B13.c On Wings of Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking her death unto herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“W-what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, ah, um, ahhhh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Cerdaemon’s Brennus Character Generator

I completely forgot to post this, and I’m so sorry, Cerdaemon! I certainly didn’t mean to obfuscate your great work!

So, as the title says, Cerdaemon was so kind as to write a character generator for the Brennus RP, and it’s an amazing one – here take a look:

Cerdaemon’s Brennus RP Character Generator

Don’t worry, the link is safe!

So, this reminds me of the subject of the RP. Which is to say, the need to rewrite it, both to provide more comprehensive rules for anyone to make characters with, as well as to bring it closer to canon, now that I’ve revealed enough about the actual mechanics to actually do so.

I’ll probably have to make a whole project out of that, we’ll see how it goes, but it’s definitely on the horizon!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

PS: I’m working on the new chapter right now. It’s… gonna be a big one.

PPS: By big, I mean both in word count and impact >:D

PPPS: The new chapter’s working title is “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. Make of that what you will.

Toybox Update!

The Toybox chapter has been completed!

The next one will be a donation interlude that will, among other things, touch upon some subjects that have been discussed/asked about a lot in the comments. Look forward to it, it may be up as early as the early morning of Monday, going by CEST!

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

B13.a Toybox

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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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Patreon Vote Results

  1. Toybox: 23 points
  2. Anguish & Succor: 17 points
  3. Amateurs: 16 points
  4. Argonauts & Wings of Lead: 14 points
  5. Of Apes and Togas: 12 points
  6. Justice, like Lightning: 8 points

Looks like it’ll be Toybox!

Fear not, though, for there’s still three donation interludes to come and, well, there’s a nice list to tap from…

New chapter will be done soon… this thing is turning out to be a monster of one, thus the delay.

Sincerely,

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