B13.11 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil looked warily at the goblet in front of him. It’s probably not a good idea to refuse his hospitality; if he wanted to hurt us, he wouldn’t need to play games like this, anyway, he thought to himself, and picked the goblet up with his right hand, keeping the left one free in case he needed to throw up a force-field quickly.

“Water,” he said to the goblet without hesitation, and it filled up instantly. A twitch of his eyes caused the lower half of his helmet to fold back onto his cheeks, freeing his mouth, and he took a sip.

Just water.

That broke the spell for the others, and everyone else picked their goblets up as well, some ordering instantly – various kinds of sodas for most of them, grape juice for Osore; and Tyche…

“Triple chocolate milkshake with ground almonds and cream.”

When the cream-and-almonds topped shake appeared in her goblet, a real smile appeared on her face for the first time since she’d run into this Immanuel.

A sigh drew his attention away from her. Emyr was looking… chargrined.

“You just ruined my joke,” he said, his voice flat, but a slight smile on his face. When everyone looked at him in confusion, he explained, “Usually when I do this, everyone just gets something boring and then I’ll ask for something like…” He looked pensively at his goblet and said, “Strawberry and cream shake with chocolate and caramel syrup,” causing said drink to appear in it, “And everyone would just stare like they’d seen the Devil.” He drank from his goblet.

Tyche had already finished hers while he’d been talking. “I know, right? You give people a cup that can give’em any drink and they pick soda, or water,” she said, glaring at Basil. He gave her as deadpan a look as he could in return, with most of his face covered up.

“Banana and cherry smoothy mix.” Her goblet filled up again.

Meanwhile, the freaking Godking of Mars was laughing quietly, like this was all just a friendly gathering. “Ah well, no matter.” He drank from his goblet. “Let’s focus on more important things.” He looked at Basil. “First of all, we ought to introduce ourselves properly.”

He put his right hand over his heard, tilting his head forward. “Emyr Blackhill, God-King of Mars and Once and Future King of Earth,” he introduced himself smoothly, without a hint of irony or boast. Then he looked at Tartsche to his right.

“T-tartsche,” the armor-clad youth replied, his voice betraying a great deal of nervousness. “Leader – though likely not too much longer, after this stunt – of the New Lennston United Heroes Junior Division.”

“Spellgun, member of the same,” his boyfriend continued as Emyr’s gaze passed onto him.

“B-Bakeneko. The same,” came a squeak from the next one in line. She seemed to literally wilt under his gaze, her power reacting to her mood.

“Osore.”

“Gloom Glimmer, also a member of the junior division,” Gloom Glimmer introduced herself, her voice clear as a bell and betraying no hint of being nervous or even slightly intimidated. Her eyes were nearly glowing underneath her hood, though blue rather than red now.

“Polymnia, also a junior hero,” the songstress continued, her electronic voice reflecting none of the nervousness that her face and body showed.

“Tyche! Hero and member of Team B- ouch” Tyche began, but was cut off when Hecate reached out to knock her over the back of the head with her staff, reaching behind Basil to do so.

“Brennus, of the same team,” he said curtly, seeing no point in trying to hold his name back.

“Hecate, also said team which most certainly does not use that atrocious acronym,” Hecate grumbled.

Emyr watched the whole exchange with open amusement. “A pleasure to meet you all, young heroes,” he said, raising his goblet in a casual gesture. “It’s always a joy to see young people willing to fight for a good cause.” He drank from his goblet, before he continued, “Now, on to the second point.” He looked straight at Basil. “You are wrong. I am Emyr Blackhill, not merely a fascimile.”

“You believe so? Even though you are incapable of leaving this… pocket reality?” He watched the long-haired man closely, feeling rather curious in spite of the seriousness of the situation, and the time pressure he himself was under. This was the man who’d once conquered the world, after all.

Instead of replying directly, Emyr turned to look at Legend, who was holding her head lowered in a demure posture that was very obviously not willingly chosen. “It’s pretty easy to determine with a single question. Sophia, can you summon anyone who’s not a metahuman?”

She replied instantly, without hesitation, yet without looking up, either. “No, I can not, your majesty. Only metahumans have sufficient impact upon the Historia to be summoned by my rituals.”

He turned around, smiling as he spread his arms in a ‘there-you-go’ gesture. “Can you tell why I claim to be the real one?” He looked around at everyone at the table, aiming the question at each and every one.

What does he mean? Basil asked himself. Why is he even trying to make an argument based on a Contriver’s delusions… of course, he may simply be delusional himself, believing that he truly is the true Emyr even though he is not.

Still, real or not, he was far more powerful than all of them put together, yet willing to talk instead of outright killing them, even after their attempt to do just the same to him. So best to play along for now.

“You’re implying that there’s something about metahumans in particular that would make them viable targets for resurrection, when baselines are not,” Spellgun spoke up, suddenly, leaning onto his elbows, which rested on the table, while Tartsche looked at him in alarm… though, they’d already clasped hands, putting him within the aegis of Tartsche’s power…

Emyr circumvented Tartsche’s power, Basil realised all of a sudden, his eyes snapping from Emyr to the two young lovers. Both Spellgun and Tyche were still underneath its protection when he stopped time, yet they were moved. He focused on Tartsche – his face was hidden by his knightly helmet, after all – and found himself thoroughly unsurprised to see that he was clenching Spellgun’s hand tightly, like a lifeline; the only sign, but a telling one, of just how freaked out he had to be right now.

Another thing to worry about, Basil thought, clenching his hands into fists. So much to worry about, so many things to keep in mind…

“Suffice it to say that, based upon my understanding of the nature of metahumanity, it is strong evidence towards the fact that I am the true Emyr Blackhill,” came the reply after Emyr drank from his, milkshake. “Once I am truly and completely revived, I am confident I shall remember all that happened during this little sojourn. Of course, I may just be delu-“

“Enough,” Basil cut him off with a sharp voice, in spite of his earlier decision to play along.

Everyone turned their heads to stare at him like he was a man possessed, but he ignored them to focus on Emyr.

“I do not have time for this,” he said, leaning towards their ‘host’ as he just barely kept his voice calm. “There are people out there who are dying, people whose one and only chance to survive rely on completing this mission and I need to get going because the clock. Is. Ticking. So tell us what you want and then let us go, or just let us go, but do not dither; I do not have the time to waste having a tea party here with you.”

Hecate made a strangled sound when he started speaking and was trying to wave him off, but he ignored her.

Mate, you just lipped off to the Godking of Mars, the Man in the Moon whispered inside his head. I ain’t sure whether to congratulate you on the density of your balls or hand you the Darwin aw-

Shut it.

Emyr put his goblet down, touching his fingers together in front of his face, his expression pensive. “It has been some time since anyone has dared speak to me like that,” he said, finally, while Basil shook with barely restrained rage. “Not counting the little princess across the table from myself,” he nodded to Gloom Glimmer, who stiffened up. “Yes, child, I know who your parents are. No, I didn’t use my power to find out – but you do look entirely too much like your mother and your power feels entirely too much like your father’s for you to be anyone else; I’d recognise either any time, for they are both people who I have studied extensively.”

“Whom, Sir,” Hecate cut in, almost in a squeal. “The term is ‘whom’, not ‘who’.”

He looked at her, smiling as she clapped her hands over her mouth in shock at herself, but just nodded. “You are right – I apologise for the mistake, it shall not happen a-“

There was a sharp sound of metal crumpling, screaming, make everyone look at Basil again.

He’d just crushed his goblet in one gloved fist, without even noticing it. “This is enough,” he stood up, nearly throwing the chair he’d been sitting on over. “I, we, do not have time for this, so get to the point,” he told him, once more, his teeth grinding together at the end.

Emyr still looked pensive, not offended, which really only made Basil even angrier. He clearly didn’t care about any of this!

“I really do need to take over the world again,” he replied with a soft voice, finally, loosely clasping his hands together. “Seems like things are even worse than the last time.”

How would you know, Sir?” Polymnia said, sounding perfectly calm and composed; “Your power ends at the door, doesn’t it?

Emyr shrugged. “This one,” he spoke calmly, gesturing towards the fuming Basil, “is quite sincere in what he says. Which means that there are people out there dying and the only chance they have to survive is… a group of children? Fighting people like Sophia, here, who’d not hesitate to slay you?” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Any world in which children must go to war is a horrible one indeed.”

He looked around at each of them in turn, and they all looked away, unable to meet his gaze, save for Basil, who simply glared at him and Gloom Glimmer, who showed no reaction at all.

“I see none of you can dispute the state of the world,” he followed softly.

“Is that really the reason why you want to take over the world?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up, suddenly, her eyes barely visibly underneath her hood.

“Is it not enough?” he answered with a question.

“Not for you,” she shot back. “Not according to my power. Is it because it’d make for a great story? Is that it, does the author want to impose an epic tale on the real world?” she pressed the point, while also throwing a look at Basil.

Please, calm down – we’re not going to get away from him if we piss him off, she spoke into his mind, without missing a beat physically.

Basil clenched his fists so hard his gauntlets creaked and strained, but he sat down again. Not that he was going to just go along with this farce, but she was right, just complaining at Emyr was not going to achieve anything of use.

“That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?” Emyr asked right back again, looking as amused as before. “However, while I won’t deny the fact that I enjoy turning my quest into a story for the ages, even at the cost of efficiency in some aspects, it’s merely a… bonus. As for taking over the world, that is merely a means to an end; and I am not so delusional as to believe I could cure all the world’s ills and bring eternal peace and prosperity to humanity – if nothing else, humans will always find another reason to fight amongst themselves, no matter the circumstances.” He shrugged. “Though I do believe I could reduce the number of casualties on the way to my goal.”

“What is that goal?” Hecate threw in, the words bursting forth as if she couldn’t stand the tension anymore.

Even Tyche, currently drinking her sixth drink, seemed to be on the edge of her seat. The only one who seemed to be entirely unaffected by it all was, as usual, Osore.

“My true goal is…,” was all Emyr began to say, leaning slightly forward, his face grave and shadowed by his wild mass of hair. “Secret.”

“Oh come on!” Tyche complained loudly, nearly spilling her eighth drink.

“Hey, I kept it a secret for so long, why should I tell now?” He laughed, clearly amused by the annoyed expressions he could see, at least from those whose faces weren’t hidden by masks or cowls – though their body language certainly helped express their own opinion towards his attitude. “Really now, children, I may enjoy crossing off the classic tropes, but I’m not going to reveal my great master plan in a big villaneous monologue. I’m laidback, not stupid.” He picked up his goblet and drank again. “Now, as to what I want with you lot, specifically… to be honest, I simply want to amuse myself.” He looked straight at Basil again. “I know that may seem callous to you, especially now that you’ve told me something of what’s at stake – and you’re right. Which is why I’ll instead ask you what exactly you’re after, young Brennus. What is your quest?”

Basil frowned at the question. Much as he really didn’t want to antagonise him – he wasn’t an idiot, previous behaviour be damned – he also didn’t exactly cherish the idea of telling this story just to amuse a capricious wannabe-deity.

Still, it seemed like the fastest way to get out of this would be to play along… to a point.

“If I tell you, will you let us go?” he decided to ask.

“That very much depends on the story you tell me,” Emyr replied smoothly, as if he’d expected the question. “Tell your tale, and tell it true, and I shall choose the next scene to come.”

Basil’s hands clenched into fists again, at the arrogance, the-

His right hand clenched around something hard.

He looked down and saw his goblet, whole, in his hand. He looked up at Emyr again, who just smiled.

Neither word nor gesture, he thought. Is there no limit at all to his power? Can he bend reality by will alone? Did he create the goblet so it’d repair itself? Did he give himself an ability that allows him to fix it at will? Did he… He cut that train of thought off right there – there were too many possibilities, and he had no means by which to determine which one was the most likely. No, there is. There are. He’s said so himself, and it shows. He was killed, as well – that wouldn’t have worked out if he didn’t have limits that could be exploited.

You’re in no position to exploit anything, mate, the Man in the Moon whispered.

But I can gather information for when I – or another – will be.

Taking a deep breath, he said, “First, I have a question to ask, about our fight earlier.” He looked him straight in the eyes again, even though his mask prevented direct eye contact. It was still strange, looking into those pools of black. A sense of vertigo he’d never felt before. Like looking through two windows into the Abyss.

“More of a little spat, really,” Emyr qualified. “Ask, and ye shall be answered.” He made a permissive hand gesture to accompany the statement, without a hint of humor in any of it.

