks studding what were now the walls, leading up into infinity; each row of tanks rotating in a different direction, alternating left and right as the space continued to twist and expand.

Beyond that, he could see more of the structures around the building they were in, being drawn into the whole, folded up and into it; buildings he’d seen from the air earlier, now joining the rotation of the tanks, fitting into the gaps between them even though they should have been several times their size; the prison his friends had been sent to, the giant candle, appeared floating on thin air, compressed to the size of a man-sized candle, floating a few metre above the ground he stood on; then it tipped to the side, yet left another of itself in its place. And another, and another, starting to spin like a clockhand, only each motion left another candle behind, even when it passed over the previous ones, continuing to make more and more of itself, the ones behind seeming to extend into an endless space beyond.

Then, they multiplied, all around the circumference of the room, a dozen endlessly spinning, duplicating candles illuminating the room as even more of the city-sized structure was being drawn in, as did parts of the ocean around them, flowing into the gaps.

***

“Himmel herrgott nochmal!” Immanuel shouted as the floor dropped away underneath him, drawn into the ever-rising spire of twisted space just ahead of them. He just barely managed to grab onto Heaven’s Dancer’s arm, drawing her onto a ‘flow’ of space that was more stable, standing atop what was once a train station bench that had been elongated to a ridiculous length. “What is that woman thinking, allowing her to use her power without any restrictions?”

Heaven’s Dancer looked around at their base, even as it was being drawn in – the effect had not yet spread beyond the immediate area around Dusu’s and the Ascendant’s personal lab complex, but it was going to reach the centre at some time, and then the Contriver section… that could end up truly catastrophic.

There was only one possible conclusion.

“You were right,” she told Immanuel, who looked at her in surprise. “We really need to rethink the idea of putting this many mad scientists into one place…”

He smiled wrily, then turned towards their destination and kept moving, always stepping onto safe footholds, navigating the ribbons of twisted space in ways she couldn’t hope to achieve.

Heaven’s Dancer followed, trying not to think about just how she was going to explain this to the others…

“Dem Mädchen gehört der Arsch versohlt,” Immanuel muttered under his breath, putting a voice to her thoughts.

***

Elysium jumped into a backflip, curling up in mid-air to avoid a shot by Tyche and instead of flying on to hit the three gadgeteers standing behind her, it impacted Polymnia’s knee from behind, making her cry out and flip over, landing heavily on the floor; her sonic attack, just begun, went wide, never coming even close to Elysium even without a further use of her power.

The mighty dancer landing on one foot and rose onto her toes, the other leg angled to have her foot rest against the other leg’s knee, only to move immediately into a spin, making a roundhouse kick into thin air.

Tartsche grunted as he was hit in the solar plexus, thrown back and away from Spellgun and Tyche, landing heavily on his back a few metre behind them.

Those still conscious stared in shock at how she’d seemingly ignored his defense entirely, but she gave them no time to react, much less adjust, raising the foot she’d been balancing off from the floor moments before the one she’d kicked with touched it, spinning into wide scything kick towards Tyche and Spellgun, launching them backwards for a metre or two before they suddenly curved downwards at a perfect ninety-degree angle, slamming into the ground hard enough that Basil thought he heard bones snap.

What can I do? he asked himself, desperately. There was nothing he could think of, nothing he had left. His railgun was long wrecked, and now he’d lost his drone, as well. His gauntlet and knife could likely kill her, if he managed to land a clean hit – but the chance of him achieving that was near null and even if he did, with his right leg nigh useless and space and time arrayed against him, unless he killed her in a single blow, she could simply rewind time and try again.

I wonder how often we beat or almost beat her already, and she just rewound and tried again? he couldn’t help but wonder. There was a good reason why she’d never lost a fight until she’d come up against her half-sister. More than one, really, but this one alone would likely have been sufficient all in itself.

It ain’t like you to pity yourself, mate, the Man in the Moon commented unhelpfully. Maybe you sh- ow!

A sharp sting distracted Basil from his thoughts, right in his left arm pit, where he lacked armour other than the ballistic weave of his impact suit.

Having essentially risen onto all fours from where he’d fallen, he looked down at it, and saw… a syringe the size of a small bottle, its needle buried in his flesh, the back attached to a rope leading to…

Syrinx, standing just a few metre away, grinning smugly.

Yet he also stood with the others in the unaffected pocket of space beyond Elysium.

“What the…?” Basil asked, though he didn’t waste time waiting for an answer; rather, he flung his knife at the villain, piercing his right shoulder…

He was gone, as was the syringe, though he was still stung and bleeding lightly. His knife clattered to the ground, with no blood or other sign of having hit on it.

The Syrinx standing with the others looked down and found the syringe there, in his right hand, half-filled with Basil’s blood. He held another in his left hand, and Dusu was holding two as well, one in each hand.

What?

He was starting to have trouble concentrating; his leg hurt abominably, his armpit now joined the fun along with his left shoulder, nevermind the vertigo induced by the spatial distortions all around him.

His friends were down, though only Amy was knocked out, and Gloom Glimmer stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating the same motion over and over again.

Hecate was trying to stand up, pushing against the floor, but her motions were weak, though he could hear her determined, angry growling beneath her hood. Polymnia was likewise rising, if slowly, her suit damaged far more than Tyche’s one shot should have been able to do… only then Basil saw that same shot hit her again, knocking her over once more. And again, coming from above, smashing her into the ground. The same attack, repeating itself whenever she tried to get up, slowly chipping away at her armour and keeping her trapped.

It’s a miracle we’re even still alive…

***

“Why are they even still alive?” Dusu asked in a bored voice, as she played with the syringes full of blood in her hands. “She could’ve killed at least some of them already…”

“I only ordered her to disable them,” the Ascendant replied, sounding pensive. “Also, I suspect there’s more of the real Elysium in her than I’d like – and she never killed. With her power, she never needed to.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be more fun to have her kill one or two of them?” Dusu suggested absent-mindedly. “Make it clear this is your Elysium, and yours kills. Own her.”

The striking woman of Aztek descent stroked her chin, narrowing her eyes. “Well, why not? We only need Gloom Glimmer and the Gadgeteers alive, the others are quite inconsequential.”

“Aren’t we supposed to strive to create more metahumans, rather than kill ones who’re no threat to us anymore?” Syrinx – Roy – asked them, feeling rather contrite about the idea of killing several of God’s chosen ones.

“Eh, we’ll eventually make way more than we could hope to kill,” Dusu waved it off. “Anyway, we should get these samples into my lab, I have a marvelous plan for them…”

“Do that. I’ll take care of these… not Mindstar, though,” the Ascendant noted. “Way too valuable, both for her powers and the information she could give us on the Syndicate.” She looked at her precious little doll, her magnum opus. “Four-four-four, create a passage for Priority Subjects Beta and Gamma to the adjacent lab, then execute target Eta,” she commanded in a calm voice.”

***

Oh, fuck no! Basil thought furiously as he heard the Ascendant’s command, forcing himself to rise onto his good leg, putting as little weight as he could on the bad one. You’re not taking her!

Elysium obeyed her command without hesitation, and both Dusu and Syrinx disappeared, presumably to their portion of the structure.

A little jump and turn, and Hecate lay on the ground before her, on all fours, looking up with an expression filled with fear and anger. “You…” she groaned, looking at the Ascendant with hate-filled eyes. “Vevilyierosilyisse ena miasmiko katharma!” she screamed at her.

Basil reversed the wall-sticking effect on his left boot, launching himself at Elysium from behind and to the side, pulling his left arm back, the gauntlet charging.

Basil swayed on his feet as he saw Hecate, having just cursed the Ascendant, get smashed into the ground again, hit in the back by some kind of massive impact strong enough to shatter another of her protective gems.

Her cry of pain made him see red, raising his gauntlet – his gauntlet was ruined, a perfectly smooth cut running from the tip to the elbow, the intricate, yet sturdy circuitry inside ruined.

No!

He stumbled forward, falling over again, unable to do anything other than watch as Elysium raised her right foot, aiming at Hecate’s head.

“Let this be a lesson to you brats,” the Ascendant spoke, her accented voice as condescending as can be. “Don’t mess with the pros,” she taunted them, looking around at the young heroes all around the room, beaten down yet still conscious, unable to do anything but watch.

“Heck!” Tyche cried out as the foot came down on their friend’s head, to cut or crush.

To no effect, as another foot, this one in a smooth black boot appeared above Hecate’s head, catching Elysium’s stomp on the dorsom of the foot. Instead of crushing or simply parting the boot and flesh beneath, it was stopped cold.

***

“Wer zum Teufel!?!” Immanuel cried out, coming to a dead stop in the middle of running through a pulsating, twisting corridor of pipes.

Heaven’s Dancer stopped, stumbling briefly before she turned around to look at him, shocked to see him… shocked. “What is it? Immanuel, what’s going on?”

“Someone… someone’s there with them,” Immanuel hissed, his eyes staring into the distance. “Someone… or something. I’ve never seen him before. I can’t see him, not really.”

Her current body’s blood ran cold as she parsed that information, though she refused to freak out. Instead, she asked, as calmly as she could, “What do we do now, then?”

He hissed again, his hands clenching into fists. “We wait. If he doesn’t leave on his own, we wait until Konrad arrives. I’m not going in blind.”

***

Everyone but the trapped Gloom Glimmer and the unconscious Amy stared at the new arrival, a tall man – was it a man? It was hard to tell – in a dark blue robe with wide sleeves and a deep hood, parted down the front to show a jet-black, skintight bodysuit. He was even taller than Basil by almost a full head, almost as tall as the Godking had been, and slenderly built underneath his wide robe. His suit extended into a pair of smooth boots and gloves, covering every inch of his body, and he balanced on one foot easily, while using the other to protect Hecate from a grisly, swift death.

His face was not visible underneath his hood – rather, he seemed to wear a mirrored mask or helmet, which was currently split into octagonal pieces, like a single huge compound eye, reflecting the face of everyone in the room. His stance was calm, relaxed.

He was holding a huge cat with long, dark fur in his left arm, stroking it behind the ears with his right hand.

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

The stranger tilted his head to the side, the images on his mask shifting as if they were fixed in place, and he was now reflecting a different part, showing their faces from different angles. He looked at the Ascendant, then at Elysium, looking her up and down.

“Oh man,” he spoke in a weird, soft voice – like several voices layered on top of another, yet not so much they’d be like a full chorus. “You idiots really, really, really want to piss off the big gal, don’t you?”

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B13.15 Call of the Sleeper

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The floor panel groaned briefly as it was crushed, crumpled up and cast aside by Amy’s power, revealing the power cables underneath.

Basil knelt down and got to work, ripping them out and jury rigging them to connect to his armour’s recharger, a device he’d specifically created to be able to recharge his batteries while in the field, by tapping into any available power grid – it was built into the bottom of his armour’s ‘backpack’ module.

Soon enough, the half-empty charge icon on his HUD began to blink and slowly fill up again.

He took the chance to run several system checks, making sure that everything – particularly his still-unnamed drone – was running smoothly, even after the heavy use the other one had made of them.

Fortunately, everything except for his utterly wrecked rifle was in working ord-

You are aware that you’re just avoiding the issue, right, mate? the Man in the Moon mocked him from the back of his head.

Basil couldn’t deny it, looking up. He’d squatted down to attach the cables, finding himself apart from the others.

Amy was hovering nearby – both literally and figuratively – with her arms crossed over her chest, looking both embarrassed and furious, but staying quiet even as she avoided looking at Basil.

The Junior Heroes stood as far away from Amy as they could while still being on the same platform, talking quietly amongst each other; Everyone but Gloom Glimmer looked thoroughly shaken and Spellgun, at least, was regularly glaring at both Amy and Basil. Gloom Glimmer herself had so far remained quiet, floating a few centimetre above the floor, her cloak hiding most of her body. He couldn’t tell where she was looking, but her hood’s opening at least wasn’t pointed his way.

Near the juniors, Tyche leaned against a pillar, her arms crossed and her bare face expressing both confusion and sadness as her eyes moved from one of her friends to another and back, over and over again.

Hecate stood as far away from Basil as she could, her back to him, her posture impossible to determine beneath her own cloak, facing the tunnel they’d come in through.

That hurt the most, by far.

You knew it was coming, the voice continued on. You knew ever since you found out about her cousin. Of course, you didn’t think it’d come to a head like this, but still…

Unless you have anything constructive to say, be quiet, Basil directed a particularly forceful thought at the Man in the Moon.

Have it your way.

The charging process finished and he disconnected the cables, standing up. Looking briefly at his sister, he turned towards Hecate…

I should give her a little more time.

