B13.5 Call of the Sleeper

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A few minutes earlier

“Well, that didn’t go as expected at all,” Dahlia mumbled, as she looked out upon this freaky floating city, half admiring and half scoffing at all the weirdness on the half of it that, according to the freaky girl, was made for and by the Super-Crazies. “I’m not surprised.” Somehow, something had gone wrong when freaky girl had tried to teleport them in, and she’d somehow managed to end up alone atop this huge, weird tower – the one at the centre of it, which they hadn’t been able to tell the purpose of, earlier. To her surprise, while the tip – a wide disc, bigger than her old house had been – was transparent from the inside, even though it had looked opaque from the outside. Even the floor was transparent, where she stood, letting her see pretty much everything around and beneath the tower.

“Why is that?” a smooth, melodious voice asked from behind her.

Dahlia yelped, whirling around and drawing the collapsible staff Basil had built for her from her belt, extending it as she faced…

The fucking prettiest guy she’d ever seen, ever.

He sat on on a raised, flat platform in the centre of the circular room, which was made of a gleaming white material, like the stuff space ships were made of in one of those dorky sci-fi shows Tim liked to watch with Steph. It was the only part that wasn’t transparent, it and the floor immediately around it. The platform itself was flat and looked hard, with no cushions at all, yet he sat there, his legs folded in… what was the word… lotus position!… and his arms resting comfortably on them, forearms on knees.

None of it all was even remotely as interesting as looking at him. He was slender, looking like he could not possible be older than twenty-five, if that. His skin had the light tan of someone who spent time in the sun, but not excessively so, and was all smooth.

All smooth. He was wearing nothing but a pair of simple, dark blue drawstring pants, putting his smooth, hairless chest on display; not wiry, but not muscular either, at least not as much as she was used to from other metas – and she did not believe for one second that this guy wasn’t a meta, not here, in this place, and not someone who looked prettier than herself. His face was youthful, soft, with full lips and friendly, grey eyes that were so warm and cozy, just looking at them made her want to hug him and take him home. His hair was brown, smooth and just long enough that, combed back as he wore it, it reached his throat, almost but not quite touching his shoulders.

Holy shit he’s yummy, she couldn’t help but think, even as she reminded herself that this was a really bad place where really bad people worked at, no matter how yummy they were. And those eyes… They were almost hypnotic, so deep and inviting…

She shook her head, then focused again on him with a glare. “Who are you?” she asked, though it didn’t come out the way she’d wanted it to – her voice cracked midway through the sentence, and it wasn’t just because of how pretty this guy looked – she wasn’t an idiot, anyone who hung around this place, alone at that, and without any obvious weapons or job to do was either a major power or else someone’s boytoy – and she doubted a boytoy would get the tallest tower’s top to himself, or sit on a hard surface without any comfort around him.

He chuckled softly, slightly tilting his head to the side as he studied her, radiating nothing but friendly curiosity, an invitation to relax with him and maybe see if he was that hairless below the w-

Focus, Dahlia! Down, girl!

 “Relax, Tyche,” he spoke again, his voice even more beautiful than his appearance and god damn was it hard to remind herself not to drool. He even had just the slightest accent – German, maybe? Something European, at least. Only made it sound exotic and even better. “I mean you no harm. There is really no need for you to draw any of your weapons.”

She did relax, in spite of her best efforts not to – he sounded completely sincere, her usually so reliable bullshit detector having gone completely silent. “Yeah well, I don’t react well to suddenly being teleported into a weird room with a weird guy, all alon- hey, how do you know my name?” Had he picked it out of her head? Was he a telepath? Shit, what if he picked all the secret stuff she knew by now out f her h-

“I do watch the news,” he interrupted her train of thought, “You and your team have been making quite the name of yourselves lately.”

She let out a breath she hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding, the sudden relief palpable enough to make her knees briefly weak. “Oh, uh… that’s, yeah, that makes sense,” she stammered. It wasn’t proof that he wasn’t a mind-fucker, but at least it was a sensible explanation and why would he need to lie about it if he was? Still, it’d pay to be careful, especially since… “How do you know I have more weapons than this?” She held her staff, her only visible weapon, up.

“You’re on a team with a very prolific gadgeteer,” he replied smoothly, raising a hand and ticking off a finger. “Your power becomes exponentially more useful the more options you have to act.” Another finger, ticked off. “Your jacket is unevenly heavy, most likely because you haven’t distributed your equipment properly.” A third finger joined the others.

He knows? How could he possibly know of my power!? “How… how do you know?”

Again that head-tilt, to the other side now. His smile was incredibly calming, but not enough to overcome just how scared she felt. Far more so than she was used to, than she had been even when fighting Crocell.

“I didn’t get to where I am today by collecting bottle caps, Tyche,” he said with a gleaming, boyish grin. “Don’t worry – I’ll say it again, I mean you no harm.” He took a deep breath, then released it, sitting up straighter – he’d been leaning a little towards her before, as they’d talked.

She stayed quiet, after that, mulling the whole thing over. “If you don’t mean me harm, then what do you want… whoever you are?” she spoke, glaring at him, as much as she was able. God-damn yumminess.

He actually seemed taken back by that, before he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Oh, um, sorry, sorry! I don’t usually get unexpected visitors here; I guess my manners have atrophied more than I thought they would,” he said, giving her a heartmelting, boyish smile of apology.

He was making it very, very hard for her not to giggle like a schoolgirl. “Y-you are forgiven – if you tell me your name!” she replied with a tremor in her treacherous voice.

“Immanuel,” came his reply, as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “I’m afraid I don’t really do capes and cowls, so my real name will have to suffice. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tyche.”

“L-likewise,” she replied on instinct, not sure at all how to react to having him share his real name – or at least what he claimed to be his real name, she wasn’t quite foolish enough to take him on his word. Speaking of… “Well, this was fun and all, but I really gotta go.” I’ve gotta find the others – they’re probably in huge trouble.

“Go where?” he asked, sounding amused as he leaned his cheek on his left hand.

“To my friends, of course!” she answered him hotly. “Where else?”

“Of course, but do you even know where your friends are?”

“Well…” She lowered her staff, stunned. “Um… that kind of… slipped my mind. I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me, would you?” she continued, though it was mostly to buy her time to think. With my power, I could probably find at least Gloom Glimmer or Basil – freaky girl has the power to find the others, and Basil is the sort to always know what to do next…

“Hmm,” he tapped his chin, before sitting up straight and turning to the right, lifting a hand to point at a particularly weird tower on the Southern half of the city. It looked like nothing so much as a huge candle, with a flame at the top, made out of wax twisted into spirals. “They’re all there, on levels three, five, eight and fifteen,” he explained. “All in individual cells. Except for Polymnia and Brennus, they were teleported to another facility.” He turned to the North, pointing at a squat, circular building, like a huge coin, but completely smooth and featureless. “Both of them were sent into a capture room for Gadgeteers, but they broke out… ah, anti-EMP technology? Impressive.”

He frowned, scratching his chin. “No, wait. Gloom Glimmer broke out… where… ah, she’ll be with Polymnia and Brennus, soon. I think. That girl’s a pain to keep track of.” He shrugged, then smiled at her again. “You can just take the elevator down to level zero, then take the B-line North to station fifteen. From there, just follow the left-hand path and you’ll find the three of them. Or take the D-line South, then take the D1-line East and get off at station twenty-eight, and you’ll be at the Candlekeep, if you want to try and break your friends out of there on your own.”

She stared at him, uncaring that her mouth was hanging open. “Wu-what?”

He just kept smiling, which did not help her regain her wits, and remained quiet, waiting.

“Why… why would you tell me that?” she asked, feeling off-kilter again.

“Just trying to be nice,” he said off-handedly. “I have no particular reason to oppose you and your friends.”

“We’re attacking your big evil secret badguy base!” she shouted, gesturing wildly with both arms at him – she barely managed not to whack herself on the head with her staff. “We’re after one of your evil mad scientists!”

“Evil mad scientists? Isn’t that kind of redundant?” Again, that smile.

“I’m friends with two good mad scientists! Even if one of them thinks she’s Harry Potter with boobs!”

He nodded gravely, as if conceding the point. “Point taken.”

“Anyway, why are you helping? If you even are helping and not just bullshitting me!?” she shouted at him, trying to get things on track again.

He just shrugged. “As I said, I have no particular reason to oppose you children. You may not see it now, but we’re ultimately all on the same side in this.”

“Yeah, uh, bullshit. You guys are like, super evil. I mean, making giant monsters to attack all over the world was bad enough – if kinda awesome – but Hawaii? Seriously?” she countered, aghast. “You guys are, like, Weisswald levels of Evil with a capital E!”

That finally got a reaction out of him, as he winced, closing his eyes. “Ow. We’re not that bad, seriously.” He shook himself. “Adolf might have started out well, but he went way over the line.”

Dahlia was just about to rebuke him, hard, about the ‘started out well’ part, but then her brain caught up with the implications of the way he’d phrased his reply (you couldn’t hang out with Miss Fuzzypants for any length of time and not start paying attention to the wording of things), and she took a step away from him, feeling suddenly way less cheeky. “Y-you’re saying… you knew him? You’re talking like you actually met the guy.” Which would make this guy way older than he looked, which meant danger.

“Long story,” he waved it off. “Don’t concern yourself with that – you have more important things to focus on, don’t you?”

R-right… play nice with the possible pal of Weiss-fucking-wald. “Um, yeah, right, uh…” Think, Dahlia, think – what should I do next? What would Basil do? “Since you’re being so helpful and we’re all being secretly on the same side and all that, I’m sure you won’t mind telling me where I can find that crazy-ass bitch Dusu?” She didn’t actually expect him to rat out one of his own people, but then again, it couldn’t hurt to try… she hoped.

Again, he surprised her by pointing at a place on the North side of the floating city. It was on the North-Eastern projection, unlike the building that he’d claimed Basil and Rainbow Brite were in, which stood on the central part. “Take the A-Line until the hub station, then take the A3-Line until the very last stop, and you’ll be in Dusu’s laboratory. It takes up that whole structure.” He gestured to his right, and a circle formed on the white floor, rising up smoothly to reveal a simple, pure-white elevator cabin. “Just take the elevator down to level zero and go from there.”

“Alright, I give up,” she sighed, letting her arms fall down her sides. “Why are you doing all this? Why help us, why betray one of your own? If this ain’t all just your way of messing with my head, or setting me up to run into a fucking trap?”

Immanuel smiled that heart-melting smile again, making her knees tremble. “Because I feel like helping you out. Also, because Dusu has frankly turned out to be a monumental disappointment and she’s really not worth the effort, time or resources it takes to keep her work going. If she fails to even deal with a group of – please excuse the language, I don’t mean to be insulting – of amateurs, then she’ll frankly be getting what’s coming to her.”

“Ok, that second part, I get. That’s suitably villaneous and all,” she commented, feeling herself actually relax – evil insane power politics of evil, that she could get behind! Having the evil bad guy be nice and helpful, that just freaked her the fuck out!

He shrugged in response, staying quiet as he lowered his arm again and sat up straight.

“Well… ok, uh…” How am I supposed to talk to him? He’s a villain! He’s clearly insane! Yet he’s so nice! And helpful! And oh my GOD he’s so yummy at that! She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. “I’ll… I’ll be off then.” Well, he’s been quite nice and helpful after all… “And… thank you, I guess,” she said, as she began to walk towards the elevator he’d summoned, hoping it wouldn’t drop her into a shark-tank full of laser-eyed cyber-sharks.

“You’re welcome, Dahlia,” he replied with a warm, bright smile.

“Yeah, you too, Im- What!?!” She leapt backwards from him, drawing her staff again and moving straight into a defensive position again. “How the hell do you know my name!?” she screeched at him.

He looked a little hurt at her response, sighing in disappointment. “I really thought we were past the whole ‘threatening with violence’ bit. Please, relax, Dahlia. As I said before, I mean you no harm.”

“Are you fucking kidding me, Immanuel!?” she shouted again. “You know my power, you know my real name and I’m supposed to relax?! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t beat you unconscious and drag you along to the others?”

He shook his head, looking at her in disappointment. “Dahlia, please, don’t be crass. I have done nothing but be helpful and polite, haven’t I? There’s no need to have this devolve into meaningless violence.” He sounded like her fucking middle school teacher, lecturing her for coming into class with juice in her hair, like she’d done it deliberately to insult him and…

He’s messing with my head! she admonished herself. Fuck, this whole time he’s been fucking with my fucking head! I just know it!

“How is defending my secret identity meaningless, huh?” she shot back, as she couldn’t really think of anything else to do other than attack, and somehow she didn’t think that was the smartest thing to do, right now. What’s his power? God damn it, what could be his power? Is he a telepath? But he wouldn’t need to mess with me like this, if he was, wouldn’t he?

“It would be meaningless as you would invariably fail,” he replied calmly, in as friendly a manner as he’d been speaking the whole time she’d known him. “There is no way that fighting me is going to lead to a better result, for you, than being civil and talking to me, I assure you.”

“You’ve been helpful and all, but I really don’t see how you could be more helpful than you’re a freaking danger because you somehow figured out my name!?”

“Dahlia, please, calm yourself. It’s not healthy to get so worked up…”

How am I supposed to calm down when you keep using my fucking name!?” she screeched again, her face flushing red.

“Alright, I’ll call you Tyche then. Does that help?” he asked with that infuriating, boyish ‘don’t-be-mad-at-me-I’m-too-cute-and-yummy’ smile of his!

“F-fuck… you… you’re unbelievable! How am I supposed to react to all of this?” She slammed her staff on the ground, pointing an accusatory finger at him as she screamed, “What do you even want!?!”

“I want to help you, of course.”

How?”

He rolled his shoulders, never breaking eye contact with her. “I’m going to help you understand your power.”

“What is there to understand? I have super-luck,” she snarled back at him, starting to feel angry again. Where did he get off, acting like he knew what her powers like, when even Basil and Miss Fuzzypants hadn’t figured it out? “I get lucky and my enemies get unlucky. So you better not mess with me!” She pointed her staff at him, wishing again that her mask didn’t cover her face entirely, so he’d be able to see her sneer at him. Stupid Basil insisting on full coverage…

“Oh, that much is obvious,” he said with a wave of his hand. “What’s important is whom it considers your enemy.” He smiled sadly at her. “Heard of Tanya, recently?”

She flinched, involuntarily, hunching her shoulders. “W-what about her? She… she got run over by a bus, wasn’t she? Stupid bitch didn’t look left or right.” She felt no satisfaction knowing that, no or when she’d learned of it. Yes, they’d made her life a living hell, but she’d never have wanted even one of them to die… not for real.

“That she did. Distracted at a crucial moment and then… dead.” He tilted his head, again, as if trying to look at her from a different perspective. “How’s Mandy doing?”

“Why do you bring them up? I hate them! I don’t want to think about them!” Wasn’t it enough that they’d driven her to nearly kill herself? Wasn’t it enough that they’d ruined years of her life? Why was he bringing them up?

“It’s important, Tyche. Please, how is Mandy doing?”

She frowned, not that he could see that, averting her eyes. “She’s… she tried to kill herself, I think. I heard something like that, from some old schoolmates.” She’d barely paid attention, really. It was… uncomfortable. She’d nearly killed herself, though her powers had come in just in time to save her.

“Yes, she did. What’s interesting is why,” he continued, his face turning from a smile to a sad expression. “She was in a club, you see? Someone slipped something into her drink, and then… well, I’d rather not say it aloud. But she thought she had no way of dealing with the memory other than killing herself.” He took a deep breath, then released it. “Fortunately, she failed, but the attempt has left… lasting damage. And her parents put her into an asylum, to be treated, rather than bother taking care of her themselves.”

Fuck… that’s… She shook her head. No one deserved that, not even one of those three. “I don’t know why, why’re you bringing this up? They got nothing to do with me! Not anymore!”

“What about Natalia?” he pushed on, asking after the last one of the bitch-trio.

“What about her? I haven’t heard of her in ages!” And good riddance…

“She was in the shelter underneath the mall, when Hastur appeared there,” he said calmly. “Strange coincidence, that she picked that one, of all. Natalia didn’t see her face… but she was caught by the monsters that resulted. Brutalised, to the point of manifesting.”

“Wait, that bitch’s got powers now? Just great!” She turned away from him, crossing her arms, trying to stave off the shivers she was feeling creeping up on her. Why was he telling her this? Why was this important? “What’s she… what’s she doin’?”

