B14.4 Breaking Point

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He found Hecate together with Polymnia atop a three storey apartment building’s roof, just half a kilometre or so away from the fight, where a dozen Mementos, Gloom Glimmer and Rounds were holding DiL back – or perhaps it was best to say that they were keeping her simply occupied rather than holding her anywhere.

Swinging onto the rooftop with his grappling hook and rope, he reeled them into the casing at his hip as he looked at the fight.

Rounds was in the air, clad in body armor styled to evoke a medieval knight’s plate armor, all in silver, red and blue. He was surrounded by only ten apparitions rather than the twelve Basil knew he could generate.

And they were all copies of Gloom Glimmer, save for a single apparition which was of Wary Wu, an elderly Chinese man with a very long fu manchu moustache and no other hair on his head, wearing a simple business suit.

Basil looked at Melody, assuming that she’d know what was going on there.

She crossed eyes with him and seemed to instantly pick up on what he was about to ask. “Interesting power interaction,” she explained with a strained smile. “He can’t copy her ability to assume new powers, but he can copy whichever powers she is currently holding. So any time she gets a particularly good set, he makes a copy of her and his power apparently considers her sufficiently different to make a separate copy, rather than replace the previous one.”

Basil turned that around in his head, then looked over at the fight again – Gloom Glimmer floated over to Rounds and they briefly touched hands, embers of silver light rising out of her body and coalescing into a monochrome copy of hers, looking like it was made of translucent silver.

Flying apart again, they dodged an attack from DiL – streams of bright blue plasma were shooting out from around here, a dozen of them, shooting out only to loop back to their origin point after just fifty metre or so – and both she, her new apparition and Rounds held out their right hand towards DiL.

Wood grew, from a single pinpoint in front of each of their hands, bursting forth into massive trees that shot out towards DiL, her plasma jets eating into them but being pushed back by the overwhelming growth – Gloom Glimmer’s power generated both greater growth at a time, and faster as well.

Hexagonal honey-coloured force-fields manifested all around her, any one only about as large as a dinner plate, and arranged in a loose, but precise honeycomb pattern, so there were gaps between the shields. They moved, pulling themselves together in three spots, overlapping for stronger defense.

The trees smashed into them and promptly grew around them, barely slowed down by the shields.

This time, he saw the shift, and thus the pain, coming, and yet Basil nearly fell over regardless.

Hecate grabbed him by the upper arm, helping him stay up. “Thank God,” she whispered, looking at the combatants.

DiL had started leaking sparks from all around her, creating a trail of them as she flew around, dodging Gloom Glimmer and Rounds’ attacks.

“Those loops were getting longer and brighter each time they went around,” she explained as he stood straight again.

“They do usually grow stronger with time,” Basil confirmed. “I feel like something should be said in regards to how utterly, unfairly powerful Rounds and Gloom Glimmer are together. Something involving multiple exclamation marks and strong expletives.”

“That would… usually be Tyche’s role,” Hecate replied softly, not looking at him as she pulled her hand away from him.

“Do you…”

“I dropped by her apartment before I came back here. She’s staying out of this fight. Took her mother to a shelter,” she replied.

He felt himself relax, a little bit. Shelters were hardly a guarantee that one would be safe from DiL, but they’d at least improve the odds.

Hopefully enough so her power wouldn’t need to further harm her mother so as to ensure Tyche’s survival, if it even worked against DiL.

Still… he would have liked to have her with them. If not for her ridiculously useful power then just…

Just to have her there.

DiL passed by nearby, the sparks she was shedding having increased in volume. Wherever they came into contact with solid matter, the disappeared with a brief flash… and took all matter within about a centimetre around them with them.

Rounds was hot on her heel, a full complement of apparitions around him – eleven Gloom Glimmer’s and Wary Wu, trying to hit her, somehow, using a staggering variety of powers.

None of them hit, be they tendrils which sprouted out of surrounding material lashing out, multi-coloured laser beams which froze anything they hit, explosions of pure force generated at the target point rather than thrown out and more.

DiL simply danced around and through them, never even having to rely on her invulnerability as nothing managed to touch her.

Some manner of combat esper power, Basil thought as he and the girls backed up to another rooftop, not wanting to test their defenses against those sparks or a possible shot from Rounds gone astray. Will she switch out as soon as she is hit even once?

Clearly, Rounds believed that to be the case, as he put his all into hitting the woman.

Gloom Glimmer, meanwhile, flew towards them and landed on the rooftop – only to stagger, trip, and nearly collapse.

Basil moved on instinct and caught her, his hands grabbing a hold of her shoulders before she could fall over entirely.

He had never seen her look so exhausted. Her face was nearly ashen, her lips as pale as the skin around them and her eyes were sunken, as if she’d gone for days without rest.

“H-hey,” she greeted him with a smile. “S-s-sorry… just need a… short break.” She slumped against him, her breathing laboured – and yet she was recovering even as she spoke, a little colour having already returned to her face.

Polymnia stepped up to them and he handed Gloom Glimmer over to her, as she wrapped an arm around her friend’s waist, holding her up.

It was then that Basil noticed something which her pigtails had previously hidden.

“Your ears are bleeding,” he said simply, looking at the trickle of blood running out of said ears.

She nodded, giving him a pained smile. “Ever since Bree showed up, I’ve been hearing this song, everywhere. The closer to her I get the louder and more painful it becomes and when she passed by me earlier, it nearly knocked me out. It gets briefly worse whenever she changes powers, too.” She raised her free left hand to touch her ear, pulling it back to look at the blood on her fingertips, while the fingers of her right hand were tapping on Gloom Glimmer’s side, like a keyboard. “It sounds kind of like the music I hear whenever Gloomy loses control of her power, or draws too deeply on it, only… louder. But with less… discord?”

“What are the chances that both of you would have a reaction like that?” Hecate asked as she joined their little circle, her arms crossed beneath her chest. “Basil has had the worst headache since DiL appeared, and he gets flashes of greater pain when she changes powers.” She looked at the two of them, worry visible on the lower half of her face.

”Very bad if we assume it is not connected in some kind,” Basil pondered the thought. “It may be significant that the both of us are Gadgeteers.” He looked at Polymnia with one eye, while watching the fight continue through his raven – by some miracle, it still worked, even though the ravenbots were by necessity not exceptionally hardened against interference.

Rounds was continuing his assault with the nearly two dozen offensive powers he had at his disposal and DiL was dodging his attacks by smaller and smaller margins as he got used to the way her power made her dodge. He would likely land a hit soon, at which point she’d switch out her powers again.

That would be the most dangerous time in any DiL battle – right after she’d switched powers, before anyone knew what she was going to do next, with no useful limitations upon what she might pull out next.

”You say you hear this song around Gloom Glimmer, as well? Do you hear it right now?” he continued to prod while they still had the time – it was very much possible that DiL’s next powerset would see them all thrust into the thick of battle again, while right now, they could do little more than stand by and watch.

Polymnia looked at her rapidly recovering friend. ”Not right now, no. I think that’s because she’s not actively using anything big at this time.”

Gloom Glimmer looked up at her, smiling apologetically. “I’ll be back in working order soon.”

”Hrm. So many questions,” Basil temporised, turning away from them with his hands clasped behind his back. “I have never heard of this particular phenomenon before.” He watched as the Mementos pulled up a huge force-field thick enough it looked more like a fortress’ wall than the usual screens such effects tended to produce.

DiL smashed right through it as she dodged a coordinated attack by Rounds and his apparitions, the force wall flaring up and crackling with electricity.

That seemed to do it, as pain burned through Basil’s mind, making him stagger again, as he heard Polymnia behind him groan in discomfort or pain.

He pressed the button on the communicator, not even sure whether it would be or ever had been of any use, but DiL didn’t give them a chance to adjust or prepare – her entire form erupted into a thick solid ash cloud, shooting out towards Rounds in a thick, very nearly rock-solid blast.

According to Basil’s heat sensors, it was more of a pyroclastic flow than just a mere ash cloud.

Rounds, fortunately, was prepared. He raised his arms and crossed them in front of himself, as one of Gloom Glimmer’s apparitions did the same while floating right next to him, the other apparitions all moving between the two of them as the concentrated flow simply… split, as if an invisible wedge had been driven into it, failing to touch them or so much as heat up the air around them while flowing past, causing devastating damage to a small children’s playground and some adjacent buildings, as well as killing a trio of unlucky capes who’d wandered too close and weren’t able to get away in time, their forms being near-instantly swallowed up by the flow.

Or so it seemed, as both of them appeared atop a nearby rooftop, one of the translucent Gloom Glimmers finishing a gesture she’d made towards them.

”That was lucky for them,” Hecate breathed a sigh of relief, even as she eyed the devastation warily – they weren’t that far away from it, certainly not at a distance where DiL would be unable to strike at them, if she did shift her attention away from Rounds.

”Not so much lucky,” Basil replied as he zoomed in on the trio. They weren’t capes after all. “That’s the triad. Wary Wu’s with them.”

He zoomed in on the notorious trio of criminals. Wary Wu stood in the back, behind his two underlings.

The elderly metahuman had been the main reason why Basil had quite decidedly voted for his team not to mess with triad business too much. At over seventy years old, he did not cut a very imposing physical figure, being short, thin, with a thin fu manchu beard and wearing a surprisingly cheap, ill-fitting suit without even a tie – but that mattered little when one considered that he’d been a cowl since his teens and was still alive, sixty years later. One challenged that kind of record at their own peril.

Of course, you just had to go and challenge a guy even older than that earlier today…

Shut. Up.

With Wary Wu were his left- and right-hand man, Drunk Da and Zealous Zhou.

The former looked even more average than his boss, a slender chinese man with long, messy black hair and a simple goatee, wearing a Chinese martial artist’s outfit – loose black pants and soft black shoes, as well as a wide-sleeved white shirt. The only part which stood out about him was the huge gourd strapped to his back, easily as tall and wide as his entire upper body.

Zealous Zhou was the only one of the trio wearing something even remotely appropriate to his vocation and the current situation – urban camo military fatigues, a tactical vest, a pair of straight short swords strapped to his sides and a rifle strapped to his back, as well as a red mask covering the upper half of his face, made of some kind of shiny resin, with a precise goatee covering his exposed chin and surrounding his mouth.

As DiL unleashed a second, larger wave of pyroclastic flow, the three of them were already moving at Wary Wu’s word. Wu and Zhou backed behind Da, who pulled the gourd up over his shoulder, taking a huge swig of some kind of clear liquid, messily enough some of it spilled over and stained the neck of his shirt.

Then he took a step forward, staggering in drunkenness, and balanced – barely – on his left leg, raising the right one and whirling it in a circular portion.

Even though he was moving barely faster than a normal person, the motion generated enough force to stir the air – and form a wind funnel that hit the incoming pyroclastic flow, parting it so it flowed past the trio without causing them any harm.

At least, no direct one, as Drunk Da yelped and beat at his own shirt, where the immense heat had ignited the alcohol he’d just spilled over it.

Zhou intervened by reaching over and ripping his shirt off entirely, throwing it on the ground, while Da beat out the flames that’d jumped onto his goatee.

While that show was going on, DiL had already unleashed another flow, even larger still – this time in the rough direction Basil and the others stood, though she did not seem to aim directly at them so much as at the capes and cowls who were massing in the market square next to the building they’d gathered atop of.

Basil was just about to retreat to another rooftop, when two Mementos dropped out of the sky, landing on the street the flow was travelling along with enough force to shatter the asphalt, and raised their huge hands, palms out towards the oncoming tide of destruction.

Space twisted in front of them, and a portal opened, catching the pyroclastic flow. Another portal opened above and behind DiL, redirecting the flow into her back.

Though she was obscured by the mass of lethally hot ash, Basil could easily tell that that must have counted somehow as her power being sufficiently interfered with – perhaps her defensive ability couldn’t deal with her offensive one? – as pain flared up in his head again.

“She’s pulling out something new!” Polymnia spoke with unnatural calm, even as she flinched in pain, her free hand rising to her ear again.

Gloom Glimmer raised her head, her eyes a bright red surrounded by utter black, and snapped her fingers.

There was an all too familiar wrench of disorientation and then the lot of them found themselves on top of a different building, four blocks away, just as dozens of glass-like, crystalline tendrils shot out of the ash cloud, spearing through and destroying three of Rounds’ apparitions – though he managed to avoid being hit himself, twisting his body out of the way of one that would have gone through his chest.

Drunk Da slapped a few of them aside with his bare hands, his power protecting him from what followed next.

Wherever the tendrils came into contact with solid matter, they fused into it, converting it into crystal, from which two tendrils shot out, aimed at random targets – sometimes metahumans, sometimes just parts of the scenery.

Those tendrils converted more matter into crystal, including several capes who’d been hit, as well as one Memento who’d shielded a trio of cowls from the attack, the victims transforming into distorted crystal statues, before a single tendril emerged from each point of impact, continuing the attack.

This last wave of tendrils did not spawn new ones, merely converting their targets to crystal.

None of them came even close to Basil and the others, but it was still a horrid show, as even with their limited view of it, they saw at least a dozen men and women die to the initial attack.

In the distance, DiL rose out of the remains of her own cloud, leaving several tendrils behind, their ends sticking into the air where they seemed to have emerged from her body – or rather, a few centimetre away from it, as they usually did.

Ribbons of some kind of reflective material encircled her form, allowing only for glimpses of the figure beneath, save for her hair, which was long enough to very nearly touch the ground below her. The ribbons reflected her surroundings, but in a distorted way, like trying to look at something through several improperly aligned, curved lenses.

“Those ribbons… defensive or utility?” Hecate asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Basil could still hear the sadness and the fear in it, and he wished he knew how to reassure her right then.

He didn’t want to lie to her, making false reassurances.

Instead, he watched Rounds fly up into the air again, leaving several crystallized people he must have tried to help to face DiL at a distance again, surrounded by six apparitions of Gloom Glimmer and the one of Wary Wu.

“He is getting whittled down… as is Memento,” Basil observed.

“Not for long,” Gloom Glimmer refuted, as she disentangled herself from Polymnia and stepped forth, her sock-covered feet not making a sound upon the roof even before she simply levitated upwards.

Looking at her, she almost seemed like a different person to before. Completely recovered and poised, whatever powers she currently held so intense, they seemed to distort space around her even when she wasn’t doing much with them.

This close to her, Basil could definitely sense… something. A change, in the… the cadence of the pain. As if whatever was pressing on his brain was being interfered with by another, similar emission…

It was actually kind of soothing, even if he couldn’t actually make out anything about the second one, other than the slight alleviation of pain he experienced.

So many questions. So much to unravel, once there’s some time to actually investigate, he thought, not that he wasn’t aware of how slim the chances were he’d still be around to do it.

Speaking of which… you gotta get moving, mate. You’re not doing much to help, as is.

Agreed.

A quick flick of his left hand’s fingers brought his force shield to life – it seemed to be safe from DiL’s interference, at least for now. A twitch deactivated it again.

He looked at Gloom Glimmer, who was in the process of turning away from them and flying away.

“Can you drop me off closer to the battle?” he asked her, stepping forth.

“B-Brennus!” Hecate called out, grabbing him by the wrist. “Are you… I mean, you can’t be serious – this is way out of our league!”

He looked at her hand on his wrist, then up at the shadows beneath her hood, to cross eyes with her.

Funny, how his mask was currently only covering the lower half of his face, and hers only the upper half.

Even funnier that he would even notice that, at such a time.