He approached Tyche instead, stopping just a little over an arm’s reach away from her and reached up into his hood to unlock his helmet and take it off, so she could see his face.

“This is really, really fucked up, B6,” Tyche spoke softly.

“It is,” he agreed with her. “I am sorry to spring this on you like that. I…” He stopped, not sure how to continue that sentence.

“You would’ve preferred not to tell us at all,” she completed it, without any accusation in her tone.

He opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn’t, lowering his head instead.

“I’m not angry at you, B,” she continued reassuringly, making him look up at her in surprise. “Or angry with you. Or whatever.”

“You are not?” he stared at her, dumbfounded as he truly couldn’t find any anger in her eyes.

“You’re my friend, B,” she replied, looking down as he felt a knife being driven into his heart. “Friends forgive each other. Friends understand one another. And I understand why you kept it a secret. Can’t really say I wouldn’t have done the same.” She raised her head again, smiling wrily. “So I can’t really blame you for it, even if it hurts that you didn’t trust us with it.”

The knife twisted, slowly.

“I wanted to tell you, both, so many times,” he said, honestly, his voice thick. “But there always seemed to be a reason not to. Especially after…”

“After you found out about Heck’s hateboner for your sis?” She chuckled, the sound oddly muted compared to her usual expressions. “Yeah, that was quite the bomb even for me. Must’ve been even worse for you.”

He nodded mutely.

“Well…” she temporised, “I… honestly, I should probably be angrier at you, but… I kinda topped out on emotions for today. And… it’s not like… you know…” She looked down, suddenly looking ashamed, which only served to confuse Basil even further. “After this… I’m out, anyway.”

Basil looked at her, his blood gone cold. “You are leaving the team?” he asked, trying not to show how much the thought hurt him, even if he’d expected something like that.

She shook her head. “No. Not the team. Or, not just the team. After we go back home, I’m… leaving Tyche behind,” she explained in a quiet voice. “I’m putting the cape down, so to speak. Or hanging it up, I guess.”

Basil raised a hand, running his fingers through his hair, his hood falling back as he processed that. “Why? Is it because…”

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” she assured him, raising a hand to forestall his guess. “I was pretty much set on it even before we found out about that.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “I was gonna tell you and Heck after this mission was over, but… I better tell each of you, separately.” She took another deep breath, her eyes flitting about, left and right, held low, before she finally looked up to meet his own gaze.

There were tears in her eyes.

“Remember when you used to tell me that probability manipulators like me, we build up bad luck for every bit of good luck we get?” she asked, her voice thick. Before he could even nod, she continued. “You didn’t want to believe that my power was free of that. You told me to be careful, not to rely too much on it. You refused to rely on it, wouldn’t have me like, flip coins or roll dice to figure stuff out and all.” The tears finally fell from her eyes, running down her cheeks. “You were right, B. You were so god damn right. I did create bad luck, every time I had good luck for myself. Only I’m way more selfish than the other guys with my power. I didn’t get bad luck myself, I put it… on others.”

Basil stared at her, not sure how to reply.

She pressed on. “And you know who? Not the villains, or anything. No. Civilians. Normal people. People, I, I didn’t like…” She sniffed, tears running down her cheeks. “I, I told you about those, those girls, who bullied me? Who I got these powers from?”

He nodded, mutely.

“Whom,” a soft, slightly hoarse voice spoke so quietly it was barely more than a whisper. “The right term is ‘whom’.”

Both of them turned to the side, and found themselves faced with Hecate, who’d walked up to them without a sound.

Her face was hidden in the shadows of her hood, but she was quite clearly looking only at Tyche, and decidedly not at Basil.

“Right, ‘whom’. Your favourite word,” Tyche giggled through her tears. “You heard everything I said?”

Hecate nodded.

The redhead sniffed, then pulled a tissue out of her leather jacket’s pocket to blow her nose. “W-well… it hit, hit them,” she admitted in a quiet, miserable voice. “The bad luck… it went to them. It… one of them’s dead. Hit by a bus. Another tried to kill herself after… after some horrible stuff happened to her. And the last one, she’s apparently become a supervillain, after Hastur’s monsters nearly k-killed her, too.”

Both Hecate and Basil could only stare at her in response to that. He wasn’t sure about Hecate, but Basil, at least, felt his jaw drop.

“Oh, Tyche,” he said, only to flinch as he realised that he’d spoken at the same time as Hecate, and said the same words, in the same tone of voice, as well. He briefly looked at her, but she kept ignoring him.

Their friend nodded, weak little sobs escaping her throat as she looked down at her feet.

“Tyche,” Basil spoke carefully. “How do you… how do you know that?”

“Th-that guy… Immanuel… he told me,” she explained, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands, trying to stem the flow of tears. “He knew, so much about me. Knew everything. More than I did.”

If I ever catch this, I’m going to turn his face onto his fucking back. “How do you know he is… that he is right? Even if he had the power to somehow know all that, how can you be sure he is being sincere, and not, well… lying through his teeth?” he prodded gently, not sure how far he could risk pushing her right now.

He felt horrible just for not stepping forward and embracing her, she looked so miserable; but he had to make sure she wasn’t just being manipulated by some jerk – of which there was an extreme abundance on this floating city.

Fortunately, Hecate took over that part, reaching out to pull Tyche into a tight embrace. The redheaded girl sobbed quietly, wrapping her arms around her friend and holding on tight.

Basil averted his eyes, feeling uncomfortable at the distance he felt towards them… just a few minutes ago, he’d have embraced them as well, or been drawn in by Hecate. Not now, obviously.

He didn’t press his point, waiting quietly for Tyche to regain her composure. He knew this was wasting time, again, but he couldn’t bring himself to care right then and there.

“He knew, knew everything else. Knew even…” She was interrupted by a sudden hiccup. “It’s not just them. Not just those girls. My mom… it’s been going after my mom…” She dissolved into incoherent sobbing again – if it wasn’t for Hecate holding onto her, she’d have collapsed right then and there.

“Brennus,” another voice spoke up from behind Basil, and he turned around. Tartsche looked at him, with the rest of his team arrayed behind him. “We need to talk. Right now.” He looked at the sobbing Tyche, looking uncomfortable, then focused on Basil again.

“Let’s step aside,” Basil said, not waiting for him to agree as he walked away from his friends. Hecate was whispering to Tyche, and he was pretty sure she’d ask all the important questions and do what she could to help her, even – or perhaps especially – without him.

He walked to where the junior heroes had been standing together earlier, feeling Amy’s attention on him – not her physical eyes, but her other sight, he was sure. Ignoring her, he turned around to face them.

All of them, save for Gloom Glimmer and Osore, were looking at him rather uncomfortably, studying his face. Polymnia looked rather shocked as she looked at him, but he didn’t care, and stayed quiet, waiting for Tartsche to say his piece.

Finally, the young leader of the group crossed his arms, his expression going from uncomfortable to determined. “Gloom Glimmer assures me it’s true, and it ain’t some kind of weird plot by Mindstar, and you’re not her mindslave or anything.”

Basil couldn’t help but smile slightly. “It’s true,” he replied, though he couldn’t keep himself from adding, “Of course, she might just be making me say so.”

Amy snorted loudly from where she was still floating in place. Everyone did their best to ignore her, except for Basil, who leaned to the side, so he could look at her past the heroes.

“It is not polite to eavesdrop!” he called out.

“Like I care!” she called back, before she very pointedly rotated in place to give him the cold shoulder.

He stood up straight again and looked at Tartsche with a tired smile. “Continue.”

Tartsche took a deep breath. “I can’t even begin to describe how fucked up I think this all is. And honestly, in any other situation, I’d take my team and bail, right now,” he stated, his voice hard.

Basil titled his head to the side, confused. “But you will not?” He was expecting him to, at least.

The young hero shook his head. “You being her brother and her being here doesn’t change the fact that there’s people who’re going to die horribly if we don’t find a cure, and whatever the UH or the government or whoever else has planned just plain won’t come in time. So I, at least, am sticking with this. And I’ve talked with the others, and they all agreed to do the same. But after this… you know we can’t keep this a secret, right?” he concluded, giving him an uncomfortable, even apologetic look.

Basil kept smiling. “I would not expect you to keep it secret,” he replied calmly. “Nor am I going to hold it against you when you reveal it to the UH.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders to loosen up a bit. “I knew what I was getting myslef into, when I revealed our relation, earlier. But it was either that, lying to you all, or having her edit your recollection. The latter was unacceptable and the second I have been doing too much of for too long, so…”

“You decided to put it out in the open,” Tartsche concluded, nodding. “I can respect that. Even if the timing’s horrible.”

“Well, I did not exactly plan for her to show up here,” Basil defended himself and shrugged. Then he looked over the assembled heroes. “You are all staying? In spite of this?”

They all exchanged looks, then focused on him again and nodded.

“I can’t speak for the others,” Gloom Glimmer said mirthfully, “but I’m hardly one to cast stones over someone having a supervillain as a family member they don’t disavow.”

“It’s not like you chose who your sister was going to be, or that she become a supervillain,” Polymnia assured him in a soft voice.

“That doesn’t mean this won’t have consequences for how we interact, after our current mission is over,” Tartsche took over again. “The UH has been extending a lot of trust and good will in how it treated you and your team, in part because of how depleted our numbers are. But there’s no way that’ll continue once it comes out that you’re Mindstar’s brother – nevermind the fact that you’ve been keeping it a secret, regardless of her being family.”

Basil just nodded. “I know. And speaking of which…” He looked sideways at Hecate and Tyche. The latter was standing on her own again, though keeping her head lowered as her friend held onto her shoulders with both hands, speaking quietly – too quietly to hear. “We really should get going. Finish this, before they muster another line of defense.”

***

“Well, that didn’t go as expected, did it?” Heaven’s Dancer mocked, trying to mask her concern – not that she could, not from Immanuel – as she in a demure position on the edge of the platform he’d been meditating upon, her hands folded primly on her lap, her knees together.

Immanuel was in the process of tying his bootlaces, having changed into a more formal outfit taken from a box that’d slid out of the same platform. He was now wearing a pair of loose, smooth golden pants and a sleeveless black shirt made of a shimmering material as tight as a second skin, exposing his arms, which were in turn partially covered by black fingerless gloves that reached up to his biceps, with some gold embroidery on the back of his hands and around his wrists. His boots were black, as well, with golden laces. Other than that, he made no concession to the usual costuming craze – even this much had mostly been forced on him by his over-eager staffers deciding to ‘spruce up’ his usual outfit. Children these days…

“I admit, things are going horribly wrong faster than I expected,” he spoke with neither rancor nor chargrin in his voice or expression. “Mind you, I never would have expected Brennus to be able to locate this base based on a momentary glimpse of the nightsky given to him by Crocell’s dying throes,” he admitted. “In fact, I’d really like to know how that managed to evade my sight. There’s something fishy going on with that boy, and I’m not talking about his messed-up memories.”

“Something even more fishy than that? Oh, joy of joys,” she couldn’t help but reply in her most deadpan voice. “You really should’ve taken them down as soon as they appeared, not dilly-dallied this long, you know? He won’t like that.”

He waved her concern off. “The base was lost the moment young Brennus discovered its location – he was smart enough to share it with every authority he could reach as soon as he knew, and even with the Syndicate, via his sister,” he justified his decision to take a more relaxed stance on the issue. “Nothing we do here is going to prevent its loss – it’s not like we can move the Sleeper somewhere else. All we can do is prevent a total loss – thus why I began a silent evacuation as soon as I realised what was coming – and gather as much data on how we got compromised to begin with, and on what’s clearly several major talents, some of whom we didn’t even know about.”

“You always know how to make it sound like you know what you’re doing, don’t you?” she asked in annoyance, not that she could actually refute any of his points. “But even so, we ought to take some precautions, make sure they don’t actually mess up anything too valuable before they get away… mind you, is letting them get away even that wise? We ought to keep at least some of them, like this Brennus.”

“Perhaps,” he temporised. “But keeping Brennus would require that we capture or kill Mindstar. He’s also close to Gloom Glimmer, whom we’d also have to take care of, and I really don’t want to explain again why killing or capturing that one would be a stupid, stupid idea.” He stopped in the middle of tying the last knot. “Also, there’s Tyche, of course. Her power, combined with Gloom Glimmer’s, means we really don’t have any truly safe way to deal with them, other than to let them reach Dusu, then leave on their own. At least not until Konrad arrives.”

“You called Konrad!?” Heaven’s Dancer paled. “Immanuel, dropping him into this situation…”

“Konrad is one of only two people – the other being me – whom we know can take that group down without killing anyone,” he assuaged her worries. “I can most likely do it by myself, but just in case I fail, I want him on his way here.” He finished tying his laces and leap onto his feet in a nimble move, segueing straight into some stretches to limber up. “Enough talk. I have my boots on – time to start kicking ass!”