“She’s put on a cowl,” he replied. “Her experience in that shelter was just the last in a long line of humiliations and abuses, since you last met her. Now she’s sharing her pain with the world.”

“How… how do you know that? Are you just making all of this up!?”

“Sometimes I wish I did, but no. It is the truth,” he continued to speak soothingly, calmly. “What is important is why it happened.” Suddenly, his voice became… not hard, but firm. “Dahlia, look at me.”

She turned around. She didn’t want to, but she did, when she heard that commanding tone. “You said you wouldn’t use my n-” Her protest cut off when his eyes met hers, two grey mirrors that captured hers, somehow finding them even though her mask hid them entirely.

“They suffered because of you, Dahlia,” he said, and it was like a hammer striking her mind. “You knew this – Basil told you. Probability manipulators build up bad luck, and dump it somewhere – usually on themselves. But not you. You channeled it unto others instead.”

“N-no…” she whimpered, as the pieces began to fall into place. “I… I wouldn’t…” How didn’t I, she thought, but stuttered. It’s so obvious, now, but…

“Yes, you did,” he said, and yet there was no accusation in his voice. No reprimand. Only sympathy. “Your power guided them into misery, every time you defied fate.”

No… Her hands began to tremble.

“You won the lottery, becoming richer than you ever thought you’d be, free of the shackles of poverty,” he began, speaking as softly and as implacably as death itself. “And they lost their friends, abandoned to become pariahs as you had once been.”

It can’t be!

“You met Basil and Vasiliki, ‘by accident’, guiding the formation of your group, to be blessed with real friends. And Mandy was drugged and raped.”

Her staff fell to the ground.

“You survived the battle against Hastur’s monster, but Natalia was brutalised by them instead, until she snapped and became a monster of her own.”

Her knees hit the ground.

“Buildings collapsed atop you, and yet everything fell in such a way as to leave you spotless, not a hair harmed on your head. At the same time, a bus hit Tanya when she was distracted at the wrong moment.”

“Nooooo…” She… she hadn’t. She couldn’t. That couldn’t be true.

I can’t breathe.

“And those were just the high points,” he continued, mercilessly, his warm, silvery eyes captivating her. Not letting her blink, even, though tears made her vision blurry. “You don’t even know of all the small, petty miseries it inflicted. The small cuts, the twisted ankles, the embarrassing secrets that came out, the chance humiliations in public. Remember when you heard that someone pulled Natalia’s pants down in public, and she wasn’t wearing underwear at the time? Oh, how you laughed…” He sighed, still without averting his gaze.

She ripped her mask off her face, choking, trying to breathe.

But it wouldn’t come.

No, no, I’m… I’m a hero! I don’t…

“I’m a hero…” she protested weakly, trying to… to defend herself? What was she even saying?

It made so much sense. How had she not seen this before?

“You are,” he affirmed with a soft, soft smile. “But that doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of your actions. For every good deed you’ve done, your power has brought an equal amount of misery to the world. To those who hurt you. Whom you hated.”

“Whom you resented.”

“Wh-who… who else?” she asked, trembling. Her arms wrapped around her stomach, she felt nauseous and she couldn’t breathe.

“To a lesser degree than those three, your teachers. Your old classmates. Your guidance counselor, your principal. All the people whom you blamed for the torment you experienced, all those who failed to protect you when they should have, they each suffered to the degree to which you blamed them for it.”

“Nonono… I’m a hero! I’m… I help people! I never… I never wanted this!” she cried breathlessly, her voice cracking several times, as she tried to fight it.

Tried to deny it.

Tried not to follow it to its logical conclusion.

“And most of all, the one who let you down the most,” he continued, without mercy, without accusation, his voice so good, so soft, so… cruel. “The one who should have been protecting you, above all others, and failed. She suffered most of all, and suffers still.”

“Don’t… please, please… don’t…”

Finally, finally, he averted his eyes, those cold, beautiful mirrors releasing her eyes, letting the tears spill forth.

“You ruined your mother’s life, above all,” he confirmed all her fears. “Every broken bone from tripping over her own feet, every cut in her skin from glass that broke in her own hands, her descent into alcoholism to try and deal with the constant pains and humiliations… because you resented her, blamed her, hated her.”

“Noooooooooooooo!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, bending over, her forehead pressed to the ground. “No, no no no, I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I love her! She’s my mom! She’s my mom, my mom, I wouldn’t hurt my m-m-om…”

And yet, she couldn’t deny it, not anymore. Not when it was in her face like this. All this time, she’d… skipped over it. She’d seen her mother suffer, seen her break down, piece by piece, step by step, and she… she hadn’t connected the dots… How could she have been so stupid!?

“Of course you love her,” he spoke. “Of course you do. But love does not preclude hate. It does not preclude resentment. When you were broken, when you were being beaten on… your mother failed you. Never deliberately, but she was so busy, all the time, wasn’t she? Working two jobs to pay the bills, to put you through a semi-decent schools… didn’t even have time to feed you, didn’t she? You had to cook for yourself, more often than not. So many nights spent alone in front of the television, asking yourself whether life was even worth it. No friends, no father, a mother that was barely there, bullies who drove you to attempt suicide.” He sighed, as if he himself couldn’t believe it. As if it hurt him even a fraction as much as his words were tearing her up inside. “You know it’s true. I haven’t spoken a single lie to you.”

She cried, bitterly. Sobbing, tears and snot running over the cold, transparent floor. Her shoulders shook, even though she was hugging herself to calm her body. She could only press her face harder against the floor, trying to steady herself, to find… something… to hold on to…

Suddenly, his voice spoke from right above her.

“It’s not your fault, Dahlia,” Immanuel said, his voice overflowing with care. She looked up, seeing his bare feet, then his pants, then up past his body to his caring face. He knelt down, reaching out with one hand to cup her cheek.

His hand was warm against her skin. Warm and steady, when she was neither.

“You felt resentment for those who hurt you, for those who let you down – that is only natural, that was and is your right. But your power took that and turned it into fate,” he said, gently stroking her cheekbone with his thumb.

“What… what do I do… I don’t… I don’t want to hurt them… didn’t…” Her voice broke again.

He sushed her, as he pulled her in with both arms, wrapping them around her, holding her to his breast. So warm…

“Of course you don’t,” he spoke, his voice thick with feeling. “I truly am sorry for your anguish,” he caressed her back with his hand, as the other one held her tight, not caring about the snot and the tears that touched his bare skin. “But you needed to know. There is not a problem in the world which can be solved if you don’t know.”

She whimpered, limp in his embrace, without even the strength to push him away… or accept it.

He just held her. “Now you know. And I know, and I’m here, with you.” He held her tighter.

“We’ll find a way to fix it, I promise. You, me, Basil, Vasiliki and the others, all together,” he whispered into her ear, his voice full of conviction.

“Dafür sind Gefährten da.”

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B13.4 Call of the Sleeper

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Part of Basil’s inner self was admonishing him/itself for using an untested gadget in such a situation, nevermind bringing it along on such a sensitive mission in the first place.

Another, far larger part of him was jubilating at the fact that the force projector worked. It was just its most basic function that he’d used – in this case, using the stored energy in its batteries to generate kinetic force, which was then projected onto the door he’d pressed his palm to – but nevertheless, it had worked.

Had the situation not been so dire, he would likely have danced a short jig.

However, it was dire and so he focused on the room ahead of him instead. The door he’d launched into it had slammed into a group of armed, armoured men, knocking five of them over – painfully so, judging by the groans and broken limbs he could make out.

Which left seven more standing, raising their rifles to aim at him.

They were all clad in heavy, padded body armour, all black save for a crude skull apparently hand-painted onto each of their left breast’s, each sporting a belt with half a dozen grenades clipped to it as well as a combat knife and a baton in a holster, as well as wielding blocky rifles of a make he couldn’t identify, topped by scopes casting red dots, now rapidly centering on his body.

Alright, let’s hope the next one works, as well, he thought, his left arm rising up even before the trained soldiers could squeeze their triggers, presenting the broad side of his gauntlet to them.

They pulled their triggers just as he twisted his fingers in the correct activation sequence; their guns made surprisingly quiet pops, firing glowing blue projectiles at him; his gauntlet’s circuits filled with light, and a small disk, the size of a saucer, appeared above it. A thin circle appeared around it, wide enough that it shielded him from his head down to his thighs. Both looked like they made of crackling, unstable electricity, flickering like crazy.

Then the projectiles fired by the Skullmen impaced the seemingly empty space between the central disk and the outer circle, only for tiny bolts of electricity to arch between said centre and the circle, the force-field becoming visible as it absorbed the kinetic energy of the glowing darts fired at him, deflecting the projectiles themselves, bouncing them back and onto the ground.

He knelt down, slowly, gesturing for Polymnia to do the same, until his shield was covering him entirley, before one of their foes got the bright idea to aim for his or her legs.

Soon, the hail of glowy shots stopped, leaving the ground in an arc in front of him covered in rapidly darkening darts, as the Skullmen reloaded their rifles, without exchanging a single word.

“You can make force-fields now?” Polymnia asked from behind. “Why am I not surprised?”

“I got the idea after working on Sovereign’s equipment. It uses- actually, let us talk about this later, we need to take these people out,” he replied calmly, or as calmly as he could, feeling as exhilerated as he did right then and there.

“You’re right. So,” she spoke, as the soldiers finished reloading and aiming again, filling the air between them with glowing darts once more, causing lightning to dance through his shield as it continued blocking their attacks. “How should we do that? Can that gauntlet attack while it’s also projecting that shield? Because at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it did.”

“No, it can not. Do you know what else it can not do?”

“No, but I assume it is important?”

“It is fully permeable to sound, and sound-based attacks,” he replied quietly enough that only she was likely to hear it.

“I could kiss you right now,” she said, instantly picking up on his meaning, as she reached with her arms over his shoulders, one on each side of his head, so as to remain behind the safety of his shield.

He saw the speakers built into her heavy gauntlets – if they were as heavy as they looked, then he doubted he’d have been able to use them without power armour, but her current set seemed to lack servo motors – start to vibrate. There were eight of them on each one, six arranged in two rows of three down the length of the forearm, while two more were facing forward, built into the part of the gauntlet that stuck out over her hands, at the wrists. The ones on the back began to oscillate, visibly, making a dull, thrumming sound for several seconds – but it was the ones aimed forward which actually performed the attack.

Concussive sound so powerful it visibly distorted the air shot out of the front speakers,  in two pairs of two, passing through his shield as if it wasn’t even there – which was just how he’d intended when he’d set the shield’s harmonics – and impacting the two rows of armed Skullmen.

As there were only seven of them, and they’d bunched up in a formation of one kneeling in front, with another standing behind, they were all hit by the blast, bowled over as it impacted the front row and burst.

It was a rather impressive display of raw force, Basil thought, watching their weapons be smashed to kindling, their bodies launched with such force they slammed into the walls around them – even the ones his attack had already taken down were moved, though not nearly as violently, sliding towards the sides of the room.

When it was over, there was no foe left standing – and judging by their lack of motion, few of them were even still conscious.

Still, it paid to be careful. “Can you determine whether they’re all unconscious?”

Polymnia left her arms as they were, aimed into the room beyond. After a few seconds, he saw her left hand’s fingers twitch. “Judging by their breathing and heartbeats, they are all unconscious.”

“Good enough for me,” he spoke, and rose up after she pulled her arms back. Deactivating his shield – it would not do to waste battery life – he walked into the room and did a quick triage of the Skullmen, both to make sure that none of them would die due to the wounds they’d received, and to get one of their communication devices.

Fortunately, he was successful on both accounts – they would all, likely, survive, and he got a boxy communicator off the belt of one of them that hadn’t been shattered by Polymnia’s attack.

“Brennus, take a look at this,” said heroine spoke up behind him. When he turned around, she held up one of the darts the Skullmen had fired at them. It was still glowing, slightly, though the light was growing steadily more dim.

“Looks like a knockout dart,” he observed, taking it from her hand to look closer. Running a simple spectrometric analysis revealed it to be filled by a commonly used sedative – one employed by most police forces, among others. That much made sense. What did not make sense was why they were built to glow (as were the rifles they’d been fired from), as it didn’t seem to serve any function he could make out. “Pretty common sedative, all things considered.”

“That’s kind of my point,” she spoke through her vocaliser. “These are the people who created those monsters, right?”

“As far as we know, yes, though I am reasonably certain of it,” he replied, wondering what she was getting at.

“And one of their members is Dusu, a woman who wiped out a large part of Hawaii’s population – almost a million people.”

“Yes, they are horrible people. What are you getting at?”

“Even though they are, at the very least, responsible for a number of casualties in the six-digits – likely even more – they… made an effort to create a teleport-interdiction system which split us up and deposited us – presumably – in separate rooms meant to disable and contain, instead of killing us. Their security forces even wield strictly non-lethal technology – those are flashbangs and other non-lethal grenades on them, no?”

He aimed his spectrometre at a grenade belt, analysing it. “Yes, they are…” he answered her, as he caught up to their thought process. “Which raises the question, what kind of group participates in wide-spread slaughter on a scale that’d make Weisswald proud…”

“… yet takes great pains to spare the lives of anyone who attempts to infiltrate their very stronghold – the place in which they ought to be at their most vicious when defending it!?”

He looked down at the knockout dart in his fingers, contemplating the question, but came up empty.

“It does not matter,” he answered, wrapping his fist around the dart and squeezing. When he opened it again, the crushed remains of the dart fell down on the ground. “We have to fight them either way – let us be on our way.”

***

Leaving the room proved to be no problem at all – the door behind the Skullmen had been open, leading out into a hallway with an octagonal cross-section, which however led straight to their first problem – hub where it crossed with three other similar hallways, giving them a total of seven options for where to proceed, but no indication as to which path they ought to take; there were no markings or signs whatsoever in this part of the structure and neither of them had any way to determine where to go; Basil had a compass built into his interface, but he had no idea where they were, within the structure they’d seen earlier on, and so could not say at all which direction was the wisest one to take.

In the end, they had to rely on Polymnia’s ability to pick up even the faintest sounds; though the only ones she could get, other than the heartbeats of the fallen foes behind them, were too faint to truly identify, she could determine which direction was the loudest. In this case, the hallway that intersected theirs at a right angle, specifically the right-hand part of it, was the loudest one by far.

Next, of course, they had to decide whether to move towards or away from it. On one hand, it was likely to be the least safe direction to go towards. On the other, it was also the one most likely to yield some information, which they were in desperate need of.

Which was why Basil had taken one of the unbroken communicators off the fallen soldiers (Polymnia had taken the sole other one that wasn’t ruined), and was now leaning against the wall, a cable running from a pouch on his belt to the communicator, plugging into a small port to give him direct access to it.

He could, of course, just turn it on and try to listen in on the enemy’s conversation, but he didn’t relish the idea of deliberately tipping his hand like that. While it was quite possible the enemy already knew he had a communicator on hand – though he’d so far failed to make out any cameras or other surveillance in the hallway, it paid to be paranoid, which was the reason why he was modifying the programming on this communicator. Fortunately, it wasn’t a gadget or – even more fortunately! – a contrivance, so he was able to make it no longer transmit its location, as he’d quickly determined it was designed to do. He also blocked it from being remotely turned on so as to listen in to what happened around it, then did the same for the one Polymnia had brought with her.

“How do we know they don’t have other means of listening in on us, though?” she asked once he was finished. “Microphones are much easier to hide than cameras – I ought to know – and they may well have people with powers that allow them to surveil us.”

“There is nothing at all we can do about power-based surveillance, as we are,” he replied, rolling his shoulders. “If Gloom Glimmer was here, then she could do something about it, but she is not – which, honestly, worries me more than anything else that has happened over the last month – what could possibly keep her occupied against her will?”

She screwed up her face, her shoulders rising into a slightly hunched posture. “Yeah… I can’t imagine why… she hasn’t come find me yet… I hope she’s alright.”

“I am reasonably certain that she is safe,” he replied calmly, as even he couldn’t overlook the fact that her eyes had grown quite wet in response to his concerns. “More safe than we are, certainly. Speaking of which, I am far more worried about the other members of our party – they are much less likely to have resisted whatever means our opponents deployed to subdue them than you or I, and certainly far less so than Gloom Glimmer.”

“You really think so?” she asked, her voice seeming completely calm, even if she looked more than a little choked up.