”Those crystals bond with solid matter,” he replied calmly. “I would bet my last raven that they will be unable to penetrate my force shield. And besides… I want to do whatever I can to help here.” He looked down again. “I am sure you understand.”

She stayed quiet for a moment, then let go of his wrist. Drawing her cloak tighter around herself, she seemed to shrink for a moment, her shoulders slumping out of her usually flawless posture – then she suddenly stood up straight again.

”Yeah. Yeah, you’re right… and so do I,” she replied, her voice firm. “I’ll come along.”

Heavy steps made all three of them – Gloom Glimmer had just been observing quietly so far – turn to look at Polymnia, who had a pained expression crossed with a smile on her face. “My sonic cage is just as good at deflecting solid matter as your force fields are, Brennus. And you couldn’t keep me away from this if you tried.”

They all looked at each other, then at Gloom Glimmer, who was looking at them with a strangely calm, serious expression – not that it wasn’t warranted, in this situation, but she wasn’t showing any real emotion right then.

“Alright. Let’s get going,” she said and gestured at them. Her power wrapped around them, distorting air and light, and they flew off towards the growing forest of crystal tendrils.

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B14.3 Breaking Point

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Basil stepped away from the tesseract, pleasantly surprised to notice that however this means of transportation worked, it didn’t leave him the least bit disoriented or otherwise impaired.

He’d arrived at a supermarket’s parking lot, in a circle of several dozen civilians who seemed to have been hastily getting food and other supplies out of the supermarket – a quick look showed that the place had been opened, electronic screens on the outside announcing that it was giving away its inventory freely, so it wasn’t looting – who seemed to have frozen in fear when the tesseract appeared, only to relax when they saw him.

A middle-aged man with a beard shadow on the very verge of turning into a short beard approached Basil after putting a stack of packages down on the ground, looking nervously at him, his eyes roving as he seemed to have trouble deciding what to focus on while looking at his mostly featureless mask.

“You… you’re Brennus, right? The superhero?” he asked, his voice nearly cracking with nervousness.

“Yes,” Basil replied, looking around. “You should all get to the shelters as quickly as possible. Do not take more than you can easily carry,” he continued, looking at a group of teenagers so ladden down with sweets and snacks they probably wouldn’t have made it home without an accident even on a good day.

And this wasn’t a good day, by any possible measure.

“We’ll… yeah, we’ll do that,” the man replied. “But… I mean, how’s…” He looked towards the distant battle, which even now was rather easy to make out, as beams of light lanced up again and ag-

He flinched, his fists clenching so tightly he thought he’d damage his gloves as another lance of pure agony shot through his head, overtaking the steady thrum of background pain.

At least no one noticed, as the onlookers got distracted by the sudden growth of… something… where the beams had just been.

Basil touched the button on the communicator the Dark had given him, creating a ping to notify them… not that he thought it was necessary, right now, but it was a good habit to get into in case they lost track of her.

“Go,” he spoke, voice hard, making people flinch. “Don’t waste time and get to safety, now!”

They got.

Basil turned away from the supermarket and left the lot, running at as fast a pace as he could maintain – he still had a way to go. The node he’d taken had been the one closest to his house, but it was still quite a ways away from it.

Nevertheless, there was nothing at all he could do to help in this fight if he was limited to his emergency equipment.

Frankly, there wasn’t much, if anything, he was likely to contribute at all, even with his best gadgets, b-

He stumbled, nearly falling over as he was hit by another spike of pain, barely a minute after the previous one.

Barely managing to turn the stumble into the start of a run, he sent another signal, just in c-

Another spike of pain, still just as painful and impossible to get used to as the first one.

This time, he fell actually fell over, his mask hitting the pavement hard enough he actually felt it.

He pushed the button, almost reflexively, before he pushed himself up again.

So fast… she usually keeps the same powerset for a minute or two at least, even when she’s under heavy attack, he thought as he scrambled forward, breaking into as fast a run as he could. Did Memento really manage to upgrade enough to pressure her so much more, or…

Another spike of pain, causing him to stumble, but this time he managed to stay on his feet and keep running.

Passing by a gap in the buildings to his right, he looked towards where the fight was going on and saw the reason for the rapid change.

Gloom Glimmer had engaged DiL. Even at this distance, he could make her black-clothed, white-cloaked form, thanks to his telescopic vision enhancements, unleashing a truly staggering display of power.

Pain flashed through his mind as Gloom Glimmer kept meeting every new set DiL expressed with another power, countering her at every step.

When she wasn’t able to react quickly enough, one of the Mementos would intercede instead, unleashing a different super-weapon.

DiL, meanwhile, showed no sign of concern. She simply floated left and right, sometimes twisting in the air, but rarely even bothering to face her opponents as she kept switching through powers. Her arms remained limply at her sides, while her hair twisted with her motions and the wind, the glowing strands destroying anything they came into contact with – including the occasional metahuman who ventured too close, or was unable to get away in time when she closed in.

Then he was past the gap, moving slower now that he was being attacked by those horrid headaches every half minute or so.

He just couldn’t get used to them.

Damn it… Damn it… I need to… to get home, he thought as he almost fell over, stumbling before he leaned against the wall of a bakery he often went to to get fresh bread, on better days. Get your act together, Basil. You can’t afford to be weak right now.

Another flash of pain cut off his attempt to psych himself up.

And another.

And another, again.

God damn it, it’s great that Gloom Glimmer can hold her sister off so well, bu-

He doubled over, dropping to his knees as yet another flash of pain lit up his brain.

Fuck.

The pain and disorientation were so bad, he almost missed the brief distortion which travelled over the ground of him, as if someone had dropped a pebble into a pond, waves radiating across the concrete… and the walls, coming all from a single point somewhere towards the centre of the city.

From the battle.

“Be advised that the Adversary has broken off contact,” Memento’s voice announced through his comms. “Due to the changed nature of her desolation field, pinpointing her location is no longer possible. Announce any sighting through your comms immediately.”

“Damn it,” Basil grunted, forcing himself up onto his feet – and then he jumped, leaping away from the bakery as a hand formed out of its brick wall and glass front, slashing at his throat with broken-glass-claws.

The creature emerged so quickly and seamlessly, it almost looked like a stopmotion effect – one moment, normal bakery, the next, a twisted gargoyle of brick, metal and glass stood there, the bakery’s front wrecked and scavenged for materials.

It stood as tall as Basil was, even hunched over and slumped, its posture more appropriate to a cartoon character than a living being. Its body was primarily made out of bricks, with metal at the joints and glass shards providing details, as well as claws and eyes.

When it opened its misshapen maw, it revealed a mouth full of countless metal and glass fangs, reflecting the light of the desolation field and the irregularly penetrating sun to create an almost rainbow-like glow.

Dozens of similar creatures rose out of the street and buildings around Basil, all roughly resembling gargoyles – humanoid, misshapen heads, claws, wings – but no two were similar beyond their basic frame, each made out of whichever materials were nearby when it was formed.

They all looked at Basil and opened their maws, hissing as they showed off their rainbow teeth.

Great. Now that I’d like another flash of pain, I’m not getting one.

Guess even DiL can’t help but kick you while you’re down, mate.

He couldn’t even dispute that.

The nearest creature, the one whose lazy swipe he’d just dodged, attacked first by throwing itself towards him, its maw opening so wide it very nearly reached a hundred and eighty degrees.

Basil shot it right down the throat before it could even come close, his snapping his rifle up for a one-handed shot which blew its head and a good chunk of its upper torso apart, throwing the remains back into the wrecked bakery, wrecking it further.

“The Adversary has produced a vast number of lesser agents,” Memento informed him, superfluously. “They appear to have only been formed out of material at ground level or above, so the civilians in shelters should be safe. Past instances suggest that destroying at least sixty percent of their number will cause her to switch up powers, which ought to reveal her location again, as well. Spread out and destroy as many as you can. If your comms order you to change location, do so immediately, you will be guided towards the biggest concentration of agents you are predicted to be capable of taking on.”

He dodged another gargoyle and placed another round in the back of its head, pulverizing it and the head of the gargoyle that’d been charging him from the other direction. The metal slugs his railgun fired were more than powerful enough at such close range to tear through these creatures.

Of course, there was the decidedly non-trivial problem that there were already more gargoyles visible on just this one street than he carried shots with him. And even though he could load nearly any object of approximate shape and size into his railgun and turn it into a lethal projectile, doing so limited him to one shot at a time before having to reload.

Not a sustainable long-term solution.

I wish I had my drone here right now.

Still, there was nothing else to do but fight. The creatures came towards him, not quite swarming him – only the nearest few were attacking, yet, with others seemingly content to tear down nearby walls, lampposts and other bits of construction – but there were far too many for him to stay in one spot and shoot them down one after the other.

Basil took a running leap, taking off the ground to place his boot on the foremost charging gargoyle.

Jumping off its shoulder, he brought his rifle around and shot its head apart even as he flipped over the row of charging gargoyles, landing just in time to whirl around and watch them slam into the opposite line of attackers with a cacophony of shattered glass and screaming metal.

One of the gargoyles had avoided slamming into another of its kind and came charging straight at him, its jaw opened as wide as it could go.

He raised his rifle, aiming at its throat, and pulled the trigger-

Thin arcs of blue-white electricity danced across the muzzle and down the rails, but nothing happened as several alerts appeared on Basil’s heads-up display.

The creature reached him, diving past the rifle as it apparently aimed to clamp its jaws closed around his head – only for his foot to instead slam into it, his armored boot easily withstanding the cutting power of mostly-dull metal and simple window glass, smashing the creature back before it could clamp its jaws closed.

Instead of following up on the attack, Basil retreated, one eye on the situation around himself, one on the readouts his mask was giving him.

He’d feared this would happen – DiL’s desolation field was infamous for screwing with electronics. It was one reason why most gadgeteers steered away from fighting her, as they would all too often end up as sitting ducks, rather than contribute meaningfully to the fight.

Basil had anticipated such a situation. He’d studied reports of the desolation field’s effects online – Toybox in particular had several threads revolving around just this one ability of DiL’s – and done his best to harden his inventions where possible against the electromagnetic interference it caused.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t done so for his emergency kit, as it had been built on a very tight budget and been meant as, well, an emergency solution only.

Which was why his mask’s display was starting to glitch so much, he was forced to deactivate it and flip a hidden switch on its jawline which caused the upper half to collapse into and over the lower half, revealing his eyes and forehead, with the mask now covering only his nose, jaw and mouth.

At the same time, he grabbed his rifle by its handle with one hand and by the barrel with another, as he whirled around like a dervish, cloak flying, dodging a pounce by another gargoyle.

With a twist, he folded the grip away from the trigger, nearly flat against the barrel, and pulled.

The railgun came apart as he drew a single-edged blade made out of gleaming metal from it – one of the rails meant to guide the shots, sharpened on the opposite side to provide a proper cutting edge. It was long enough to serve as a proper sabre, or perhaps a katana, though one with a straight blade.

He used the razor-sharp blade to cut the head off of another gargoyle, and pulled a second sword out of the upper half of his rifle, plunging it straight down the throat of yet another pouncing gargoyle.

That turned out to be a mistake.

The creature clamped its jaws shut, apparently unbothered by having a metre and a quarter of razorsharp steel piercing intos its chest, trapping it in there as it pressed on, easily overbearing Basil.

He was forced to let go of his sword and dive into a roll, barely avoiding being bear-hugged by the gargoyle and crushed against its shard- and spike-studded chest.

They’re not very tough.

His blade cut through the gargoyle’s legs in a single swipe, and once it hit the ground, he leaped over it and twisted around, reaching down to pull his other sword out of its throat before it could damage it.

Another slash took off its head, and that caused it to collapse into its constituent pieces.

So, you gotta destroy the head to stop them? How droll, the Man in the Moon commented.

More gargoyles turned towards Basil, and others got up on their feet again after having fallen over in that mass crash.

Others still were busy tearing apart their surroundings, gathering parts to…

With a start, he realised they were making new gargoyles. Taking debris and assembling it into vaguely humanoid, winged shapes.

They’ll likely animate them if we give these buggers too much time.

Yes, thank you, I do notice the obvious, Basil thought back at him, though he didn’t have much time to be irritated, being busy dodging a dozen gargoyles made primarily out of very hard and very sharp bits.

Unless it’s Vas’ humongous crush on you.

Not. The. Time. Basil grimaced, finding himself forced to retreat – there were just too many of them bearing down on him, he didn’t have enough space to swing his swords wide and hard enough to take off heads, except for the occasional opening their uncoordinated attacks gave him.

When is it ever? Notice how I only talk to ya now and then? Ever wonder why that is?

One of the newly constructed gargoyles rose up, its movements jerky, uneven. It looked at him and hissed, then came stumbling towards him. Less than the originals, but still dangerous.

I noticed. No idea as to why.

Another slash took a particularly large gargoyle’s head off; Basil followed that up by rushing forward, using its collapsing body to give himself a boost, leaping over the small horde of gargoyles that’d tried to corner him against a wall.

Well, I’m not sure either, but I can only reach you sometimes. And some other times you’re just… deaf to me.

Landing on the street, Basil rolled into a sprint. He was going to get overwhelmed if he stayed where he was – he needed the gadgets he’d left at home, it was the only way he was going to make a meaningful dent in these gargoyles’ numbers.

You’re saying you’re not sure, but that implies you do have some idea as to why.

I cannot say.

So we’re back to that, Basil replied with a mental sigh.

Holding a sword in each hand, he ran down the street, trying to get closer to his house, slashing at gargoyles whenever the opportunity presented itself, hoping that at least the other defenders would manage to pick off enough of them that DiL would switch her powers before they built up too much.

That brings up another point – if one of her powers is the ability to animate these things, and another one is, presumably, whichever power allows her to hide from everyone, then what’s the third one?

No clue, but it can’t be anything good. Especially since we don’t know whether her hiding ability is her defensive or utility slot, and whether the animation ability is her offensive or utility slot. The last one could be any of the three.

He dodged around two particularly misshapen gargoyles made mostly out of shopping trolleys and broken beer bottles, beheaded another that tried to cut him off and used its body as a spring board again, to leap over another line of advancing gargoyles.

Only to have another one slam into him, swooping down from above with its wings extended wide.

They can fly after all.

The gargoyle slammed him into the ground, its hands closing around his swords’ grips over his own hands, preventing him from beheading it in return.

The shards covering the insides of its hands failed to penetrate his gloves, but they still managed to hurt, and the creature was far stronger than its spindly build would suggest – and much heavier, as well.

Basil grit his teeth and pushed back, while the creature opened up its maw, trying to literally bite off his face – but it had him at a serious disadvantage and even though he could stall it, that didn’t change the fact that even more were closing in on them.

Suddenly, he heard a gun being cocked, followed by the gargoyle’s head exploding as it was blown apart by a shot coming from Basil’s left.

The lifeless form collapsed atop him, showering him in debris and briefly blinding him as he closed his eyes to avoid getting anything in them.

When he looked up, he saw a man in a costume dive in between the gargoyles that’d surrounded him, landing over Basil in a broad stance, ready to defend him.

Though, costume was perhaps a bit much. He was wearing polished black shoes and a pair of black pants held up by white suspenders worn over a horizontally striped black-and-white shirt with long sleeves. He was standing there as if he was holding a shotgun, aimed at the advancing gargoyles, but his hands were empty.

Basil couldn’t see the man’s face, only the back of his head and short brown hair that’d been cropped down to the scalp on the sides and back, leaving only a messy mass of shiny locks at the top.