***

“You know, you don’t have to make us feel that amateurish,” Spellgun complained as they all looked around at the unconscious and, in some cases, heavily wounded bodies strewn about the room.

They’d run – at Basil’s and Tartsche’s insistence – deeper into the installation, following the directions Immanuel had given Tyche on the assumption that it was better than running blindly – nevermind that, according to Gloom Glimmer, they were moving closer to Dusu.

Unfortunately, even running while bolstered by Gloom Glimmer, who was preventing them from growing tired, they hadn’t been able to move fast enough to get to their goal before the next line of defense was set up – if it hadn’t been already set up before they even fought the late Skulls’ group earlier.

Ten metahumans in combat gear had been waiting in ambush, literally melting out of the walls and floor around them as they ran down another featureless white hallway.

Before even one of them could bring their powers to bear, Amy had torn into them with a savage cry, swiping them all up with her telekinesis and smashing them all over the place, into walls, the ceiling, the floor, hurting them before she simply turned them all off with her telepathy.

At least, Basil hoped it was her telepathy, and that she hadn’t just killed them all. A quick check with his enhanced vision modes showed that, yes, they were all still alive, if definitely out of any fight for a while now.

Amy, meanwhile, ignored Spellgun’s comment. “Keep moving,” she snarled instead as she flew onwards, the only one not on her feet, now that Gloom Glimmer was running with them. “I’m in their heads – Dusu’s lab is nearby. She’s got a whole building basically to herself; only one else there is the new Ascendant.”

They turned a corner, moving down another featureless hallway, passing by several heavy steel doors.

“Ok, so, what can we expect?” Tartsche asked, directing the question towards Basil.

“We’re going up against two gadgeteers in their own labs,” Basil replied. “Assuming both are there, they’ll be both at an advantage and at a disadvantage – an advantage because they’ll have all their creations there, at hand, plus their likely heavily fortified labs – I know I built a lot of traps and defense systems into mine – and at a disadvantage, since they’ll likely want to prevent us from smashing all their hard work into pieces.”

“Not that we should,” Polymnia added. “Dusu is a plague-gadgeteer. We do not want to unleash anything she’s got stored in there.”

“No going in with a hammer then,” Hecate concurred. “Seeing how we want her alive and able to talk, and she’s not supposed to have any other powers, we shouldn’t go in smashi-”

She was cut off at the sound of a crash from further up ahead the hallway, behind a heavy steel door. Screams soon followed.

“The hell is that!?” Bakeneko asked, staring at the heavy door.

“Just cleaning up some trash,” Amy replied calmly, while Gloom Glimmer stepped forth and put a hand to the door, causing it to simply melt away into the floor.

Beyond it, another group of cowls – each in their own costume, save for a pair of twins in matching viking outfits – was busy fighting each other, completely ignoring their group as they ran past.

“What’d you do to them? Ma’am,” Tartsche asked Amy, appending a honorific at the end, apparently on reflex.

“Call me ‘ma’am’ again and I’ll feed you your boyfriend’s gun,” she replied, flying ahead of the group. “And I just adjusted some details in their perception. They were already primed for a fight, so it wasn’t hard to set them off.”

“You’re one scary bitch,” Spellgun grumbled under his breath, barely audible; yet Amy heard him and looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a grin that made him shudder.

“Careful, gunbunny,” she told him. “You might make a girl feel bashful and undeserving of such praise, make her try to earn it.”

Hecate snarled audibly as Spellgun waved his free hand in a negating gesture, assuring Amy that he hadn’t really meant it and all.

Basil ignored the byplay, mostly, and kept running. He already knew what Amy was capable of – she’d never hesitated to share – and was glad that at least he hadn’t destroyed his team, his friendship with Hecate and his rapport with the UH for less than a massive boost to their efficiency.

After five more minutes of running – they’d decided not to use any more trains – he started to grow seriously suspicious of how quiet the whole place was.

“How come we are not running into more people?” he asked aloud. “This place is larger than the average American town – there should be far more people around.”

“They’ve been evacuating it,” Amy replied. “Saw it in one of their minds. They’ve guessed that we’ve shared the location of the place with the kind of people they can’t fight off, so they’re packing up what they can to get away.”

“What?!” Basil shouted, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Why did you not say so sooner!? We need to hurry up, or she will get away, if she has not already!”

“Relaaaax,” she replied and though he couldn’t see it, he knew she was rolling her eyes. “Dusu’s still there. That’s why there’s so many guards left along the way to her; she and the Ascendant are working on high-priority projects, and they’re taking some time to get out – we should get there before Dusu has left. The Ascendant’s projects are apparently slow to move, too, so she’ll likely also be there.”

“Alright, let’s haul it then!” Tartsche exlaimed and picked up speed, bolstered by Gloom Glimmer’s power.

They ran through two more doors – and past another security team that went down quickly between Amy and Gloom Glimmer tearing through them – before Basil noticed that the hallways were growing wider, and the doors on the sides more sparse.

Finally, they tore through one more door and found themselves in a long hallway with glass walls and a glass ceiling, leading straight towards a larger, cubic building that stood apart from the rest of the nearby structures.

“Dusu’s in there,” Gloom Glimmer announced. “I can feel it.”

“Yeah, that’s what the memories I saw said, as well,” Amy confirmed her statement, flying ahead of the group down the hallway. “She should be somewhere in the eastern half of the building, that’s where her and Syrinx’ – some lesser gadgeteer who works as her assistant – labs are. The western half belongs to the As-” She stopped talking, suddenly, raising her head before continuing on. “There’s something in there… a bubble of space in the western half that I can’t look into. Every other part of the building is empty, I think… save for some…”

“Some what?” Tartsche asked when she wouldn’t continue.

“Test subjects,” she spoke with a note of disgust in her voice. “The lower levels of the building are filled with people they’ve been experimenting on.”

“But where is Dusu?” Basil pressed the important point – as much as it sickened him, whether or not they had a chance to help those poor souls, they had to capture their tormentors first. “In that bubble you can not look into? Gloom Glimmer, can you see into it?” He looked at the black-haired heroine.

She shook her head, hair flying left and right. “No. That power… I’ve felt something like it before. One of Dad’s subordinates, he could kind of… push powers away around himself. Completely messed up more delicate stuff, like remote senses, and weakened cruder powers, too. This should be similar.”

“I remember that guy,” Amy replied to her. “Fuzz, was his name? Didn’t he die in a crash during a car chase or something?”

“Yup, that’s him,” Gloom Glimmer affirmed. “Anyway, I don’t think I can pierce the effect – but I know Dusu is close, and that’s the only place I can’t look into, nor can Mindstar, so…”

“To the Ascendant’s lab we go,” Basil concluded, and they continued their charge down the glass hallway.

***

“I must avow that we need to rethink the whole ‘put an army of mad scientists into an enclosed location and give them near-unlimited resources’ concept,” Immanuel admitted to Heaven’s Dancer as they were using a train to move towards Dusu’s lab. He’d overridden its normal programming, of course, so it wouldn’t stop at any station along the way.

“Why do you say that, now?” Heaven’s Dancer asked him rather warily.

“Because what Dusu, the Ascendant and Syrinx are planning right now is either going to be incredibly awesome or an utter catastrophy for us all…”

***

Basil put his force gauntlet to the final door and with a simple eye twitch, activated the blaster, blowing the heavy steel door open in a massive cacophony of tormented steel, followed by him, Gloom Glimmer and Amy charging in ahead of the others into a huge room full of metal coffins standing upright on circular podests, lit by fluorescent lighting from above.

Coming to a halt, he looked around for his target, his heart pumping, ready to leap at Dusu and beat the cure out of her…

And there she was, looking just like in the one photograph he’d been able to find of her, taken many years ago shortly before the Hawaii incident, before she became an internationally wanted bio-terrorist, having aged not a day since.

An utterly unassuming looking woman of Chinese descent, attractive but not so much that she’d stand out in a crowd with a heart-shaped face and long, straight hair held back by a white hairband, wearing a white labcoat over scrubs, a mockery of a medical professional.

There was a man with her in a matching outfit, tall, well-built but otherwise unremarkable save for his wild blonde hair, and a taller woman with features matching images he’d seen of South American indigenous people, also in scrubs and a labcoat.

The man – probably Syrinx – looked at them in shock, the Ascendant was busy operating the control panel of one of the upright coffins and Dusu looked straight at them, her gaze dismissive, a smirk on her lips…

Basil saw red, and gestured towards her to launch his drone straight at the bitch…

But Gloom Glimmer intercepted his movement, catching his hand. “No. Remember, we need her whole,” she whispered, apparently having seen it coming.

“Well, look what we have the-” Dusu began to say, but was cut off when she, Syrinx and the Ascendant were suddenly dragged away from the coffin-like tank they’d been working on. Crying out in surprise and shock, they leaned away from the pull, even as Amy visibly focused on moving them, reaching through whatever power was protecting them now that she could see them with her own eyes.

“There we go…” Amy said. “They’re planning something… but I can’t read their minds… yet,” she explained as she grinned, savagely. “Don’t worry, dear idiot brother – you’ll have your cure, soon enough.” She advanced on them, along with the rest of the group.

A hand sign from Tartsche made them fan out, watching as the three villains were being dragged inexorably towards them, straining against the effect to no avail.

“Oh, come on…” Syrinx groaned. “I thought two-oh-one’s power would protect us!”

“It’s not perfect,” the Ascendant replied calmly, looking rather unperturbed by the whole situation. “But it should buy us enough time.”

“Enough time for what?” Basil asked, letting his drone float off his thigh, drifting into an orbit above his head.

Then the coffin they’d worked on hissed, and unlocked, the part facing them opening upwards to expel a large amount of vapour.

At the same time, the Ascendant reached into her pocket and pulled out a remote, pressing a button before anyone could stop her – and all three of them were pulled forward, towards Amy, her grip suddenly several orders of magnitude stronger.

“She turned off the anti-power field!” Gloom Glimmer exclaimed, raising her hands towards the villains, causing glowing chains to appear and wrap around them, restraining them.

“Too late,” the Ascendant smirked, her smoky voice dripping with smugness. “I just needed to make sure two-oh-one wouldn’t interfere with four-four-four.”

Amy’s eyes widened as she read their minds, and she raised her hands, gesturing at the coffin as a single figure – a woman drenched in a sticky fluid, wearing nothing but a bathsuit-shaped grey material that covered her torso and crotch, leaving her long, slender legs and arms free, revealing smooth, healthy skin and long gold-blonde hair, currently darkened due to being completely drenched.

The telekinetic blast caught the woman in the head before she could raise it from the crouching position she’d been caught in, smashing her body into a bloody pulp and destroying the container she’d been in.

The woman rose from her crouching position, whole again and dry, her long hair now much more voluminous, her suit, while still nearly obscenely tight and little besides her torso, was also dry again.

“Who the fuck is that?” Bakeneko asked aloud as they saw the woman’s – a girl, really, only a few years older than them and about Amy’s age – lovely, heart-shaped face.

None of the others (except perhaps Osore, who remained quiet about it in any case) had any trouble recognising her – they passed her statue pretty much every day, whenever they entered or left their school, just for starters.

Bright, sapphire-like eyes opened, looking at them without feeling or recognition, empty of any warmth or even the most basic of emotions, her movements oddly graceful in spite of her loose, hunched-over posture, her arms dangling limply.

“Subject four-four-four!” the Ascendant shouted in a loud, clear voice. Basil whirled to the right, sending his drone out to smash into her mouth and shut her up rather roughly, but he was too late – the drone smashed into the empty floor, bouncing off. The villains stood behind the blonde beauty, unharmed and standing, free of Gloom Glimmer’s bindings, which dissolved as they hit the floor where their prisoners had just lain.

Not that Gloom Glimmer seemed to care, as she took a wavering step forward, staring at the young woman in shock.

“Diantha?” she asked in a small voice. “Sis?”

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B13.14 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil and Amy stared at each other for a handful of heartbeats.

Then she raised her hand towards him, and he snapped his left hand’s pinky finger against its thumb, igniting a chaff grenade attached to the back of his armour’s belt, and another in the front.

The grey smoke and dark grey metal chips spread explosively, with enough force to seriously hurt anyone who wasn’t armoured, obscuring him entirely from her vision, though the cloud didn’t reach her.

Amy snarled, annoyed that she’d slowed herself down by gesturing and detached her second ‘viewpoint’ from her natural one, raising it higher; she was preparing for an attack from multiple angles, ready to grab him as soon as he was within sight again – once she had him in her telekinetic grip, it’d be over, no matter what tricks he still had up his sleeve.