He nodded, reaching out awkwardly to pat her on the shoulder. “Think about it. They had some kind of contrivance that reacted to our attempt to teleport in, then divided us up based on our power sets and sent us into separate rooms, each likely meant to nullify our specific powersets in some fashion – almost certainly via contrivances of some sort, except for the EMP dishes in our cell, which I am certain were mundane technology or gadgets. Now, if they had a cell which can counter every possible power there is, then they would not have had any need to split us up – we would all just have been dumped into the same place. And since nothing short of that could contain Gloom Glimmer, she is likely already free and wrecking this place, or making her way to us – though she is probably refraining from simply teleporting here, so as to avoid a repeat performance of their teleport interdiction.”

She took a deep breath, calming herself. “That does make sense… however, I just had a thought. Maybe… they do have some manner of universal power nullification, and it’s just you and me who were separated from the others? After all, power nullification would be useless against you, and would only slightly impede me.”

He paused, surprised. “Oh… I had not thought of that.” He lowered his hand from her shoulder. “That is… certainly possible.”

Leaning against the wall again, he contemplated quietly, for a few moments. “Unlikely, but possible… however, you just helped me realise something.”

“What?”

“Assuming Gloom Glimmer’s analysis is correct, then you and me are currently on the Northern half of this city – they do seem to keep Contrivers and Gadgeteers apart; their system would have sent you and me North both for subduing us, and to put us right where people could analyse our equipment, once they pilfered it from us. Meanwhile, power nullification is not something we have ever seen gadgets do – that would be done by way of contrivances, unless they use a metahuman for that, which I doubt, considering their setup here…”

She picked up on his train of thought easily, getting a thoughtful look, wrapping one arm around her torso and putting her other hand under her chin in a classic ‘thinker’ pose. “Which would put them on the Southern half of this place, giving us an idea of which direction we ought to move towards!” Her lips had turned up into a smile towards the end, which he was quite happy to see.

Girls should be smiling, not looking depressed and on the verge of tears, as far as he was concerned.

“Conveniently enough, South lies in the opposite direction from where you are picking up the loudest sounds,” he added, pointing down the respective corridor which lined up exactly with the South his compass was displaying.

“Then let’s go kick some ass and find our fr- there’s something coming our way from the South!” Her exclamation turned into a shocked shout, her eyes widening as she picked up something Basil couldn’t begin to sense yet.

Whirling around, he dropped to one knee, raising his gauntlet to project his shield, as Polymnia joined him behind it.

Soon, he saw black-and-white blur race down the hallway towards them, far faster than either of them could track it.

“Wait, is th-” he began to say, but then it was upon them – and it simply ran around him, faster than he could have turned with it or attack in some way.

He heard a gasp behind him, and then the groaning sound of heavy-duty armour being compressed hard.

Dropping into a roll, he came up facing towards Polymnia, switching his gauntlet from the shield to its attack mode…

But he needn’t have bothered, as all he saw was Polymnia being hugged by Gloom Glimmer, who was squeezing so hard her friend’s bulletproof armour seemed to be on the verge of cracking.

“I was so worried!” she sobbed, squeezing harder, making Polymnia groan, though she did so with a smile. “I came as fast as I could, but my power wouldn’t give me teleportation again!”

“It’s alright, Gloomy,” Polymnia said, her voice coming out calm. “But if you don’t relax a bit, I’m afraid my head is going to pop.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” The daughter of the world’s chief heroine and villain let go of her friend, shuffling back with an embarrassed look. “Are you, are you alright?” she asked, clenching her hands behind her back, as if afraid she’d just hug her friend again if she didn’t hold them there, looking down at her feet.

“Yes, I am,” Polymnia replied to her friend, reaching out and giving her a light, brief hug. “Me and Brennus kicked butt here.”

Gloom Glimmer turned her head, looking at Basil – who’d stood up again, now that it seemed like they were at least temporarily safe – as if she’d only now noticed he was there.

Before he knew it, she had her arms around him, and gave him a squeeze he felt even through his armour.

Ugh… definitely super-strength…

“Thank you so much!” she said, before stepping back to wipe a few unshed tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry things went so wrong… my power didn’t warn me about this trap at all.”

“Well, how many people have a teleport interdiction system?” Basil replied with a shrug, as he rubbed his sides. That had been a really tight hug. “No one blames you for not expecting such an arcane security system, even in a place such as this.”

“W-well, that shouldn’t be a problem anymore,” she mumbled, looking chargrined. “I’ve got a danger sense now, and I’ll hold onto it for as long as I can.”

“That’s very useful!” Polymnia exclaimed brightly, stepping up to stand next to her friend, taking her hand and squeezing it softly. “Don’t beat yourself up over getting surprised by this – we all were, and it’s not your job to be ready for everything.”

Gloom Glimmer sighed, relaxing visibly enough, as soon as their hands touched, for even Basil to pick up on it. “Well, it won’t happen again… I’ve had this power before, and it’s a strong one. Should let me steer us around any big threat. And I’m pretty sure I can track down our teammates, too.”

“Any insights so far?” Basil asked. “We need any information we can get.”

She nodded. “Yeah, uh… there are a lot of dangers around here. Especially in the centre of this installation. The top level of the centermost tower, in particular, it’s glowing brighter than anything else around here.”

Both gadgeteers tilted their heads to the side. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“Oh, right, um,” Gloom Glimmer scratched her cheek with her free hand. “This danger sense highlights threats. Colour and intensity of the glow tell me what kind of danger it is, and just how dangerous, irrespective of whether they’re actually an enemy.”

“Meaning?” Basil pushed for more details.

“Um… meaning that, whoever or whatever is at the top of this place… they glow white. Which means, the danger they represent covers every base, physical, mental, social, emotional. And… they glow brighter than my dad.”

She took a deep breath, and looked South, and up – presumably towards this bright glow. “Whoever that is… they’re more dangerous than the Dark.”

Basil looked in the same direction, feeling… oddly calm, all things considered. It wasn’t like he hadn’t expected things to get worse.

“Super.”

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B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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Travelling with Irene was always an interesting experience to Melody, no matter how often they did it (and they did it quite a lot – Irene loved taking her all across the world at the drop of a hat); it always went a little differently. Even when they just teleported somewhere, the transition tended to happen in all kinds of ways; from the seamless ‘we’re-here-now-we’re-there’ that she’d employed to get them to Esperanza City, to that one time when they’d spent a few minutes walking across these strange, dark grey rock-paths floating in a vast sea of darkness, with stars all around – she still regretted that she hadn’t thought to bring a camera along to preserve that image.

Flying could also be pretty fun, if for no other reason that her power seemed to almost never use the same method twice; right now, for example, they weren’t so much being lifted as it was like space itself had wrapped around them, somehow, and was just… moving them along through the air. There was no pressure on them, no air in their faces; they simply moved.

Melody had quickly caught on to it and just relaxed, loosening her limbs to enjoy the ride, while Irene’s power held her pretty much in place. The others had followed suit soon, once they realised that they didn’t need to hold themselves up anymore. Apart from Tyche, that was, who’d taken to trying out different ‘flying poses’, sometimes asking Hecate whether one was cool or not.

For her part, Hecate seemed to be lost in thought, barely taking notice of her teammate, let alone the others that were travelling with them.

She closed her eyes and focused on her latest invention, a pair of earpieces that connected to her visor (pink, of course), which protected her ears from sudden spikes of noise (such as the one that’d taken her out for most of the fight against Crocell) while also improving her hearing by several levels.

Hecate’s heartbeat was a little uneven, faster than would signify calm. She was worried, and trying not to show it. Melody felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, she was clearly unhappy about this whole operation, even if she’d agreed to come along.

Tyche, on the other hand, was ecstatic. She didn’t even really need her gadget to tell, wouldn’t even have needed her already enhanced hearing – the girl was grinning like a madwoman, while she enjoyed the perks of this strange weightlessness. In other words, she was the same as every other time Melody had interacted with her. She was kind of envious of how that girl could seemingly enjoy any situation, no matter how horrible. And she still didn’t know what power she, because she sure as hell didn’t have just some minor physical enhancements!

Spellgun – Thomas – was quite scared, if in a different way than Hecate. He was more obvious about it, fiddling with his insane rifle or checking the bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest. He’d get more and more worked up, until Tartsche reached out to squeeze his hand, or his shoulder, or just pat his back, all but instantly calming down again, until he started to get anxious once more.

Tartsche’s heartbeat was the same as everything else about him, warm, steady, steadfast. She’d never known a person whose power fit them better, never known someone who was so at peace with himself. She’d never known Harry to lose his cool or lash out, or even appear to be nervous. Instead, he was spreading his calmness to his boyfriend, while also looking at the others to see if anyone else needed some encouragement.

One such person was Aimihime, Bakeneko, currently in her favourite form, that of a darkly furred catgirl (though thankfully with sane proportions, as opposed to what she used to look like in the past – not that Melody had any right to really complain about others sporting ridiculous bust sizes), trying to look calm while her eyes moved alternatively from Brennus to her boyfriend and back.

That brought a frown to Melody’s face, though she tried to hide it. Aimihime had been way too eager to come along and help them… she’d all but been lurking outside in the hallway, jumping at the chance to join Irene and her when they left, almost as if she’d known something was going to happen beforehand… but how would she?

It’s none of my business, Melody chided herself. She might just have felt stir-crazy, after having been unable to really contribute at all since the Hastur fight. If Melody hadn’t had the chance to help with the Arc Caster, she’d probably have felt quite badly about herself, too.

Underneath them, the scenery changed from land to ocean, as the day got brighter still.

Melody looked out over the wide, wide Pacific Ocean – surprisingly, she’d never actually seen it before, in spite of Irene’s frequent jaunts around the world. She took a few seconds to just look and pay the beauty of it its due.

Afterwards, she focused on Osore, curious about how the strange, quiet boy who’d joined them together with Aimi was feeling… only to barely hear a thing, his heartbeat being so calm she thought, for a moment, he might have fallen asleep; but no, he was quite awake, his dark eyes just barely visible through the eyeholes of his oni-style mask, calmly surveying the room.

She’d never known him to be anything but detached and calm. Or talk, really. She didn’t even remember his name from his introduction, it’d been so short and they literally had not exchanged a single word since. She wasn’t even really sure why he’d agreed to come along on this mission, other than perhaps for Aimi’s sake.

I’m just distracting myself, aren’t I? she thought quietly to herself, focusing her gaze forward, where Brennus was floating-standing next to Irene. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Not even Top Ten.

That made her think again. Why was she going along with what was, essentially, a huge shot in the dark hoping to find something which could heal Dusu’s victims.

Or rather, one victim in particular, even if Melody was sure that Brennus was going to help each of Dusu’s victims equally, given the chance.

She focused her eyes (and ears) on Brennus, curious how he was dealing with the pressure…

Only to find him almost as calm as Osore. Cold. He wasn’t unnaturally calm – she could still make out his heartbeat as well as she’d expect, through his cloak and body armour – but he was definitely calmer than she would have thought, his heart beating steadily, quietly, his breathing as even as can be. There was something intense about him, his posture, his aura, as if his entire being was focused ahead at their mission.

Isn’t he nervous at all? If I’d been the one to organise an undertaking like this, I’d be a nervous wreck. How can he just ignore the pressure and remain so calm?

It wasn’t like this was new, either. When she thought about it, Brennus had always been way too calm during a crisis – when he wasn’t being maniacal, that is. She’d wondered, more than once, just what must have happened for him to turn out the way he did, thriving in situations in which she’d rather curl up and scream.

The fight against Crocell had been just another in a long list of occasions that had demonstrated to her that he was just on another level than her, no matter how much she tried to improve herself – while she’d been taken out in the first moments of the fight, he’d fought the entire time, pursuing and analysing the beast, until he actually came up with a way to defeat it – and then he’d led her and two other gadgeteers to implement it on the spot, even getting Sovereign (or rather, whomever or whatever controlled that Subjugator) to cooperate.

Melody was rather starting to feel inadequate, really, even though Hotrod had assured her that Brennus was very atypical for a young gadgeteer and that, compared to most, she was already plenty advanced.

It didn’t help that every time they’d run into each other, he’d sported a new or completely reworked gadget, like that gauntlet of his, which seemed to have replaced the sword he’d previously wielded, as well as the strange ovoid attached to it, both made out of metal rather than the strange ceramic which Brennus normally used for his inventions, their surfaces covered in circuit-like grooves and she really wanted to know what it did. However, with the way the mood was right now, she really didn’t want to speak up just to ask about what his newest gadget did.

She was quite certain it was going to make her feel envious and at least slightly inadequate, anyhow. Especially since most of the equipment she had on her was a downgrade, built from spare parts and some handouts from Hotrod (in exchange for her help with his own project) to be a more portable, if less powerful, version of her usual rig. Not that she’d had a choice, really, after the flood Crocell’s death had caused had ruined most of her equipment beyond repair.

Then she’d found out that the EMP countermeasures he’d gifted her as an afterthought, a little gesture of goodwill after taking some samples from her tech, way back during the fight against the Rabid Eight – God, it’s only been a few months! – without asking her, was being implemented all across the United Heroes’ infrastructure, nevermind their field equipment.

Even her own armour used it, all over, to protect against the dreaded bane of gadgeteers everywhere – a reliable EMP protection that was applicable to personal equipment was a rarity even among their kind, at least one that could easily and relatively cheaply be replicated.

She seriously doubted he’d gotten even a quarter as much out of sampling her tech as she had out of his handout, nevermind the boon it was likely turning out to b-

You’re obsessing again, Irene’s warm voice whispered into her thoughts.

Huh? Melody perked up, looking forward at her friend, who was looking at her over her shoulder with a gentle gaze, her hood thrown back to reveal her head. She blushed, thinking about how obvious it must have been for Irene to pick up on it in this situation. S-sorry. I didn’t mean to, it’s just…

I know, he can be pretty intimidating, Irene replied, turning forward again even while keeping their mental conversation up. He’s kind of like mom, you know? Seemingly effortlessly out doing everyone around him.

Having him compared to Lady Light of all people does not make me feel less inadequate, Melody grumped mentally. He’s my age, for crying out loud! He’s had his powers for less time than me. And yet both his technology and his skill in combat make me look like an amateur… I’ve had my powers for years!

Some people just get lucky, her friend tried to soothe her. Exhibit A, I myself. Exhibit B, my big sister. Exhibit C, Brennus.

Wait, which sister are you…

The one who’s not going around wiping out entire cities at a time.

Oh. Yeah, uh… sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better, either.

You’re putting him on too high a pedestal, Irene continued calmly, while the day grew darker around them.

You’re the one who just compared him to Lady Light, yourself and Elysium in basically one breath!

I was merely illustrating that some people get luckier than others. And I bet he’s not as good as he appears to be. You of all people should know that – you see the end product, you don’t see all the hours he spent training, or working on an invention just to have it turn out to be a dud, the sleepless nights…

Alright alright! Melody had to restrain herself a lot not to throw her arms up – that would just have looked strange, considering the circumstances. I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself!

Irene looked over her shoulder again, briefly sticking out her tongue at her and winking, before she faced forward again.

Ohhhhh…

***

Almost an hour of relatively quiet travel later – a brief argument between Spellgun and Tyche regarding her opinion that he really should call himself Spellrifle, as he didn’t actually wield a gun, notwithstanding – there was finally a change in the scenery (Melody never would have thought the ocean would get so boring when you were just flying across it).

In the distance, there was, at first, a glint, followed by, as they approached, a a multitude of lights – they’d travelled far enough west quickly enough that it was still dark, even if sunrise wasn’t far away – in an irregular line, clustering around the middle and the edges, like a W.

“Is that it?” Aimi asked, her form shifting slowly, teeth and nails lengthening slightly as her whole appearance grew less cute and more feral. An unconscious effect, Melody knew.

“That’s where Brennus’ coordinates are leading,” Irene confirmed. “Wait, I think I can zoom in…”

The view in front of them distorted itself, then rapidly came closer much faster than they were actually moving across the water.

“Oh wow…” Melody couldn’t help but say, even if it felt kind of silly at times to type that kind of sentence fragment into her vocaliser.

“Yeah, ‘wow’ is a pretty good description,” Hecate whispered as they stared at the floating city.

An actual, floating city. At least, it was big enough to be a city, with skyscraper-sized towers in the centre and the edges. They were looking at it from above, at an angle, and so could see that it was a huge disk roughly divided into six projections out from a central cluster of towers, with more towers at the tips of the two biggest extensions, the ones pointing directly to the left and the right, from their perspective – the Northern and Southern ones, that is – the whole thing forming a pointed star-shape that was further divided into two, with the Southern part looking somehow… stranger than the Northern one.