“You threw me off of you like I weighed nothing, and you were able to tear Gloom Glimmer’s gag off just as easily. Yet no command – or dictate, I suppose – could have allowed you to do that, so how did you do it?”

Emyr’s smile broadened. “Body language.” He winked at him, then broke out into laughter when he saw the shocked expressions on the exposed faces. “Ah, yes, people tend to react like that to finding out about that little aspect of my power. Anyway, I believe that answers your question – your turn, now.”

Basil took a deep breath. “It is a long story.”

“I love long stories.”

He rolled his eyes. “Alright. A member of the organisation she belongs to,” he gestured towards Legend, “unleashed a bio-weapon on Hawaii, years ago. It killed most of the victims and left the others crippled, dying slowly. Their time is running out, I discovered the location of this base but the authorities are still deliberating how to proceed – and whether to trust my information, so I decided to come after the woman responsible – Dusu – myself, because I need her to give me the cure for her poison. Legend here intercepted us as we were taking the train towards their base’s section in which we believe Dusu to be.”

“A lengthy tale indeed,” Emyr mused. “So every one of you came here to find this cure?” He turned his vertigo-inducing gaze at the others, up and down the table. They all nodded, some more self-assured than the others.

Seemingly pleased, he turned his eye upon Brennus again, stroking his chin with one of his spidery hands, contemplating… something. “Why do you need this cure, young Brennus?” he asked, finally.

Basil tilted his head, confused. “Why… I need it in order to cure her victims.”

“That is what you need it for, but why do you, Brennus, want it?” the Godking asked with a curious smile, resting his cheek on his left hand. “What drives you to attack the base of such a dangerous organisation, taking these brave friends of yours into such danger – and don’t deny that you did, I recognise a leader when I see one – and challenge even me?”

“I need to cure those who have been harmed by Dusu,” he replied simply, trying to find the sense in this line of questioning. “If you must know, one of them…” He looked at the junior heroes, briefly, then decided he’d trusted them this far anyway. “One of them’s my girlfriend. This is the only way I have left to save her, short of carrying her into the Protectorate – and even if I could, she’d never survive such a trip.”

He could feel the eyes of Tartsche, Spellgun and Polymnia on him, but ignored them as he focused on Emyr. “Is this enough already? Every second counts.”

Emyr tapped his chin with one of his long, thin fingers. “I suppose it is, and thank you for satisfying my curiosity.” He sat up straight. “I think I understand you a little better now. I am curious though, what would you do if I were to say I intend to keep you here for a longer time?”

Basil shrugged. “I would kill you or, failing that, disable you in some way and break out of this place,” he replied flatly. I don’t know how, yet, but I will figure it out.

Everyone at the table, as well as Legend, just stared at him. Then they looked at Emyr, who’d gone still, looking at him in surprise.

“That’s hardly very heroic of you,” he said.

“I am not much of a hero,” Basil spat him, annoyed. “Or that good a person. But I am enough of both that I am going to do the right thing to save these people, and if that means going through you, then so be it.”

“I’m giving you points for gumption, at least,” Emyr replied flatly, untouched by the venom in the boy’s voice. “Not for brains, though. You’re talking about killing a-“

“A god, I know,” he snarled. “Or at least, that is what you claim – but you, you are no god.”

Emyr tilted his head the other way, looking dumbfounded. “Have you seen Mars lately? I assure you, I am very much a god-“

“You really aren’t, Sir,” Hecate spoke up, her voice low, but firm, looking straight at Emyr’s eyes when he turned his gaze to her, shivering when she felt their effect upon herself. “You were killed. Everyone knows the story. The Seven Regicides took you down, and they were certainly no gods themselves.”

“Seven Regicides, huh?” Emyr smiled in amusement. “So that’s how the world remembers them, is that it? Do they tell their tale still?”

“They do,” Hecate answered him, clearly straining to keep up the eye contact. “Everyone knows their names. Jack Flag. Gungnir. The Prospector. Jekyll and Hyde. The Unseen.  Chatterbox. The Illionaut.There’s books, movies, comics… we don’t know how they did it, but we know they did.”

“There were eight, actually,” he remarked. “The count starts at Zero, not one. But that’s beside the point,” he continued, as if that was nothing, ignoring the gasps of everyone around the table.

Everyone save three. Gloom Glimmer remained still, and both Polymnia and Basil watched her, having noticed her flinch earlier.

What was that about?

On the other side of the table, Emyr continued to speak.

“I’ve got to say, though, it’s rather annoying how people keep misunderstanding my title,” he said, actually showing some annoyance for once. “I never claimed to be a god of humans. I created my children, the Martians – I reforged the world they live on. To them, I am, undoubtedly, and by any definition, God. I am also their absolute, unchallenged monarch – thus, King. Thereby, I am the God-King of Mars.” He huffed, brushing a few strands of hair out of his face. “It’s not a boast, it’s a simple fact.”

Basil sighed. “Are you deliberately wasting my time now?” he asked, growing weary even as his voice rose to near-screaming. “None of this, none of this, is necessary. I need to get going, I need to find Dusu, so get to the fucking point!

“Alright, alright,” Emyr made a calming gesture with both arms. “Calm yourself, young one. I do sympathise with your plight – if anything, I applaud it. A knight in shining,” he looked at Basil’s jet-black armour, “well, not-so-shining armour, out to cure countless innocents including his lady; I love that kind of story!” he finished with an excited smile.

Basil leaned forward in his chair, “This isn’t for your amusement!”

“It may not be meant to, but it amuses me anyway,” the Godking said softly. “And I say that without any derision. I am not making light of your quest, Brennus, I am merely trying to point out that, perhaps, you should sit down, relax, recover some of your strength and realise that I am your ally, here.”

That made Basil sit back and stare. “What?”, he said, only to realise that about half the other teens at the table had said the same, at the same time.

Emyr chuckled. “Please, children. I may have tried – and succeeded, let’s not forget that – to take over the world, but I’m no monster, and I’ve always considered myself to have certain standards. Even if this Dusu hadn’t apparently used a bio-weapon on civilians, I would still support you, if only because the idea of a tale like this appeals to me too much not to,” he explained, before drinking from his ice-cream-filled goblet. “Are you going to accept my help?” he asked, finally, looking straight at Basil once more.

“I… of course. If you want to help, I… could not say no; we need any help we can get,” he replied, feeling thoroughly unbalanced.

Then, a new hope bloomed inside of him. It was far-fetched, a mere chance, but… “Could you, just, wish them whole?” he asked, leaning forward, unable to keep his voice calm. “Can you do, something with your power, that’d just fix them?”

Emyr smiled sadly at him. “Ah, how I wish I could,” he said, crushing that particular hope. “Once upon a time, it would’ve been less than child’s play to me – but now, with my power limited to this little pocket? I’m afraid not – I could not even create a Panacea and let you take it along to use on them yourself.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, I truly am, but in this, I am less able than you are to make a difference.”

Then he smiled. “However, I can offer two other things. One, I can rejuvenate the lot of you – which, as you may have noticed, I already did before time continued,” he gestured at them, and Basil took a second look – he was right, all the damage to his armor and costume, as well as those the others had accumulated, was gone; and he felt as fresh as he would after a good, long night’s full of sleep (something which he’d missed these last few days). “And second, we can extract some information from Legend here – that alone should be worth the delay, right?” He gestured at the enslaved contriver. “Ask her whatever you wish to know and she will answer to the best of her knowledge, in all honesty and with no attempts at deception or manipulation.”

Legend shuddered under the weight of the dictate – and it was one, even though there was no real indicator as to which parts of his speech were backed by his power and which weren’t – but nodded obediently, without a moment’s hesitation.

Basil looked around the table at the others – everyone looked to be shocked, scared or hopeful, to varying degrees, sometimes all three at once.

This is too weird for words, the Man in the Moon spoke up. Then again, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, mate.

For once, I agree with you. He turned towards Emyr, again, to ask the first question that came to mind, but he was pre-empted by Polymnia using her vocoder.

“What kind of resistance are we likely to run into, from now on until finding Dusu?” she asked the woman in the maid outfit.

She flinched. “The team you’ve fought before is likely to have recovered by now and be setting up an ambush outside the portal to this realm. There’s also two more combat-able teams on the Installation. Furthermore, Dusu has her own security, and her lab is in the same complex as that of the new Ascendant – I have no idea whether the latter could have some nasty surprises in store for you, if you show at her doorstep.”

Gloom Glimmer leaned in, putting both arms onto the table. “Wait, the Ascendant? So they did name a new one – what’s this one’s deal?” she asked, her voice hard. “Is he going after children again!?”

Legend shook her head. “No. I’m not aware of their exact project – while she only slightly outranks me, I have little to do with the Gadgeteering complex – but I know that it’s seriously impressed the top executives and that they declared it Top Secret even for the division heads like myself. I am, however, aware that it does not, apparently, require the purchase of test subjects, as the previous Ascendant’s work did.”

Several of the heroes around the table, particularly the girls, looked rather green at the callous admission of slave-trading being done here, but Basil decided not to press that particular point here.

“So we can not know what to expect once we get past the team we already defeated before,” Basil concluded. “What can you tell us about Dusu’s own security?”

“Her laboratory is heavily fortified and hermetically sealed, due to containing so many bio-threats. Attacking her carelessly would be supremely dangerous. I am not aware of any specific security other than the guards who protect her complex as a whole.”

“Is there some shortcut that can take us straight to Dusu?” Tyche asked inbetween emptying her thirteenth goblet and refilling it. “Would be nice to skip straight past all the fightin’,” she concluded rather uncharacteristically.

“None that I’m aware of.”

Tyche sighed in disappointment.

“Where do these monsters come from that attacked Esperanza City, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Australia?” Tartsche asked, suddenly, his voice still trembling a little, though noticably more controlled than earlier – he’d even relaxed his grip on Spellgun’s hand a bit. “And why did you have them attack in the first place?”

Legend looked away, seemingly ashamed – but Basil couldn’t tell whether she was honestly ashamed for what had been done, was ashamed of something else related to it or was simply being forced to be so due to Emyr’s unkown edicts – and replied, “They attacked because we couldn’t control them after their creation, so the top executives decided to cut them lose and see whether they couldn’t cause some more origins,” she explained as if talking about the weather. “As for their nature, I am not entirely sure but I know they are connected to the Sleeper.”

“What is the Sleeper?” Tartsche immediately pressed on.

The sorcerous woman looked up at him, a strange, off-putting light in her eyes. “The Sleeper is the future, our key to expanding our power and bringing as many into the light as we can – a colossal being sleeping in the depths of the Mariana Trench which we believe to be connected directly to the source of metahuman powers, currently in some form of hibernation,” she explained with almost religious fervour. “The beasts that attacked those places were somehow induced to spawn from it, but I don’t exactly know how – I do know that Dusu was and is the head of that particular program, so you should ask her for anything more regarding the subject matter.”

Emyr watched the exchange, tapping his fingers together, his face gone completely serious. “What a disgusting collection of wretches,” he spoke softly, his voice shimmering with an anger that made everyone else within the pocket reality shudder and lean away from him. “What is this group called?” he asked his slave.

“We are sometimes called the Companions of the Future, but our original and preferred name is ‘die Gefährten’, which means…”

Emyr cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I am well aware of what it means. Well, now I know whom to purge once I take over again. Continue.”

Basil leaned forward, putting his goblet aside to clasp his hands in front of his face, his mask snapping shut once more.

***

They continued to extract as much information as they could from Legend. The woman was completely cooperative, though clearly not willingly so, repeatedly making faces and shuddering, yet unable to truly strain against the commands imposed upon her by Emyr.

Finally, after nearly ten minutes, Basil decided to end it. “I think that is enough,” he announced loudly, leaning back. “We should get going now.” He looked at Emyr, silently asking for permission – though it galled him a great deal having to defer to him so.

To his (mild by now) surprise and gratitude, Emyr nodded, making a sweeping gesture. “It is time, yes. Go, find the cure.” He smiled softly, a little sadly. “I do wish I could offer greater support, but I’m afraid all I have left is to give you all my blessing.”

The others looked at each other, then at him, but no one knew what to say to that, really.

“Thank you,” was all Tartsche could bring himself to say – he still appeared to be rather put off by having his power circumvented somehow, and he’d very tellingly not asked how Emyr had achieved said feat.

“You’re welcome. Now off, off with you all!” Emyr raised a hand and snapped his fingers, and the door behind him opened smoothly, without a sound, revealing the shimmering portal they’d seen earlier behind Legend’s force-field.

They all got up, rather quickly, and moved towards the door, but Tyche stopped briefly next to Emyr’s chair.