Two black cables shot out from the cloud, aiming for the ceiling above Amy, followed by a bulge in the smoke as Basil shot out from above, the canisters on his belt continuing to spew this annoying smoke, but it was too little – she saw him, and so was able to grab a hold of him, her telekinetic might wrapping around his torso…

She watched in horror, then confusion, as his arms, head and thighs – the only visible parts of him – detached from the torso portion, pushed onwards by momentum; so distracted, she at first missed it as Basil, stripped down to his impact suit, gauntlets and boots, slid out from the smoke below, propelled forward by a deafening blast of force unleashed from his gauntlet.

Before she could reorient and grab him, he slid past her right side, his hand reaching out and taking a hold of her right boot’s heel, twisting it off at the same time as he reversed his adhesive soles’ function, causing them to repel the ground, launching him upwards, feet-first.

Amy cried out when she felt him grab her right arm and pull it upwards, forcing her to bend over – but before he could dislocate it, before she managed to react, he touched one of his boots to the pillar she’d been standing next to, and repelled it, launching himself down at her, flipping the knife she’d hidden in her heel open.

He slammed into her back, tackling her to the ground and twisting her right arm behind her back, trapping it between their bodies as he knelt atop her, bent over.

With her head turned to the left, her cheek on the cold metal, she stared up at him with wide eyes, feeling the tip of her own knife held against her ear, ready to plunge straight into her brain, Basil’s own lips just centimetre away from either.

“I win.”

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B13.13 Call of the Sleeper

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Vasiliki cried out when she saw her friend be struck in the back, but the poison from tranquiliser darts that had pierced her sternum and her left breast, though not yet sufficient to knock her enhanced physique out, left her too weak to even struggle against her captors, forcing her to just watch.

Fortunately, the villains didn’t open fire, too dumbfounded by the unexpected attack to react – as were her teammates, who stared at Osore in shock.

“The fu-” Chronicle began to say, but stopped when she saw Brennus shudder.

Vasiliki watched as her friend stumbled forward, then back, swaying on his feet. His hands reached up into his hood and he bent over, groaning.

Is he going to go berserk again? she asked herself, reminded of that occasion when Osore had tagged him by accident while fighting the Spiteborn. Did Osore intend for that to happen? It seemed to be the only explanation for his behaviour, unless he’d suddenly decided to turn traitor, or been dominated by Thoughtseize… but what he’d said didn’t fit.

Her useless musings were cut off when Brennus groaned, and pulled on his helmet, taking it off and casting it aside. He staggered forward, bent over, his face hidden by his hood and his hands, before he stood up and bent back, as if to look upwards. His hood slid off his head, revealing his messy black hair, but his face remained hidden by his gloved hands. Another groan escaped his mouth, and his whole body shook, a shudder that went from head to toe.

“What’s wrong with him?” Skulls asked, sounding annoyed. “Ah, nevermind. Thanks for taking your fucking helmet off, idiot.” One of the Skullmen raised his rifle and fired a dart at Basil from above.

He raised his shield in a lightning-quick movement, deflecting the shot without even looking at it.

“Ahhh…” He lowered his arm again. “Can’t a bloke even get a moment to get his bearings?” he asked, speaking with a completely different accent than usual – something British, Hecate thought, but she wasn’t sure.

Her friend looked around, keeping his hand on his face in lieu of a mask, looking through the gaps between his fingers to scan his surroundings, his dark eyes passing over the barely conscious Polymnia on the ground, along the line of their enemies, then over Hecate-

Their eyes met, for just a moment, and Hecate’s breath caught. They were still his eyes, but it wasn’t Basil behind them. They were cold, yet hot, inhumanly intense; just the brief glance gave her a disorienting sense of vertigo.

His eyes moved on, and she breathed again. His eyes… they were like Emyr’s…

“What a bleedin’ mess this is,” he complained, sounding annoyed as he completed his view around the train station. His eyes settled on Skulls, and the woman stumbled back, nearly dropping her weapon. Clearly, Hecate wasn’t the only one his gaze affected so. “Guess I’ll kill’ya first, slattern.”

Skulls looked aside at her teammates. “What the fuck does slat-“

“Boss, look out!” Boltstar cried out, firing one of his spheres, but he was too late.

The stranger behind Basil’s eyes fired both of his grappling ‘hooks’, one of them attaching to the collar of Skulls’ body armour, the other to the edge of the train platform just in front of her, and reeled them both in, launching himself out of the way of the spheres and its follow-up energy bolts, while pulling Skulls off her feet.

The vile woman cried out, but couldn’t react in time as the stranger struck at her with his right elbow, pulling her into the strike in such a savage move, he shattered her forehead and broke her neck in a single strike.

Disconnecting his hooks from her and the platform, he kicked himself off the edge of the platform, somersaulting over a flying stab from Karasuha, who’d launched herself like a missile at him.

Shooting his hooks at the platform again, one past each side of the still moving Karasuha, he pulled himself towards her, slamming with both feet into her heavily armoured back, followed by slamming her into the metallic platform with such force, the metal screamed and deformed.

The villainess did not even have the breath to scream or groan, nor did he give her a chance to catch it, reaching down to snap her neck with both hands.

The woman’s legs kicked out once, then another time as he leapt off her body, evading another sphere fired by Boltstar. Rolling over Skulls’ corpse and past the brick-patterned villain, he picked up Karasuha’s katana and Skulls’ combat knife, throwing the former at Boltstar.

The well-muscled, heroic-looking man gurgled wetly as the katana pierced his throat, sliding in until its crossguard stopped it.

The stranger came up onto his feet, flipping the pilfered knife over to his right hand, slashing at Chronicle’s throat – though it was blocked by the same force-field that’d protected her earlier.

It didn’t seem to deter him, though – rather, he kept moving as if he’d seen it coming, whirling around as Chronicle and Thoughtseize both staggered back in shock, and threw the knife into the back of the brick-patterned villain’s head, killing him instantly.

Mere moments had passed since he’d said he’d kill Skulls.

The force-field protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle shimmered and collapsed the moment the brick-patterned villain died, and the stranger turned towards them – but he was forced to leap backwards towards the rails as the Skullmen opened fire at him.

“Chronicle, now!” Thoughtseize shouted, making the younger woman squeak, her left hand clenching her over-sized book tightly to her chest, her right one gesturing towards her fallen comrades in a sweeping gesture.

Skulls, his/her Skullmen, Boltstar, Karasuha and the brick-patterned villain flickered and were whole again, though still on the ground and, in the case of the two females, with their weapons returned to their sheaths. Behind her, Vasiliki heard the four Skullmen she’d taken down before being taken down herself get up again.

They began to stand up, and Boltstar even released another set of turrets without hesitating, but to Vasiliki’s amazement, the stranger didn’t lose a step.

Ignoring the hail of tranquiliser darts coming at him as the Skullmen adjusted their aim, he fired his hooks again and launched himself at Karasuha, activating his force-shield on his left gauntlet to deflect the shots from those few Skullmen who managed to adjust their aim in time.

Karasuha rolled out of the way to avoid being smashed into the ground again, but she rolled to the left and that cost her her life once more – the stranger landed on his feet and slammed the edge of his shield down at her neck, severing her head from her torso.

“Bulwark, fucking catch him already!” Boltstar shouted, having risen onto his knees, and fired one of his crackling spheres at the stranger, only for him to bend out of its way, dodging the attack entirely.

With the same motion, he pulled Karasuha’s katana out of its sheath and jumped towards Boltstar, just as a force-field shimmered into existence around where he’d just stood, swinging the blade to cut deep into the man’s throat, nearly deep enough to sever his head entirely.

“Shoot him!” Skulls shouted in a rage. “Ignore friendly fire and just shoot! Chronicle, bring them back, now!”

The stranger dove forward and into the mass of Skullmen on that side of the train tracks and, for a moment, Vasiliki could see his face.

He was grinning as he cut into the Skullmen with the katana, the blade, though no longer empowered by Karasuha, still cut through them; his attacks always aiming at throats, eyeholes, armpits and other weak points of their armour.

She watched in awe and horror as whoever had control over her friend’s body massacred his opposition. There was no grace to his movements, none of the fluidity she associated with trained martial artists – and she had some of those in her family, including a kendo-nut; the way he fought was nothing like that. It was fast, raw, savage. No formal technique, only brutal efficiency, his every strike claiming one of the Skullmen’s lives, if one could even consider them alive.

Then Chronicle used her power again and the katana disappeared from his hands, all his victims restored to life, but it didn’t seem to deter him.

“You’re wasting your time, little boy!” Skulls snarled at him, trying to paint him in her rifle’s sights, but he kept darting around in between the Skullmen, striking at their knees, elbows and necks, crippling or killing them. “Bulwark, get behind your own fucking shield!”

The huge villain complied, taking a few running steps towards the field that was protecting Thoughtseize and Chronicle, stepping through a briefly manifesting gap.

The stranger pressed the attack, only he stopped going after the Skullmen and made for Boltstar, who was just about to get up again.

Karasuha burst into a cloud of crows, swarming out all around the stranger in an attempt to disorient him, though he only seemed to be slightly inconvenienced by it as he kept up his charge, only diverting it when Boltstar threw a sphere behind himself, at the metallic floor.

Almost thirty crackling energy bolts hit the spot the sphere had impacted, creating a burst of light and force that threw both Boltstar and the stranger away – in opposite directions – and blew Karasuha’s crows apart from each other.

The stranger rolled with the blast, using the momentum to behead three Skullmen with a single slash of his shield’s edge; the way that coming into contact with matter caused circuit-shaped lines of light to bloom in the air for a few seconds would have been beautiful to Vasiliki’s eye, were it not for the blood it drew from his enemies, even if they were little more than moving corpses.

The fact that they were restored seconds after being cut down did not make it any prettier to watch.

Karasuha reformed and joined the dance, while Boltstar unleashed even more turrets. A full thirty-two of them hovered in the air above by now, unleashing enough destructive energy to melt the platform wherever they hit it, creating patches of near-liquid, red-hot metal that both the stranger and the villains had to avoid stepping on.

“That all you wankers have got!?” And yet, the stranger still grinned, as if he was having the time of his life, those mad, blazing eyes seeming to tremble in their sockets, making him look even more unhinged than before. “Come on, you could at least try to give me a challenge!” He slashed another Skullman’s head off, using the same motion to deflect multiple shots from the Skullmen across the tracks that’d have hit his face or neck, rather than his body armour, “What’d you do if I stopped holding back?”

“Big words,” Skulls said with a grin. “Let’s see you prove them! Everyone, move fourteen!”

With that, Bulwark reached out with his right hand and jabbed it skywards, almost as if making an uppercut, and another mostly invisible force-field emerged from the ground below, just behind the stranger as he was dodging backwards to avoid another targeting sphere from Boltstar.

He hit it with his back, grunting, and the sphere hit the ground in front of him, causing another explosion that further smashed him into the force-field.

Oh no, Basil! Vasiliki cried out mentally, too dizzy to form words, still held up by two Skullmen. She stared as the smoke cleared, revealing the stranger in Basil’s body staggering forward, dazed.

“Gotta admire the classi-” he began to say, but was cut off when another flat force-field appeared beside him, this time cutting him off from Boltstar and Skulls, while giving the Skullmen on both sides of the track a free line of fire to him.

They opened fire in synchronised precision, concentrating almost a score of glowing blue streams of darts at him.

Yet again, he moved almost too fast to be seen, raising the shield on his left gauntlet and bracing himself against the assault, a sudden, sharp, loud clang! coming from his feet where he locked his boots into place, using the same technology that allowed him to stick to walls to become far less movable and weather the assault.

Only for Karasuha to reform herself behind him, already bringing her sword down to stab him through the back from above.

He turned his torso, a cruel grin utterly out of place on his familiar face, still keeping his shield in the way of the Skullmen’s assault, and raised his arm, the fingers of his hand spread open, palm pointing at the incoming tip of the blade, as if it could stop it.

At the same time, the ovoid attached to his thigh came loose, the circuit-like groves on its surface lighting up with brilliant light as it shot up to interpose itself between his palm and the blade.

Vasiliki’s eyes widened as another force-field came into existence between the suddenly brightly glowing ovoid and the blade, blocking Karasuha’s strike.

The new field was different from Bulwark’s nigh-invisible one, and also different from the rounded, shield-like one from Basil’s gauntlet, though it was clearly produced by similar technology (the same circuit-patterns that covered the outside of the gauntlet also covered the entire surface of the elongated ovoid… thing, and they lit up in the same fashion, only far brighter). It seemed unstable, flickering, its edges never quite stable, crackling with surplus energy that was discharged in the form of tiny arcs of lightning that danced across the field and up along the blade of Karasuha’s sword.

