B13.b Chickenleg(s)

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Radost Extreme Security Prison, somewhere along the Arctic Border of Siberia
A few months ago

Radost prison was widely considered to be the least joyful place on Earth, even more so than the infamous Nporpecc towns that had dotted the Siberian districts for over almost two decades. Abuse, mutilation and brutal deaths had merely been a near-certainty in those, not an absolute one, like in Radost.

Radost was, after all, not merely a prison, even if that was in its name. Yes, it was primarily one, and one meant for the worst of the worst. It was where the Red Council sent those captured metahumans whom they were unable to break and indoctrinate into their purpose, yet were too valuable (or too difficult) to simply execute.

That alone, however, was not the only reason it was so reviled a place, nor why it was more heavily defended than the seat of the American President himself. An entire army battalion was stationed here on permanent duty, at triple rationing both for the soldiers themselves and their families back home, to keep the men happy in spite of the horrible weather, the depressing, often horrifying duty and the constant danger of both prisoners breaking out and people from the outside trying to break in. The ground level of the prison was fully equipped to serve as a major military base.

The battalion was one of the best-equipped in all of the Sovjet Union, including the newest advances in military technology – even some precious gadgets, up to and including a half-strength company using power armour – and an entire company of metahumans. Rather than the proper command structure, there was an actual general in charge of the base, aided by two members of the Politbüro, allowing him to call in reinforcements as needed, without having need to explain himself before the fact, up to and including airstrikes and even, in the most extreme situations, a tactical nuclear strike.

There were, in fact, three nuclear warheads stored on site, spread throughout the underground complex beneath the military base, to act as a fail-safe in case of the outer defenses being defeated, or an irrecoverable uprising of the captives.

Radost had not always been so heavily defended; much of its security, including the option of said nuclear strike, had been added in during the late nineties, after a certain metahuman came to national attention. In fact, much of the paranoia surrounding the prison there was one particular person that they had feared would eventually try to break in, considering the bounty waiting inside.

Another reason was that it was also one of the biggest sites for human experimentation in the world, the men and women working in its laboratories having been charged by the Red Council to unravel the mysteries of metahumanity, so that it may be fully twisted to the council’s purpose. Though a truly daunting task, it was well-aided by their blanket permission to experiment upon the captives of Radost at will.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these scientists were mostly in favour of triggering the fail-safe in case their victims ever broke out.

Even less surprising was the fact that General Vlasiy Lagounov, who’d been in charge of this god-forsaken place for the last five years, did not relish being the first of its wardens to fail so thoroughly that it would become necessary to do so. Putting aside the fact that it’d almost certainly ruin his career, which he’d planned out many years ago and which involved working his way up the command chain of the military until he could land a cushy job in the Ministry of War, he was also spectacularly unlikely to survive it, seeing how he was just a normal human – no nepravil’nyy narod was allowed to hold the rank of even the lowest of commissioned officers, much less a full general – so he’d always planned to defeat any assault upon Radost, in case it ever happened (it never had, before), by way of overwhelming force, superior tactics and the plain fact that no one who could bring as many metahumans to bear in a battle as he did could penetrate so deeply into SU space without causing all their espers to go crazy and see it coming a week away at the least.

Of course, there was the matter of said one threat that had originally caused the security arrangements to become so insanely enhanced…

“Ba-ba, babababaaa-ba, ba-ba-baba,” a sweet voice sang, barely audible through the heavily re-inforced tungsten doors.

That she was audible at all was already a reason to panic, and Vlasiy had to use all of his self-control not to start shaking all over, as he ordered his remaining men to draw up a defensive line.

Half an hour, he thought bitterly, disbelieving, as he watched his remaining men – three of the folk, thirty-three proper warriors and two of the researchers – draw up a line, taking cover behind hastily errected walls, formed out of the very tungsten that the entirety of the room was made of via one of the metahuman asset’s power.

They’d been forced to retreat into the deepest, darkest portion of Radost, which was named, appropriately enough, Koschei’s Chest. The entire section, an underground building as large as the Kreml, was made out of a single, solid piece of tungsten, shaped via powers, to hold Radost’s most dangerous prisoners. It hung, suspended by magnetic engines, in the centre of a vast underground cavern, the walls of the cave dotted with countless weapons that faced inwards, as well as one of the fail-safe’s nukes, dedicated solely to the task of, not destroying the chest, but collapsing the cavern on top of it, in the hopes of burying those held within. Currently, only two of the eight available cells were occupied, one holding an American prisoner of war, and the other…

Vlasiy shuddered, preferring not to think about the other one. He hoped that the rebels would at least show enough sense to not set that one free.

Just being there, in the hub room that lead to all of the cells, made him shudder, even though he tried his very best not to look towards the solid wall of heavy metal beyond which he was sealed away (there were no doors into the cells of the chest, one needed to have access to the right kind of superpowers to access them, if they could even disable all the defenses installed to prevent just that).

“Baaaaa-ba, baba-baa, ba, ba, baba, baaaaaa-ba…”

The singing – if it could be called that – became louder, coming closer, making the men shudder and raise their weapons – all of them, enhanced, weapons built by one of the three assets still with him, rifles with special ammunition, each shot capable of punching through a tank’s armor and out the other side, front to back. Weapons that, even with their near-limitless resources, they could only have a score of at hand at any time, due to the effort that their creator had to invest in maintaining them and producing the proper ammunition. The ones who didn’t have such weapons had lesser gadgets to use.

Fat load of good it did us so far, Vlasiy thought as he stood in the third row of tungsten cover, behind two rows of soldiers and assets, holding his own gun – made by one of the assets, as well, to his distaste – in one tightly clenched hand, while the other held a cylindrical object, a detonator to set off the fail-safe, which he’d already armed, as per regulation, when the attack on the base above had begun – though he kept its cap on for now, not that that would slow him down much, it could be flipped open with a twitch of his thumb to reach the button underneath. He was gripping it so tight his knuckles had turned white.

As there was nothing more he could do, for now, but wait and see what she would do next, he looked at his assets, feeling ill at ease – the rebellion was led by more of the wrong folk and only one of the three had been properly conditioned, the others being ostensibly loyal enough to the Union to be stationed even here.

The one who’d built his gun was a woman, a slight one, one of the Joyous Folk. Thin, with pale skin that rarely saw the sun and short, stringy blonde hair. She stood there in a simple smock that reached down to her shins, her feet bare underneath, stained with grease and who knew what else, as were her bare hands up to her elbows. Her only other item of clothing was a metallic collar around her thin neck. She held her head lowered, her brown eyes focused on a spot somewhere on the ground. Number two-four-four-nine, she’d broken under the strain of the conditioning and needed commands even for such basic actions as swallowing the food she’d just chewed, showing only the barest amount of initiative where the use of her power was concerned, building ever new weapons that were either used in Radost or shipped out to be used in other places. Of the three Folk, she was the only one he didn’t worry about. A single command of his was all it would take to make her choke herself to unconsciousness (he’d had her do it before, both to test her conditioning and to amuse himself), or pick up a gun and shoot herself in the head.

The other two were more problematic, being still in command of their own will, an absurdity, if a necessary one, as broken dolls made for horrible soldiers. Sergeant Petrov, a tall, broad-shouldered man with blonde hair and muddy blue eyes, wearing a proper uniform with a black armband bearing the crest of the wrong folk who served in the military, a simple red circle with a black hammer and circle in it. He was the one who’d reshaped the walls and floor into cover, as well as reinforced the door keeping (hopefully) their adversary out by merging it and the wall and floor into one solid piece. Unfortunately, his power only had a rather short range and so he couldn’t act outside of this room any more than anyone else in here could.

Vlasiy always felt a measure of regret when thinking about Petrov (which wasn’t even the man’s real name), as the man would have made an amazing soldier, had he only not become one of the folk. Upstanding, steadfast, loyal, efficient. He didn’t just look like the model soldier, he acted it. Still, he was folk and so Vlasiy did not trust him, as regretful as he felt about it.

The other, Sergeant Utkin, was a study in contrasts with Petrov; short, hairy, slender, he barely filled out his uniform. His face had heavy jowls, a hooked nose and thin lips and his personality was as unpleasant to deal with as he was unpleasant to look at. But he was powerful, having the ability to repel any other folk’s power, potentially even reversing it back upon themselves. Such an ability should have made him a prime candidate for the Foremen, but he’d been deemed too unsightly and too unreliable in combat, being often too slow and too cowardly to serve well. Thus his posting in Radost, where all of the inmates had powers of their own, and where he could serve well. Frankly, he disgusted Vlasiy more than almost any other folk he’d ever met, but he couldn’t deny the man’s usefulness, especially now, in the wake of the enemy approaching.

His eyes moved on, over the rows of proper soldiers he had with him. They were good men, well-trained men, loyal men, loyal to him, to the army, to the Council.

“Baaaaaaaaa-ba, ba-ba, ba, ba… ba-ba, yaaaaaaa…”

There was almost no way it would be enough, not facing one of the worst internal enemies the Sovjet Union had ever had to deal with.

But he’d be damned if he was going to be the first warden of Radost to fail.

“General,” Petrov spoke up calmly, suddenly, turning to face Vlasiy. “With all due respect, perhaps we should entertain the-“

“Babababababa-baba yaaaaaaaa-gaaaaa!”

Vlasiy barely had time to cry out as something shot through the solid former door, ignoring the reinforced material and the further protections installed in order to discourage just that.

He saw something akin to a ghost, a vaguely humanoid outline, transparent, silvery-grey, rush forward, trailed by a stream of after-images, moving faster than he could even hope to raise his gun, running straight through the hailstorm of bullets, lasers and plasma that his men unleashed, through their cover, through his men.

Everyone it, she, passed through collapsed with a scream, only to scream more as they hit the ground. What Vlasiy could see of their bare skin was horribly disfigured by a network of grotesque swelling, an effect he recognised instantly – it was one of her known powers, taken from the Wraith of Screams, one of the cursed children of Orenburg, causing the nerves of any it passed through to grow massively, making the slightest stimulus a source of incredible pain.

The wraith finished its charge through the ranks of his men, coming to a halt inbetween him and his subordinate folk, growing more and more solid as its after-images caught up with it, until she stood there, looking at him with a demented grin.

She’s wearing clothes, was the first thought that came to mind. For twenty years now she’d been out there and never not once had she put on any clothes before, to his knowledge. He knew a lot of soldiers kept images of her, hidden, against orders, because of her beauty and how uncaring she’d been about being seen like that, and even Vlasiy had to admit, it wasn’t unwarranted, as distasteful as it was.

The young woman looking at him could have been at home in a propaganda video of the Ministry of Education, advertising the wonderful life and opportunities that awaited young men if they joined the army, or the agricultural corps, save for the fact that she had eyes as red as bloody rubies and the rest of her body was a purer shade of white than fresh snow, though even her Albinoism didn’t detract from her almost adorable facial features.

Her hair had been cut, compared to the images he knew from her file, though it was still tied in a braid, now reaching to her knees rather than being several times the length of her body. Her torso was covered, barely, by a slashed black t-shirt sporting the logo of some American music band, the straps and sides of her red bra showing through, stark against her skin. It stopped a few centimetre above her belly button, only to be followed, further below, by a multitude of skirts layered atop one another, all of varying lengths, with the shortest ones – starting at the length of a miniskirt – furthest outside and a long, ankle-length skirt as the base; most of the skirts were slashed similarly to her shirt, while others were basically just a miltitude of ribbons attached to a waistband. Her feet were still as bare as ever, though he thought he saw something metallic flash on her left ankle, before his eyes snapped up again, along with his pistol.

He knew it was most likely pointless, but he still pulled the trigger, firing a sphere of super-heated plasma straight through her head.

Her form shifted into a multitude of after-images, each leaning a different way, making her body as insubstantial as air, the shot passing through harmlessly. Behind her, a pillar of tungsten rose up, catching the blast before it could kill Two-four-four-nine.

She reformed, and opened her mouth. “If you mess with Baba Yaga, you’ve got to be gaaaaa-ga!”

Three more voices joined in on her that chant, causing him, and his men, to look at the sealed door as they actually managed to be heard over the screaming of his afflicted men; though considering how they’d been heard all throughout the entirety of Radost since the very start of the attack, that wasn’t surprising at all.

The whole door had melted away, gone without a trace, opening up the way to the metal walkway that lead to Koschei’s Chest.

Three young women, identical to the one standing next to him, stood at the entrance. The middle and left one were holding hands, while the right one had her wrists touching, fingers splayed forward and moving like a spider’s legs, apparently being the one coordinating a curtain of plate-sized octagonal force-fields that flew around in front of them, deflecting any shot his men sent their way. Perhaps due to a quirk of the power, or perhaps out of sheer arrogance, she actually went around blocking every single shot individually, rather than just create a single, solid curtain around them.

The middle woman – was she the real one? Or a decoy? Was there even a real one? – wagged a finger at him, grinning like a loon.

More men fell down screaming as the wraith passed through them, even as others went still, some passing out, some flat-out dying as either their brains, their hearts, or both, gave out due to the massive shock of such intense sensations.

“Utkin, what the hell are you doing!?” Viasiy shouted, turning around to look at the one asset he still had to throw against her – only to find him on the ground, unconscious and bleeding of a head wound. The ceiling above had extended into a dull spike, blood dripping from its rounded tip. “W-what the hell are you doing, Sergeant Petrov? Traitor!” he shouted at Petrov, who stood next to the their fallen trump card, one hand holding onto Two-four-four-nine’s hand, almost protectively.

What?

“I’m sorry, General,” the man spoke with a firm, calm voice. “But I’m hereby tending my resignation.” And he ripped his armband and hat off. “As is my comrade here.” He nodded towards Two-four-four-nine and used two fingers of the same hand that was holding onto his armband and hat to grab a hold of her collar, using his power to tear it off without harming her.

Vlasiy opened his mouth, red-faced, to shout the empty woman’s termination code, but Petrov was faster, flinging his left hand out at him, sending the armband, the hat and the collar flying.

The three objects melted as they flew, into a single, grey-black mass, and slapped onto his lower face, spreading out, wrapping around his head, thoroughly gagging his mouth and nearly doing the same to his nose.

He tried to raise his gun, to at least shoot and kill one of them, but only felt something close around it, locking it in place. Looking down, he saw a stalagmite of tungsten reach up, wrapping around his hand and gun. If he pulled the trigger, it’d just destroy his hand.

No, no, fuck no, not to a traitor! he thought furiously, hatred evident in his eyes as he glared at the Devil’s Bride and at the two traitors, using his thumb to flip the fail-safe’s switch open – but he never got to bring his thumb down on it, as another stalagmite rose up and encased it, securing the transmitter.

“Imbecile,” Petrov snarled. “I had several minutes’ worth of time to let my power seep into the entire room. And my name is not Petrov, that’s a slavename.”

The threat so neutralised, he turned aside to address his former adversary, only to give a start as he realised that the Devil’s Bride was standing right in front of him now, on her tip-toes, looking curiously at his face.

The tall folk gulped, taking a step back. “Ah… apologies,” he said, his eyes tracing the rest of the room. All of the soldiers were on the ground, either dead or passed out, except for those who’d been caught in their own deflected shots – those were definitely dead. “I would, ah, I mean, we,” he looked at the dead-eyed woman whose hand he still held. “We would like to, to join the revolutionary army, ma’am.”

“Not ma’am,” the Devil’s Bride said, tilting her head to the side as she made an annoyed clucking sound. Her voice had a very odd accent, musical, but definitely not Russian. Unlike any those in the room had ever heard before. “Baba Yaga. Name is, Baba Yaga.”

The man paled a bit more, sweat appearing on his brow, but he seemed to compose himself. “As you wish, B-baba Yaga.”

Her annoyed pout turned into a stark, white-toothed grin, her pale pink lips stretching wider than one would have expected, and she reached up, making the folk flinch back – but all she did was pat him on the head.

“You is good boy,” she spoke. “Baba Yaga like good boys. Tell name to Baba Yaga!”

Is she a simpleton?, Vlasiy thought, stunned. Was that it? Had the boogeywoman of the Sovjet Union been a mere simpleton the whole time?

“Pytor, ma- I mean, Baba Yaga. My name is Pytor,” the man replied.

“Good. People need name,” Baba Yaga said in a sing-song, putting emphasis on the word again. “What hers?” She pointed at Two-four-four-nine.

Pytor’s face changed to one of deep sadness. “I don’t know, m- Baba Yaga. They took her name, along with everything else. All she has is a number. Two-four-four-nine.” He spoke the numbers as if they were the worst of blasphemies, his face twisting in disgust.

Baba Yaga’s grin disappeared. “Is no good,” she said. “Is, no good. People need name.”

Suddenly, her form seemed to shudder, as if a pair of after-images were trying to lean out of her, briefly. Then they stepped out of her entirely, solidifying into two perfect copies of herself, both of them facing the way out. One jumped into the arms of the other, and they disappeared in a streak of neon light, racing towards the elevator shaft.

Baba Yaga leaned back on her heels, her toes rising off the cold metal ground, clasping her hands behind the small of her back as she looked alternatively at him and at the dead-eyed woman.

“You two, together?” she asked, grinning like a nosy teenage girl.

It was clear that Pytor had not expected that question, which likely explained his hesitation before he replied, “No, we’re not. I just, someone’s got to take care of her.”

The albino woman grinned, swaying back and forth on her heels, as if she had not a single care in the world. It was intensily unsettling.

Before Pytor could speak up again to ask what was going to happen, the streak of neon-lights returned, depositing both copies of the Baba Yaga, as well as a man in a heavy brown-red overcoat, a mining hat and with a multitude of shovels, picks and other earthworking equipment strapped ot his various belts and buckles, his broad, scarred, rather unattractive face looking a little green.

“Brother Kopatel!” Pytor exclaimed, recognising him easily from innumerable propaganda posters and news spots, as Baba Yaga reabsorbed all of her copies, leaving only the (ostensible) original, who immediately cuddled up to Kopatel, wrapping her arms around his left elbow to hug it tight to her chest as she looked up at him with an adoring expression.

Both Vlasiy and Pytor stared, unable to parse the sight as the man ignored having the most powerful woman in the entire Union hanging off his arm, focusing instead on the former sergeant in front of himself.

“You must be Pytor, correct?” the revolution’s unlikely-looking leader asked as the nausea faded from his broad face. “Baba Yaga tells me you want to join us, and  that you’re honest about it.”

Pytor blinked, briefly surprised, before he all but visibly berated himself for it. Of course there’d be something to tell whether he was telling the truth or not among the multitude of powers she’d gathered by that point.

Vlasiy, meanwhile, was quietly despairing, knowing that his fate was now completely in the hands of his enemies including, if he was truly cursed, those very prisoners he’d helped keep imprisoned so as to be experimented upon. Tears leaked from his eyes, even as he couldn’t help but notice how unlikely these two men made the situation seem – Pytor, the tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired and blue-eyed statue of a man, cowering, deferring to the short, stocky and at best plain if not ugly Kopatel. It would have been hilarious were it not something he’d have to witness like this.

“That, is correct, Br- Sir,” Pytor replied. “Me and, well, actually, I’m not at all sure what she wants, but, I’m sure she wouldn’t want to stay with the Union, if she was still able to choose.” He looked at the dead-eyed young woman.

***

Kopatel’s eyes softened as he looked at the broken young woman – a girl, really, young enough she could have been his daughter, perhaps even granddaughter. If she was a day over twenty, he’d be very surprised.

As usual when he met one of the so-called Joyous Folk – something which was happening more and more, now that he was actively fighting the Red Council – he felt both a crushing shame and a near mind-rending rage.

Shame, because he had, however unwittingly, been complicit in doing this to people. Rage against the men and women who’d abuse other humans so, who’d used the ideals that’d driven him and Ludmilla to perform such monstrous actions.

“Do you remember your name, young one?” he asked the girl, his rough voice as soft as he could make it, stepping closer.

It was a stupid question, a foolish one. Their name was one of the first things the Ministry of Harmony took from its victims, followed by their dignity, their memories, their will and, finally, their very mind. But maybe, somehow, he’d get lucky and this one would remember something. It had happened before, some folk were able to recover from anything the ministry could do to them, if slowly, incompletely. Usually this was dealt with regular re-conditioning, or outright execution, if they were judged not worth the trouble, but gadgeteers were always worth the trouble, in his experience.

The girl shook her head, never raising her gaze for even a moment, and his heart broke a little more.

She looks so worn out, he thought, as he reached up with a calloused hand, taking off the glove he wore on it to gently brush a few strands of thin, barely cared-for hair behind her ear. There were dark bags under her eyes, her cheeks were nearly corpse-like in paleness and her lips barely rated that description, having the same colour as the skin aroudn them. She hasn’t been treated kindly, even for one of the ‘Joyous Folk’.

“I try to take care of her, when I can,” Pytor said, looking away in shame. “But there’s only so much I’ve been able to do. If she’s not in her workshop, she’s usually…” He screwed his eyes shut. “Well, there’s… there’s not many women around this place, and it’s not like she could say no, even if she wanted to…”

“I understand,” Kopatel said, throwing a murderous glare at the entrapped general, who stared back in fear. “I’m glad at least one person was looking out for her.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, when he felt a tug on his arm.

He looked down at Milena who, for once, looked completely serious. “Give name,” she spoke softly, her accent so familiar by now it didn’t even strike him as odd anymore. “Give her name. Teacher and Baba Yaga can help, but she needs name.”

Kopatel noticed Pytor’s head turning, focusing on Baba Yaga when she spoke of helping her, looking as shocked as Kopatel would have, back when he first got to know the scary, strange young woman that currently clung to his arm, but he’d long since figured out that ‘the Devil’s Bride’ was far more complex a person than her reputation made her out to be.

“Perhaps it should be Pytor who gives her a name, he’s the one who’s been taking care of her so far, after all,” he replied gently.

“No. You give. You gave Baba Yaga, two of them! Give her, too! Give name!” she said, insistently, squeezing his arm much harder than her frame would suggest she could do. Not that that meant anything anymore, these days. “Teacher can teach and heal, Baba Yaga can protect, but you give name.” She looked at him, her red eyes reflecting the light in odd ways, almost like a cat’s. It was a hypnotic look, completely apart from her powers, even when she wasn’t so intent on something.

Of course, by this point, he had plenty of experience resisting her wiles and managing her moods. “Alright, I’ll name her,” he gave in, not that he really had any problem with it. Looking at Pytor, he got a nod, and so turned to the broken girl.

He looked her up and down, noting the stains of grease and other fluids on her arms, some on her bare feet – he frowned at that, that was just petty cruelty, not to give her shoes in a place like this – and in her hair, on her smock.

She kind of reminds me of Ludmilla, he thought, remembering the way his big sister used to look after a day of working on their father’s car, or the tractor. She’d always been handy with mechanical things – if he’d known then what he knew now, he’d have expected her to become a gadgeteer, not get the powers that’d made her the Sovjet Union’s beloved Red Star. Better that she didn’t, he thought, realising that she’d probably have been taken to the Ministry of Harmony, if she’d had such a power.

Like this one was, he continued to think, feeling the weight of it all on his shoulders, as so often lately. But at least I can still save you, little one. Or try to, at least, but Svetlana can probably help, and Milena will certainly try… though honestly, she might just as well make things worse… no, it can’t really get worse, can it? Another sigh. So much to consider, and he really had so much else to do besides, but he couldn’t just ignore this.

At least he knew what name to give to her. “I need some water,” he said, turning his head aside, only to see a sphere of water floating there, wobbling softly. Of course, she already has some, he thought as he scooped up a handful of water – it felt more like jelly, staying in his palm rather than flowing out – and stepped forward, his arm sliding out of Milena’s embrace.

“Ludmilla,” he said, just saying the name causing a pang in his heart – but he was used to that, anyway – and tilted his hand over her head, letting the water run over her hair and face, loosing its jelly-like consistency as it left his hand. “Your name shall be Ludmilla, from now on, until you find the one you had before, if you can, or choose another.” Finally, he dipped his fingers in the sphere of water, which had turned into scented oil, and drew a simple cross on her forehead with it, using his thumb. Far from sufficient, but he found that religion could be quite soothing, and the rites existed for good reasons, after all.

Briefly, the newly christened Ludmilla’s eyes flickered upwards, before she looked down at the ground again, showing no other reaction at all.

Still, it was some reaction. Kopatel smiled, nodding at Pytor. “We’ll take good care of her. We have some people, who do nothing but try to help those who fell victim to the Ministry of Harmony,” he told the taller man.

“Will I be able to visit?” Pytor asked, almost shyly. “I’ve, uh, grown rather fond of her, and I would like to make sure she’s, she’s doing well,” he tried to explain.