Melody didn’t even know where to start describing it. The Northern part looked like it had jumped straight out of one of those Japanese Cyberpunk shows, all grey, black and silver, with glowing neon lights all over and more cables, wires and pipes than she could easily count, or even guess at the number of. Everything, every single building – if they really were buildings, and not just extentions of the structure underneath – was interconnected not just on by the platform they stood upon, but also by a multitude of pipes and free-hanging wires, some of them glowing in various neon colours, others coloured a dull, boring gray. The whole thing looked like a riot of colours alternating with dull steel, in winding, twisting shapes that made her brain twist itself in knots trying to follow, except for the circular tip of the North-Eastern extension, which instead looked like a bonsai tree four or five storeys high, surrounded by floating platforms holding even more bonsais, as well as other, more exotic plants, some of them in colours that no natural plant should have, as pretty as they looked.

It was nothing compared to the Southern half. Melody’s eyes watered just from looking at it.

It was… it was…

It was impossible to put into words, unless she took the time to write an entire book. There were… floating parts and crystal spheres… obelisks covered in glowing runes… patches of greenery and twisted trees with glowing leaves… and so much, much, much more, the most impressive bit being a huge sphere of what appeared to be liquid mercury floating above a circular pit at the Southern-most tip.

The only remotely normal part was in the centre, a cluster of skyscraper-sized towers that gleamed even in the darkness, serving no purpose she could easily guess at.

“Two halves, one for Contrivers, one for Gadgeteers,” Irene said calmly. “They’re keeping the two apart to avoid unfavourable interactions between their work, yet keeping them close enough that they can both study whatever it is they’re studying at the same time.”

“How do you know that?” Spellgun whispered, sounding awed.

Irene tapped her temple without averting her eyes from the… whatever it was, Melody couldn’t think of a good name for it. “I want to know it, and this time, my power is cooperating. I’m getting all kinds of data on this place, it… it’s amazing. It’s even bigger than it looks, below the surface. This is just the tip of the actual structure.”

“Alright… we’re all sufficiently intimidated, so how about we turn around and go home now?” Hecate asked in a nervous voice, her hands clutched tightly around her staff.

“May I remind you that I did not want any of you other than Gloom Glimmer to join me in this endeavour in the first place?” Brennus asked flatly. “If you want to go, please, go and be safe. It is bad enough that I have to drag her into this, nevermind all of you.”

“N-no,” Hecate stammered, sounding embarrassed. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just wish you would stop, but if you won’t, then I’ll back you up.”

Brennus turned around to look at her, for the first time during the flight.

Though Melody couldn’t see his face – obviously, with that featureless full-face mask – she could hear his heartbeat, and she could tell that it briefly sped up.

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I think it’s a wee bit late to turn around now, unless we abort entirely,” Aimi added, with Tyche nodding her assent.

“I just hope you actually have a plan for this,” Spellgun mumbled, his eyes glued ot the huge construction before them. Tartsche reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Brennus turned to the front again, as everyone focused on him. “It’s relatively simple… though now that there’s so many of us, I’m not entirely sure it’s still the best way to go. I was planning to infiltrate this place quietly, under the guise of Gloom Glimmer’s powers, track down Dusu and her lab and either steal the cure for her plague, force her to give it up or kidnap her back to New Lennston to get it out of her there.”

“That still sounds good,” Tyche said, slamming her fist into her open palm. “Especially if we add beating this bitch up a bit,” she added with what Melody was sure was a savage grin beneath her mask.

Tartsche gave her an uncomfort glance. “Let’s focus on getting the cure. Vengeance is not our goal here, so let’s stay focused.”

Brennus and Irene both nodded to that, as did the rest, except for Tyche and Osore (who’d remained completely quiet so far).

The black-and-white-clad gadgeteer pivoted around, weightless, to look over them as he folded his hands behind his back, his intense gaze coming to a stop on the quiet boy from Japan. “What about you, Osore? Are you in on this? No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this out.”

Finally, the young hero showed a reaction, lifting his head to look straight at Brennus. “In all the way,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle even.

Brennus nodded, briefly looking down. “Alright. Let’s get to it then.” He turned around to look at the city, of sorts, that lay ahead of them. “There is no way this thing is staying hidden from satellites, ships and over flying planes without some serious security measures, nevermind what they probably have to detect intruders,” he explained, as the vision ahead of them moved back again, then came closer naturally, the actual distance between them decreased enough that it no longer required a zoom to see. “We will need to find a way to pass into their perimeter without setting off their alarms.”

“I can probably teleport us inside,” Irene supplied, drawing closer to the structure. “I can see some kind of… force-field, around it.” She waved a hand, and the air in front of them rippled, refocusing until it showed a kind of net spread in a dome over the entire structure, flickering with electricity. “I’m not sure what it does – it’s a Contrivance, those are always hard to figure out – but it shouldn’t be a problem if we just teleport past it… no wait, yes, that’ll work.” She clapped her hands, lightening up. “It’s both an early warning system and an interceptor – if anything without the proper authorisation tries to fly through it, the entire field will focus its power on that spot and fry the interloper – but it won’t affect teleportation.” Melody could hear Irene’s grin, with no need to actually see her face.

“Can’t you just port us straight to Dusu and out again?” Tyche asked.

Irene’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I wish I could, but I can’t home in on her. Dunno if that’s because they have something that hides her, or because I don’t know her well enough or…”

Or because you don’t want to get to her enough, Melody finished the sentence in her thoughts, feeling sorry for her friend. As powerful as she seemed to be, she doubted most people ever considered how frustrating it must be to have so much power and not be able to use it as well as you’d like to.

“She will most likely be in the Northern half of the structure,” Brennus pointed out, moving the conversation along. “If you can teleport us onto the Northern half of the central disc, there might be some map or some other way to determine Dusu’s location, or that of her laboratory… or someone we can simply extract the information from.”

Irene nodded. “Ok… ok, I can do this. Hmm…” She crossed her arms, concentrating. “Teleportation… yup… a stealth power… remote targeting… danger sense…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I love it when my power plays along. Everyone ready to go in?”

There was a chorus of agreements, some more firm than others, and Irene raised her arms as if about to conduct a ceremony.

“And here we g-“

Space began to warp around them, drawing together in a mind-twisting way – and the sphere to the South of the construction rippled all at once, tendrils of liquid mercury shooting out at incredibly speed, even as time seemed to slow around them.

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

Melody’s head hurt abominably, as she picked herself up off the floor she suddenly found herself on, her display flickering with some kind of interference.

What the hell…?

She could hear someone next to her… Brennus, she recognised him by the particular sound of his heart… and there were more people, just outside the room she was in, as she slowly pushed herself up, looking around in confusion.

They were in a bare room, the walls, ceiling and floor all made of steel, with three large radio dishes above them, all pointed to the central area of the room she and Brennus lay in.

Brennus picked himself up just moments after her, standing up and looking around. “My head is killing me…” he groaned, raising his right hand to touch his mask’s forehead. He twitched, his head dipping to the right. “Some kind of… teleport interdiction? Did they know we were coming, or was it an automatic response to someone trying to teleport into their territory?” He looked at her, but she knew no more than he did, and so just shrugged.

Then he looked around them, and up at the radio dishes. “Shit. Those are EMP dishes,” he said, causing her to suck in a startled breath. So that was why her interface was flickering – the EMP shielding still held, but it wasn’t perfect and they were being bombarded with electromagnetic waves at point-blank range.

Yet her armour was working, and guessing by his ability to instantly analyse what those dishes did, so did at least the sensors in Brennus’ suit. And if the most sensitive parts of it worked, then so would the rest.

Right then, she didn’t feel jealous of him anymore – she just wanted to kiss him.

“No reason to smile, I am afraid,” he spoke, looking at her, causing her to realise that she’d been doing just that. Then she blushed, of course, stupid cheeks. “Even if our equipment is safe… I assume yours is safe, at least…” She nodded. “We were still split up, apparently sent into a room meant to specifically lock Gadgeteers down.” He took a deep breath. “Which means our friends were likely also split up and teleported into similar rooms, tailored to their abilities.”

She took in a sharp breath, blanching. Irene was probably safe, almost definitely, having so many powers at her disposal, but the others

“We need to find them,” she spoke, the words coming out slightly distorted.

He nodded, and turned towards the only visible exit out of the room, a very solid-looking, circular door that was very, very tightly shut.

They walked out of the circle in the centre of the room, out of the dishes’ area of effect, and her interface stabilised again; though she had no doubt in her mind that, without Brennus’ EMP shielding, it’d all be destroyed entirely by now, its circuits fried beyond hope of repair, much less use.

“There’s… twelve people outside. Calm, confident heartbeats,” she said, causing him to turn his head to look at her in surprise. She smiled at him again, this time more confidently, tapping her ears. “New earpieces. Protect and enhance my hearing.”

“Interesting. I could use something like that, if you do not mind a trade, later on,” he said, almost making her giggle at the thought that he wanted something she made.

“We’ll see. Let’s survive this, first,” she said instead, as she focused on the door, trying to figure out how to get through it… trying to ignore the gnawing, paralysing fear in her chest, trying to reach out and strangle her…

He nodded, turning towards the door. Then he reached for his new gauntlet and… pulled the ovoid off of it, as it detached at his touch, then touched its long side to the side of his thigh, attaching it there with a clicking sound.

“Step back, please,” he said, lifting his left arm, fingers spread, to aim his palm at the door. “I have not had the time to test this thoroughly.”

She breathed in, sharply, and stepped back, though watching eagerly to see his new invention at work.

His arm was pointed straight at the centre of the door, his right hand resting on his left forearm, steadying it. A light humming sound began to emit from the gauntlet, clear to her ears, likely barely audible to normal people’s, as light began to fill the circuit patterns on the metal, a blue-white light that moved from the back to the front, like water flowing through channels dug in the earth.

“Here goes nothing…” Brennus whispered, and then the gauntlet flared, momentarily.

There was a huge booming sound, a flash of light, the screeching, ear-rending sound of torn metal, followed by the screams of startled and injured people.

When Melody could see again, she saw a huge hole where the door had been, the edges torn and ragged, the door itself gone, shoved into the adjacent room by the force of the blast.

Brennus lowered his arm as the light faded from its grooves, as he looked at it, turning his hand up and down as if studying it in awe.

She certainly felt awed.

“Well, that went well,” he quipped, chuckling.

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B013.2 Call of the Sleeper

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“This is going to go wrong so much I can’t even put it into words,” Hecate complained, her mouth – the only part of her face, other than her chin, visible beneath her cowl – twisted into a frown as she leaned onto her staff, gripping it tightly with both hands. The green jewel at its top was stirring with greenish light and black smoke, as if responding to her nervousness… which it likely was.

“It can hardly come as a surprise to you,” he rebuffed her, himself standing at the centre of the rooftop, one hand clasping the other arm’s wrist behind his back. He didn’t look at her, just downwards, as if deep in thought, though really, his mind was too unquiet to be deep into anything in particular, right then. “They were hardly going to mount an immediate assault based purely on some information I got from strange visions.”

“When you put it like that, it only makes you look even kookier than usual,” Tyche commented.

“Thank you for that glowing recommendation,” he replied, deadpan.

“So, why insist on this meeting then?” Hecate pressed her point. “What’s the point?” Her voice rose slightly in frustration, yet Brennus kept his gaze downcast, fixed.

“I think it is obvious. I am going to go after her myself and recover the cure.”

The other two girls just stared at him, their jaws dropping.

Before the protests could begin, he looked up. “She is here… and she is not alone.”

The other two followed his gaze, to see several figures flying down towards the rooftop.

In the lead was Gloom Glimmer, her pure white cape billowing around her as she descended gracefully, toes pointed in perfect form. With her came Polymnia, in a vastly changed set of power armour, apparently carried by her friend’s power, stumbling gracelessly as they touched down, and Osore in his black bodysuit, leather jacket and Oni mask, as well as Spellgun and Tartsche.

They weren’t the only ones. A human-sized, black-furred bird with a cat’s head followed them, landing near the duo while shifting into a more humanoid cat-form.

Brennus spent a moment looking Polymnia up and down, taking in her new appearance. Spare armour, he realised. Less elaborate than her standard loadout. It must have taken too much damage during the fight in Esperanza for her to fix quickly. The new set of armour was still made out of that blue, transparent material that her other armour had consisted off – which Basil found quite offensive, transparent armour would be unable to protect against a lot of light-based effects – to reveal her pink shorts and top, but otherwise it looked entirely different to Basil’s eye. It lacked a lot of the former armour’s strength enhancements, he could tell with a glance, though there were still some parts he guessed were lesser servo motors, nor did it sport the prehensile limbs with her speakers and keyboard, which usually extended from her backpack; there was still a back module, though he couldn’t guess what it did, and her forearms were much more thickly armored, with numerous speakers built into the resulting gauntlets. Her hair was tied into a single, long, multi-coloured braid, shifting colours as sounds played over it, and she still wore the same visor as always. She smiled when she noticed him looking, her lips shifting colours just like her hair did.

“W-wha…” Vasiliki stammered at the sight of all of them gathered there.

Brennus didn’t give her a chance to continue, though, stepping forward towards Gloom Glimmer, who stood there with a serious expression on her face, her cloak wrapped tight around her form. He was about to start talking when a prompt from Eudocia flashed on his HUD. ‘Be polite.’ He stopped, briefly, blinking, then started again. “Gloom Glimmer, thank you for meeting me on such short notice,” he began, both annoyed and grateful that she’d pointed it out to me.

“I do owe you,” she said, a little levity entering her voice. “Besides, I can guess what you want to do, and it’s a worthy cause.”

“Well, if you can do that, you know him better than we do,” Hecate grumbled, stepping closer to flank him. “What about the rest?” she asked, then nearly squeaked when Polymnia waved at her with a smile.

“We’re here to help,” Polymnia explained, the fingers of her left hand wiggling the way Brennus’ usually did, when he used the air-keyboard function built into his gloves. Which explained how she intended to play her instruments without that giant keyboard she usually had.

Gloom Glimmer smiled. “I was going to come here, after you called, but Polymnia overheard my side of our conversation and got the rest out of me, insisting that she come along. Then Bakeneko noticed us preparing to leave and insisted that she come along. Osore heard that and chose to come along, and then I figured it wouldn’t be fair not to tell the others, too, which is how Tartsche and Spellgun joined the party.”

“Outstep’s still laid out recovering from the fight in Esperanza, otherwise he’d…” Tartsche explained, but Spellgun shoved his elbow into his byofriend’s side, making him flinch. “Ow! Well, ok, he likely wouldn’t have come help with this anyway.”

“Did he really get hurt that badly?” Tyche asked curiously, ignoring the second part.

“He didn’t really get hurt,” Polymnia replied, even while her eyes kept moving from Brennus’ new gauntlet to the black-and-silver oblong ovoid currently attached to it, seemingly sticking to the gauntlet’s engraved surface just by itself.

“Outstep did evac work during the battle,” Tartsche picked up, explaining. “Kept pulling the defenders out of the way of attacks, or collapsing buildings. Hundreds of saves, but he really over-taxed himself, and he’ll probably be laid out for at least a few more days.”

Brennus nodded absently, his eyes on Gloom Glimmer. “You know what I intend to do, and judging by what you said earlier, you are willing to help?”

She smiled at him, a sight that would likely be quite distracting for most boys and cocked her hip before replying, “Hey, you saved my girl, I’ll help save yours.”

Polymnia blushed, punching her friend’s shoulder. “Could you not phrase it that way? It’s not like the shippers aren’t really going crazy enough, without you adding more fuel.” Everyone on the roof other than Brennus and Polymnia chuckled at that.

The young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others. “Anyway, she’s not wrong. Aside from the fact that we owe you for all your help, this… these people are clearly evil. And Dusu is the only chance we have to heal… all those people. So, I want to help, too, even if the UH says to wait.”

“This is crazy!” Hecate burst out before anyone else could reply. “You’re talking about assaulting the base of some super-secret villain organisation that makes monsters which can level cities! We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

We are not going to assault them,” Brennus cut in. Everyone turned to look at him, as he focused on each in turn. “I never said I would be taking anyone along for this, other than Gloom Glimmer. The plan is to sneak inside and either steal the cure or else extract the information from Dusu – if necessary, we’ll apprehend her and bring her back for a more thorough interrogation, should Gloom Glimmer’s powers fail to extract such from her.” I’d rather  have Amy along for that, but there is no way whatsoever she’d allow this to happen.

