14.6 Breaking Point

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Lady Light’s glowing form slammed into a growing stone-form that’d begun literally growing out of thin air around DiL, to the size of a five-story building in an instant, and disintegrated the whole thing in a blaze of light.

In the back of Basil’s calmed mind, he felt a short ache, as DiL changed her powers moments after assuming them, only to do so yet again when Lady Light disrupted her new abilities, before Basil could even see anything.

”Did you know your mother could do that?” he asked Gloom Glimmer, referring to that massive wave of light.

She took a step back from him, her cheeks red with tears and warmth, brushing her hair back behind her ears. “No. Yes. Kind of?” she temporized, seeming off-kilter. “In theory. I know she can, but I’ve never seen her do it, and it’s really risky to use it like thi-“ She realised she was babbling and clamped her mouth shut, her teeth making a sharp ‘click’.

Basil smiled at her, trying to be reassuring, even as his mind fired on all cylinders.

He really felt way too good. Prisca’s death, his failure, Amy, his memory… it was all still there, but for the first time he could remember, he felt like he could deal with all of that.

He also knew that this wasn’t how her aura was supposed to work. It bolstered those aligned with her, while weakening those which were opposed, but he’d never heard of it having this profound an effect on someone… another power interaction, perhaps?

Something to look into – if Lady Light, of all people, couldn’t help him solve his issues, then no one could. Especially if the theory he was building in regards to her power was correct.

Gloom Glimmer leaned in closer, looking concerned, as if trying to look deeper into him. Maybe she literally was, who knew? “Are you… are you still… you? You seem… different. From usual. And from… that time Osore hit you… too.”

”Mmmhm. Yeah. Your mother’s aura is having the oddest effect on me. Like the opposite of what your sister’s aura was doing to me, only even more so.” He chuckled in a way he’d never do, normally. Carefree. “I can not even remember the last time I felt so… light.”

He turned his head away, looking out over the rooftops. “Anyway, we should go to Hecate and Polymnia. Join up and figure out what to do.”

”Y-yeah.”

”Do I need to carry you?” he asked her, turning back to look at her again as she walked up to stand by his side.

She blushed again. “N-no. Thank you. I don’t have much power, right now, but I can still hop some roofs.” As if to underline that, she took off, running and leaping over the gap between their and the next house’s roof, moving as nimbly as any parkour runner.

He looked after her, blinking in surprise; then he shrugged and followed her.

***

They reached Polymnia and Hecate – both fortunately alive and well – within a minute.

Before anyone could say anything, Gloom Glimmer all but jumped at her friend, who equally rushed towards her, and they embraced each other so tightly, Polymnia actually lifted Gloom Glimmer off her feet (she was taller than her while in armor).

Basil joined Hecate while the two girl friends exchanged quick words, clearly intensely relieved that the other one was still alright.

”Hey,” Hecate greeted him again, giving him a brief hug. He wanted to hug her back, properly, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t be quite comfortable with that right then, so he just gave her a one-armed squeeze. “How’s…” She trailed off, her eyes flicking from him to the other two girls.

”Much better,” he replied, releasing the breath he’d held. “Lady Light’s aura is lessening the effect, if not countering it outright.”

”Oh. That’s good,” she sighed, relieved. “So, no more nosebleeding?”

He tilted his head to the side. “I should have thought of checking that,” he said after a brief delay and took his mask off again.

“Let me,” Hecate interrupted him when he began to reach up, pulling a delicate green handkerchief from her bag. Spitting on it, she rubbed at his upper lip, nose and chin. “Just some dried blood,” she told him, while he held still, having experienced one of Vasiliki’s little ‘cleansings’ before, and learned that it was futile to resist. “Seems like the bleeding has stopped, yeah.” She smiled in relief, pulling her hand back and showing him the dark stains on it.

”Thank you. That is a relief,” he replied. DiL changed her powers again, halfway through the reply, and he sent another signal through the device the Dark gave him.

”You’re different,” she observed, her eyes hidden underneath the enchanted shadows of her hood. “Is everything… I mean, are you still… you?” She sounded afraid as she asked, though he couldn’t tell whether she was afraid he might be someone else, or that she might offend or anger him by asking, or both.

”I am pretty sure I am,” he tried to assuade her, smiling to take the tension out of it as much as he could. “It is not like I have recovered any memory that is missing, but… my head seems clearer.” He turned said head to look at the distant battle. Lights were flashing, and he was pretty sure that Lady Light was wielding a glowing sword the size of a schoolbus, using it to literally slice DiL’s current defense apart – some manner of fractals in the air, visible only by how they were distorting light around them, rather than due to reflecting it directly.

A dull ache announced another change in powers, and Lady Light reacted faster than Basil could press the button, letting that huge blade dissolve into light and reforming it into something too small to make out at this distance.

”Yeah, her aura is… I mean… wow. I didn’t know she could crank it up like this,” Hecate replied, whispering in awe. “She must be covering the entire area inside the Desolation Field.”

Another dull ache, a second after whatever Lady Light used now impacted some kind of distorted shadow inbetween her and DiL, dispersing it with a massive, yet silent shockwave.

“I don’t know how long she can keep it up, though,” Gloom Glimmer interjected, stepping closer to them, her right hand clasping Polymnia’s left, tightly. “She must be burning the candle on both ends to get this kind of output, and I… I don’t know why she’d be so reckless, this time.” She looked quite troubled.

“Maybe because you’re here,” Polymnia suggested, her voice soothing. “She launched that wave the moment you were in danger of actually being hurt, didn’t she?”

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders slumped, along with her head.

Before anyone could follow up on that, they were interrupted by static crackle from Memento’s communication devices.

To all those who are still able to fight,the Dark’s multi-layered voice spoke to them, made even stranger than usual by coming from multiple speakers at once. We are preparing a significant attack on DiL. Lady Light is going to buy us the time we need to do so. Until you are given the signal to attack, conserve your strength, take care of each other and prepare yourselves.

“This is Rounds speaking,” the leader of the New Lennston United Heroes followed up, sounding winded, but still determined. “I concur with the Dark’s plan. Everyone, take care of yourselves and each other. Stand strong and don’t give up hope.”

“An attack…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her gaze still focused downwards, mostly at her feet. “I’ve never heard him phrase any move against Bree like that,” she elaborated, when the others looked curiously at her, though she didn’t raise her head. “Could he actually have a plan to… get at her?”

Her voice was thick with a mess of emotions Basil couldn’t even begin to decipher. Though he was pretty certain guilt factored in.

He’d become all too familiar with guilt, lately.

”But, what could… how… she’s untouchable!” Hecate protested.

”Hanabi was able to affect her, during the Okinawa fight,” Basil interjected. “And no one has heard from him, since. It might be that he’s been preparing some kind of weapon, maybe even a Magnum Opus.”

”That sounds like something Dad would do,” Gloom Glimmer agreed. “Track him or her down and whisk them away to prepare for this.”

They all took a moment to digest that, the only motion between them being Basil’s fingers when he signaled another change of powers.

”Wow.” The simple whisper was all that Hecate seemed able to say, in response.

“That’s… really amazing, really… but what do we do?” Polymnia asked, her right hand’s fingers tapping out the words while her eyes were on Gloom Glimmer, her expression concerned. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but apart from Gloomy, we’ve all been pretty useless so far, and she’s out of power for now. Or nearly so.”