That did not seem to impede its function at all, however, and it neatly deflected the strike, causing her blade to bounce off and her to fall to the ground, rolling backwards through the dissipating force-field of her compatriot – but the stranger didn’t give her a chance to escape him, as he clenched his hand into a fist, causing the force-field to condense into a smaller, far denser and more stable disc shape at the tip of the ovoid, then flicked his wrist at her and extended his index and middle finger to point at her.

The ovoid – a drone – shot forward with a high, unnerving whine, flying through the gap in the force-field before it could close and slammed the disc-shaped force-field into her head hard enough to break her neck once more.

Another twist of his hand made it continue its flight across the tracks, extending its force-field into a man-sized dome-shape over its tip, charging through the mass of Skullmen.

Bowling them over, it flew towards Vasiliki and blew the two that had been holding her away, breaking several of their bones along the way, judging by the sickening sounds they made.

He continued to direct it, turning his torso towards his left side and steering it across the tracks and into the group of Skullmen still left standing, who were continuing to fire at him, heedless of the danger. They, too, where knocked around easily enough, scattering them and ending the assault upon him.

“Ahhh…” he relaxed, shutting his shield off and loosening his stance, lowering his head. The drone flew to him, circling him a foot or two above his head. “Well, that was bracing.” He raised his head, looking at Karasuha, who was getting up after being reset once more. His own breath had grown a little laboured, though not nearly as much as Vasiliki would have expected. “Though you really need to work on your surprises, luv. Ain’t really anything that surprising about bein’ jumped from behind.”

“You got a screw loose in your head, kid,” Skulls replied, though she was looking far more wary than before. “You’re starting to grow tired, I can tell, and there’s no way your toys’ batteries are gonna hold out for much longer, while we are all ship-shape again!”

“Not all,” he countered simply and pointed at Chronicle.

Both Vasiliki, the stunned heroes on the tracks below and the villains looked at the youngest villain present.

Chronicle had bent over, her right hand supporting against her own knee, the left one barely able to hold onto the heavy book. Her breath was laboured, and there was sweat dripping down from within her hood and down onto the metallic floor.

“Every power has its limits,” the stranger said, his accent making Vasiliki shiver every time he spoke – hearing something as familiar as Basil’s voice speak in such a strange way was intensily unsettling. “It takes a bite out of her every time she resets one of you, so I was testin’ some theories. Looks like resetting you,” he pointed at Skulls, “resets all your puppets along, but takes no more out of her than resetting one person. So I killed those two over and over,” he gestured at Karasuha and Boltstar, “to wear her out some. I’m guessin’ she ain’t got more than five or six resets in her, at this point.” He stood up straight again. “Now, I was going to see how long she could hold out, whether she’d use it until she passed out… but frankly, this is growing kinda stale, don’t you all think?” He rolled his shoulders, like a man loosening up before a workout. “Time to finish this.”

Everyone tensed up again, the Skullmen’s fingers curling around the triggers of their weapons, but the stranger was once more faster, using his grappling hooks to launch himself out of the line of fire, swinging over the tracks and around the force-field between him and Karasuha and Skulls, his ovoid drone following after him.

Using his shield to behead two of the Skullmen across the tracks as he swung by them, drawing one hook in, he continued to swing and fired that hook off again to attach to a pillar further down the platform, while signing with his right hand.

The ovoid created its force-field again, condensing it into a flat circle of about five feet in diametre, only it was now projected along its long side, not over the tip.

Another handsign caused it to fly out, using the sharp edge to cut through the Skullmen.

He finished his swing, he landed on the platform near Boltstar and Karasuha, the latter of whom drew her sword and advanced on him, her posture radiating anger and frustration; Boltstar, meanwhile, retreated to, apparently, get behind the force-field Bulwark was using to cut himself, Chronicle and Thoughtseize off from the fight.

The stranger ducked underneath Karasuha’s strike, using Basil’s shield to slice upwards and sever her arms at the elbows, making her cry out in pain. Another slice took her head off, and he kept going past her collapsing body, striking at Boltstar. Though he failed to take off his head, he did cut his throat open, blood gushing out of it as the square-jawed villain collapsed, his hands reaching for the razor-sharp cut.

He advanced further onto the force-field, calling the drone over with a flick of his wrist.

The ovoid expanded its force-field into a far wider plane, pressing it flat against the shimmering force-field which only now became visible again.

Energy was discharged between them, both fields flickering, vibrating as they affected each other – and then a hole appeared in Bulwark’s field, large enough for a grown man to pass through, the drone hovering at its centre.

“Peek-a-boo!” the stranger mocked the three villains behind it as he stepped through. “Now let’s see if you can reset yourself, shall we?” he asked with a merry voice, the hole in the force-field sealing shut behind him, leaving him – and his drone – on the same side as the three villains who’d been keeping their distance.

“Oh, screw this!” Thoughtseize snarled and turned towards him, their eyes meeting even through her closed mask…

***

Wanda found herself in a still place, standing on water beneath a starry sky, though it was too bright to be night.

She looked around in confusion – this place was wrong. It didn’t look anything like how peoples’ minds had seemed to her every other time she’d used her power to enter them.

I am inside his mind, she confirmed for herself, going by the non-visual input she was getting. She could look around and still understand this place, even though it looked nothing like the usual, but it just felt so strange.

Beneath her feet, the water was filled with writhing, inky blackness, a representation of the Oni-boy’s power’s grip on his mind – a paralysing grip, and she had no idea how his mind was still functioning in spite of it.

Still, she could work with this. Figure out which parts of him were still functional and shut them down, as was her speciality. She didn’t have much time, though – she couldn’t risk the Whitaker girl waking up – so she wasn’t going to be as gentle as she usually was. It might even leave some damage behind, but… well, he was clearly willing to kill, so no skin off her teeth.

She gathered her will, her power, focusing it, and…

“Mine,” a sharp, guttural, discordant voice said from behind her, and she whirled about to face…

What.

She stared at the newcomer, thinking to herself that whatever mind had thought this up had to be way more fucked up than any member of the Gefährten she’d met so far – and some of her brothers and sisters were really messed up – an abomination of steel and flesh.

The creature was big in a way that was hard to put into words, a huge mass of skinless flesh, elongated into the shape of a worm, or perhaps a snake, shapeless beyond that, uneven with odd bumps and hollows along its length, its front half raised above the water, while the rest lay atop it.

There were no readily discernible limbs, but instead masses of machinery fused into the flesh. Gears turned upon bones, winding up tendons which put pistons into motion. Pistons bit into muscle and flesh, causing pus and blood to ooze out, generating pain signals that made other muscles seize up and set chains of gears in motion, which in turn moved rubber bands attached to bones connected to more gears, connected to more tendons, to pisonts, to muscles, a hideous, ineffectual, macabre network of flesh and machine that made the mass lurch and move forward, closer to Wanda.

Dozens of bright, circular lamps studded the ‘front’ of the creature, shining brightly like wide, unblinking eyes, briefly distracting her from its actual eyes, eleven huge, tumurous-looking, purple-orange orbs that were unevenly distributed, looking around at everything and nothing, rarely focusing on Wanda herself.

“Mine,” the voice spoke again, coming from the creature, as Wanda stared at it in frozen horror. “Mine.”

It lurched and slid forward, closer to her, its upright part unfolding as pistons and gears went to work, tearing its own flesh apart down the middle, spreading it open like a huge, gaping… mouth… with jagged, shattered gears, shafts and pistons covering it all over like uneven teeth in multiple rows, reaching out, oozing huge amounts of blood and worse onto the water, which did not sink into it but rather spread out across it.

Wanda finally unfroze and lashed out at the beast with a spike of psychic energy – but the attack simply shattered against the beast, whatever defenses it might have dispersing it harmlessly.

Then it was too late, and the beast’s mouth-wound closed around her mental form, its jagged, metal and bone teeth biting into her, tearing at her mind, consuming it in pieces.

Wanda screamed, and screamed and tried to free herself, but it was futile, her mind was being torn, her memories ground away, her skills, her knowledge her p-

“Mine.”

***

As soon as she finished speaking, Thoughtseize shuddered, going slack before she collapsed, sliding down onto her knees.

The stranger looked curiously at her, but seemed to dismiss it, as he turned to Chronicle and Bulwark.

A flick of his wrist, and his drone charged the huge, brick-patterned villain, blowing him away from Chronicle in one savage move.

The girl squeaked, stumbling backwards trying to put some distance between herself and the suddenly somber-faced gadgeteer.

“Relax,” he said, his voice calm, but still strange, uncanny due to the strong accent. He moved forward, too fast for her to react, and stepped behind her, wrapping an arm around her neck, squeezing just as she expelled her breath in surprise.

He held her as she struggled, while Skulls pounded against Bulwark’s field in a rage, screaming for her underling to let it fall, but he was too slow to do so, distracted by the relentless drone flying around him, flying in again and again to strike at his head and limbs whenever he tried to focus on taking one of his fields down.

Before he could clear the path for the other villains, Chronicle slumped in the stranger’s arms, passing out from exhaustion and lack of oxygen.

“There we go, luv,” he said as he let go, letting her collapse onto the ground. “No more time shenanigans.” He looked up just as Bulwark’s field collapsed, the villain passed out from repeated blows to the head by the ovoid drone.

Skulls, her Skullmen, Boltstar and Karasuha were still standing and looking fresh; though all of them looked shaken, all of them turned towards the stranger, their various weapons (or, in Boltstar’s case, fist) aimed at him.

“Last chance to surrender,” he said with an easy, boyish grin. “I hope you gents are smarter than you look and take it. Ya ain’t gettin’ any more extra lives now.”

“We’re far from done, idiot!” Skulls snarled at him, her weapon’s muzzle aimed at his head. “Let’s see you dodge this now!”

“Nah,” he waved it off – and simply sat down, crossing his ankles and putting his hands onto his knees, his drone flying over to attach itself to his thigh again. “I ain’t gonna fight you anymore, you fucking moron.” He looked up at them with a grin. “She is.” He pointed at something behind them.

Vasiliki followed his finger from where she was lying on the ground, and smiled weakly. Ah, finally.

The villains, realising that something was behind them, turned around… to face a spitting-mad, red-and-black eyed Gloom Glimmer, moments before she cried out in rage and flew straight at them.

***

It didn’t take long after that to put the villains down. Without Thoughtseize to handle Gloom Glimmer, and Chronicle to keep them in top condition and boost their powers, they didn’t stand much of a chance and the heroine knocked them out in short order.

Afterwards, she’d flown down to take care of Polymnia, while Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun had come up onto the platform to check up on Hecate.

At the same time, Basil was sitting at the edge of the platform, looking out over the train tracks as he sat cross-legged, trying to piece together what’d happened.

He remembered Osore shooting him in the back, and then… a lullaby? Yes, a lullaby, and a well-known one at that, sung by a strangely familiar – yet not soothing at all – woman’s voice. And then… nothing.

Judging by the looks the others were throwing him, he’d gone berserk again, probably even worse than during the fight against the Spiteborn – or perhaps not so, but this time, his enemies had not been mindless tree monsters, but flesh-and-blood humans.

He didn’t know how to feel about that. He was confused, he was hurt, angry, scared. Mostly confused, though, if only because there was just too much to feel right then.

Beneath him, Osore simply stood where he had before, while Bakeneko had returned to her usual catgirl form, standing a few metre away with her back to him, her arms crossed, her posture radiating outrage and fear. She clearly didn’t agree with her boyfriend’s “stratagem”.

Basil wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he couldn’t argue with its effectiveness.

“B?” he heard Tyche speak from behind him, and turned to look over his shoulder, even though he was wearing his helmet again – not that he hadn’t, apparently, shown his face to everyone present anyway – and could’ve seen them through his ravenbot’s cameras, to look at his two teammates, the redhead holding the brunette up with one of her arms slung over her shoulder, and an arm around her friend’s waist. “How’re you doing?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Instead of answering immediately, he looked them up and down. Tyche looked unharmed, if shaken, but Hecate was a mess. What he could see of her face was pale and she looked weak, which was underlined by the fact that she needed help just to stand. There was a trio of holes in her costume’s chest, two over her left breast and one over her sternum, where the darts had pierced it. She was still wounded, bleeding lightly – Gloom Glimmer was still busy fixing Polymnia up, who’d gotten hurt quite badly – but she wasn’t crying about it or anything.

“I should ask you the same thing,” he replied softly. “But to answer your question, I am…” He sighed, looking down at his lap. “I can not honestly say I am alright, unless you are referring purely to my physical state, but I am not hurt in any way.”