Then the man cocked his invisible shotgun and let loose another shot, blowing apart another gargoyle’s head.

He cocked it again, and another one went down, then he reloaded it, and shot down another two.

Half the gargoyles around them were gone by then, but the others were too close, so he instead switched into a melee pose and swung his arms as if he was holding a sword, slicing the heads off of three gargoyles at once.

The hell?

His saviour finished his spin, coming to face Basil, and extended his left hand towards him, showing his face for the first time.

It was covered in white make-up, from his scalp down to his jawline. His lips were coloured black, and thickly so, with thin lines extending slightly out of the corners. His right eyebrow had been traced with a similarly thick black colour, while the left one was all but imperceptible under the white make-up. Black eyeliner made the right eye stand out, as did several triangles drawn atop and beneath it, like eyelashes, while the right eye merely had a black ‘scar’ running from the forehead above down over it and onto the left cheek.

He was completely silent as he looked at Basil with an urgent expression, his blue-grey eyes as sharp as they were intense.

Le Mime. He came all the way from France?

Basil took the offered arm, hand closing around the man’s wrist as he was hauled up, then he activated the – fortunately still functional – magnets in his gloves to pull his swords back into his grip.

Le Mime whirled around and mimed drawing and firing a gun like an old west gunslinger. A shot sounded, blasting a hole through the head of a charging gargoyle.

“We need to go down the street that way!” Basil told him, gesturing towards his house when he had the french hero’s attention.

The older man – Basil thought he might be in his late twenties, or his early thirties – nodded to him and turned to face the other way, raising his arms and patting the air, before he leaned against an invisible wall, as if to brace it with both hands.

The charging gargoyles – both on the ground and flying – all slammed into said invisible wall, a few of the new ones doing so hard enough that they destroyed themselves.

Both Basil and Le Mime turned away from them and ran down the street – but there were yet more gargoyles in their way.

Le Mime ran ahead and reached into the air, grabbing a hold of something which allowed him to swing himself up and onto… a bike?

With a twist of his hand and a kick of his leg, he revved the invisible motorcycle, waving his other hand towards Basil in a beckoning gesture.

Basil didn’t stop to think, he just leapt onto the unseen machine, using Le Mime’s own position to judge where he’d have to land, while he crossed his swords behind his back, making them stick to the flat, flexible magnets worked into his cloak’s emblem.

Landing behind the silent hero, he grunted at the impact – it wasn’t exactly a well-cushioned motorcycle – and wrapped his arms around his waist, while seeking and finding a pair of footholds.

And then Le Mime drove off, shooting through a gap in the crowd of gargoyles before them.

They shot down the street as the hero drove like a madman, dodging their enemies by margins so small Basil was sure they’d be caught a few times.

Nevertheless, they got through another crowd, but there were still more gargoyles ahead of them.

“I need to get to my house and get several gadgets!” Basil shouted to be heard over the cacophony of their bike’s motor. “It is roughly five more kilometres down this road, followed by a turn left and another kilometre of road!”

The silent hero looked at him over his shoulder, his gaze determined, and nodded. Then he briefly took one hand off the grip and tapped Basil’s hands around his waist.

Taking the cue, Basil let go of him as the wind pushed hard against him, and Le Mime thrust his torso back, shoving Basil at the same time as he changed his own position.

And Basil landed in a hard, uncushioned seat in a very different vehicle, as they drove over the street, higher up than before on the bike.

The motorbike’s sound had been replaced by a strangely familiar one… a propeller?

A propeller-driven plane.

Le Mime mimed pulling a pair of aviator glasses down over his eyes, and then he pulled on a long stick in front of him, leaning back as their biplane rose up, shredding several gargoyles’ heads with its propeller before it was too high up to do so anymore.

Holy shit, I didn’t know he could do constructs this elaborate!

The biplane rose up, soaring over the sky, but Le Mime didn’t angle it directly in the direction of Basil’s house.

Instead, once he’d flown up high enough, he dove down again, one hand closed tightly around the control stick of the plane, while another held something else in front of him.

Before Basil could even wonder what it was – he was mostly focused on the sensation of his stomach rising up into his throat as they dove almost straight down towards the ground and the masses of gargoyles, the deafening combination of the biplanes ancient motor and the rush of air managing to daze even him for a moment – he clenched his fingers around it and the sound of a machine gun firing rose over that of the motor.

Le Mime simultaneously pulled them out of the dead dive, strafing over the hordes of gargoyles, dust and debris rising as their machine gun tore through dozens of them.

He repeated the process three more times before they approached Basil’s neighborhood.

“Fly by the building with the purple roof!” he shouted, hoping he’d be heard over the noise as he pointed at the out-of-place paintjob Amy had insisted on a few years ago. “I will jump onto its roof! You can keep going, I will be alright from here on out!”

He couldn’t be sure he’d be, but this guy was seriously too effective at taking down the gargoyles to be tied down babysitting Basil.

Le Mime looked over his shoulder, briefly, nodding again, and adjusted their flight towards the house.

Twisting the plane until it was nearly on its side, he flew a tight circle over it, just a metre away from having its wings hit the rooftiles.

“Thank you!” Basil shouted, and jumped, landing hard enough on the rooftop to crack some tiles and dislodge others, though he found his footing quite easily.

Waving at Le Mime, he briefly watched him fly away again, shooting up several gargoyles rushing towards the house, before he moved on.

Time to pull my own weight, he thought, walking to the edge of the roof and jumping down, only to hold onto the drain and swing himself feet-first through his own bedroom window.

The electronics were all down, as was his home’s security system, so he just broke through without much of an issue, landing on the soft carpet and standing up straight.

His room was as he’d left it – save for the broken window and glass shards strewn about – and his equipment was also exactly where he’d left it behind.

He could hear the hissing of approaching gargoyles, and the sound of their misshapen limbs upon pavement, so he didn’t waste any time, stepping towards where he’d embedded his force-field gauntlet into the wall…

And staggered as he walked throug the spot where he’d last held Prisca, a flash of green eyes and red hair conjured by his memory briefly occluding his vision.

Moments passed during which he just stood there, his arms limp down his sides and his eyes stinging.

He could almost feel her lips on his.

Almost.

It seemed so long ago, and yet like it had just happened.

Prisca, I-

Behind him, a gargoyle reached his window, fingers crushing glass as they wrapped around the broken frame, pulling it up.

Basil acted more on instinct than conscious thought, jumping onto his bed and grabbing the gauntlet.

The gargoyle pulled itself up and shrieked.

He pulled the gauntlet over his gloved hand, onto his left forearm, whirling around and raising it.

Please work.

The gargoyle leapt, just as the gauntlet fired, unleashing a burst of what was essentially pure force, smashing into the creature’s wide open maw – still the easiest target to aim at – and blasting it out the window in pieces.

Basil couldn’t bring himself to even feel proud of the quality of his work. Instead, he quickly exchanged his emergency equipment for his hardened gear and blasted two more gargoyles apart as soon as they raised their heads over the bottom of the window frame.

The heads-up display of his helmet booted up with only a few minor visual glitches before stabilising, and he was finally properly equipped for this.

Or as much as he could be, facing an opponent whom he couldn’t possibly harm or even truly inconvenience.

Despair later. Fight now.

And as if on cue, there was another flash of pain, and the sound of countless gargoyles collapsing into harmless debris outside, causing him to briefly flinch and nearly fall over.

He pressed the button on the communicator the Dark had given him, and then leapt onto the window sill, looking out over the city until he could see DiL’s figure in the distance, surrounded by a nimbus of blue light. Just four or five blocks away from his home.

“The Adversary has reappeared, W8. All forces, prepare for new powerset,” Memento announced in his mechanical monotone.

Guess it’s time to find out whether we can actually contribute anything here, ain’t it, mate?

Basil leapt out of the window.

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B14.2 Breaking Point

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“Commencing fifty-ninth attempt at completing the prime directive,” the Memento in front of them said, its brassy, electronic voice carrying easily across the plaza. “Assuming command of local operations as per pre-existing protocols established with the relevant Metahuman Combat Organisations.”

Irene watched the machine – could it even really be said to be a machine? – reach out and touch the pillar of tesseracts. Golden light spread from the point of impact, circuit patterns spreading over and through the tesseracts as they folded into themselves and disappeared, until only one was left, floating at about chest height above the ground.

Her power twitched, a sensory ability falling into place which traced the spatial distortions, locating the tesseracts across the entire area covered by the Desolation Field. They’d been spread out, though not uniformly, clustering closer at key areas while neglecting ones at the fringes.

“These constructs serve as nodes for a teleportation network,” Memento explained calmly. “Touching one will project a map of the nodes’ locations and the area in general into your mind, allowing you to choose a node as the destination.”

He raised a hand, which split open and retracted the fingers, forming a cannon of sorts, as Irene felt the sensory ability recede in favour of a form of defense… desolidification of some kind, but she didn’t get a chance to figure it out before it was gone, her power realising that she didn’t need to defend herself against Memento.

A silvery beam was projected out of the arm cannon, like the wave patterns on liquid mercury you dropped something into, only it was just the waves without the mercury. Where the beam concentrated, a huge metal crate… faded into view, becoming fully solid within a few seconds.

Once the beam cut off, the crate folded open, revealing hundreds of small, about palm-sized objects, looking like watches without hands or bands.

“Every combatant is strongly advised to take one of these communicators and affix them to their body by touching the flat side to whichever spot upon them that they want it to adhere to,” he explained, as people began to appear out of the node, seemingly blinking into existence out of nowhere, up to four at a time each touching a different side of the tesseract.

Irene paid them no mind and stepped forward, feeling the cobblestone beneath her feet, thanks to the sock-like bottoms of her suit that she wore in lieu of actual shoes; a choice she’d made for a variety of reasons, from having no need to walk where it would be impractical footwear, to just wanting something cute and unusual…

And she was deflecting, letting her mind drift rather than deal with the here and now. She had to focus, to get herself ready to dive back into the fight; so she took one of the watches, turning it about in her hand as she walked away from the crate – it was more of a container really, when looked at from close range, it’d only seemed like a mere crate due to Memento’s present body being so huge – and came to a stop a little apart from anyone else.

She didn’t feel up to interacting, right then and there. The last few minutes still weighed heavily on her, as she touched the contrivance to her left collarbone, just below where the cape she’d inherited from her mother was connected to her bodysuit, and it stuck to it under its own power, booting up with a barely audible hum.

Mother’s cape, Irene thought morosely, remembering the occasion when her mother had given it to her – just minutes before she’d fought the Rabid Eight in that stupid stunt the director and Patrick had cooked up to show New Lennston that the UH still had teeth, even with nearly the entire adult membership being away for several months (it had worked, of course – barring the two bizarre S-Class events which followed upon one another, and the Red Goblins’ idiocy, the crime rate in New Lennston had risen only slightly, way below the projections made by Argus Panopticos), the moment when her mother had pulled the cape off her shoulders and put it around Irene’s, followed by a kiss to the forehead, standing out far more in her recollection than the entire battle which had followed, than the entire rest of the day, even though it’d been the day she’d first met Melody.

“You will surpass us, my love,” her mother said, her words as clear as if she was saying them right now. “You are the best of me, and the best of your father, and one day you will be more than we could ever be.”

And she’d said that with such conviction, like it was an absolute truth, and yet so calmly and casually, like it was self-evident.

Her father had been there also, as he was now, when her mother was not. Just like then, now, he moved closer, wrapping his arms around her from behind, lifting her off her feet to give her a light hug; though his wraith had been more solid then, his power more present, not expended as it was now.

“What are you thinking about, zeiskeit?” he asked now.

“What your mother is trying to say is that, one day, she and I will be but footnotes in history books, our only notable achievement being that we gave birth to and raised you,” he’d said then. “Now go and show the world a glimpse of that.”

“I’m thinking about Bree,” she said softly, feeling his body stiffen briefly, a flinch she could only notice because she was pressed so tightly against him, half engulfed in the wispy mist of his wraith. “I tried to… to reach her.” Her eyes watered, though she managed to blink the tears away, moments before her power offered and then withdrew a power that’d deaden her emotions. “She didn’t even notice me.”

She’d been so proud, back then. To finally be stepping up to the task. To finally have enough control over herself and her power that her parents trusted her to put on a costume and go out and do good.

To finally be able to start working on the one thing she knew would delight her parents more than anything, perhaps even more than answering that question – to recover their firstborn, so their family could finally be whole, without Bree’s spectre always looming over them.

To prove to the world that no one was beyond redemption.

To save her big sister.

And on a more selfish note, to prove that she herself didn’t have to follow down Bree’s path and even if she did, that she could still be saved even then.

She used to have nightmares about becoming like Bree, about killing those near and dear to herself – first her parents, then those like Gruncle Jake or Uncle Neil or Journeyman. Later, others had joined them in her nightmares, Thomas, Harry, Aimihime, even Goudo and Jared. Even Basil and his teammates, though she knew them so little. Prisca.

Melody.

“She is beyond saving, Irene,” he spoke softly, as he put her down and gently turned her around to face him, lowering himself down on one knee to look her in the eyes as he put a hand on each shoulder. “Please, please, if you must fight here – and believe me, if I thought I could enforce it right now, I wouldn’t let you take part in this – then you must not try to save her. You must not try to reach her. The only way you can go if you want to stay here is to see her as the enemy she is and work to mitigate the damage she does… and protect yourself.”

He pulled her into a hug again, the mist-like shadows wrapping around her, engulfing her face as she was pulled tightly against his hard chest, his arms warm and strong around her.

Even as she felt her body relax a bit, even as she focused on him to center her thoughts a bit, to keep them from continuing to fly apart, she couldn’t help but remember and consider…

You’re her father. Shouldn’t you, above all, believe that she can be saved? Do everything possible to save her? If not you, then who?

“How can I be more than both of you, if I can’t even do this?” she asked instead, her voice barely audible even to herself, catching hold of a different line of thought.

“Maybe one day you will be able to do what we couldn’t,” he replied, his voice soft in spite of the manifold distortions worked into it. “But that day is not now. Please, Irene, promise me. Promise me that you won’t try to save her, not today. Promise me that you’ll prioritise keeping yourself safe.” His grip on her tightened, as if he was trying to pull her deeper into his shadows, restrain her so she wouldn’t be able to join in the fight. “If not for your sake, then for mine. I could not bear to lose you.”

Unbidden, powers rose to prevent even that. High-speed teleportation, gaseous desolidification, a crude yet immensely powerful form of telekinesis…

No, she didn’t need those. She pushed the powers back, preventing them… herself… her steward… whomever from lashing out at her father or escaping his embrace.

Still, it served to illustrate his point well. Perhaps, if he hadn’t spent himself fighting Marchosias, then the Gefährten, he might have been able to restrain her, but the way he was now…

All he could do was plead with her and she would be lying if she denied that his heartfelt plea – for it truly was such, there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his emotions – didn’t make a part of her want to just curl up in his arms and leave, abandon the fight and just shut out the world for a while, regardless of the consequences…

But that part of her wasn’t the part that was in charge.

“I’ve got to fight, daddy,” she said softly, as she pushed her hands against his chest.

He resisted, briefly, but then he let her go, his six-eyed ‘face’ completely expressionless as he remained on one knee, briefly, before standing up again. He remained quiet.

Looking up at him, she felt her heart break a bit as she admitted to herself that he was right… to a point. “I… I promise you… I won’t try to save Bree, today,” she said, knowing that if she tried, she would fail and most likely die… “Today, I will fight to protect others from her, and I’ll do my best to keep myself safe as well, as far as that’s possible.”