Hecate took a deep breath, holding her staff close to her chest with both hands, as her hood briefly twitched towards Basil, before focusing on the other girls instead. “I think… we should just, try to protect people. Get them out harm’s way, wherever we can. Search and rescue.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was doing before. Rounds has all the juniors – except Gloomy – on Search and Rescue. Not that I wouldn’t do it anyway, I’m pretty good at it. Tracking people via sounds and all, I can do that, and I have the strength to carry them to safety,” Polymnia just kept speaking, until she suddenly stopped, blushing when she realised she’d started rambling.

Hecate nodded, straightening up a bit. “Alright, let’s-“

”Someone is coming,” Basil interjected, a mere moment before a blur rushed up onto the roof and crossed over to them so quickly none had a chance to react, before it slowed down and stopped.

”Yo, glad  to see you’re still alive!” Outstep greeted them, his grin visible as he wasn’t wearing his usual racer-inspired helmet, instead donning a red-tinted visor covering the upper half of his face. “I’m running high-speed evac to the medical station, who needs a trip?”

“We’re all fine, thank you,” Polymnia replied, looking him over. “Glad to see you’re still alive… I think.”

”Aw, come on now, Jugs,” he grinned, blurring over to her right side, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, “We both know you’d be inconsolable if I actually croaked off.”

She turned her head, looking at him with a saccharine smile. “Call me ‘Jugs’ again and I’ll liquefy your balls from the inside out,” she spoke in her usual, chipper tone of voice.

He stepped back from her, raising his arms as if in surrender. “Alright, alright.” He looked them all over again, still smirking. “So, anyone need some rapid transit, if not medical evac?”

They all shook their heads, even Gloom Glimmer.

”A-are you sure?” Hecate asked her. “Polymnia said you’re almost out of power…”

Outsteps gaze snapped over to his dark-haired teammate. “That true, princess?”

She gave him an annoyed look – a glare, almost – and Basil was actually surprised he didn’t physically feel the temperature drop between them.

”I’m fine,” she all but snarled. “Got two new powers already. I’m good to go.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he replied, deadpan. “But seriously, if you need a timeout, tell me. You ain’t no use to anyone if you get yourself killed by your mass-murderin’ sissy. Nevermind what your dad will do to me if he thinks me the least bit responsible for it.”

Gloom Glimmer’s left eye twitched when he mentioned her sister, but she just turned away from him. “I’m staying, as are the others. So go help someone who actually needs your help, Outstep.”

He shrugged, looking them all over one more time. “Alright. God be with you, Gearhead, Witchgirl, Princess, Jugs.” He turned into a blur and rushed down from the rooftop, before anyone could react.

“He’s such an asshole,” Polymnia complained quietly.

”He kind of reminds me of some of my relatives,” Hecate whispered, lowering her head. “One of my uncles and his sons are pretty much all like that.” She sighed.

Basil put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Your family is way too stubborn to die,” he told her, softly.

She choked on a laugh, her shoulders shaking briefly. “Y-yeah. You’re right.” She took in a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. “Let’s get going.”

“Yes, let’s,” Gloom Glimmer agreed, as the air began to shimmer and distort around her, though curiously – at least, to Basil – her eyes remained blue on white.

He wished he could just sit down with her and talk about her power, try to determine the ins and outs of it. Maybe run some tests, put her under some of his scanners…

Not the time, not the time, he admonished himself. Not that it ever seems to be the time.

Instead of pursuing that line of thought, he checked his communicator, as did the others, to see where Memento thought they could do the most good, each of them requesting the system give them search and rescue tasks.

Unsurprisingly, there were loads of them.

“I suppose we ought to split up,” he commented, seeing the sheer volume of the requests for help.

“No,” Hecate countered. “At least, not entirely. We should go in pairs, I think, so we can support each other.”

“True en-” He was interrupted as the ground shook, causing them all to stumble before they caught their balance again. The buildings beneath and around them groaned, what window panes remained unbroken shattered, but the overall structures held. “Hrm, this is only going to get worse. Yes, I agree, we should go in pairs.”

“I think I should go with Hecate,” Polymnia spoke up, causing them all to look at her in surprise. She just shrugged at their questioning looks. “Don’t look at me like that. I think it makes sense to split so there’s only one gadgeteer to a pair, in case our tech does break down after all. That is still a threat, being within the Desolation Field. And I think I should be the one to go with Hecate, because I have more functioning tech left than Brennus, so I can support her better, while he will have Gloomy to cover him.”

Basil exchanged looks with the other two. “It does make sense,” he agreed with his fellow gadgeteer.

“I suppose we ought to get going, then,” Hecate said, looking at him one more time. “Good luck and… don’t die. Seriously.”

“I will not die. That is a promise,” he replied, calmly, as his eyes briefly found hers in the shadows of her hood.

Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia exchanged similar words, before they split up, the two girls running off and leaping onto the next rooftop.

”Let’s not dawdle,” Gloom Glimmer said softly, her eyes following her friend until she dropped down to the street.

”Aye.”

They left towards their own target.

***

“You didn’t have to do that,” Hecate whispered to Polymnia, once they hit the street and started running. Using the occasional smoke-leap, she was easily able to keep pace with the physically superior gadgeteer, even had the advantage now and then, when they had to cross particularly treachery spots, like collapsed buildings or car wrecks melted together into jagged spikes, and worse.

“Perhaps not, but I think it’s for the best,” Polymnia replied in a conversational tone, once again at odds with what she was actually doing, running and leaping in the direction the arrows on their armbads were showing them. “I know things are messed up between you two right now. Some distance might be good, so you can get some perspective. And so you won’t be getting too distracted while on mission.”

Hecate blushed, glad that the (slightly) younger girl couldn’t see it under her hood. I’m such a mess.

”Thank you,” was all she said in return, her voice thick with emotions she couldn’t really put to words, even if she’d tried.

Somehow, she was quite sure Polymnia got it, anyway, as she just smiled at her and said, “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure it will work out.”

They turned a corner, and immediately saw where they were meant to help – a five-storey building had collapsed inwards, rubble piling up into a mound the size of a two-storey building, but even without Polymnia’s hearing, Hecate could make out people screaming from within.

“We’ll have to dig them out carefully,” Hecate said to Polymnia, the two of them walking up to the rubble. “If we’re too careless, it might collapse entirely and crush the people within.”

“I can hear children in there,” Polymnia stated with a serious expression, stepping forth and climbing onto the rubble. “Let’s start from the top and work our way down.”

Hecate joined her, as they got to work as quickly as they could. “How does Gloom Glimmer do it?” she asked in a whisper which a normal person would likely not have understood, even if they’d been leaning in to listen.

“How does Gloom Glimmer do what?”

***

“How do you deal with your father being who he is?” Basil clarified as he and Gloom Glimmer jogged down the street, pushed onwards by her power, which was generating sonic waves that reflected off the buildings and street around and beneath them, coming back to push the air against the two of them from behind, buyoing them onwards and onwards.

Gloom Glimmer, whose long-legged strides would have been entirely silent even while running, with her feet being essentially clad in soft – if padded – almost velvet-like fabric rather than proper shoes, kept quiet for a few seconds, easily keeping pace with him, her billowing, heavy cape only magnifying the effect of the pressure from behind, even if it occasionally looked a little silly how it’d push at her and flutter around.

Just when he thought she might not have heard him over the melodic, drum-like waves of sound she generated, she opened her mouth again.

***

“She doesn’t, really,” Polymnia replied quietly, looking sad even as she continued to tear through the rubble, tossing chunks the size of her torso aside as if they weighed nothing. “He’s her daddy, but he’s the Dark. She loves him, but he’s a murderer and enabler of murderers, and all kinds of other criminals and crimes. She wants him to be proud of her, but she can’t feel that way about him. It’s a real mess.”