Tyche lowered Hecate down, helping her sit down next to Basil on his right side, before the redhead sat down on his other side.

Hecate groaned slightly, her right hand reaching up to the holes in her suit, gingerly rubbing around them, while she reached for his hand with her left, squeezing it gently.

“That was a real dick move,” she said, slightly shocking her friends when she used such a rude word. “Osore owes you a big apology.”

Tyche chuckled and took his other hand, her own trembling slightly. “It did look kind of awesome, though,” she qualified. “Scary, but awesome.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You’re full of surprises, B-6.”

He squeezed both their hands back, smiling underneath his mask, though he still held his head lowered. “Would be nice if they were not also surprising to me.” He sighed, slumping a bit. “This is really not the time, nor the place, for this kind of surprise.”

“It’s never the time or the place for this stuff,” Hecate insisted. “And I really hope there won’t be any more surprises today. But I get the feeling this won’t be the last one today.” She leaned against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. After a moment, Tyche followed suit on the other side. Another moment later, Basil rested his head against Hecate’s.

They didn’t say it, but he heard it nonetheless. We’re still with you.

He sighed, relaxing, letting his sore muscles recover from the strain of the stunts he’d pulled during the two minutes he’d been out of it. Fortunately, his ravenbot had recorded it all, and he’d already reviewed the fight.

Who- or whatever had been in control of him during those two minutes had been vastly more skilled, more experienced, more dangerous than he could be on his best day. Watching the recording, it’d been glaringly obvious to Basil that he’d been toying with the villains, holding back a lot. He had only used the most basic functions of his gauntlet and his drone – save for the nullifier – and he had not moved as fast as Basil thought he could move, if he went all out.

And yet, it hadn’t been a contest at all.

A Man in the Moon. A Blazing Sun. A Raging Heart. And who- or whatever was in the driver’s seat just then, he thought as he and his friends recovered some of their strength, sharing warmth. Are you actually going to explain to me what just happened?

Oh, how I wish I could, the Man in the Moon replied. But you know how it goes…

He sighed in annoyance, but decided not to press the point. It never helped.

After another minute or so, Gloom Glimmer floated over to them, her toes just a centimetre above the floor. “Do you want me to fix you up, Hecate?” she asked in a subdued voice.

Lots of that going around, Basil thought to himself as he raised his head, allowing Hecate to do the same – Tyche remained as she was, on the verge of dozing off.

“That’d be lovely, yes,” Hecate said, yawning softly with her hand raised to cover her mouth as she did so.

Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her hand onto Hecate’s shoulder, squeezing it softly. The wounded witch shuddered as her wounds closed near-instantly, followed by her costume fixing itself and even the blood vanishing.

“There you go,” the floating girl said, letting go of Hecate’s shoulder. “Good as new. What about you?” she asked, looking at Basil.

“I am quite fine, thank y-“

“You should check him out,” Hecate cut him off while throwing him a stern look. “You took a big blow at one point. There might be damage, even if you’re not aware of it.”

He looked back at her and nodded. “You are probably right,” he acquiesced, then looked up at Gloom Glimmer. “I would appreciate your help.”

Gloom Glimmer smiled and touched him as well. “Hmm. Some nasty bruising on your back, but nothing serious,” she diagnosed him, before he felt her power run up and down his back in a goosebump-inducing way – but it did make the slight tightness he’d been feeling disappear. “There you go, everything’s ship-shape now.” She squeezed his shoulder. “You know, I know a bit about… losing control, and having others be… in control. So if you want to talk, I’m here for you.”

Basil lowered his head. “Thank you,” he whispered, responding twice at once.

They all fell silent as Gloom Glimmer stood up straight, and was joined by the other heroes, save for Osore. Everyone looked alright, outwardly, but they were giving Basil some wary looks, while also throwing more… antagonistic ones towards the unconscious villains strewn about the train station.

“So, uh,” Spellgun spoke up, sounding rather troubled. “That happened. Um, care to explain?”

The others stayed quiet, but couldn’t hide their curiosity.

“I wish I could,” Basil replied, his voice straining with frustration. “But I honestly have no idea what is going on.”

He saw them all look at Gloom Glimmer through his ravenbot, but couldn’t bring himself to feel hurt over being distrusted.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them. “He’s telling the truth. He has no idea… and frankly, neither do I.” She looked up and towards the way out of the station. “We… really should get going, though. We don’t have time to waste.”

“She is right,” Basil agreed, gently nudging Tyche awake (she’d started drooling onto his shoulder) and standing up. “We still have a long way to go, and it is unlikely that this will be the last or worst opposition we are going to face.”

He walked a few steps down the platform, and knelt down, reaching down to Osore, who looked back up at him. After barely a moment, he reached up and they grabbed each other’s forearms, allowing Basil to pull him up onto the platform, before he turned to the others.

“Unless there is anything else to say, we really should get going,” he concluded, looking around at everyone.

Hecate and Tyche got up, and everyone on the platform exchanged looks with each other. Though Tartsche and Spellgun – and to a lesser degree, Polymnia – looked far from comfortable, they didn’t speak up and nodded.

“Yeah, it may be weird,” Tartsche finally said, his voice as calm as ever, though his tight grip on his boyfriend’s hand betrayed how nervous he felt, “but we’re not gonna bail out now. Let’s go finish this. We can talk about it afterwards.”

There were various exclamations of assent, before he focused on Basil again. “But I will have an explanation, Brennus. You owe us that, at least,” he continued.

Basil looked down, briefly, clasping his hands behind his back. “You are right, and you will have it – I will tell you what little I know, after this is done.”

“Oh, ain’t that just peachy?” a rough female voice spoke up from behind the group of young heroes. “Are you all gonna hug each other next?”

They turned around, save for Basil and Osore who were already facing the right way, and looked at the source of the voice – Skulls.

The bald, corpse-like woman was pushing herself up, leaning heavily against the pillar adjacent to herself. She was quite horribly beaten up, as Gloom Glimmer had only held back just enough to spare the villains’ lives, and whatever her power did to her body didn’t help her look any more healthy – she was almost zombie-like in appearance, pale and rotten, yet still quite alive.

She grinned a rictus-like smile, looking them over. “Did you really think I’d go down… this easily? I survived the Dark, did you think his bargain-basement spawn would be enough to finish me? Or a crazy schizo-headed gadgeteer?”

“You don’t look like you’re up for much more,” Gloom Glimmer replied coldly. “And you didn’t get away from my dad, he just didn’t pay you much attention.”

“Oh, I’m gonna enjoy teaching you a lesson, you little bitch,” Skulls snarled. “I still have plenty of bodies to spare. Sooner or later, I’ll we-“

***

“Oh my.”

“What is it this time?” Heaven’s Dancer asked with a long-suffering sigh, looking at Immanuel.

“Someone just broke through our outer defenses and-“

They both flinched as a massive impact rocked one of the buildings far below them – specifically, the one containing the central train station of the Northern complex.

“My, this is going to be fun,” Immanuel said with a smile, leaning closer.

***

A black-and-purple blur crashed through the ceiling and slammed straight into Skulls from above and behind, smashing the barely alive-looking woman into the ground with an ear-rending scream of metal.

Skulls gasped, though not in pain, just surprise, looking over her shoulder at her attacker.

The furious woman in the black-and-purple, skintight costume reached for Skulls’ head with both hands, grabbing it, and leaned in.

And then she screamed, both with her mouth and with her mind, and Skulls arched her back in agony, screaming in tune.

Every single Skullman in the train station who was still alive, every one of them screamed in unison, arching their backs, trashing around.

The scream extended far beyond Skulls’ multi-faceted mind, reverberating in the minds of the teenage heroes, making them flinch and stagger back away from the two of them.

It kept building up over and over and over again, a scream made of nothing but rage, of the desire to hurt, impossibly powerful in its purity.

A scant few seconds later, Skulls and her Skullmen went slack, and the scream cut off.

The young heroes watched in varying mixtures of awe and horror as the tall, flawlessly curved woman rose up over the now empty body of the villain, floating up off the ground, her long, luscious black hair floating behind her, her eyes glowing with power, making her equally purple lips stand out even more against her chalk-white skin, as she clenched her gloved hands into tight fists.

You,” Mindstar snarled, her eyes fixated upon Basil, her gaze intense enough to make him gulp. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Mindstar!” Hecate snarled right back, leaping forward as she called her staff into her hand. At the same time, Tartsche leaped for Basil, pulling on Spellgun’s hand as he went, and Gloom Glimmer hastily threw her hands up to-

His sister didn’t even spare them a worded command – she simply unleashed her power, slamming into their minds, and everyone still left standing in the station collapsed, save for herself and Basil.

He looked around, shuddering in spite of himself at the display of raw power. He’d never seen her go quite this far before.

She took a step forward as she landed on the ground again, her arms trembling from how tightly she clenched her fists.

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she snarled into his mind, her mental voice sounding discordant, barely human – yet still recognisably her voice, at least to him. “You are coming home with me right now!”

He didn’t know where it came from, didn’t really realise what was happening until it happened, but something inside of him just snapped.

“Let them go,” he replied out loud, his voice quiet, controlled.

“What did you say to me?” his sister asked in a low voice, taking another step closer, her heels making sharp sounds on the floor.

“I said let. Them. Go“, he shot back, taking a step towards her in turn. “Get the hell out of my friends’ brains, right now!” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t help but raise his voice, even to her.

Her mouth twisted into an even more feral snarl, though she did halt her advance. “Little brother, you better w-“

“I said, let them GO!” he roared in a voice that seemed two sizes too big for his lean frame, making her rear back. “Right the fuck now! I won’t fucking say a word other than to repeat this, until you let them go!

“Suit yourself!” she shouted back, exasperated.

The other teenagers all woke up, as suddenly as they’d collapsed, jerking awake and jumping up onto their feet, some faster than others.

Hecate immediately went on the offensive again, but Mindstar just flicked a finger at her, smashing her into a nearby pillar – not hard enough to harm her, but enough so to hurt.

“Don’t even think about it,” she hissed at the teenagers, and Hecate in particular. “I’m not in the mood for games, and none of you, nor all of you stand the slightest chance of even challenging me, as I just demonstrated. Not even you, Princess,” she concluded with an annoyed look at Gloom Glimmer.

Basil walked over to Hecate, kneeling down to check up on her. To his immense relief, she seemed fine, if stunned, yet it only slightly diminished the rage that was squeezing his heart right then and there.

“Hurt my friends again,” he said in a low voice while helping the stunned witch stand, “and I’m going to forget myself.”

“Are you threatening me?” Amy asked in stunned outrage. “Me? Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in?”

“More than you know,” he replied, letting go of Hecate and turning to face his sister once more, seemingly calm.

The others were looking from him, to her, to him, and back at her in confusion, except for Gloom Glimmer, who just looked resigned, but Basil ignored them as well as he could as he reached up and took his helmet off. Since his hood was down, that revealed his face once more, not that it mattered anymore.

“I don’t have the time for this,” he continued calmly. “Dusu is not far from here and I’m running against the clock, so either join me and help, or get out of my way.”

That made everyone’s jaw drop, particularly Amy’s, who stared at him, aghast.

“You want me to help you?” she shrieked, shaking her fists at him. “Are you fucking crazy? I’m here to drag you the fuck back to New fucking Lennston! You have no business here!”

“The fuck is going on?” Tyche asked, confused, looking around at the others. “Uh, Heck?” She looked at her friend, worried.

Basil looked over his shoulder, briefly, to see Hecate staring at him and Amy, her jaw slack, her hands clenched into trembling fists much like Amy’s own. She was completely quiet, save for the groaning of the staff she held in one of said fists.

No wonder… she’s finally facing her cousin’s murderer, and unable to do anything, he thought sadly, wishing he knew a solution to that particular conundrum. Especially now.

He didn’t realise that he completely misunderstood the cause of her current state of shock.

Turning his head again to look at Amy, he held his helmet under his left arm, and took another step forward.

“I am not crazy. I do have business here. And you are not going to take me anywhere but to my destination, if at all,” he spoke calmly. “Please, I could really use your help… but I will do it on my own, if I have to.”

Amy let her arms drop, staring at him, seemingly calming down. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking? What you’re risking? You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

“I see all that they are capable of every time I visit her,” he replied calmly, sadly. “I know exactly what I am risking, and it is nothing I do not want to risk for this.”

“You’re a child! You shouldn’t have to risk anything!” she shouted at him, shaking in barely restrained anger. “You’re going way too far for this, and for what? A freaking highschool romance? Why is she worth all this?”