And if Irene died, then who would save Bree? Who would save everyone else?

Who would answer the question she’d been born to answer?

He looked her in the eyes, six red ones to two blue ones, and nodded. “Thank you, zeiskeit.”

She nodded to him, lowering her eyes again. “What about mom?” she finally asked, after a few quiet seconds passed, while around them the capes and cowls were moving out. Most of the junior heroes had left her alone to talk to her father, but Melody was still there, waiting, watching her with those big, soulful eyes of hers.

Probably hearing everything they said, too, not that Irene minded that.

“I’ve sent a messenger to recall her as quickly as possible,” he replied calmly, back to a more business-like demeanor. “Unfortunately, she had to move beyond the reach of most forms of quick communication… it may take a while for the message to reach her, and even more to make her way here. For the time being, we will have to deal without her.”

She nodded. “What about you?”

He shook his head. “I spent too much. The way things stand, I can’t even provide communications with my wraiths,” he admitted, his anger over his own impotence evident even through the distortions of his darkwraith. “I’ll stay in the back, use Memento’s network to help coordinate and guide our forces.”

“Alright.” Deep breaths. “I’ll… be getting ready, then.” Her power was roiling, as active as she’d ever known it, like a pond or a small lake over-filled with fish fighting and striving to rise to the surface. She turned around to move away, but he took her by the shoulder.

“Irene, I am all but powerless right now,” he said, his voice soft. “But you know there’s a way for me to recharge rapidly.”

“A monstrous way,” she replied without turning around or even looking over her shoulder, her voice less than a whisper.

“Nonetheless, if I deem it necessary to protect you, I will walk that way, no matter the price to me… or others. Do you understand?” he countered, his voice as hard as it had been soft before.

A shiver ran down her spine as she contemplated what he was talking about… and the real meaning of his words.

To openly use, perhaps even publically reveal the true nature of his powers, kept secret for almost a century, just for the sake of protecting her.

You’re my daddy, after all, she thought, not without some wistfulness. I just wish you’d feel the same way about Bree.

Then again, perhaps you did try, and that failed, too.

She reached up with one hand and squeezed his hand where it lay on her shoulder. “I understand. I’ll make sure it won’t be necessary, I promise.” She squeezed his hand again, then she moved away, letting it slide off her shoulder as she walked over to Melody, quietly taking her friend’s hand.

Her father looked after her for a few more moments, then he turned away and moved over to Memento’s instance.

“I’m sorry,” Melody spoke softly, using her vocoder. Irene’s power wasn’t volunteering any telepathy right now… rather, it seemed to be building up to something big, by the feel of it.

“It’s alright,” Irene replied, squeezing her friend’s fingers tightly enough to be felt through her thick, rigid gloves. “Everything will be well, you’ll see.” She tried to give Melody a reassuring smile, but it clearly didn’t work well, judging by her expression.

Melody didn’t press the point, however, and Irene averted her eyes, looking out over the plaza again just in time to see Basil… calling him ‘Brennus’ just felt wrong to her, somehow, like it was missing something… approach the node, looking over his shoulders at the two of them – they were the last ones of his fellow teenagers still on the plaza, everyone else having moved on.

Another lost one, she thought, feeling a wave of sympathy wash over her. She knew about Prisca’s death, of course. She had cried when she heard, and she would likely cry more and grieve properly, once she had the time, but right now, others needed her more.

Others, like Basil. Something about him… he’d always felt different to her. Not in any way related to powers, but in a far more primal way.

It was like she’d thought moments ago.

He’s lost, like I am, she thought quietly, watching him touch the node and disappear, then she looked up and into the distance, seeing lights flash and dustclouds rise in the distance where the fight was even now going on.

We all are, really. Capes and cowls, the lot of us. Basil and Prisca, Vasiliki and Amanda, Dalia and Bree, all the others and foolish little Irene, all of us, here in the city where it all began, all the lost ones.

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B14.1 Breaking Point

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Pain lanced through Basil’s head, again, only to remain there, like a nail that had gotten stuck in his brain, a steady throbbing sensation, making him feel like his head was about to burst, or perhaps collapse, or perhaps simply burn to ash.

Pain was an old friend, one he didn’t really remember, yet familiar none the less. It had made it easy to ignore the many wounds he’d suffered throughout his short career as a hero so far, helped him compartmentalise the experiences, focus on taking the necessary steps to survive, rather than be preoccupied with the pain.

It helped here, again, even though this was a purer pain than ever he’d known before, a pain that was not in his body, but his mind, yet without any emotion to cause it. Still, he looked away from it, focused on what lay beyond his inner thoughts.

Frankly, focusing on the pain seemed like a more pleasant option. Desolation-in-Light still floated above the street, seemingly blind and deaf to the world around her, not that there was much to hear as everyone near her was deathly silent save for the occasional sobs.

He’d heard rumors, read stories of eye witnesses, many put off as mere attentionseekers, liars or crazies, of DiL appearing in places, isolated ones usually, only to do nothing at all but stay a while, floating in the air, and leave again, causing harm to none. Usually it was only witnessed by one or two people, in those stories, but they remained remarkably consistent and most of the reports had had the ring of truth about them.

A small part of him, a very small one, dared hope that she would disappear here, too, leave them be – leave it at a mere scare, rather than the sheer namesake desolation that was sure to follow if she struck now.

The pain in his head redoubled as a shower of light, like liquid, glimmered around her, starting above her head from a single point, spreading into a glowing halo, before it ran down, tracing a sphere around her as it expanded until the halfway point, then collapsed again, until it gathered into a single spot beneath her feet again and disappeared, as the pain in Basil’s head returned to its earlier, more managable throbb.

Tiny spots appeared all around her, as if stuck to the surface of the invisible sphere the light had just traced, the spots growing as they spun in place, tiny rocks that grew, starting to make grinding sounds as they cracked into many smaller pieces that ground against each other even as they continued to grow and spin and dance about her.

Basil was still unbalanced by the sudden surge of pain, but Vasiliki, fortunately, was not and she didn’t wait to see what this power, or whichever others she had picked, could do. Rather, she threw something at the ground in front of them, and a cloud of greenish smoke rose up and encircled them, forming a slightly glowing dome around the bench they’d sat on.

Rising up, she reached into her purse and withdrew an elongated package wrapped in white fabric several times the size of the tiny purse, throwing it at him.

He caught it, more out of instinct than conscious thought, recognising the emergency package he’d entrusted to her a while ago, for occasions such as these.

Unwrapping it, the white fabric was revealed to be a replica of his cloak with the corvid uroboros upon the back, having been wrapped around a pair of boots and gloves, as well as a sleek, yet boxy rifle made of silver and black metal, as long as one of his legs from toe to hip and, finally, a slender mask.

Vasiliki, meanwhile, had stripped out of her clothes right next to him, revealing that she’d worn her bodysuit underneath her clothes, just with the sleeves rolled up – what he’d thought to be stockings had been her costume’s pants. She finished tugging it into place, putting her clothes into the purse before pulling the outside cover off said purse, revealing it to be her bag of holding.

They dressed up, both of them, with Basil’s shoes and jacket disappearing into her bag as well, while she pulled out her belt, her cloak, her staff, boots, gloves and various other odds and ends she’d crafted over the months, lesser contrivances compared to the power she’d concentrated into her staff, belt and bag, but formidable nonetheless. She didn’t wear a mask, rather, her hood was enchanted to always stay on and shroud her face in shadows, only showing her jaw and lips, and only if she wanted it to at that.

Basil was done before she was, finally just holding the mask in his hands, looking down at it. It was a simple thing, not a helmet but a mask, yet without straps. Rather, its insides showed a lot of moving parts, as it was designed to shift and clip onto his face, molding itself to its contours, hiding it from his hairline down to his chin. Designed to look smooth, almost glassy on the outside, its lines barely implying the shape of a face, it was of the same jet-black ceramic as his armour was, except he had left that back home.

He held it to his face and felt it shift, attaching itself to it so finely he barely felt its weight once it was done and his interface booted up, the mask becoming seemingly transparent to his eyes as the all but invisible channels worked into its surface captured light (as well as other things), serving essentially as a big camera that covered the entire front of his mask. Two small extensions had folded out the sides and covered his ears, though they quickly picked up the sounds around him and channeled them through, allowing him to hear as clearly as if there were no obstructions at all. The mask did not nearly have his full suite of sensors and communication technologies, even he could only fit so much into such a small space, but it had enough to give him half a dozen vision modes and an uplink to his own personal network, the one he shared with Eudocia, his sole remaining raven and the equipment back at his base.

The gloves and boots were simple things, too. Both were meant to let him stick to objects by manipulating the forces that allowed molecules to stick together, creating temporary bonds between their surfaces and whatever he was touching. Both could also serve as contact-tasers.

Picking up his rifle – a small railgun which could also fire a grappling hook – he looked at Hecate.

”Sound test,” he said, a flick of his eyes making it so he could only be heard through their communications network.

“Hearing you loud and clear,” Hecate responded. “Oneiros’ Shroud will be down in sixteen seconds. What should we do?”

They, of course, hadn’t just thrown up a smokescreen while within such close range to DiL, blinding themselves to any attack that may come. The spell which Hecate had named Oneiros’ Shroud was an expensive one – it had taken her nearly a whole week to prepare this one, and they’d determined to only use it in an emergency. According to her, the smoke it generated transposed whatever it enshrouded into the world of dreams… well, he definitely needed to brush up his knowledge of Greek mythology, some day.

Either way, they ought to be safe until it went down. The fact that they hadn’t horribly died yet spoke to that fact.

Still, they’d need to act, and they’d need to act in concert in order to survive and save as many people as they could.

Feeling bone-wearingly tired, Basil took a deep breath and focused on his friend. “We make a move for the civilians. Try to get as many of them as far away from DiL as possible. Try to get in contact with other capes and cowls, coordinate as much as possible.”

No point in making too elaborate a plan when there was no way to tell how the situation was going to be. For all of her appearances, DiL rarely created the same kind of chaos twice and was all but impossible to plan ahead for.

Hecate looked at him, her face unreadable beneath her hood’s shadow. “Alright. Don’t die, Basil.” She reached out and took his free hand, squeezing it tightly. “There’s still… a lot we need to talk about,” she finished, her voice thick with emotion.

He looked down at their joined hands, nodding, though he didn’t get a chance to reply properly as the shroud dissolved around them and they found themselves amidst a wasteland of jagged rocks and shattered trees.

Looking about, letting go of each other’s hand, they saw huge growths of jagged grey and black rocks which seemingly sprouted from the ground all around, utterly savaging the park and the street DiL had appeared above, as well as the buildings there. The rocks had smashed trees and cars and buildings and impaled no small number of people, and crushed others.

DiL was not in sight, but where she had been was in evidence as the rocks all seemed to have spawned from around her, and lead back and up to it, twisted rock formations forming almost hand-like shapes as they reached up into the air, wrapping around what was now just empty air.

The area that Oneiros’ Shroud had protected was unblemished, untouched by rock, the outgrowths forming a perfect circle around them, sheered off where they had reached into the mist.

“I did not know it could do that,” Basil whispered.

”Neither did I…” Hecate replied. “I guess… we got switched back… and the rocks jutting into the shroud were pulled along as it returned to its rightful place.”

Basil nodded, and looked out over the devastation, switching through various modes of vision. “Over there. Survivors!”

He took off, running towards a particularly dense concentration of body-shaped… mostly body-shaped… heat signatures, behind a wall of jagged rocks, but without his grappling hooks, Hecate easily overtook him, shooting past him as a mass of green-black smoke, surging across the wrecked park, the broken street and into the ruins of what used to be a toy shop.

By the time he got there, she was already triaging the survivors, applying her healing salve to only the most immediately dangerous wounds – she didn’t have much of it and it was by far one of her most expensive contrivances in terms of materials required to make it.

Basil joined in as she pulled a first aid kit out of her bag, throwing it at him. He caught it and went to work.

There were eight survivors in the toy shop, half of them children and more corpses than he cared to count.

Of the eight, two were in critical condition – one six-year-old boy had had one of his legs shorn off by a razor-sharp blade of stone and had nearly bled out before Hecate had gotten to him, and a woman had been impaled through the abdomen by a thin spear of the same material.

The children weren’t even crying yet, still not having processed what was going on it seemed.

Basil tied off the boy’s leg stump after Hecate applied her salve to it, and tightened the kn-

He gasped, bending over, as the pain spiked again, his vision briefly going white as his whole world was nothing but agony for a moment.

“Brennus, what’s wrong?” Hecate asked in worry as she reached over and finished tying the knot.

“I do not… some kind of headache… since she appeared… momentary spikes of white-hot pain,” he gasped, the agony dying back down to the steady throb of background pain he could actually deal with.

She spat some kind of curse in Greek and slid over on her knees, finishing his work on the boy’s stump. “Can you help her?” she asked with a nod towards the woman who’d been impaled.

Getting up and walking over, he took a closer look, as the woman looked up at him with eyes that were nearly delirious with pain, as she held onto the hand of a toddler in a stroller, the little girl staring at her mother in confusion – unable to understand what was wrong, but still grasping that something was off, he guessed.

He couldn’t help with that, but he could help the woman, and told her so, his voice calmer than he felt as he knelt down next to her.

She was young, just a little older than Amy if he had to guess and had the kind of thinness he usually associated with out-of-practice athletes – she no longer worked out to maintain the muscle tone, but hadn’t really put on much weight either. She was healthy though, clearly, and that might make all the difference.

A sharp spear – more of a rough blade, really – had thrust up out of the ground, impaling her through her green pullover. She was half bent over, on her knees and trembling from head to toe; fortunately, the blade had pierced her at an angle and had missed her spine, at the very least. It was, however, in position to have pierced through her intestines, her stomach and perhaps even a kidney.

”I can not remove the spike in these conditions,” he told her calmly. “I will cut it off beneath you, so we can move you someplace you can get the surgery needed.” Right then, the spike was likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding out, and he didn’t have the equipment on hand to operate.

She looked at him, blood running from her mouth over her lips and down her chin, nodding when she couldn’t find the strength to speak.

Basil switched places with Hecate again, telling her what needed to be done. He checked over her work on the boy – he’d passed out – and then went on to apply first aid where needed, while Hecate used one of her charms to simply disintegrate the spike beneath the woman as a store clerk helped hold her steady, then lowered her gently to the ground.

It was good, but it wasn’t enough. The woman, the boy, at least three more, they weren’t going to make it unless they got them somewhere sa-

He flinched, briefly stunned by another spike of white-hot pain, before it receeded again.

They had to get them somewhere for proper treatment, else they’d die. But they were in no state to be transported and survive it.

As cruel a catch twenty-two as any-

White-hot pain.

He shook his head, trying to centre himself again. A shorter interval, this time. Is it just going to get more frequent, until there’s nothing but the pain?

He’d counted the seconds between episodes, in the back of his mind, and he could not yet see any regularity to them. No pattern.

Not that he had the time to really analyse what was going on…

He looked up, moments before the air before the shattered storefront window twisted, condensing into a whirl of shadows, then snapped apart again, a familiar figure appearing out of it and landing nimbly on her bodysuit-covered feet.

The people in the shop, especially the children, looked at her in awe, some cheering weakly as Gloom Glimmer smiled at them, trying to look reassuringly friendly, even as Basil could see a pain that put his headache to shame behind those brilliant blue eyes.

She looked at him and Hecate. “We’re gathering up at the Memorial Plaza. Make your way there while I take these people to the medical camp.”