”I… I guess,” Hecate replied, surprised, in spite of having asked in the first place, that she got such a reply. Even so, her arms and hips kept working, lifting off broken pieces of concrete with rebars and wiring sticking out or attached to them, not as quickly or as easily as Polymnia, but faster than normal. “I didn’t actually think you’d…”

“She’d want me to tell you,” Polymnia assured her, softly. “Perhaps hoping that it’d help you work through what you found out about Brennus.”

Hecate choked, swallowing, her eyes stinging with tears – and it wasn’t the dust causing them. “I just… I don’t understand how… how he could keep it from me, for so long… and… even though I told him otherwise… even though I really, really get family, I… she’s so… how can he just… accept her, after all that she’s done?”

***

”I do not, really,” Basil echoed Gloom Glimmer’s own reply, while using the gauntlet on his left arm to smash through the shards still stuck to the frame of a broken window in the third storey of a small apartment building, his getting carried off by Gloom Glimmer’s power and over to where she was helping two older men carry their respective wives out of a shattered supermarket, leaving trails of bloody footprints behind them.

”You don’t mean that like I did,” Gloom Glimmer observed, somehow, even over the distance.

Basil climbed into the apartment. The window had been broken by the body of a cape, who’d been sent flying through it and landed on a couch opposite of the window with such force, the couch had shattered and he’d smashed into the wall.

Kneeling next to him, Basil quickly examined the young man – perhaps just a teen, though older than himself, he was wearing an outfit reminding him of a classic Wild West Gunslinger, with a zig-zagging, blood-red pattern worked into his black leather pants and matching vest and hat, as well as a red scarf wrapped around his lower face, to hide his identity. He was still holding onto a heavy, magnum-sized revolver in his right hand. Basil could see three blood-red bullets in the cylinder, as well as burned, cracked brown in the other three, likely already spent shots.

He might have been a cowl, considering the dark tones and harsh lines of his outfit, or perhaps one of the ‘edgy’ kind of capes that were all the rage in the USA these years.

Either way, the bleeding wound on the back of his head looked bad, and he was likely only alive because the couch had cushioned his impact.

Basil was quite sure he should have bled out by now, considering how much blood was on the wall behind him, on the floor around him and sticking to the back of his head, but he hadn’t. Perhaps some enhanced toughness or low-level regeneration.

It wasn’t doing him much good beyond barely keeping him alive, though, so he used his first aid supplies to wrap up his head, sheathed his revolver in its hip holster and then carefully lifted him up over his shoulder.

One wasn’t supposed to move injured people, especially not in such a fashion, but it was liable to be less dangerous to him than remaining there, unconscious and unable to get to safety if the destruction spread here.

“What I mean is that I have not been, nor am I dealing with it,” Basil continued the conversation, walking to the door with his unconscious cargo, straining a bit under the man’s weight. “I have been telling myself that she is my sister, that I love her and she me and that that should come first. Some half-formed but never pursued thoughts of redeeming her. Add a great deal of procrastination on the subject and spotty memories, and…”

He opened the door easily enough, from inside, stepping out into the stairwell and immediately making his way down.

”And that’s not all,” Gloom Glimmer’s voice reached him, so clear it was like she was sitting walking right next to him. “You mentioned issues with your memory. Malign ones, most likely. Do you think someone is actively manipulating you?”

She left it unsaid that his sister was the most obvious candidate for such manipulation, but he knew she thought of that possibility.

He would have liked to defend her, to say that Amy wouldn’t do such a thing, that she herself was being affected… except now, thinking – reasonably – clearly for the first time he could remember, he was honest enough to admit that…

”Yes, I think so. And yes, much as I hate to think so, Amy may well be responsible. I think she is also being manipulated, but it would hardly be a challenge for her to pretend that she is, on the off-chance that I might become suspicious,” he replied, and his heart broke a little to admit it out loud.

God, I wish Henry was here. He gets this stuff so much better than I ever could.

He stopped, just a step away from the front door of the building.

Where’d that thought come from? Who was Henry, and why…

No time. Focus on the here and now.

“I can feel… something, off,” Gloom Glimmer said, percussive air helping him move faster towards her and the four survivors she’d found. “I’m sorry, I might be able to do more, but I’m running on fumes here. But there’s definitely something or someone connected to your mind that’s not supposed to… but it’s so subtle, I would never have noticed it, if I didn’t know to look for it in the first place.”

He joined her and the other four, handing the wounded metahuman off to one of the two men, whose wife could walk on her own, and described to them how to get to the next teleportation node, based on the map that he’d seen when he’d used Memento’s network himself, while applying some first aid to them – the other man’s wife was worse off, with a cut on her thigh quite close to a major artery, and a bad hit to the head, but there was just no time for him and Gloom Glimmer to escort them, not when they could move on their own and there were so many other people to help.

”Focus,” he admonished her, gently, without accusation in his voice, watching the survivors leave. “There’s more important things to worry about, right now.” He looked at his armband, and saw that the arrow was pointing him down the road, opposite of where the survivors had gone.

She looked at him, her gaze so overflowing with sympathy and sadness it made him flinch – inwardly, at least. “There always are, aren’t there?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Hrm.”

***

After nearly five minutes of careful work – and some rather close calls, when the ongoing battle shook the ground and threatened to collapse the rubble – Hecate hit something weird.

The concrete shifted and revealed… nothing. And yet there was something there, something flat, hard and invisible, through which she could see some movement deeper within, obstructing her progress.

“Some kind of force field?”

Polymnia stopped and leaned over, taking a look. “Something’s been preventing me from mapping the insides of the rubble with sonar… perhaps that’s it?”

“Can somebody hear us!?” a voice shouted from within, a young woman’s, perhaps. “Please, you’ve got to move the rubble aside! I don’t think he can hold out much longer! Don’t worry about it collapsing!”

Hecate looked at Polymnia, who seemed as surprised as she herself felt.

“Might as well,” Polymnia stated, and they leapt off the rubble, starting to just tear it away by main force, throwing aside chunks from the base.

Within seconds, the rubble shifted and slid off… an invisible box, about the size of a minivan, outlined by dust.

Within were eight civilians – two women and six younger children, all of kindergarten age – sitting on the ground, and a man standing in the center, his legs spread apart, his arms reaching out, palms facing  away from him, as if pushing against something.

He was wearing black pants with suspenders and a horizontally striped white shirt with black stripes, as well as white and black make-up on his face and oily black hair now matted with blood.

“Le Pantomime!” Polymnia called out, rushing forward as the box disappeared, and the man fell forward.

She caught him as gently as she could, and Hecate stepped up as well, worried. She’d heard of the hero from France – he was quite famous, even across the pond.

To her horror, she saw a terrible wound on the left side of his head – she could actually see a bit of his brain!

“How… how is he still…” She gulped, staring at him.

“He saved us… caught the rubble when it collapsed, after a piece hit him on the head,” the woman who’d called out earlier explained. Hecate barely spared her a glance, since she didn’t seem to be hurt, but she was pretty sure they’d happened upon a daycare of some sort. She kind of looked like a daycare worker, to her, not that she’d ever been in an actual daycare.

“We’ll get him the help he needs,” Polymnia soothed them, calmly, her eyes on the teary-eyed children clinging to the two women. “And we’ll get you all to safety, I promise.”

Hecate nodded, kneeling down to take care of the children. That was something she had experience with, at least.

***

Basil leapt over a slagged car wreck, following the arrow on his armband, moving on his own for now – their armbands had sent him and Gloom Glimmer in opposite directions, and he could only hope that they’d be reunited after, but for now, he was on his own.