“Of course you will,” Kopatel said, almost feeling himself grin. “I’m sure it’ll help her, to have someone familiar, too.”

Then he sighed, and turned serious again. There were still so many things to take care of. “Baba Yaga,” he spoke. “Please take Ludmilla to Svetlana, explain the situation to her.”

Milena grinned, her teeth shiny, and gave him a playful salute, before she created two duplicates again – likely with the same two powers she’d used to bring him here. He winced, slightly, as they picked her up, one under each shoulder, and disappeared in a streak of neon light.

The original Milena of course remained there, and wrapped herself around his arm again, purring happily like the cat he sometimes thought she might have been before her awakening.

He turned to Pytor again. “Alright. Let’s get to business,” he began, wishing for a moment that Milena wasn’t clinging to him like that – he couldn’t clasp his hands behind his back like this, or cross them, and so that left his right arm with nothing to do, really. “This is the man formerly in charge of Radost?” He nodded towards the trapped general.

Pytor stepped up to stand next to him – making sure that Kopatel was inbetween him and Milena, he noticed – and looked at the trapped man with distaste. “Vlasiy Lagunov, yes. He’s been in charge for a few years now. Dunno how he got promoted – he’s not smart enough to be put on a front, but loyal enough to be trusted with this place,” he explained, making Vlasiy glare at him in anger.

“Sounds familiar,” Kopatel sighed. “The Ministry of Protection cares more for loyalty than actual skill, as usual.”

“Make things easier… for us, right?” Milena asked with a smile, looking up at him.

He looked back, smiling at her and giving her a pat on the head, causing her to beam like a little girl who’d just been given a new doll.

It was sad, and scary, how needy for affection she was… nevermind that she’d latched onto him for it.

Think about that later, old man, he thought to himself, focusing on the outraged-looking general again. “Is there any particular reason why he’s gagged and restrained like that?”

Pytor shrugged. “He has a gun in his right hand, and the detonator for the fail-safe in the other, so I restrained him from using them. And I gagged him so he wouldn’t be able to speak… Ludmilla’s kill phrase,” he explained coldly, never averting his glare from the general.

“Hm. No need to worry about the fail-safe, we disabled that before the attack even began,” Kopatel explained, savouring the shocked expression on the general’s face as he did so. “Ludmilla is out of his reach, now, and Baba Yaga could do over a hundred horrible things to him before he’d ever manage to pull the trigger, so he’s going to behave, right?” He added his glare to Pytor’s own.

The general began to sweat and went pale, his gaze flickering over to the albino girl on Kopatel’s arm, before he nodded frantically.

Pytor twitched his hand and his restraints literally melted away, merging with the floor below them, as the general fell on his ass.

“W-what are you, you going to, to do with me?” he asked, his voice trembling, looking up at the three folk in fear. Particularly at Milena, at that.

“I’m not going to feed you to Baba Yaga, if that’s what you fear,” Kopatel said with no sympathy or mercy. “She doesn’t eat people anymore.”

“Much. Baba Yaga doesn’t eat them much anymore,” she corrected him, wagging a slender finger at his face. “Baba Yaga still needs a little bit to get their powers… but this one doesn’t have powers, anyway, so Baba Yaga wouldn’t eat him anyways.” Before the general could relax, she turned to look at him, smiling a beatific smile. “Besides, Baba Yaga can do way worse than just eat someone.” The man went even more pale, and Kopatel was pretty sure he was just seconds away from wetting himself.

“That won’t be necessary, I think,” he told her, and the general. “I’m sure he’ll be cooperative, so we can just put him into prison – a real prison, not a torture house like this.”

Milena shrugged. “Ok. Now Baba Yaga wants to know!” she pointed at a nearby door. “Who there? He’s strong, strong power!”

It didn’t escape his notice that both the general and Pytor went a little pale when she pointed at said door, which told him all he needed to know. There was a reason this place was called Koschei’s Chest, after all.

“Koschei’s in there, isn’t he?” he asked, a sinking  feeling in his gut. Of course they didn’t kill him. Just said they did. Of bloody course.

Pytor nodded. “Yes, he is. The original inmate,” he spoke with a hushed voice. “The Endbringer himself.” He shuddered. “They tried to kill him, but never figured out how, so they put him in there.”

“Never did?” Kopatel looked at him, surprised. “Did anyone try nullifying his power, perhaps?”

“We’re not idiots,” Vlasiy threw in, suddenly, finding his voice again and even managing some indignation. “We have four joyous folk with power nullification in there, nearly half of all in the Union, hooked up to life support, using their power on him twenty-four-seven, but…” He fell silent again, losing his nerve as Milena focused on him.

Kopatel looked at Pytor to continue the general’s sentence, and he wasn’t disappointed.

“They can’t turn it off,” he explained, looking at the door. “Power nullification, it prevents him from using his power, but it can’t turn it off it seems. He might be powerless to harm anyone, or break out, but he’s as immortal as ever.” He frowned, looking disgusted and regretful at once. “I wish we could, we could get them out of there, they… they deserve better than spending their lifes in there watching over a monster, but if Koschei were to break out…”

Kopatel shook his head. “I know how you feel, Pytor, I feel the same way. But we really can’t risk him breaking out. That door will have to remain sealed, I’m afraid, and we’ll keep maintaining Koschei’s Chest, for this.”

Both the general, Pytor and even Kopatel himself relaxed a bit, after that declaration. He’d seen the carnage, after all, back then when Koschei had rampaged through the Union. Over three million people dead, most in horrible, painful ways, in less than a month. And it had only taken him so long to do because he’d lingered, played with his victims and the towns – later cities – he took, rather than immediately move on to the next one.

Since the Tyrant had died, until the Blazing Calamity appeared, no one had even gotten close to rival Koschei’s murderous reign of terror. It was a miracle really, that the Union had managed to keep his existence a secret from the world at large, or at least, a secret from the population at large. The Ministry of Discourse was efficient, if nothing else.

“Problem is easy!” Milena spoke up, interrupting his morbid thoughts. “Baba Yaga take his power, then kill him e-“

“NO!!!” all three men shouted in horror at the mere thought, making her give a shocked start.

Kopatel took a deep breath. Damn it, I can’t afford to lash out like that around her, he thought, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then he looked her again, noting how she was looking at him almost in fear.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, speaking gently as he reached out with his free hand to cup her cheek. “We absolutely can’t risk him breaking out, under any circumstances – or worse, if you ate even a piece of him, he might be able to hurt you, maybe even kill you. I won’t allow that.” There was also the unspoken truth that, as much as he’d found himself caring for her, he didn’t trust her yet to have such a vast power – and he may never do. Koschei’s power should never have existed to begin with.

She relaxed, smiling up at him, making him almost feel guilty for distrusting her so. “If you say so, Baba Yaga doesn’t mind.” She hugged his arm again, clinging tightly, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

He sighed, disaster averted, and turned towards Pytor again. “Who else is locked up in here?” he asked.

“Just one more,” Pytor said, pointing towards the door opposite of Koschei’s. “An American, that they caught back during the Afghanistan War. They tried to re-educate him, but it failed, and he kept breaking out again and again, killing the folk and army troops they sent after him, so they finally just gave up and locked him in there, since they still wanted to study him.”

“He  strong,” Milena supplied. “Strong power, very strong. Not as strong as Baba Yaga or Koschei, but strong. Stronger than both of you, and him,” she pointed at the unconscious folk lying tied up nearby, “all together.”

“I see. Sounds like it’s past time to release him,” Kopatel spoke firmly, even though he knew it might not be the smartest thing to do – if the man was even still sane, he may still lash out against them, once freed, and though he didn’t doubt that Milena would be able to defeat him, but she might not be able to protect them all. And even so, it’d be a rotten thing to release the man, only to have to kill him. “Baba Yaga, please stand ready to subdue do him – non-lethally  if need be.”

She nodded as she waved a hand, causing the solid piece of tungten that was the door to melt down into the ground, revealing… darkness beyond, as the stark white fluorescent lighting didn’t reach far into the room beyond, illuminating only a small half-circle at the front.

Milena’s grip on his arm tightened, hard. “Baba Yaga will get him out!” she half shouted, charging into the cell, startling him and the other two men.

Kopatel gulped – he couldn’t see what she had, but if it freaked her out, it had to be horrible – and followed her, with Pytor hot on his heels.

Light filled the cell, as they entered it, from a miniature sun that Milena created, floating up above.

He stopped, gasping at the sight of how they’d restrained the American folk.

He was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide, wearing only a ragged, torn pair of jeans. Beyond that, Kopatel couldn’t see much of him, because of all the stakes.

Huge stakes, each as thick as Milena’s forearm, a dozen of them, stabbing through his joints, his limbs, his chest and his stomach, transfixing him to the ground. Each extending up to the ceiling, fusing into it, and fused to the floor below him, the whole thing a part of the very cell. The stakes that ran through his limbs further split into forks just above where they pierced his flesh, so he wouldn’t be able to slide upwards and putting further weight onto him.

And yet, he was still alive, his power evident in its use, forming shadow patches of fur that covered him in places, mostly concentrated around the wounds the stakes had caused. For a moment, Kopatel thought that the man’s head was also covered by his power, until he realised that he had wildly grown hair and a matching full beard, both even darker than the fur his power created.

Milena stood in front of the grisly scene, looking down at her feet… where, Kopatel could see, there was a drain to which several groves led, draining the blood that kept flowing freely out of the man’s emaciated body.

He joined her, putting a hand on her shoulder, though he wasn’t sure whether it was for her sake, or his – he hadn’t ever seen someone be imprisoned like this.

“Why?” he asked, no one in particular.

“He broke out of almost a hundred different holding facilities,” Pytor replied, his voice hushed. “Kept breaking out other prisoners, too. This is the only way anyone could find to lock him up with, that didn’t require dedicated power nullifiers – and those are all in the other cell, keeping Koschei.”

Before Kopatel could reply, there was a strange, rough sound, making them all give a start. Looking around, he saw no source, until it sounded again – coming from the prisoner himself.

“Wa… ter…” he spoke, his voice rough and weak, speaking Russian without any accent Kopatel could make out.

He didn’t hesitate, circling the man and kneeling down next to his head, pulling his own water flask from his belt to gently, carefully, drip some of its contents into his mouth.

The man drank it up, slowly, with surprising restraint. “Thank… you,” he said, his voice stronger now. “Mind… helping me… out? Haven’t… had a chance… to stretch my legs… in years.” He grinned, dark purple eyes twinkling with humour.

Kopatel didn’t know how to respond to that, and instead focused on just one detail. “Years?”

“He’s been like this for four years now,” Pytor spoke, his own voice awed – and more than a little ashamed. “No one wanted to risk him breaking out, so they just… kept him here. Didn’t even try to study him, even though that was the whole reason he was locked up in here.”

“We have to get him out,” Kopatel said. “Now.” He glared at the general, making the man shrink back, even though it wasn’t even really his fault.

Pytor nodded. “We’ll need to support the ceiling somehow – it’s basically one thick slab, disconnected from the rest of the cell. If we break the stakes, it’ll drop down, impale him again or crush him. And us, with him.”

“That no problem,” Milena spoke coldly, as she spread her arms wide. Shafts of light, looking a lot like the force-fields she’d used to defend against assaults earlier, appeared out of nowhere, forming pillars that lead from floor to ceiling, humming with power.

Nodding to her, Kopatel stood up and drew his heaviest shovel, a rough, practical one, that could be a lethal weapon even without his power’s help. Pytor stepped closer as well, raising both hands, ready for chopping motions.

“You can’t do this!” Vlasiy threw in, his voice high-pitched. “He’s American, he’ll try to kill us as soon as he’s free to move!”

No one paid him any attention as Kopatel and Pytor went to work, chopping through the stakes that held the man transfixed to the ground. At first, there was a groaning sound from above, as the ceiling shifted slightly, but Milena’s force-field pillars proved capable of holding it up, and so they soon cut through the last stake.

With a pained groan, the prisoner shifted on the ground, relaxing almost imperceptibly, as the stakes began to slide out of his body, slowly, his power trying to eject them. Kopatel lent a hand, as did Pytor, pulling them out – which wouldn’t be a smart thing to do, normally, but the man was clearly hardier than any normal person, than most folk, even, and would likely not die to this, after all this time.

Once the last stake had been removed, the man gave a sigh, closing his eyes in relief. “Ahhhhh…” His wounds were healing, visibly, his power gathering around them more intensily now.

“Come, friend,” Kopatel said, grabbing one of the man’s arms and pulling it over his shoulder. “Let’s get you out of this hell-hole and up under the sky.”

“Sky,” the man whispered, groaning in pain but not putting up any resistance as Kopatel hauled him onto his feet. He was lighter than Milena. “Sky sounds good.” He leaned against Kopatel, his bushy hair scratching his cheek, but he didn’t mind, as he helped him walk out of his cell, both of them utterly ignoring the general.

Milena joined them, giving the prisoner odd looks, though she stayed quiet. Pytor followed behind, as more of Kopatel’s compatriots came in, men and women in military uniforms, most of them unpowered, but led by two winter soldiers.

He briefly gave them orders to sort out the corpses for burial, and take the captured folk up for questioning. He also told them to lock the general up, who didn’t put up any resistance – just watching with wide, unbelieving eyes, like he still couldn’t quite grasp what had happened.

You’ll get what’s coming to you, just like everyone else, Kopatel thought quietly, taking the elevator up this time – Milena was always eager to ferry him around at the speed of sound, but it didn’t do his stomach any good, nor did the prisoner seem to be in any state to take that kind of stress.

Their small group moved through Radost, ever upwards, and then through the military base above. Men and women, both folk and not, saluted them, but gave a wide berth, though whether that was out of respect for him, as their leader, or fear of Milena, he didn’t know – and frankly, he didn’t want to know the answer. Neither was something he’d be all too happy about.

The base itself was in rather bad shape – he and his troops had fought here, not Milena, who’d directly invaded Radost itself to prevent the use of the fail-safe, and that any harm be done to the prisoners.

It did not escape anyone’s notice that the Baba Yaga had had an easier time taking down Radost’s greater defenses than the entire rest of their force had had taking down just the military base – and even there, she’d helped indirectly, as most of the enemy folk had been in Radost itself, standing guard, rather than up above.

Kopatel put that thought aside as they reached the main exit of the base. Outside, the sun shone, a rare day without snow or clouds above even so far up North. There were others, prisoners, test subjects, who’d gathered there, looking up at the sun for the first time in years, in many cases. Men, women, old and young, even, to his disgust, some children, who were looking up at the sky as if seeing it for the first time.

He really, really, really hoped it wasn’t the first time, that they hadn’t been kept in there for so long as to not remember the sky, or worse, been born in that hellhole, but he knew those hopes to be in vain.

Still, he felt at least a little pride as he saw his people taking care of the prisoners, giving them clothes, food and comfort. The Frozen Family was ahead of everyone else there, in spite of their monstrous appearances, they were the most gentle, dedicated to helping the victims of the Union recover, especially the children. Even Matryoshka, whom had been called one of Russia’s worst serial killers, was there, handing food out to the children of Radost, along with blankets, being perfectly gentle. The fact that the clones she was using had been made out of a local soldier, well, Kopatel couldn’t even feel disgust over her power right now, not in this situation.

“Still as pretty… as ever,” the prisoner he’d been helping up whispered, drawing Kopatel’s attention back to him. He was looking up at the sky, his purple eyes brighter now, standing out starkly against his dark hair and beard, and the pale skin visible. Then he said something in English, too quickly for Kopatel to understand it.

“What’s your name, my friend?” he asked, feeling quite curious about this strange, hardy man, a man who still seemed sane after such monstrous treatment – nevermind his achievements.

The man opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, briefly averting his eyes. Kopatel started to worry that he might have been deprived of his name, in spite of his other resistance, but then he looked at him again.

“Kevin. Kevin Paterson,” he said, his voice low, but perfectly understandable.

“I’m Kopatel, in case you didn’t know,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”

The man chuckled dryly. “Home, yeah,” he said, turning his head away and looking into the distance. “Don’t have much of one… but I’d still like to go back to it.”

***

Soon enough, Radost had been emptied of both its staff and its victims – save for Koschei, of course – though people would remain, trying to sort out everything that had gone on, as well as to pack up the corpses. Not of the soldiers and scientists – those who’d been killed, rather than be taken prisoner – as those would simply be burned, but of those victims who’d already died, or else taken their own life as soon as they had the chance, rather than risk being captured again.

That last one, that haunted Kopatel more than almost anything else he’d seen there, apart from the children – at least Milena had harvested their powers from their corpses with minimal damage, was still harvesting, in fact, so they’d be able to help bring down those who consigned them to this fate.

Kevin had left, together with most of the others, and the surviving staff of the base and Radost was gone, as well. Kopatel stood at the entrance to what had once been the mess hall, in which they’d laid out the corpses of all the fallen folk, watching with heavy eyes as Milena went from corpse to corpse, taking their powers for herself while their bodies were still fresh enough for that to happen.

Pytor had joined him, at some point, along with several other members of his Novaya Armiya – Matryoshka from the Frozen Family, a woman whose body seemed to be made of ribbons of black and white, wrapped rightly around the body of an enemy, even now feeding on him; Sergeant Sergei of the Winter Soldiers in their troops’ customary outfit, a heavy white suit, so thick one couldn’t even tell she was a woman, her every feature hidden entirely (even now, she eyed Milena with both fear and annoyance, his whole group unable to completely bury their enmity for the young woman who’d defied them for so long) and Padeniye of the Overlords, a tall, slender man with bright pink hair, wearing a heavy winter jacket and tinted goggles, as well as broad, ever-present grin.

Together they watched as Milena went from body to body, using a thick syringe to draw blood, before wrapping her lips around it every time to drink. Every time she did so, she froze for a few moments, her eyes rolling up, eyelids fluttering as if in pleasure – though, she’d explained to Svetlana, and Svetlana to him, that pleasure was not what she felt at all – rather, every time she took in a new power, she briefly had to integrate it, which caused her all but lose all awareness of her surroundings as her brain locked up, then basically restarted, almost like a computer.

“I thought she had to eat folk to get their powers,” Pytor whispered, as if afraid of drawing her attention.

“We thought so, too,” Kopatel replied, not bothering to whisper. It wasn’t like Milena didn’t have over a dozen powers that enhanced her senses in some way, anyway. “Until it turned out that she only needs sufficient genetic material for her power to home in on the target. About a quarter of a litre of blood is sufficient for that, and the process isn’t even lethal, though, far from pleasant for the folk she uses it on.”

“I, I see,” Pytor spoke, looking pensively at Milena’s progress. “And she can take them from corpses, too. I never knew that.”

“They have to be relatively fresh, but yes, she can.” It’s monstrous, in some ways, but at least it means when we lose our people, their powers aren’t lost to the cause, he couldn’t help but think. The question of whether to allow Milena to take powers from fallen compatriots had kept him up for several nights, but in the end, there hadn’t really been a choice – the Union still had a vast advantage in terms of sheer numbers of powers, they needed every edge they could get, and all distrust towards Milena to the contrary, she’d more than kept her word of cooperation so far.

“Did she ever actually eat people?” Pytor asked, suddenly, drawing him back from his contemplation. “All the atrocities she is said to have committed, did they really happen? Or was that all just propaganda?”

Kopatel shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “I’m afraid it wasn’t, she really did use to eat people, and all the other things, she did most of those, as well,” he explained. “She didn’t know not to,” he felt the need to defend her, drawing a confused look from Pytor, while the others in their group stayed quiet, already aware of the story. “It turns out that, whatever happened during her awakening, it wiped out her mind. All her memories, her skills, gone – a newborn, really, in the body of a woman, with the power of a goddess. She just, she had nothing, but the instinct to gather powers, and so attacked any folk she found, mindlessly, for years. The fact that she kept being attacked by the Union’s troops…” Sergei flinched, growling quietly, “It only made things worse, as she responded in the same way. Wasn’t until she ate a power that allowed her to absorb skills from people, that she started to think again and… well, then she joined us and now she’s our big trump card.”

“Yeah, we’d have been toast if it wasn’t for our adorable little monster,” Padeniye spoke up, his voice mocking, yet oddly affectionate. “Turns out the Union even had plans in case the entire council was wiped out. If we hadn’t had Baba Yaga here, they’d have crushed us soon after we revealed ourselves.”

Kopatel nodded, not bothering to reprimand the villain for referring to her as a monster – in his case, it was a term of endearment, rather than an insult, and he was, in many ways, the one member of their group’s inner circle who was the most friendly with Milena, other than perhaps Matryoshka.

Pytor kept watching Milena, meanwhile, rubbing his chin in a contemplative manner. “You named her, right?” he asked. “I was wondering why she doesn’t go by Devil’s Bride anymore, but then again, I suppose she might never have known about that name in the first place?”

“Yeah, I figured, Baba Yaga was appropriate, considering how powerful she is,” he replied with a slight smile. “I also gave her a proper name – Milena – but she prefers to go by Baba Yaga.”

“She’s… not at all like what I expected,” Pytor admitted after a few moments.

Kopatel couldn’t help but snort. “You haven’t seen nothing yet.”

***

Saratov, a few hours before the Crocell Incident

Kopatel entered what had once been the Great Father Stalin Technical University of Saratov, now the unofficial headquarters of the Novaya Armiya, followed closely by Milena. The entrance hall, once a grand monument to Stalin, had largely been stripped bare, both to get rid of all the propaganda materials and for raw materials. People were hustling and bustling about, largely ignoring him and his companion, even when she sped up, rushing past him towards the stairs leading up, her bare feet slapping the cold, hard stone floor – getting her to wear anything at all had been one hell of a herculean task, as Svetlana would call it, but even her beloved teacher couldn’t get her to put on any shoes.

At least she wears underwear now, Kopatel thought, shuddering at the memory of the nude girl. There was no way he’d ever be comfortable remembering the state she’d been in when she’d first joined his cause, feral, barely human in many ways. She’d latched onto him, like a starving person latched onto someone with food, only what she’d wanted had been something much more simple, and so much rarer – affection. Understanding. Someone who’d treat her like a human being, even if she hadn’t know what that meant back then.

He followed her up the stairs, though at a more sedate pace, looking left and right. The University’s primary use was for taking care of former prisoners and victims of the Union’s love for ‘re-education’, especially those poor people who’d been turned into ‘Joyous Folk’.

Here, in this place, they did something which Kopatel could be unambigiously proud of, even if it was met with a lot of derision among his less scrupulous allies, who  thought it was foolish to divert so many resources to rehabilitating these people, rather than waiting until after the war was won – and it was a war that they were waging, even if, at first, they’d thought it would be over quickly – or worse yet, use them against the Union.

Fortunately, he hadn’t been alone in crushing any ideas about actually using the Joyous Folk’s brainwashing to their advantage, to make them fight for the revolution – the few people who’d advocated it had either quickly changed their opinion or else been demoted heavily, if not expelled outright.

Now, he walked these hallways, looking into rooms where people of all ages were being treated, with kindness and patience. The program they used to de-program them had been invented by Svetlana – another of many things they owed her a great deal for – and seemed to be working, even if it necessitated that she spend most of her time here, to adjust it to the individual needs of every new arrival, meaning she couldn’t travel with him to help take care of Milena.

Still, it was more than worth it, if only to see such sights as Ludmilla, sitting at a table and quietly tinkering with what would likely be a gun at some point, a soft smile on her lips, while Pytor leaned against the wall and watched her with unconcealed affection in his eyes. She was far from being whole, would likely never recover the person she’d been before… but thanks to their efforts, thanks to Svetlana’s brilliance and Pytor’s love and, in no small part, his own efforts, she’d at least be able to find some happiness.

Another reason why they had to win, no matter the cost, so as to safeguard these people. A thought that wasn’t just his own, as it had driven Pytor into near fanatical dedication to the cause, causing him to rise in the ranks until he was now, effectively, Kopatel’s right-hand man.

How fast everything moves, Kopatel thought, moving on to catch up to Milena, who was entering the door at the very end of the hallway. Sometimes, I feel like I should be too old to keep up.

“Teacher!” he heard Milena’s shout from inside, followed by a grunt and a laugh. When he entered, he saw Milena hanging onto the woman who’d been working inside, apparently doing some paperwork.

In many ways, recruiting Svetlana Mikhailov – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she’d recruited herself for their cause – had saved the revolution. The slender, attractive woman in her late thirties, with the long brown hair in a severe knot and the slim glasses on her small nose was a genius, plain and simple. She was the one who’d helped Milena make the step from a feral almost-monster to the bright, if still volatile, young woman she was now. She’d devised the means by which they helped victims of the Union’s many re-education methods to break free and recover from their brainwashing, and she’d also been responsible for actually forcing him and the other members of the inner circle to actually sit down and write out a charter for their group. Such a simple idea, and yet they’d never even considered how much it’d help to have a clear idea of what they actually intended to do, and how to do it, it’d helped keep the group together even after the Union turned out to not be nearly as broken as they’d thought it was.