Basil and Hecate exchanged looks, then nodded to Gloom Glimmer, briefly telling her the most crucial details on the people there before they made their way out of the former toy shop, not even taking the time to look back as they heard the twisting snap of Gloom Glimmer’s teleportation.

***

The Memorial Plaza stood where the centre of Old Lennston had once been, making up one of the three central points of New Lennston, the others being the Town Hall and the United Heroes’ headquarters, the three of whom were connected via a ring road encircling a big, circular park with several small lakes and ponds within.

While the plaza had originally been designed for the sake of remembering Old Lennston, it had evolved past that singular purpose – there was now also a memorial to Lennston’s fallen superheroes, as well as those of its scions which had gone off to war and never returned alive. There was also one for the casualties of the police force… the place had in general become a place for remembering all that had been lost to Lennston, both Old and New.

Nineteen capes and cowls stood in front of the obelisk which made up its centrer, at the steps of which stood the unmistakable figure of the Dark, who was addressing the others.

Basil and Hecate landed near the group, just in time for another surge of pain to nearly knock him off his feet.

If this goes on I may well grow used to it…

The Dark looked at them, his expression as unreadable in its absence as ever – but his form was unlike anything they’d ever seen before – rather than the thick, almost liquid darkness of his customary wraith, his form now was smoky, billowing around his form; just as hidden as before, but somehow less… substantial, both in appearance and presence.

Exhaustion? From the fight against the Gefährten?, Basil asked himself, and immediately felt guilty – they needed the Dark in this, he was one of the most effective and efficient counters for DiL, and if it was his utterly failed excursion which drained him just in time for his deranged daughter’s attack…

Hecate punched his shoulder, staggering him out of his contemplation.

When he looked at her, he couldn’t see her face but he could tell she was glaring at him. “You can’t go around blaming yourself for everything. We each made our own choices,” she said firmly.

Basil looked away from her and down, taking a moment to absorb her words. Then he nodded, quietly, which seemed to please her as she grunted in a rather unladylike fashion and turned away to focus on the other gathered capes and cowls.

He only looked around briefly, but he didn’t see Amy… he hoped she was alright. He hoped she’d gotten out of that hellscape. He hoped she hadn’t gotten hurt.

How did I not worry about her? he asked himself as he followed Hecate quietly, staying behind her as they joined the Junior Heroes. All this time, I was just thinking about myself, while she was out there fighting, risking her life because I dragged her into that madness. I…

There was a hard impact on the ground nearby, causing Hecate and the Juniors to stagger, while Basil just adjusted his stance slightly, turning towards the source – only to get a face-full of Amy’s spandex-clad breasts as she drew him into an almost literally bone-crushing hug.

I heard. I’m sorry, she whispered softly into his head, even as she squeezed the life out of him. Deliberately, surely – she was still angry with him.

Basil raised his arms, giving her a light hug back – he really didn’t care whether more people found out about their relationship now; anyone who mattered already knew or would know regardless.

He saw Amazon glare daggers at the two of them through his raven, but most people were focused on the Dark.

Another spike of pain caused him to flinch, his legs buckling briefly at the sudden interruption to the soothing embrace.

”Brennus! What’s wrong?” Amy asked worriedly, looking at him with wide eyes as he let go of her and staggered back. Our connection was interrupted for a moment!

”Pain… ever since she showed up, there’s been this constant pain in my head,” he replied, holding his head with one hand. “And sometimes there’s a spike of even worse pain, but I don’t know why.”

”When did you first feel the increased pain?” the Dark interjected suddenly, having moved closer. At the same time, Rounds and the other adult heroes – save for Bismuth, who stood apart from the rest for some reason – came closer as well, their leader looking worried and more than a little suspicious.

Basil looked up at him, too numbed by… by everything, to really feel anything at his presence. Cycling through his raven’s memory, he found the moment. “When she first assumed a power-set,” he replied, his mind already leaping apart to a possible explanation…

The Dark nodded, as if a thought was confirmed. “You’re reacting to her power changes,” he replied with the tone of absolute certainty. “It might be useful to know if we lose sight of her to be able to tell whether and how often she changes powers.” He reached into the shadows enveloping his body, causing strands of jet-black mist to drift off, then held his hand out. “Wear or connect to this communicator.”

Basil reached out and took the flat, disc-like gadget – he wasn’t sure whether it was actually made by a gadgeteer, but it looked so compact and well-crafted, he strongly suspected that it had been – and turned it over. The palm-sized disk was smooth and silver on one side, but had several exposed circuits on the other.

Touching the circuit-covered side to his mask’s forehead, he found that it activated and synchronised with his mask’s systems easily – too easily. Wyrm’s, I suppose, he thought to himself as he pulled the disc away and attached it to his belt, where it stuck by itself.

”You’re now connected to our local network. Send a single ping whenever you sense a power change and we’ll route it through to everyone with a communicator,” the Dark instructed him.

Before Basil could reply in any fashion, even to agree, the wispy figure turned away and walked up the steps towards the monument, turning around to talk to the gathered capes.

“If I may have your attention, please,” he spoke, his voice deep and powerful enough it easily covered the plaza without any obvious amplification. Once everyone had turned to look at him, he went on. “We don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. Most of you have never fought a battle like this before. You all think you know what to expect, from television, reports, books and whatever else told you about these fights. Most of them don’t know much. Here’s the facts as we know them: DiL is utterly invulnerable to damn near any effect ever used against her. Her personal, permanent defense makes it impossible to affect her with anything, including moving her in any way she does not wish to be moved. Sensory and mental attacks are just as useless as spatial and temporal ones. Her hair, teeth, finger- and toe-nails glow with a bright white light which acts as disintegrating contact poison that can eat through most defenses and constitutes a certain death unless you sever the affected portion of your body. She can fly and she has no known top speed – it ranges from walking speed to what is effectively short-range teleportation, especially since her invulnerability means that anything in her path will be obliterated rather than stop or even slow her. She does not rely on mundane senses whatsoever and appears completely unresponsive to such stimuli. It is theorized that she senses powers in some fashion, though she has demonstrated the ability to perceive baseline humans in the past, as well. However her sense or senses may work, they appear to pierce any kind of shroud. She is an impenetrable blindspot to Espers of all kinds, particularly Pretercognitives. Do not rely on danger senses or their like.”

“Your goal must not be to attack her but to interfere with and, if possible, counter whichever other abilities she assumes,” he clarified, looking around at the gathered capes and cowls. “She always assumes three distinct powers which can broadly be classified as offensive, defensive and utilitarian, respectively. Her powers start out world-class and grow from there. Whenever at least one of her abilities is interfered with to any meaningful degree, she changes her entire loadout and the new abilities she assumes start out at base level again. Why she acts in this fashion, we don’t know. If she’s allowed to build up for too long, the consequences tend to look like Mexico, Old Lennston, Portland or Okinawa. Do not let her build up.”

He stopped, giving them a moment to digest that. “Furthermore, the Desolation Field. Normally it extends to a radius of roughly two miles around her person. This time, she appears to have simply extended it over the whole of New Lennston and left it stationary, though fortunately she has not ‘hardened’ it as she did during her last appearance. The field blocks any kind of signal from crossing its boundary. This includes powers – Espers can’t perceive into or out of the field, even precognition is blocked. Power effects can travel across, but powers can’t reach through it – so if your power lets you, say, create a fireball you lob somewhere, it will travel across, but you won’t be able to, say, target someone for teleportation across the boundary, or affect them with any kind of mental power. Any such power will work properly within the field itself. Also, though it’s likely not useful to know, but maybe it’ll spark an idea somewhere, no one has ever manifested while within range of her Desolation field. People have manifested during her attacks, but only while outside the range of her sphere of influence, never while within it. Heterodyning also appears to be impossible while within range of her desolation field.” He paused again, looking out over the gathered crowd, as if searching for something, his gaze briefly stopping on his daughter as she stood together with most of the other teens – Outstep was missing – before moving on.

Basil looked around, once it seemed that the Dark was taking a break, and what he saw was a mixture of determination, resignation and sheer hopelessness spread liberally and to varying degrees over any face and body he could see. They all knew that this was a fight which could at best end in a phyrric victory which could only delay the destruction, not eliminate its source.

He would likely have felt some such emotions himself, but he was still blissfully numb.

“In spite of all this, our situation is not hopeless,” the Dark drew everyone’s attention back to himself. “Our biggest advantage is that DiL is not intelligent. She has no sense for tactics, forethought or subterfuge. Any such instances perceived in the past were ultimately just coincidences, never to be repeated – and they are incredibly rare to begin with. Furthermore, we-“

There was a shout, followed by another, as people pointed upwards at the sky, interrupting the Dark.

Basil looked up just in time to see a huge figure drop through the Desolation field, its descent slowed by blue-hot jets of flame shooting out of its feet.

And then another.

And another.

And more besides.

Dozens of hulking, glimmering figures dropped out of the sky, some of them accompanied by strange objects and weaponry – the closest one, which dropped down and lended with a pavement-cracking thud a dozen metre away from the gathered capes and cowls was reaching out, its hand laying flat on the side of a pillar as thick as two people and twice as tall as a schoolbus was long, made apparently from hundreds of chest-sized, silver-and-gold tesseracts shifting and moving into and through each other in a dizzying display of reality-defying engineering.

The figure next to it was no less impressive, though more familiar. A hulking humanoid made of steel, brass and gold, crafted as much for aesthetic appeal as raw functionality, was twice as tall as the Dark himself, easily four times as wide if not more and moved with mechanical perfection as it looked around them, its head encased in a dome of what read as see-through diamond to Basil’s sensors, holding a human-sized mechanical head within, its inner workings exposed, showing wires, chips and lots of clock-work-like bits which moved to give it the illusion of facial expressions, a pair of glowing red lenses making up its ‘eyes’. It looked out over the gathered capes and cowls, its expression neutral, as dozens more of its kind landed all across the city, each accompanied by a different device, some of them immediately joining in the battle against DiL in the distance.

“Huh,” the Dark looked at him in what appeared to be surprise, while a ripple of pure relief went through the other gathered metahumans. “Good to see you’re not sitting this one out again, Memento.”

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B13.20 Call of the Sleeper

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Prisca was still alive.

Somehow, even though he’d deduced as much with great certainty, he hadn’t truly felt sure about it until he saw her. A weight dropped off his shoulders.

Not that seeing her was a pleasant experience. He wasn’t petty, wasn’t… concerned with her physical beauty the way he’d seen other boys be. Some part of him, a part he didn’t really understand, a part he’d started to associate with Macian, if only because he couldn’t figure out where he might have picked it up otherwise, balked at the mere thought of judging things by appearance. Of getting attached to the outside, be it good or bad.

It wasn’t a good thing, wasn’t a good part. He didn’t like such things because he didn’t, on a fundamental level, trust them. Them, or anyone, really. A small part of him that whispered, this could be fake, someone might be twisting things.

It was the same part that had advised him to keep so many secrets from his friends. To compartmentalise them, keep Tim and Aimi apart from Vasiliki and Dalia. To keep them all apart from Prisca, until he couldn’t justify it anymore. It was the part of his that had shouted betrayal when, in honest worry over his state, his friends had crossed the boundaries he’d set and gotten together to take care of him.

Even further, it had made him twitchy around Dalia and Vasiliki in a way he hadn’t understood for a long time. Their beauty had been a barrier between them, rather than something that drew him in, like it did damn near every other male they ran into.

It wasn’t something all-consuming. He could still appreciate beauty, once he could be sure it was honest. Whatever that meant. But upon first contact, it repulsed, made him stay at a distance.

With Prisca, it had, strangely, made things easier. When beauty was an initial barrier, meeting a girl who failed to live up to the common understanding of beauty so thoroughly had, actually, made things easier in the beginning. Let him reach out, connect, in a way he wouldn’t have been able to with any of the gorgeous girls in his life.

In a twisted way, Aimi was more attractive to him, at first glance, than someone like, say, Gloom Glimmer, even though the latter was literally supernaturally desirable, simply because Aimi was plain and plainness didn’t trigger that suspicious, dark part of his.

Finding out that she’d become a shapeshifter, it had shaken him on a level he hadn’t even recognised, back then. With the benefit of hindsight, he thought that that had been trhe true reason why he’d kept her at arm’s length, rather than tell her about his secret identity, like he’d done with Tim.

With all that, he’d been able to see past Prisca’s bodily and mental issues – and she had many of both, perhaps even more so than he did – to find and appreciate the person underneath. In time, he’d even come to appreciate the remnants of the beauty she should have had. The beauty Dusu had taken from her.

When the goblins kidnapped her and he’d been forced to operate on her to keep her alive, that same detachment had allowed him to stay calm and do what needed to be done, rather than balk at the thought of cutting open the girl he loved to attach machines to her failing heart.

When she’d mutilated herself to escape Hastur, when the stress and the strain of that wretched day had proven too much for her body and he, with Gloom Glimmer’s help, had worked on her again, it had helped keep him calm and focused.

It had not helped when she’d manifested her power. Her projection, gorgeous as it was, had made him twitchy again, though less so than others, as he’d already known her. But that part of his, it twitched and moaned, whispering suspicions about this new, false form.

But it wasn’t. Never was. It was hers, in a way that her actual body couldn’t be anymore. A form that came purely from within herself. Whereas her body had been twisted, broken, changed, by Dusu, making it not wholly hers any more. She’d been right about that. He’d seen that, come to appreciate what she herself called her true body, and gotten comfortable enough to, experiment. They hadn’t gone the whole way yet, what Dalia would call ‘home base’, but they’d run most of the other ones by now.

Thinking on it in retrospect, no one who knew her even a little had been even remotely surprised that she’d cut her own eyes out, rather than be twisted further by another monster.

None of that made it, however, easy or even remotely comfortable to see her now, as she lay on that bed that had become the sum and limit of her waking world. She was pale as a corpse and moved about as much as one, her lungs no longer functioning in any case – machines pumped the oxygen she needed to survive into her, instead.

Survive. Not live.

Her hair was gone, what few tufts she’d had left fallen off and cleaned up since the last time he saw her, a week or so ago (she hated it when he saw her like this, preferred it when he interacted solely with her projection, as much as possible), making her head seem inordinately large, especially in proportion to her emaciated, wasted-away body. Her ruined eyes, at least, were covered by bandages. Most of her body was covered by a blanket, save for her spindly thin arms with those long, tender, weak fingers, which lay atop the expensive silk sheets (her mother did everything to make her comfortable, no matter how small, even if it meant buying the hospital a whole set of silk sheets for the entire intensive long-term care ward), though the many tubes and wires that ran into her body were still outlined by them.

Not that he needed to see them with his eyes – he had them in his mind. He’d installed them, after all. A rushed job, at first, during her kidnapping. Then, later, he’d swung by the hospital, pretending it was merely his own perfectionism, a sense of professional pride, or at least generic heroic sensibility, which took him there, and had refined his work, making more permanent accommodations for her. Explaining to the doctors how to properly clean them, what the read-outs meant and how to do simple maintenance (but to call him if anything actually went wrong). Then, later, another rushed job after Hastur had visited her, followed by another round of refinement, all of it tapping a degree of medical knowledge and an understanding of surgery that’d humbled the professionals involved and whose origin he could not make out. He’d never studied medicine in any capacity beyond basic first aid, had never read the textbooks or anything like that. And it wasn’t like his gadgeteering, either, not really. The devices he’d made to keep her alive, including her current set, they were partially gadgets, yes. But his surgical skill, which had had the head surgeon of the hospital, one of the most decorated professionals of his craft, grumbling about how unfair powers were and how he wished he was so good, that was wholly his own, and yet he had no idea how or why.