“Y’know, for a crazy evil overlord, you’re really ok,” she said, offering him her hand. “And thanks for the drinks. Wish I could keep the magic cup, really,” she continued with a grin.

Emyr smiled at her, only having to bend his neck slightly to look up at her face, even while sitting. “It was my pleasure, Tyche. My pleasure, and my horror – I’ve never seen a normal-sized girl drink twenty-two drinks in such a short time. And each one an original, at that.” He took her hand, shaking it. “I do hope we can meet again under more pleasant circumstances, young hero.”

She blushed a little at his smile, and nodded. “Sure. See ya, your royal godliness.”

They all passed by Legend, who remained quiet, her head lowered and her hands clasped together, but Hecate and Polymnia both stopped next to her.

They exchanged a look, the two of them, then turned around, with Hecate speaking up.

“What’s going to happen to Legend?” she asked worriedly.

Emyr leaned around on his throne-like chair, looking at her with an inscrutable, but gentle expression. “Worried for your enemy, are you? Well, you needn’t be – I don’t intend to kill her, merely teach her a lesson before I eject her unto the real world once more.”

They looked at each other, again, as the others pooled around the gate, waiting for the two girls to join them and exit this reality. While neither seemed to be too happy with his reply, they clearly decided – sensibly, in Basil’s opinion – that it was likely to be the best they’d get.

“Alright. One more thing, Sir,” Hecate pressed on. “May we, um, take those?” She gestured at the items on the table, the ones Legend had used to summon her shades. “They should be returned to their proper places.”

Emyr nodded and gestured at the items, then at Hecate. They all rose up and flew over to her, making her briefly squeal in surprise before she caught them all and, with a respectful bow to him, stuffed them carefully into her bag of holding.

“Is there anything else?” he asked kindly.

She shook her head. “No, that will be all. Thank you, Sir,” she bowed again, then turned to leave.

Basil watched all that, feeling oddly disconnected from it all, but didn’t comment.

It didn’t help that he still didn’t trust Emyr, and so he let the others exit this reality first, just in case.

He was just about to step out of it himself when Emyr spoke up again.

“Brennus,” he said and when Basil turned to look at him, he’d rotated his throne around to face him and the door. “One last thing before you leave.”

“What is it now?” Basil asked wearily.

“Remember these words,” Emyr said, before he cleared his throat and sat up more straight, then spoke in a much firmer, deeper voice than before: “To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.'”

Basil tilted his head to the side. “I… do not understand.”

Emyr smiled at him like a kindly old grandfather might. “I know you don’t, just as I know that you will, some day. Be well, Sir Knight, and may you save those you wish to save.”

Clearly dismissed, Basil nodded at the strange man and turned around, leaving.

***

Legend watched quietly as Emyr leaned back in his seat while it rotated – with no visible or audible cause – back to face the table, the door closing behind him. She couldn’t do anything but be quiet and await new orders… and dread whatever ‘lesson’ he had planned for her.

“How likely do you think they are to succeed, Sophia?” he asked pensively.

She didn’t have to think about it to know the answer. “There’s no way this story is going to have a happy end,” she replied sadly – and she did feel sad. She wasn’t heartless, and she did feel sympathy for Dusu’s victims and those trying to save them; nevermind that she honestly wished that monstrous woman would get what she deserved (Sophia was a villain, and she was even willing to kill teenaged combatants, but… Dusu was just evil). “Whether or not they reach Dusu, she-“

She was interrupted, suddenly, when someone walked past her from behind, making her jump and squeal in surprise as she saw someone wearing a dark blue, hooded robe move down the table.

Where, where did he… no one but him and me should be here! she thought, staring in shock.

Emyr remained quiet, looking almost as surprised as she felt as he watched the stranger sit down at the opposite end of the table, where the unnerving girl with the changing power had been sitting just a minute earlier.

Sophia was immediately assaulted by an unnerving sense of vertigo as she looked at the stranger’s face underneath his hood – or rather, the lack of a face, as he was wearing a mostly flat, featureless mirror-helmet within which she could see the distorted reflections of both herself, Emyr and the table. Yet, even though she could not see the figure’s eyes, she still felt like she was seeing into Emyr’s own black orbs, seeing into the abyss beyond them.

The stranger sat down without a care in the world, putting his elbows on the table and clasping his hands underneath his chin, resting it atop his interlaced fingers.

“Well well,” Emyr said, tapping the armrest of his chair. “Who do we have here? I don’t believe we’ve met before. What is your name, stranger?”

“Some call me Journeyman,” the man spoke, making Sophia shudder at the sound of countless voices – most but not all male – speaking in unison. In spite of that, though, the man did not project any kind of hostility or threat. “Some have called me Aion.”

“Mm, interesting choice of names,” the Godking of Mars replied. “I assume you know who I am, Aion?”

“Emyr Blackhill, the Godking of Mars,” Journeyman said. “I came here to kill this incarnation of yours.” Sophia choked on her own spit.

“Well, that is rather refreshingly forward,” Emyr chuckled with clear amusement in his voice. “While I’d be really curious to see how you’d achieve that, I’m afraid it’s quite superfluous – I am going to terminate myself soon, since I can’t break out of here in any case. You’re wasting your time and strength, if you can even do it against my will.”

“Not so,” Journeyman countered. “I know you too well – you’d find a way to break out of here, and I can’t have that.” He leaned a little more forward, as his mask stopped reflecting the scene in front of him and showed nothing but Emyr’s own face, reflecting back at him.

The Godking frowned at him, his mouth twisting. “You seem quite certain… precognition?”

“Of a sort,” Journeyman replied.

“It is not impossible that I could device a means by which to escape this confinement, that is true, though I haven’t as of now,” Emyr said pensively. “Yet that would be truly a major feat, even for one such as I. You still believe you could slay me, now?”

Please, oh please, say yes!, Sophia silently begged the stranger.

To her dismay, he shook his head, only for his words to then make her hopes flare again. “I don’t think. I know.” He lowered his hands onto the table, leaning onto his elbows. “In this place, at this time, I am more than you are.”

Emyr chuckled. “I’d like to put that to the test, if you don’t mind.”

Journeyman grabbed the table by the edge and threw it aside like it weighed nothing, causing it – and the bowl atop it, and the goblets – to shatter against the walls, as he strode forward towards the Godking on his throne, his long, powerful strides moving him faster than Sophia could run.

Emyr stood up, ponderously, and pulled back an arm, forming a fist.

Journeyman wound up for his own strike.

Sophia stared in horrified fascination, unable to do anything but observe.

Their fists met.

Their world broke.

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New Chapter

The new chapter is almost ready – 90% written – but I’m having serious trouble getting the ending to be anything but horrible, so I’m still at it at 0:40 in the freaking morning. Bear with me.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B13.2 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 previous one 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 boyfriend’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,” the young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others and ignoring the chuckling around her. “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. 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.

The man called 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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B12.10 Born At Sleep

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I’m not dead.

Relief surged through Basil as he processed that thought.

Then he opened his eyes – and saw only darkness. Followed by a female groan to his left, and a cough to his right.

The buildings fell on top of us, he remembered. But they were still alive. He didn’t know how just yet, but first things first.

He tested his body, clenching and unclenching his hands, rolling his ankles. Everything seemed to be in working order. There were no new pains, leaving him only with the splitting headache curtesy of barely dodging Crocell’s blast.

With a flick of his fingers, he activated several lights all over his armor, illuminating his surroundings.

At first, he only saw dust. Lots and lots of dust, choking the air, which explained the coughs around himself.

Before he could do anything about it – not that he really had many options – the dust began to move, swirling and gathering into a single clump about the size of a football.

Without it to block sight, his lights could reveal the exact nature of his predicament.

He was in a small cavern created by the collapsing buildings smashing into each other and onto them. Somehow, through sheer happenstance, they had collapsed, broken and ground against each other in such an absurdly lucky sequence that it ended up forming a safe room around the three of them.

His armor wasn’t even nicked.

This can’t be just luck, he thought quietly, turning his head left and right. The woman in brown and Tyche were coughing and spitting out black globs of dust, but otherwise seemed as unharmed as he felt. Still, best to check.

“Are you two alright?” he asked as he got up. The cavern was just barely big enough for even him to stand, though his hood brushed against a desk that’d somehow gotten stuck in the new roof above.

The woman in brown spit out another glob of spit and dust, then coughed roughly, clearing her throat. “Quite alright… against all expectations.” Her voice stood in marked contrast to her understated costume, a pleasant contralto with a midwestern accent he couldn’t quite place.

“I feel amazing, actually,” Tyche replied with a chirpy voice, not bothering to sit up. “Apart from the whole buried alive and mouth full of dust thing, that is.” She turned her head to look at Basil. “What about you, B-Six?”

“Worst I have is a headache,” he said as he inspected the cavern more closely. “I can not see an easy way out, though…”

“There are five airways leading to the outside,” the woman in brown said. “But none of them is big enough to fit even a sparrow, much less a human or three.”

“How can you tell?” The prone girl asked.

“She wields some manner of aerokinesis,” Basil couldn’t help but interject. “Earlier wh-“

“No exposition!” Tyche cut him off. “She has aerokinesis. Don’t need a whole lecture.”

He grumbled under his breath, his back to her as he rapped his knuckles against a particularly sturdy-looking piece of concrete. “We’ll have a hard time getting out of here,” he said bluntly.

Just then, there was an earth-shaking impact, and a roar so loud, they heard it through the rubble.

Tyche cried something out, but it was lost in the scream and the deafening rumble of their little cavern shifting, collapsing, furniture and concrete coming undone to fall…

All around the three of them, without so much as a splinter touching them. When the cacophony and the dust subsided, they found themselves beneath the open sky, the fallen building having literally split open around them.

They didn’t have time to process the situation too well, though, because right after that, a huge, jet-black figure flew over them and slammed into the rubble just a few metre away.

It was Kraquok, in all his twisted, monstrous glory, having just smashed into the already broken rubble only to crush it further. He was bigger than the last time they’d seen him, having grown by at least half a metre in height, and several times that in length.

Before the many-armed monster could rise, Crocell leapt over them as well, landing on him with a deafening boom.

The two immediately began to wail on each other, one savagely, the other with an uncanny grace – for all his twisted form and size, Kraquok was a veteran fighter, and though Crocell was larger and stronger, not to mention standing atop him, he quickly reversed their positions, wrestling the beast into a submission hold, clinging to its back.

Basil didn’t have time to watch what came next, though, as a strong wind picked him and Tyche up, whirling them around the woman as she flew them away from the fight, causing him to lose line of sight for a few dizzying seconds. His ravenbots were still en route, and so could not help him right now.

When they were deposited, it was on the pavement two streets away, out of sight from the battle.

“We ought to be safe for at least a bit, here,” the woman said, bent over with her hands on her knees as she was trying to catch her breath. “My name is Nightingale, by the by. A pleasure to meet you, Brennus, Tyche.”

“You know our names?” Tyche asked in surprise, while Basil studied the woman more closely. Nightingale was not exactly a big name, but he’d read her name in a list of veteran villains – she’d been active for at least three decades by now.

The woman smiled at them, the skin aroudn her lips crinkling into laughter lines. “I’m something of a fan of bird-themed capes and cowls, and try to keep up with any new ones. Call it a hobby.” Suddenly, her smile turned into a frown, as she gave Basil a stern look. “I do hope those birds are actually robots and not some poor animals you’ve experimented on.”

“Is this really the t-” Tyche began, but Basil waved her off.

“They’re simple drones. I used Peregrine’s winged-flight design from Toybox and stuck it on an articulate Raven-shaped chassis, that’s all.”

She went back to smiling, clapping her hands together happily. “Oh, very good! That’s a weight off my chest.”

“Alright, enough with the geek-talk!” Tyche cut in. “What should we do next? Tall, powerful and ugly is still out there tearing up the town!”

“Right,” Basil admitted, focusing on the situation at hand again. Which immediately reminded him of something he should’ve done minutes ago, the moment he’d realised it. “Brennus to central,” he contacted them through the device he’d linked to his own com suite, “Crocell appears to be specifically going after my teammate Tyche.”

Father Manus’ cultured voice, practiced by years of preaching to his congregation, replied, though it sounded weaker than when he had spoken to the gathered capes and cowls before the fight. “Please elaborate, my son.”

“Crocell has repeatedly pursued my teammate, directing its attacks towards her and even ignoring immediate threats in favour of lashing out at her,” he explained.

“One moment,” the preacher replied.

Basil turned to Tyche. “Let’s hope they figure out how to use this.”