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

“What?” he asked, feeling slightly defensive. “Did you really think I would advocate an outright assault on this kind of enemy? The only reason why I even insist on going along myself is, first of all, because it is my idea and I am not going to send someone else into danger without taking the same risks, and second, my expertise might be needed.”

“Can’t Gloom Glimmer just use a gadgeteer power of her own?” Hecate asked, sounding less annoyed and more serious now. “Speaking of which, can’t you just fix the bodies of Dusu’s victims? I’ve seen you manifest healing powers before,” she now addressed her directly.

The girl in question sighed, looking down. “No, to both. I’ve never been able to manifest gadgeteering powers, or Contriving, for that matter. Or any long-term powers, for that matter. As for healing, don’t you think I’ve tried to fix people like that?” she complained in a petulant voice. “I can’t control what powers I get, or when I get them. I only really get healing powers when people close to me get hurt, and even then, it doesn’t always work out well – during Crocell’s attack, Poly had to sit most of it out because I could only heal her ears, but not fix the migraine his scream gave her!” She stomped her foot on the roof, hard enough to make thin cracks spread out from her heel.

“I thought so,” Brennus commented. “Either way, we should not dally any more than absolutely necessary. I have the coordinates for the enemy’s base, and all my relevant equipment. We should l-“

“Oh hell no you don’t!” Hecate cried out, turning around to swat Brennus over the back of the head.

“Hey!” he shouted, more startled than he was hurt – he’d made sure to heavily armour his head, of course.

“Look, you’re an idiot, Brennus, and this whole plan of yours is idiotic, but I’ll be damned before I let you go there without as much backup as possible!” she shouted at him, very nearly at the top of her lungs. Certainly loud enough that anyone down at street level would hear her, if they weren’t empty at present (he had his last two ravens keeping a lookout). “Now, I want to save her, too, and since the UH want to play it safe, it seems, we gotta do something – but not like this, and certainly not on your own!” she finished by stabbing a finger into his chest. Not that he felt it, through his armour.

“What kind of infiltration are we going to pull off if all of us come along?” he asked in exasperation. “Nine people is way too many!”

“Ten, actually,” Eudocia whispered into his ear, but he ignored her.

“Actually, I think she’s got a point,” Tartsche spoke calmly, stepping forth so he stood next to Brennus and Hecate, between them. “If you and Gloom Glimmer went alone, and she’s taken out, then you’re pretty screwed. You shouldn’t put the responsibility all on her shoulders.”

Brennus crossed his arms. “I am not. That is why I am going along. I can take care of myself, I can back her up, and I know what to look for.”

Tartsche spread his arms, as if saying ‘that’s what I’m saying’ or something. “Look, no one denies that. But my point is, nine people is not that much and if something happens, we’ll be able to provide backup and support!” He took a deep breath. “Look, if it was up to me, we wouldn’t be doing this at all. This is way beyond reckless. But I also believe that we have to help Dusu’s victims, and time is running out on them. I’m sure Rounds would agree with me, which is why I’m here, and willing to help. But we’ve got to do it smart. Otherwise, we’ll all just die, or be captured, and we won’t help anyone!” Spellgun stepped up behind his boyfriend, nodding his assent.

“Look, B- Brennus,” Aimi, Bakeneko, spoke up. “You can trust us. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re not any amateurs anymore. You need every bit of help you can get.”

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

“I still think nine are too many,” Brennus disagreed, though more calmly now. “Can Gloom Glimmer even transport and hide that many?” He looked at her.

She seemed to think it over, briefly, then she nodded. “I can do it. Not much more difficult than just two, really. Right now, I have a kind of, telekinetic plane power, and a stealth field and… some kind of enhanced perception, it’s kind of hard to put that one into words.”

Brennus looked around at everyone. He didn’t like it, one bit; he wasn’t an idiot, in the end. He knew this whole plan was extremely risky at best, suicidal at worst, but he’d decided that he couldn’t not try it. Dragging the others along, though… at least he could be all but certain that Gloom Glimmer could escape from any kind of situation, leaving him behind if need be.

He looked them all in the eyes, until he was looking at Osore, who’d just stood back, his arms down his sides, motionless.

“What do you think? You’re the only one who hasn’t said anything, yet,” he asked the quiet boy.

“Any action is better than no action,” Osore spoke quietly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Let’s roll the dice, and see where they fall.”

Brennus looked down at his feet, then up at Gloom Glimmer again.

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. If I am crazy enough to go along with this, what right do I have to dissuade anyone else from the same course of action?”

He sighed, before he snapped his fingers, causing his two ravens to fly up and land on his shoulders, one on each side. “Alright. Let’s go.”

***

Unseen and unfelt by anyone, a figure in a dark blue robe sat on the edge of the roof, watching the teens gather up, stroking a black cat’s long, soft fur as the feline lay curled up in the grip of his left arm.

He watched quietly as Gloom Glimmer’s power rose up around them, a transparent, but not invisible energy wrapping around the group, forming something like a upward-pointing cone, before another power wrapped around them like a shroud, causing them to fade from sight.

A trivial alteration of his position allowed him to penetrate that ability, as well, so he could watch them fly East.

He stayed quiet, his thoughts unreadable, until just moments later, a black-and-purple blur came down from the sky, smashing so hard onto the rooftop, the concrete cracked, nearly caving in.

Mindstar rose from a crouch, her lower face twisted into a snarl of rage and concern, looking around wildly.

“Where is he!?” she shouted at no one in particular, looking around wildly, her eyes wide and livid. Then she seemed to zero in on something, looking in the direction they had flown off towards and, with another snarl, she shot away after them, cracking the roof further.

Journeyman watched as she disappeared in the sky, standing up and stepping forward just as the rooftop began to crumble in on itself. As the concrete broke away beneath him, he just kept walking on the same level, as if the air could carry him just as well as concrete.

The cat purred in his arms, his fingers going from its back to the back of its ears, scratching them skillfully.

“The plot thickens, my friend,” he spoke calmly to the cat. “And I’ve got to say…” he gave off a strange chuckle, sounding elated “… most of this, I did not see coming.” Though his face was hidden by mirrors and strange visions, one could somehow still see his grin. “Didn’t see it coming at all. Oh, joyous day.”

He looked down at the cat, who looked back up at him with lazy eyes, then yawned, showing off its teeth.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on them,” he continued, petting it underneath its chin. “Might even lend a hand and help them, if they surprise me enough. Wouldn’t that be swell, eh, pal?”

The cat yawned once more, then subsided in his arms, purring calmly.

He tilted his head, looking down at for a little more, before he looked up and after the others. “You know, if I could just remember where I’ve seen you before, I could finally find out your name.”

Beneath him, the house alarm went off, finally, as the roof collapsed fully into the floor below.

“Oh well, I need to get going anyway.”

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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B013.1 Call of the Sleeper

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Yesterday was a big day, for yesterday was the day, on which the first of the Chosen of the Blood, of whom our Leader speaks so much, has visited Germany.

They call her Lady Light across the sea, and by God Almighty, a more fitting name, I can barely imagine. Angel, perhaps.

Goddess.

She came to us glowing like the sun, brilliant and flawless, escorting the American President on his way to a peace conference. A sham, really; no one here in Europe actually wants peace, I think. But at least it allowed me to lay eyes on her.

Later, many of my landsmen spoke about how she was living proof of the Truth of Blood and Heritage, even if she was a woman, at least the first of the Chosen had been a true Aryan, the rumors of her relationship to one of the accursed Jews notwithstanding. Personally, I never saw the point in despising people merely because of race. Yes, some people are born inferior to others. Others superior. That is nature.

That is no reason to hate, though. Pity, perhaps, for those less fortunate, but certainly no hate. Disdain, for those who refuse to recognise their place, but certainly no rage.

Besides, even in my limited experience, I have come ot realise that the same differences exist within the German – or Aryan – race, as well. Perhaps not to such extreme extents – other races are definitely more different from us than we are among each other – but the difference exists. No one would ever say that I was an average member of my race and I say this without a hint of vanity. I had proven myself to be better than most even before my blood awakened.

Perhaps if I tell myself that often enough, I’ll even convince myself that I didn’t end up proving to be less than most, too.

I am rambling again. Mother always tells told me that I tend to ramble too much, if I don’t have others to keep me on track. Adelheid just says said I’m addicted to the sound of my own voice. It is quite likely that she is right.

Where was I… ah, yes, Lady Light. Such a simple name, to encompass such an enrapturing creature. At first I thought, this is it? This is the first Chosen? She was… thin. Almost a head shorter than I, and looking so fragile. Weak. I could pass for her older brother, even though I’m barely half her age.

And yet… and yet, there was something, something that drew one’s eye to her. A quiet confidence, a core of will, of conviction, as uncaring for what us mere humans may do as the sun itself is, and just as brilliant. A blazing sun in human form. I have never seen its like before, not even in the Leader.

She did not talk to me – why would she, I was but one lesser chosen among several gathered there? – but her gaze passed over me. It felt like she was staring right into my soul.

Whatever happens… whatever else comes of the next few years… I pray that I shall meet her again.

***

8 am, November 17, the day after the Crocell Incident

The door to the container ‘hangout’ that Basil used as a cover for one of the entrances to his base opened, and Vasiliki entered alongside Tim and Dalia, studiously trying to ignore her friend’s choice of clothing. Fashion was just one of the many subjects which they clashed on, and she wasn’t going to get into another discussion about how appropriate skimpy tops and miniskirts or hot pants with tights were, especially during winter. She’d just quietly stick to a nice (hand-made) long skirt and a comfortable (hand-made) sweater.

Maybe some day, Dalia would learn. And until then, she’d keep entertaining Timothy, who clearly did not mind her fashion sense at all.

They walked to the elevator, that would lead them down to the base.

“You think B-Six is already awake?” Dalia asked lightly, smiling as she moved with a casual, unconscious grace which Vasiliki greatly envied her for. “Or perhaps still? Could see him skipping sleep, after yesterday.”

She wasn’t wrong, though. “I can imagine that being the case, yes,” she admitted while they pressed the hidden switch beneath the counter to take them down. The elevator started to move without a sound. “Studying that monster, then getting a chance to work with three other gadgeteers, on Sovereign’s equipment, no less, well…”

“Basil got his hands on new tech?” Timothy asked, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified. “I bet he was… ecstatic.”

That elicited a giggle from Dalia. “He must’ve had such a huge nerdgasm!”

Vasiliki rolled her eyes at the crass language, though she couldn’t honestly object to the point made. Basil could be very easily excited by anything to do with his power, and the fact that he’d somehow convinced Gloom Glimmer to take him straight back here, right after the battle was over, spoke for him being almost out of his mind with new ideas. Otherwise, she was absolutely certain he would not have left them behind.

Not that Vasiliki wouldn’t have stayed anyway, to help with search and rescue. It had still been an unpleasant surprise to find out that he’d left so suddenly, and without even telling them that he’d survived.

Vasiliki had been scared for her friend.

He’d better have a damn good excuse, she thought to herself, while also trying not to think about all the corpses they’d pulled out of the flooded rubble and collapsed buildings.

So many corpses, even though an anonymous hero had been going around helping evacuate the civilians…

She was distracted from that train of thought when the elevator reached the living room and ‘command centre’ of the base, where they were immediately greeted by Eudocia’s emblem appearing on the large central screen.

“Hi you three!” she chirped, sounding to all the world like an over-exited preteen. Which, in some ways, she pretty much was. “How’re you doing?”

“We’re fine, thank you for asking,” Vasiliki replied. “Is Basil in his lab?”

“Yup, he’s been there since he came back. Didn’t even sleep. If it wasn’t for Prisca, he wouldn’t even have eaten,” Eudocia complained sullenly, as usual exasperated in how hard it was to pursue her self-imposed duty of looking after Basil’s oft-neglected health.

At least he keeps himself nearly obsessively clean, Vasiliki thought, thanking the gods for their small favours. “Do you know what he’s been working on?”

“Nope! Whatever ideas he got, they’re way beyond me,” the AI replied, chirpy again. “First thing he built was some kind of headgear he used on himself, but I have no idea what it really did, he wasn’t being too chatty. Seemed to give him a headache, though. Since then, he’s been working on some kind of bracer or gauntlet. He cannibalized most of his stuff to make it, even his vibrosword!”

Dalia whistled, though even she looked like she could see the issue with that. Vasiliki couldn’t help but frown, too. She knew that Basil’s resources were running thin, which explained why he had to take apart previous projects – or unfinished ones – to make new stuff, but sacrificing his sword?

Well, it wasn’t like he’d used it all that much to begin with – he didn’t like killing any more than Vasiliki did, and the vibrosword was pretty much only useful for taking apart inanimate objects, unless you wanted to kill your opponent.

“We’ll talk to him,” she stated firmly, sorting out her thoughts. “Try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, time for a little reality check,” Dalia said in a similar tone of voice. She hadn’t taken him just leaving them behind much, if any, better than her. “This is weird even by his standards.”

“Thanks. I hope you’ll talk some sense into him,” Eudocia said, opening the door that lead down to the lab proper.

The three of them walked down the short staircase and entered into the lab… which honestly looked not much different than usual, at least to Vasiliki’s eye. It had always been a strange mixture of obsessively neat and absentmindedly chaotic; several worktables with half-finished or just-disassembled projects laid out in what seemed to be utter disorder, to the point where she sometimes suspected Basil might have an eidetic memory, just to explain how he ever found anything, contrasting with the neat, orderly way that said tables and projects were laid out in the room, with clear, neat pathways between them, everything stationed so that, no matter at which one Basil was sitting, he could look at any other project by turning in the right direction.

She’d never admit it to him, for fear of his head swelling even more than it usually did, when it came to his gadgets, but watching him work, seeing all the strange stuff he was working on, was a really fun pastime for her, trying to figure out what the hell he was fiddling with at any time and all. The fact that he tended to get so absorbed in his work, he’d likely not notice her even if she was standing around naked and singing in Greek, made it all the easier to observe him in his ‘natural habitat’, as she and Dalia tended to joke.

It had changed over the last month or so, though. Vasiliki had been aware that he was having trouble continuing his work, both due to his power being baulky and due to dwindling money, he’d complained about it a few times, and Eudocia had shared some of it, as well, but right now, it was as obvious as ever that he was starting to run out of resources, at least.

Half the lab was empty, really, with only a few small parts and tools on most tables, his work mostly concentrated on the five centre tables, one of which being his computer station, at that.

She couldn’t even begin to guess at the purpose of most of the things he was working on, but one table, at least, was easily identified – the one he’d been performing maintenance on his battered armour (as skillful as he could sometimes be, somehow he still managed to get it wrecked a whole damn lot), the individual pieces laid out along with the bodysuit worn underneath them, looking like they were back in top condition.

The other tables were far less obvious. One sported what she assumed was a computer tower as tall as she was, standing at its centre. It seemed to have been built by cannibalising damn near every other computer in the room, fitting all the necessary parts together into an amalgam that would have made Frankenstein proud. With all the wires leading out of it, and the irregularly spaced amber-coloured cooling lines, it reminded her kind of of some japanese anime’s idea of a mechanical tree or such. And that was only the most obvious piece, as its wires connected to a variety of other devices, which were interconnected in turn, the whole construct so expansive it extended onto another table, all of it ending up in what looked like a twisted, uneven VR headset that had to weigh as much as a small child at the least, currently resting on the table in front of where Basil would normally sit.

Another table sported what looked like three hollow, egg shapes that fanned open like flowers, the insides of the petals covered in countless tiny spines, with one of Basil’s hand-made laptops wired up to them, running some kind of program with a progress bar that was half-done.

Finally, there was one last table on which lay a single gauntlet, sized to fit over Basil’s forearm and the back of his hand. Unlike the rest of his armor, it wasn’t made out of the black ceramic he tended to use, but of several overlapping half-rings of silvery metal, covered in gold and copper circuits which seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever (though Vasiliki knew better than to assume Basil would waste resources on mere aesthetics). The table was actually clean apart from that, all the tools put neatly away, signifying that this work, at least, was complete.

The one responsible for all that, Basil, sat at his computer terminal, wearing black dress pants and an unbuttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps, lounging on a swivel chair, turned halfway towards them.

Vasiliki felt her face heat up a bit, hoping to all spirits that her dusky skintone would hide the light blush as she was reminded that Basil had been… really getting more attractive, ever since she first met him.