Still, all that work… fixing her, putting her body back into (barely) working order, refining his work to make her more comfortable, more healthy, as much as that was possible… it had felt comfortable. Relaxing, familiar, like something he’d done so many times it had become routine.

It thoroughly creeped him out, as grateful as he may have been for the capability, because as far as he knew, the very first time he’d ever even performed first aid, much less surgery, had been after the fight against Snow Queen, when he’d saved Vasiliki’s life.

Still, of all the many things that haunted him about his condition – whatever it may actually be – that was one he could appreciate at least. It had helped him save her, in some small way.

Even now, looking at her, his eyes flickered left and right, reading the data on his devices’ readouts and the monitors of the equipment the hospital had provided (all of it cutting edge, courtesy of Mrs Fion again), and his heart sank. Massive organ failure. Slowly spreading brain damage, negligible now, but liable to mount and go out of control at any time, depending on how Dusu’s poison continued to work. The machines attached to her, his machines, were the only thing keeping her alive now, and even they would be insufficient soon enough.

”Basil…” Prisca whispered, barely audible with her lips barely moving.

He was by her bedside in an instant, not even noticing the distance he crossed as he pulled a chair closer and sat down as close to her as he could.

His hand reached for hers, the right one, on top of the blanket, after he took his gauntlet off. Her fingers were cold, and she didn’t have the strength to do more than lightly curl them, so he made up for it by gripping them as tightly as he dared.

”I am here,” he spoke, softly, his voice just slightly hoarse. Then he smiled, weakly, hoping she could somehow tell he did by the tone of his voice changing. “You knew I was coming.” His eyes flickered to the tablet he’d made for her, the one linked up to Eudocia, which Primrose now held in her expertly manicured hands, her long, red nails standing out starkly against the colourless metal. He looked back at Prisca.

“Of course… Eudocia told me… when you showed up… in front of the hospital,” she whispered, slightly turning her head towards him. “We were so very worried… when you left… Eudocia wouldn’t… tell me where you… went, but… she was worried, too.”

His eyes went up again, looking closer at Primrose. ‘We’, she says. But apart from Eudocia. So, her mother.

Primrose was always an interesting, painful sight to see, for him. So beautiful (twitch, twitch, balk), yet such a reminder of what Prisca might have been, should have been that it hurt to look at her. Classically gorgeous and just barely showing a little gray in her long red hair, he knew a lot of employees at the hospital always looked forward to her visits just to get a good look at her.

Now, though, she was clearly bereaved, her eyes showing a little red and her make-up barely hiding the palor of her skin. For her, for a woman as composed as Primrose Fion, this was the equivalent of another having shorn her hair short and scratched up her own face to show her grief.

And Prisca wasn’t even dead yet.

”I’ve known for a while, Basil,” she spoke softly, far more tenderly than she’d ever talked to him before (she hadn’t particularly liked him at first, though she’d never voiced her reasons or even actually put words to her antipathy to him, that he knew of. “Though I hadn’t told Prisca I’d figured it out until today.” She smirked, a little of her usual arrogance returning to her face. “I’m not stupid, you know? In fact, I am rather far on the right side of the bell curve, I dare say. My baby girl gets a boyfriend and then a hero who has no connection to this whatsoever happens to save her life not once, but twice? And keeps coming back to refine her life support? It wasn’t hard to connect the dots, especially after the second time.” Her smirk faded, and she lowered her eyes, looking at the tablet in her hands. “Now I know why you seemed to secretive and, at times, dishonest.”

Ah, that explains that, at least.

”For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I treated you so coldly,” she continued on, “and I’m grateful for all you’ve done for my baby.”

”Mo-om…” Prisca complained weakly.

Basil focused on her again.

“Basil… you did… something stupid, right?” she guessed, her voice grown hoarse, as if she was already straining it. “Eudocia… would not… have hidden it… from me… if it wasn’t… stupid.” She curled her fingers around his, again. “I’d… fall asleep… and smack you… for it, but… the docs’ say… I wouldn’t survive… falling asleep… again.”

He sighed, feeling the many weights on his shoulders. “I suppose it was. There is, no gentle way to say it. I found out where Dusu hides, so I gathered as many people as I could and went after her.”

All warmth fled the room, leaving only the sounds of the machines. Both the woman and the girl were listening, intently. Primrose was radiating a kind of hatred that made the Dark’s fury appear meager, her fingers curling so hard around the tablet’s edges, it groaned. Prisca… Prisca didn’t show any of the hate she usually did whenever Dusu came up, too weak to work herself up like that anymore.

”We got her,” he continued, just barely louder than a whisper. “She is with the United Heroes, now.”

Primrose drew in a sharp breath, a faint expression of hope on her face…

”You didn’t get a cure, though,” Prisca continued for him, her voice softer than a spring breeze. “Or at least it won’t be done in time. I can tell.”

He lowered his head, taking her hand with both of his and raising it to touch it to his forehead. “I am so sorry, Prisca. She never had a cure. Never could make one. The whole thing, it was her attempt at finding one. The poison, it was meant for her, to improve her body, to make her a pseudo-Adonis, but it failed and messed her up,” he spoke, the words tumbling out of him, unable to contain them any longer. “So she unleashed it on Hawaii hoping that someone else would find a cure that she could then co-opt for herself.” At some point along the speech, which felt like a confession to him, he started crying. He couldn’t bear to raise his eyes, to look at her mother’s face or, worse, at Prisca’s.

Her fingers curled around his as tightly as they could, weakly holding onto him as something escaped her throat.

It was a sound unlike any he could remember hearing, ever, and which he hoped he’d never, ever have to hear again. It was a sound of rage, of hatred; of grief and sadness. The sound of an old pain, never gone but scarred over, only to have it torn open again. The sound of a tearing heart, which reached out and into everyone who heard it, making their own hearts break out of sheer sympathy.

It was a sound Basil would remember for the rest of his life.

He held onto her hand as the sound continued, and was quickly joined by her mother who put the tablet onto the bed, near her legs, so she could take her daughter’s left hand into both of hers.

Basil didn’t know what to say, what to do. He had trouble carrying on normal conversations, often, nevermind this.

What could he say? There was no promise left to make that might ease her pain. No soothing words he could think of, no platitude to lessen the impact.

What could he do? He’d found Dusu, and it hadn’t helped. He’d done everything he could think of, short of trying to make a complete engram of her brainpatterns to later implant into a healthy body, but… even if that could solve this, there wasn’t the time to do it.

All he had left was to hope for a miracle, and even in an age of superpowers those were in extremely short supply at best.

”B-basil, I, I…” Prisca tried to speak, but had to break off, her voice too hoarse to continue. Her mother had to pick up a small cup with a straw, tilting it to let some water flow into Prisca’s mouth, before she could continue. “Basil, I, I love you,” she said, tears of salt and blood running down from the bandage around her eyes, and his heart broke a little more. “And, and, I don’t want you to b-blame your, yourself,” she continued. “Y-you did, you did all you, could. M-more than, than anyone could, ever expect of, of another, even, a boyfriend.” She turned her head towards him to smile weakly, her thin, pale lips – barely differentiated from the rest of her skin – stretching over her empty gums. “I l-l-love you and, and I hope, hope you’ll, you’ll find… the happiness, you deserve. D-don’t be, be too… sad, abo-“

He cut her off by pressing his lips to hers, softly, so very softly, his tears mixing with hers for a long, long moment.

”No,” he said softly. “I didn’t do more… than anyone could expect, because… I expected more of myself.”

She smiled again, while her mother just cried, lowering her head as she cradled her hand to her breast, her heart. “Silly… but that’s part of what… I love about you. One of the… many things.”

Basil had trouble seeing anything, had trouble breathing, but he forced the words out, anyway: “I love you, Prisca. I wish I could… put it into words, what you… mean to me, but words have never… been my strong suit. I love you, and I’m not going to give up for as long as I live. Not on you, not on anything.”

Her lips trembled and, for just a moment, her hand seemed to regain some strength, as she held onto his as tightly as possible, nearly cutting off the bloodflow to his digits.

The machines around them were starting to edge into red areas, warning signs starting up. Especially the brain monitor. It wasn’t going to be fast. It was going to be slow, and painful, and ugly, and they all knew it.

“P-please, g-g-go,” she croaked, voice thick with tears. “I, I, I don’t want you, to, to see-“

He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to watch, didn’t want to do nothing. Didn’t want to be there, didn’t want not to be there.

But he couldn’t choose, so he at least fulfilled her last wish.

He left.

***

He found himself back in his bedroom. Somehow, he’d managed to get from the hospital to his and Amy’s home while barely noticing it. Barely remembering to pull up his hood and hide his face.

Seeing how he’d been blind with tears the whole way, it was amazing he hadn’t run into anything or anyone, or been run over by something. Or maybe he had and he just didn’t remember.

He’d thrown his cloak onto his bed, and taken his lefthand gauntlet, the one with the variable force-field emitter off, holding it in his hands as he stared down at it. His ravenbot had flown off his shoulder and sat atop his computer screen, watching him with what might have been curiosity if it’d been an actual animal.

There was none of the numbness he’d hoped for. Even though people often talked about how they went numb when overwhelmed by tragedy, he felt none of that. There was no numbness, no deadening of his emotions, no relief.

He threw the gauntlet at the wall with all his strength, hard enough that it dug into it through the expensive wallpaper, becoming stuck.

What was even the point of that thing? What was the point of any of his inventions, his ideas, if none of them could even save the girl he loved?

He tore his armour off, bit by bit, even the boots, throwing them aside without a second thought. Tore off the top of his bodysuit, throwing it onto the bed to join his stupid, pretentious cloak.

Thought and memory my ass.

”I…” he began to talk to the empty room, but broke off. What could he even say? “I-“

There was a flash of red hair, a brief vision of a sweetly curved body in a private school uniform, and then her lips met his, her strong, soft arms wrapping around his neck.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close, pressing her body to his, feeling her softness and warmth as his other hand went to the back of her head, fingers intertwining with her hair, pulling her even closer, deepening the kiss.

When her lips parted and their tongues touched, all the worries and the sadness and the grief disappeared, leaving just her.

He clung to her like a drowning man, and she to him, mashing their lips together, their tongues dancing lovingly inside their mouths, from one to the other and back again, they-

She was gone, gone as fast as she’d appeared, and he was alone.

He staggered back a step, raising a hand up to touch his lips with two fingers.  Feeling the warmth. Still able to taste her.

Had she really been here? A last flash of her power, as she’d drifted off to her final sleep? A desperate hallucination of his? A random memory his broken mind had called up?

His computer’s screen lit up, pure white, showing only two words from Eudocia.

She’s gone.

His scream shook the house.

***

Somehow, at some point, he put on some clothes. A black shirt with some print on it, a gift from Dalia, black jeans and black socks. Dramatic, but somehow appropriate.

He’d thrown a jacket on over it and put on his shoes and just left. It was inadequate for the cold weather – it had started to snow, even – but he didn’t care. Somehow, he found his way to the park again, to the bench he’d talked with Magnus, what felt like a lifetime ago. The park was covered in snow, but was otherwise completely empty, save for himself and his raven.

He was still not numb. He wished he was, but he wasn’t.

He was hurt. Heartbroken. Grief-stricken. Pained. Tortured. Tormented. He could go on, think of more words. Everything, everything, except numb.

The only reason he hadn’t yet thrown up was because he hadn’t eaten a thing in over twenty-four hours.

And so he sat amidst the snow on the bench and watched the busy street in the distance, past the bare trunks and branches of the trees. Cars and pedestrians passing by, carelessly, carefree. Happily.

He saw children smile and point at Christmas ornaments in the store windows, or at toys they wanted (there was a toy shop right there in a straight line in front of him, on the other side of the street).

His raven’s programming had it fly over, landing on a branch near the street so it could watch over the people, looking for trouble.

Yet all he could think of was that Prisca wouldn’t get to enjoy a single Christmas with him. That she wouldn’t get to dress up in what she’d called a ‘slutty Santa dress’ and show off her perfect dream-body.

And one of the reasons why she wouldn’t was he. Because he hadn’t been good enough, in the end. He’d gone to bat, or at least he hoped he’d gone to bat, all out, and it had still not been enough.

God, I hope there really wasn’t anything more I could have done, a treacherous little voice spoke inside of him. If there was and I just didn’t do it…

He lowered his head, hot tears burning on his cold skin before they fell down to join the snow at his feet.

Time passed and Basil still did not feel numb.

Snow crunched underneath someone’s feet, and Basil turned his head, slowly, to the right. He saw their feet, first. Beautiful winter boots made of soft, brown leather, sporting hand-crafted stitching decorations and sensible, yet still distinctly noticable heels. Even if he hadn’t seen these boots before, he’d recognise the handiwork instantly.

Feeling his heart skip a beat, he slowly raised his head, up along the long legs in black stockings, the sensible, knee-length green skirt and the hand-made cream-coloured sweater under an expensive, thin winter jacket worn open. A pure red scarf (hand-made, of course) wrapped around her slender neck to protect it against the weather.

She also wore a handmade red wool bonnet with floppy ear covers from which two long tassels extended, and held Graymalkin in her arms, the heavy cat happily snuggling against her chest as she seemed completely unbothered by his prodigious weight.

Her eyes were red, as if from crying, making their green colour stand out even more.

”Vasiliki,” he said, his voice thick. It didn’t surprise him that she’d found him. They’d taken steps, long ago, to make sure each of them would be able to find the others, if need be. For him, it was done with his ravens, with transponders sewn into select articles of clothing. For Tyche, it was just following her gut, which usually worked out. Or so they’d thought. For Hecate, it was via samples of their blood, a little from each of them, contained and preserved within a jewel for each.

He expected her to glare at him, or accuse him or just shout at him, but instead she just took a step closer and looked at the bench.

Scooting over, he watched her sit down, her knees touching and tilted to the side. Graymalkin stretched after she put him down on her lap and got up, patting over onto Basil’s lap where he walked in a circle, then rubbed his face against Basil’s hand, once, before he curled up and went to sleep.

Basil looked down at his cat, petting him behind the ears, before he looked up at Vasiliki again.

Once more, he had no idea what to say.

Her eyes searched his face, for something. He couldn’t tell whether she found what she looked for.

”I’m so sorry, Basil,” she said, her voice thick. “Eudocia, she told me what happened. I came as soon as I could.”

He looked away, unable to meet that soulful gaze of hers. “It is over,” he said, lamely. He couldn’t say that it was alright, or anything like that. He didn’t want to.

”I wish we could’ve… that maybe,” she choked on the words, and he could hear renewed tears in her voice. “I tried to come up with some kind of healing spell, but nothing worked. Maybe, if w-“

”I thought you would be angry at me,” he cut her off, unable to bear listening to her say exactly what he himself was thinking. “I would have expected you to scream at me, not…”

”Angry at you,” she said in a neutral tone. “Of course I’m angry at you, you blockhead,” she continued, her voice both softer and harder at the same time. “More than you know.”

He kept his eyes averted. “I am sorry,” he said, feeling his stomach turn over and over. “I am sorry, but I could not betray her. Even if she may deserve it, I could not have turned against her, not even when I learned that she had killed your-“

”Is that really what you think I’m angry about?” she asked in a disbelieving, pained voice. “Do you really know me so little?” There was honest, true pain in her voice, like he’d just struck her.