“Use… Oh, like, using me as a bait?” she asked, first stunned, then grinning.

He nodded, just as he was contacted again. This time, he made sure to patch Tyche into the connection.

“Brennus, we’ve confirmed your claim,” Father Manus said. “All our analysts agree that it’s accurate.”

“Well, duh, B6 wouldn’t lie about that!” Tyche cut in with a snort, before Basil could cut her off.

“Of course, please excuse the implication – I did not mean to insult anyone,” the holy man replied smoothly, never missing a beat. “It is good you are listening in – would you be willing to coordinate with us so as to maximise the distraction you appear to be to Crocell in our favour?”

Tyche crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, not that Manus could possibly see that. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. What’d you need me to do?”

“Splendid, my child!” he replied warmly, making her look… embarrassed? No, that wasn’t it, and Basil didn’t know how to parse the emotion that ran across her face and posture. “I shall send a flier to pick you up at your current location, along with an escort.”

“I can take her,” Nightingale spoke up, as if she’d been listening the whole time.

Aerokinesis… she probably can listen in on any conversation within her range, Basil noted, filing it away for future reference. Note to self, determine maximum and possible minimum range.

Father Manus must’ve heard her, too, because next, he spoke through the communicator on her belt, and told her where to take Tyche.

The redhead turned to Basil, meanwhile, and smiled. “Guess I’m going on a solo adventure, B6.” In spite of her bravado, she couldn’t quite surpress her nervousness.

“Do not hog all the loot,” he said, reaching out to put an armored hand on her shoulder, giving her as gentle a squeeze as he could through his own and her armor. “And stay safe.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m always safe, B6. You know that. You’re the one I’m worried about, so please don’t get yourself torn and broken – like last time.”

“I shall. Now go and do your job – I’ll do mine.” He let go of her just as Nightingale summoned a gust of wind that picked them both up.

Tyche saluted him casually before they flew out of sight beyond an office building.

Basil looked in that direction for a few moments, before he looked around. The street was now deserted, the fight having moved further on.

I wonder what I can do, he thought quietly as he triggered his grappling gear, catapulting himself up onto the tallest rooftop within reach. So far, nothing I have done has had any measurable effect on this fight whatsoever. Aside from keeping Tyche alive, but that was probably her power at work, not me.

He saw a dustcloud rise, several blocks away, and the unmistakable sound of the battle continuing, and immediately took a running start, leaping off the rooftop towards it.

His grappling system kicked in, swingning and throwing him towards it as he handled the controls. Even so, he’d grown used to the system by now, and could operate it casually enough to let him continue contemplating his role in this.

Without his ravens – there were only two left – he could no longer serve that well as overlook or Search and Rescue, at least not to a meaningful degree; while his medical training (of unknown origin) was easily up to performing heavy-duty surgery, that wasn’t really an option on a battlefield, nor necessary at the base camp, where actual healers and certified surgeons were available. Nor could he transport the injured, his grappling system put too high a stress on the bodies it moved, and wasn’t calibrated to transport a whole other person over a large distance, much less safely so.

His rifle, meanwhile, had proven completely ineffective by any standards. He might as well just have thrown stones at the thing, it was that much of a waste of effort.

Basil was still in thought when he swung upon a dust-covered four-storey office building with a tipped-over neon sign on top, and got a good look at the battle below.

Crocell was ringing with Kraquok, their huge bodies locked in a brutal struggle, as capes and cowls with ranged powers pelted the monster whenever they had free shot.

Then, Crocell managed to wind itself out of Kraquok’s grip, moving as if its bones had temporarily turned into water, and got a grip on one of his leftside arms, wringing the supervillain down to the ground.

As Basil watched, it stepped on his back and tore at his arm, ripping it free of its socket in a massive spray of blood.

Kraquok roared, but it wasn’t in pain – it was in triumph, as the stump almost immediately stopped bleeding and new flesh began to grow out of it.

While Crocell was throwing the giant arm it had ripped free away, a new one grew in its place, easily half again as long and thick as the one lost.

The twisted supervillain planted his new, oversized hand on the ground, as the growth began to spread from the stump like super-fast cancer; first the shoulder bulged, irregularly, then the other arms, the neck, the torso proper, and so on, his monstrous body growing to one-and-a-half times its previous size in irregular fashion, the process tumultous enough to make Crocell lose its footing and fall off of him.

Basil watched, fascinated, as the enlarged Kraquok rose to his full height, drawing himself up as his upper body twisted around to face his foe. Both of his faces were grinning in savage bloodlust as he opened his lower, crocodile-like mouth, drawing in air.

He knew what was coming – he’d heard a lot about it, even seen some spotty recordings online, but none of them had shown it in its entirety.

A dark red glow appeared in the back of Kraquok’s throat, and within his chest, pulsing with every heartbeat – in fact, judging by the location and shape of the glow in his chest, which could be seen even through his thick skin and armor-like scales, it was literally his heart that was glowing – as he seemed to take a deep breath, drawing himself further up onto his hind legs.

Then he bent forward, and his power exploded out of him in a wave of crimson, almost blood-like fire that washed over Crocell and everything around and further behind it, creating a cacophonous sound like water suffused with enough waste to make it thick, rushing over sharp stones, breaking. Wherever the crimson flames touched, things did not burn – instead, they withered, aged, rotted away, from the plants it touched to streetlights and even the concrete itself, quickly being reduced to dust.

Basil could not tell what, if any, effect the Mortal Coil, as it was often called, had on Crocell – but he sincerely doubted it was a pleasant one. There was a whole thread on Toybox populated by people trying to analyze the properties of Kraquok’s greatest offensive weapon; all anyone had been able to determine was that it actually aged whatever it touched, somehow accelerating the passage of time for any matter or energy it came into contact with. It decayed super-tough armor, force-fields, energy beams, defenses based on strange, sometimes even abstract mechanisms – in short, it could penetrate most any defensive measures available to most anyone; it’s only flaw being that he had to hit a certain minimal size before he could employ it in the first place.

Which he’d obviously just done, because he was pouring it out all over Crocell. It was a focused breath, too, with only minimal collateral damage.

The buildings around the two of them were already falling apart, aging decades, maybe centuries, wherever the slightest ember touched them, introducing numerous faults within their structures.

One of Basil’s ravens saw Hecate approach, as her shadow form landed just a few metre away, resolving into her costumed form. Basil was focused on the display of power in the distance (he was curious, but not stupid enough to try to get closer in order to get some better readings), but he lifted a hand to greet her, show that he had noticed her approach.

She came to a halt standing next to him and briefly touched his hand, trading a reassuring squeeze.

Her hands were drenched in blood up to the forearms. He did not inquire – if she wanted to share the story behind that, she would.

“Reminds me of my aging fire,” she spoke instead, her voice betraying weariness. “Though I don’t think I could ever make it that powerful.”

“It is certainly humbling,” he replied. “Neither your nor my defenses would be of any use against it and it would most likely burn away Gilgul’s time in an instant, unless her power somehow renders her immune to it.”

She nodded, as they watched Kraquok’s breath peter out. A few seconds later, they could see Crocell on the ground. Its skin was gone, exposing muscle and sinew – or at least, what appeared to be such, because it all seemed to be made of the same, uniform, pale white material as the rest of its body, from its bones to its softest organs. Pale, water-like fluid was flowing all out of it, pouring on the ground below.

And it was still moving, rising to its feet with no visible change to its speed or dexterity, even though at least forty percent of its legs and arms were gone. Its eye was gone, but that didn’t seem to impede it at all as it swung a bubbling, rapidly regenerating fist at Kraquok’s head, knocking the surprised villain over.

His heavy form toppled and crashed onto the street behind him, jaw broken for a few seconds before it fixed itself, growing slightly in size and said increase spreading throughout his entire form.

Crocell was absolutely dripping bubbles as its entire front regrew, stepping forward as it reached for the prone villain.

Then a mighty roar that reminded them both of nothing so much as a certain beloved movie trilogy filled the air as a massive figure leapt onto a rooftop adjacent to the street the fight was taking place on, and from there onto Crocell’s back.

“The hell is that!?” Hecate exclaimed in surprise, as giant claws dug into Crocell’s hide for purchase, while razor-sharp teeth bit into its neck.

“Oh my… that is the Ultrasaurus Megarex!” Basil exclaimed in glee. “I did not know Totemic had hunted it down!”

The huge beast was easily four and a half metre tall at the hips, and over twenty metre in length, which was further extended by the crown of jetblack, curved horns extending from its head, and the even longer, similarly coloured spikes on the tip of its tail. Its teeth and claws were similarly black and overly sharp, but the rest of its body betrayed its identity – instead of scales, it had messy, dark brown fur from the tip of its tail all the way to its snout and its front arms were grossy elongated and twisted, looking like gnarled wood.

“Ultrasaurus… Megarex… why do I even ask?” Vasiliki rested her face on her palm. “H-how…”

Basil shrugged as he watched Totemic savage the far larger Crocell with tooth, nail and stinger, drawing it away from the slowly rising Kraquok.

“There was this boy in Australia, a contriver who would clone dinosaurs and release them into the wild. Then he hit puberty and suddenly, ‘old’ dinosaurs were not cool enough anymore so he… innovated.”

“Oh, golly,” she replied with all the enthusiasm of a person lacking a Y-Chromosome. “So, anyway, what are we going to do? We’re still as superfluous as before, except for Tyche.”

“I intend to watch, study and figure out how to contribute,” he replied as he readied his grappling hooks. “As well as provide emergency support where necessary and possible.”

He leapt off the rooftop, as the fight moved further down the street, and onto a taller building a few houses down and across the street. Hecate landed next to him moments later.

“You’re not asking how I knew about Tyche,” she said.

“I assume you were listening in on our talk with Father Manus, seeing how you are patched into my communication suite.”

“I was just checking.”

As they talked, a horizontal funnel appeared around the three combatants, drawing in dust, rubble and the mist that kept forming around Crocell’s general location. Turning their heads, they saw Charybdis stand about a hundred metre down the street from the two-on-one battle, her brother behind her ready to lift off as she kept her mouth open.

The suction increased with every second, and the two giant metahumans began pushing Crocell closer to her, throwing both their body weight against it even as the strange monster dug its heels in to withstand the simultaneous pull and push.

Even Basil and Hecate had to brace themselves against the powerful winds that Charybdis’ power was summoning, though fortunately, they were far enough away from her for that to not actually be much of a problem – her vortex was tearing the facades off the buildings on the street, and still building up more power.

Still, it did not seem to be enough – Crocell had simply dug itself deeply into street, braced against her vortex, while neither Kraquok, nor Totemic were large and powerful enough to dislodge it. Instead, it seemed to be trying to move them around, to put them between itself and Charybdis, slowly edging the smaller Totemic to its side.

Is it really that smart? Basil thought, surprised. It had not, so far, shown any real intelligence, but it was now clearly trying to maneuver its enemies and use their ally’s powers against them.

And honestly, it might have worked – it was clearly stronger than either Kraquok or Totemic, and it had the advantage of the suction making it easier to move them into its way – but just then, a flier came into sight.

It looked, at first, like an oblong, almost elliptical mass of smooth mercury, flying through the air with its broad side in front, but as it approached, its form rippled like water and receded, until it was merely a floating disk, with two people atop. One was a man a costume styled to evoke a Roswellian alien, only taller, with black lenses over its eyes. He stood atop the mercury-like disk, his arms crossed in a stern pose.

The other passenger was Tyche, standing in front of him with a cocky grin.

“Oh God, what’re they planning…” Hecate whispered.

Crocell immediately turned its head nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees to look straight at Tyche. Abandoning its attempts to reposition its closer foes, it opened its mouth wide and fired its destructive beam straight at Tyche, headless of the still-active vortex in its way.

Predictably, the beam wavered, then was diverted, pulling down into the vortex to be sucked into Charybdis’ mouth on a spiraling path.

Nevertheless, Crocell kept firing as it now actively walked towards her.

“A distraction,” Basil explained, though it shouldn’t be necessary. “Looks like it still prioritises going after Tyche whenever she’s near enough.”

“I’d really, really like to know why,” Hecate said, worry in her voice – until Tyche started dancing around on the platform and  goading the beast by slapping her own butt at it. “On second thought, I totally understand the desire to liberate the world of her presence.”

“Admit it – you would miss her, too,” he teased her.

Crocell seemed to finally realise, meanwhile, that his attack was bearing no fruit, and stopped firing his beam. Only by that point, Kraquok and Totemic had gotten a good hold of its arms and shoulders, keeping it facing Charybdis, who took the chance to close her mouth.