Being a folk herself, if not a particularly powerful one – her power merely allowed her to harden her own body, becoming nearly invulnerable, without the super-strength that often came along with such powers – she’d had no problem working with all of them on various tasks, though she focused primarily on keeping the revolution sane and civilised.

Her biggest project, though, beyond all of that, beyond even her work rehabilitating the Joyous Folk, was Milena. She’d taken the child-like woman under her wing, teaching her everything from proper speech (still a work in progress) to not horribly murdering anyone who annoyed her even slightly (also a work in progress).

Milena had taken to her almost as much as she had to Kopatel himself, making Svetlana one of maybe three people in the world who could manage her at all.

There’d been some voices of concern, at letting a woman who’d come out of nowhere have so much influence over their most powerful asset, but they’d been dissuaded both by the fact that they needed someone who could handle Milena, even an unknown like Svetlana, and the woman’s own skill at persuasion.

“Good afternoon, Pavel,” she greeted him with a smile, even as she affectionately rubbed Milena’s head. “I trust that your mission was successful?”

“Very much so, Svetlana,” he replied in the familiar term, at her request. “We’ve secured Volgograd, thanks to, in large part, the efforts of your student.” He nodded towards Milena, who was literally hanging off of Svetlana’s arms, held up only by their mutual grip on each other.

“Which student? I have many of them?” she asked mischievously.

“Your favourite!” Milena exclaimed, grinning.

“And who’d that be?” Svetlana pressed on, looking down at the girl with a soft smile.

“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!” Milena continued, pouting up at her now.

Svetlana responded by letting go of her, dropping her on the ground. “Are you now? If so, then surely you can tell me all what the binomial theorem is about, right?”

“Bah, numbers! Baba Yaga doesn’t like numbers!” the albino girl replied, looking up indignantly from her position on her knees, in front of the older woman (though they weren’t that far apart in terms of age, if one only went by biological age). “Doesn’t need them! Baba Yaga has powers for that, anyway!”

Svetlana’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Am I to understand, then, that you haven’t rehearsed your formulas?”

Milena blushed, looking away as she mumbled a confirmation.

Her teacher sighed, throwing him an annoyed look that made him cringe – technically, he’d kind of promised to make sure Milena would do her homework, while they were busy, but it’d had fallen by the wayside in all the fighting that went on. She didn’t comment further on that, though, instead walking to one of the heavily ladden bookshelves that filled her office and pulled one particular book out, laying it down onto a circular table near her desk.

“Sit,” she ordered Milena in a firm voice, pointing at a chair in front of the book.

Milena puffed her cheeks up in indignation, but obeyed, getting up and sitting down on the chair, the silver chain she’d wrapped around her left ankle – a present from Kopatel – flashing in the light, while a collection of small bells she’d attached to it – each taken from a different shop, and one even looted from an enemy’s corpse – jingled softly.

“Now read that and memorise all the formulas,” Svetlana told the girl, giving her a pen and some graph paper. “Write them down here.”

“No! Baba Yaga doesn’t need them!” the girl replied, glaring at her teacher, her red eyes flashing with anger.

Svetlana didn’t even flinch, looking back calmly, her expression hewn out of ice. “Yes, you do. And yes, you will.”

Milena kept glaring.

“Study. Now.”

The student went to work, grumbling under her breath.

How in God’s name does she keep doing that? Kopatel asked himself. He’d suspected some form of mind control, at first, but even if that kind of power would work on Milena – it didn’t, she had too many powers to counter it with – no one had detected anything like that, not even the Winter Soldier’s power analysts. I wish I could be half as commanding. It’d certainly help leading this madhouse.

“Well, Pavel, how are you doing?” she asked him, smiling again as she stepped away from the quietly working Milena, her long brown skirt swaying with every step. “You look a little tired and… hungry.” Her eyes narrowed, instantly making him feel like he was in trouble with his mother. “When’s the last time you ate?”

He gulped. How did she manage to make him feel like a schoolboy, every damn time? “Uh, I had a, I mean, yesterday…” He didn’t even try to lie, it never worked.

“I thought so. Sit down then, I’ll get you some food,” she stated simply, walking towards the door.

“That’s really not necessary, I’m used to going without food for a while,” he raised his arms, trying to get out of it. “Besides, I still need to talk to the Overlords and organise the garrison we’ll install in Volgograd, and-“

She pointed at a chair at the table that Milena was working at. “Sit.”

He sat.

She left, then soon came back with a plate full of steaming hot potatoes, a little meat and way too many vegetables, putting it down in front of him along with some cutlery.

“Eat.”

He ate.

“You really have to take better care of yourself, Pavel,” she lectured him as she watched over his meal, and Milena’s lesson, waging a slender finger at him. “You’re too important to risk your health, for any reason, especially one as silly as this, understood?”

He just nodded, quietly, so she wouldn’t also lecture him about talking with his mouth full. That had been too embarrassing the last time it happened, he’d rather not repeat that. Ever.

Milena snorted in amusement.

***

Someone shook Kopatel awake, roughly.

Blinking, he sat up, reaching for the one-handed shovel he kept on his nightstand, but stopped when he recognised Pytor.

“Wake up, Kopatel!” the man urged him. “We need your help.”

“Wh-what’s going on?” he asked, both worried and annoyed. He’d just laid down to rest, after Svetlana had forced him to eat a proper meal. Just a nap, and – he looked at his clock – it had only gone on for a few hours, anyway.

“One of the girls we brought back from Volgograd, she’s freaking out in a bad way,” Pytor replied, referring to the group of girls they’d liberated from the harem of Volgograd’s mayor – a disgusting man, who’d abused his power to take in any girl that caught his fancy, among many other horrible things – and brought here to give them some psychological treatment. “I was hoping you might be able to talk her down, she’s upsetting the others, as well, badly.”

He got up, quickly, looking around for his clothes – he was down to his underwear at the moment. Finding them discarded on the ground, he began to dress in his full uniform – it was important to keep up the image, he couldn’t just show up in mundane clothes. “What about Svetlana? She’s way better at this than me.”

“She left,” Pytor replied. “Got a phone call and said she had something private to take care of.”

Kopatel grunted as he pulled on his heavy boots. That was another thing about Svetlana, something even he couldn’t ignore lightly. She’d often disappear, sometimes after getting a mysterious phone call, sometimes out of nowhere, and come back whenever, never telling anyone where she’d gone or what she’d done – and sometimes, she’d go missing for days, even a week, one time. It didn’t help make the more distrustful parts of the Novaya Armiya like her any more, though he was willing to overlook it, seeing how much she’d helped them and continued to.

“I’ll see what I can do. Where’s Milena?” He put on his jacket, and started strapping on all his various earthworking tools, through which he usually channelled his power.

“The last time I saw her, she was at the playground building a sand castle,” Pytor told him calmly. “I don’t know whether she’s still there.”

“Alright, let’s go see what can be done about this.”

They left the bedroom, Pytor first, guiding him down several flights of stairs until they got to the ground level. Kopatel could hear the commotion already, hysterical screams, sobs and hushed whispering.

A small mob of people, both patients and therapists, as well as some guards, had gathered around the entrance to the former mess hall. Kopatel ignored them, forcing his way through.

Inside, people had mostly formed a large half-circle around a young woman who was crouched with her back to the wall, holding a large kitchen knife as she looked around, staring at everyone with wild, blood-shot eyes. She was a pretty thing, and young, barely an adult, with curly blonde hair and a heart-shaped face that was twisted by fear and despair. She was holding another girl, younger by at least half a decade, but with similar enough features that they had to be sisters, or otherwise very closely related, with one arm around her neck, holding the knife to her throat with the other. The younger girl was just crying, and not struggling at all as she stared down at the large knife.

Several other women and girls, near her age and of similar beauty, were huddled up nearby, some hugging each other, some standing apart, screaming, sobbing or just softly crying.

“Back! Back, please!” the young woman with the knife shouted, swinging it left and right, as if trying to point it at everyone at once. “Y-y-you mustn’t stop me!” she begged them, her voice high and shrill.

“What’s going on here?” Kopatel asked one of the soldiers who stood closest to the woman.

The young man looked at him, looking upset. “I, I don’t know, Sir. She just, she started freaking out, threatening to kill her own sister! I have, I have no idea what’s going on!”

Kopatel nodded, patting the man on the shoulder. “Alright, I’ll take over from here,” he said, moving past the young soldier and into the half-circle.

“Stay back!” the woman screamed at him, tightening her grip on her sister. “Don’t come closer!”

“Shsh,” he hushed her, raising his hands as he stopped approaching. “I’m not going to do anything to you, I promise,” he spoke in as soothing a voice as he could. “My name is Kopatel. What’s yours, young lady?”

She stared back at him, her lip quivering. “M-motya. My name is Motya,” she said. “Y-you’re not, not going to stop me, either. No one is. I have to do this!” she cried, pushing the knife closer to her sister’s throat, making the younger girl flinch in fear.

“Why do you have to kill her?” he asked, softly, slowly sitting down to seem less threatening, though he also palmed a tiny shovel, really just the blade of one, ready to use his power at the earliest opportunity.

“B-because it’s the only way to save her! I’ve got to, it’s the only way to make sure he won’t take her again!” she shouted, sobbing.

“You mean, the man who took you two? And them?” He nodded towards the sobbing young women – all of them near Motya’s age, though none nearly as young as her little sister.

She nodded, shuddering. “He’s still alive. He escaped your people, and he’ll come for us. I can’t, can’t let him get her again, I have to, to protect her!”

His eyes moved from her to the younger girl, growing heavy with sadness and no small amount of anger. She was a gorgeous girl, even prettier than her older sister, and there was a fiery look in her green eyes, in spite of her fearful expression.

“We’ll keep you safe,” he said, not sure what else to do. This wasn’t something he was really any good at. “I promise, we’ll keep you all safe, so you don’t, you absolutely don’t need to do this, do you understand me?”

She shook her head, gasping for air. “I, I have to make sure! I can’t protect her any other way, I have to, I have to do it!”

“Why not?” a new voice asked, from just behind Kopatel, nearly making him jump up in surprise. “Why not protect, with other way?”

The source of the voice moved up next to Kopatel – Milena, on all fours, her long braid dragging over the ground as she looked at the sisters, wearing one of her favourite outfits – her customary collection of slashed skirts and a belly-free shirt, this one white with three back circles evoking the outline of a mouse’s cartoonish head on her chest.

“I, I can’t!” the young woman wailed. “He’s so strong… and they have so many of the folk… I’m powerless, I was powerless before and he’ll just, just take us all again! But not her! Even if I have to kill her myself!”

Kopatel frowned, not sure how to respond to that – though he probably didn’t need to. Milena had more than enough powers that’d allow her to disarm the woman, without risking any harm to either of the poor women. Provided she actually wanted to save the younger girl, that is.

“Then you must be stronger,” Milena said simply, without any hint of gentleness in her voice, crawling forward. “Be stronger and protect, like Baba Yaga.”

“I’m not, nothing like you,” the woman replied, her eyes transfixed by Milena’s gaze. “I’m weak, I’m not even folk, certainly not, not as strong as, as you.” Her grip on the knife tightened, holding it so hard her knuckles turned white.

“Not as strong as Baba Yaga,” Milena said, stopping to pick up a chipped mug from the floor, shaking it out without averting her eyes from Motya’s own. “Don’t need to be as strong as Baba Yaga, only need to be strong, and protect!” She moved closer by a few steps, holding the mug in one hand.

“H-how?” Motya asked, trembling from head to toe, her eyes filled with fear as the infamous folk moved closer to her.

“Baba Yaga will make you strong,” she replied, putting the mug down between them.

Then she used the nails of her left hand to slive her right forearm open, making several people cry out and Kopatel jump to his feet, as her blood spurted into the mug for a moment, before the wound closed, drawing in the blood around it, but leaving what she’d put into the mug – aimed expertly, not a drop wasted.

Everyone stared in confusion as she gestured towards the side, without looking, and a bottle of water flew over into her waiting hand, with which she filled the mug, mixing it into her own blood.

The resulting fluid was glowing ever so softly, in the same colour as her eyes.

She pushed the mug, causing it to slide over to Motya, until it stopped right by her side, within easy reach.

“Drink,” Milena commanded the older-looking woman. “Do as Baba Yaga tells you to. Drink.”

The knife fell from Motya’s trembling hand, clattering onto her sister’s lap, as her hand went for the mug, as if against her will, picking up the mug.

“Motya, don’t!” her sister shouted, even as she scrambled away from her, but it was too late – she lifted the mug to her lips and drank the watered-down, glowing blood, with eveyone in the hall staring, fascinated by the whole scene.

She put it all down in one go and, as the last drop slid past her lips, her hand went slack, letting go of the mug to have it tumble down onto the hard-wood floor, shattering completely – but no one heard it, as Motya bent over screaming, screaming so loudly it actually hurt Kopatel’s ears, making him take a step back.

Milena remained in place, unperturbed as she watched the girl bend over so far her forehead pressed onto the wooden floor, hugging her own stomach as she screamed in pain.

Kopatel thought he saw her shudder, then, just a bit – though he could only see her from behind, so he wasn’t quite sure; shudder much like how she did when she took a new power, as if in pleasure.

Motya screamed again, and then her clothes  turned green, and solid, and then erupted into jagged growths of crystal, spearing outward in every direction, into the ground, the ceiling, through the wall behind her, towards the rapidly retreating crowd, towards her own sister, thrusting at Milena as well, though they were repelled by an invisible force-field around her.

Kopatel thrust his shovel into the ground, channeling his power into it through it, and raised a half-circular wall between her and himself, and the crowd, and her sister, encircling her and Milena.

It almost wasn’t enough, as shards of green crystal punched through the rock, concrete and earth he’d drawn up from below, but fortunately, they didn’t extend much further than a metre or so past his wall, failing to cause harm to anyone.

That, that’s Vismut’s power! he thought, shocked, remembering the powerful former Foreman, a comrade of his when he’d still fought for the Union, but had died… died to Milena, when she’d still been the Devil’s Bride…

When the crystals failed to continue to grow, he lowered the wall again, to see what was going on. It crumbled apart, as the sound of breaking crystals filled the otherwise completely silent mess hall, the jagged growths of crystal falling apart into thousands of tiny shards, leaving behind the utterly destroyed wall and floor around Motya, stripped bare of the material she’d inadvertantly converted into those crystals.

The young woman was on all fours, staring down at her hands, naked as the day she was born, while Milena was facing her, in a similar position, on all fours atop the only patch of ground within the circle which hadn’t been transmuted into crystal.

She grinned as she watched Motya raise her hands from the ground, leaving behind crystalline handprints. More crystals were growing out of the earth, where her legs were touching it, slowly spreading over her body. Her face was stunned, utterly stunned.

“Now you strong,” the Baba Yaga said with no small amount of smugness. “Now you protect properly, like Baba Yaga said.”

She looked over her shoulder at Kopatel, grinning proudly at him.

All he felt was a cold chill run down his spine, a single thought dominating his thoughts.

By God, how many wars am I going to have to fight, to keep her safe from the world?

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***

Title: Peregrine swoops in!
In: Boards > Professional > G. Introductions > 2012
Peregrine (Original Poster)(Cape)(Independent)
Posted on July 30, 2012:

Hello everyone,
I guess I should introduce myself here and all. My cape (I can already say that, right? Even though I haven’t gone out yet?) is Peregrine, and I’m a Gadgeteer! Big shock, I know.

I had my origin almost two months ago, and I finished my first build soon after (click here for a photograph!). Yeah, I’m that girl who survived the PanAm crash and had my very own Cast Away experience, though I only spent a little over a week there before I got my power and managed to get back to civilisation (as far as one can consider Scotland to be civilised). There was a big media hubub about it, you can just look it up online if you’re curious.

Anyway, I’ve decided I want to be a hero! I’ve been working on some really cool stuff, but I’m having trouble with some of my inventions and I don’t know why! I have really no idea how Gadgeteers are supposed to work or anything, and I’d be really grateful for every bit of help!

So, a friend of mine told me about Toybox and how it’s for Gadgeteers from all sides and so here I am!

A few questions straight away – hopefully it’s appropriate here:

  1. Is it ok to talk with villain gadgeteers, too, or are there rules for keeping capes and cowls apart on this board?
  2. Is there a specific section for people who have trouble getting their power to work right in the first place?
  3. What’s the word on making money as a Gadgeteer? Are there any safe ways to do it without belonging to, like, the Knights of the Round or the Queen’s Men or the United Heroes?
  4. Do I really have to worry about Syndicate people or other criminals abducting me to put me to work for them? Everyone keeps talking about how many people would do that to a Gadgeteer.
  5. Do I need to register somewhere to be considered a proper superhero? I’d rather not be a vigilante, certainly not a criminal. Also, can I do it if I’m still underage?
  6. Are there rules against giving equipment to normals so they can help me fight crime?

Anyway, I hope you’ll take good care of me and that I’ll be able to become a good and proper member of this huge community!

(Showing Page 1 of 16)

SirLamorak (Cape)(Knight of the Round Table)(Rounds Ambassador)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Dear Peregrine,
let me be the first one to welcome you, both as a fellow gadgeteer and a fellow cape. It always brightens my day to see another member of our kind take up the charge of fighting the good fight, even if I wish fewer would start quite as young as you are.
About your questions:
1. It’s alright to talk to our cowled members – nothing illegal about it, so long as you don’t knowingly help them commit or cover up a crime. This is supposed to be a board for Gadgeteers first, Capes and Cowls second. Keeping that in mind, though, I’m afraid that not all members of Toybox uphold its rules as they should (to be fair, it’s not just cowls who’ve broken them in the past), so do be careful about what you talk about with whom, especially when it comes to sharing images about you, your laboratory or any other personal information – same rules as anywhere on the Internet apply, only even more so.
2. Yes, there is one in the professional section (i.e. the Gadgeteer-only one) of the board. Just follow this link to the introductory thread.
3. There are too many ways and pitfalls to enumerate here. Look up this thread and this presentation as well as this video channel as a start, and go from there. You can also contact both the Knights of the Round Table, the Queen’s Men and the United Heroes via e-mail or phone, their contact information is on their respective websites – I assure you, they’re always happy to help a gadgeteer make legitimate money off their work, even if said gadgeteer is not a member!
4. That is a danger I’m afraid you’ll have to live with, especially considering your age and, I’m sad to say, your gender; it is because of that that I always recommend to new gadgeteers that they find a good team that can protect them, at least until they reach that point where they can take care of themselves. I have sent you a PM with both my own and my team’s contact information, do not hesitate to call for help if things take a turn for the worst.
5. You’re in luck insofar as Great Britain has very lax laws in regards to independent heroes – so long as you stick to some basic rules, you will not be branded a vigilante and merely be considered an independent hero. However, the fact that you’re still underage (and obviously so, going by what I’ve seen of you on the news) is going to be a problem, look here for laws regarding underage capes (being a cowl is illegal anyway, obviously, regardless of your age).
6. Not rules per se, except that you aren’t allowed to arm teenagers and children anymore than a normal person would be allowed to. However, it rarely goes well for a variety of reasons. I would recommend against it, unless you have no other option or it turns out that your power is particularly suited to it.

If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask, be it here, on the boards or via PM directly to me. Also feel free to call me up if you need help – even when I’m busy, I’ll be able to arrange some time for you!

Nuckelavee(Cowl)(Red Raiders)(Syndicate Ambassador)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Welcome to Toybox, Peregrine! It is always good to meet a new gadgeteer, be they cape, cowl or other – that’s what’s so great about Toybox, after all, that we can all talk with each other here, regardless of what group we belong to outside of it!
First of all, allow me to dispel at least some of the worries the rumor mill and my caped friend up there may have caused you. While it is true that the Syndicate is always very eager to recruit new gadgeteers to our ranks, we don’t go around kidnapping them and turning them into slaves – putting aside the fact that, unlike a lot of other groups, we do have standards, that is a horrenduously impractical way to get someone to work for you, a waste of resources all around. If you don’t trust in our decency, at least trust in our pragmatism, please!
Also, you’re a teenager. The Syndicate does not move against teenagers unless they keep poking us and even then only rarely. Children (I’m sorry if this sounds patronising, but it must be said) are off-limits except under the most dire of circumstances and breaking that rule is a quick way to get a very terminal visitation from your supervising member of the Five or, if you’re really out of luck, the Big Boss himself.
Now don’t take this as a free card to keep coming after our people, please! If you attack us, as capes are wont to do, then we will fight back and I’d rather not see you hurt, personally.
As far as making money is concerned, while it is admirable that you are so determined to stick to the legal way, I do feel it prudent to inform you that there are many ways to get money from my associates, not all of whom are even illegal – in fact, you could get our support while still being a cape, so long as you are willing to commit not to directly interfere with our operations (you’ll be free to go after any other criminals and cowls, of course). Regarding the legal way, I think my caped colleague up there has given you all the primer you need at this point.
I have sent you a PM with my personal contact information – please feel free to contact me if you need advice or help, especially if you suspect some rogue is coming after you, specifically!
Also, I notice that my colleague up there failed to explain that both he and I are ambassadors for our organisations to Toybox; as such, if you have trouble with either of our groups, or feel that you need to contact either one, he and I are the ones to talk to, as are the ambassadors of other groups.
Enjoy your time here on Toybox and Godspeed to you, Peregrine!

Dory (Cape)(Jasonites)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Welcome to Toybox and the Cape community in general, Peregrine! Please don’t pay too much attention to Nuckelavee there, he’s a jerk who pretends to be a jerk pretending to be reasonable.
If you want my opinion, I’d strongly recommend that you join a team and as soon as possible; even if you only stay with them for a while, it’ll give you some much needed protection and support during your most vulnerable phase.

Nuckelavee (Cowl)(Red Raiders)(Syndicate Ambassador)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Peregrine, don’t listen too much to Dory, he’s only cross with me because I openly pointed out his ineptitude as a weapons designer before.
He does make a good point about swiftly joining a team, though.

LordBuckethead (Cape)(The Gremloids)(Admin)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Bah, don’t listen to them, Peregrine! A gadgeteer can absolutely make it on their own, as you can see in the case of Britain’s glorious future Overlord himself! For twenty-five years now he has braved every opposition and forged his own path, and his alone!
That being said, it is prudent to make trustworthy allies, so that you’ll have people who can back you up in a pinch. This doesn’t require that you join up with any group – there are many capes who’ll be happy to enter into a loose alliance for the sake of support!
Speaking of which, we Gremloids and I, Lord Buckethead himself, would be all too happy to provide you with support if you find yourself in dire straits – you can contact us via PMing me, or via the contact information on our website.
Personally, I would also be very happy to arrange trades, if you could like some good and proper laser weaponry 😉

Peregrine (Cape)(Independent)
Replied on July 30, 2012:
Ohmygodareplyfromlordbuckethead! I’m a huge fan, it’s such an honour to get to talk to you, Sir! And yes, I would love to trade something, if I even have anything worth one of your amazing laser pistols!
@SirLamorak: Thank you very much, that was really, really helpful!
@Nuckelavee: Thank you for being so kind, but I’m pretty sure you’re portraying things a lot nicer than they really are…

Nuckelavee (Cowl)(Red Raiders)(Syndicate Ambassador)
Replied on July 31, 2012:
You are free to think as you wish, of course, but I do hope you’ll approach all things with an open mind – you’ll find that, as far as cowls go, we from the Syndicate are very much the most reasonable.

SirLamorak (Cape)(Knights of the Round)(Rounds Ambassador)
Replied on July 31, 2012:
As much as I respect Lord Buckethead, I think it’s necessary to point out that there was a great deal of luck involved in him surviving long enough on his own to get to where he is now.
Please don’t take him as a role model and if you do, at least avoid blowing yourself up repeatedly…

LordBuckethead (Cape)(The Gremloids)(Admin)
Replied on July 31, 2012:
Bah, the Spiffy Spacelord makes his own luck! And blowing yourself up is a valid combat tactic, provided you have a means to survive doing so!

Nuckelavee (Cowl)(Red Raiders)(Syndicate Ambassador)
Replied on July 31, 2012:
While I am loathe to agree with him on anything, I do have to admit that blowing himself up seems to work out just fine for this bucketheaded idiot.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

(Showing Page 4 of 4)

Brennus (Cape)(Independent)
Replied on August 2, 2012:
Wow, that escalated quickly.
Welcome to Toybox, Peregrine! I’m a fellow newcomer myself and one who intends to stay independent at that, so I hope we’ll both make it!