They’d been guided to four more crisis points, after he’d saved the gunslinger, and had managed to get no less than nine people to safety, capes, cowls and civilians both, though they’d come across several corpses as well.

Gloom Glimmer had taken those much harder than Basil had – he couldn’t rightly say that he was all that upset about seeing dead people, much as that unnerved him.

Reaching a street corner, the arrow rotated, guiding him towards a roundabout, when it suddenly disappeared.

The display said ‘Target Deceased – Await New Directions’.

Not again.

He started to move back, tapping his fingers as he felt DiL change powers yet again – the fifth time this minute – and started to move back towards where he’d split from Gloom Glimmer, just in case, when his armband beeped.

Looking down at it, he saw a new arrow pointing away from where he’d come.

Great. I really hope you know where you’re guiding me, Memento.

He ran through the shattered streets, his progress much slower than he would have liked – there were cracks and fissures all over, and parts had been flooded where pipes had burst open.

There were corpses everywhere. Floating in the water, slumped over broken cars, mailboxes, torn apart by huge claws or impaled on shards of glass or rebar, and worse besides. Men, women and children, dead by the dozens. Hundreds or thousands, probably, across the city.

There was nothing he could do for them, so he moved on, following the arrow, while regularly glancing at the flickering, often distorting feed from his ravenbot, flying far above, keeping an eye towards the battle, so he’d have at least a moments’ warning to dodge, if anything came his way.

At least Lady Light seems to have DiL well in hand for now, he thought, only to immediately chide himself for jinxing it.

As if to affirm it, he felt a sudden drop in air pressure, at the same time as he sensed DiL changing her powers again, followed by the building to his right all but disintegrating as a projectile shot through it faster than the sonic boom that followed it, blasting his ravenbot out of the air.

Basil managed to avoid instant death just barely, reversing his boots’ wall-walking function yet again – and even so, he would likely have been hit, at the very least losing his legs as he shot backwards, if he hadn’t been gripped by an additional force and pushed away faster.

Dust and debris filled his field of view, the street cracking – but they could not hide the white glow within, light blazing forth so powerfully it penetrated even the thickest dust cloud, turning billows of gray matter into something almost ethereal.

He landed on his feet, barely managing to catch himself, and staring at the center of the glowing dust cloud.

DiL’s presence was all but entirely gone from his mind, the pressure she created entirely blotted out by her aura, as she rose out of the dust, a humanoid figure shrouded in so many layers of nearly solid, sometimes liquid, light, it was impossible to make out any details, her side towards him as she flew up and towards DiL again, trailing ribbons of pure light behind her, less than a hundred meters between them…

Only to stop, and turn in mid-air, the motion nearly inhumanly graceful in spite of its abruptness, and his black eyes met a pair of bright, blue ones, even through the layers of light enfolding her and the distance between them.

He remembered the sensation of staring into Emyr’s eyes, back in that twisted world Legend had created – a thoroughly discombombulating experience, it had made him think of staring into an infinite expanse of darkness, losing perspective and with it, very nearly his balance. There had been an intensity to his gaze, as if he was somehow projecting his will through the mere act of crossing eyes, that had caused Basil to hesitate for a moment.

Gazing into Lady Light’s bright blue eyes (so reminiscent of Gloom Glimmer’s) was so much more disorienting than that, by several orders of magnitude. If Emyr’s eyes had been windows into a vast, dark depth of will, then these were… were…

He did not have the words to describe them, no simile that encompassed the sensation.

Without even noticing himself falling, he found himself sitting on his butt, briefly seeing double as he stared up at her in a daze.

Lady Light distant form twitched, the humanoid silhouette he could barely make out moving as the ribbons of light shifted with the barest hint of a delay, the gesture as graceful as it was unreadable, at this distance, and turned away, flying off towards DiL again, moving so quickly she left behind several after-images.

Basil looked down at his right wrist, where he felt something close around it. A band of… something, like nearly solid light, wrapped around his wrist there. It looked white, at first glance, but as he raised his hand, it shifted through all colours of the rainbow, each motion causing a change in its colouring and pattern.

It felt warm, solid and heavy.

Looking at it from various angles, he knew what it meant.

‘I will find you again.’

***

Memento’s armband had ended up leading him to a young woman in a flowing costume, layers of rainbow-coloured fabric forming a hooded robe with wide sleeves, soaked through with some kind of clear, viscuous fluid which also surrounded the site where she lay, having been blasted through a wall and into a backyard, just off the street. A loading dock, perhaps, for some smaller company – it was hard to tell, considering how damaged everything was.

A quick check showed that she was unconscious, and had a bleeding wound on her forehead, but was alive and not in immediate danger of dying after some basic first aid to stem the bleeding, so he picked her up in a fireman’s carry – not the best way to transport someone with a head wound, but he had to choose between being gentle and being fast and that wasn’t really a choice at all, not in this situation.

Getting to the nearest teleportation node was mercifully less eventful than his way to the woman, and he even had some attention to spare to reboot his ravenbot and have it fly back towards him; fortunately, it had only taken cosmetic damage from the sonic boom of the attack which had deposited Lady Light so close to him.

I wonder what she saw, he could not helpt but wonder. He felt it in his gut, she’d seen right through him there and whatever she’d seen or sensed had piqued her interest.

If Lady Light can’t help me…

He looked ahead, focusing on where he was going – the broken streets were very treacherous, with crevisses, holes leading into sewers and other traps for the unwary pedestrian – as he also considered his brief meeting – if one could call it that – with the lady and also ran several ideas through his mind, his power having apparently taken a lot of inspiration from hers, with ideas for manipulating matter and energy in weirder ways than he could ever recall doing…

Fuck, why does it have to work so well now? I wish I could be like this while in the lab and with a few weeks or months’ worth of time to just tinker around and experiment.

He didn’t even know whether his lab was still uncollapsed. The structure was reinforced, and on the outskirts of New Lennston, away from the center of the fighting, but still…

Due to the interference from the Desolation Field, he couldn’t even reach it to find out whether or not Eudocia was well. Her casing wasn’t that tough, and even light damage to her insides could cause the delicate energy fields within to collapse. Rebooting her from such a collapse, if he even managed to, would mean resetting her to her initial state, all her experiences and growth irretrievably lost.

Can’t think about that, not now. I need to focus. Put it off until I can find her and then we’ll see how things stand.

He ran even faster.

***

Through some stroke of luck, he reached the node at the same time as Gloom Glimmer did. She was generating sonic blasts which bounced off the street, gently juggling several people atop them and moving them towards the node.

The survivors – a family, mother and several children – were staring around with varying degrees of fear and wonder on their faces, as Irene dropped them next to the node and explained to them how to use it.

The mother held her youngest in one arm, and the other two held each other by the hand, while one held hers, as they touched the node together and disappeared.

“Brennus. I’m glad you’re… safe…” Gloom Glimmer began to greet him, until her eyes fell on the rainbow-hued armband, widening at the sight of it.

“A brief run-in,” he explained, as he walked onto the childrens’ playground that the floating tesseract had teleported to. “I did not even get close to her, but she must have sensed something, and she made this band.”

“Mmmhm,” she temporized, brushing a lock of fine black hair back behind her ear. “It’ll let her track you down, so long as you’re within her range.”

He nodded, his suspicion confirmed. “Looking forward to it. If anyone can help me…”

She nodded right back. “It’ll be mom.”

They used the node to teleport to the field hospital, appearing within a huge tent, filled with people – some in scrubs or less formal clothes, taking care of the majority of those present: the injured.

Dozens upon dozens of them, capes, cowls and civilians alike, arranged  in an odd spiral pattern around the nod, with a circular empty space around it, the rigidity of the pattern broken up at seemingly random intervals by intersecting pathways.