“There it comes,” Basil commented, not that Hecate didn’t already know perfectly well how Charybdis power worked.

The young woman leaned back, as if taking a deep breath, and then she threw her head forward, her mouth snapping open in a silent scream.

A focused blast of compressed energy and matter shot forward to impact Crocell – but it started moving as soon as she fired, twisting its shapeless body. Its arms and shoulders… simply became boneless, like sacks filled with fluid, allowing it to simply twist out of its foes’ grip and duck beneath the blast.

“Oh fuck!” Hecate shouted as it shot past them. “That’ll blow an entire block away!”

They watched the blast fly down the street with a loud, ear-rending whine; but before it could hit a building – or worse, a person, for there were several approaching heroes down that way – a shadow dropped from above and into its way.

It was promptly engulfed into a huge, though strangely shaped explosion, most of its destructive energy being directed upwards or forward at a high angle.

“Did you see that shadow?” Basil asked as he wrapped an arm around Hecate’s waist, steadying her against the shockwave that nearly bowled them over. He had to rely on his grappling hooks to stay upright, again.

“Yeah, what could it have been… oh my God,” she finished with a whisper, as the explosion faded.

The Subjugator hovered forward out of the cloud of smoke it had thrown up, shimmering, shifting force-fields in front of it, shaped in such a way as to divert the worst of the explosion harmlessly upwards. Lights were glowing all over its blocky, yet elegant form, as vents opened, unleashing a pale blue glow.

Its four ‘eyes’ were rotated to face forward and briefly flared up in, causing the force-fields in front to dissolve starting from the centre, as the huge barrel on top of it further extended, until it was twice as long as the actual aircraft itself.

“DEFENDERS OF THIS CITY!” blared a chorus of powerful voices further amplified by its speakers – and also patched through all of their communication devices.

It is even in our private channel… Basil thought with some trepidation. He hadn’t even noticed an attempt to hack it.

“YOU HAVE FAILED TO CURTAIL THIS BEAST WHICH SO RUDELY INTERRUPTED OUR GATHERING!” Light began to gather in the depths of its gun barrel, as if motes of blue light were being drawn in and gathered, while electricity arched within the barrel. “NOW WALLOW IN YOUR SHAME AS THIS SUBJUGATOR FULFILLS YOUR DUTY!”

The glow became brighter and more intense, until even Basil had to avert his eyes, in spite of his mask’s filters.

“BEHOLD THE AWESOME MIGHT OF OUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN!!!”

It fired straight at Crocell.

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Missing Chapters

As some of you have noticed, there are a few missing chapters. Two, in fact. Apparently, this is due to some server issue on wordpress’ side, and mine is not the only blog that has lost something.

The missing chapters are B12.10 Born At Sleep and B13.2 Call of the Sleeper.

Unfortunately, those are both chapters I wrote on my ipad, while on the move (mostly on the train), and I’m afraid I’ve failed to keep backups of them – just a few half-finished drafts. I can rewrite them, of course, but I thought I’d ask if anyone here may have a copy they can mail to me at “geo_mi@web.de”, to speed things along.

Now back to writing the new chapter.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B13.10 Call of the Sleeper

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Can’t kill him. Can’t capture him. Can’t control or subvert him. Can’t harm him, Basil thought, his body exploding into motion, running forward towards Emyr’s back, as the tall man moved to pass through the door and subjugate two worlds again – and Basil did not doubt that he’d be able to, not when the world was already in such utter disarray. I have to stop him.

So how do you propose to do that, genius? the Man in the Moon asked him. We’re talking about a guy who, when he calls himself a ‘God-King’, is making a perfectly reasonable statement about his capabilities.

Moving as fast as his legs would carry him, trying to stay as quiet as remotely possible, Basil leaped onto the dais. If his power works anything like what it seems like, like what we know of his original life, then I won’t be able to achieve anything he has outright forbidden, but I can still neutralise him in any manner which doesn’t outright violate any of his dictates.

Mate, listen to yourself, you’re talking about taking on a god. He can literally wish you dead! Just stand down, play nice and don’t fucking antagonise him! the Man in the Moon shouted within his mind, yet Basil advanced.

What kind of man would I be, if I gave up the first time a big challenge appeared? He was almost upon him, less than four steps away from the man thought to be the most powerful being to ever walk the Earth.

Big challenge? The Protector was a big challenge! Crocell was a big challenge! This is an impossible challenge!

The black marble-like floor in front of the doorway warped, flowing upwards into a rippling curtain of the same material, blocking the Godking’s advance.

Gloom Glimmer! Basil thought, though he didn’t bother to look. Instead, before Emyr could even react to the sudden appearance of a barrier, he leapt at his back, impacting him with quite a lot of force as he wrapped his arm around his head, pressing his right arm’s bracer against his mouth to prevent him from speaking.

Emyr gasped in surprise, staggering forward to nearly slam into the now-solid wall, yet at the last moment, his movement was averted by no apparent means, causing him to stumble and fall to the side, with Basil on top of him, holding on for dear life – the Man in the Moon wasn’t wrong, it was not unlikely that all Emyr had to do was to simply shout ‘Die!’ to kill everyone in this place who wasn’t himself, under Tartsche’s power or, most likely, Gloom Glimmer.

Still, without his speech, he was just a normal man, so as long as Basil could hold him in a proper lock, he-

Emyr easily overpowered his left-handed grip on his arms and reached over his back to Basil, a single long-fingered hand grabbing him by the back of his neck.

Before he knew what was happening, he was thrown away as if he weighed nothing, tumbling end over end until he slammed into the bare floor, over a dozen metre away.

“Did you really think I-” Emyr began to speak, but was interrupted when a piece of the floor below shot up to cover his mouth – though not his nose – and cling tightly, cutting off his speech. He looked down at it, then looked aside towards Gloom Glimmer, who was standing firmly on the ground, an arm extended towards him with its hand clenched into a tight fist, her eyes glowing red beneath her hood.

I won’t let you speak one more word,” she spoke, her voice reverberating with power.

He expelled a breath through his nose, like a huge sigh, looking infinitely annoyed as he reached calmly for the gag made of marble-like stone clinging to his lower face. At the same time, he flicked a hand out at her, making an odd claw-like gesture.

Nothing happened, causing him to look at his hand in surprise.

Meanwhile, Legend was staring at the fight, her formerly haughty face utterly despondent and wild-eyed, gone a nearly purplish red as if she was struggling with herself, trying to say something – That’s right, he forbade her from talking – and pointing desperately, just out of sight from Emyr, towards something.

Basil followed her gestures and found himself looking at the table with the one burning basin left on it.

Of course! She summoned him by putting his book into the flames – perhaps destroying the basin will banish him again!

Spellgun and Hecate seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time, and all three of them raised their weapons – Basil and Spellgun their rifles, Hecate her staff – and, just as Emyr’s fingers dug into his gag without any apparent resistance, fired a single shot each.

He reached out with a hand again, making a different gesture – thumb and index forming a circle, pinky sticking out and the others curled in – but again, nothing happened.

The basin exploded, as did most of the table, blown apart by the combined force of their attacks (though mostly by the explosive bullet Spellgun had clearly used).

A ring of blue fire shot out from the smoking wreck, washing over everyone, making Emyr flinch in what may have been discomfort.

His eyes grew wide as he looked down at himself, sawing his body begin to fade as the Protector had, earlier, when Hecate had dispelled Legend’s work, if slower than that.

Was that enough? Basil thought, hopeful, watching the Godking become more and more transparent.

Then he ripped off the gag Gloom Glimmer had put on him, though it rippled and melted again, flying back at his mouth even as he shouted at the top of his lungs-

“TIME, BE STILL!!!”

***

Immanuel tilted his head to the side, his eyes fixed on a particular point of the floor of his meditation chamber, looking straight at the entrance to Legend’s realm, his expression briefly slipping from its usual calm serenity for a moment before he reigned it in again.

“What happened?” Heaven’s Dancer asked, as she sat on the same dais he was sitting upon, though her own posture was far more lady-like than his – knees together and to one side, her feet on the other – as was her choice of clothing, a proper white business suit with a silver shirt and golden jewelry. Unlike him, she also insisted on footwear even in such a meditation chamber, high-heeled white pumps in this case. Even her hairstyle, a tight, intricate braid woven into her gold-blonde hair, contrasted his careless style, if it could even be called a style.

“Blackhill just… stopped time, I think,” he said, stroking his smooth chin with one hand. “Whatever he did after, I can no longer see into Legend’s realm, if it’s even hers, still.”

The gorgeous young woman frowned, her serious expression quite out of place on a face as young as hers. “Is he deliberately blocking you out? How would he even know about you in the first place; even if he compelled Legend into telling him all she knows, she knows next to nothing about your actual power.”

He closed his eyes, smiling his usual, serene smile. His compatriot did raise a good point. “No, I don’t think that he’s blocking me, specifically, more likely that he chose to fortify Legend’s realm in general and just happened to shut me out as well. With power like his, it’s not inconceivable that he might shut me down by sheer accident, after all.”

She actually growled in response, the vicious snarl completely out of place on her face. “I told you Legend was too irresponsible! You must have known that she had that book in her possession, why didn’t you take it away? What if he breaks out of her realm? Even if he’s weaker now than before, as you claim he would be, I still don’t see how we’d stand a chance to contain him!” Her voice rose towards the end, becoming more shrill and angry than usual.

When he simply waved her concerns off, she nearly exploded, though he didn’t give her time to do so, simply continuing to speak: “Relax. Even if he breaks out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for us. His goals – as far as I understand them – and ours are not mutually exclusive. At best, we might actually be able to recruit him – he’s not entirely beyond my power’s reach, after all – and at worst, we might have a new leader – not a bad thing, no? He’s rather fearless himself, after all.” He smiled easily at her. “All that is assuming he can get out, though.”

She held his gaze for a while, blue eyes to brown, before she averted her eyes to roll them, sighing in exasperation. “You’re impossible.”

“You mean I’m impossibly amazing,” he replied with a boyish grin.

“Impossibly childish is more like it,” she countered, giving him such a pure ‘mom’ look he actually broke out into laughter.

She watched him as he shook, the corner of her mouth ticking up briefly before she got it under control again. He noticed it, of course.

He finally, he got himself back under control, wiping a few tears from the corners of his eyes. “Ahh, I needed that. Thanks, grams.”

She frowned again. “I am not your grandmother, young man, even if I may be twice your age.”

“Not quite ‘twice’,” he replied, raising a finger. “But yes, you are very old.”

The glare she was giving him now should, by all rights, have reduced him to a blast shadow on the nearest window. He felt an intense gratitude for the fact that her current form did not have any such power.

“I’m glad you are so amused by all this,” she said, her voice dripping dishonesty. “But I’m still rather put off about all this. We have her daughter within our reach, we should be capturing her, not letting her run around willy-nilly!”

And it was back to that subject. “You know as well as I do that we can’t contain her,” he gave her the same answer as every time she’d brought up the young Whitaker. “Even if we could, it would put us at the top of both Goldschmidt’s and Whitaker’s hit lists, something which we’ve avoided for nearly a century now by not doing things like these – or at least, not doing them in a way so easily leading back to us.” He gave her a beady-eyed stare. “You’re just sore you can’t take her for yourself, aren’t you?”

She gave him a furious look. “I could have, if you hadn’t insisted that-“

He cut her off with a stern look. “Take Whitaker’s daughter? Really? Remember what happened all those decades ago, when you tried to take Whitaker herself?”

As soon as he reminded her, she averted her eyes, lifting a hand to press against the left side of her lower ribcage in an unconscious gesture, shuddering and going pale.

“I thought so,” he continued, more coldly. “As powerful as Irene may be, she’s simply not worth the risk. Nevermind that she may be able to resist your power anyway.”

He waited until she nodded, more subdued now as she recalled the humiliation (and pain) of her first and only encounter with the elder Whitaker. Satisfied at having made his point, he turned to look at the entrance to Legend’s realm again, deciding to simply wait and see what was going to happen.

He’d already called in reinforcements the moment Legend summoned Emyr, anyway, just in case.

***

Basil was sitting on a very comfortable, cushioned chair made of what looked like old, hand-carved dark wood. The others were seated in similar chairs, all arranged around a table just long enough to seat each of them, minus Legend whom he couldn’t see.

Emyr sat the head of the table in a throne-like chair made of the same dark hardwood, richly engraved with strange, yet beautiful winding patterns and flowers which certainly did not exist on Earth. He somehow managed to sit in both a regal and almost slouchingly relaxed manner, radiating a sense of being both utterly in control and utterly at ease as he looked around with a slight smile on his face, his black eyes looking almost warm as he regarded the teenagers sitting at his table.