End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

***

Private messages from and to Brennus:

Brennus: Yes, I did use the wing designs you put up for public use. They worked out wonderfully.
Peregrine: I’m so glad that worked out! I wanted to have my own peregrine drones, but I just can’t work out the programming to make them even remotely autonomous! How’d you do it? Would you be willing to share?
Brennus: I’d love to, but I’m afraid that the programming I use requires my own custom programming cores to work, and I’m rather reticent about sharing the specs for those. I’m sorry.
Peregrine: Don’t sweat it, it’s not like I’d just share my best designs on a whim, anyway. We barely know each other, after all. Though, maybe we could arrange a trade? Something of equal value?
Brennus: Theoretically yes, though do note that you’d need a lot of cores to get a whole swarm together. What do you have in mind?
Peregrine: How do you feel about having your own jetpack?

***

Title: A Primer on Common Issues for Gadgeteers (by your glorious Overlord)
In: Boards > Professional > Power Theory > Gadgeteering
LordBuckethead
(Cape)(The Gremloids)(Admin)
Posted on February 11, 2011:

Dearest Gremloids-to-be,

It has occured to I, the Great and Magnificent (future) Overlord of Earth, that after nearly a decade, this illustrous community has accumulated a vast swathe of data in regards to how the most magnificent of all superpowers works – and how it often does not.

A little preface – I should not have to remind you, my loyal Gremloids-to-be, that no  two powers are truly the same, and that is doubly true for Gadgeteers such as ourselves. While the data we have collected allows us to determine certain tendencies, that is not the same as having empirical proof. Keep that in your pretty, sadly bucket-free heads.

Another note, since people keep breaking this rule:

WHAT HAPPENS IN TOYBOX STAYS IN TOYBOX!!!

Many of these threads contain highly personal information, concerning Origins, Powers and Secret Identities. Thus, many of them are locked for Cape-only, Neutral-only or Villain-only access, others are Invitation-only (you’ll have to contact the original poster and request permission to access them).
However, regardless of that, we will not brook a betrayal of trust in any case. Yes, that includes heroes trying to bring down notorious villains via spying on them here – Toybox only works because of trust, a trust which we, the Triumvirate of Toybox, have conciously chosen to value higher than our respective callings, and we will come after anyone who betrays said trust.

For those of you who are daft, Locksley will bankrupt you, Jörmungandr will delete all your data, notes and records and I, Lord Buckethead will blow you up. I have laser-guided desintegration missiles and I am not afraid to use them!

Now, with that unpleasantness out of the way, dear Gremloids-to-be, let’s get to the main issue.

As you all certainly know – unless you are one of those lucky blokes who get everything handed to them – metahuman powers can be fickle, and none more so than those of us Gadgeteers and our deluded cousins, the Contrivers. While some of us, such as yours truly, manage to strike a balance with their power (please note, I am speaking in metaphor – I am aware of the theories about power consciousness, but this is not meant to support them; we shall get to those in another thread) and find some stability, but for most Gadgeteers, especially the young ones, it is a constant struggle to balance their day-to-day life, their power and their very self!

Of course, a single thread, even one written by one such as I, is insufficient to cover even a fraction of this subject. As such, this shall serve merely as a short primer on the most common issues you may find yourselves faced with, as well as a collection of links to other resources you may tap to inform yourselves. If I miss any, or any new ones are uploaded, please PM me and I’ll add them to the list.

Now, without much further ado, the most common issues:

  1. Gadgeteering is always on. This may surprise you, but most powers can be turned off, or at least… not used. Someone who shoots fireballs from their hands may have their power always available, but doesn’t have to use it. We are not so lucky. Barring two known, very lucky exceptions – the Cylinder-headed Magnificence is looking at you, Heart Drive 😡 – we are always analysing our surroundings, always coming up with new designs, always feeling the urge to turn them into reality. It has driven more than a few of our kind insane, and completely broken others (remember Nimue? I do.)
  2. Lack of Sleep. Tied into the previous issue, many, many gadgeteers (much like many an esper) have trouble sleeping, due to their power’s constant activity and the urge to keep tinkering with your inventions… too many of us sacrifice much-needed sleep, inviting all the numerous bodily and mental health issues that come with that. Remember people, lacking the need to sleep is a rare gift that most of you do not have, so make sure to sleep, even if it takes chemical assistance! Not every one of us can be like Locksley and Jörmungandr!
  3. Unreliable Inspiration. One of the worst and yet most managable issues that hounds us is how unreliable our power can be, how many of us have trouble sticking to one idea, finishing even one project, or how they come out usable but feeling incomplete, like there could be more to them, yet our power refuses to provide what is needed to so complete them. While some of us suffer this throughout all our lifes, it is usually a sign of one not having figured out their speciality yet, making it an issue that particularly hounds (and often causes the death of) newer gadgeteers, who have yet to get to know their power. Figuring out how your power works, what is its true focus and how to properly stimulate it, usually resolves this issue. There are numerous threads and tutorials for figuring out what your focus is, when it isn’t blindingly obvious, and I shall link to them at the end of this post. At the very least, getting to know the experiences of others might help you figure out your own!
  4. Testing. The age-old question. Why do we Gadgeteers not just sit back in our laboratories and just keep inventing more and better gadgets, maybe equipping others even if we can’t mass produce? Why risk ourselves out in battle, why waste time patrolling or fighting that could be spent researching and building?
    To all those bucket-free numb-skulls who continue to espouse this idiocy, say: Because that’s how our power works, you coprophagic scatologist!
    We need to actually use our Gadgets! We need to see them in action, in the environemnt that they were built for! Do you think that I wade into battle just because it’s fun and gives me plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the inherent superiority of people wearing buckets on their heads? No! I mean, yes, that’s a reason, but it’s not the reason!
    A Gadgeteer who invents combat equipment must go out and use it (with one lucky exception -> Armory III), so as to properly gather data and improve on it! There’ll be links to some threads that have extensively discussed this, trying to figure out why being present in person is necessary, rather than having extremely high-definition recordings, but I shall not go into it here, that would take too long!
  5. Desirability. Putting aside the fact that being creatures of such impeccable style, power and nobility (not talking about Mechorror, Merkabah, Atrocity and especially not Dusu) is something to be desired all on its own, we Gadgeteers are also oft faced with the fact that we’re among the most reliable force multipliers for any team, be it heroic, villaneous or otherwise. Short of power boosters, who are even more rare than us, there is not a single power that is so well-suited to teamwork as ours, as we can outfit both ourselves and our teammates, and generally be immensily versatile toolboxes, even when we have a rather narrow focus.
    As such, especially during our early days, we must be extremely careful if we wish to maintain our independence, especially against supervillains (though it’s not too rare that supposedly heroic teams try to strong-arm a nascent Gadgeteer into joining them), which is one of the reasons why Toybox was founded – as a forum for us to contact one another away from other interests, and support one another when possible to remain independent.

And that’s just the Top Five, my dear Gremloids-to-Be! In an unnecessarily petty twist of karma, the Universe imposes a multitude of problems upon us Gadgeteers, perhaps out of a need to curb our magnificence!

However, all is not lost, for there is Toybox! Over the last decade, we have gathered the world’s foremost collection of data on Gadgeteering, free for all of you Gremloids-to-Be to peruse and draw suggestions, support and succor from!

If all else fails, don’t forget that, regardless of which side of the Cape/Cowl divide you stand, there will always be someone out there willing to help you – just reach out, and you shall find them!

Here’s the link collection I promised:

〈Spoiler〉

That is it for today, dearest Gremloids-to-Be! This is Lord Buckethead, signing off!

***

Private messages from and to LordBuckethead:

Peregrine: Sir, before I say anything else, just let me say that I’m a huge fan of your work! It’s such an honour to be able to talk to you like this, now!
LordBuckethead: Your enthusiasm is both warranted and appreciated, dear Gremloid-to-Be. I have followed your recent exploits against the McDurvod crime family with great joy. How may the cylinder-headed Magnificence help you?
Peregrine: I wanted to ask if there was any way I might somehow obtain one of your laser weapons? I’d love to have some firepower that’s not explosive (the only proper weapon I’ve been able to make so far is an air-to-ground grenade launcher… not exactly good for avoiding collateral damage). I can’t really afford to pay you, but perhaps a trade would be possible? Also, really, you follow my work!?
LordBuckethead: The Magnanimous Magnificence is always glad to trade with such a promising young heroine. Money is no issue to me, anymore, but I find it only proper to commence a fair trade. Looking at your recent thread in the Power Theory thread, you have locked your foci down to a binary one of Sensors and Flight. While I am perfectly capable of building very advanced sensors myself, I am afraid that flight has thus far eluded me – a great grievance for one such as I, be assured! Perhaps you could provide something in that regard, in exchange for a customisable Mark-VIII Star Dominator Rifle?
Peregrine: Ohhhh, I’d love one of those! And yes, I could certainly work up a jetpack, if you wish – it’s quite easy for me. Would you like to have wings, or focus on more violent propulsion?
LordBuckethead: In point of fact, I would prefer some other system entirely – a jetpack would not exactly fit in with my most heroic cape, now would it? Perhaps jetboots, or something like that?
Peregrine: Sorry about the late reply, but I had to think about it for some time. Never built a flight system that didn’t involve a jetpack or wings before, but I think I came up with something, though it’d lack the same range and speed which my larger systems have – a combination of jet boots and bracers for steering, with an emergency parachute for the back of your belt?
LordBuckethead: The Cylinder-Headed Spacelord finds this most agreeable! Do you require any additional data to work them out? Perhaps my measurements and usual loadout weight, for calibration?
Peregrine: Hmm… perhaps we could meet, so I could do it live? Would probably work better if I could adjust them directly on you, if you don’t mind, Sir.
LordBuckethead: That is agreeable. I could visit Inverness during the coming weekend, if that is agreeable to you?
Peregrine: That would be perfect, Sir! Where shall we meet?
LordBuckethead: The World-Travelling World-Conqueror has always wanted to visit Inverness Castle, to get some ideas for his own eventual seat of power.
Peregrine: It’s a deal. How about Saturday, three pm?
LordBuckethead: That is most agreeable. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person, dear Gremloid-to-Be.
Peregrine: So do I, Sir!
Peregrine: Wow, I saw that battle – that was a close one, Sir! I’m glad to see the jetboots I made you worked out well.
LordBuckethead: I never doubted your skill. And it wasn’t nearly as close as it looked, I assure you. How does my Dominator serve you?
Peregrine: Um, this is a little embarrassing, but… I kind of took it apart and… rebuilt it. Sorry.
LordBuckethead: Nonsense! Adapting the inventions of others to your own is something to be commended, not condemned! What’d you make of it, if the Cylindrical Calamity may ask?
Peregrine: Well, I rebuilt it into a laser rifle, again, but it’s specced very differently. The laser is much more powerful, and its batteries last way longer, but it is strongly affected by Earth’s gravity – the blasts get dragged down a lot, essentially firing in a curve. If I try to fire it at a target that’s in front of me, I have to aim way up unless they’re right in front of me, and it’s pretty slow, too! On the other hand, if I fire it from above, the shot’s got a huge punch and I can aim it really easily. So I guess that works better with my other gear, even if it’s kind of annoying that I once again lack a reliable ground-to-ground weapon.
LordBuckethead: Fret not, Gremloid-to-Be! You have only just started out on your journey as a Gadgeteer, and you are already making huge steps! I am certain that you’ll eventually conquer even this obstacle!

***

Title: Locksley’s Sponsorship Program
In: Boards > Professional > Finance > Sponsorship
Locksley
(Neutral)(Independent)(Admin)
Posted on November 01, 2009:

Greetings and Salutations!

For those of you who are here for the first time, I’m Locksley, one of the Admins of Toybox (though sadly not a founder – I joined up later on) and many like to refer to me as part of the ‘Triumvirate of Toybox’, which is to say the three head administrators, one for each vocation (Lord Buckethead for the capes, Jörmungandr for the cowls and myself for those inbetween), as well as our police outside of Toybox itself (ie it’s our job to track down and punish those who break our rules).

Unlike those two, though, I am not a classical gadgeteer – my programs are of no use in a fight, and I have all the physical combat ability of a drunk toddler.

Instead, I prefer to fight the good fight by using my substantial financial resources to sponsor heroes and neutrals all over the world, be they metahuman or not.

In this particular case, I take applications from Gadgeteers who pursue a project they cannot currently finance on their own. If I think it’s worth the money, I provide the funds, or at least a part of the funds (my resources are not endless, no matter what kind of rumors may float around the messageboards). I demand no material recompensation for this, though I do sometimes request a favour of equivalent value to be granted in turn, at some point in the future of my choosing.

So, what are the prerequisites for applying for a grant of some sort? Pretty simple:

  1. Do not initiate force upon innocents. That is paramount. Though I don’t count myself as a cape, being more focused on non-crime-fighting projects, I am most certainly not a villain. My services are thus not available to villaneous gadgeteers, unless they can convince me that the particular project they require assistance with is for a good cause! If I find out that that was a lie, I will do my utmost track you down and ruin you!
  2. Don’t waste it. If I find out you wasted my money, rather than applied it towards the project it was meant for (even if said project failed), I will henceforth deny you any service.
  3. Don’t be in bed with the Red Council, Sovereign or the Gefährten. Members of either of those three organisations or the structures underneath them are categorically denied my services, regardless of how noble their proposed projects may be.

Apart from adhering to those three simple rules, all you have to do is send me a proper application (you may use this form letter), in which you describe the project you propose in as much detail as you can, including projected costs and benefits. I shall review it and contact you for clarification, if need be, followed by my decision whether or not to sponsor it.

Please send any such applications to my e-mail for just this purpose, locksley.sponsorship@sherwood.zero. My Toybox inbox is already cluttered enough with administrative issues!

Best wishes,

Locksley

Comments have been disabled for this thread!

***

Private messages from and to Locksley:

Locksley: I have reviewed the project proposal you sent me, Peregrine. There are some questions I need answers to before I’ll decide whether or not to sponsor it, however.
Peregrine: Of course, Sir! Ask away!
Locksley: First, I assume this is primarily meant to help you in your continued campaign against the McDurvod crime family?
Peregrine: Well, having a proper jetplane/drone like that is obviously a boon no matter what, but yes, I came up with it because I need a way to traverse the Highlands at greater speed and with some stealth – they’re hard to pin down on the best of days.
Locksley: Of that I am aware. Are you going to continue this on your own? I would hope you’d have someone to support you, you’re way too young to take on an entire crime syndicate on your own.
Peregrine: Lord Buckethead has been so kind to lend me support a few times, and I’m also cooperating with any cape I can find around the Highlands, but there aren’t that many of us around here, and no team to speak of.
Locksley: I can’t honestly say I’m happy to hear that, but I suppose you’re doing the best you can with what you have.
Second, do you actually have the proper facilities to construct and store such a device? Going by your blueprints, it’s supposed to be as big as a compact car, that is no small thing to hide for a teenager.
Peregrine: Uh… actually, I was thinking I’d build it in my current workshop (it’s an old garage I’ve converted into my lab) and hide it behind it, under a tarp, when I’m not using it. My house is just outside of Inverness, and there’s no one near enough to see it take off, not with the stealth systems I’ve got planned.
Locksley: That’s unacceptable, Peregrine. I will add some extra funds to your grant, for the sake of procuring a proper work- and storagespace. You can ask Lord Buckethead to help you with making all the necessary arrangements, I’m sure he’ll be happy to help.
Peregrine: Wow, um, that’s amazing! Thank you Sir, thank you so much!
Locksley: Needless to say, I approve of your project. The funds have been wired to your cape account. Godspeed, Peregrine.
Peregrine: Thank you!

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13.9 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil fired a shot, aiming squarely for the man’s head.

The Protector – or whoever was pretending to be him – made no move to dodge, nor show any reaction at all, really, when the blast hit him on the side of his forehead, glancing off with sparks and a sharp sound. It didn’t even stir his hair.

The man tilted his head, squinting at the shooter. “Now now, young man, let’s not get ahead of ourselves – how about an introduction first?” he asked, his disposition still very genial, in stark contrast to the situation at hand. He flourished his cape and bowed with perfect grace. “Jason Davon, also known as the Protector; I wish we could have met under less ominous circumstances, young ones.”

They just stared at the legend from the West Coast, not sure how to respond. Basil even lowered his rifle, though partly because he didn’t think it stood a chance of actually harming the man anyway.

In the end, it was Tartsche who gathered his wits about him first, taking a few steps forward (putting himself between the Protector and the rest of the group).

“It’s, it’s an honour to meet you, Sir,” he said, his voice cracking slightly at the beginning. “I’m… I mean, my name is Tartsche, and I’m a member of the United Junior Heroes.”

The Protector nodded, still smiling that maddeningly calming smile, even as Basil and the others re-ordered themselves behind Tartsche.

Spellgun and Tyche moved up to flank the untouchable hero. The former dropped to one knee in a shooter’s position, leaning against Tartsche’s leg, while Tyche simply reached out and touched Tartsche’s shoulder, as if to support him. Both of them promptly vanished from Basil’s sensors, much like Tartsche had moments earlier, as he dropped and immediately re-activated his power.

“It’s nice to meet a fellow hero,” the tall man spoke, watching them curiously, with no hint of anxiety or worry. “What brings you here?”

Bakeneko slid up to Osore, who was already starting to bulk up, if slowly, attaching herself to his back with her arms wrapped around his neck, her body from the neck down shifting into a mass of furry tentacles tipped by stingers, though the whole process took several seconds to complete.

“We’re hunting a super-villain,” Tartsche replied. “We were just about to take a train to a station near where we believe her to be, when we were drawn into… this.” He gestured around at the empty space around them, and at the mystic drawings above.

Gloom Glimmer floated forward, taking up position to the right of Tartsche, her cloak billowing in an unseen, unfelt breeze, while Polymnia joined Basil on the other side and further behind. Hecate stayed behind, quietly whispering something as she dug into a leather pouch on her belt.

The Protector tilted his head the other way, studying them all, one after the other, as if he had all the time in the world. “A commendable effort – quite a shame you had to end up in this situation, of all.” He sighed, looking around at the empty area, then raised his voice: “You know, it’s quite rude not to greet your guests!”

Once more the woman’s voice boomed from every direction at the same time, so loud Basil had trouble making out the individual words.

“AND IT’S PATHETIC THAT YOU’RE TRYING TO STALL, PROTECTOR! NOW FIGHT THESE INSOLENT RUNTS AND TEACH THEM THE FOLLY OF CHALLENGING THE COMPANIONS OF THE FUTURE!!!”

He had no such trouble making out the individual exclamation points, though.

The Protector frowned, growning softly as he closed his eyes. Then he took a deep breath, opening them again, looking at them all with eyes as gray and hard as steel. “Brace yourselves, young ones!”

“Wait, what’s g-” Tartsche began to protest, but he was cut off when the Protector charged straight at him, reaching for his throat.

His hand came into contact with it, only to fail to get a grip, or so much as budge the teenager by a hair.

Everyone else immediately opened up; Spellgun and Tyche all but put their weapons’ respective muzzles to his chest and pulled their triggers, Osore fired a twisting, uneasy-to-look-at fear blast from his fist, Gloom Glimmer threw out what appeared to be ropes of light, only they were buzzing like actual buzzsaws and Polymnia opened up with the speakers on her wrists, projecting beams of sounds so intense they visibly distorted the air.

None of it did a thing, other than Spellgun’s bullet, which covered his chest in rapidly spreading, purplish ice, and maybe Polymnia’s sound attack, which made the man look annoyed. Everything else either slid off of him or was deflected without any visible effect upon him, even Gloom Glimmer’s contribution. Hecate, meanwhile, slid down onto her knees, her head held low as if in surrender – or contemplation.

Basil, who’d refrained from firing on him – he’d already seen that even a headshot was less than an inconvenience on the man – instead threw himself at Polymnia, tackling her out of the way the Protector’s heat vision shot through where her chest had been just moments before.

“I very much dislike sonic attacks, young lady,” the man spoke reprovingly as he flexed his chest and arm muscles, blowing off the ice Spellgun’s bullet had coated him with. “Please refrain from annoying me so.”

Gloom Glimmer rose up behind him, her fists raised above her head and clasped together, bringing them down on his head with all her strength, creating an impact so powerful it blew everyone else but the three under the protection of Tartsche’s power and Hecate, who was kneeling in the blast shadow of the three, away.

Basil briefly lost sight of what was going on as he and Polymnia tumbled across the smooth floor, until they ended up a tangled mess of stiff, armored limbs.

His head ringing, he clumsily disentangled himself from her before she accidently broke his bones when she tried the same – they really were tangled up quite badly.

Fortunately, Polymnia was better off than he was, and clear-headed enough to free herself without issue, getting up on her feet faster than he did.

Getting up on his knees, he shot out his grappling hooks, attaching them to the floor in front of him just in time to brace himself against the gale-like winds; raising an arm, he wrapped it around Polymnia’s waist as she dropped down as well, helping her hold out against the pressure.

Together they watched as Gloom Glimmer rained blows on the Protector, who seemed to have been smashed down onto the ground, spreading spider-web-like cracks several metre in every direction except beneath Tartsche, Tyche and Spellgun – the ground beneath them was as spotless as before.

The Protector himself was on his back, looking up at the furious teen raining down earth-shattering blows upon him, seeming none the worse for wear – if anything, he looked pensive.

Finally seeming to have had enough of the torrent of blows, he rose up, forcing Gloom Glimmer to fly up as well, her machine-gun-like storm of blows stopping finally, ending the gales of air that the shockwaves had created.

Not a scratch on him, Basil thought in awe. He’d heard how tough the Protector had been – until DiL, no one had ever managed to cause him serious harm – yet it was one thing to read about it (or see in the countless tv specials and movies it was shown or mentioned) and actually see it in action.

“You know…” the man began to speak, rising up slowly towards Gloom Glimmer, “I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen you before – and I never forget a face. Yet I just can’t seem to place you…”

“You knew my older sister,” Gloom Glimmer replied while bringing her hands together in front of her, creating a red spark that quickly grew to the size of a peach hovering between her palms. “She killed you.”

She threw her arms out, launching the sphere at at him.

The Protector made no move to dodge or defend, simply allowing it to hit his chest.

There was a sharp crack and the sound of air rushing in, stirring his cloak, but nothing else happened.

“FOOLS!! DID YOU THINK A MERE TELEPORATION TRICK WOULD BE ENOUGH TO BRING DOWN THE PROTECTOR HIMSELF!?! I DO NOT CHOOSE MY MINIONS LIGHTLY!!!!”, the woman’s voice boomed, making Basil wish he had a pair of Polymnia’s ear protectors at hand. It was actually rattling him through his helmet.

Four exclamation marks on that last one. That can’t be a good sign. He looked around, switching through various scan modes, trying to pick up any useful information.

All he got was a headache from the scrambled images his sensors gave him as they tried to make sense of the discombobulated energies that seemed to flow through this pocked reality without pattern nor purpose.

The Protector, meanwhile, looked around in annoyance, before turning to Gloom Glimmer again, as another attack simply splashed off of his chest, as did several shots from Spellgun, each of whom delivered a different effect.

“So rude,” he said with a sigh, shaking his head before he turned to look at Gloom Glimmer again. “I’m sorry, but did you just say you are that baby’s sister?” he asked with a politely curious expression on his face.

Osore tackled him, having grown to nearly twice his size and several times his original weight, but bounced off to no effect. Bakeneko tried to strangle him with her tentacles, her stingers going for his eyes.

The Protector ignored them entirely, other than gently brushing the stingers aside after they failed to penetrate his eyes.

“Yeah. I’m Gloom Glimmer – Lady Light’s and the Dark’s second daughter,” the hooded heroine spoke softly, her arms hanging down her sides. She wasn’t trying another attack, for whatever reason, nor could Basil detect any kind of invisible energy emanations from her – not that that said much, as he doubted he had enough sensors to pick up everything she could do. The only thing he could pick up, other than that annoying background radiation, was the soft glow that encompassed them all, red for him and his comrades, blue for the Protector.

The latter looked at her, stunned. “That child was theirs, huh? Did they manage to save her?” he asked, his voice turning hopeful as a sniper round from Tyche’s rifle flattened itself against his cheek, before it slid off.

Gloom Glimmer’s head jerked back, nearly causing her hood to fall off and reveal her face – what little Basil could see of it seemed… shocked.

“She destroyed your city. She killed you! And what you worry about is whether she was saved?” she asked, incredulous.

He tilted his head to the side again, floating up so he was at eye level with her. “Of course. What man wouldn’t want to see a child safe?” he asked, softly. “She was but a babe when she appeared; am I right in assuming that she’d just been born when her powers… manifested?”