On second thought, there’s an odd rhyme to it, Basil thought, looking around, before his eyes fell on an obvious metahuman standing nearby, facing them with a clipboard held in their hands.

She was a woman or girl – probably a girl, based on what he could see of her face – wearing a skin-tight, black bodysuit, though skintight in a different way from what he usually saw – thicker, suggesting padding and even some manner of armoring. It wasn’t completely black, though – there were dark blue patterns on it, only visible when the light hit them at the right angle, tracing the contours of her body in a way  that emphasized her modest curves, without being the least bit obscene. The flat soles of her boots and the palms of her hands, as well as the undersides of her fingers were all blue, and there was an emblem on her chest, fitted so delicately to her body’s shape, her breasts didn’t distort it at all – a single circle, followed by four ovals around it, like ripples extending from it, only they weren’t centered around the circle; rather, the circle was near the bottom of the symbol, with the ovals’ long extending further above than beneath it.

Her face was hidden by a black mask which covered the top half, and reached up to the crown of her head, keeping her long, straight blonde hair out of her face, while leaving her lips – painted dark blue to match the color scheme – and jaw exposed.

“Calculass,” Gloom Glimmer greeted her with a smile, holding out her hand towards her.

The girl smiled back, if a little nervously. “Gloom Glimmer. I’ve heard a lot about you – wouldn’t have thought the opposite was true. It’s an honor.” She shook the offered hand.

“Dad taking on a new apprentice isn’t something to ignore – he’s never done it in my lifetime. So I made some inquiries,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smirk. Then she pulled her hand back, smoothing her face out more seriously. “Where do we put this one? Wounded cape, head trauma and several broken bones.”

“Possibly internal bleeding, as well,” Basil added quietly, studying the girl more intently now. The Dark’s apprentice… that did not exactly bode well. Some kind of math-related power? An esper? The name’s pretty obviously pointing in that direction.

Calculass didn’t hesitate to reply, pointing to the beginning of the spiraling pathway. “Third branch, then left, right, left, cot twenty-nine,” she advised, far more confident and steady in her speech than just moments before.

“Thank you. I hope we’ll have some time to hang out in the future, under better circumstances,” Gloom Glimmer replied with a smile, walking past her. “Also, love the costume,” she added with a thumbs up.

“Thanks. I’m kind of shocked that costume design is one of the boss’s fields of expertise,” Calculass grinned at her, briefly.

“That ain’t even the weirdest hobby dad has, believe you me,” Gloom Glimmer called out, raising her voice as they moved further away, sticking close to Basil. “And you’ll get to know way more of them, you poor, unfortunate fool!”

Basil didn’t see whether Calculass reacted, before the sound of another incoming teleport took up her attention again – his own was on walking the right way to where to put down his charge, while his raven was looking around at the wounded all around.

There were so many of them. Calculass’s system – at least, he assumed she’d been the one to plan this layout – managed to cram an incredible amount of people into the tent, while still allowing for easy movement. People had been distributed based on the wounds they were suffering from, and whether or not they were metahuman. There were even allowances made for those whose powers made being treated, or just being near others, problematic.

It was kind of impressive, managing to impose order on such a chaotic situation.

Guess that’s to be expected of the Dark’s apprentice.

They reached the assigned cot, and Basil put the woman down on it, as gently as he could. Two nurses got to work before he’d even stepped back.

He turned towards his companion, to suggest moving out again, but stopped.

Gloom Glimmer’s expression was fragile in a way he could not recall seeing before, her eyes glued to a boy half her apparent age lying in the cot next to the woman, his eyes glassy, yet occasionally blinking as he stared up into nothing, a good fifth of his head simply gone, from just above his left ear over towards the center of his forehead. Wires and catheters were connecting to the exposed brain-matter, then to some kind of gadget which apparently kept him alive, somehow.

Occasionally, the device would spark, and the boy would twitch randomly before settling down again.

She didn’t seem able to look away.

Basil took her arm by the wrist, gently tugging on it, guiding her out of the tent and into the bright, distorted daylight outside. The field hospital had been set up at the outskirts of the city, where the surrounding woodland stabbed into the urban sprawl, and had been tamed into a park, which had in turn become a popular place for family picnics.

Now, it was overrun with emergency vehicles coming and going, dropping a share of the injured and otherwise needy here, before moving on to pick up more people, or deliver others to another field hospital (they were being spread out amongst multiple locations, if they couldn’t be moved out of the Desolation Field entirely, to reduce the chance of DiL wiping them all out with a single attack).

Gloom Glimmer looked around at the chaos, her expression downcast. “This…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when another, familiar voice interjected with a shout.

“Ba-Brennus!” called Amy, flying over from where she’d been helping to load people onto and off of several vehicles.

A not inconsiderable part of Basil relaxed a great deal upon seeing her safe and whole.

In fact, she looked utterly untouched.

Before he could get in a word of his own, she was upon him, pulling him into a nearly literally bone-crushing hug.

“Ugh. Spine. Still. Needed,” he gasped the words out, barely, though he couldn’t honestly say he disliked it.

He would’ve hugged her back, if he’d been able to move his arms to any meaningful degree, but since her grip on him wouldn’t allow him to, he merely patted her sides with his hands.

No one around seemed to have the time or inclination to pay attention to them or care about what was going on, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t due to Amy using her power. The situation was just that messed up.

“I should kill you, you damn idiot,” Amy croaked, squeezing even harder for a moment, before she mercifully let him have his lung function back.

“I was worried about you, too,” he replied with a groan, trying not to show just how much her hug had pained him. Damn these cracked ribs. “You don’t look like you’re hurt at all, though,” he replied, and he couldn’t help but sound a little bit accusatory.

She somehow managed to look both embarrassed and annoyed at the same time, rubbing the back of her head while shifting on those ridiculous stiletto heels of hers. “Boss’s orders. We’re to hold back until the big attack starts, make sure to conserve our powers and stamina.”

“What is his plan, anyway?” Basil asked, curiously, assuming that she, as one of his lieutenants, surely had to know.

“Dunno,” she replied.

Or maybe not.

“This whole thing is rushed like crazy. From what I get, he was hoping she’d take longer to reappear, or skip one battle and use his grand plan the next time, after more prepwork. But I guess New Lennston’s too important to not go all out in defending it,” Amy elaborated.

“He’s always loved this city, even when he hated it,” Gloom Glimmer agreed with a thoughtful nod, her left hand’s fingertips touching her chin. “Plus, losing New Lennston to DiL, after we lost Old Lennston to her… the hit to morale would be tremendous and it definitely is unacceptable.” Another thought seemed to come to her, and she looked up at Amy. “Where is Dad, anyway?”

“At the memorial plaza, preparing to set off the big pl-“, she started to reply, only to be interrupted by a deafening shriek.

The sound was akin to a woman’s wail, amplified a million times over, with odd, discordant harmonics mixed in to make it more cacophonous than Basil would have thought possible.

Its origin was emminently obvious – DiL herself was not visible, but the chaotic twist of space around her was, as her new power twisted realtiy in a way that gave Basil vertigo even by looking at it from halfway across the city.

From that central point, jagged lines of twisted space were reaching out, spreading across the sky and into the ground, before fading back again.

Whatever they touched was destroyed, matter twisted up in such a fashion as to reduce entire buildings to rubble, condensed into deformed masses a fraction of their original size.

He couldn’t see far enough to tell how it affected any metahuman it hit, but those whom flew high enough for him to see and got struck by one of those flowing arcs dropped and didn’t come up again.