On the long side of the table to Emyr’s right sat Hecate, Tyche, Basil and Polymnia. Opposite of him at the other end of the table and seated on a chair that was taller than the others, yet still smaller than Emyr’s, sat Gloom Glimmer. To his left-hand side sat Tartsche, then Spellgun, Bakeneko and Osore at the end, opposite of Polymnia.

The basin that kept Emyr alive stood at the centre of the table, casting a flickering, five-coloured light as his book floated gently within it, untouched by the flames. The doll and rosary which Legend had used to try and summon the Chevaliers with lay on the table in front of Emyr, and he was holding the Protector’s token, idly flipping it around in one hand. It looked like a leather wallet to Basil, an old, much-used one, though clearly well taken care of. A stack of papers, bound with some kind of cord to form a crude book, lay on the table right in front of him. He could read its title, upside down, written in neat, flowing handwriting – Hasty Dictates XXI. Nothing else about it stood out.

Everyone stared at Emyr with various degrees of consternation or horror on their faces. What they were thinking, he couldn’t guess at, so he focused on Emyr instead. First, he briefly considered trying to attack the basin again, but as soon as he thought about it, he had a sudden, intense feeling of unease, as if his every instinct was screaming at him that that could not be done.

That’s different from before, he thought. I can still consider those actions, but now I get a warning that they won’t work?

He changed something, the Man in the Moon said quietly. Maybe that book…

“You can write commands down,” Basil spoke up, breaking the silence and causing no small amount of gasps by his startled friends, though he paid them no mind, focusing on Emyr instead.

Emyr continued to regard the wallet for a few more moments, before he looked at him and smiled lazily. “That’s correct.” He tapped the thin book – no thicker than one of Basil’s fingers, really. “I’m sorry about the effect my earlier commands had on some of you.” He looked at everyone but Basil and Gloom Glimmer, in turn.

It took a moment before Basil remembered that everyone but Gloom Glimmer and himself had frozen up – perhaps it had not just been fear?

“I’m sure you know, stories told by mouth are fickle things, easily misunderstood, twisted and forgotten,” he smiled a mirthless smile. “But write one down and you can fix it for the ages.”

Does that mean his spoken commands have a time limit? Then why did he bother to specify ‘today’ earlier? Basil thought to himself, even as he kept going through more and more scenarios in his head, trying to find one that could work. Any way he could think of to directly attack Emyr was out. As was any attempt to reach the portal – now likely behind the heavy wooden door which stood behind Emyr’s seat, as well as any manipulation of the basin…

It was rapidly starting to look like Emyr had considered any possible quick solution to this situation which didn’t favour him.

More information might help.

“So if you write a command down, it becomes permanent?” he asked, suddenly glad that he’d set his helmet sensors to constantly record everything going on – provided he got out of this, the records of this encounter would be a thing for the ages.

Emyr focused on him, leaning forward just slightly as he kept flipping the wallet around in his fingers. “So long as the writing persists, yes. Before you think to try something untoward, I have already written that this,” he tapped the collection of dictates, “cannot be harmed or even manipulated by any of you.”

Bakeneko – now back to her cat-girl form – raised a hand, as if she was in school.

“Feel free to speak your mind,” he told her, looking amused.

“W-what was… what happened, earlier? When you said that stuff, I… I couldn’t…” she looked down, slumping her shoulders under the weight of his gaze – even when looking at someone kindly, his gaze was so intense even Basil could feel it, when he wasn’t even the one looked at. “It was like, like my brain just… froze up.”

“Ah, I do apologise for that,” he said softly. “That is one of the downsides of me relying purely on verbal commands. They affect everyone who hears them differently. For example, when I decreed that I would neither be hurt nor captured, some of you became unable to take any aggressive action against me, your minds locked up by what you couldn’t do rather than focusing on finding loopholes. Or, to make it more simple, my commands, when phrased too broadly, tend to affect everyone in different ways.” His shoulders shook as he laughed briefly, the sound low and completely at odds with the situation – as if he was sitting with friends at home, telling a story. “As to why some are affected one way, and others another, why some,” he looked at Bakeneko, Tartsche, Spellgun, Tyche, Hecate and Polymnia, “were struck with inaction, while others,” he looked at Basil and Gloom Glimmer, “where able to seek – and even find – loopholes, that I know no hard rule for. It appears to simply rely on the personality of the person in question.” He flipped the wallet in his hand, and Basil finally got a glimpse at the other side – it wasn’t a wallet, it was an EMT badge, belong to one Jason Devon.

“I, I see,” she said, looking away with an expression on her face that Basil couldn’t quite interpret – though the fact that her face was largely inhuman right now certainly didn’t help.

“Is that how the Martians’ ‘magic’ worked?” Basil couldn’t help but ask – he seemed amenable to talking, for whatever reason (though he could think of a few why he might).

Emyr redirected his unnervingly intense gaze onto him, but Basil remained calm, refusing to shrink back from it.

Not that there was anything like an overt threat there, or even an implied one. In fact, Emyr just smiled nicely. “Well, knowing what you know now, how do you think it worked?”

Basil frowned, briefly considering what he’d seen and heard so far. “It seems pretty simple, now, even if mind-boggingly powerful. You just wrote down how magic works, didn’t you?”

That earned him another smile. “A gold star for you, young man!” he said, snapping his fingers, and a golden star – an actual, solid gold by the looks of it, five-pointed star – appeared on the table in front of Basil. “That’s precisely how it works. I spent a whole month writing the entire Book of Magick. Then I had my priests create copies of it and spread them around.” He sighed, his gaze growing distant, lost in his memories. “That was a fun month. I’m really quite proud of the system I came up with. Very well-defined, like a science. Anyone could use it, too, not just Martians, though I did write in a few limitations to the effect that none of it could be used against me, personally.”

“Why not just restrict it to your Martians, or only to people who worship you?” Hecate blurted out a question of her own, leaning forward as they moved onto a subject close to her heart. “Seems like a safety precaution worth taking.”

Basil took the gold star and put it into his pocket.

Emyr directed his gaze, and smile – He really smiles a lot, doesn’t he? – at her, making her shrink back in spite of the complete lack of anything threatening about his bearing. “That’s a very good idea, my dear, but I did intend to integrate humanity into my empire, and having them all be unable to use magic would’ve reduced them to mere second-class citizens, especially once it turned out that my Martians were quite capable of manifesting powers of their own, as well. As for the worship, I-“

“Wait, they could what!?” Hecate jumped out of her chair, very nearly throwing it over. “The Martians… they could… I mean, we thought it was all just…”

“They could manifest, of course. It is not limited to humans,” Emyr replied, making a dismissive gesture with his free hand. “No, don’t ask,” he continued, pointing at Basil. “I will not reveal to you the origin of powers, nor any other of its secrets. You needn’t bother to even ask, for I will not answer,” he explained, his voice cold and hard again. “And be thankful for that, my boy. Some knowledge is naught but a burden to all those who know, and not to be shared lightly.”

“You can not expect me to ignore the fact that you apparently know the answer to the single greatest question of the last hundred years!” Basil shot back, leaning forward as he clenched his hands around the tips of his chair’s armrests.

Mate, what’d we say about pissing off megalomaniacal godlings?

Shut your mouth.

“I don’t expect you to ignore it, and I certainly don’t simply expect you to drop it,” Emyr replied, relaxing again as he lowered his hand down to the table. “I order you to drop it.”

And just like that, Basil knew he would no longer be able to bring the subject up. “Alright,” he grunted between clenched teeth, barely holding back the desire to charge him across the table and try to hurt him for so casually controlling him. He opened his mouth to continue, make a scathing reply in spite of his better judgement, when Spellgun jumped in after Tartsche poked his side with his elbow.

“You did the same thing for their technology, didn’t you Sir?” he asked respectfully, his Southern accent thickening as he got more nervous with each word. “Ah mean, the ships, the portals, the weapons, none of it seemed like, you know, normal science” He looked aside, unable to stand Emyr’s intense gaze.

“The Book of Emyrian Science was my second written work on Mars, yes,” he affirmed.

“But none of it works anymore, does it not?” Basil threw in, drawing that unnerving gaze back onto himself. “Their machines, their spells, it all stopped working when you died. And it’s still not working, even now that you’re back.”

“How do you know it doesn’t? Do you have some means to observe the outside world from in here?” Emyr asked curiously, not seeming perturbed at all.

Basil shook his head. “I do not, but I noticed you making a strange hand gesture several times earlier. Both times, you clearly expected something to happen, and both times, it did not. Which tells me that you could use your own magic, and that you need your writings yourself in order to cast your spells, if you can not just speak it all out loud or do not want to, and it does not work now, even though you are back and clearly expected it to work.”

“Very perceptive,” Emyr replied, tapping his left cheek. “You are right, loathe as I am to admit it – either my former writings have stopped working entirely, or else they don’t reach into this pocket dimension. Though it’s more likely the former than the latter, as they have reached into such places in the past.”

“Or maybe you are just not really Emyr Blackhill,” Basil pressed on, drawing several hissing breaths from the others, as he kept up the eye contact with Emyr. “Because you are still here, wasting your time talking with us, when you were just trying to get out. So I am inclined to think, you tried to, and you stopped time, so you had the, time, to try as much as you wanted to, and you could not. You are stuck here, even though you took over from Legend.”

Emyr leaned to the side, resting his cheek on the fist of his left hand, his right one still playing with the badge.

Since he didn’t reply, Basil pressed on. “So, I guess my real question is, why are we still here? You certainly didn’t set this all up just to have a nice chat among friends. What do you intend to do with us?”

The Godking of Mars looked at him, smiling. Then his smile spread, and he began to chuckle, his shoulders shaking as the chuckle moved on to a pleasant laugh, and the laugh into full-throated laughter, as the heroes in the room stared alternatively at him and at Basil, at the latter as if they couldn’t believe he was talking like that.

After more than a minute, he finally calmed down, spots of red having appeared on his high, razor-sharp cheek bones.

With a smirk, he wiped a tear from his eye. “Ah, that was good. Haven’t had a good and proper laugh in a while.” He flung the tear away from his finger. “You are, of course, right. I don’t want just a nice chat among friends here.”

He raised his hands, making everyone but Basil and Gloom Glimmer – who had stayed completely quiet so far – tense up and lean away… and clapped them, twice.

From off to one side, Legend appeared, wearing an utterly ridiculous dress – oddly reminiscent of a maid’s dress, though in red, gold and black, with actual gold filigree worked into the cloth, tight around her body yet still modest, even tasteful… if one thought a gaudy fantasy-version of a maid’s dress could be tasteful – and an utterly furious, humiliated, terrified expression on her face, as she carried a tray with a variety of goblets, walking around the table – starting with Hecate and moving around counter-clockwise back to Emyr – as she put a unique goblet in front of everyone.

Each goblet seemed to be customised to fit the general appearance of the person it stood in front of, made of materials and covered in jewels that matched their respective colour schemes. Basil’s own was made of what he guessed to be Obsidian, with numerous tiny diamonds worked in, forming his sigil in a colour-inverted version.

They were also, one and all, completely empty.

All of them looked at the goblets, then at Emyr, who picked his own up as Legend took up position behind his chair and to the side of his left, moving smoothly, not like a puppet at all, and yet there was no doubt to be had that she wasn’t in control of herself anymore – her facial expression alone said it all.

Emyr’s own goblet was made of gold – of course – and had five large jewels that encircled it – an Emerald, a Diamond, a Sapphire, a Ruby and an Onyx stone – with no further decorations. Though it was larger than any of the others, it seemed to merely be so it fit into his long-fingered hand, not for the sake of, well, having the biggest goblet around. It, too, was empty.

“Chateau Margaux, 1787,” he said simply, and the goblet filled up with a sparkling red liquid. He took a long, slow drink, savouring the taste as he put the goblet – it instantly refilled – down on the table again, leaning back with his eyes closed for a few moments. “Ah, always a good one.” He opened his eyes, surveying everyone around the table. “Please, order your drinks. You can have anything you can reasonably describe. And afterwards… afterwards, we talk.”

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B13.c On Wings of Lead

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Malphas never set himself an alarm clock – he didn’t even own one, there was no need. As the day began, he felt his people wake and go about their morning routines, the vibrations of their increased movements propagating through the material he’d filled with his power, reaching him, the contrast to the relative calm of the night enough to wake him from his restless slumber.