“Actually, it happened even before, before she was born,” she replied, lowering her head as her hands clenched into fists. “She manifested in the womb and…” She bit her lower lip, the only part of her still visible, falling quiet.

“Ah, I’m very sorry,” he replied gently. “Though I’m glad that Lady Light survived it.” He smiled reassuringly. “To answer your question, I hold no ill will towards her, no more than I would hold towards a newborn that soiled itself.” He clasped his hands behind his back as several bullets and a blast of raw fear splashed over and off the back of his head and his back. “One must only be accused of that which they choose to do, not that which they have no control over in the first place.”

Something he said seemed to strike home, because Gloom Glimmer made a soft sound, hiding deeper into her cloak, drawing it around herself like it could protect her.

Basil stopped his last attempts to shoot at him – at this point, he was just wasting ammunition. The others seemed to come to the same conclusion, as the barrage of attacks that the Protector had ignored so far ceased.

Bakeneko helped Osore get up again, using her arms to straighten the arm he’d broken when he tried a flying punch at the old hero’s back.

“What has become of her?” the invincible man asked.

“She’s been destroying towns, cities and whole countries, ever since,” she answered truthfully. “Appearing and vanishing with no rhyme or reason. No one’s managed to stop her in twenty-six years.”

“That’s horrible,” he said simply, as he looked over his shoulder at the trio standing below. His eyes glowed red, firing off a burst of heat vision that failed to harm them, thanks to Tartsche’s power; not that he seemed to have put any effort into it – an attack more like an afterthought.

Not that it would take more than an after thought for him to kill us, if he actually tried, Basil thought to himself as he went through his options.

His rifle was useless. His gauntlet might be able to protect him from a few hits, but that was all it was good for. Its offensive setting required melee range, and he was not so foolish as to get within close range of that man.

Which left… he looked down at his strangest invention yet, attached to his thigh via a simple magnetic charge.

The silvery-black ovoid, covered in circuit-like patterns much like his gauntlet, looked as innocious as anything he’d ever made.

No, not yet. There’s no guarantee that it’d do anything against him, and I can’t afford to lose it.

He looked at Polymnia, hoping that she might have an idea, but all he saw on her face was worry and fear. No help there.

The others seemed to be similarly dumbfounded as to what to do, except for Hecate, who was hunched over now, her hands cupped on the ground in front of her, as she kept chanting in Greek, or perhaps Ancient Greek – they both sounded the same to Basil, melodious yet non-sensical other than the odd word here or there that seemed to be the origin for an English one.

Since she seemed busy – and fortunately, the Protector had been ignoring her entirely so far – he focused on the dialogue between the two strongest persons in the room.

“-r power,” the Protector said, still addressing Gloom Glimmer. “It feels strange. Familiar, yet off.”

She turned her head away. “It’s the same as hers… just weaker.”

“Are you certain?” he asked, looking surprised. “It feels nothing like hers… almost the inverse, I’d say. Or perhaps the opposite?” He stroked his chin, looking closer at her. “Are you absolutely certain it’s the same?”

“I-“

“ENOUGH OF THIS!” the woman shouted in anger. “YOU ARE DELIBERATELY WASTING TIME! I TOLD YOU TO FIGHT!!!!”

The Protector sighed again. “I’m sorry about this,” he spoke, looking at Gloom Glimmer – though Basil was pretty sure he was adressing all of them. “But I can’t refuse her commands, much as I’d love to.”

His eyes flared red, sending forth twin beams of bright red light straight through Gloom Glimmer’s chest – to no avail, as she simply dissolved into a black mist that surged forward, enveloping his head, rushing into his mouth, his nose, his ears.

Within moments, she had entered completely into his body.

“Nice idea,” he said, chuckling in amusement, seemingly unbothered by the experience. “But I’m every bit as tough on the inside as I am on the outside, little miss.” He rolled his eyes. “Yes, even my brain. Please, you’ll just end up hurting yourself like this.”

Even as he spoke, he turned around, looking at Basil and Polymnia.

“Gadgeteers, huh? Don’t you have some trick up your sleeve that could make this interesting?” he asked Polymnia and him, as he flew closer.

Even standing (well, floating) straight, he moved forward almost too fast for Basil to react, reaching for them with one hand each.

If he touches us, we’re dead, Basil thought as his mind raced to find a way to escape him.

Fortunately, Polymnia was able to move fast enough to do so for him, grabbing him by the waist and leaping away with a massive effort of strength, even for her.

She leapt at the Protector, though.

“What are y-” he began, but cut himself off when he realised they were sailing over the Protector, who flew on for a moment before he turned around, tracking their arc.

Before he could nail them with his heat vision – if that was what he intended – a bullet hit him from Spellgun, straight in the face.

It had little effect, other than to coat his face in ice again. He simply sneezed, shattering the ice and expelling Gloom Glimmer in one move with such force, her mist-form slammed into Basil and Polymnia, bowling them over as they landed and she solidified again.

Ow, Basil groaned as they ended up with both girls lying on top of him. Polymnia in particular was very heavy. There was the sound of shouting and shooting, followed by the grinding sound of bursting ice, but he couldn’t see it because someone’s butt was on his face.

He growned, pushing the two girls off of him as he got up on his feet.

The Protector was trying to get at the immobile trio, again, to no avail, as they fired at him with their various rifles. Only Spellgun’s contrived shots seemed to even register, even if only as annoyances rather than actual threats.

Fortunately, for all of his power, even the Protector seemed incapable of penetrating Tartsche’s defense, be it with his eye beams or his fists, causing an almost comical, brief scene where he seemed to flail as if drunk, his hands sliding off of their heads, throats and weapons, his heat vision failing to so much as heat up anything it touched.

“Hm, interesting,” he said, as he floated back gracefully. “Reminds me of when I fought that baby, she was similarly protected… actually, did anyone bother to give her a name?”

“Desolation-in-Light, Sir,” Tartsche replied respectfully. “We call her Desolation-in-Light, or DiL for short.”

The tall man frowned at that. “That’s a horrible name. What kind of imbecile came up with it?”

Basil couldn’t be sure, given Tartsche’s knightly helmet, but he would’ve bet on him blushing a bit.

“Uh, I actually don’t know who started it. I just… uh, I grew up with it, Sir,” the invulnerable boy responded, sounding as calm as ever.

“Well, it fits as well as any,” Spellgun drawled while he reloaded his rifle. “It’s tacky, yeah, but ‘Desolation-in-Light’ kinda fits l-“

“Bree!” Gloom Glimmer screamed, her voice nearly cracking as she rose up on her feet, her arms thrown wide open, cloak billowing around her. “Her name is BREE!!!”

She threw her arms out forward and unleashed a new power, a beam so bright it blinded Basil even through his visor, creating a sound so loud it deafened him, as if the air itself cracked.

The beam lanced forth, slamming into the Protector – not Spellgun, as even Basil thought it would, for a moment – and then it was too bright to see.

When his vision cleared again, there was a furrow in the otherwise perfect floor, whatever material it was made of disintegrated by her beam even though it hadn’t come close to touching the ground.

There was no sign of the Protector.

Gloom Glimmer didn’t seem to care, as she whirled to glare at Spellgun, her eyes glowing red. “And if I hear any of you use that idiotic appelation ever again, I’ll force-feed you your own colon!” she screamed, her voice distoring towards the end, resembling her father’s much more than her own.

“Duly noted…” Spellgun said in a barely audible whisper.

The others just stared at her, even Basil.

What the…

Then there was a rush of wind, and something crashed into ground just a few metre away, throwing up dust as the ground cracked more, making Basil and Polymnia stumble.

When the dust settled, they saw the Protector rise to stand straight once more, his face twisted in discomfort.

There was a hole in his chest, right above his lung, perhaps even penetrating deep enough to damage it, the edges not burned, but smooth, bleeding heavily.

Even as they watched, it was visibly healing.

What the…

“Fun fact,” the Protector spoke, his voice as strong as ever, so likely no lung damage… if that would even inconveniene him. “I never knew before I fought… Bree’s her name, right?… before I fought Bree, but I actually regenerate!” He looked down at his own wound, watching it heal. “Ugh, this looks disgusting, yet kind of amazing.” He reached for the wound, poking it curiously. “Ow,” he flinched, pulling his hand back. “Pain, right. It’s been a while since I felt that.” He shook his hand, causing the blood on his finger to simply fly off, unable to stick even to the cloth of his costume. “I’m not surprised you managed to hurt me, though,” he said to Gloom Glimmer with his customary genial smile. “Only ones who ever managed that before were your parents, and your sister.”

Gloom Glimmer just stared at him, her mouth hanging open, though whether it was at him having survived her attack or his flippant attitude, Basil couldn’t tell.

What he could tell was that her beam had been far wider than the wound they could see; yet the rate at which his body…

Basil squinted, looking closer.

Not just his body – even his costume was repairing itself!

Either way, at the rate it healed, it shouldn’t have had time to fix a bigger wound just yet. Meaning that, most likely, only the most concentrated part of the beam had actually done any damage at all.

Sighing, he walked over to Gloom Glimmer, as an unnatural calm descendet upon him. He’s just toying with us, he thought. He hasn’t even used his compelling voice, yet. And he should be much faster than he’s shown himself to be, yet. So either he’s been revived in a weaker state, or else…

He’s holding back, the Man in the Moon spoke up. This guy’s a hero, right? Like, he’s the hero. The guy the fanfic writers always pair up with Lady Light. He wouldn’t want to really hurt any of us. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even hate the bitch who killed him!

Basil came to a stop next to Gloom Glimmer, throwing a glance at Hecate, who seemed still busy casting her spell, shielded from the effects of the fight by the blast shadow of the immovable trio. She was bent over her staff, holding onto it with her left hand, while her right one was held above its head, fingers moving as she seemed to be incanting a spell.

He tapped Gloom Glimmer’s shoulder, then tapped his temple when she looked at him. Her eyes widened briefly, before she got his meaning, and then he felt a slight pressure on his mind. He also looked at Tyche, making a few subtle hand signals, out of sight from the Protector and, hopefully, his master, as he couldn’t reach her communicator through Tartsche’s power. She nodded, leaning over to Tartsche to whisper something.

The three of them reappared in his sensors readings.

The contriver, she commanded him to fight us, Basil thought, focusing the thought to be transmitted the way he’d learned from Amy.

Yeah, which is why we’re so screwed, Spellgun replied through their mental link. Owww… I’m already getting a headache! He flinched, scrunching his face up.

Sorry, it’s hard to separate my feelings from my power, Gloom Glimmer replied mechanically, with no real guilt in her mental voice.

Fair enough, I guess… Spellgun admitted.

We are not as screwed as it may seem, Basil spoke up.

What do you mean, B-Six? Tyche asked.

Barely a second had passed since the conversation began.

I mean that he has been holding back this whole time, he explained. He has not even tried to attack Hecate, our most vulnerable member, and he has mostly focused on attacking either the ones under Tartsche’s power – first with an attack that would not have hurt any of you even if it had connected – or Gloom Glimmer, who can take anything he can dish out.

How would he know that? Tartsche asked, his mental voice even calmer than his real one. He clearly didn’t know what her power’s like beforehand.

People often forget his expanded senses, Gloom Glimmer answered before Basil could. He could probably tell I had defensive powers up.

But why would he be holding back like that? That bitch gave him an order, and he doesn’t seem able to refuse it! Tyche asked, sounding the least calm of the ones who’d spoken yet, her mental voice far shakier and brittle than she’d seemed even earlier during their reunion.

She only ordered him to ‘fight’ us. Not win against us. Not defeat us. Not kill us. Just to fight, Basil explained his earlier epiphany. He wants to lose, which is why he has not bothered to dodge a single attack so far, nor made a serious effort to harm any of us. As long as we keep fighting and his mistress doesn’t notice that he’s play-acting, we’ll be able to use that, right, Hecate?

Keep him off my back for another minute and I might have something that’ll work, she replied. Now hush, I’ve got to concentrate!

You heard the lady. Let’s keep up the show before  his mistress realises he’s just messing around! Tartsche spoke firmly. Gloomy, can you put up a proper terrain? Both Polymnia and especially Brennus need more than just flat ground to fight at their best. Spellgun, save up your best shots, just use the ones that can distract him. Tyche and I can’t contribute much here, I’m afraid, but we’ll try to give him credible reasons to be ‘distracted’ whenever possible. Let’s get Hecate her minute!

Everyone agreed in the affirmative, as Basil chambered a new round in his rifle. No more than five seconds in total had passed, since he had drawn Gloom Glimmer’s notice.

The Protector either hadn’t noticed that they’d been unusually quiet for that time, or, more likely, had deliberately ignored it.

Hell, if he can see electricity and into your brains, he can probably tell that you guys were connected via some mental power, the Man in the Moon spoke up. It’s pretty grating how many powers this guy has.

Basil didn’t bother to reply, not that he had the time, as Gloom Glimmer stomped her foot on the ground, sending forth multiple ripples that spread everywhere around them, except where Hecate was working on her spell.

“Oh, what’s this?” the Protector asked curiously, squinting as he looked closer at the effect. “I’ve got the oddest feeling that I’ve seen this before…”

Gloom Glimmer brought her foot down in another stomp, and the ripples disappeared instantly.

Everywhere they’d touched, the ground bucked, and burst into motion.

Pillars rose, sometimes in clumps, sometimes alone, all around them, as the flat floor was turned into a maze of vertical pillars, followed by several horizontal ones that shot out once the main ones had formed, interconnecting them.

Finally! Basil thought, exulting as he triggered his grappling hook system, launching himself up in the air. Now I can fight!

Behind him, Polymnia leaped up, grabbing hold of a horizontal pillar with both hands to vault herself up even further.

“You kids do know that hiding from me isn’t going to work for long, right?” the Protector asked merrily as he flew up and around a pillar, appearing right in front of Basil.

He fired off his second hook to the side, diverting his flight at the same moment to avoid smashing into him.

My rifle’s useless, but if he’s actually not trying to fight, I can probably risk going in close to use the discharge function.

The Protector pursued him easily, cornering without any heed for inertia, his arms crossed in front of his chest as if to say he didn’t even need them to fight. Which he didn’t, not really.

Basil landed with his feet against the side of a particularly tall pillar and detached his hook.

Before he could fall, he kicked himself off, going straight for his pursuing opponent.

The tall man’s eyes widened as Basil flipped around in the air, slamming into his midsection with both feet – not that it so much as budged him.

“You can’t possibly have ex-” he began to say, opening his arms, but Basil didn’t give him a chance to finish.

He put his flat palm against his chest, right over his heart – the wound Gloom Glimmer had dealt him was already gone, fixed together with his costume, so he didn’t waste time aiming for it.

Holding onto his left wrist with his right hand, as he felt gravity reassert itself and start to pull on him, Basil triggered his gauntlet’s entire store of energy.

Instead of the blast he’d expected, that’d throw him back and maybe rattle his invulnerable foe, there was no effect whatsoever on Basil himself – instead, the Protector disappeared from his sight, faster than the eye could follow, as several pillars behind him were broken, collapsing into rubble.

What? he thought, stunned, beginning to fall.

“WHAT!?! WHAT WAS THAT!?!?!?!?!” the crazed voice shouted at the top of its lungs (Basil assumed), managing to sound both offended and shocked at the same time.

Basil wasted no breath even trying to answer her, in no small part because he didn’t know himself.

Firing his grappling hooks, he absentmindedly swung himself onto the nearest pillar, looking out trying to find the Protector and maybe figure out what’d just happened.

In the distance, he saw a silver-and-white figure rise from the rubble – zooming in showed the Protector, unharmed, though with a stunned expression on his face.

ed vYeah, you and me both, Basil couldn’t help but think.

The Protector looked at him, his eyes flaring a bright red he’d have seen even without his visor’s zooming function.

My cue to dodge!

He jumped off the pillar, barely a moment before its tip was disintegrated by twin heat beams, turning the pillar into a molten-tipped candle as he swung into the forest of rocky pillars again, rapidly casting his hooks out and reeling them back in, all but flying between them.

The Protector came after him easily, apparently unhindered by the camouflage the pillars should have provided Basil.

I don’t even know all of the senses this guy could be bringing to the mat, Basil thought, chargrinned, trying to stay ahead of his pursuer, to draw the chase out and buy Hecate the time she needed to complete whatever she was working on.

“That felt weird,” he said as he caught up, forcing Basil to cast one hook out backwards the way he’d come, to swing around the back of the man, trying to stay out of his front arc. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an effect quite like that before… what’d you do?”

“I discharged several tons’ worth of kinetic force into your chest in one shot,” Basil said, leading the man on a merry chase, waiting for his gauntlet to recharge, tracking its capacitors’ progress in drawing electricity from his batteries and charging the kinetic projector. I need to find a way to recharge soon. “I did not expect it to do… that.”

“Hmm,” the legendary hero stroked his chin, absent-mindedly cutting through Basil’s currently in-use hook-line with a flash of heat vision, causing him to tumble down before he used the other to catch himself and swing around a pillar. “So instead of dispersing or absorbing it, my own force-field translated that into movement… curious.”

“Absorbed,” Basil mumbled, while he caught sight of Polymnia, lurking behind a nearby pillar, the fingers of her left hand driven into the stone to dangle from. She looked back at him and made a quick series of hand signals with her right hand.

Gloom Glimmer dropped the telepathy, he realised, I should’ve noticed.

He nodded back at her, having understood the signs, and she smiled back.

Swinging around the pillar, he came face to face with the Protector again, just as the man was reaching out to grab him by the throat.

Disconnecting his remaining hook, he dropped, bending backwards to dodge his reaching hand, and cast it out again, pulling himself towards Polymnia’s pillar, hoping that whatever she was planning could buy them some more time.

Not that he’s exactly making it hard.

He passed her pillar, the Protector hot on his heels, and Polymnia struck as soon as the undead hero flew by her ambush.

Throwing herself around the pillar by the strength of one arm alone, she landed on the caped hero’s back, pressing both of her gauntlets to his ears.

<I’m really really sorry about this Sir I swear I’m actually a big fan!> she said, before she let loose with her sonics.

Even though Basil was already a dozen metre or so away from them, even though his helmet was shielded, he nearly tumbled down to the ground as the noise shook him to the bone.

Landing on the side of a pillar, held up by his grappling hook, he watched Polymnia ride the Protector down as the man lost control of his flight, tumbling downwards. The utter, mind-rending noise she was projecting was so powerful as to visibly distort the air around them as they fell, and it seemed to affect her, as well, in spite of all the protection built into her equipment, though she doggedly held onto her quarry, continuing to blast her cacophony into his ears at contact range.

That is, she did until he reached over his head and grabbed her by the forearms, his fingers crushing her gauntlets as they squeezed, making her cry out as he pulled her off of him and threw her with bone-crushing force into the ground below.

Polymnia impacted the ground with a cry of pain, cracking the stone as she was half-buried in it.

Both Basil and the Protector looked down at her for a moment, shocked at the sudden turn of events – yet neither had the chance to so much as make a sound before a sound like a sonic boom, only far more shrill, sounded, and the Protector was knocked out of the air.

“YOU-” Gloom Glimmer screamed, tackling him as he tumbled down, knocking him back the way she’d come, her body sheathed in a shroud of black sparks.

“-DON’T-” She punched him with a fist sheathed in green light, the energy of which exploded in another shrill boom, shattering all the pillars within ten metre of them as he was thrown out of sight, Gloom Glimmer in pursuit.

“-GET-” Her scream reached them, nevertheless, along with another boom in the distance that destroyed another cluster of pillars.

“-TO-” The Protector flew by Basil with such force he only managed to stay on his own pillar due to his grappling hook.

“-HURT-” Gloom Glimmer rushed by, a black-and-white streak of raw fury. Basil took the chance to leap down to Polymnia, using his grappling hook to break his fall at the last moment and land right next to her.

“-MY-” There was another shrill boom, further away.

“-FRIEND!!!” came a last cry, and an explosion like no other.

Green light washed over Basil and Polymnia, a wave of it flying by above to cut through what pillars still stood, though fortunately there weren’t any left near enough that they were in danger of being crushed.

Basil knelt down, checking Polymnia over. Her gauntlets were ruined, crushed, though surprisingly not far enough to break the her bones underneath (she’d likely have some impressive bruises nonetheless), but she herself seemed largely unharmed.

He helped her, carefully, to sit up out of the shallow grave the impact had made for her, making her groan as he steadied her with one arm behind her back.

“Where does it hurt, and how badly?” he asked calmly.

She looked up at him, blinking in a daze. Her lips moved, but no sound came out.

Her brain’s scrambled, he thought, as he tapped her hand with his free one. Somewhere in the distance, the fight continued.

Polymnia blinked once more, then flushed in embarrassment, and the fingers of her left hand began to move, slowly at first then faster.

<My forearms feel like they’re one big bruise and my back is no better off, but otherwise, I’m alright,> her vocaliser spoke, projected through a small speaker on the collar of her armour. She smiled reassuringly. <It pays to be a brick.>

“I would still like to check your arms and back at the earliest opportunity,” he said as he helped her up onto her feet, straining a bit to lift the bulk of her – she wasn’t wearing power armour right now, but it was still far more bulky and heavy than his body armour was, and she was no lightweight herself, though he knew not to comment on that.

<I really hope Hecate knows what she’s doing,> Polymnia said once she was more or less steady, though still trembling and hunched a bit due to the pain. <Gloomy won’t be able to keep this up much longer, not against someone that powerful.>

He frowned, and pulled an extension cord out of his belt, attaching it to her own belt’s port.

<Do you mean to say that she is going to run out of whatever powers her abilities?> he asked, concerned. He’d seen Gloom Glimmer run out once before, after all, during the Hastur fight.

<Precisely,> Polymnia replied. <No one’s ever been able to accurately measure her actual limit or how fast she drains it, but using this many big powers in such quick succession? We need to finish this, and soon.>

He looked toward the direction of the fight, tapping a reply with his fingers. <Yes, I believe we have distracted him long enough at this point. Let us go check up on the others.>

She gave him a nod and he wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close before he cast out his grappling hook, vaulting them both – with some strain on the motor – back towards their friends.

***

“HAH! SOON THE ACCURSED DEMON CHILD SHALL BE BESTED AND YOU ALL SHALL BECOME PRISONERS OF THE COMPANIONS ONCE MORE!!!!!!” the raving contriver’s voice boomed from nowhere and everywhere as they reached the immobile trio, Hecate and the pair of Osore and Bakeneko again.

Osore had shrunk down again, which meant that Bakeneko’s tendrils were mostly lying on the floor as he stood there, as calm and still as a statue.

“Brennus, Polymnia, you’re alright!” Bakeneko cried as she scrambled off of her boyfriend’s shoulders, taking a few unstable steps on her tentacles as they began to fuse together, then reached them in her catgirl form. Then she stopped, looking Polymnia up and down with a closer eye. “Are you alright!?” She stared at Polymnia’s crushed gauntlets, looking worried. The others, save for Osore and Hecate, did the same.

<I’m fine, thanks for asking,> Polymnia replied. <Just a few bruises and a few grand in damages.>

Tartsche turned his power off, joining them along with Spellgun, but Basil ignored them, going over to Hecate along with Tyche.

The Greek sorceress was still on her knees, though she was no longer working on her staff, which lay on the ground next to her. Instead, she was holding a wooden goblet covered in hand-carved Greek lettering. A warm red flame, threaded through with flickers of silver, was burning within, the goblet remaining clasped in both hands.

“I’m ready,” Hecate announced in a soft voice, looking up at them, her face illuminated from below by the flickering flame, casting it into dancing shadows. “Stand aside, please.”

Basil and Tyche nodded, stepping aside as Hecate rose to her feet, her boots’ heels clicking on the floor as she put her weight on them.

“WHAT IS THIS? THE LITTLE APPRENTICE THINKS SHE CAN CHALLENGE MY MAGIC IN MY OWN REALM?”

Hecate raised the goblet up, as if presenting it to an unseen goddess above. “I don’t think – I know.”

“WELL, DO YOUR WORST!!!!!!!” the voice boomed in mocking tones.

The sorceress lowered the cup as she took a deep breath, then turned it over, spilling the flames into a circle around her.

They didn’t fade, nor burn the ground, just remained there in place, forming a perfect ring.

Finally, Hecate lifted the cup to her lips and whispered a single word.

εύρηκα.”

The flames gushed forth in a sudden wave of red and silver, an ever-expanding ring that washed over Basil and the others without so much as singing their clothes, a gentle warmth that briefly caressed them before continuing, though it did make his sensors briefly go crazy.

Nothing happened in most places they passed, except when they touched something towards the direction that the Protector had first come from.