Several tendrils lashed out towards Lady Light’s glowing form, causing Gloom Glimmer to gasp where she stood next to Basil, but they were deflected with a flash of light, and she pressed the attack, trying to force DiL to change away from such a lethal power.

Not that any of the powers she took were ever harmless.

“Fuck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do much at all, even if I was allowed to,” Amy shouted, and yet was barely heard nonetheless.

Gloom Glimmer raised her right arm to snap her fingers, and the cacophony died down, letting everyone relax and focus on their duties again.

Considering how dire the conditions of most of the people being treated were, that was vital.

“How long can you keep that up, princess?” Amy asked, rubbing underneath her ears with two fingers each, as if to rub the pain away.

Basil really missed his full helmet now – the hearing protection in his spare mask wasn’t nearly up to its level.

”This power’s pretty fresh,” Gloom Glimmer replied, without looking – she was wholly focused on the spectacle in the distance. “A few minutes, I’d guess. Up to twenty, if we’re lucky.”

”That will not do,” Basil stated simply. “She has to change her powers again, and quickly – if not for our sake, then for that of everyone else in this city, particularly the other medical camps.”

Gloom Glimmer frowned, clenching her left hand into a fist, tightly enough it started to tremble. “Yeah… and we can’t… shouldn’t… just rely on mom, so-“

A new, yet all too familiar voice cut her off, reverberating through the artificial quiet Gloom Glimmer’s power had generated.

“I hope you don’t mean to finish that sentence the way I think you do,” the Dark spoke, as calmly as was possible when your voice sounded like a ghostly chorus.

Gloom Glimmer’s face brightened up, as she all but flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around what may have been his waist – it was hard to tell, with how formless his current appearance was – and made a gleeful squeal.

“Don’t think you being cute is going to distract me from the issue, young lady,” he continued, even as he hugged her back tightly enough she almost seemed to disappear into the shadows, and mussed her hair with one hand.

“I’m not trying to distract you! Just glad you’re ok,” she replied, stepping back after one more tight squeeze, combing her hair back with her fingers.

You are glad that I am alright?” he asked, six glowing eyes growing incredulously wide as he bent over so much he nearly made a right angle, putting his face at the same height as hers. “You’re the one who’s been in danger, young lady!”

“That’s all part of wearing the cape!” she replied, looking up at him with a smile, looking positively re-energized. “Speaking of which, it seems like my powers are finally, properly, back.” She looked down herself, and Basil followed her gaze to see that she was levitating a step or so above the ground, in the center of a circle of swirling dust.

She raised her hand, and tiny motes of light in all colors of the rainbow began to dance between and around her fingers, seeming to somehow… suck in the light, the area immediately around their small group growing darker, even as the motes burned brighter.

“Irene, my sweet, don’t you dare go out there now!” the Dark stepped in, reaching for her hand with his own.

Gloom Glimmer pulled back, floating to put a few meters between them. “You know I can’t just stand by – I have to help mom. Wish me luck!” she replied, completely ignoring his protests, as she saluted Basil, and shot off towards the fight.

“No listen to m-  why do you just ignore your father!” he shouted in exasperation, his hands disappearing in the shadows of his head, as if he was reaching past the wraith to pull on his hair. “Why’d you have to take after me so much!”

Amy put her hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she tried not to make a sound.

It didn’t help, as he whirled around and pointed a long, misty finger at her.

“You. After her. Keep her safe.”

He didn’t wait for a reply, or even an acknowledgement, and simply turned around and walked away, back to where Basil could see Rounds and several other of the higher-ranked capes and cowls congregate.

“Damn. Babysitting duty,” Amy groused, her arms and head dropping. “Noooooot looking forward to this!”

Basil took her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. “Just make sure you’re safe,” he said, his eyes returning to the distant battle, following the fast-flying form of Gloom Glimmer as she approached the blazing sun that was her mother.

“I should be the one saying that, considering your track record…” she continued to grumble, before floating up a bit to kiss him on the top of the head. “Be safe, little brother.”

He pulled his mask down, and kissed her on the cheek. “You too, sister.”

She nodded at him with a wry smile, then turned around and flew away – only to jerk to a stop, his hand having shot up to grab her by the wrist before he even consciously chose to.

“Basil?” she looked at him, her eyes widening when she saw the overwrought expression on his face.

“I…” he began, struggling himself to put what he was feeling into words.

Why do I feel like this is the last time we’ll talk to each other? he thought, miserably, unable to find the right thing to say, as he felt his face contract, nearly crumbling.

She floated closer, wrapping her arms around his head to pull it against her bosom, her feet a good deal above the ground.

Don’t be silly, she spoke into his mind. We’ll talk again so much, we’ll both grow sick of it and refuse to talk at all anymore.

He didn’t have it in him to laugh, or even chuckle. Instead, he looked up at her, his arms having found their way around her lower waist, hugging her tightly.

I love you, Amy, he said in his head, unable to get the words past the knot in his tongue.

She gave him a brilliant smile in return, looking down with the gentle expression he’d missed so long. I love you too, Basil.

Once more, she kissed him, this time on his forehead.

And then she flew off to fight an enemy he could do nothing against.

Looking after her, tears running down his cheeks as he put his mask back on to cover at least the lower part of his face, he couldn’t help but feel the same as before, like that had been a farewell.

Just like the last time he’d seen Prisca, held her, kissed her. Felt her disappear.

And yet again, there was nothing at all he could do.

***

Silver light flowed from Rounds’ palm, where it met Bismuth’s cheek, washing over her like a second skin, clinging tightly for a moment before the silvery Bismuth stepped aside, separating from the original.

At the same time, two new windows, paired together, appeared in his mind, one to the half of her power that he could use himself, and another to the silvery apparition, giving him an innate sense of her state and location.

Ten other pairs were already in his mind, filling it nearly to the brim, much like the ten – now eleven – apparitions filled the space around him.

Just one more, and he’d be at his limit.

The sheer power accumulated in him was already such that he felt it pull at his very sanity. Overwhelming, to have all these options at hand.

Lamarr’s spatial manipulation alone may have distracted him for hours, if he wasn’t currently limited to the area within the Desolation Field.

Bismuth stepped back, her head held low, mirrored by her apparition. Even if he couldn’t feel what his apparitions felt – and they usually mirrored their progenitor’s feelings – he’d have no trouble figuring out what was affecting her.

The many things that were wearing down on her.

So much to work out. So little time.

He turned his head away from her, not to dismiss her, but to focus on more urgent matters.

His eyes fell on the shadowy, almost wispy figure that was the Dark, standing at the edge of the terrace this camp had been set upon, looking out over the devastated city, and the battle raging on in the distance.

Watching for his daughter, Rounds thought. I suppose even he has a modicum of decency.

He hated it. Hated, that the children were fighting. That they were risking their lives. That they were being exposed to so many horrors.

That he hadn’t been there to shield them from it.

He would never agree with the wide-spread practice of putting children in costumes and throwing  them at the horrors of the world, telling them to be heroes, no matter what the statistics said.

But here, if anywhere, there was nothing he could do. Even if he could forbid it, most would fight anyway, to protect their home from her. And  there was no way he’d be able to divert the resources to restrain them, at such a time.

Shaking his head, he walked over to his enemy and stood by his side, followed by his silvery apparitions. Three of them – Wary Wu’s and two of Gloom Glimmer’s – were focusing on the fight, constantly feeding him new information, which his half of their powers picked up on and further processed, before throwing it back at them, in a constant back and forth.

Normally, copying esper powers like this was a great boon to him, but right now, with both DiL and Gloom Glimmer in the fight, they were all but useless.