He turned onto his side with a groan, the ground he lay on molding itself flawlessly, instinctually, to his body, far more comfortable than any bed could possibly be; people often thought that his room spartan, with no luxuries other than his ever-growing collection of comic books and a single poster, but the truth was, furniture, even a bed, was superfluous – not when he could control the tenements at will, thanks to all the power he’d channeled into the material over the last two years, ever since he created their first incarnation. Even now, as he woke, the ground rose up, pushing him into an upright sitting position, then extended into a chair that was sitting on – once he wanted to rise, it’d be easier to do so from this position than from the ground.

Next, he reached out with his right arm, as a tendril of semi-liquid metal extended, handing him a cup of steaming hot coffee it’d brought from the communal kitchen, in his private metal cup-

The cup slipped through his non-existant fingers as a horrible, stinging pain shot through them, through his arms and into his shoulder.

He screamed, doubling over and off his chair, hitting the ground face-first as the pain – and the knowledge – of his missing limb took over his mind, not even noticing it as the ground melted to receive him, making it look like he’d dove into jelly, sinking in before he rose back up, curled up around the stump of his right arm.

For several minutes, he lay there in just a pair of ratty grey sweatpants, his slender, dark-skinned chest heaving, trying very hard not to hyperventilate – he’d done that a few times, the first few nights after Blauschwinge’s attack, passing out from the strain and the shock.

Fuck. Fucking fucking fucker, fuck you! he thought, as the memory of the arrogant, mad-eyed villain rose up. The contemptuous snarl on his face as he grabbed Volca using his power to simply chop through her body, from shoulder to hip, with one hand, ripping her in two. Lag’s anguished cry, as she ran to her dying cousin, touching her, taking her wounds onto herself.

Taking her death unto herself.

Then, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, he’d flown out, dodging several spikes Malphas had shot his way, those he didn’t simply allow to splash harmlessly off his body, and then smashed his tenements with a single blast, warping and twisting them so violently, even his power hadn’t been able to counteract its brutal deformation, hadn’t been able to evacuate everyone in time before they were crushed, killed.

Never, not once, since he’d gained his power had he failed so thoroughly. It hurt more than losing his arm, in its own way, to have failed the people he’d sworn to protect.

Another lance of pain shot through the space where his arm should be, into the useless stump sticking out from his shoulder, making him bite down on another scream, silently thanking his foresight in sealing up his room, save for a pipe leading outside for air, before he went to sleep, so no one would hear his initial screams.

It took him almost ten minutes to recover enough that he could gather his wits about himself and rise up on shaky feet, using his power to wrap several tendrils around his waist and left shoulder, to steady himself. Another tendril had caught his falling cup earlier and now passed it to him.

Strange, I didn’t think of that, he noticed, his mind still numb from all the pain, almost moaning as the hot black liquid – he hated sweets, never developed a taste for them, and always took his coffee black – ran down his throat and soothed him, while also helping him wake up.

Gulping it down in one go, using his power to make the cup so smooth every last drop would run out, he dropped it, letting it melt back into the rest of the tenements.

Only after taking a few more breaths did he finally look at the stump. It’d been tied off, bandaged expertly, first by Aap Oordra, then later by the staff of the hospital which he and Volca had forced him to go to.

Not that he’d protested much, once the adrenaline had started to fade and the full magnitude of the pain made itself known.

Speaking of which, it was coming back again, so he popped some painkillers from a small can that rose out of the floor, then retreated back into it.

They wouldn’t kick in for a while, but just knowing that they would was already helping, putting his mind a little more at ease.

Taking some deep breaths, he slowly counted down from ten, took a look at his poster – it always lifted his spirits, ever since he’d hit puberty – then simply walked through the wall leading to the hallway outside his bedroom, stepping out fully armoured with metal drawn from it, making his way to the shower room on the top level, where he resided.

Behind him, the floor of his room overturned itself, drawing in the sweat and tears in, channeling them out of the tenements and into the drain, leaving no trace behind.

***

One thorough shower later, the eleven-year-old was clean and relatively fit again, as the painkillers slowly kicked in and he’d removed the last traces of his troubled sleep.

Not that he had long to enjoy it, thanks to his stomach immediately deciding to rumble loudly, announcing its need for food.

I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, he realised, startled, even as he felt relieved that he had the top level for himself and no one was around to hear it.

Seeing no pressing business to take care of, he dove through the floor, using his ability to feel all throughout the structure to avoid hitting any of the tenants that moved through the intervening levels. All of them were already quite used to him diving through the tenements in such a fashion, and no one even flinched.

Malphas tried very hard not to dwell on how much emptier the tenements were, compared to before the attack. Not only had he been unable to save eleven of his people, but several more had chosen to move out, scared off by the brutal attack, even though the attacker had been brought down almost immediately afterwards (though Malphas wasn’t sure whether he’d survived or not – that mercenary working for Aap Oordra had taken his body with him, saying he’d take care of everything). He’d told them that they were welcome to return at any time, and he hoped that they’d remember that the tenements were still the safest place to be in in the Undercity, but for now, he felt the absence of twenty-three of his own.

There were few things Malphas hated as much as losing his own.

Fortunately, just as his thoughts were about to turn to all the others he’d lost over the years, he reached the communal kitchen and mess hall that he’d built into this newest iteration of the tenements, while fixing the damage from Blauschwinge’s attack. It was bigger, now, extending all the way up to the roof of the plant above, and broader, the outer walls multi-layered, disconnected from each other while still being reinforced, hopefully making it more resistant against any similar attacks.

He’d taken the chance to add several upgrades that people had been asking for for a while now, including expanding the shared kitchenspace into a proper mess hall, with enough room to provide seats for as many people as could possibly fit into the tenements.

When he got there, he was instantly distracted from his gloomy thoughts as he saw an increasingly rare sight at the tenements, though this one was one he was unambigiously feeling good about.

Volca sat at a table near the actual kitchen, sipping coffee from a huge mug. She was wearing sweatpants and a blue sweater, and her hair was still wet and clinging to her head and neck.

The other tenants kept their distance, mostly moving around her table to get to the coffee machine behind the kitchen counter, and in general doing what they could not to offend her in any way. Ever since Lag’s death, she’d become increasingly irritable and violent, to the point where, during the first days, Malphas – himself still recovering from having lost his arm – had been forced to put her down a few times to prevent her from hurting others.

He’d just about started to consider locking her away for a while, or splitting a part of the tenements off to give her a space of her own, when Aap Oordra had shown up, out of the blue, and offered her and Malphas a job. It hadn’t taken much prodding for her to accept it, though Malphas himself had declined – he didn’t like the thought of being away from his tenements for too long.

She’d calmed down since then, with no more incidents that’d required his intervention, though that was at least partly because she spent less and less time down here, and partly because she was always so tired when she did.

Still, he worried, and he was also curious about things were going, so he decided to join her after getting his own meal.

When he walked to the counter, the cook, Marley, saw him and picked up the pot of coffee from the machine, letting it flow down onto the bare metal counter. A cup formed out of it, catching the glorious java, and a bowl as he simply dumped some stew onto it, already used to the routine.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice much deeper-sounding thanks to his helmet. The short, wiry man behind the counter just nodded (he was mute, as far as Malphas new), picking them up and walking over to Volca. “Mind if I join you?”

The young blonde looked up at him, taking a moment before she responded – not because she had to think it over much, he was sure, but simply because her brain was not quite as awake as the rest of her body, just yet – and nodded. “Sure thing. Your place anyway.”

He nodded back and sat down, his armour immediately fusing with the bench. He picked up the cup of coffee, the lower portion of his helmet folding open (he’d styled it to open kind of like that alien from that old Schwarzenegger movie) to let him drink.

Ah, coffee.

He noticed Volca staring rather intently at him, as he drank, and gave her a questioning look.

“Ah, sorry,” she said, averting her eyes and raising her mug to take a sip. “Just… I can still barely believe that you’re a freaking preteen. Never would’ve guessed.”

He felt his face heat up a bit. “Um, yeah. That’s why I always go around in full armour, you know? I need people to take me seriously, not see me as just a kid, so I can take care of everything.”

She snorted, almost laughing, putting her mug down and looking incredulously at him.

“What?” he asked, defensively. His helmet snapped shut again.

“Malphas, dude, you’re so far beyond being ‘just a kid’ it ain’t even funny anymore,” she replied, grinning at him over her steaming hot mug. “If there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about, it’s anyone ’round here not taking you seriously.” She looked him straight in the eyes, her gaze as intent as her words.

He looked down at his food, looking at his food rather than at her, feeling embarrased. “You think so?” he asked her, not really taking it all that seriously. He knew how adults were about that, treating children like they weren’t able to think properly or something. Like they couldn’t be trusted with anything.

It always annoyed him, seeing how the adults themselves couldn’t really be trusted with anything, ever. One look at the state of the world showed that.

Except for guys like Aap Oordra, he’d rarely met any adults who seemed all that better than kids at being smart. A lot were worse, in his experience, like Volca used to be.

“Yeah, I mean, dude, look around you,” she replied, seeming to wake up fully for the first time and leaning forward over the table even as she gestured at everything around them. “You built this. All of this. On your own. You’re taking care of dozens of people, all alone. You were, what, nine when you started it?”

“Ten,” he grumbled, annoyed. “I started this two years ago. Am almost twelve, now.”

“Yeah, I betya even Double-L and the Dark weren’t this badass at your age! And, and, I mean, dude, you lost an arm defending this place!” She almost shouted that last sentence, then suddenly became a lot calmer, sitting back again and averting her eyes. “The people here love you, Malphas. You don’t need to hide a thing from us, you know? No one who matters is gonna think less of you for being young.”

He had trouble believing that. Especially since it came from Volca, the same woman who thought it was a good idea to put chili powder into coffee and hot chocolate.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll think about that,” he replied. “So, uh, how’s work, anyway? I barely see you around here anymore.” She’d barely spent three nights in the tenements, since the night Lag died. Not that he couldn’t understand that, even disregarding her new job.

She groaned, slamming her head onto the table. “Don’t remind me. Aap’s a fucking slavedriver,” she said, muffled. “I don’t just have to work full-time, I also have to train. ‘Until you’re up to my minimum standards’ he says. ‘So I don’t have to worry you’ll get yourself killed by some random crook’ he says.”

“Uh, training? What kind of training?” he asked, surprised. He hadn’t heard about that.

“What kind of training? Easier to say what kind of training he’s not giving me!” she complained loudly, making several heads turn their way, though the other tenants still kept their distance, giving the two metahumans their room. “He’s having me study to get my GED, and to get a proper, legal license both for the job and as a cape. A cape, me! Plus combat training, and investigative training, and negotiation practice and it ain’t the normal stuff either, you know? I looked it up, the kinda stuff he makes me learn, even the cops’ special forces don’t do that much! I dunno who trained him, but it must’ve been a complete sadist! Today’s my day off from training – not work, just training – otherwise I’d be out jogging with a backpack full of rocks while getting quizzed on crime scene procedure. And his pop quizzes! Any time we’re not on the clock, he might attack me, out of the blue! To test whether I’ve been practicing all the reversals and tricks he’s teaching me! And he says we’re just getting started!”

Malphas couldn’t help but gulp, feeling glad that he’d dodged a bullet by refusing Aap’s job offer. Even though he’d been really, really eager to accept, if only to spend more time with him. Aap was freaking awesome. The coolest adult he’d ever met, ever.

Still, what Volca was telling him sounded like the proverbial training from hell.

“That… sounds a little extreme, yeah,” he agreed with her. “Does he, uh, what does he do, while you train?”

She shrugged, while remaining bent over, her head on the table. “Most of the time, he trains with me. Does all the stuff he makes me do. ‘cept when he takes on some extra work and is busy. Then he has Wa- I mean, Cartastrophy watch over it instead.”

“Well, at least je doesn’t make you do anything he ain’t willing to do himself, right?” he pressed.

She looked up, finally, looking annoyed, and waved it off. “Nah, he’s pretty cool ’bout that. He’s done it all when he was little, already, and he does it again with me. And he even pays me for the hours I spend training. Well, will pay me. Haven’t got my first paycheck yet, just a signing bonus.”

He tilted his head to the side. “A signing bonus? How much did he pay you?” he asked, curiously. If he’d understood it correctly, Aap had just returned from being some kind of prisoner of war – how much money could he already have, really?

“Ten k,” she said, grinning. “First time I made this much money the honest way and all at once. Or any way, really.”

His eyes nearly bugged out. “T-ten thou? Seriously? Where’s he get all that money!?” That may not have been all that much up top, but ten thousand dollar were one hell of a fortune down here.