“It is not just about her!” he snapped at her. “It is not about any one person! I am doing this because it is what needs to be done, it is what I would want someone to do for us if I, or you, were in that position!” He waved his free hand at her. “I am doing this because it is the right thing to do!”

“You’re going too far!” she shrieked back, her meager self-control crumbling, her eyes beginning to glow again, turning a brighter and brighter shade of purple, surrounded by glowing white. “And I’m going to stop you before you go so far you can’t go ba-“

“I’m not going too far!” he screamed, throwing his arms open, one hand holding onto the helmet. “There’s no going back! There’s no slowing down, no going anywhere but forward! I’m all in, sister!

He ignored the shocked gasps around and behind him – and didn’t notice that one particular gasp he should have expected didn’t sound – as he took another step closer to his sister.

“This is how it is going to be, Amy!” he continued to shout, his voice trembling with the strain of it. “Go with me, or get out of my way!”

Amy stared at him, looking more shocked than anyone else. As they watched, her skin took on a more normal, pinkish colour, and her posture changed slightly, the lines of her jaw and cheeks softening as well. Then she pulled her mask back, letting it fall back down her neck and hang there, her face looking both distraught and outraged at the same time, her features mostly Amy’s, with a little of Mindstar’s sharpness in them.

“No, Basil,” she replied, her calm voice simmering with rage. “I won’t let you. You’re coming back home with me, and that’s final.” She locked eyes with him, hers still purple, but softer, bigger than usual while she was Mindstar, shaped like Amy’s.

Basil sighed, looking down at his feet, then took his helmet in both hands, flipping it so he could look a the mostly blank faceplate.

Well, it’s not like I didn’t know it’d someday come to this, he thought regretfully.

“No, Amy,” he said softly, looking up to lock eyes again. “I am not coming with you… not without a fight.” She blanched, looking even more shocked than before, but he pressed on, as much as it tore at his heart to do so. “I am going to offer you a deal – just one. Fight me, here and now. If you win, we call this all off, and I will go home with you, willingly. But if I win, you will have to help me get the cure from Dusu, and bring it to those who need it.”

“Have you lost it?” she asked bluntly. “You can’t hope to-“

He looked at her again, his gaze firm, harder than steel. “It is a one-time offer, Amy. Accept it, or get the fuck out of my way.”

She looked right back into his eyes, never wavering one bit. They locked eyes like that for almost a minute, before she broke it, and snorted. “If that’s what you want, I accept. Beat me, and I’ll do as you wish.”

He nodded, feeling cold on the inside. “So be it.”

Amy looked him up and down, then smiled sadly. “I don’t know why you’re insisting on this, Basil. You can’t hope to stand a chance against me.”

With a sigh, he put his helmet off, then he took of his cloak and let it fall to the ground, while his friends – if they still wanted to be his friends at this point – moved away, giving the two of them a wide berth. None of them found it in themselves to protest this, if they even could – he wasn’t sure how much control Amy had, even now.

“No, Amy,” he spoke quietly, but firmly, blocking everything else out. “I’ve surpassed you.”

“I’m stronger than you are.”

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B13.12 Call of the Sleeper

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The transition from one reality to another was not as impressive as Basil would have expected – then again, neither had it been the first time. Still, it felt strange to know that he’d moved from a pocket reality to the real world the same way he’d step from one room to the next, simply walking through the door and being there.

He found himself on the empty tracks their train had been using, along with the others, who looked at him funny.

“What is it?” he asked them, looking around. Everyone was there, to his not inconsiderable relief, looking well, if shaken up.

“What held you up?” Tartsche asked. “You were right behind me, but then it took you longer to exit.

“So sound did not carry through the portal? That is interesting,” he said softly, looking over his shoulder only to find empty air. Emyr must have closed the door again. “Blackhill had something to say, not that it made any sense. Either way, we’ve already lost too much time – we should get going.” He looked back at the group again.

Before anyone could reply to that, Hecate stepped forth and took him by the hand, pulling him away from the rest of the group. “A moment, please,” she said in their direction as she took him a discrete distance away. Basil followed, feeling oddly disconnected from it all.

“Basil,” Hecate spoke softly, crossing her arms over her breasts, “Are you…” She shook her head. “No, of course you’re not alright, but… how are you holding up? You were… raw, in there.” She searched for his eyes, her green orbs finding his black ones even through the shadows of her own and his hood, even through his helmet.

He looked down, turning his hands up to look at them. “The girl I profess to love is dying, and I can not save her,” he replied, his voice quiet, even. Though his hands trembled slightly, none of it was noticable from just listening to him. “I can build force-field generators, work with the technology of the world’s greatest gadgeteer like it was a toy,” once he started speaking, he couldn’t hold it in, and it all came spilling out. “I somehow created an AI and I do not even remember doing it. I can build drones, power armour, hack secure systems without breaking a sweat, build a railgun that does not even need its rail to function properly. I can perform surgery with a skill most surgeons would envy, including on myself,” he pressed on, his hands trembling again. Hecate reached out and grabbed them, wrapping her hands around his. “But I can not come up with anything to save her,” he concluded, his voice quiet, monotonous, leaning closer to her. She leaned close in turn, restsing her forehead against his, their hoods joined together. “What kind of hero am I, that I can make all these things, but not the one that actually matters?”

“Oh Basil…” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. She pulled his hands closer, pressing them against her sternum, close to her heart.

“Then I drag you all into this mess, trying to infiltrate the base of an organisation that seems to operate on a level at least on par with the Syndicate, if not beyond it,” he continued on, “Look at them. A mere watchdog of theirs summoned the fu-freaking Godking of Mars to fight us. And I am pretty sure they are not taking this seriously, otherwise this place would have been swarming with more guards.”

“You didn’t drag us anywhere, chazuli,” she replied in a calm, soothing tone of voice. “We’re the ones who insisted on coming along. And I don’t know about the others, but I assure you, Dalia and I would not have taken a ‘no’ for an answer. So snap out of it – you’re an amazing hero, everyone here knows it. Where you lead, I follow.”

Basil blinked, glad that his mask hid the tears. “I…” I’m Mindstar’s brother. I’ve been lying to you from the start. He couldn’t actually say it, much as he’d wanted to. “Thank you,” he said instead, his voice hoarse with guilt. “Sorry,” he added, feebly.

“You don’t need to be sorry, phile mou,” she replied with a wet chuckle, and he only felt more guilty for continuing to deceive her. “Just be you again and go kick some malakes around for Prisca.”

“You know I don’t speak Greek, right?”

He couldn’t see it, close as they were, but he knew she was smiling. “Nobody’s perfect. Now chin up.” She let go of his hands and tilted her head, briefly pressing her lips onto his mask, right over his mouth. “Let’s go be heroes.”

***

They got going after that, the others not commenting on their little aside, though Tyche poked Hecate with her elbow, for some reason – Basil missed what she said to her.

Mindful of Legend’s (unwilling) warning that the group they’d fought earlier would have recovered by now and likely be waiting in ambush, they moved carefully, with Gloom Glimmer taking point and Basil and Polymnia (after her the best sensors on the team) flanking her. The others followed after, spread out enough that they would hopefully not all be caught by a single attack, but also close enough to support each other – and most importantly, all within short range of Tartsche, to move under his protection as necessary.

Gloom Glimmer had briefed them all on their powers and what she’d been able to figure out about their interactions, and was also providing safe communication via telepathy – with the understanding that it might vanish at any time, particularly if battle was joined and her power decided to give her something else to fight with – which they’d used so far to formulate battle plans, planning how to respond to their enemies.

So far, most of their battle strategies boiled down to taking down the one they’d first dubbed Rewind, before Gloom Glimmer revealed her codename to be Chronicle, who was the lynchpin of the enemy’s strategy, then mop up the others one-by-one. The only one they weren’t sure they could deal with was Karasuha, whom Basil had fought before, and whose abilities were still in question – Gloom Glimmer came up dry and the last time they’d fought, Basil had defeated her before she could really show much other than her ability to burst into a cloud of ravens and an extending, unnaturally sharp katana. Nevermind that, as a contriver, she may well be able to change at least some of her abilities on the fly, depending on how her contriving actually worked.

‘Let’s please not forget the fact that we’re apparently being used as a way to dispose of an unwanted member of this group,’ Hecate complained. ‘I mean, doesn’t anyone find this whole situation to be completely insane?’

‘They’re supervillains, Heck,’ Tyche thought back at her, sounding much less flippant than she’d normally be while addressing her. ‘They do shit like this.’

‘No they don’t,’ Hecate countered. ‘Not villains with huge city-sized bases with their own transit system. You don’t keep an operation as big as this one running smoothly by letting people like us go around acting like this, no matter how much you might want to be rid of a member. Guys, back me up on this.’ She looked at the junior heroes.

‘I have to agree with Hecate,’ Tartsche said in his usual measured voice, even telepathically. ‘There’s got to be more to this than just getting rid of an unwanted employee.’ He looked at Tyche, who was staying quite close to him. ‘I know you think this Immanuel didn’t lie to you, bu-‘

‘That’s not what I said,’ she replied quietly, looking down at her feet. ‘I said that he seemed totally honest. I’m not so stupid to actually believe he was totally honest.’

‘Honestly, I’ve heard of weirder secret societies,’ Gloom Glimmer finally interceded. Everyone turned their heads to look at her, though all they could see was the back of her head and cape. ‘The Brotherhood of the Bell, The Double-Oh-Conspiracy, the Saurian League… these guys are pretty sane, compared to that.’

‘Wait, there was a secret society called the Saurian Le-‘ Tyche began to say, but was interrupted by Bakeneko.

‘I’ve never heard of any of those!’ she exclaimed in surprise.

Gloom Glimmer just shrugged. ‘Had you ever heard of the Gefährten before? Of course not. Thus, secret society. Besides, mom’s taken most of them down. They were much more commonplace in the sixties and seventies, and during the world war, but once it was over, she could devote the time to hunting them down. And you’ve heard of some of them, at least indirectly. The Saurian League was responsible for the Tsunamis that devastated the West-European coast in ’78, and the Brotherhood of the Bell was behind the assassination of Margaret Thatcher in ’84. The public was merely never made aware of them after mom took them apart.’

Everyone but Basil (who was barely listening to the others) and Polymnia (who’d heard it before) took a few moments to digest that.

‘Why did no one publicise stories like that?’ Hecate asked, putting words to what the others were thinking.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged once more without turning around. ‘Mom deferred to the governments on that, and they didn’t want to make it known just how easy it is for metahumans to form secret societies and pull off such gigantic terrorist attacks,’ she explained, her mental ‘voice’ slipping into the same tone she’d used, so long ago – only it wasn’t all that long ago – when she’d held that seminar at school. ‘Before Point Zero, there were a lot of limits on how far such groups could come, particularly if they wanted to cause large amounts of damage. They had to obtain members, information, materials… all that went out the window with the advent of metahumans. With the right powers, they can strike any time, anywhere, and it’s nearly impossible to see coming – note how all those I named got to actually pull something off before my mother managed to track them down. And there’s God-only-knows how many out there we still don’t know about.’

She turned around, continuing to float backwards as she spoke to them. ‘It’s really not as crazy as it seems to you, Hecate. To a normal organisation, allowing enemy agents to run roughshot around their base to take out one of their own may be a bad idea, but we have no idea what kind of powers are in play – for all we know, losing Dusu will actually make the Gefährten even stronger.’

They looked at each other – again, without Basil – in worry. ‘How could… I don’t get it,’ Spellgun admitted. ‘How could that work?’

‘I think that’s the point,’ Polymnia (whose mental voice was even more melodic than the one created by her vocoder) replied. ‘We don’t know what’s at work here. We can’t know, without knowing all the elements in play, and even Gloomy hasn’t been able to divine them.’

‘So, what’s that mean now?’ Tyche spoke up. ‘We’re fucked if we do, we’re fucked if we don’t? Is the only winning move here not to play?’

‘No,’ Basil interceded, speaking for the first time since Hecate pulled him aside. He was walking ahead, his back to the others. ‘This changes nothing. Whether or not our actions benefit the Gefährten does not change the fact that we need Dusu to cure the victims of the Hawaii plague. Does the possibility that the Gefährten might profit from us achieving that, or from curing the victims, change the fact that curing them is good?’

‘No way!’ ‘Of course not!’ Fuck no, B6!’ ‘Naturally not.’

‘There you go. Now focus on your surroundings and get ready for a fight,’ Basil concluded. In the distance, they could see the light grow brighter as they approached another station.

‘Hey wondergirl, can’t you check ahead?’ Tyche turned her thoughts – it really was a rather strange experience, thinking at someone; if it wasn’t for everything else, Basil would have so many questions – towards Gloom Glimmer.