At least he was pretty certain they’d warn him in time in case he had to block an incoming attack.

Pretty certain, but not completely so, which was why all the other apparitions where also focusing on the battle for him, ready to leap into action.

He himself, meanwhile, rolled his shoulders, the body armor he wore over his suit shifting, glittering with reflected light as the individual plates it consisted off changed their orientation slightly. He’d never liked how sparkly and ostentatious it all was – at times he felt like he was wearing jewelry, rather than armor – but that arse Patrid had beat the importance of proper public relations into his head a long, long time ago.

“I hope you didn’t come over here to ask me for a copy of my power, Rounds,” the Dark spoke without turning to look at him. Not that he wasn’t perfectly capable of looking straight at Rounds while seemingly facing the battle. And also focusing on that in equal measure.

With a chuckle, Rounds shook his head. “If it’s anything like Lady Light’s power, then I want no part in it.”

That caused him to turn his head and look down at him.

He’d never admit it out loud, especially in front of him, but even after all these years, getting the Dark’s full attention was a thoroughly discombobulating experience.

“She allowed you to make a copy of her?” he asked, intently, his voices not sharp, but definitely more forceful than during his almost casual remark before.

“She let me try,” Rounds replied, putting an emphasis on the ‘try’ part. “It didn’t go over well.”

The Dark chuckled, turning away again – and as soon as his immediate gaze left Rounds, he felt like a weight had dropped off his shoulders.

I wonder whether he uses a power to cause that, or whether it really is just his presence.

“I imagine it wouldn’t, no,” the wispy supervillain continued. “She must trust you a great deal, if she revealed herself to you so.”

“I suppose so,” Rounds said, his eyes back on the fight in the distance.

Lady Light and Gloom Glimmer seemed to be trading off now, moving back and forth, alternating in their efforts to curtail DiL’s destructive performance.

As much as he hated seeing her in such danger, he couldn’t help but admire how well Gloom Glimmer was managing to keep up with her mother.

Still, holding her off was not going to be enough – in fact, either DiL was slowly adapting to them, or sheer coincidence was causing her powers to last longer and longer, the seconds stretching on between each switch. Occasionally, Rounds could even make out individual powers without the use of his added abilities, before she was forced to change yet again.

Unsustainable.

He turned his head away, and looked at the other figure standing nearby.

Hanabi’s form was hidden behind his voluminous, old-fashioned purple, black and gold robes and the tall, black hat he wore, from which a curtain of white cloth fell, obscuring his face – in fact, his entire head.

He was kneeling in front of a circle of thin bamboo rods tipped by various, weirdly shaped fireworks in all colors of the rainbow, driven into the ground where he’d had Rounds crack the pavement for his preparations.

A rough map of the area within the Desolation Field had been carved into the earth, with more bamboo sticks driven into various points, holding up even more fireworks.

At the same time, a dozen heroes and villains were setting up full-sized fireworks all around the city, mirroring the markings on the map, he knew.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” he couldn’t help but ask, as nervously as he ever felt.

The whole thing had sounded way too good to be true, when it’d been explained to him.

“Nothing is certain,” the Dark replied calmly, staring out into the distance. “It should work, based on my understanding of the powers involved, and the principles behind them. But you know the difference between theory and practice.”

Rounds grunted in affirmation, not sure how to reply to that.

Well, there was one reply…

“I really, really hope this will work.”

“So do I,” was the answer, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.

Before he could dig into the meaning behind that, he felt an odd tremor, one which went through the ground and the air at the same time, rippling through his body in the oddest way, like he was being stretched and compacted at the same time, for less than a second.

Wha-

He turned to look at the battle, at the alarm his apparitions of Gloom Glimmer expressed through their link, only to see Lady Light’s blazing form dart towards her daughter, so fast he could barely follow in spite of his enhanced senses, touching and repelling her, launching her out of the way of an advancing ripple in the air-

And then Lady Light and five other fliers just disappeared, all at once, along with a diagonal cross-section of a nearby building.

The Dark took a step forward, in seeming shock, and Rounds was not far behind, when the aftermath hit them.

Air rushed in, towards where the attack had hit, filling in the vacuum created, violently stirring up dust, leaves and rubble before it died down again.

Did she just kill… no, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t go down like this!

His apparitions stepped forth, focusing any applicable power they had, but the Dark was faster than they.

“Some manner of spatial manipulation… offensive teleportation? I can still feel Gwen, but she’s… far,” he said, more to himself than to Rounds, as if to reassure his own worries.

In the distance, Gloom Glimmer’s form flickered, violently, and a massive blast of blackish something lanced out, smashing into DiL, splashing over her form – and evidently penetrating her outer defenses sufficiently to force her to change her powers again, as the signal sent from the young vigilante whom could feel these changes told them.

Still, Rounds’ stomach dropped into his knees, and not just because the effect of Lady Light’s city-spanning aura was gone now.

They’d just lost their strongest, best fighter, and there was no way to tell how long it’d take her to return to the battle.

“Damn it, we have to mobilize our people again – I won’t have Gloom Glimmer try to hold her off on her own!” he shouted, raising his hand to his ear to transmit the order.

A soft, almost gentle voice interrupted him, speaking with a strong accent.

“It is nearly done, Lord Dark,” the kneeling form of Hanabi spoke, his voice barely rising above the sound of the blowing air, or the distant battle. “My greatest performance shall begin presently.”

The Dark relaxed, almost imperceptibly – if it wasn’t for all the esper powers at his disposal, Rounds would have missed it.

“Your timing is as impeccable as your artwork, my dear man,” he spoke, calmly, nodding his head towards the heavily enshrouded villain from Japan. “Begin as soon as you are able.”

Hanabi inclined his head, deeper than the Dark had, and took out a burning stick incense-covered wood, reaching for the many fuses of all the fireworks worked into the array in front of him, all tied together at various points in such a fashion that the flame would reach each firework at the same time.

Which would trigger all the fireworks spread out across the city, simultaneously.

Still…

“Impeccable timing? You are joking,” Rounds all but snarled, though he wasn’t really angry at the Dark – at least, not in this case. “If only we could have launched that a minute sooner, we’d still have-”

“No,” the Dark disagreed, his voice firm. “This is better. It will be harder for us, but better this than having Gwen participate.”

His voice turned soft, almost human, as they watched Hanabi light the fuses.

“No mother should have to watch her child die, much less participate in the killing.”

Rounds opened his mouth, not sure whether to disagree, agree, or laugh at the sheer, gutwrenching wrongness of it all, but he closed it again, not sure at all about it.

“Prepare yourselves,” the Dark spoke, and his voice was repeated across the entire city by every single one of Memento’s communicators. “Our grand gambit is almost at hand.”

The lit fuses disappeared into the fireworks, flashing with heat and light – but instead of launching the fireworks, they consumed them, burning them up in a single, bright flash.

All over the city, a hundred and eight matching fireworks shot up into the air, trailing paths of rainbow-colored sparks in ever-shifting, complex patterns that made one dizzy to merely look at them.

The glowing tips of these rising spears flew up as high as the Desolation Field allowed them to go, turning its bright, shifting colors into an even greater mess as they added their own, darker lights.

Then the lights spread, connecting to each other in a grand net of light, before each strand collapsed into total blackness, a dark, dark net spreading out over them – only to disappear.

And with its disappearance, DiL dropped out of the sky, crashing down onto the grand plaza of New Lennston.

With his enhanced eye sight, courtesy of the Falconer’s apparition, he could see her nude form, lying amidst the glowing mass of her ridiculously long hair, her face as expressionless as ever, yet conveying something almost akin to confusion, as she lay there, her arms and legs touching the ground as dust settled on her unblemished skin.