A veil shimmered, then was burned away like a moth in the flame.

Beyond it, a woman appeared, standing behind a half-circular wooden table with five engraved stone bowls standing atop it in regular spacing, blood-red flames burning in each of them. Something was floating within the flames of the central bowl in front of her, unburned by the flames. Further behind her, a door-shaped sheet of light floated in mid-air.

The woman behind did not look much older than Amy, to Basil, and she was dressed in an outfit somewhere between a dress and a robe, exposing a decent amount of skin without being obscene, all in red with golden details, wearing no mask but a golden circlet atop her raven hair. She radiated a soft purple aura, in contrast to the red of Basil and his friends, and the blue around the Protector.

Her brown eyes widened in shock as she stared at them.

Basil fired three shots, as soon as he could make her out, aiming for each shoulder and the object within the central bowl.

The shots all deflected off an invisible force-field, sending forth ripples across it that revealed it to be a hemisphere enclosing the woman and her ritual table.

Of course she still has shields up, he thought, annoyed.

His attack seemed to knock the woman out of her shock. She sputtered something, her voice breaking before she could form words – now at a normal volume – before she threw her head back and screamed: “To ME, my Protector!”

There was a boom in the distance and then the Protector landed between them in a flawless three-point landing, shattering the ground.

He looked… slightly worse for wear; whatever Gloom Glimmer had done had actually caused him some harm, small tears in his costume and a few scratches on his otherwise flawless face; but even that was already disappearing, repaired by his power.

Looking over his shoulder, he frowned at the sight of his mistress; then his body went rigid as he saw whatever was in the flames of the central bowl.

“How did you get that?” he asked, and his voice was cold for the first time, filled with barely restrained anger.

The woman did not seem cowed at all. “It is of no importance to you, my Protector! Now kindly defeat these children so we may put them back into their cells. And kill the witch who dared defy me, the mighty Legend!

The man stiffened, again, as did the others at the far more specific wording of this command; the only one who advanced was Hecate, apparently uncaring of the danger, walking slowly towards them while holding her staff in her left hand.

I really hope this works, Basil thought in worry, as he watched his best friend approach one of the most powerful metahumans they had ever met.

The Protector, in turn, began to walk towards her at a normal pace, moving stiffly, but with determination on his face.

Gloom Glimmer came flying in, trailing black sparks as she aimed straight for the Protector.

His lips moved, mouthing the words ‘Good Luck’ at them.

Hecate lifted her staff and stomped the ground once with the butt, causing a shadowy scythe-blade to emerge from its crystal tip, casting green reflections all around it.

Grabbing a hold of her scythe with both hands, she brought it down on the Protector in a diagonal slash, from his left shoulder to his right hip, the blade passing through him without any visible effect.

The invincible hero staggered, falling to one knee. Gloom Glimmer aborted her charge at the sight, staring at the scene in surprise – much like everyone else.

“Ah,” the Protector gasped, as the central bowl behind him burst into a flash of green flames, the object that’d been floating in it being thrown out before the flames faded. “Thank you kindly,” he said softly, his form beginning to fall apart at the edges, dissolving inwards. “Might I ask for your name, young one?”

“I’m Hecate,” the young witch replied. “May you rest peacefully in Elysium, Jason Davon.”

He smiled at her. “Nah… I think I’d rather try for reincarnation a few times… and then… maybe… the Isles… of the… Blest…” His lower body and arms fell apart, his skeleton beginning to shine through his transluscent flesh, now also starting to fade.

“I’m sure you’ll prove worthy,” she told him, her voice soft as they all watched him collapse and fade away into nothing.

For a few moments, silence reigned.

“What… what the fuck did you do!? How could you do that!?!” Legend screamed, breaking the reverie.

Hecate raised her head, her posture becoming much more straight. “You’re not the only necromancer here,” she spoke with undisguised contempt in her voice. “I may never stoop so low as to drag the dead up from their just rest, but putting them back to rest… now that I can do very well.” Basil couldn’t see it, but he thought she was smirking. “And breaking a spell is always easier than casting it, is it not?”

Legend snarled, undisguised hatred in her eyes. “You will PAY for this insolence, for violating my very realm!”

She reached for a pouch of hers, drawing forth two small objects – a hand-stitched, ragged doll, made out of rags in the shape of a little girl and a rosary made of silver and pearl beads and a wooden cross, and threw them into the flames of the bowls to the left and right of the central one.

“Rise, my Champions!” she shouted throwing her arms up towards the sky as the flames shot up into twin pillars of flame.

Several spheres of glowing power impacted the force-field around her, originating from Gloom Glimmer’s cloak, but to no avail – whatever contrivance was protecting her held true.

Two figures began to fade into existence, and everyone present instantly recognised them.

One was a person in full-body platemail on which a sword and a blue fleur-de-lys were engraved, wielding a heavy shield that sported the same symbol and a longsword with the fleur-de-lys engraved onto the pommel.

The other was a man taller even than the Protector had been, wearing faded military camo pants and heavy, worn-out boots and a white tabbard with the fleur-de-lys on his breast, his head that of a Hawk, as were the large wings emerging from his back.

The first and third Chevalier, Basil thought in surprise and no small amount of horror. She can raise the dead just like that!?

Everyone braced themselves, ready for combat, but it was Gloom Glimmer who acted first, reaching out for the third Chevalier with one hand to make a grasping motion and pull her hand back, as if to drag him.

Just as the man fully manifested, opening his sharp, hawk-like eyes, he disappeared and re-appeared right within striking range of Hecate, who wasted no time swinging her scythe.

Another bowl lost its fire, the summoned spirit fading into nothing.

Legend screamed in rage, as Gloom Glimmer and Hecate repeated the same process with the first Chevalier, banishing the woman before she could even become aware of what was happening – if those were even really the dead returned, and not just fascimiles created by Legend’s power.

The enraged contriver snarled at them, as she pulled another object from her pouch and threw it into one of the two remaining bowls’ flames, another pillar of fire shooting up briefly – but whatever shade she tried to summon, Hecate and Gloom Glimmer managed to strike it down before it had even fully formed.

“Nononononononooo!” Legend screamed, pounding her fists on the table. “How dare you? Howdareyouhowdareyouhowdareyou!?!?! I’ll kill you, kill you killyoukillyou!!!!!!!”

Seven exclamation marks on that one, Basil thought, walking forward to stand by Hecate’s side.

“Looks like you’re done for,” he drawled, surprised to find that his voice was full of contempt as well – contempt he actually felt himself.

Something about this woman just plain pissed him off, and it wasn’t the grandstanding or the fact that she was a villain affiliated with the very people who’d crippled Prisca.

Well, not just that.

No one should so dishonour the memory of fallen heroes, to call up these mockeries and make them her slaves.

“Surrender now, let us go and we’ll just knock you out and tie you up,” Basil commander her coldly, as the others closed ranks around to the left and right of him and Hecate, with Gloom Glimmer floating above, her cloak billowing out. “You’ve lost.”

“Nono, NO!” she screamed, slamming both fists onto the heavy wooden table. “You… you can’t beat me!” She calmed herself, slightly, using both hands to brush a few errand strands of hair out of her face.

Taking deep breaths, she stood up straight, looking down at them from the dais her ritual table stood upon. “I am Legend, Mistress of the Fallen Ones, the most powerful Contriver on this Holy Ground.” She gestured at the doorway behind her. “This is the only way out of my Realm, and only I, its Mistress, can open it and allow foreign ones like you, to leave.” Her hand made a wide sweep towards them. “None but I can pass my Fortress spell.” She gestured at her sole remaining bowl. “I still have one more Basin of Resurrection left to use, to summon a servitor who’ll obey my every command.”

She reached into her pouch and pulled out… an old paperback book.

What could that be? Basil thought, zooming in to read the title, and promptly choked as he recognized it.

“Hecate, Gloom Glimmer, you have to stop her!!!” he screamed as he raised his rifle to unload all his ammunition at the book, hoping that, maybe, one would get through.

“Now despair, as I summon my most powerful servitor!” Legend shouted, pulling the last basin directly in front of herself and dropping the limited first-edition copy of Five Sun’s Dawn into its flames. “Come forth, oh mightiest one! I, Legend, command thee to appear before me and serve me!” she shouted, throwing her head back and raising her fists up into the sky, as if to call down divine wrath.

Several shots from Basil’s, Tyche’s, Tartsche’s and Spellgun’s weapons bounced off the shielding spell to no effect whatsoever, other than to cause a few ripples that disappeared almost as soon as they appeared.

A pillar shot up.

A shade began to form, tall and gaunt.

Hecate raised her scythe for a powerful two-handed blow.

Gloom Glimmer cried out, making a grasping motion.

The shade disappeared just as it solidified, reappearing before Hecate.

The scythe fell to cut through the shade.

“Stop,” the shade whispered, turning its head towards the young heroine.

She stopped mid-swing, her scythe inches away from cutting into him.

The shade solidified into a person, standing tall as he looked down on them.

A gaunt man, easily a whole head taller than Basil himself, with a thin, not unattractive face; high cheekbones sharp enough to slice bread were accentuated by a slightly beaked nose and a sharp chin. His eyes were as black as the night, even more so than his raven hair that reached in an unkempt, almost barbaric mass down to his waist; the iridae so dark it was all but impossible to make out where they ended and where the pupils began. He was garbed in a tight, dark red robe with golden trimming and vine-like patterns of the same golden material at the rims of the wide sleeves, the foot of the robe and his high, closed collar. It fit snugly around his slender, yet not too thin torso, showing little muscle and pretty much no fat. From the ends of the sleeves, long, almost spidery fingers poked out, slender and dexterous looking, the kinds of fingers one expected to see on the hands of a pianist.

A pale blue glow emanated from his body.

He bore no crown, nor did he need one – his aura of power, of command, was so mighty as to be nearly physical, tying them all in place; whether it was an actual power, or the sheer weight of his reputation, Basil could not say, as the man whom had once made a credible claim to the title of ‘Godking’ looked at them with a slightly curious, surprised look.

“I will not be slain today,” he said calmly, with an absolute conviction that broke no argument. “I will not be captured today. I will not be controlled today. I will not be subverted today. I will not be harmed.”

Dude, you are so fucking fucked to all fucking hell, the Man in the Moon threw in unhelpfully.

“This is no scenario I envisioned for my resurrection,” Emyr Blackhill spoke, keeping his voice soft, and yet it was deep, reverberating with an odd harmony that made them all shiver down to their bones.

Raising a hand, he looked at the slender limb, the wide sleeve falling back to reveal a bare forearm. He turned it around, looking at it from several angles. “Why do I glow blue?” he asked no one in particular, fortunately, frowning softly.

Then he looked up at the teenagers in front of him, looking left to right. “You glow… red? You’re not the ones who brought me here, are you? Am I right?” He directed that question at Hecate, who still stood in front of him, having taken a step back in fear.

“You are,” she replied instantly, her voice almost but not quite cracking, quivering with fear.

“Relax, child,” he told her softly, and the tension immediately drained out of her stance. “Now tell me what’s g-“

“Emyr Blackhill!” Legend shouted at him, her voice loud and clear. “I am the one who summoned you, oh mighty one! Thus, I am your-“

“I really do not enjoy being interrupted,” he cut her off as he turned around with a reproachful look. “Do not speak again without my leave,” he ordered her, and her mouth clamped shut as her eyes grew wide in horror.

He looked at her, his back to the teens behind, uncaring of any threat they might pose. “Hm, you glow purple, not red nor blue. Probably has to do with you being the former mistress of this realm. Answer my question.”

“Yes, that is why I am surrounded by a purple corona. It designates me as the true Mistress of this realm, not a former one,” she replied, before her mouth closed shut again, her voice full of equal parts of contempt and terror.

Emyr snorted softly. “How conceited of you.”

He walked towards her, until he came up to the shield that surrounded her dais, reaching out with one hand to touch it. Ripples spread from where his palm pressed against it.

Legend’s lips twitched into a hopeful smirk, as he was held back.

“Hm. This little spell is nothing before me,” he said calmly as he pressed his hand forth. The shield popped like a soap bubble, and Legend turned as pale as a corpse.

Emyr stepped onto the dais, his legs long enough to clear its height in one, albeit very wide, step. Upon it, he towered over the average-sized Legend, even more so due to his wild mane of hair.

“This table shall move out of my way,” he spoke, and the ritual table with the basins atop slid out of the way and to the edge of the dais, almost but not quite falling off.

Then he walked onto the doorway, and reached out with one hand, trying to push it through.

His hand could not pass through.

“This is the exit out of this realm, am I correct, Legend?” he asked, sounding unperturbed by being denied exit.

“Yes,” she replied.

“You will address me as your Majesty,” he rebuffed her.

Her fists clenched in impotent rage as she stepped aside, turning so her side was towards Basil and the others, looking at the man who would so command her. “As you wish, your Majesty,” she said, though she clearly didn’t want to.

“Let this doorway be open to me then,” he commanded, and tried to step through again.

Basil’s heart nearly stopped, and he was sure he wasn’t the only one who held his breath – only to let it out explosively along with everyone else but Emyr himself, as he failed to exit once more.

He tilted his head to the side. “Something which can stymie my power? Now this is impressive.” He turned around to look at Legend again, stepping closer to her. “No wonder you were able to summon me. Now how can I leave this realm?”

“You can’t, your Majesty,” she replied, her trembling voice putting the lie to her attempts to look self-assured as she stared up at the looming figure of Emyr. “Only I can use the doorway, and those who bear a red corona, provided they have my leave, for I am still the Mistress of this Realm. And even if I wanted to, there is no way a servitor could exit this realm, your Majesty.” Some of her earlier sneer returned to her voice as she spoke.

Emyr stroked his chin, still paying no attention whatsoever to the teens beyond her. Not that any one of them had the nerve to try and attack him right now.

“Hm, I see,” he said, a slight contempt and a great boredom evident in his voice. “A wise precaution, though it is thoroughly insufficient of course.”

Everyone just stared at him, the teens not daring to speak, and Legend unable to.

Emyr raised a hand, scratching the back of his head briefly as he rolled his shoulders, loosening them up as if he had no care in the world.

Then he looked down at Legend in slight contempt, making an imperious, sweeping gesture with his right hand, as if to encompass the entire mystic realm.

“Insufficient,” his voice boomed, speaking with a commanding tone that shook the very ground, “for I shall be the Master of this realm now!”

His corona turned a light, barely perceptible purple, as Legend’s own turned… blue.

She stared down at her hands, taking a step back, and fell over onto her butt, her face slack with shock.

Emyr shrugged and looked at the teenagers. “Excuse me, but I do have a planet to reclaim, and another to conquer… again. I shall take my leave now, and take care of you all later, once I have re-established my regency,” he spoke to them before he turned around and walked towards the door. “It shouldn’t take too long, all things considered.”

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B13.8 Call of the Sleeper

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Basil knew he wasn’t the most… sensible person out there. He often overlooked people’s feelings, not out of malice or a lack of care, he thought, but simply because they tended to seem so… unimportant, compared to everything else on his mind. The inventions, the science, the fight against evil, the fight for good… compared to all that, there was precious little time to worry about how others were feeling, oftentimes, and there’d been steadily less and less time, to boot.

Still, he would have needed to be blind, deaf and an imbecile not to notice that something was seriously wrong with his friend. Dalia looked like she’d been crying a lot, in a very short time. The little bit of mascara she tended to wear even underneath her mask, against his recommendation, had run down her cheeks in two quickly fading black streaks; her eyes were bloodshot and all of that was visible because she wasn’t wearing her mask.

Stepping forward, he put himself between her and the junior heroes, if only for appearances sake, reaching out to put his hand on her right shoulder, as Hecate was hanging onto her left one, her arms around Dalia’s torso.

He squeezed it, feeling her tremble, then calm a bit. “Welcome back,” he spoke as softly as he could, trying not to show the anger he was starting to feel.

Someone had hurt her badly. He could tell. He could see it in her eyes.

That someone was going to hurt a lot, if he could in any way arrange it.

First, though, he had to take care of her. Or at least help do it.

“Thanks, guys,” she said in a wavering voice as she reached out, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him in so she could hug him along with Hecate.

He barely managed to get his rifle out of the way before he was being crushed against her – she definitely wasn’t watching her strength, squeezing as hard as she could. Not that he, or Hecate, were going to complain.

After a good half-minute of that, he finally pulled back, though gently. They weren’t exactly in a situation where they could afford to spend too much time on this, as much as he felt it necessary.

“Tyche, what-” he began, trying to inquire as to what happened to her while they were separated, but she cut him off as she looked up from embracing Hecate, her eyes painful to look at, but determined.

“I know where she is,” she spoke, her voice firmer than before, as if the little group hug had actually helped her a bit. He certainly hoped it did. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

Basil was still trying to process that statement when Hecate spoke up. “It’s ‘which way’, not ‘what way’,” she corrected Dalia, her voice wavering, as if she was on the verge of tears herself.

“Drop dead, Grammazon,” Dalia replied with a smile. “Any-way, we should hurry before more of these losers show up, right?” She looked at everyone else.

“I have a few questions, actually,” Tartsche spoke, coming closer with the others. “But you’re right, we should get away from here. First, though, I must insist we check you.”

“Check me?” Dalia asked in confusion, though Basil immediately picked up on what Tartsche meant.

As reasonable as it was, he still felt like slapping him over the head for possibly putting her in more distress. “He means that he wants to make sure you are not under some form of mind control or other coercion, and that you are actually who you say you are,” he explained calmly. “Remember the infiltrator protocols I made you memorise?”

She nodded, as understanding dawned on her face.

“Wait, you guys have your own infiltrator protocols?” Spellgun asked, sounding surprised.

“Of course!” he and Hecate replied in tune.

The junior heroes, minus Gloom Glimmer and Osore, looked at them in surprise.

Tartsche was the first one to recover. “Well, anyway, we don’t actually need that right now, provided that Gloom Glimmer’s power is cooperating?” He looked at his teammate, who’d pulled her hood up to hide her face, again, her cape falling over her shoulders to hide most of her form, other than the toes of her feet, clad in the black cloth of her suit.

She nodded, stepping forward. “I have just the power for that,” she spoke, her voice a little more normal than usual, without the odd harmonics beneath it that tended to freak Hecate out so much. “Do you consent to me using an Esper power on you, Tyche?”

“I get a choice? ” Dalia asked, surprised. “I figured you’d insist on it anyway.”

Gloom Glimmer shook her head. “I’d rather do this with your permission. It’s rather invasive, after all, and you have no way to tell whether I’ll look at more than just whether or not you really are who you say you are and whether you’re under the influence of another power.”

The redhead surprised them all by chuckling, as if amusing. “Go ahead,” she said with a sad, brittle smile. “Can’t be worse than what’s already happened.”

Basil’s grip on his rifle tightened, hard.

Gloom Glimmer reached out with both hands, as Hecate stepped back, letting go of Dalia’s torso to hold her hand instead. She put her hands onto the redhead’s temples, gently, and lowered her head, standing there quietly for a few moments.

Then she stepped back, letting her arms fall down and disappear beneath her cloak. “She’s clean,” she announced, as her hands rose again, dropping two blue-and-white pills onto her palm, swallowing them quickly. “Can’t find any sign of mental tampering and she’s definitely whom she appears to be.”

Tartsche nodded, looking relieved. “Great. Sorry about that.” He gave Tyche an apologetic smile.

“Nah, don’t knock it,” she replied easily. “Only good sense. So, are we  gonna get going before these bozos wake up?” She nodded towards the downed villains.

“Yes, let us get moving,” Basil agreed. “You can tell us what you found out while we are on the move.”

He looked around at the others, to see if anyone disagreed. No one did, and so they left, running (in Gloom Glimmer’s case, floating) after Dalia as she ran down the hallway.

***

The group quickly passed by the entrapped, unconscious Chronicle and ran down the hallway that Basil, Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had come from earlier.

“So, how do we get to Dusu, and how do you know where she is?” Basil asked Dalia, keeping pace with her with some effort – apart from Tartsche, he was the only one in the group who didn’t have an enhanced physique, and unlike him, Tartsche hadn’t just come out of heavy melee combat with a sword-wielding lunatic.

“We’ve got to get to the train station – they have trains running through this entire place!” Dalia replied, looking at him over her shoulder.

He was glad to see that, now that she had something to do, she looked better, if marginally so.

“We’ve got to take the D1-line West – I came with the East line – to the D-hub, then take the D-line North to the main hub. From there, we can take the A-Line to the A-hub, and the A3-line to the last stop. That’s where Dusu’s lab is ‘posed to be, according to the guy I got this from!”

“Who’s that?” Hecate asked, as she stuck close to her friend without any apparent strain.

I need some proper power armour again, Basil thought in annoyance, even as he listened closely. Lugging this much gear around is such a pain, no matter how much I reduce the weight.

“Some guy named Im-Immanuel,” she replied, tripping over the name. “A creepy German guy, not that that’s anything unusual.”

“Immanuel, huh?” Gloom Glimmer spoke up while flying closer, briefly touching Basil on the back.

He almost yelped when he lifted off, floating along with her, though he reigned it in – and his legs immediately made their gratitude known.

“Yeah, weird name, right? Do you know him?” Dalia asked, looking forward again.

Basil frowned. He’d have expected her to keep looking over her shoulder and rely on her power not to trip up or run into anything. It might have been nothing, just a whim, but it felt more significant, considering the state she was in.

“No, unless he’s the famous eighteenth-century philosopher,” Gloom Glimmer replied. “It’s not the most popular name ever, but it’s pretty common in the German states, as well as other parts of continental Europe, though usually in a different spel- ah, but this isn’t important at all.” She popped another one of her pills.

Basil took note of that, if only because he’d finished analysis of the one he’d filched a while ago, and knew just what they did. Or didn’t do. I wonder whether I should tell her… but then again, I doubt Lady Light of all people would be lying to her daughter out of malicious reasons.

“Well, he hinted that he was, at least, old enough to know Weisswald, even though he looked like an early twenties sex god,” Dalia said casually.

“Yeah, that makes him even more trustworthy than just the fact that he’s in this place,” Bakeneko threw in with a sneer.

“I know, I didn’t trust him, either, but…” She paused, apparently searching for the right way to phrase things. “Everything he told me has been true so far, and… he said he wants us to find Dusu.”

“Did he say why he’d want that? It sounds mightily suspicious,” Polymnia spoke as she jogged along.

Dalia nodded, without turning around. “Yeah, he said he thought she wasn’t really worth the effort to support anymore, and this is some kinda last test for her to prove she’s worth being around, otherwise she might as well get whatever she deserves.”

“Now that’s just gotta be bo-” Bakeneko began to say.

“That makes sense,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted her, speaking quietly. “The Gefährten have done this before, like that mess in Chicago a while ago. That was them putting the former Ascendant to the test.”

“Wait, the Ascendant is a member of these madmen!?” Tartsche and Spellgun asked in concert, sounding shocked. Everyone else was staring at Gloom Glimmer as well, at the same time.

“Yes, I… heard about it from Dad. The Ascendant is a legacy that’s belonged to the Gefährten since the beginning, really. But the former holder wasn’t living up to his duties – making more people have origins and manifest – so they gave him one last chance to prove he was worthy of the name. Now that he’s failed, there’s probably an all new Ascendant, somewhere around here,” she explained.

They took a right turn down another hallway, finally leaving the waxen section behind. Not that cold steel was any more comfortable or anything, just more… normal.

“So this is a reasonable course of action for these people?” Basil asked, wanting to make sure.

“As far as I know, yes,” Gloom Glimmer replied firmly. “I’m not an expert on them, obviously, but it fits.” She fell quiet for a moment. “Say, where’d you meet this guy? He must be pretty high up in the hierarchy here, to make a decision like that.”

Dalia gestured up towards the roof and ahead. “On the top of that huge-ass tower in the middle of this fucking place. Some kind of meditation chamber, it was.”

Basil, Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia traded glances; he could tell they realised what that meant.

“What did you just think?” Hecate asked, looking back at the three of them over her shoulder, running ahead with Dalia. “You three were trading very knowing looks there.”

“Gloom Glimmer used a danger sense earlier, when she found Polymnia and me,” Basil explained. “Among other things, it told her that there was a massive threat at the top of that tower, someone more dangerous than even the Dark.”

That caused a few moments of silence.

“Oh,” Dalia said, almost gasping. “Fits, I guess… he was really extraordinarily scary, as nice as he was…”

“What can you tell us about him?” Basil pressed the issue, as he reconsidered just how much he could afford to trust her right now – if this was someone more dangerous than the Dark, so likely more powerful than the Dark and someone who was also old enough to have known Weisswald, then it stood to reason that he might be powerful or skillful (or both) enough to evade detection by Gloom Glimmer, as powerful as she might be.