She waved an arm. “Savings from before he went to war. Plus, he got money from the government. Basically, they paid him his salary as a non-com for every single day he spent as a PoW. And on top of that, bounty for turning the Ascendant in. Guy’s a freaking millionaire, not that he seems to care about it, ‘cept how it lets him set up his new business.”

Malphas jaw was hanging open in shock as he processed that. He knew Volca was gonna be making money now, real money, not the occasional take from some crime, but if that was just her signing bonus

“Ah, this reminds me,” she continued, laying her arm on the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking straight at him again. “You’re gettin’ some of that, too.”

“W-what?”

“The bounty, silly,” she grinned at him. “Aap’s insisting that everyone who helped with the fight at the water works gets a cut, ‘cept for that stoic mercenary he’d hired – he got paid already, or sumthin’.”

“Seriously? I, uh, I dunno what to say. How much am I gettin’?” he asked dumbly, not sure what else to say.

“Bounty was a few million. Got paid out to him and he’s giving us all an equal share, after taxes and all. That’s you, me, Cartastrophy and himself, so about, a little less than a mill each, once the money comes in.”

He felt the people move about in the tenements, going about their business, some leaving to get to whatever small jobs they had, or just to scavenge or do other stuff. Time passed.

Volca got up and went to get herself some beef barley soup, then came back, sitting down to eat. Time passed.

“You know, I’d say it’s funny seein’ ya look like a statue, but then I realised you always look like that, anyway,” she commented, when he’d still not said anything halfway into her meal.

“Uhhh…” He shook his head, trying to recover his wits again, then groaned when the jerky motion made pain shoot through his stump.

It wasn’t important, though, because, damn it, he’d never even seen that much money, nevermind had been told it would be his. And now Aap Oordra wanted to give him nearly a million dollars, when he’d basically taken down the Ascendant and his cronies all on his own?

“I, um, I really don’t know what to say,” he replied. “What, uh, what do I have to do to get the money?” he asked the only thing that came to mind, or at least the only one that wasn’t him just babbling incoherently.

“Just come with me to the office,” she replied between two spoonfuls of soup. “You can talk to Aap and get all the info.”

“Leave the tenements? But, I need to-” he began to protest, but she cut him off.

“Dude, it’s gonna be alright if you’re gone for just a morning or something,” she said, annoyed. “Besides, what do you think is gonna help this place more? You being here this mornin’, or you havin’ nine-hundred kay to throw around?”

He looked away, embarrassed. She was right, of course, but… leaving the tenements, his place of power behind… it wasn’t just that something might happen to people around here, it was, it wasn’t something he really felt comfortable doing. Ever. Even leaving them to go after the Ascendant, it had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

Volca finished her soup and got up. “So, you comin’? I got a schedule to keep, so I can’t hang around and wait, big guy.”

He looked at her, then he looked around at the other people in the mess hall. Most of them were focused on their food or their conversations, but a few noticed him looking at them and looked back, smiling and waving.

Everyone here was ragged, their clothes old, some of them handed down half a dozen or more times, within the tenements. Food was just a thin beef barley soup, water and coffee from a scavenged coffee machine they’d somehow fixed up, but which kept breaking, over and over again.

Forget nine hundred thousand, I could do so much for people around here with just nine hundred dollars, period.

That thought was what decided him, finally, and he stood up, nodding to her. “Alright, let’s go.”

***

“You know, I haven’t seen the sun in months?” he asked Volca, as they left the Undercity through an old, abandoned subway station, stepping out onto the open street and drawing no few looks. He’d left his armour behind, putting on some real clothes – well, more than just underpants and sweatpants – for the first time in a long time, and that alone was making him incredibly nervous, but even so, at his age, and with just one arm, he was drawing stares.

At least his sweater hid the bandages around the stump, so it wasn’t evident that it was a recent injury, and not just something he’d been born with or whatever.

He didn’t like it, feeling both pitied and exposed, two things he really did not want to feel.

“You should get out more,” she replied, walking ahead confidently, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. New jeans, not brand-name stuff, but still, new and well-fitting, and a stylish black sweater, her hair up in a messy ponytail, and just a touch of actual make-up on her face.

Maybe it wasn’t just him who was drawing stares. He’d never really thought about it, but walking with her now, out of costume and all, he couldn’t help but notice that she was really quite… attractive.

It was quite annoying really, ever since about two months ago, he’d been noticing girls more and more. The poster on the wall of his bedroom being Exhibit A of his newly awakened interest in the formerly icky half of the population.

At least most of the women living in the tenements – ‘cept for Lag and Volca, and now just Volca – weren’t all that pretty, so he hadn’t gotten tongue-tied or anything in front of people yet.

At least Volca was someone he’d known since before he’d started noticing girls, so he could talk to her normally.

“Maybe I should,” he told her, as they walked down the street. “The breeze feels nice.” It was a windy day in the Windy City, and it was really refreshing. It even made his stump throb less painfully.

All the noise around them wasn’t nearly so nice, though. The Undercity wasn’t exactly tranquil, but up here, it was a cacophony. Cars driving around, people walking, talking, shouting. Electronics, everywhere, beeping and screeching and more.

He focused on the way ahead, trying to shut the worst of it now, but it did distract him briefly, so he missed the first part of Volca’s next sentence.

“- sometime after the next months starts,” she said.

“Huh? Sorry, I got distracted, what’d you say?” he asked her, wishing he could look up at her face as they talked, but he didn’t have the tenements around him to feel where he was going, and know when he was about to walk into someone, so he was focusing on where he was going, moving much slower than usual and not just because his legs were shorter without his armour.

“I said I’ll probably be moving out once I get my cut of the bounty and my first paycheck,” Volca repeated.

He stopped dead, looking at her in shock. She moved on a few more steps, before she noticed that he’d stopped and turned around to look at him, looking confused, first, then sympathetic as she seemed to pick up on his mood.

“Y-you’re leaving?” he asked, dismayed. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand… the tenements were a place for people to hide out and rest, until they got their life back on track, and it was also the place where her cousin had died, and she was making money now, too, but…

But… he hated it when people left. No matter how good the reason.

She smiled sadly at him, moving closer and bending over as one of her hands slid to the back of his head, pulling him forward to touch her forehead to his.

“Hey, don’t be sad big guy,” she spoke softly. “I won’t disappear. I’ll still visit, and I’ll be helping out – you and the others down there, you did so much for me and Nina, there’s no way I could just abandon ya all. But I gotta find a place for myself, now that I can.”

He averted his eyes, even as he leaned against her, enjoying the gentle touch – a rarity, even when one discounted the fact that he was wrapped in several inches of steel most of the time. “I know. I’m sorry for being silly, it’s just…”

“You’re not being silly, big guy. Just… being you. And I freaking love you for that, you know?” She pulled back, then leaned in again, giving him a warm kiss on the forehead.

When she pulled back, the warmth stayed, spreading from his forehead through his head, and down towards his chest as he looked up at her. They were both a little teary-eyed.

“Thanks, Volca. And… congratulations, I guess. I should’ve said so sooner, but… I’m really glad you’ve found something like this.”

She laughed quietly. “Thank you, big guy, but really, that’s just thanks to Aap. I still dunno why he insisted on hirin’ me, it’s not like he can’t do everything I can do, just better, anyway. But I sure am grateful that he’s such a weirdo. Anyway, speaking of said weirdo, he’s gonna put me through hell if I’m late, so let’s get a move on!” She ran her hand through his close-cropped hair, then turned around and walked on.

He stared after her for a few moments, then he gave a start, and followed her.

***

They reached her new jobplace soon. It stood near the Downtown area of Chicago, though Malphas didn’t know enough about the upper city to identify the precise location. There were a lot of shops around, but also a few apartment buildings, plus a homely little park with a playground.

The building Aap’s business was in must have once been a bar or something. Only two storeys tall, it was made of red bricks, with a solid wooden double-door that a short flight of stairs led up to and stained-glass windows.

What stood out the most, though, was the sign above it. A circular carving of a monkey wearing one of those Sherlock-Holmes hats, holding a magnifying glass and a baton, and next to it, in bright golden letters, the words ‘Blue Monkey Investigative and Protective Services’.

He was just about to ask Volca what those weird hats were called, when the door opened and the absolutely prettiest girl he’d ever seen walked out.

She was tall, taller than Volca even though she was clearly at least a year or two younger, with chocolate-coloured, unblemished skin that didn’t match her more white-ish facial features, but strangely complemented them, and bright, gorgeous purple eyes, as well as rich brown-black hair currently up in a braided bun. Wearing black tights, calf-high boots, a skirt and a pink keyhole sweater, she drew the attention of every guy on the street with a line of sight towards her.

“Oh, Hennessy,” Volca greeted her with a chargrined smirk. “Looking good as ever, but shouldn’t you be in school?”

The gorgeous girl rolled her eyes at Volca, but didn’t reply, instead looking at Malphas and giving him a gentle smile that made his knees weak.

Holy shit… How the fuck could girls be so distracting without even talking?

Then another person stepped out of the door, turning around with the same motion as she seemed to be talking to someone inside.

“-dare forget it, or I’ll make your life hell!” she shouted, sounding angry in a cheery kind of way, before she turned around.

She was a freaking goddess. Even prettier than the purple-eyed girl, and that was saying a lot, her skin was as pale as her friend’s – at least, they seemed to be friends, as she stepped forward and took the other girl’s hand with hers – was dark, her hair a rich golden colour and her eyes a mesmerising green-blue, like liquid jewels. She was wearing jeans so tight they seemed painted on, high-heeled boots that made her as tall as the other girl and a complementary blue sweater with a keyhole cut out and she was even more stacked than her friend.

Some part of Malphas mind was realising that he was staring at her with his mouth hanging open, but most of it was just endlessly repeating blue screen.

“Oh, hello Evelyn,” the blonde goddess – or was angel more appropriate? – greeted Volca, before she focused on him. “Oh, and who’s this cutie?” She grinned, walking down the steps, her friend following after her as she came to a halt in front of him and bending over to put herself at eye-level with him. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

He tried very, very, very hard not to stare at her breasts, which weren’t really hidden all that much from view in this position. He really, really tried.

“Uhh… ahhh…” he replied dumbly, really wishing he had his armour – then at least he could seal his helmet and not seem like a complete idiot. “Um, my name, uh, it’s, uh…” What was his name again?

“God, Camille, lay it off with the charm,” Volca complained.

The angel rolled her eyes, laughing before she focused on him again. “I’m not doing anything to him, silly. Just being friendly.”

He finally tore his eyes off her, her cleavage, and looked up at her face, gathering his wits for his reply. “Um, I, my name, my name’s Adrian, m-m-miss.” He gulped, trying to somehow wet his dry throat.

“Hello Adrian. My name’s Camille,” she replied, her voice as melodic as her body was gorgeous, and stood up – mercifully – offering him her left hand to shake.

He took it, shaking it. “A, a, a pleasure to meet you, miss,” he said.

“Likewise. And this is Hennessy,” she introduced her gorgeous friend. They shook hands, too, as he felt a wave of calmness come over him, helping him relax and gather his wits again.

“Nice to meet you too, miss,” he said, though she didn’t reply. Not that he cared, he was still mostly focused on the other girl.

Suddenly, Volca spoke up. “Hey, do you two have some time free?”

The girls looked at her, then at each other, then at her again. “Sure we do, why?” Camille asked curiously.

“Well, I got work to get to, and I thought, maybe you’d like to show Adrian around the place a bit, and stuff?” Volca suggested.

He whirled his head, staring at her in surprise, but she ignored him entirely, focusing on the two younger girls instead.

Camille grinned, looking at him again, and he felt his face flush with heat. Even more when her eyes briefly dipped to the stump of his arm, then up to his face again, with just a hint of pity in them – though it didn’t bother him at all right now. “Sure! We can hang out a bit, maybe grab a bite to eat?”

“Sounds great,” Volca said. “Ok, Adrian, you have a fun time and we can take care of business later, you ok with that?”

“Uh, ah, um, ahhhh.”

She nodded sagely. “I knew you’d agree. Have fun you three!” She waved at him, and walked past the girls into the building.

He stared after her, for a moment, feeling both bewildered and a little bit betrayed, before he turned his eyes back to the an- Camille.

She grinned at him, like… he didn’t know what to compare it to, it was too dazzling.

Instead of pressing the point, she held out her free hand for him. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s go have some fun!”

He took her hand, unable to form words, and let her pull him along, he on one side and Hennessy on another.

He didn’t even notice that his arm wasn’t hurting at all anymore.

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