He was so surprised he turned his head and looked at her, at the tears running down her cheeks and the wet eyes with the red veins running through them. Opening his mouth, he didn’t know what to say but tried…

“Did you really think I’d be angry at you for standing by your family?” she pressed on, not giving him the chance to say anything. “That I, of all people, would resent you for choosing your blood over the law?” Her hands clenched on her lap, digging into the soft, warm fabric of her skirt. “I really thought you knew me better, Basil.”

It was like a stab right into his heart, as the pieces fell into place, slowly but surely. Renewing his tears along the way.

”I’m angry because you didn’t tell me,” she snarled the words. “We’re… we’re teammates, we’re friends, we’re… We haven’t known each other for very long, I know that, just a few months, and yet it feels like I’ve known you for so long, and I thought you felt the same way.”

“I do,” he croaked, now unable to avert his eyes from hers.

”Somehow, in those few months, you’ve become… my best friend,” she said, softly. “More so than Dalia. Even more so than Stephie, and I’ve known her since I was five.” Her frame shook with a sob, as she briefly averted her eyes to take out a delicate handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it, before blowing her nose. Not that it helped much, as the tears were immediately replaced. “You’re my friend, you’re my brother, you’re m-“ She cut herself off, briefly, then started again. “I care for you,” she continued, though she seemed to have meant to say something else, at first. “And I trusted you. And I thought that you trusted me.”

”I should have,” he admitted, feeling another weight settle on his shoulders.

”But you didn’t,” she pressed on, rightfully accusing him. “You didn’t trust me. You didn’t trust me that I’d not do something stupid if you told me, or that I’d leave, or that I’d turn against you. You didn’t trust me and you left me to interact with my soi’s murderer! I laughed with her, I hugged her, I treated her to food in my family’s restaurant!” She all but screamed at him, her every word cutting into his heart like a red-hot knife. “That may seem silly to some, but it matters to me.”

She finally turned away, wiping tears away with her bare hand. “But you know what hurts the most? It’s realising that you never trusted me to begin with. And that, that’s what breaks my heart, above all and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t be putting this on you now, not when you just lost Prisca,” she bent over, burying her face in her hands. “You’ve gone through so much, and you’re a good person, a good hero, but I just can’t, can’t get over the fact that the boy I fell in love with lied to me the whole time we were together!”

He hadn’t thought he could possibly feel any worse anymore, but he’d been wrong. He hadn’t even thought of it like that. That he’d been betraying her trust – and she had told him everything about herself, had never held anything back whenever it had come up, and he’d…

Then her last sentence reached his brain and everything crashed.

Graymalkin opened his eyes and looked up at him, and somehow he seemed to understand something of what was going on, as he looked just infinitely annoyed at him.

”L-love?” he stammered, looking at her with wide eyes.

She looked right back, face flushed bright red. “I know this is absolutely not the time, but… really? You never noticed at all?” she asked, sounding simultaneously amused and heartbroken. “Why am I not surprised?”

He cast his mind back, through his memories, looking for any signs of it, any hints, anything…

”I never noticed… anything…” he admitted.

”Basil, I’d say something like ‘what does a girl have to do, rip off her clothes and dance naked in front of you?’ except I did that and you still didn’t get it.”

He thought back to that particular occasion.

”But… that was for an experiment… and you need to be naked to perform some of your rituals…”

“Basileus Bartholomew Balthasar Brant-Blake,” she spoke his full name with perfect pronounciation and in the most dry voice he’d ever heard as she rolled her eyes, “When a girl, any girl, willingly strips naked in front of you and dances, no matter the reason she admits to, and it’s not a life-threatening situation, then you can safely assume that she’s trying to express some interest in you!” By the end of it, her face was glowing brighter than the Dark’s eyes.

Basil leaned back on the bench, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly, as he looked down at Graymalkin to avoid looking at her.

”Oh,” was all he managed to say.

”Yeah, ‘oh’,” Vasiliki replied, leaning back as well and putting her hands down to her left and right, the fingers of one hand briefly brushing over his fingers. “Basil, you’re the smartest person I’ve ever met and I love you, but sometimes, you’re a fucking idiot.”

”…”

He stared down at his cat, feeling like said fucking idiot.

I’ve really fucked it up completely, haven’t I? he couldn’t help but think. I lost Prisca. I failed to save her, even after trying for so long, going so far. And I broke my best friend’s heart all along the way, as well.

”I’m such an idiot,” he said, letting the tears run.

She only gave an unrefined grunt in response.

They sat there like that, being snowed upon and ignoring the cold, their hands nearly touching on the bench, but not quite, as she stared off into the distance and he looked down at his cat, rubbing his ears and making him pur.

Suddenly, the quiet contemplation was interrupted by a sudden spike of pain in his head, making his hand shoot up from Graymalkin’s head to his own, as he barely bit down on a scream.

”Basil? Basil, what’s wrong?” Vasiliki asked, frantically. “Did something happen?” She looked around, frantically, as if expecting to find a threat.

Then she fell quiet, and Basil realised that the street beyond the park had gone entirely quiet.

Graymalkin on his lap had turned his head towards said street, looking at something there with feline disapproval.

He followed his cat’s gaze, slowly, until he saw the street, where everyone had stopped moving.

Cars stood in the middle of the street, some with their engines still running, as their drivers either leaned out of their windows or stood next to them, looking up in blank horror.

On the sidewalk, people had stopped doing what they’d been doing and stared up with matching expressions. A mother knelt in the snow, hugging her child and sobbing bitterly, as the little boy stared up without comprehension. Two girls around Basil’s and Vasiliki’s age were hugging each other, tears running down their cheeks as they, too looked up.

Everywhere he looked, the same scene repeated itself, over and over, until he saw it.

A strand of light, glowing softly, so white it made the fresh snow look dirty, its tip two meters or so above the ground.

Vasiliki’s hand found his, her fingers intertwining themselves with his and squeezing them, seeking comfort.

He followed the strand of light up, and up and up, as more strands joined it, becoming a single, impossibly long mass of glowing white hair, leading up to a pair of delicate feet with nails which glowed in the exact same colour. The feet led up to long, lovely, flawless legs, bare, that joined into a gentle V-shape at the top. Above that, a flat stomach and a pair of large, but not disproportionate breasts, leading to a swan-like, flawless neck. At her sides, long, delicate arms with fingers that looked like they’d been crafted to play the piano, long, delicate and smooth, tipped with glowing nails a few centimetre longer than usual.

Atop it all, a face so impossibly, unnaturally beautiful, it could have made artists cry for being unable to ever truly do it justice, were it not marred by an utter lack of expression, her lips slightly parted open, her eyes blazing white, uncaringly, seeming to look at no one and nothing at all. Even her eyebrows were sculpted to perfection, and glowed as if they were made of light.

Snowflakes fell around and onto her, but none of them reached her skin, nor were they melted by any body heat; rather, they slid down her form, stirred by the cold wind to dance around her as they fell, creating a gorgeous dress, as ephemeral as a dream and just as beautiful.

The pain in Basil’s head intensified as above, light spread across the sky, slowly branching down towards the ground in the distance, the branches broadening to fill out and cover the heavens entirely.

Bree Whitaker’s, Desolation-in-Light’s, blazing eyes swept over Basil and Vasiliki and he knew for a fact that they saw neither of them.

Basil squeezed Vasiliki’s hand back.

Finally, he felt numb.

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B13.19 Call of the Sleeper

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Gloom Glimmer’s power drew them together above the floating city, as the ribbons of distorted space intertwined around them, creating something of a shell that they all sat within.

She’d grabbed everyone who’d been in that room, other than the Dark himself, Immanuel and Syrinx. Even Dusu was there with them, looking down at the floating city in shock.

Basil didn’t even have the energy left to feel disgust or hatred, or even satisfaction at seeing the grin wiped off her face – though he’d enjoyed seeing Hecate beat on the woman a bit – as he leaned back against the odd ‘wall’ of the capsule they found themselves in.

Amy was with him, her head on his lap and groaning as she came out of the daze caused by whatever drug Immanuel had injected her with. She was still far from lucid, but at least he was pretty sure it wasn’t anything that’d cause lasting damage.

The others weren’t in much better state. Gloom Glimmer was crouched over Polymnia, who’d taken a worse beating than he’d thought at first, slowly healing her mangled arm as the young gadgeteer sniffled, trying not to cry anymore. They’d taken her armour off, leaving her only in her spandex shorts and top, and her armoured boots, while Gloom Glimmer also fixed multiple bruises across her exposed skin.

Tartsche and Spellgun were huddled together, with the latter all but sitting atop the former’s lap, looking through a pair of copper binoculars at the battle going on below.

Bakeneko was hugging Osore, shuddering and sobbing, while her boyfriend showed all the emotional range of a rock, even though Basil was quite certain he had recovered fully by now – if his regeneration worked off of feeding on fear, like the rest of his powers, then he’d certainly gotten more than enough energy to work with by now.

Tyche had paired up with Hecate, hugging her knees to her chest as she leaned into Hecate’s side, while the witch was stroking her hair with one hand and staring into the distance – or maybe she was looking at something, but he couldn’t tell what.

He looked away from her, with an odd, painful feeling in his gut.

The only one who seemed comfortable was Graymalkin, who’d reclaimed his resting place atop Amy’s breasts, curling up and yawning before he closed his eyes. The thought of how she’d freak out once she woke up and saw that almost brought a smile to his face, before he was reminded of… well, everything else, and that smile got squashed like a bug; so instead, he focused on the scenery below instead.

Though they were pretty high up, he could still make out details by using his visor’s zoom function.

The Companions’ floating city had turned into utter Bedlam. The Dark’s wraiths were everywhere, hundreds, thousands of them. Most of them were the small ones he tended to produce en masse, skeletal humanoid torsos with blank, six-exed faces, emaciated, clawed arms and no real lower body as they crawled across the floor, simply melting into darkness where their hips should be and below, said darkness forming an almost serpentine shape, if a rather short one compared to the rest of them.

They were his weakest creations, and they went down by the dozens, crushed, torn, penetrated and otherwise relatively easily destroyed by the many, many powers the fifty or so metahumans of the Companions’ brought to bear, being only a little tougher – if at all – than normal humans.

Even so, their sheer numbers more than made up for it, and Basil watched with rather clinical curiosity as half a dozen of them managed to break through to Boltstar and literally pull his limbs off, before one used his own leg to bash his head in.

Chronicle either couldn’t or wouldn’t rewind him, and then his corpse was obliterated along with the wraiths when one of the newcomers unleashed a spherical, orange explosion that disintegrated both them and the ground beneath.

Everywhere he looked, the carnage continued. Fifty metahumans, none of them lightweights judging by what he’d seen of the Gefährten so far, and yet for all their power and numbers, they might as well only have been an annoyance to the Dark.

For the first time, Basil really understood how he could still stand at the top.

The wraiths moved in waves, surging against the villains, and every time they did, they whittled them down a little more, breaking up their formations, taking down one or two – even if they didn’t stay down.

Basil could see Immanuel, standing in a circle of white light maintained by a nude woman with strips of some kind of white fabric instead of hair, along with a man covered head to toe in crystal shards that seemed to have either been jammed into him or grown out of his body and another man in a golden robe, holding a set of scales in one hand and a crystal ball in the other. He was clearly giving out instructions, speaking to his companions (at least one of whom likely transmitted them), coordinating his troops. Chronicle was there, as well, clutching her book to her chest, shoulders hunched and apparently frantically using her power, over and over, continuously rewinding any one of her people who was killed or crippled, whenever she managed to get her eyes on them.

The Gefährten had the advantage of numbers and sheer power, with at least fifty different metahumans, but they just couldn’t seem to break through the Darkwraiths in force, and every time they exchanged blows, every time they broke another wave of wraiths on their defenses, they lost one or two more, sometimes permanently, and their formations kept being pulled apart, separating them.

Meanwhile, the Dark just kept spawning more wraiths, replacing his lost ones, buying time for the greater ones to return to him and be… repaired? Recharged? Basil wasn’t sure how it worked, but he was healing those with actual powers of their own, while sacrificing the mindless crawlers and some larger, sturdier, but still powerless brutes.

In spite of the mad rush of his creations, the Dark himself seemed calm again, coordinating the battle and clearly pursuing a strategy of dividing and then obliterating his enemies; and it was working.

The King of Supervillains towered above the carnage around him, standing tall as more and more wraiths poured forth from the darkness at his feet. His head didn’t move to track the battle around him, not that he needed to – it was pretty well-known that he shared his wraiths’ senses – and he only moved when someone managed to break through his wraiths’ lines to attack him directly, countering whatever they threw at him with contemptuous ease.

A murder of crows dove down at him, pulling together into the form of Karasuha as she brought her sword down upon the Dark’s head, but he simply caught the blade, arresting her entire drop, and reached up with his left hand, grabbing her head and smashing it down on the ground to hard it burst like a melon. Before he even rose up, he flipped her sword around to grab it by the hilt and beheaded a man in a cheetah costume who’d rushed up to him with unnatural speed.

Karasuha’s form flicked and she was returned to life, her sword back in her hands, but the Dark simply brought his now empty hand down in a motion reminiscent of a karate chop.

Her body flickered and was replaced by another, a huge mountain of a man – though he was still shorter than the Dark – with his arms raised and crossed, ready to take the blow.

The ‘chop’ simply cleaved through him, through his crossed forearms, through his head, his torso, his loins, splitting him in half.

And it wasn’t just the Dark himself who perpetuated the slaughter. There were other wraiths, greater ones. Each with unique variations to their appearance, they were fighting the Companions with their own powers – Basil counted eighteen of these unique wraiths, and each one was at least equal to any two of the Companions’ villains.

“Hey, Gloomy, didn’t your power say that Immanuel was more dangerous than the Dark?” Melody asked, her voice sounding much more steady and  calm than she looked. “Because he’s totally kicking everyone’s ass – and giving me enough nightmare fuel to last a lifetime,” she concluded as they watched one particularly brutal scene where a wraith unraveled into scores of thin black tendrils, which stabbed forth into an enemy’s body, then tore him to pieces, pulling him apart from the inside out.

Most everyone looked away from the gruesome sight.

”It did,” Gloom Glimmer replied in a subdued voice, looking down at the battle, her expression saddened. “It still does, in fact.”

”It occurs to me,” Basil interjected, making both girls and some of the others look at him, though he kept looking straight down, “That perhaps your power is judging how dangerous they are to you, personally, not how dangerous they are in general. I find it hard to believe that the Dark is that big a threat to his own daughter.”

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, then nodded.

“Dunno about you guys, but I’m plenty glad he’s dangerous right about now,” Tyche mumbled, barely audible since half her face was pressed against Hecate’s collarbone.

“A-fucking-men,” Spellgun agreed with her.

”Gloom Glimmer, please take us home,” Tartsche spoke up. “There’s nothing left to do here.”

”Hey hey!” Dusu spoke up in protest. “The f-“

Spellgun shot her in the face, knocking her out.

The Dark’s daughter looked down at the fight. “But…”

“Irene, the best we could hope for if we got involved in that would be to not be used against him by his enemies,” her team’s leader spoke softly. “Even you aren’t strong enough to help him, not against such an enemy.”

She didn’t look at him, didn’t look away from her father, but she nodded. “Ok,” came a soft whisper, and then the capsule they were in began to move, seemlessly. There was no feeling of acceleration, no G-Forces pressing them flat against the ‘walls’ – they simply accelerated, instantly, to such a speed that their surroundings became a blur. “It will take a few minutes to get there,” Gloom Glimmer explained as she finished fixing Polymnia up. “Does anyone else need healing, while I still have it?”