“He… he was really way, way pretty, like,” she began to reply, her speech a little stuttering. “Like, the prettiest guy I’ve ever seen, ever,” she continued, speeding up. “He didn’t use any obvious power or anything, not that I noticed.”

They reached a small train station that was, like most of the complex so far, completely abandoned, both train tracks empty.

Slowing down, then stopping near the edge, they gathered around Dalia, though they kept a little distance, so as not to crowd her; only Hecate remained right next to her, still holding onto her hand, squeezing it in support.

“He just… well, he just talked to me. But… he knew a lot. WAY too much,” she whispered, looking down at her feet. “He knew, he knew about my equipment… he knew how my power worked better than I do… he knew my name.” She shuddered, as several people around her gasped, and Hecate stepped even closer, letting go of Dalia’s hand to wrap her arm around her waist instead, pulling her into a hug.

“Oh Tyche, I… I’m so sorry,” she whispered, putting her other arm around her, as well.

Dalia turned fully towards her and embraced her in turn, hiding her face against the side of Hecate’s hood.

Basil was pretty sure she was crying.

He… he wasn’t sure how to describe how he felt. Wrath was too soft a word to describe it.

Worse yet…

If he could find out hers, does he know that of the others here? Or would he only find out if we came too close, if he found out via his power?

He looked around at the others, seeing various degrees of shock and outrage on their faces… and no small amount of fear.

Gloom Glimmer was hard to read, her face and body almost entirely hidden, but her mouth was set in a tight line. She had no reason to be worried herself – her identity was public anyway, and anyone who tried to go after her family rather than her deserved what they got, but she seemed angry nonetheless.

Polymnia, Tartsche, Spellgun and Bakeneko looked fearful. Each of them had a secret identity, and (likely) family to care about, even if Aimihime, at least, didn’t like her father all that much.

It was impossible to read Osore and Basil frankly didn’t know a thing about the boy other than that he was ethnically Japanese. He really should have asked Aimihime more about her boyfriend, what kind of friend failed to even think of that…

He couldn’t see Hecate’s face right then, but he knew her well enough to know that she must be terrified, seeing how tight she was with her (very expansive) family.

Basil himself… well, if there was a villain out there – mayhaps a really powerful telepath? – whom could find out secret identities easily, or whom had an organisation with the resources to do so, even for obscure, young heroes like Dalia, then that was a problem, but not so much for himself. His only family was Amy, and she certainly didn’t need any protection from enemies who’d be interested in someone of his level.

Still, I need to talk to Amy about this… assuming she doesn’t kill me after this stunt.

Just then, the train arrived. A quick look at the driver’s cabin as it passed showed that it was automated, and the doors opened smoothly.

They entered, together, Dalia disentangling herself from Hecate to do so.

Inside, the train car was… surprisingly normal. Simple, lightly padded seats with red cotton covers. Everyone sat down, with nothing better to do, except for Basil, who leaned against the window right next to the seat that Dalia and Hecate sat down on together, putting Dalia between himself and the Greek witch; Gloom Glimmer didn’t so much sit as move into a lotus position in mid-air, lowering herself until she was level with the seat that Polymnia sat on, since the latter’s armour took up a little too much space to make for comfortable sharing of the seat.

The others also paired up – Bakeneko and Osore, and Tartsche and Spellgun, the four of them facing him and his team, while Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia sat at a right angle to the rest, their seats facing the back of the train.

“Is that why you are not putting your mask on?” Basil asked in a soft voice, looking down at Dalia as he folded his arms in front of his chest.

“Oh, that?” She looked up with a surprised expression on her tired face, fresh tear tracks visible on her cheeks, through her mascara. “I completely forgot about this, sorry…” She pulled a tissue paper out of a pocket of her leather jacket, spitting on it a few times before she wiped the mascara off her face, then she pulled her mask back on. “I guess, yeah, I didn’t see the point, so I forgot about it,” she said, her voice now slightly muffled by the mask.

Basil relaxed, just a little bit – he hadn’t even noticed, but he was glad she had the added protection against strikes or shots to her head, even with the opening for her red hair in the back, he’d been more tense than he would otherwise have been while she’d been so exposed.

“What else can you tell us about this Immanuel? Did he give you any hints as to what his power is, or his true designs?” And how much did he really know about your power? Basil wasn’t sure he wanted to draw too much attention to that, not with the junior heroes around. Anything he said might move up the ladder, in time, and a probability manipulator would be a prime target for recruitment, maybe even more so than himself.

“As I said, he was… nice,” she spoke, her head lowered and her hand holding tightly onto Hecate’s. “Even while he… spoke about some… troubling things… private things.” She looked up at the junior heroes. “I’m sorry, you’re all great and all, but…”

Tartsche raised a hand, looking surprisingly calm in spite of the situation. “We understand. You don’t have to tell us about that. Just tell us any salient information you may have on him.”

“Um… there’s one thing that stuck out. He seemed to have some kind of… well, when I asked him where you guys all were, he immediately knew, and could point it out to me,” she replied quietly. “Like, knew it down to which level of the tower you were in, or that B-Six here and the Popprincess broke out with some anti-EMP stuff. But he said it was ‘a pain’ to keep track of you.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer.

They all looked at her, and Basil, at least, felt very curious about what that could mean.

“That could mean he’s a pretercognitive,” Gloom Glimmer explained calmly. “I know that some aspect of my power messes with them, though I don’t know what, exactly. I can’t do it deliberately, at least.”

“Preter-what?” Aimi and Dalia both asked at the same time, and with nearly the same voice.

“Pretercognitives are particular sub-category of Espers…” Basil began to answer…

“What did I tell you about Exposition, Brennus!?” Hecate snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at him.

Oh, come on… “Two sentences or less…” he grumbled, remembering one of her many, many lectures.

“And you remember the penalty for breaking that rule?” she pressed on.

No more free food at your family restaurants, he thought as he nodded. “Yeah.”

She nodded. “Good. Continue.”

He grumbled something under his breath about people who were ungrateful about getting detailed information and continued, trying to ignore the amused looks everyone else was giving him.

“Pretercognitives are a sub-category of Espers, specifically Post-, Peri- and Precognitives; that is to say, people who view, in some manner, the past, present or future. They are the rarest form of Espers and some of the most powerful and interesting powers out there, particularly the various forms of Precognition, belong to that class,” he said, stopping before he could actually recount the sum of his knowledge about the subject – and he’d researched it extensively, for various reasons.

Gloom Glimmer nodded. “Also, they’re known for having strange interactions and suffering interference from some kinds of powers, of which mine appears to be one. Sometimes, they work on me just fine and sometimes… not.”

“Alright, so we can reasonably assume that he has some form of Pretercognition, though he may also simply have been patched into their computer and surveillance systems – there ought to be more security around here than we have noticed so far,” Basil followed. “Anything else?” He asked, after the others nodded.

Dalia shook her head. “Not really. I mean, he might have been a telepath, to figure out so much about me, but… he also knew stuff I didn’t know about, so… I dunno.”

“Where all the things he knew that you didn’t know just about your power? Because if so, he might have some kind of power analysis ability,” Hecate proposed.

Her friend shook her head, though. “No, he knew more than that.”

They looked at each other, Basil, Hecate and Dalia, before falling quiet.

That’s it then. I don’t have the foggiest idea what kind of power he might have, beyond it being some form of Pretercognition, which might mean anything, Basil thought to himself.

“Uh, this is all fun and all,” Spellgun spoke up, making everyone look up at him. “But we’re kind of ignoring the fact that, whatever his power is, it probably doesn’t matter if Gloomy is right and he’s just going to let us take on Dusu. We should maybe focus on that, first, then worry about him.”

“What if he, however, objects to us leaving after we’ve performed this little ‘test’ for his subordinate?” Basil countered, perhaps a little more sharply than he needed to.

He really was, rather extraordinarily so, angry, even if he had so far managed to keep it simmering beneath the surface.

“Then we deal with that later,” Spellgun stood his ground, setting his jaw. “Let’s focus on our immediate problems, and worry about the rest if and when we get to it.” He looked around at everyone in turn, as if challenging them to disagree, but no one spoke up.

He does have a point, after all, Basil thought. “So be it then,” he agreed, finally. “Our next issue, then…”

“Excuse me,” Polymnia spoke up, raising a hand as if she was in school. “I do actually have something huge to talk about!”

They all looked at her, but she was looking just at Basil… or rather, at his left gauntlet.

Ah, right, I forgot that this would happen…

“Brennus, you have a force-field projector!” she spoke intently, her vocaliser sounding far too human. “That’s a huge thing! When did you come up with it, when did you find the time to build it? What else can it do, other than that shield? And do you think you can make more? And what is it with that thing attached to your thigh?” She finished by pointing at the ovoid that was magnetically attached to his thigh armour.

Everyone’s attention was on him, now, ranging from curiosity to concern to… well, he wasn’t sure what Hecate was thinking, exactly, but she seemed amused.

“My gauntlet’s a force-field projector, yes. I came up with it after we worked on the Arc Caster… well, it’d be more accurate to say that working on the Arc Caster allowed me to finally finish some fragmentary ideas I have had for a while now. I cannibalised some other projects of mine and assembled this prototype.” Polymnia looked like she wanted to say something, but he pressed on, turning to the other new invention he’d brought along. “As for th-“

He was interrupted, suddenly, when the lights went out, from one moment to the next, followed by red emergency lighting turning on.

Everyone who was seated jumped up, reading powers and weapons, but the train kept driving, though slowing down.

“What happened!?” Tartsche asked, his voice firm. “Gloom Glimmer, do you see anything?”

“No! I was looking out for anything dangerous or such, but I didn’t see anything coming!” Gloom Glimmer replied as she floated up by a few inches, her cape billowing open. Her hands were clenched into fists. “But we definitely just… enterd the territory of some kind of power. A dimensional shift? Yeah, I think that’s it – we’re in some kind of pocket dimension.”

The train slowed further, then stopped, and the doors opened.

Basil traded glances with Hecate, before he turned around to look at Gloom Glimmer. “Can you get us out of here? Straight out, with some kind of power?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry… dimensional travel is a rare one, even for me,” she replied. “And this place… it is protected, somehow. People aren’t supposed to get out, even with that kind of power, I think.”

“So then… how can we get out?” Tartsche asked, holding an assault rifle in each hand. Basil was pretty sure they were loaded with lethal ammo, unlike the usual rubber bullets he fired back in New Lennston.

“I figure we have to find whoever made it and get them to let us out. I’m certain they’re in here with us, somehow,” she answered.

“No use in dallying then,” Basil said, loading a new shot into his rifle. “Let us go out and look for them.”

***

As soon as they stepped out of the train car onto a dark floor made of regular squares, Basil immediately noticed something new.

“I am glowing red,” he said flatly, looking down at his left hand, turning it so he could look from every direction. It – and the rest of his body – was surrounded by a halo of soft, almost imperceptible red light.

Looking around, he saw that all the others were surrounded by the exact same glow.

“Any idea what this means?” Spellgun asked, holding tightly onto his rifle.

“I… think it has something to do with… not being part of this reality?” Gloom Glimmer said. “Ugh… I think this is a contrivers work, it’s not usually this hard to figure a power out… but I think we should look out for anyone with a differently coloured glow about them.”

“I CAN’T ASK FOR A LINE MORE STRAIGHT THAN THAT!” a female voice boomed from all around them.

Basil raised his rifle, turning in a circle to survey their surroundings quickly.

They were in a huge, bare room, so large that the walls and ceiling couldn’t be seen – just a floor made of perfectly regular, glossy black squares, fitted so tightly they seemed almost like a solid piece, illuminated by a light that seemed to have no source, casting soft shadows on the ground.

The only break in the pattern were the train tracks and the car they had come in on, which seemed to come from and go to nowhere.

Then, in the distance with the train car in Basil’s back when he looked in that direction, a glow appeared, a glowing white point that extended into lines spreading over the sky.

“Uh, guys, I’m feeling some really, really, really powerful magic around here…” Hecate said in a hushed, almost awed voice.

“Oh shit,” came from several mouths all at once.

Basil stayed quiet, aiming in the direction of the light with his rifle, even as the lines formed mystical designs, pentacles, circles and other diagrams, several layers of them, interlocked and shifting.

Finally, a person appeared in the distance, walking closer.

He was tall, a man built like a bodybuilder’s ideal, muscular without being  ridiculous about it; he wore a silver bodysuit and a white cape, his curly blonde hair slicked back over his head, his face open, friendly and honest. The kind of face you could instantly trust in a crisis, who’d console even the most despondant, panicked innocent. His smile was all the same, only even more so.

He was surrounded by a soft blue glow.

Dalia was the first one to manage coherent words at the sight. “Guys… isn’t that… the Protector!?

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B13.7 Call of the Sleeper

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Their enemies burst into motion before their teammate even had time to slide down the wall. The man covered in dancing lightning threw his arms out, unleashing four solid blue-white spheres the size of footballs that rose up into the air above the burgeoning fight.

At the same time, the woman in the bird-mask reached out and grabbed her shattered sword, without even looking at it, and dissolved into a murder of shaggy, black crows.

Just then, Gloom Glimmer waved her hand at them in an imperious gesture, sending forth a ripple that travelled through the wax floor, as if it was liquid.

Their enemies saw it coming, of course, and reacted much faster this time; the man in blue and Skulls jumped over the ripple as it reached them, avoiding contact – only to stagger as they sank into the ground, up to their knees, the wax seeming to liquefy, then immediately solidify again, trapping them.

The woman with the book landed on her feet, staggering, as the ripple moved towards her, barely holding onto her shredded book. Basil could see her eyes widen as she saw it coming towards her, with no way to dodge.

“Boltstar!” she shouted, almost a squeal, sounding younger than he would have guessed – he mentally re-assigned her as a girl rather than a woman.

The man in blue twisted around at the hip, throwing out a hand towards her. A crackling, unstable sphere of white-blue energy shot out, hitting the ground just a few feet in front of the girl with the book, where the ripple was.

The very moment it touched the ground, the four spheres he’d thrown up into the air flared up, releasing bolts of painfully bright lightning, one each, striking that point.

The wax was vaporised, making the girl with the book cry out – but the explosion also disrupted whatever power Gloom Glimmer had sent out, protecting the girl with the book from its entrapping effects.

Boltstar twisted around once more, shooting another crackling sphere, this time towards Basil – no, towards Gloom Glimmer, who was floating just over his shoulder and behind.

It hit her in the chest, the spheres above immediately releasing their lightning once more, converging upon her sternum.

He didn’t have the time to check on the effect it had on her, as the crows converged as well, reforming into the purple-clad villainess, to his left and out of his rifle’s firing arc, swinging her broken sword down at his weapon, still enough blade left to possibly slice through the barrel, or at least seriously damage the weapon.

It didn’t work out, as he triggered the force-field on his left arm’s gauntlet, the circular shield springing into existence, flaring up with circuit-like patterns of light as it absorbed and spread out the force of her blow, deflecting the sword.

There was no time for a counter-attack, however, as she immediately dissolved into a multitude of birds once more, obscuring his vision as some of them charged his head, fluttering their wings right in front of his face and cawing up a storm.

No, not playing that game, he thought, triggering one of the defensive modifications he’d done to his armor with a twitch of his eyes. The crows screamed as they were charred to death by a powerful electrical current, at least those who had been in direct contact with any part of his equipment, from his rifle to his cloak, as he rolled to the side, bringing more of them into contact with the cloak and dodging any possible attack at the same time.

He couldn’t smell the charred flesh of the dead animals – he’d sealed his helmet, just in case one of their enemies used a gaseous attack – but he saw their burned corpses twitch on the ground before going still.

The remaining crows pulled together again, reforming into the woman; not a willful action, because she reformed right in front of him; her costume was charred, burned, whole sections of it missing to reveal pale skin underneath; the only thing that protected her modesty being the burns covering most of her torso as she staggered, nearly falling over.

Basil shot her in the knee, the power of his rifle dialed down to where it didn’t tear the limb off, merely shattering the bone and making the woman cry out as she fell.

“Chronicle!” she screamed in pain even as she fell – and then she flickered and leapt at him, whole and unharmed, her the pristine blade of her katana slicing through the barrel of his rifle like it was made of butter.

What?

He rolled back, still holding onto half of his rifle, and saw the man – Boltstar – standing atop the wax, as if he’d never sunk into it, releasing another four spheres to rise up in the air as Hecate and Spellgun, who seemed to have engaged him, stared in surprise.

Coming up into a crouching position, he realised that those two weren’t the only ones suddenly unharmed – Skulls was free as well, once more and so were all her drones. The entire two dozen downed Skulls that his friends had taken out earlier were standing, unharmed and fully armed, surrounding them all.

And then the real fight started.

***

What just happened? Irene thought, feeling panic rise inside as she dodged one of Boltstar’s spheres, not wanting to test her defenses against twice the power it’d had before. His first hit had burned a hole into her costume, though it’d only delivered a painful, but not serious impact to her chest underneath; but that had been before he’d doubled the number of turrets, as she thought of the spheres above.

She combined her dodge with a spin, letting her see the result of the sphere impacting the wall behind her, across the hall – eight lightning bolts hit in a massive explosion, making her feel quite glad she’d dodged – while she completed her pirouette, to face the core of her opponents – Skulls, Boltstar and Chronicle.

The crow-woman was busy fighting Ba- Brennus, now that she’d been rejuvenated, but he was as slippery as usual, dodging her strikes or deflecting them with his new force-shield – Seriously, he came up with a force-field? Dad is going to descend into paroxysms – while he actually pressed the attack, striking at her with the butt of his ruined rifle, swinging it like an improvised tonfa, having reversed his grip on it.

She didn’t have time to admire his tenacity, though, because the dozens of Skulls around them had drawn her team’s attention from Boltstar and there was nothing to stop him from lobbing more of those targeting shots of his, every one of them triggering the eight turrets above to devastating effect, forcing her to dance through the air, cloak flying wildly, even as taser shots from the Skulls were bouncing off her skin, tearing tiny chunks out of her costume.

It was quite clear that her current power loadout was not up to the task of fighting off this assault, but to risk letting go of them… what if she got something unsuited to the task? Just one hit from Boltstar’s turrets would most likely knock her out, forcing her into her safe mode and leaving her friends to fight alone.

I need some breathing room, she thought, only to realise that she did have the means to get it.

Flight, impenetrable skin and reinforced organs, enhanced reflexes and liquefying ripples. The solution was there.

After dodging another one of Boltstar’s spheres, she threw her arms open, causing ripples to spread out from the ground underneath her, carefully restraining them so they did not liquefy the ground enough to trap anyone – that would’ve hit her friends, as well; no, instead, she caused the wax to buck, the ripples enlarging into waves, liquefying just enough to hold onto the feet of everyone, causing them to be thrown about, yet not lose their footing, disrupting the fight for a few precious moments.

She used them to stop holding onto her current abilities. Her power, which had already been aching to change, immediately switched them out, the current set rapidly fading away to be replaced by new ones.

Taking on new abilities was always a strange, yet familiar experience to Irene. The old ones would… fade, as if sinking down into a deep ocean, only for new powers to rise up from the darkness, taking their place. The strange part being when they settled in and knowledge of them filled her mind, as if she’d always had them. Not always complete knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless, letting her put them to use straight away, even if she didn’t always immediately understand every aspect of them.

A new form of flight, tapping into gravity around her, rapidly flipping it to keep her in place, accompanied by a light sense of vertigo before her inner ear adapted; it would allow her to corner at extreme speeds by flipping and enhancing the effect of gravity on herself, with the side-effect of being able to turn herself into a powerful projectile if need be.

A defensive power, a kind of discorporation, that would have her body instantly turn into smoke upon being hit, avoiding damage of all kinds.

Finally, an offensive ability, unraveling her limbs into countless tendrils that could snap out and crush or slash targets with incredible strength.

Irene frowned. The abilities didn’t fit. The flight was too powerful, taking up too much of her potential in one power that was wasted in such tight confines. Her defense made both the offensive aspect of her flight, as well as her main attack power useless, as she’d discorporate upon impact, negating any damage she might cause.

Her body burst into smoke as countless taser shots penetrated it, causing no damage whatsoever. The same held true for Boltstar’s shot, which simply flew through her, rather than trigger a shot from the eight turrets above.

It was then that she discovered another problem with her current powerset – while her tendrils were numerous and fast enough to strike the taser bolts out of the air, but she couldn’t suppress the smoke-defense, as it was completely automatic.

No, I need something else!

She flew up, still in smoke form – at least it still let her flight work, though it was slower than she knew it could be – and reformed above the battle, just in time to hear a massive caterwauling sound.

Below her, Melody’s attack left the villains reeling, though it did nothing to her team – the junior heroes all had protective earbuds, courtesy of Melody herself, and Hecate either had her own defenses or something made by Brennus.

The villains were not so lucky – the only one who seemed to resist was the crow-woman, who burst into a murder of crows, much the same way Irene had burst into smoke to evade attacks.

Osore was the first one to capitalise on the distraction, as he unleashed his literally fearsome, black blasts, shooting two Skulls in rapid succession. His body was already bulging, at least twice as heavy as he had been at the outset, sucking up the fear around him. Having the Skulls rejuvenated might have given the enemy more firepower, but it also gave him more fear to feed on, even if their emotions were suppressed – his fear blasts took care of that.

Still, the fight was not going well. Hecate was on the defensive, having erected a bubble made of a green force field as half a dozen Skulls focused fire on her.

Boltstar, meanwhile, kept shooting at her, preventing her from pulling herself together and focusing; at least until something hit his knee hard enough to shatter it, making him fall down and scream in pain.

Brennus. Somehow, his rifle was still functional, even with half the barrel missing.

Irene immediately reformed her body and let go of her current powers, mentally pushing them away, reaching for something new, something useful.

She started to drop as her gravity power faded, only to catch herself as a duo of new powers set in. A powerful aerokinesis, starting around her, stirring up the air to hold her aloft, more floating than flying, growing stronger as it spread further around her; the other was stranger, a power she’d had before, though rarely. A kind of pericognition tied to her sight, letting her glean progressively more information on powers the longer she focused on a person within her line of sight.

Boltstar, came the information as she focused on the man who’d been focusing on her in turn, charges up over time to create up to four turret-spheres that he can release and recall at will; trigger-spheres release lightning bolts from turret-spheres. Charging up new spheres takes longer than existing spheres persist.

She frowned, even as she dodged another one of his trigger-spheres, simultaneously recognising another use of her aerokinesis – anything that entered its growing sphere of influence, she could feel through the way it disturbed the air, giving her an edge up on dodging attacks.

This, this is good, she thought. I love it when I get a good one like this. Still, how did he make eight turrets when his limit is supposed to be four?

His form flickered, again, and he was standing once more, unharmed like before – and repeated the exact same movement as last time, releasing another four spheres, which spread out towards the walls, for a total of twelve.

Not his power, she thought. Someone else’s.

She sent a blast of air at him, forcing the man to dive out of the way instead of sending another trigger-sphere at her, buying herself time to focus on the crow-woman.

Karasuha. Contriver, specialising on enchanting items with animal-spirit th-

No, not her, she thought. It wasn’t Skulls, either – she’d already figured his power out. Which left only the last one, Chronicle. But she was out of sight, outside the tower in the hallway.

Got to get a good look at her, Irene decided, and dove down, both dodging Boltstar’s next attack – which utterly destroyed an entire fourth of the fifth and sixth level of the prison tower, as no less than twelve turrets fired upon it.

Irene dropped down in free-fall, catching herself just five feet off the ground and generated a gust of wind powerful enough to bowl over the Skulls around her, buying everyone but Basil, Spellgun and Tartsche some breathing room.

The former because he was busy kicking Karasuha’s ass, beating the woman senseless with punches and kicks, the latter two because Tartsche had his power active over both himself and his boyfriend, keeping them absolutely safe.

Osore had swollen in size, his body deformed, a huge pot-belly forming as his skin started to turn into a purplish red colour, his mask beginning to fuse with his face; Bakeneko rode on his shoulders, shifted into a cape-like mass of furry tentacles that lashed out at the Skulls around him as he waded through the enemy’s lines, smashing left and right with his enlarged fists, while firing more fear blasts inbetween to spark more fear, and thus more growth.

Then, the Skulls flickered, all of them, and they were whole again, as Osore dropped in size by almost a foot, the effects of his power on them reversed along with the damage.

Irene averted her gaze, looking through the gate at Chronicle.

Can record people and objects by touch, reset them to the state they were in when recorded. Requires line of sight to trigger reset. Favourable interaction with powers of her teammates.