‘I don’t have that kind of power right now,’ she replied in a petulant voice. ‘All I know is that there’s enemies up ahead.’

Just as she said that, she suddenly fell out of the air, landing on her feet and stumbling forward.

Everyone immediately dropped into fighting positions, with Tyche and Spellgun stepping close to Tartsche to touch him, and Bakeneko jumping onto Osore’s back, but Gloom Glimmer waved them off.

“I-it’s alright,” she stammered, pulling her hood tight in embarrassment, speaking with her actual voice again. “Powers just, changed.” She rolled her shoulders, moving on. “Don’t worry, I’m used to it.” Ripples began to spread out from her feet, wherever she stepped onto the ground, continuing on for a few moments after she moved on, distortions that travelled across the floor and up the walls in circular waves; at the same time, a light haze appeared in the air ahead of them.

They relaxed again, moving on.

***

Melody walked up to her friend, putting a hand on her shoulder – and her wrist speaker next to her ear. <So, what’d you get this time?>

<Matter manipulation,> she said through their com-system (hopefully it hadn’t been hacked yet, but it was still safer than talking out loud). <I can control any matter that’s being touched by those ripples. Also, a spatial distortion that diverts attacks away from me and potentially back at the attacker. Oh, and a veil – I can hide us from sight, and even divert light-based attacks, at least from one direction.> She smiled slightly. <Been a while since I had such a powerful combination.>

Polymnia squeezed her friend’s shoulder, before taking a step and back, keeping her arm extended and sending ultra-sonic pulses out from one of the speakers, mapping the area ahead of them.

<There’s people in the station up ahead,> she spoke up once she’d properly interpreted the data she got. <Fifteen… eighteen… twenty-four, spread throughout the station.>

<Can you give us a visual map?> Tartsche asked, well-aware of the fact that she usually relied on her hearing alone to interpete the suit’s data.

<Um… I don’t have a light-projector that’d work for that… Brennus, do you have something to convert my data into a visual map?> She looked at the unnervingly quiet vigilante.

<I do,> he said evenly, reaching for his belt and pulling a plug-tipped extension cord from it, holding it out in her direction, stopping still.

Melody joined him, as the others spread out a bit, moving as quietly as they could, and she plugged it into a port on her suit’s forearm. A twitch of Brennus’ fingers gave her access to a projector, after which it only took a minute or so to adapt her own software and send the map out through it.

His left gauntlet – the one that’d projected force-fields earlier on – projected a two-dimensional map onto the floor, causing the others to cluster closer around them and take a look. Melody kept her left arm extended, continuing to map out the station in case their foes moved around.

The only one who didn’t look at the map was Brennus himself, who kept looking ahead even while pointing his gauntlet – though he could probably just call it up on his visor, if he didn’t have better technology anyway.

<Hm, they’re not exactly spread out, but neither are they bunched up… they definitely seem to be watching the way we’re coming, though,> Tartsche observed.

Melody knew what he meant. Their enemies, all twenty-four of them, were forming an uneven half-circle that opened towards the tunnel they were coming from, sixteen of them on the left side of the tracks, seven on the right and one standing in the centre.

<Twenty-one of them are Skulls,> Brennus stated simply. <The others are the ones we fought earlier, as well – Boltstar, Karasuha and Chronicle.>

<How can you tell – they’re around the bend, aren’t they?> Tartsche asked him, looking up from the map to look at the young gadgeteer.

<I sent my last raven ahead earlier,> he replied simply. <It is giving me a live feed.> A twitch of his fingers caused the projection to change, showing the train station from a high angle, the image upside down but sharp. Another twitch rotated it, showing them what was in the station.

Of course he’s got a better solution, Melody thought to herself, sighing softly. I really need to work out some drones for myself.

They looked through the raven’s eyes and saw the Skulls, mostly crouching behind several overturned benches, using them for cover as they aimed their rifles at the tunnel. Boltstar and Chroncile stood with the larger group, behind the Skulls, the latter crouching to give as small a target as possible, though Melody wondered why she was that close at all – probably a serious range limitation on her power. Even though she was wearing a heavy robe and a deep cowl, Melody could tell from her posture that she was quite nervous, a lot more so than the others.

The last one there was Karasuha, looking different from the last time they saw her. She was wearing a set of skintight, jet black platemail now, with a bird-shaped helmet and a purple skirt that split down the front. She even had a different, heavier-looking katana, which currently rested in its sheath, which she, in turn, was holding in her left hand, rather than strapped to her belt.

<Now that looks like someone upgraded in a real hurry,> Spellgun commented, and the others couldn’t help but agree.

<It doesn’t seem like they have any reinforcements,> Hecate added quietly. <I would have expected them to show up with reinforcements.>

<Who knows? Maybe they got someone hidden in there,> Tyche suggested as she charged her rifle. <Or maybe they’re ready to port someone in.>

<If they do, I’m pretty sure I can redirect them,> Gloom Glimmer replied. <Yeah, yeah I’m pretty sure I can.>

Tartsche gave her a nod. <Alright. Let’s work out how we’re going to do this…>

***

They moved down the rails under the cover of Gloom Glimmer’s veil and entered the train station, sticking closer together than before so they’d all fit in under her power’s aegis.

Basil kept his raven up above, hanging onto the ceiling with its feet like a bat, to observe what was going on – fortunately, the villains hadn’t noticed it.

Looking around with his own eyes, he didn’t feel too worried – only Karasuha was an unknown in this, except…

<That’s not Chronicle,> he told the others, drawing and aiming his rifle. <She’s too tall and too broad-shoul->

“Aw damn, they found out!” a female voice they hadn’t heard before rang out from seemingly nowhere.

The wall and tunnel behind the assembled villains flickered, then melted away into nothing, revealing another two metre to the station – and there stood Chronicle, next to a woman in a skintight black costume with a silver tabbard and a clenched black fist over her chest. The suit extended to cover her head entirely, making her look like a jet-black mannequin, the only distinguishing feature on her head being a silver circlet upon her brow. It did not even have noticable openings or lenses for her eyes.

As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Chronicle’s’ form flickered and melted away in the same way, revealing an even bigger, broadly-shouldered man in heavy grey, brick-patterned body armour.

“Well, the jig’s up,” Skulls said with her customary sneer. “Take th-“

Basil snapped off three shots from his railgun, one at the real Chronicle’s shoulder, one at the silver-and-black-garbed woman’s knee and another at Skulls’ head, before she could finish.

The upper half of Skulls’ head turned into red mist, as did the jaw and throat of the Skullman behind her, but the shots to the other two were unharmed, protected by an invisible force-field that only briefly shimmered as it absorbed the full impact of his shots.

“Screw you, you trigger-happy asshole!” Chronicle shouted at him as she gestured at the fallen Skulls, causing her and all of her Skullmen to flicker, restoring the damage he’d done. “You ain’t catching me by surprise again!” Her bubbly, high-pitched voice made her sound far too young for the group she was a part of – she couldn’t possibly be any older than Basil himself.

<Gloomy, make us some cover!> Tartsche shouted through the coms as he reached out and put his hands onto Spellgun’s and Tyche’s shoulders, covering them with his power. Hecate dissolved into smoke, Basil raised his force-shield, as did Polymnia with her sonic cage, Bakeneko – who’d already turned into that tentacle-cloak thing attached to Osore’s shoulders – wrapped herself around him, her tentacles growing stiff, hard armour…

<Gloomy?> Polymnia asked in worry, as Gloom Glimmer didn’t react at all, looking at her friend.

“Damn,” the silver-and-black garbed woman said. “That was easier than I expected.”

“Thoughtseize, report properly!” Skulls snarled, making the woman shrug, while her Skullmen spread out further, aiming at the heroes below on the tracks, and Karasuha put her right hand onto the grip of her sword, sliding into a ready stance.

“Target’s locked down, boss,” she told him with no small amount of satisfaction. “Looks like the higher-ups were right – telepathy’s really her Achilles’ Heel.” She tilted her head to the side. “Don’t think I can make her fight for us, though. Her brain’s strange.”

“I don’t care as long as you keep the little bitch out of the fight. Focus on her,” she ordered. “As for you annoying little shitstains,” she continued, looking down at them again. “Put down your weapons, now! In the case of you three,” she pointed at Basil, Polymnia and Hecate, “Strip everything off. No more tricks now. Do as I say and we’ll let you live.”

Fuck, Basil thought as he, Hecate and Polymnia moved to stand back-to-back. We were counting on Gloom Glimmer to carry this.

<What do we do now?> Polymnia asked through their comms. <We’ve got to help Gloomy!>

<We need to take this Thoughtsize down,> Tartsche replied, his voice as calm as ever.

“It’s Thoughtseize, you know?” the villain’s voice appeared in their minds. “Seize, not size. Oh, and I can listen in on you easy – did you really think you ever stood a chance?”

“Hey boss, they’re not gonna give up!” she told Skulls at the same time as she distracted them with that message sent straight into their brains.

“Open fire!” Skulls shouted.

Basil dove forward towards Karasuha, glowing bullets pinging off his shield as he aimed his rifle at her, hoping that whoever was protecting the others – probably the one in the brick-patterned body armour – wasn’t extending or couldn’t extend his power to her.

He pulled the trigger, sending an electromagnetically accelerated projectile straight at her mid-section with the assumption that her armour would reduce it to a non-lethal hit.

Karasuha moved with blurring speed, dogging the attack as she flashed forward, drawing her sword in a single, lightning-fast motion – too fast even for Basil to react in time, allowing her sword to cleave through his railgun; except this time, it cut through it from front to back, rather than simply slicing off the barrel.

Behind Basil, the others were being pelted with glowing bullets. Polymnia was stuck keeping up her sonic cage, which seemed sufficient to protect her and the unresponsive Gloom Glimmer from the Skullmen’s assault, but the upkeep of which didn’t allow her to do anything else. Tartsche and the two under his protection were, of course, not even inconvenienced, but whenever Spellgun or Tyche shot back at the Skullmen, Chronicle simply rewound them, which also meant they never had to reload, allowing them to keep on firing an endless stream of bullets.

Bakeneko was doing her best to protect Osore as his form began to bulge and grow, but him powering up also made him an easier target, as she could only stretch herself so far and still remain tough enough to resist the tranquilising bullets. More and more of them were penetrating her and Osore’s skin, causing their movements to grow more and more sluggish.

He fared no better, barely managing to roll under a follow-up kick from the similarly-themed villainess. Coming up behind her, he whirled around, shield-first, to strike her, but she’d already turned around and ducked, kicking his legs out from underneath him.

He snarled, throwing his useless weapon at her, but she simply blurred again, moving far more nimbly than her platemail should allow her to, and grabbed him by the ankle.

She swung him around with inhuman strength, once, twice, thrice, and throw him with such force at Osore and Bakeneko, they were thrown back all three of them to slam into the immovable trio with a sickening crunching sound.

Basil groaned in pain, his back feeling numb, though it didn’t precisely feel broken (it certainly didn’t feel as bad as during his little ordeal at Hastur’s hands), and looked up just in time to see Boltstar unleash a rain of energy bolts from over a dozen of his spheres, raining them down onto Polymnia, straight through her sonic cage.

The young girl cried out in pain as the barrage slammed her into the ground, tearing her armour apart.

Somewhere out of sight, Hecate screamed, once, then was cut off.

And then it all stopped, both the bolts from above and the glowing shots from the Skullmen.

Polymnia was on the ground, bleeding and groaning in pain. Osore was barely standing, and Bakeneko, who was riddled in glowing darts, had gone limp, her armoured tentacles dangling off Osore’s back. Only the immovable trio still stood, watching in horror.

Two Skullmen walked up to the edge of the platform, dragging a groaning Hecate with them by the elbows, several glowing darts sticking out from her chest.

“That enough for you idiots?” Skulls snarled as she stood up from behind her cover and walked up, followed by the brick-patterned villain, who was looking down at them with his arms crossed, looming behind his comparatively shorter leader. “Are you finally going to surrender before I lose my patience and decide to maim you, or do you have any more tricks left?”

Basil looked over his shoulder at the others, his left hand flinching briefly, tempted to reach for the ovoid gadget on his hip. I could use that, but there’s no telling whether it’ll be enough…

Tartsche looked back at him, his eyes wide with fear, yet determined. “Fuck,” he said. “Alright,” he finally said, looking up at Skulls. “Promise that you won’t harm us any more and we’ll surre-“

“There is no surrender,” Osore suddenly said, his voice an octave deeper than normal. “Only the next stratagem.”

And as everyone turned to look at the two-metre tall Japanese boy, he gathered darkness around his right hand and threw it straight into Basil’s chest.

“Twinkle twinkle, little star, how I wonder what…

you…

are…”

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