Basil leaned back as Gloom Glimmer went around fixing the last remaining bruises and other wounds they’d accumulated in their short – and very one-sided – fight against Immanuel.

He noticed that Hecate had turned her head, her hood now pointed towards him, looking at… Amy’s head on his lap, his hand stroking her hair as she slowly recovered.

”I am sorry,” he said quietly, so quietly the junior heroes were unlikely to hear it.

She turned away.

They kept moving without actually moving, until Gloom Glimmer walked up to him and Amy – the two of them sat a little apart from the rest – and squatted in front of them.

Basil looked at her face, trying to decipher her expression, but she just seemed calm to him.

“I’ll fix her up, if you don’t mind,” she spoke softly.

He nodded and took his hand off Amy’s hair, while Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her glowing palm onto the villainess’ forehead. Unfortunately, this also caused Graymalkin to snarl at her and leap off his resting place stalking off with the kind of offended aura only a cat could project.

After a few moments, Amy’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in pain. “Ugh… my head… princess? Basil? What’s going on?” She looked at the two of them in confusion, yet still calm.

”We are safe,” Basil said, to head off a freakout. “Gloom Glimmer brought her father and then took us away. He is tearing the Gefährten up now.”

”Wu-what?” she stammered, shocked. “The boss is here? I’ve got to help him!” She shot up, using her power to stand up near-instantly, but Basil grabbed her by the wrist.

”I do not think that he needs any help,” he spoke calmly. “Plus, he seemed really angry at Immanuel… way beyond what I would expect, even in this situation.” He looked at Gloom Glimmer, as did everyone else in the capsule, all with the same question on their minds.

What the hell could piss the Dark off that much?

Gloom Glimmer sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve never heard of Immanuel before, and Daddy never mentioned anyone he hated that much to me before,” she explained, her voice betraying just a hint of a whine towards the end.

”Well, that’s a mystery then,” Amy quipped as she brushed her hand over Basil’s helmet’s top, a brief gesture of affection. “Still, he’s my boss and I should be there. You brats are safe now and I’ve got to make up for going down like an amateur twice now.”

She looked down at Basil, and their eyes met. He nodded, and she smiled. “Let me out, princess,” she said, using the nickname without any bite to it.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged and the capsule stopped its movements above the sea, the water stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction.

”Alright, see you later, Basil. Princess. Brats,” Amy said, looking at all of them, before she dropped through the floor, reangled herself in mid-air and then shot away so violently, she distorted the air around herself, though they heard nothing of it inside the strange capsule Gloom Glimmer had created.

They moved on again.

Basil looked away, briefly, then looked back at Gloom Glimmer, who was still sitting on her haunches in front of him and studying him, as if she could see through his mask.

She probably can.

“I know it sucks,” she said softly, making him look up at those unnaturally blue, warm eyes. “Family’s family but Wrong’s wrong, too and how’re we supposed to do the right thing there?”

He smiled weakly. “A catch-twenty-two if I ever heard of one.”

She smiled back. “Yeah. Look, I know we barely know each other, and this is obviously quite private and all, but… if you need someone to talk about it… you can talk to me. I understand, and I won’t judge. Just, uh, just wanted to say that,” she spoke, sounding insecure again as she blushed a bit and averted her eyes.

”I will keep that in mind,” He lowered his eyes as well, feeling strangely humbled by the offer. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed, and then she did something he absolutely didn’t expect – Gloom Glimmer leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, her lips and jaw going through his helmet like it wasn’t even there.

Her lips were warm and soft on his skin and felt a great deal of tension melt off at the simple gesture.

She leaned back again, far too soon. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find the cure. I… maybe we can find some other way to help Prisca.”

”Yeah, maybe…” He couldn’t bring himself to agree, not really, and looked away.

Gloom Glimmer didn’t press the point and walked back to join Polymnia, who wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders and pulled her head to rest against her shoulder.

Minutes passed, minutes during which Basil found himself unable to really focus on anything. There was just too much on his mind. Worry for Amy. Vasiliki’s reaction to the truth about his sister. Dalia’s own tragedy. Dusu. The Gefährten. The Sleeper. The constant presence of his power at the back of his mind, coming up with fragments of ideas even now, for him to try and assemble into a cohesive whole. Prisca.

He looked at Dusu’s passed out form. Just how am I going to explain this to her? To her mother? That it was all so…

Pointless.

He might have continued to wallow in his misery, had Tartsche not gotten up and moved over, stopping just a step away from him, his arms crossed as he looked down on him.

“I believe you promised me and the others some answers, Brennus,” he said in his usual calm, firm tones. “Much as I understand that you just took some major blows, I think it’s best we get this over with before we get back to New Lennston and I have to make a choice about how to proceed.”

Behind him, Tyche frowned and leaned forward, as if to get up, but Hecate pulled her back by the arm wrapped around her shoulders, while her other hand remained on Graymalkin’s back – at some point, he’d crawled onto her lap and curled up there.

The others all turned to look at Basil and Tartsche, as well.

“By ‘how to proceed’ you mean ‘whether or not to immediately tell Amazon and the UH in general’ about Mindstar’s and my relationship and our identities’,” he stated with neither rancor nor bitterness in his voice. It was just a fact.

Tartsche didn’t even look abashed or anything. “Exactly. This is too big, really. Mindstar’s a wanted criminal, and not a smalltime crook, either – having one of the Five blow her secret identity like that, that’s the kind of thing I’d normally tell them instantly. But,” he temporised, “I am willing to hear you out, first. Not just about you and her, but also about whatever the fuck,” he spoke the swearword like a gunshot, hard and fast, making nearly everyone jump where they sat, and Graymalkin throw him an annoyed look, “happened when Osore nailed you with his power.”

He turned his head and looked at the Japanese hero. “By the way, not cool, even if you knew what was going to happen,” he admonished him, then raised a hand to cut off any reply, “I know it saved our butts. Just saying.”

Turning back to face Basil, his mouth and jaw – the only part of his face currently visible, as he’d removed his helmet’s mouth guard – were set in a severe frown. “So, are you going to tell us what the fuck,” he made everyone jump again with the force of the expletive, “is going on? And before you say anything like that it’s private or that we’re better off not knowing or any of that crap, you owe us the truth, after all this,” he finished with a firm glare.

Basil met it without flinching, though at that point, that was simply because he was too worn out to react much, not because of any amount of fortitude on his part. “I do not have any secrets left, at this point,” he replied, looking over at Hecate. “Ask and I shall answer to the best of my knowledge.”

”Who are you, really?” Tartsche asked, straight up.

“I do not know,” Basil replied calmly, looking at no one in particular. “I thought I knew, but I have found that all my memories previous to about three, maybe four years ago are entirely fake. So are Amy’s, for that matter.”

He heard a few gasps, but didn’t bother to look at anyone to gauge their reaction.

”Three and a half years ago,” Bakeneko spoke up in a small voice. “That’s when we first met in middle school.”

“Wait, you know him?” Spellgun asked, startled.

Basil didn’t see it, but he was pretty sure Bakeneko was shrinking into herself at being the focus of attention all of a sudden.

“Y-yeah. We’ve been friends for… years. Though I, I didn’t know he was… Brennus… until recently,” she admitted in a near-whisper. “I didn’t know Amy was a villain, though… It just doesn’t seem to fit… I mean, she’s kind of… really weird, and a huge perv and totally overprotective and she always knows more than she should and… actually, it totally makes sense now.”

”Mindstar’s memory’s are fake, too?” Tartsche pressed on, focusing on the core of the matter. “Are you sure she’s not faking it? Making you think she’s your sister while suppressing your memories…” He seemed pretty uncomfortable bringing that last point up, but did it anyway.

Basil twitched, briefly, tempted to lash out at him for the mere suggestion, but…

”I have considered that,” he admitted, and a part of him felt like a traitor for doing so. “But I have dismissed it for several reasons. One being that she would have to be vastly more powerful than she has ever shown herself to be. Another the fact that…” he frowned, trying to figure out how to put it. “It is more of a gut feeling, really. But I know that she is my sister, even if we can not even remember our parents.”

He didn’t seem happy with that, but didn’t get push the point.

“There’s no way in heaven or hell my dad doesn’t know about that,” Gloom Glimmer stated firmly. “Not if it affects one of his Five.”

“You sure?” Tyche asked her, while her eyes remained on Basil.

”My dad’s the most nosey person on the whole planet,” the man’s own daughter stated with perfect conviction. “I’ll bet you anything he knows and hasn’t told anyone because he thinks it’s funny or something.”

“You really think he’d take such a risk with one of his Five, just for his own amusement?” Hecate asked in a disbelieving voice.

”Absolutely,” both Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia replied instantly and in perfect synch.

They gave everyone a few moments to digest that, before Polymnia spoke up next.

“What about your reaction to Osore’s power?” she asked through her vocoder, her eyes on Basil.

He sighed. “I have no freaking idea whatsoever,” he replied. “It has only ever happened when Osore used his power on me. Not even when I was in a life-threatening situation, like when Hastur had me in her clutches. I do not remember at all what happened during either episode, though I at least have a recording of this last one,” he explained, reaching up to stroke the head of his sole remaining ravenbot.

”No idea at all?” Tartsche asked.

Basil frowned. “Well… there is one… but is less of an answer and more of… another question. A whole host of questions, in fact,” he amended his earlier statement. “I may be connected to someone named Macian, somehow. At least, I found a journal written by him, amongst my things and I sometimes have memories of being another person, someone who’s also a gadgeteer.” Plus at least two distinct personalities in my head, other than my own.

“This is unbelievably fucked up,” Tartsche replied after a minute or so of just staring at him.

For just a moment, Basil felt a manic grin spread on his face as he looked up at the armoured boy. “Try living with it.”

Tartsche shuddered. “No thank you,” he said, finally. “Well, this was… not at all informative.” He looked around at the others, before focusing on Basil once more. “I’m sorry, but considering the situation, and what we know about your sister – if she even is your sister – and… everything… I can’t possibly justify not raising every alarm I can as soon as we’re back.” He groaned, reaching up to pinch his nose, only to remember he was still wearing his helmet. “Hell, I should probably take you into protective custody – or something – straight away, but I have the feeling that wouldn’t work out too well, considering what you did to the Skulls’ group.” He gave a side-long glance to Gloom Glimmer and Bakeneko. “Nevermind that I can’t be entirely sure whether all my teammates will support me on such a course of action.”

Both girls blushed and averted their eyes.

Basil raised a finger. “I know it is not exactly the smartest thing to do, but let me remind you that I have only ever been able to perform on that level after being affected by Osore’s power, so unless he shoots me again, you will not have to worry about that,” he corrected him.

Hecate palmed her own forehead.

With a chuckle, Tartsche responded, “Yeah, I’m not that slow. Still…” he put his hands on his hips, tapping his foot… which didn’t actually generate any sound, since there wasn’t actually any floor to tap it on. “Are you going to come in willingly? I know it’s an extremely shitty situation and all, but it’d help a lot, and ease a lot of worries, if you just came in and explained yourself.” He sighed, lowering his head. “The United Heroes are good people. And Amazon’s real fond of you. I’m sure we can work this all out.”

He looked up at the slightly older hero, then down again. Then at Hecate and Tyche, before he looked at his raven again. “I… do not regret what I have done today,” he said first. “Not the attempt to get into the base, not revealing myself or the risks I took. I only regret that it was not enough, and wish I could have done more, gone further…” He stopped, looking down again. “I will not run from it. But I will go and give Prisca the news myself, before anything else.” He looked up at Tartsche, locking eyes with him even through their masks. “You can make your report, meanwhile. Bakeneko knows where I live, and where my lab is,” he turned to look at his shapeshifting friend, “and she has my permission to share. You’ll find me… afterwards.”

”Alright,” Tartsche replied, turning his head away. “I believe you. And… I’m sorry.” There was a world of emotion behind those last two words.

“Thank you, Tartsche,” Basil replied, and took his helmet off, looking up at him with a tired expression on his face. “You went… above and beyond what anyone could expect of you, for the sake of strangers, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. You and all the others.” He looked around at the other teens, some of whom, at least, met his eyes.

Tartsche took a step away, then stopped. “You’re wrong, you know?” he spoke softly, making Basil focus on him again. “I expected more of myself.”

With that, he sat down next to his boyfriend again and fell quiet.

***

The rest of the journey passed in silence and they arrived in New Lennston, where Gloom Glimmer first dropped Basil, at his request, off in front of the hospital, before moving on to take care of the rest.

He didn’t know what Hecate or Tyche were going to do, but he had to prioritise somehow, and neither of them was dying right then.

Standing in front of the hospital, having appeared basically out of nowhere, he drew a great many surprised looks, in large part because he hadn’t bothered to put on his helmet, his drawn-up hood the only protection for his identity. Not that he really cared at this point.

He ignored the stares and walked into the hospital, ignoring the two armed security guards at the front entrance and simply breezing past the reception – he more than knew his way by now.

Walking through the hallways, ignoring every attempt to stop him or talk to him, he wondered whether he should’ve gone through with the idea of dragging Dusu in here and presenting her to Prisca and her family, but he’d dismissed it, and not just because he doubted that Tartsche would allow it – he didn’t want something like Dusu to spoil Prisca and her family’s final days together.

If she even had days left.

Oh God, I hope she isn’t already dead…

He could call Eudocia, ask. He hadn’t even thought to contact her.

Too late now. I’ll know soon enough.

He took the stairs up, eschewing the elevators – if he had to stand still for however many seconds it took them to go up, he’d explode.

Taking the stairs three steps at a time, he quickly reached the fourth floor and entered the intensive long-term care wing.

There, in front of Prisca’s room, sat several people on some chairs, while being watched over by multiple professional bodyguards in expensive suits – suits which, to Basil’s eye, showed modifications for combat and hiding weaponry.

As soon as he entered, the men whirled around at a sign from the one who’d been facing the door, drawing their weapons on him.

He ignored them and just moved on.

Beyond the bodyguards, a startled young woman rose up, and his heart both clenched and relaxed at the same time, though he showed none of it on his face.

Rosalie Fion took heavily after her mother, just as Prisca should have, and basically looked a lot like Gilgul, though older, being in her early twenties, and a little more lithe and a little less… top-heavy. She was wearing a simple, dark red dress that reached her knees, black stockings underneath and her rich red hair loose. She only wore a little make-up on her finely featured face and was currently busy staring at him, her mouth open.

That she was there, it meant that Prisca was still alive. She would have been inside the room if she was dying, and she would be mourning if she was dead. But that she was here also meant that there wasn’t much time left.

”B-basil? You… you’re…” She stammered, staring at him with wide green eyes the exact same shade as Prisca’s had once been.

He nodded to her as the guards stepped between him and the door (and Rosalie), though they seemed less openly combative now, as he seemed to be known.

Still, they were in his way, so he glared at them, briefly.

The first two men nearly fell over as they staggered aside, while the three behind took a startled step back, and he used the distraction to breeze past them, briefly nodding to Rosalie – and getting a nod in return – as he walked up to the door and, without bothering to knock, opened it and stepped through.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then find a non-biological solution!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stasis.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And down…

And down…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

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

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

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

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

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

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

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

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

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

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

It needs to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That you had died…”

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

“That I would never get my chance…”

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

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

“To kill you myself…”

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

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

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

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

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

And then the Dark went to War.

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