She could see it now. Resetting Boltstar to a charged state, so as to release more turrets. Resetting Skulls, which somehow also reset his entire collective, fixing them all at once. Resetting Karasuha… there had to be an interaction there, as well, with her contrivances. She wasn’t going to check – Contrivers tended to give her a headache at the best of times, she really couldn’t afford that now.

If I take Chronicle down, it won’t matter. She’s the key member of her group, she thought, twisting into a spiral to avoid another trigger-sphere and letting loose another gale-blow, this time aimed at the main Skull, knocking him/her into the wall just as he/she had been about to shoot Melody in the back.

She might have made that blow more brutal than it needed to be, but… fuck it, he deserved it.

Next, she shot forward, flying so low her breasts nearly dragged over it, her cape billowing in the gales she used to propell herself.

Shooting past Boltstar before he could take him, she blasted him out of sight from Chornicle, helped by the fact that the girl saw her coming and dove out of the way, away from the gate into the tower.

The others reacted instantly, all except Karasuha, who didn’t have the leisure to do anything but try to fend off Brennus. Boltstar threw a trigger-sphere at her with what seemed to be alarm on his face, for the first time in this battle; no less than half the Skulls, including the main host, opened fire in her direction.

Gale-like winds shot out from her, violently, blowing the taser-bolts away as she also moved herself forward and around the corner, just barely dodging the crackling trigger-sphere.

Buoyed onwards by the explosion behind her, she shot down the hallway towards the fleeing Chronicle, relinquishing her aerokinesis to her power’s urge to change – the hallways were too narrow to use it effectively. Unfortunately, her power-sight went with it, torn away along with the power over wind to make room for another.

A new power rose up as she fell towards the ground, a familiar, warm one. It was a power she often drew upon, ripples and waves in various forms, affecting both matter and energy; every time she used it, she felt safe, even when it had nothing to do with defense. It was a big power, always, no matter what form it took, explaining why she had lost the costly power-sight as well as the rather costly aerokinesis.

She hit the ground rolling, the way her mother had taught her to take a fall and, as she came up onto a crouching position, she slapped the ground in front of her with an open palm.

Ripples spread from the point of impact, through the floor, towards Chronicle, over the walls and even onto the ceiling.

She could feel them spread, rapidly, propagating through the wax and the other materials beneath it, overtaking Chronicle who was only moving with the speed of a normal, if fit girl.

As soon as they had spread far enough, she triggered the ability, the way her innate understanding guided her to do.

The ripples congregated into six different points, focusing, and then the wax shot out in six spikes towards Chronicle, spearing through the heavy robe she was wearing, though not hitting her body – pinning her in place, standing up, coming out from all around and ahead of her.

“Shit! Shit, fuck you, fuck you you bitch!” she shouted, struggling, trying to break out of the waxen spears holding her in place.

Irene charged at her, pushing the ripples away, new, simpler powers coming up; a burst of speed, enhanced strength, toughness and a sense for weakpoints and resistance.

Using the speed she flashed forward, until she was right behind the girl. Using her enhanced sense, she hit the back of her head with just the right amount of strength to knock her out, without causing lasting damage. She didn’t actually want to risk killing anyone.

The girl’s body grew slack, the strength going out of it.

“That’s what you get for being a potty-mouth,” she quipped, grinning, before she whirled around to flash towards the door.

Before she could even reach it, there was a massive, ear-bursting blast of sound, and Boltstar was slammed into the wall, through the gate; he hit it so hard he left behind a man-shaped impression after falling off, unconscious.

Irene took the corner and got ready to intervene, but there was no need – Karasuha was already down, and so Bas- Brennus had joined forces with Hecate and Melody, the two of them hiding behind his force-field, while systematically taking down the Skulls whom Osore – who was halfway towards looking completely like one of the mythological Oni his power had styled itself after – and Bakeneko were not already taking care of. Tartsche and Spellgun were supporting their efforts from another angle, and without Boltstar’s deafening, powerful blasts and, most importantly, Chronicle’s continuous resets, they were mopped up quickly.

The main Skull went down last, snarling as he/she tried to dodge a shot from Melody’s gauntlets, only to take a blast of smoking green fire into his face after it curved around Brennus’ force-field.

And just like that, it was over.

They looked at each other, as they surveyed their enemies. “Wow, that was…” Irene began.

“… intense,” Spellgun finished her sentence, stepping away from Tartsche, out of his protection.

Irene nodded, approaching Melody. Her friend looked like she had taken a few hits, chipping away at her armor, as well as some bigger hits.

“What happened?” she asked, worried, letting go of her powers.

“I got caught in one of turret-sphere-guy’s blasts. Only at the periphery of it, but it was enough to shake me up,” Melody replied, making a pained expression.

Irene felt her face screw up, briefly, trembling all over as she had to fight herself not to whirl around and cut loose with the fiery blast that had just come up, obliterating the unconscious Boltstar for his offense – but at the same time, she also got a kind of healing power, a slow, but versatile ability to fix matter.

Helping her friend was more important than punishing the guy who’d hurt her (not to mention more ethical), so she stepped forward, reaching out for Melody.

The musician reached out in turn and took her hand, clasping fingers; whether she knew Irene had a power that could heal her, or just wanted to show some affection, it was enough to use the ability.

Melody shuddered as the power spread through her body in ripples, starting from her hand where it touched Irene’s, repairing both the (fortunately superficial) damage to her body, and to her equipment, working from the inside out. A sigh escaped her lips as the pain disappeared.

Brennus walked up to them, followed by Hecate.

“Would you mind using that on my rifle?” he asked, holding out the two pieces of his weapon.

“Not at all,” she replied with a smile, taking them and holding them together as her power worked on the weapon. “Though, it doesn’t seem like this was enough to break it…”

Hecate snorted derisively. “If that idiot had known Brennus at all, she’d have known that he builds redundancies into his equipment.”

Brennus chuckled as Melody looked curiously at the weapon. “Yeah, I built it so it can work with up to seventy-five percent of the barrel gone, though the more it loses, the more both accuracy and range drop.”

“That’s a smart design philosophy,” Melody praised him.

“You probably won’t like this, but you really remind me of my dad sometimes,” Irene joked. “He’s always on me about having safeties, redundancies and generally being prepared for everything possible.”

He tilted his head, as if surprised. “Hm, is that just your father? What about your mother?” he asked with curiosity clear even through the distortion in his voice thanks to his helmet.

“She pretty much says the same, but she’s not as obsessive about it as dad,” she replied lightly.

The others joined their circle, Osore back down to his normal size, Bakeneko clinging to him, back in cat-girl form, her arms wrapped around his neck from behind. Tartsche and Spellgun were holding hands, as usual, but in such a way that both of them could still hold their rifles – Spellgun in his right, Tartsche in his left, as he didn’t have to worry about recoil.

“Not to break up the fun, but what are we going to do next?” Tartsche asked calmly. “This thing is already borderline-FUBAR – should we retreat, or do we press on?”

“My goal has not changed,” Brennus replied while inspecting his repaired rifle.

‘My’ goal, not ‘our’, Irene thought.

“I am going after Dusu and getting that cure. If anyone wants to retreat now, I will not hold it against you, nor will anyone else who is sane,” he said calmly.

Tartsche frowned, seeming almost insulted. “Like I’m going to abandon you in this place, alone? No, I’m in this to the end. I’d just rather advance with a plan – do we even know where to find Dusu? We already know that Gloom Glimmer can’t locate her.”

Irene sighed, still annoyed that her power was betraying her on that count – but at least it’d helped properly in fighting the enemy, so she’d cut it some slack on that front.

Still… She took out her bottle of pills, swallowing three of them. Better safe than sorry. I almost lost it a moment ago, after all.

As soon as she took them, the constant pressure that was her power – like water held back behind a valve, constantly trying to break through – eased, calming her.

“We will just have to interrogate one of our captives,” Brennus replied calmly. “At least one of them ought to know where she-“

“Tyche!” Hecate shouted, suddenly, bursting into smoke that rushed past Irene.

She whirled around, surprised, to see her reform at the gate, throwing her arms around a stunned-looking Tyche, bowling the girl over as she hugged the life out of her.

“You’re alright!” Hecate cried, sounding like she was sobbing.

“Ugh… breath… can’t… dying…” Tyche flailed her arms, though she didn’t actually seem to try and push her friend away.

“Oh, sorry!” Hecate shouted, leaping up onto her feet. Then she reached out, offering her friend a hand, and pulled her up onto her feet in turn – only to wrap her arms around her again, this time more gently. “I was so worried, though! What happened?”

Irene watched the reunion, a smile on her face. I wonder if she feels the way I felt when I found Melody? She could feel a power rise up, to find just that out, but she resisted it, pushing it back down again. That would have been a waste, surely.

Brennus joined them, putting a hand on Tyche’s shoulder where Hecate wasn’t draped over it.

“Welcome back,” he said, softly, the relief audible.

“Thanks, guys,” Tyche smiled a brittle smile, hugging both of her friends, one with each arm.

Irene frowned, studying her closer.

She looked… horrible. Her face looked like she’d been crying, her eyes were bloodshot and her mascara was running down her face.

Her face! Irene thought in shock. She’d taken off her mask, thrown it back like a hood, her face free for anyone to see. Why? What had happened to her.

“Tyche, what-” Brennus began, obviously noticing the same thing while pulling back from the hug.

“I know where she is,” Tyche cut him off, as she leaned into Hecate’s embrace. “I know where Dusu is, and what way to take to her. But we need to hurry.”

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B13.6 Call of the Sleeper

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“So, what are we gonna do about this super-powerful new enemy?” Polymnia asked, making her voice sound unconcerned, even though her face and posture screamed concern.

“Nothing at all,” Basil said simply, crossing his arms. “As long as he stays up there, he can be as powerful as the Godking, for all I care.”

Gloom Glimmer chuckled, but Polymnia didn’t seem amused. “This is serious, Brennus! We can’t just ignore such a powerful person!”

“We also can not do anything about it, unless you can figure out what kind of power he or she has?” He directed the second part at Gloom Glimmer.

She turned her head, looking at the direction of the tower. Then she shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no… there’s too much… power here. Especially beneath this place; it’s like trying to read the radiation a single rod of uranium gives off, while standing in the centre of Nagasaki. I can tell THAT he – or she, I guess – is powerful, but not what kind of power it is.”

“Below, huh?” Basil looked down thoughtfully.

“Do you have any idea what what may mean?” Polymnia asked thoughtfully, though it wasn’t clear whether she was addressing him, or Gloom Glimmer.

“Crocell was created below, before rising up. It is likely that whatever process generated it and its kin is still going on, perhaps producing more such monsters,” he replied, sounding calmer than he felt. “If there is such an amount of ‘power’, as Gloom Glimmer perceives it, gathered below, it may mean that there are multiple such monsters stored below, perhaps in an earlier stage of their development… or, perhaps, she is sensing whoever or whatever created them in the first place.”

Polymnia had grown steadily more pale as he’d kept talking, finally averting her eyes, gulping nervously. “Great. This whole thing keeps getting better and better.”

Gloom Glimmer reached out, taking her friend’s hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry, Me- Poly. I’m here, remember? I’ll keep us all safe,” she promised with a reassuring smile.

The young gadgeteer looked at her friend, then at Basil, then back at her friend again, her mouth forming a soft smile. She nodded.

“Alright,” Basil spoke up. “Neither of this really changes what we have to do – find our friends, find Dusu, retrieve the cure for her victims, get away all in one piece.”

The two girls nodded, looking seriously at him, as if awaiting orders.

He took a deep breath, thinking over their options. “Gloom Glimmer, can you carry the two of us and take us back to where you and the others were locked up?” This would all be so much easier if you had just gotten them out in the first place, before coming to find us. At least it’s good to know your priorities.

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, briefly, then nodded, bending her arm as if to show off her biceps. “I can do it!”

Suiting action to words, she picked Polymnia up, making the girl squeal in surprise as she was thrown over her friend’s shoulder. Then she looked at Basil, who nodded and stepped forward, allowing her to pick him up over her other shoulder, as ridiculous as that looked (with their equipment, both he and Polymnia were a good deal broader and heavier than Gloom Glimmer and, in his case, also taller).

“Here we go,” Gloom Glimmer said simply, and took off, the hallways turning into a flowing series of streaks as she began to run.

Unable to do much of anything in this situation, other than trust in Gloom Glimmer not to steer them wrong (or into a wall), Basil instead focused inwards, past the chaotic stream of observations and ideas that his power was feeding him.

How come I, of all people, always end up taking charge?, he couldn’t help but ask himself. It hadn’t escaped him that both Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer had heeded his suggestions, even waited for him to make them. Which wasn’t the first time it had happened. He’d slid into the position of being in charge during previous crises, Crocell only being the latest example.

Even with his team, he’d somehow effectively become the leader, which just boggled his mind. Thinking about himself and the other members, he’d have expected Hecate to lead – in spite of being a Contriver, she was the most focused one, the one who was most reliable. Most sensible.

Yet even she looked to him for leadership, which was profoundly uncomfortable to Basil.

He barely had a grip on his own life, if at all; how could people trust him to take care of theirs?

***

Gloom Glimmer ran for several minutes, even though she was moving at least as fast as Basil had ever seen Outstep move – the structure they were on was huge, even bigger than it had seemed to be when viewed from above. Hallways, vertical shafts, elevators and staircases turned it into a labyrinthine mess, the navigation of which wasn’t helped at all by the fact that there were no signs at all to be seen, anywhere. She’d only found them as quickly as she had – and even then, it’d taken her several minutes – because she’d manifested a power to track Polymnia with, one which was useless now that she’d already found her and had thus been discarded in favour of the danger sense she was using to steer around threats.

Which didn’t help speed up their journey at all, but Basil had insisted that they dodge as many people as possible. He didn’t doubt for a moment that the enemy knew they were free inside their big secret floating city, yet there hadn’t been an alarm, as far as he could tell, nor a lockdown of any kind.

We should have been swarmed by Stormtroopers by now, Basil thought, as he finished cracking that communicator he’d taken off of one of the Skullmen. He’d tried to contact Hecate and Tyche on the communicators he’d given them already, but had found them blocked; he was hoping that he’d be able to use the Skullman’s communicator to at least listen in on their lines, even if he couldn’t contact his friends.

“Why’d you make your force-field permeable to sound?” Polymnia suddenly asked, turning her head to look at him.

“It seemed much more likely to me that I’d be working with you, rather than against another sonic-based aggressor,” he replied simply, pulling a cable from his belt to attach to it. A twist of wires and he could patch straight into the communicator with his interface. “Sonic attacks are not so common that it’s not worth the risk to plan for you having to attack enemies through my shield. We’ve been fighting together quite often, after all,” he finished explaining himself. “Besides, if I did run into another sonic-based fighter, I would simply call on your superior expertise on the matter to help me deal with their power.”

To his surprise, she blushed a bit, averting her eyes.

What? What did I say?, he asked himself, confused. I was only practical. Why’d she blush?

Girls were getting more confusing by the day. Vasiliki had been blushing a lot, at random times, lately. And Prisca…

He flinched, feeling a stab of pain as he violated his resolution not to think of her until he had the cure in his hands. Do not go down that road, Basil. Focus on the task at hand.

Fortunately, he didn’t have any time to get mopey – having patched the communicator into his mask’s interface, he now had access to the enemy’s line of communication, and he wasted not time accessing it.

“-nd, this is Skulls. Team 3 was just downed at the Southern holding facility,” the gruff voice of a woman said. “I advise a facility-wide lockdown to contain the intruders.”

“Negative, Skulls,” a male replied in a much calmer tone of voice. “We have orders from above. Mobilise our-“

“Sir, someone is using a Skulls communicator to access this line other than Skulls,” a second woman, this one younger, threw in.

“The gadgeteers. One of them must have taken a communicator fr-“

Basil terminated the connection, before crushing the little box. “Damn it. They realised I was listening in.”

“Did you hear anything useful?” Polymnia asked.

“They’re not going to lock down the facility, it seems,” he replied. “They’ve ordered someone named Skulls – apparently the leader of the armed troops we saw earlier – to mobilise something instead, but that’s all I heard.”

“Chin up, we’re almost there,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted as her run slowed, their surroundings turning from variously coloured blurs to what now looked like…

“Is that wax?” Polymnia sounded as surprised as he felt.

Basil, meanwhile, looked around as soon as Gloom Glimmer put him down, inspecting the hallway they were in.

It really was made of wax. The general shape was the same as the hallways they’d been in earlier, but it was all made of wax, and illuminated by (electric) lamps that were styled to look like candles sticking out of the walls.

Looking down, he saw that even the floor was made of wax.

The only other thing that stood out about the hallway was the huge, octagonal door in the middle of it. It was huge, flat and had the shape of a normal door engraved in it. There was no obvious means of opening it.

“I was locked up in the tower behind this door,” Gloom Glimmer explained. “I, uh… I didn’t really look for the others, I just…” She blushed, looking at Polymnia with an embarrassed expression on her face. “I kind of freaked out and…” She hung her head in shame.

Her friend, though, reached out and put an armored hand on her shoulder, squeezing it through the thick, white cloak and her black bodysuit. “Thank you,” she said with a smile. “That’s sweet of you – but you really ought to prioritise better, in the future. And you’ll have to apologise to them, alright?”

Gloom Glimmer hung her head, ashamed, nodding her assent.

“Do you know how to open this door?” Basil asked urgently. He didn’t want to waste time right now, not in this matter.

“Step aside,” she replied, taking a deep breath.

He did so, and she put the palm of her hand onto the door. An orange glow spread from her hand, slowly at first, then faster. At first, Basil thought she was heating the wax, but his sensors registered no increase in heat at all.

His musings about what she might be up to where answered quickly, as the glow spread all over the door – and then it all disappeared. Just winked out of existence, leaving the way open into…

A huge circular hall, the floor of which was covered in the broken bodies of two dozen Skullmen.

Osore stood amidst them, watching Bakeneko, Tartsche and Hecate applying first aid to a few of the men, while Spellgun stood behind the railing of a higher floor, holding his rifle ready.

Everyone stopped what they were doing, staring at the new arrivals.

“Brennus!” Hecate shouted with immense relief, as she burst into shadowy smoke, rushing over and reforming just a few feet ahead of him.

For a moment, he thought he was about to get a hug, but she stopped herself and simply put her left hand on his shoulder, still holding her staff with the other. Both were trembling.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Quite so,” he answered, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder back, feeling her relax. “What happened here?”

They both turned around and looked at Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia reuniting with their teammates, or rather, with Tartsche, Spellgun (who leapt down from above, using a surprisingly quiet shot from his rifle to break his fall before he impacted the ground) and Bakeneko, while Osore stayed where he’d been, seemingly just looking down at his own feet, or perhaps the defeated guards.

“We were teleported into individual cells,” Hecate explained. “They put me and Spellgun into a pentacle that cut us off from the sources of our power – I have no idea how it could block us both, our spellwork is completely different! – and Tartsche into another, and Bakeneko and Osore into individual ones, too.” She stopped, taking a deep breath. “He broke out, though. Osore, I mean. He’s somehow… super-strong. Like, way stronger than I thought he was.”

They both looked at all the foes on the ground. “Osore took them all out himself?” Basil asked, impressed. Now that he was looking closer, he could see dozens, if not hundreds, of tranquiliser darts on the ground around Osore. He himself seemed completely unharmed, though his leather jacket and his skintight top were full of holes, pale skin peaking out.

“Yeah. Took them by surprise, I think. Then Tartsche somehow managed to break out, too, and he freed me and Spellgun, and… well, the rest went over quickly,” she explained. “Hey… do you have any idea where Tyche is? She’s not in any of these cells.”

He shook his head. “No. I thought she would be here with the rest of you. Polymnia and I were teleported to the Northern half, most certainly because we are Gadgeteers, but I see no reason why Tyche would go somewhere else, unless…”

“…her power interfered,” Hecate finished his sentence. “But… where would she be, then?”

“I do not know,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I have no idea how their teleport interdiction works, so I do not know how her power might have changed things.”

“Hey!” Bakeneko shouted, suddenly, making everyone turn around. She was kneeling next to one of the Skullmen – one whose legs were both broken, among other injuries – in her ‘normal’ catgirl form. “This guy needs some medical attention, stat.”

Basil hurried over immediately, kneeling down next to him.

“Don’t bother,” Gloom Glimmer interrupted him, stepping over from where she’d been talking to her other teammates. “They’re already dead, anyway,” she explained when they stared at her, her expression as serious as it ever got.

“What do you mean, dead? He still has a heart beat!” Bakeneko protested, but Gloom Glimmer just shook her head, as she drew her hood up to cover her head, plunging her face into shadows.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said softly. “I can feel it… they’re part of a hive mind. Someone burned out whoever these men and women used to be, and connected them to himself. They’re barely sentient, more like automatons. Empty vessels that follow commands and stand ready as spare bodies for their master, in case his current host dies.”

“Wow, and people say my power is scary,” a gruff, female voice said from the direction of the gate.

Basil flipped around, lifting his rifle as he went up on one knee, holding it two-handed. The others all reacted as well, though not as quickly as he had, save for Gloom Glimmer, who just turned her head to look in said direction.

A figure in body armor identical to the men and women on the ground leaned against the frame of the door, her arms crossed in front of her chest. The only difference between her and the others was the fact that she wasn’t wearing a helmet, revealing her hairless, pale face – a face that might have been lovely, once, but had become withered, wrinkled without actually looking old, the only part that looked alive being her cruel, hard eyes.

Three more people stood there, with her, just beyond the gate. A woman in a black-and-purple armored dress, with a bird-like helmet obscuring her head and a katana which was strapped to her hip. In front of her and slightly to the right, a tall man in a skintight, dark blue suit, across which danced two-dimensional lightning, his handsome face barely obscured by a blue domino mask, his brown hair cropped short. And finally, another woman, this one shorter than the others and younger, looking barely old enough to not be a girl anymore, wearing a mystic-seeming yellow robe with rich golden stitching and holding a thick, gold-bound book that was thicker than her arm to her chest, her young face looking at them with arrogance in her green eyes, peering at them through her dark blonde curls.

The Skull-Woman stepped forward, studying them. “You’ve been quite the embarrassment, you know?” she said, her shrivelled lips stretching over sharp white teeth.

“To your security,” Basil said flatly, tracking her movements with his rifle. Is she the core of the hive mind?

She nodded. “Yup.” She looked at Gloom Glimmer. “You girl… you’re freaky. Just figuring all that out about my power? No one’s seen through it like that before, not since I first met our fearless leader. My name’s Skulls, by the way.”

“I’m the queen of freaky,” Gloom Glimmer said coldly, her eyes beginning to glow within the shadows of her hood. She looked past Skulls at the others, then at her again. “This is all?” she said, her voice dismissive, even disappointing. Haughty.

Skulls let loose a bark of laughter. “Cocky! Taking after your fucking parents, huh?” she asked, her face turning into a hideous snarl all of a sudden.

She wasn’t even paying attention to Basil or the others, as they spread out around Gloom Glimmer and him – Hecate and Polymnia with him, the other junior heroes on Gloom Glimmer’s side.

“You got a problem with my parents?”

“Yeah. Your dad put a hit out on me,” the withered woman snarled. “Something about me being too much of a psychopath for him to tolerate. The hypocrite.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gloom Glimmer drawled at her, remaining calm, which only seemed to infuriate the woman. “My papa is bad, but he at least has class. You…” She looked the woman up and down. “You try to hard.”

The woman in the bird-helmet spoke up, just as Skulls was about to say something, her face twisted in even more anger. She spoke in harsh Japanese – Basil only caught a few words, ‘orders’, ‘deal with’ and ‘control’ – and Skulls subsided, stepping back.

“I’ll teach you about class, you little bitch,” she snarled at Gloom Glimmer, still ignoring the others in the room. “And when I’m done, I’ll send your daddy a recording of it. Bet that’ll make him reconsid-“

Basil opened fire, shooting the Japanese woman’s katana off her hip, shattering the sword into two pieces.

Before anyone could react, another shot destroyed the book in the arrogant girl’s arms, hitting hard enough to throw her back to slam into the wall behind, causing her to cry out in pain.

And then all hell broke loose.

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B13.5 Call of the Sleeper

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A few minutes earlier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus, Dalia! Down, girl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to help you, of course.”

How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No… Her hands began to tremble.

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

It can’t be!

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

Her staff fell to the ground.

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

Her knees hit the ground.

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

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

I can’t breathe.

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

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

But it wouldn’t come.

No, no, I’m… I’m a hero! I don’t…

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

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

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

“Whom you resented.”

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

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

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

Tried to deny it.

Tried not to follow it to its logical conclusion.

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

“Don’t… please, please… don’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, his voice spoke from right above her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dafür sind Gefährten da.”

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