Oh, he wasn’t turning into a supermodel, and he likely never would be; but gone was the gangly, messily black-haired, stick-thin nerd with the sharp black eyes she’d first befriended. His hair had grown long (and stayed messy, in spite of his attempts to keep it under control), nearly touching his shoulders by now, and his face had lost a lot of baby fat it’d still sported just a few months ago, making it look even sharper than before (which was saying a lot), his cheekbones looking like she could have sliced bread on them. His unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves showed the results of working out regularly, nevermind all the combat training they did whenever all three of them had the time, nevermind the regular patrols; he was still a little too thin and she doubted he’d ever look like a body-builder, and he often looked like he was tired due to what seemed to be some natural wrinkles around and underneath his jet black eyes, but…

Damn it, I’m feeling a little jealous of Prisca now, she thought. All in all, she wouldn’t be surprised if Basil wasn’t going to be getting a lot of hopeful suitors, come prom time – traditionally, Diantha High always had girls’ choice there, and Prisca wasn’t around to lay claim to him.

Oh Goddess, what the Hell am I even thinking? I have way more important things to worry about! she thought to herself as the two of them walked up to Basil.

“Hey, B-Six!” Dalia greeted him cheerily, and Vasiliki noticed that the red-head was clearly not as restrained as she tried to be about ogling the eye candy. “Did Prisca just leave?”

Timothy coughed suddenly, looking away.

Basil looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “Just a few minutes ago, yes. Her charge ran out and she had to wake up. How did you know?”

Yeah, how did sh- ohhhh, Vasiliki caught up just a second later, and felt her face heat up even more. She really had to get herself a boyfriend already.

“Female intuition, I guess,” Dalia quipped brightly. “I see she got you to eat, huh?” she continued, nodding towards an empty plate on the table next to the computer.

Their friend shrugged. “I was not really hungry, but Prisca was really… insistent,” he said casually, as if it was nothing special.

“I really need to get that far with my girlfriend…” Vasiliki heard Timothy whisper from behind her.

Amen, she thought. And I need to find a boyfriend in the first place.

“Anyway,” she spoke up, trying not to focus on her relatively irrelevant relationship status. “We’ve got to talk, Basil.”

He turned his chair to face them fully and she realised that it wasn’t just his natural look she’d picked up on earlier. He really did look tired, though not as badly as he’d gotten before their intervention a while ago.

Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on him again, I don’t think that Eudocia is really cut out for watching over her ‘father’.

“Let us talk then,” he said with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“What happened at the end of the battle?” she asked straight out, not wanting to beat around the bush anymore. “Why’d you just dump us to come back here, and why’d you risk showing Gloom Glimmer our base?”

He flinched a bit, looking actually guilty. “I… I am sorry for leaving you behind. I am not entirely sure of all the details, but when Crocell died… well, you noticed his death throes, right? They call it a ‘psychic scream’, I think.”

Vasiliki nodded, shuddering at the memory. It had been profoundly unsettling, not to mention painful – her headache had lasted for hours. She knew that Dalia’s experience had been no better, either.

“What did you experience while it happened?” he asked them, gesturing for her or Dalia to take over.

“Flashes,” the latter immediately spoke up. “Flashes of colours and shadows, and weird sounds, like whale songs,” she explained as she sat on a chair Timothy had pulled up for her.

Vasiliki looked around and saw that he’d done the same for her, and was now sitting on one of his own, too, so she sat down as well, the four of them forming a loose circle among Basil’s workstations.

“My experience was very similar,” she continued once it became clear that Dalia was finished. “But even less distinct. Just shadows and screeching, but muted, echo-y, like it was underwater,” she described as best as she could, while Timothy remained quiet – he was the only one here who hadn’t been present. “I think there was more, while it happened, but it… didn’t stick in my mind.”

Basil made a thoughtful sound as he intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, elbows on the armrests of his chair. “I saw… much more. Perhaps because I was so close to it. Images, mostly. Memories, I think, of Crocell. To be more precise, his birth… and his creators.”

“What!?” Vasiliki shouted, jumping up onto her feet. “That thing was made? And you know who did it?!” She’d track these monsters down and blow them to high heaven!

He raised a hand in a calming gesture. “I will get to that,” he said, standing up as she sat down and buttoning his shirt closed, before he walked over to the huge computer tower to flip a single switch, causing it to boot up quietly, numerous fans that were hidden among the already extensive cooling lines starting their work. “I can not say whether it happened due to Crocell’s presence, but during the battle, it was like my power… came unstuck.” He gestured towards the gauntlet with one hand, using the other to type something on the tower’s keyboard without even looking at it. “That is how I was able to figure out how to kill the beast. Anyway, my memory of the contents of its scream began to fade quickly, and that is when I came up with this.” He gestured towards the computer tower and the headpiece it was connected to. “A neural engram recorder and visualiser,” he explained. “It can read the neural signals of the brain’s visual cortex and record them, provided one focuses long enough on an image – I used it to save as much of these visions as I could, before they faded from my mind, as well.”

The three of them just gaped at the boy, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care, as he continued on.

“Now, as to what I saw…” he stopped, suddenly, and turned to his computer terminal. “Eudocia, how is Prisca doing?” he asked calmly.

“She’s awake and talking to her mother,” the AI replied. “It seems like it will take a while, but I can’t be sure, since I’m not allowed to listen in on private conversations without permission,” she continued, sounding sullen.

“Good,” he said, sitting down again. “She will have to hear this, too, but… I would rather discuss it with you all first.”

And with that cryptic comment, he tapped a few keys on his terminal, calling up an image of… some kind of underwater scenery, a trench maybe. A slick rockwall could be seen, covered in corals and illuminated from below in all colours of the rainbow.

A tap of a key called up another image, looking up said wall towards the surface of the water, though little could be seen of it.

“I was not able to save much,” Basil continued, as he moved on, going from picture to picture. Crocell – it had to be him – was swimming up, it seemed, approaching a jet-black shape that seemed to float on the water’s surface, something like a huge octagon. “Here is where it gets interesting.”

More pictures came up, until Crocell seemed to break through the water’s surface, looking up at the starry sky.

Then, he climbed on top of the water, and looked down and out over a huge, almost city-sized floating island of metal, formed like an octagon.

His gaze swept over several people who’d gathered on some kind of platform at the edge of the installation, and focused closer on them.

Vasiliki felt her heartbeat speed up as she saw what she assumed to be the villains behind all the murder and bloodshed these monsters had caused over the last day. There were many, and not all were distinctly visible – the image quality was not the best in every shot, probably because Basil had had trouble remembering every detail – but a few stood out.

A woman in what looked like a samurai-themed knight’s armour mixed with a black-and-purple ball gown, wearing a helmet which reminded her of a bird, and a katana strapped to her side. Another woman, short, Asian, in a lab coat, with an ecstatic look on her face, her black hair drawn back in a bun. Next to her, a pimply, gangly man who looked like the stereotypical nerd in an oversized labcoat. And finally, a black-skinned woman in a smaller, tighter labcoat, her hands in her coatpockets as she seemed to look almost condescendingly at the viewer – at Crocell.

Others were around them, but they were indistinct, blurry. The focus was clearly on those four.

“That’s them, huh,” Dalia whispered. “Anyone recognise the bitch in the fancy costume?”

“No, I have never heard of anyone with that costume,” Basil replied, both Vasiliki and Timothy saying the same.

“Nor have I found any images on the internet which match her,” Eudocia added, her voice much more serious than usual.

“I did recognise one of them, though,” Basil continued, zooming in on the short Asian woman and the gangly nerd. “Eudocia was also able to identify the man – he is known as ‘the Geek’, a legacy villain who disappeared a few years ago. But it is this one that I am most interested in.” He zoomed further in on the short woman. “That… is Dusu.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop in the resulting silence.

Vasiliki stared at the image of the woman who’d ruined Prisca’s life, and that of so many others – no wonder Basil didn’t want to confront her with this rashly. The crippled girl would go ballistic.

She very deliberately did not ask whether Basil was sure – he would never speak about this unless he was absolutely sure.

“Is there a way to tell where this place is?” she asked instead, her voice barely more than a whisper. “There were some images of the stars earlier, perhaps one could determine its location that-” She cut off when she saw Basil’s grim smile.

“I did just that,” he affirmed, tapping a few keys. The images of the starry night showed up on the screens, one in each, and graphs began to appear, measuring the distances between stars, shapes they formed and more. “I also calculated how deep the trench Crocell rose out of must have been, based on the speed at which he rose and the height we observed when he first surfaced at Esperanza City. With those values, I was able to determine that it must be built somewhere above the Mariana Trench, specifically this general location.”

He called up a map of the Pacific Ocean, zooming in on the relevant portion and highlighting an area with a red circle. One quite near to the Challenger Deep, Vasiliki’s geographical knowledge told her.

“It is only accurate to within about a hundred kilometres, but nevertheless – whoever these people are, their base is somewhere there. And I am going to tell the United Heroes about it soon enough.”

Vasiliki swallowed dryly at the thought of the kind of violence that information would unleash – there was no way the heroes, and even a lot of villains, would hold back, not after the massacres caused. Nevermind governments like that of Japan, who’d been hit the hardest hit.

She wished she could participate. She’d drawn children out of the rubble of Esperanza.

“Damn, B-Six, that’s just… that’s so awesome,” Dalia said, hushed, her hands on her cheeks.

“Yeah, man, this… this is huge,” Timothy agreed, after having been quiet for most of this. “Are you… are you certain? I mean, I know you wouldn’t say this lightly, but if you’re wrong…”

Basil shook his head. “I am certain in what I saw, and the conclusions drawn. Crocell was made and he was made there. And Dusu,” he all but spat the name, “was involved in some fashion.”

He smiled grimly, showing teeth, the sight making Vasiliki shiver down to her toes. “This will not just be a chance to punish them for the monsters they unleashed. I intend to take the chance to find a cure for Prisca’s condition; if anyone has it, then Dusu, the one who created that plague in the first place.”

The Greek sorceress leaned back in her seat, running her fingers through her hair as she took a deep breath. “By the Goddess, this is… this is so much, Basil. Too much. We need to, to think this over, plan… and we need to tell Prisca, too. She deserves to know.”

He nodded, sitting down again. “Yes, yes she does. And I will. As soon as she comes back – I want to do it face-to-face, or as close as it gets with her insisting on the projection over her real body.” He sighed, leaning back as well.

“So, how are we going to tell the UH?” Dalia asked thoughtfully, an expression that was just weird on her, in spite of the situation. “Just give them a copy of the images and all?”

“I can not think of a better way,” Basil answered. “It will probably take a while to convince them that it is reliable, but I do not think that they will dismiss it, in the end. They need to take the chance to nip this at the bud, before even more monsters are created and let loose.”

Vasiliki nodded in agreement – that was paramount. Followed by punishing them for what they’d already done, of course.

She wished she had the power to directly send such villains to Tartarus herself.

“Alright, let’s talk about how we’re going to get this information to them in the most efficient, convincing way p-” she began, but was cut off when Eudocia suddenly butted in.

“Father!” she shouted, sounding panicked. “You’ve got to help!”

Basil turned his chair around, sitting straight and with alarm. “What is going on, Eudocia?” he asked briskly, but calmly.

“It’s Prisca!” the AI exlaimed, seeming to grow more and more panicked. “She just had a stroke!”

Basils knuckles turned white as he gripped the edge of his table. “Status report, now,” he hissed as Vasiliki just stared in shock.

The screens changed to ECG readings and other information that Vasiliki couldn’t even begin to make sense of, making her briefly wonder where he was getting them from… until she remembered that he’d built most of the medical equipment currently sustaining Prisca, and there was no way he hadn’t left himself a connection to it for just such an occasion.

She watched as Basil’s eyes flew over the information, seeming to absorb it in record time. “Any reports on the other surviving victims?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Two of those whom I have access to had strokes over the last hour, one of them fatal,” she replied, her voice growing calmer, more mechanical, now that she was getting orders to pursue. “I’m hacking into what little there already is on their hospitals’ networks… nothing conclusive, as usual, but it seems like the plague is attacking their brains more aggressively than usual.”

She saw Basil tremble, even though his face – which she could see from the side, sitting where she was – was completely calm. “Keep collecting data. I want every byte you can get, he said calmly, leaning back on his seat.

Vasiliki couldn’t sit around anymore, though, and leapt up. “We should get to the hospital, see what you can do for her… or maybe me, if all else fails,” she said, turning around to go for where she had her spare costume stashed. She knew her healing magic -what little of it she was capable of – was not the most reliable, but if all else failed…

Dalia got up to join her, her face tight with worry.

“No,” came a sharp, cold voice, freezing them both in their tracks. “We are not going to the hospital.”

They turned around, both of them, and Vasiliki felt her blood run cold as ice.

Basil was leaning back on his chair again, his fingers intertwined as he’d put his hands together over his lap, his head slightly leaning forward.

His eyes were cold as ice and blacker than the darkness itself.

“W-why not? We need to help her!” Dalia protested, but Vasiliki just stared at her friend, who was looking into the distance with those cold, hard eyes.

“We will be of no help rushing to the hospital,” he spoke calmly, ignoring Dalia’s protests. It was like someone completely different was speaking. “I have already done all that I can for her, with just my skills and resources. Vasiliki’s magic is not compatible with my gadgets, and no one knows how it might react to Dusu’s plague.”

“W-what are we supposed to do, then?” Vasiliki asked, her voice trembling, and not just for fear for Prisca. This Basil… she’d known that there was something cold, and hard inside of him, some part of his that couldn’t be explained by the life he’d lead so far, but that was nonetheless there, but she’d never thought she’d see it so clearly.

He was scaring her.

“It is simple,” he said with that ice-cold voice. “There is only one person who knows how to save Prisca,” he continued, calling up the image of those four villains again. “We are going to go after the source of the plague.” He tapped her face on the screen.

“Are you crazy!?!” Vasiliki shouted, unable to restrain herself. “There’s no way we have enough time to wait for the heroes and the government to gather their troops and get there, Prisca will be dead or brain-damaged long before that!”

Basil remained maddeningly calm, in the face of her outburst. “I never said we would wait. Or I will not, at least. I will go after her as soon as I can arrange for some transportation, and gather up as much firepower as I can on short notice.”

She gaped at her friend, unable to believe he was being so reckless, so… so stupid, even with his girlfriend’s life on the line! These were some major supervillains, and there could be a whole army on that floating island!

The other two seemed just as shocked as she was, unable to protest, as they watched Basil pick up his cellphone from the table.

“How… how are we even supposed to get there on our own?” Vasiliki asked weakly.

“Yeah, unless you got a jet stashed somewhere around here, there’s no way we’re getting there anytime soon,” Dalia agreed.

Basil just punched a number into his cellphone and lifted it to his ear. Whoever was on the other end picked up quickly.

“Gloom Glimmer,” he greeted the other side. “Brennus here. I am calling about that favour you said you owed me…”

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B012.d From On High

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“Welcome to the UH Central Branch, Inspector Haurson,” the young woman behind the counter greeted Mike with a brilliant smile after scanning his ID card.

He smiled back on reflex. “Thank you, Miss…” he looked at her name tag. “… Fastings.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen her before, at some point…

Right, she was at the Austin branch headquarters, he thought, as he recognised her. “Nice to meet you again,” he added with a smile.

She smiled. “You must have me confused for one of my duplicates,” she replied, tapping said name tag. “This me has certainly never met you, Sir. I’d remember.” She looked at the long scar running down the left side of his face, across his (thankfully still functional) eye and cheek, down to the jaw.

“Oh, you’re a self-duplicator?”

She nodded. “Regular and persistent. I staff a lot of places, all across the organisation.”

“Huh, you must get killer overtime,” he joked, impressed. He hadn’t heard of that kind of power before… he should really read up on more on the powered non-cape employees of the organisation, he’d focused mostly on the leadership and on the capes, so far.

The pretty receptionist giggled. “You could say that, yes. Anyway, you’re cleared for the whole building. I assume you’re here for the board meeting?”

He nodded. “Aye. First week as an inspector, and already get my first board meeting. How lucky is that, eh?” He had expected to have at least a month before the next regular meeting… of course, there was nothing regular about this one.

“Can’t be lucky all the time,” she replied with a grin. “You should hurry, or you’ll be even less lucky.”

“True, true,” he admitted, taking his card back. “Well, see you later, Miss Fastings.”

He left her, walking down the old-fashioned hall – the UH Central Branch’ headquarters was not, as some might expect, inside a huge skyscraper, nor some other modern building; it was, in fact, a refurbished mansion built in what he assumed to be an Old English style of some sort… Victorian, perhaps? He couldn’t tell. Lots of carved wood and wooden furniture, very little visible electronics of any sort. Situated in the forest depths of New Hampshire, the place was isolated and heavily fortified… not that anyone could tell.

A wooden door slid open as he approached it, revealing an old-fashioned elevator – or at least, it looked old-fashioned. No old-school elevator would have responded to his announcement of ‘Floor U4’, the doors closing.

Nothing seemed to happen at all, but seconds later, the doors opened again, and he exited out into the fourth underground floor of the gigantic complex constructed beneath the mansion. Of course, the public knew little and less about this, and even the government only knew about the first four floors beneath the mansion… the rest were secret, and the bottom most ones were secret even to him, even though he was an inspector charged with keeping the various branches of the US UH honest, investigating any hints of malfeasance.

It was annoying, but he believed his superiors when they told him that he didn’t really want to know what was down there… that it would only give him nightmares.

Some things, man was not meant to know… yeah, no, I don’t buy it. Some day, I’ll find out what’s down there, he thought quietly to himself as he walked down the hallway… which still looked like it was at least two hundred years old, if in very good condition. The aesthetics of whoever built this… well, better than just concrete and steel. I do wonder whether these fabled bottom floors are built like this, too.

Finally, he reached his destination, a large double door, and entered after a polite knock.

Inside, he found a long room, with a huge double-window at the end of it, showing an idyllic scenery of rolling hills and a lake… some gadgeteer’s work, he knew. An illusionist, he created life-like holograms, and had helped spruce things up around the base.

“Inspector Haurson, I’m glad you could join us on such short notice,” he was greeted by his superior, Chief Inspector Edward Valiant.

Edward was a strange figure to look at, in many ways. He just about reached five feet and five inches of height, was rather heavy, heavily balding and sported rather large ears. His clothing style did him no favours, either, preferring to dress like a washed-up PI from the late nineteen-forties, in a gray pinstripe suit and white shirt, with an ungodly tie in dark blue, with red-white-and-black patterned squares across it. He had a very pleasant smile, though, which almost made up for having to look at his ties.

“Chief, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Mike replied with a grin, shaking the shorter man’s hand. “I hope I’m not too late?” He looked around at the gathered men and women, nearly two scores of them; but the seat at the head of the table, in front of the window, was empty.

“Nah, we’re still waiting for the Chief Director,” Valiant said. “Come, let’s sit down. This is your first meeting here, after all.”

“Yeah,” Mike agreed, following his chief past several other people sitting at the lower end of the table, to sit down on an empty chair next to Valiant’s, near the middle, with his nameplate in front of him. “Honestly, I feel quite out of place here… Inspectors don’t usually sit in for this, right?”

Valiant lowered his girth into his chair, sighing in relief. “Nonsense. I always bring one of you lads along, and you’ve earned the spot; besides, I know you want to rise up even higher, and this’ll help you make your name,” he winked at Mike, grinning.

Mike coughed briefly, to cover his embarrassment. His aspirations weren’t exactly a secret, but neither did he carry them on his sleeve. Besides, he was in the company of the people he hoped to ascend to match, some day.

He was spared from having to formulate an articulate reply by the double doors opening once more. Three people entered, a tall woman and a thin man, flanking a second, short man.

A very short man. If he cracked four and a half feet, Mike would be very surprised. His slightly stocky build did not help make up for it, only emphasizing it. Furthermore, he sported a very… old-fashioned bowl-cut that made his hair literally look like its namesake overturned bowl, and a mustache one could have used as a broom, as well as a dark blue pinstripe suit.

In fact, he and the Chief Inspector made quite the matched set, in a disrespectfully funny way – there were many jokes going around the offices about the two of them.

On the other hand, his face and his bearing immediately put any doubts as to his qualification to hold the power he did hold down. He had a calm, attractive face, rugged, with thick eyebrows and dark green, intelligent eyes and an overall very serious, respectable expression.

Such was the appearance of Chief Director Harley Ortega, the leader of the United Heroes and one of the most powerful men in the world, as he walked down the length of the table, smiling at the gathered people, always trailed by his ever-present shadow, a tall, gorgeous woman wearing a dark blue suit and skirt, and black pumps, her regal mediterranean features calm and collected. Her hair was drawn up in a tight knot, which did nothing to hide the fact that instead of having a hair colour, her hair looked like someone had painstakingly cut a hairstrand-shaped length out of reality, allowing one to peak past the Earth into infinite space, with each strand showing a different section of it. The effect was oddly disorienting to look at, yet quite beautiful.

Mike knew her as Sigma and no one had been able to tell him why she bore that name. She was the Chief Director’s personal assistant and bodyguard, and her file had more redactions in it than readable text.

The other man was Warren Gerden, the chief secretary of the board of directors, a thin, somehow slimy-looking man, though Mike had never heard anything but praise for his conduct and work ethics.

The Chief Director walked onto the podium built beneath his chair at the head of the table, to give him a much-needed boost, while Sigma took her place to the right behind him, her eyes almost glowing like chips of ice above a lamp, cast into shadows by the light from the window behind her. Warren sat down at a separate chair and small table with a laptop, to record the meeting and provide any resources needed.

“Good morning, everyone,” the Chief Director greeted them smoothly, his voice easily filling the room. “Thank you for coming all together on such short notice, and outside of our usual meeting times, as well. I’m afraid we have rather a lot to talk about, and so would like to skip the pleasantries and get down to brass tacks.” He looked around the table, but no one spoke up. “Good. Now, let’s start with the obvious subject, first.”

At a snap of his fingers, the entire window behind him disappeared, instead showing, now, four still images from around the world.

Mike felt a shiver down his back as he recognised the forms of Crocell and what he assumed to be the other three monsters that’d shown up at the same time, though he hadn’t yet seen images of the other three.

Crocell was shown in his final form, the last one he took before he was brought down by the local heroes.

The Chief Director gestured at a man sitting near the head of the table, a spindly thin man with wild, white hair, his face wrinkled, his age exaggerated by the huge, thick glasses he wore, magnifying his watery blue-green eyes to near-comical orbs. Unlike everyone else in the room, he wasn’t wearing a suit, but rather, a lab coat over a Hawaii shirt and a pair of black suit pants. “Professor Finderer, would you please brief us on these creatures?”

Finderer, the head of the UH’s research and development, spoke up in a nasal, but precise voice with a strong german accent: “Yesterday, at three-twenty-five Pacific Standard Time, the monster now known as Crocell appeared at the shore of Esperanza City, after heavy warnings of precogs… around the country that something horrible was going to happen there. It continued to engage our gathered heroes – and no few supervillains – as well as several dignitaries from the AMU and the GAIN, causing billions of dollars in collateral damage, almost five thousand civilian deaths – the count was only so low due to an unidentified but presumably very powerful metahuman helping to evacuate the people, who hadn’t been moved out of the city yet – and forty-five casualties among the defenders, before a group of, of young gadgeteers, using a modified Subjugator’s main turret, managed to put it down. Its death throes then flooded most of Esperanza City, causing even more damages and four more deaths among the defenders.” He stopped to take a breath. “And it was, almost certainly, the least dangerous of the four we know of.”

There were some shocked whispers around the table, people leaning closer to each other to exchange words, while Mike folded his fingers on top of the table. He’d already heard similar sentiments on the way here, though he didn’t know the specifics yet.

“Now, as far as we know – these four beasts, named Crocell, Andras, Marchosias and Alloces, appeared less than an hour, apart from each other, all coming from the sea, and all of them wreaking seemingly mindless havoc in major population centres, except for Aloces, which was intercepted by Queen Madeleine, before it could reach one. They all seemed to, shift through several, progressively more powerful forms over the duration of combat, often in response to, taking large amounts of damage, or their abilities proving, insufficient. Since everyone here was already briefed on Crocell yesterday, we will skip discussing him.” He picked up a remote from the table and pointed it at the screen, which focused on the image to the left of Crocell’s.

It showed what appeared to be a lanky, lizard-like beast, walking on its hoofed hind legs, while its head was almost leonine, like a twisted mixture of a snake and a lion, with countless spikes growing out from it in the form of a mane.

“The entity which appeared in Australia was named Alloces, due to its physical characteristics,” Finderer explained further, speaking evenly, as if he was just reciting the same lecture he’d held last year. “As it was the first one to be noticed – though not the first one to appear – if only by an hour, this caused the others to also be named after demons from the Ars Goetia. It went through multiple stages of development, ending up in this form.” Another click of the remote changed the picture to show the same beast, only now it looked more like a centaur, standing on four hoofed legs, its body still scaled and more appropriate to a lizard than a horse, even if its shape fit one, with a muscular humanoid body sticking out of the horse’s neck, topped by a now fully leonine head. It even sported fur, and was coloured like one, as well. “The creature was slain by Queen Madeleine before the full extent of its abilities were known; it demonstrated a singular ability, aside from extreme physical strength – summoning meteorites at will, ranging in size from about six metres in diameter, to five hundred.”

The imaged changed to show a veritable rain of burning hot projectiles coming down from the sky, tearing up the beach and forest. Several people gasped at the sight, but overall, the gathered directors were far calmer than Mike felt. A giant monster summoning meteorites? That sounded like the stuff of nightmares if he’d ever heard of one.

“Queen Madeleine managed to slay it, though according to what scant few reports we have, she took heavy damage doing so,” Finderer concluded, sounding animated – and annoyed – for the first time; probably at the lack of concrete information.

He switched over to the next one, an image of what appeared to be a nude male, suspended in mid-air. He lacked any primary or secondary sexual characteristics, his body perfectly smooth, yet sculpted to perfection, his skin a warm, normal colour for a caucasian male. However, it lacked a head, its neck ending in a perfectly straight stump, showing a cross-section of its spine, throat and other organs. In front of the empty air where her head should be, a mask floated in the air, depicting some manner of stylized bird, though Mike would be damned if he could name it. Its feathers were black, at the very least, yet tipped in gold, the bird somehow managing to convey a haughty expression.

“Andras appeared in Hong Kong minutes before Crocell surfaced in Esperanza City; within twenty minutes, it had killed or enslaved the thirty-seven metahumans who’d gathered to fight it off, sending its minions to slaughter the population of the metropolis,” Finderer led the description of this one, as Mike felt a cold pit form at the bottom of his stomach. “He appears to have been either incapable or simply not interested in controlling baseline humans. During their rampage, his minions caused four manifestations, all of which were quickly enslaved by him and added to his minion’s ranks. The vector by which he controlled them is unknown, and speculated to be telepathic.”

He waited briefly as murmurs broke out for a minute or so. Even the Chief Inspector didn’t stay quiet, leaning closer to Mike. “Great, another mind-bender. As if that crazy pet of the Dark ain’t bad enough.”

Mike couldn’t help but agree fully. Untangling the mess one of Mindstar’s victims caused in the Boston PD had been the assignment that had put him on a short list to promotion, yet he still wished it had never happened. Talk about messy.

Finderer continued. “Fortunately for everyone involved, Lady Light arrived in Hong Kong within forty minutes of its initial appearance and engaged it in a protracted battle. After approximately ten minutes, she’d managed to disable his puppets, after fifteen more, she managed to destroy the monster. Apparently, she was somehow able to block its telepathic powers.”

On her own? Seriously?

“Andras did not exhibit as extreme transformations as the other three monsters; it merely started out without its mask, which slowly manifested and became more elaborate as it developed and became stronger. Aside from its – presumably – telepathic abilities, Andras exhibited the ability to generate powerful, focused energy blasts from either of its eyes, simultaneously or independently, while aiming them in multiple directions at once. It was also at least as tough as Crocell proved to be, if more compact. The whole battle destroyed fifty-five percent of downtown Hong Kong. Fortunately, upon his demise, the effects of his telepathy wore off immediately, and the heroes and villains who survived are now being treated and screened. Most of them are expected to make full recoveries.”

Another click, changing to a giant, emaciated canine with wet, messy black fur. It looked, in any way, like a dog on the edge of starvation, except for its enormous size, easily the size of a minivan, judging by the cars next to it.

“Now, Marchosias, so christened due to its canine appearance, is the only one of the four to survive its first fight. It surfaced in the bay of Tokyo, causing only a minor panic, as its did not look nearly as threatening as the others. However, it proved to be the most dangerous one, having appeared almost a full hour before Alloces, yet remaining relatively docile during the first stages of its transformation, running through the city to evade pursuit, only occasionally attacking people seemingly at random. It proved elusive enough to escape the local Sentai’s attention, going through no less than half a dozen transformations – we assume – before it appeared in its final form.”

Another click, and the image changed to show a very different creature. It now appeared more like a dragon, of some sorts, its torso a weird mixture of humanoid and canine, or perhaps feline features, looking very flexible, and covered in smooth, almost silky fur. It had powerful shoulders and strong arms, ending in clawed hands with opposable thumbs, while its hind legs were more animal-like. It had a long, sinuous tail, longer than the rest of its body, bare of fur and covered in scales instead. From its back sprouted two pairs of huge black wings, though they were only black on the outside. Their insides were covered in strange scales, arranged in a way that evoked feathers, and scintillating in bright red, blue and purple. Its head could have been a nightmarish dog’s or cat’s, it was hard to tell, covered in dark fur, with glowing eyes that matched the insides of its wings in colours. It was now the size of a truck, if it pulled its wings together.

“Once it assumed this form, it was officially named and engaged by both the local Sentai team, their support groups, as well as Huong Long and the three members of our Tokyo branch functioning in a support role. However, it soon proved to be… problematic to combat.”

Another click showed Marchosias flying through a street, trailing a cloud of glittering dust that matched its eyes and wings in colour.

“From the moment it assumed its final form, Marchosias began to produce these scales, which it spread everywhere it went,” Finderer explained, sounding more subdued now. “Any baseline who breathed them in went insane, while also growing stronger, as well as able to ignore a ridiculous amount of pain – their increased is suspected to be a result of the latter, allowing them to push themselves to extremes without pause, due to the lack of sensation. All his victims immediately started killing everyone they could reach, except for other infected, unless he was currently flying by nearby, providing more scales. In that case, they would drag uninfected people towards the scales to become infected as well. Fortunately, though, the scales appear to lose their potency quickly, becoming inert within less than a minute of being separated from its body. However, their effects upon baseline humans appear to be permanent; those who survived the immediate battle and could be caught non-lethally show no signs of recuperating.”

Oh my God… so that’s how all those people died. Mike’s stomach was turning at the thought of how that must have gone.

One of the directors – Director Niles from Miami, a rather hard man who seemed much to dour to come from that city – spoke up. “Excuse me, you specified that this applies to normals; how did it affect metahumans, then?”

Another click, showing an image of a young Asian man, naked but for a pair of torn jeans pants, walking through the street in an aggressive pose, leaning forward, his arms spread as if about to pounce on someone. His eyes were glowing a purplish colour, while veins of scintillating red, blue and purple ran from them all over and around his face and neck. He was surrounded by a corona of intense, almost solid air.

“The effect on metahumans is far more pronounced; not only were they driven insane and beyond pain by the scales, but their powers were also boosted, to varying degrees,” Finderer explained, setting off another round of whispers. “Fortunately, said effect appears to be temporary; it wears off after apparently random amounts of time, though it does appear as if the ones to recover the quickest – on the order of less than an hour – are among those with the greatest control over their power. Furthermore, certain individuals, such as the Dark, appeared to be immune. Huong Long was briefly infected, but was able to nullify its effects at will, even upon re-infection.”

“Well, at least we didn’t lose one of our best… problematic as that child may be,” Director Ryan, from New Lennston, spoke up. He was a warm-looking, blonde man, stocky almost to the point of being fat. Thick, was perhaps the best word. “Though, how did this beast manage to escape the Dark and Huong Long?”

Finderer shrugged. “Mostly due to all of its victims providing such an effective distraction. After all, once infected, it did not need to remain present to manage them. Huong Long prioritized minimizing casualties, while the Dark attempted to pursue it, but was bogged down by empowered infected.” He stopped, tapping the remote to his chin. “On another note, it appears that Marchosias chose to flee the moment the last of its… brothers… died, implying that there was some form of information exchange between them. Lastly, the three which were slain all burst into frankly ridiculous amounts of sea-water, which contributed greatly to the collateral damage to Hong Kong and Esperanza City.”

The Chief Director nodded to Finderer. “Thank you very much, Professor,” he spoke smoothly, as the screen returned to an image showing all four of the monsters. Finderer sat down, immediately turning his attention to a tablet which his assistant handed to him.

“Now, fortunately, our own losses were sparse. Most of the casualties in Esperanza were on the villain side, and we didn’t lose any members at all from our Tokyo branch. There were no – official – members of the UH involved in the Hong Kong or Australian theatre. However, the simultaneous appearance of monsters like these is reason for concern. They are clearly of like nature, in spite of their appearance, and they all pursued major population centres, even if one of them never made it that far,” the Chief Director continued as he leaned back in his chair. “What are your thoughts, my friends?”

“If there’d been just one, I’d have said this was just another broken meta,” Director Niles spoke up, rubbing his pointy chin. “But four monsters, of such light nature? Seems more like one metahuman made these… or perhaps a group of them. What’s our Eyes say?”

Everyone, including Mike, looked at the director of Project Argus Panopticos, the United Heroes’ collection of pre-cogs and various other espers. A dark-skinned woman in her late forties, Martha Jenkins was the one who’d come up with and organised the project in the first place, and had been its director since the beginning. Usually, she loved presenting her pet project’s results, showing just how well it was working.

Right now, though, she looked more than a little chagrined, as she shook her head. “Whatever or whoever made these things, wherever they may come from, it blinds all our Eyes,” she admitted. “The most we’ve been able to get were disjointed ramblings about someone named ‘Rei’ singing a lullaby. And that’s from our most powerful precog.”

“That is beyond unhelpful,” Director Warren Armstrong supplied, his huge mustache twitching with his usual distaste for precognitives. “Do we at least have an inkling of who this Rei might be?”

Jenkins almost seemed like she wanted to snarl at him, but she didn’t, instead replying coolly, “No. It is apparently not an uncommon name among Japanese people.”

“Let’s keep an eye out for any metahuman with that name,” Ortega intervened before this could escalate into another fight. “For now, let us focus on what we do know. Which metahuman that we know of could, conceivably, have created these?”

People thought it over, including Mike. Soon, the first ones spoke up.

“Merkabah,” Ryan brought up. “She’s shown a propensity for creating monsters, even if they’re usually more… mechanical.”

Now that’s a crazy fucking bitch, Mike couldn’t help but think. He’d read all the reports which existed about her, as part of his briefing on S-Class threats, and they hadn’t been pretty at all. He didn’t think she was capable of something like this, though. These beasts were too big a departure from her usual MO.

“If you got something to say, spill it,” Valiant whispered into his ear. “You’re not here just to watch and look pretty.”

He looked at his boss, nodding, and then turned to the table in general. “I disagree. Merkabah’s past creations have been markedly different from any of these four, and far less extreme in scale,” he spoke, finding his throat quite dry, yet managing to avoid squeaking.

To his great relief, he didn’t get any weird looks for having spoken up; however, people did briefly focus on him, and he very nearly shrank back in his seat, especially when the Chief Director looked at him, briefly, and smiled.

“Noted. We shall still include her in our preliminary list, for completeness’ sake if nothing else, but she’s likely to be low on it,” the man at the head of the table said. “Any other candidates anyone can think of?”

Mike leaned back, relaxing just a bit.

“The Savage Six? This is just the kind of thing they’d love to do, even if I don’t know whether they could,” another director added, too quickly for Mike to check whom it had come from.

Ortega nodded. “We should consider motivation, yes. They definitely belong on the list, for now.”

“I believe it is pertinent to mention,” Director Charles Barnes of Kansas City interjected, “that the Savage Six have apparently spent the time since they returned into their otherworldly base kidnapping other villains from all over the world. At least, our Eyes assume that the Six are behind it.”

“What!?” Armstrong shouted, slapping a hand on the table. “How come this is the first time I hear about that!? This should’ve been brought up as soon as it became known!” He looked accusingly at Jenkins again, but she didn’t get a chance to respond.

“Warren, my dear friend, please calm yourself,” the Chief Director spoke calmly. “This is no place for such outbursts.” He looked intently at the man, yet without glaring, until Warren subsided with a nod. Then he turned towards the table as a whole. “I agree that this is more than a little worrisome. Even if the Six are not involved with these monsters at all, the fact that they’re gathering villains is something to look out and prepare for. Director Jenkins, would you please make sure that your Eyes make a list of any villains whom they think have been taken?”

Jenkins nodded, looking pleased that her people were being called upon.

“So, is there anyone else who’s an option?” Ortega continued.

“Sovereign, simply because he might be able to, if he gathered the right metahumans,” Ryan said. “Though I would put him low on the list. This doesn’t seem like his… style, for lack of a better word.”

There were nods all around the table, to both points.

“That’s about it, though,” Armstrong said, his hands clasped tightly on the table in front of him. “There’s honestly no other metahumans I could think of – who’re still alive, that is – which could be capable of this. The last one to create anything near this scale was Blackhill.”

Just the mention of that name sent shivers down several people’s backs, as Mike noticed. Many of those present here were old enough to remember the Martian Invasion in all its horror and wonder.

“I suppose we’ll have to hope that our Eyes and everyone else we can gather with a hand for such things will dig up some useful data,” Ortega agreed. “Now, unless there is more on this, we should move on to determining how we’ll pitch into relief efforts for the victims of these attacks… yes, Director Ryan?”

Everyone looked at Ryan, who’d raised his hand. “There is one point,” he said. “It’s regarding the battle against Crocell or, more specifically, how the monster was finally brought down.”

“Are you referring to the young gadgeteers who cooperated to take it down?” Ortega asked.

Ryan nodded. “Yes. More specifically, I am referring to the one who figured out Crocell’s weak point, then organised the operation, an independent young hero calling himself Brennus. You all are aware of him, I believe, as the boy who was instrumental in taking out the Acre beneath New Lennston, as well as the one to put down Hastur.”

Again, there were nods around the table.

“May I interject briefly,” Niles spoke up. When Ryan nodded, she continued, “This machine he built, could it be used to slay Marchosias, when he shows up again?”

“I’m afraid not,” Finderer answered, still focused on his tablet. “Even if Sovereign had not reclaimed his Subjugator – neither Tick-Tock nor Polymnia believe that they could recreate the device without Sovereign’s advanced technology as a base, not even with Brennus’ help – Crocell appears to have been… unfinished. According to what data we were able to gather, the Dark attempted a similar strategy against Marchosias, once he learned of Crocell’s defeat, and it failed. It is highly likely that, by now, Marchosias is no longer merely a mass of sea water contained by a hyper-powerful force-field.”

Niles made a sigh, but didn’t continue, and Ryan cleared his throat.

“Anyway, the point I wish to bring up is, how should we deal with young Brennus?” he asked into the gathering of his peers and superiors, while the secretary called up an image taken of Brennus, standing atop the jury-rigged Subjugator with Polymnia and Tick-Tock, aiming, moments before it was fired off. It looked… quite impressively heroic.

Armstrong nodded. “The boy has been too… impactful. We can’t allow a vigilante like that to run around free and keep showing up the actual legal heroes,” he agreed with Ryan. “Nevermind that his actions are inherently illegal, as well-intentioned as they may be, he is undermining the whole point of the United Heroes’ existence, and of any established, legalized hero team.”

“Atmittedly true,” Ryan agreed, though he didn’t look happy, “but that is not what I am referring to. I refer to the fact that, now if not already, he is going to be a target for countless unscrupulous villains and other criminals, not the least of which being the Dark himself, and we should try to recruit him so we can protect and nurture him and his talent. Though that would also solve the image problem which he represents. Yet Brennus has, quite decidedly, refused to join our local branch, even though he is maintaining cordial relationships with both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer, and appears to at least be on friendly terms with Tartsche and Spellgun.”

Niles drummed his fingers on the table. “Hmm… so we both need him, and he needs us. Have we tried making another recruitment pitch at him? If anything, we can offer him many more and better resources than he could get on his own, and gadgeteers always need more resources.”

Ryan shook his head. “According to Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia, he is unlikely to accept that, even though it appears that he is running out of his own resources, wherever he may have originally gained them.”

“He’s running out? How do you know that?” Armstrong asked curiously, obviously sensing an opportunity.

“His gear has been downgraded since it was damaged in the fight against Hastur,” Ryan explained. “He was obviously unable to finance a full restoration. He also hasn’t improved as much as we would have expected, based on his other feats shown.”

“What kind of rating has he been assigned?” Ortega asked. “I assume it was adjusted after his performance during the Crocell fight?”

Ryan nodded, answering as the expert on the subject. “We are currently rating him as a Gadgeteer ten-slash-eight, with sub-ratings of Damage six, Movement four, Perception five, Protection five and Spawner two.”

Mike almost whistled at all the accumulation of ratings. That was quite the list, even for a gadgeteer.

He also had an idea on how to approach this problem, but he was going to wait and see if someone else came up with it, first.

“And we haven’t been trying to recruit this boy more?” Armstrong said in outrage, barely controlling his voice. “What kind of madness is this, to let someone who’s that powerful – a child, no less, as all reports I’ve heard here suggest he’s in the age group of your Polymnia – run around unsupervised and unprotected?”

“It is a delicate situation,” Ryan replied, though he didn’t seem offended at the outburst. Rather, he almost seemed to agree, based on how he leaned a little towards Armstrong as he continued to speak. “Brennus has, so far, conducted himself nearly impeccably – a single unauthorized use of our e-mail servers notwithstanding, and we all know how that paid off for us – and he is quite popular with the public. I don’t have to explain to you how much the crowds love heroes like him, and he is a hero, even if he’s also a vigilante. Trying to force him into joining us could not only antagonise him, but also the public, if he lashed out and it became known,” he concluded.

Armstrong seemed ready to object, but Jenkins cut in, looking intently at Ryan.

“What about his emblem?” she asked. “Let us not forget the incident with Ember, during which he painted Brennus chosen emblem on a wall, the first time he moved since his exile began, and until he began healing people again. Have you been able to contact Brennus on this matter?”

The stocky director shook his head. “I’m afraid not. As I said, the situation is delicate. I don’t want to contact him about this by mail, yet e-mails remain currently our only viable way for contacting him. I was hoping to talk to him in the aftermath of the Crocell battle, but Brennus apparently insisted on being transported directly to a location somewhere near his lab, by Gloom Glimmer, as he apparently had some kind of stroke of inspiration in the aftermath of the fight, and wished to work on it. Before anyone asks, no, Gloom Glimmer doesn’t know where his lab is. She simply dropped him off at New Lennston’s northern industrial district, which we suspected to be where his base lies anyway.”

“Sounds to me like we really have to do something already,” Valiant threw in his own five cent. “Boy’s only gonna be getting more and more attention once this leaks, and it will leak. The Protegé is too big for such an action to remain secret for long. Nevermind his performance during three S-Class events, delivering the final blow in each. And wasn’t he sought out by the Savage Six, too, during the Fion girl’s kidnapping incident?”

Once more, people seemed surprised, whispering among each other at the new piece of information. At least those who hadn’t known yet.

Ryan dismissed it, though, waving a hand. “That was apparently an unrelated issue. They have been probing various gadgeteers all over the world, or at least they used to until they put that on hold in the wake of the Osaka incident. Anyway, the dismissed Brennus, in front of several members of our junior heroes. They don’t believe him to be this Macian they are looking for.”

Mike frowned, leaning closer to his chief. “Who’s Macian, Sir? I don’t think I’ve read any files on him.”

“That’s because there ain’t really one,” Valiant replied quietly. “He’s barely more than an urban legend. A child gadgeteer who grew up in the Savage Six’ games, was supposedly involved in both the Berlin and the London Incident and at least a dozen more, then is thought to have escaped their pocket dimension. Nothing concrete on him, but it’s curious enough that it drew the boards’ attention in the past.”

“Chief Inspector Valiant, Inspector Haurson,” Armstrong addressed them. “Do you have anything pertinent to say?”

They looked at the man, Valiant looking quite annoyed, but Mike was the one to reply. “Just a thought, Sir. The Savage Six are looking for a young male gadgeteer of apparently considerable power. Said gadgeteer is said to have been both in Berlin and London – where Ember was – and Ember has drawn the personal emblem of a young, male gadgeteer of considerable power to a wall. What if he is this Macian, and the Savage Six merely failed to realise it?”

That got people thinking. Mike stayed quiet, watching them, as he thought it over himself. This boy is getting more and more curious by the minute.

“Hrm, Brennus is truly becoming an unavoidable issue for us,” Ortega observed, stroking his chin. “We can’t allow him to remain independent, especially if he’s running out of resources – thus becoming more vulnerable to attacks, or recruitment by villains – nevermind the image problem he represents. Also, he’ll most likely be in Sovereign’s sight now, too, after everything that’s happened.”

“He is a criminal – why don’t we just bring him in, and then spin it in our favour?” Armstrong asked calmly. “It shouldn’t be our first, or second option, but it is an option, and one that is, to me at least, far preferable than allowing a child to so endanger himself – and others.”

“Much as I’d like to, I cannot disagree,” Ryan admitted. “However, I would rather try to recruit him in a more diplomatic manner. Perhaps with the help of our junior heroes, they do have a rather friendly rapport.”

“If he is truly running out of resources, he ought to be all too eager to join us, as he doesn’t seem inclined to become a villain at all,” Niles argued.

“He appears to be a very proud young man,” Ryan countered. “Maybe too proud to accept joining us, especially now, when he’d be at a disadvantage.”

“Our profiling supports Director Ryan’s view of him,” Jenkins added.

They continued to discuss it, bouncing around ideas on how to get the boy into the organisation, however possible. His teammates, too, once they were brought up, though they were a secondary concern right now.

Still, it didn’t sit right with Mike. This wasn’t the way to recruit a proud, young gadgeteer riding the high of three major successes like that.Finally, he decided to speak up and voice his opinion.

“What if we simply help him out by paying him what he’s owed?” he asked, interrupting a rather spirited discussion between Armstrong and Niles on how to strong-arm the boy into the UH.

“Pay him?” Ortega zeroed in on him, his gaze like a flood light, only more focused. “Please elaborate, Inspector.”

Mike swallowed dryly, then took a sip from the glass of water in front of him. “Well, as Director Ryan pointed out earlier, we have profited rather greatly from him providing Polymnia – and thus, us – with his reproducible EMP-protection. According to what I’ve read, it’s already protected a few millions worth of hardware by now, correct? Nevermind the protection it provided to several of our own gadgeteers when fighting enemies who relied on the kind of EMPs which Brennus’ system blocks, correct?”

There were nods, some enthusiastic, some apprehensive and some neutral.

“I’m thinking, if we want him to view us in a more favourable light and, eventually, persuade him to join us, it could help to offer him the patent on his invention. He provided it freely, but I don’t think he really considered what that kind of thing is worth. A patent, perhaps with some – moderate – back payments, could net him several hundred thousand dollars within a month and millions in the long run, as long as no better system is invented and adapted. It would not only make him feel more secure and less… threatened in his pride, when asked to join us, but he’d also have an example of our fairness and generosity, proof that we reward good work even when not asked to.” He stopped, nearly breathless. I really have to learn not to get so worked up about every little thing, he chided himself, but remained quiet, watching the men and women around the table.

Ortega was the first one to speak up. “I like this. I like this, a lot. It’s the kind of thing the United Heroes were founded to do, in the first place, and reaffirming that is really a purpose of its own. If we can recruit such a promising gadgeteer with such a simple gesture, or at least make him more willing to cooperate with us in other ways, then I am all for it. Are there any objections to Inspector Haurson’s proposal?”

“So long as we are not overly generous, I see no reason to disagree,” Armstrong admitted, and Mike released a breath he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding. If he’d convinced even Armstrong, then the others were unlikely to disagree.

And true to that, there were several agreements and nods from all around the table, with only the qualifier that they had to keep their budget in mind, which was going to be stretched anyway, due to the almost certain event of them supporting Esperanza’s (repeat) rebuilding.

“It is agreed, then,” Ortega closed with a smile, turning his eyes towards Ryan. “Director Ryan, please set everything necessary in motion. I want this done as soon as possible, before anyone else gets to the boy with another offer.”

Ryan nodded, looking quite pleased himself.

“Now, let us get to the next point, that is to say, our efforts to help provide relief and reconstruction for Esperanza City…” Ortega continued the meeting.

Mike leaned back in his chair, feeling quite sweaty. He’d really overreached himself, he thought, in spite of how it had been accepted. His first meeting, not even as a member of the board, just a hanger-on to the Chief Inspector, and yet he’d spoken up brazenly several times.

Valiant, though, seemed quite pleased, smiling that fatherly smile of his that could make anyone feel like a kid again. “Good job, kid. I knew you had it in you.”

He smiled back at his mentor, nodding to thank him for the compliment, as he picked up his glass and drank, returning his attention to the ongoing discussion.

There was still so much to do.

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