Then, the dust began to swirl around her, forming an expanding sphere, as everyone stared at the jaw-dropping sight.

“The gambit was successful! DiL’s absolute defense has been nullified – penetrate her lesser powers, and we can finally put her down!” the Dark shouted, spreading his message all over the defending forces. “Put an end to this wretched tale!”

He hadn’t even finished his announcement, when a great cry rose.

A hundred voices and more joined together in utter, unbridled awe, fury and sheer, unrestrained hope, screaming it to the sky, as everyone who was even remotely able to do so charged into the battle.

Even Bismuth joined her voice to the others, her passion reignited as she shot forward, launched by a pillar of crystal shooting up beneath her feet.

Rounds stepped forth to join them, only to stop at the edge of the terrace, looking back at the wispy, barely substantial form of the Dark.

The King of Supervillains stepped up next to him, standing at the very edge of it as well. “You should go,” he said. “I’m too weak to contribute right now, but I’ll do what I can to coordinate our assault.”

Rounds’ reached for his sword, drawing it out of its sheath, gripping it tightly. “What you said earlier… the same applies to you, doesn’t it?”

The Dark turned his head again, looking down at him. “What do you mean?”

Rounds looked up at those six unblinking red eyes, trying to ignore the sheer weight of their gaze. “No mother should see or help their child die – nor should any father.”

The shadowy figure looked at him, for a moment longer, before averting his face, focusing on the battle again.

When he replied, his voices were so soft they were almost human again.

“Monsters don’t count.”

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B011.a A Dark Day

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November 11, a day after the Brights Debacle

“Denied. Denied. Oh, this looks interesting… no, denied. Denied… denied… ah, this one is good! Approved!”

In a brightly lit room, which was actually the whole penthouse atop the 112-story Empire State building (which he secretly owned), the man known as the Dark to most, Peter Goldschmidt to less, Father to two and Petey to one, sat behind a huge antique hardwood desk, in his human form, dressed only in a skin-tight black bodysuit, his back to the gorgeous view showing the city of New York at night and read a series of documents detailing various proposals for schemes of all kinds on a screen, one hand on the keyboard to scroll through them, denying most, approving some.

Despite what one might think, the true power of the Syndicate lay not in its access to nearly unparalleled organised criminal power, nor in its various elites – it lay in its powerful bureaucracy, which managed criminals both superpowered and mundane, all across the globe – even in places where the Syndicate was thought to have been fought off by other criminal organisations, like in the Sovjet Union. The system, though not free of many of the pitfalls of bureaucracy, was effective, efficient and tightly monitored, though not too tightly controlled – he’d learned that giving his people a sliver of freedom made them more likely to remain under control than ruling with an iron fist. Thus, the Dark was working through the high level requests for material, minions, super-powered operatives and much more, to keep an active hand in the day-to-day business of his Syndicate (even if he was only the official leader of about a third of it).

He was, in a word, bored.

Said boredom was making him more and more irritable. His secretary, who was as skillful as she was beautiful (a man of his position had to keep up appearances, after all, even if he had zero interest in her as a sexual or romantic partner), had already picked up on his mood and only forwarded him the most interesting requests. He also suspected that she’d subtly cancelled several appointments for the evening, but he wasn’t going to pry. Slivers, slivers, slivers. Besides, she really was exceptional at her job.

“Denied… denied… hmm… This one is actually good. Approved. Oh, another one. Approved.” He kept going for a few more minutes, then he stopped. “Seriously? An island base for… research into the next step of human evolution… again?” He looked at the name of the woman who’d sent the request. The Evolutrix. “Her again. When will this woman crack a biology book and learn how evolution actually works?” He sighed, resting his head on his hands, and his elbows on his desk for a moment. He’d already taken off his mask and hung up his robe, as no one was likely to see his true face here, at least no one he would mind seeing it. The windows were actually polarised so that one could only look outside and he’d have time to dress up before anyone came in, since the only ones who could just waltz into his office without paying with their lives were people he didn’t mind seeing him, anyway.

He groaned, refocusing his thoughts on the matter at hand again. The Evolutrix. In many ways, he supposed, she was not unlike the late Ascendant, except her insanity and methods were actually manageable. Most of her research was performed on animals anyway, and as to the rest… well, dead’s dead, whether one dies by a bullet through the head or by being experimented upon. There were always people the Syndicate had to dispose of, anyway.

Unfortunately, like most contrivers in the upper level of power, she was also stark raving bonkers, as Irene liked to put it. And it was getting worse, year after year. She used to be so reasonable, back in the day.

The problem with having a memory as astute as his was that he still remembered the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager that he’d been introduced to by a former member of his Five, and who’d almost made the cut into the Five herself – only she wasn’t suited to being the face of his power, at all; her talents lay outside of combat.

And then she’d started becoming less stable. Less and less and less. Just this year, she’d blown through three research centers, with barely any results to her name apart from rapidly breaking down, insane mutants with random superpowers. She’d used to create custom-made powered combatants (though always with a countdown to their death attached) with various superpowers, but the quality of her work had dropped along with her sanity.

Now she was requesting another base to work in. An island base, because she wanted to experiment on whales, and she’d need both access to the ocean and a lot of space for that. Her goal being to retrace the steps of human evolution (which had nothing at all to do with whales, to his knowledge) and unlock a way to reliably grant powers to normies.

Even though he’d repeatedly tried to explain to her that powers had nothing to do with genetics. But she didn’t want to – or more likely, couldn’t – give up on her delusion.

Which, in the end, meant he had to make a tough choice. Just denying her request would not solve the problem. Cutting her off would be irresponsible – no one wanted a contriver like that alone and mad at the world. Killing her was out of the question; she’d been a loyal subordinate and hadn’t broken any of his rules in all her time as a member of the Syndicate. Which only left imprisonment or exile.

Both are cruel prizes to hand to such a loyal subordinate, he thought to himself. Yet I can’t ignore the issue anymore.

Exile would be too cruel. So, imprisonment. But a soft one. Retire her, set her up with the means to live comfortably, with access to a small, limited lab so she could keep her power in use. Assign someone to watch over her and manage her insanity. Arrange therapy – who knew, maybe she could conquer her madness and return to the fold?

Yes, that’s the way to go.

He made all the necessary arrangements, but before he sent the order, he specified that he’d escort her to her new sanctuary himself, once all was set up; he owed her that much, at least.

Then he went back to working through the remaining requests.

***

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted when his patience finally snapped, throwing his arms up into the air. Then he pressed a button on his intercom. “Denise, I need something to do that does not involve request forms. Now.”

Her cold, measured voice came through the speakers; he’d only known her to deviate from cold professionalism once, when he’d… pushed her, to see what she was made of. Aside from that occasion, she’d stared down even Walker and Amanda. “There is the matter of Kudzu’s disastrous showing yesterday, if you wish to interact with someone directly,” she said, as if she’d just been waiting to present it to him.

Come to think of it, she probably had. She knew his moods all too well, after working for him for the last three years.

“That sounds better than request forms. Get him and his team out of bed and gather them in conference room twenty-four,” he ordered her without bothering to hide the relief in his voice.

“Already done,” she replied. “They’ve been waiting for half an hour now.”

“Perfect.” And he meant it. Better to let him stew. “You continue to amaze me, Denise.”

“Naturally,” she replied before she went back to her work.

Ah, the confidence of youth. He got up, pulled on his mask and his robe, and took the elevator down to conference room story, calling up his wraith as he walked by Denise.

Time to have some fun.

***

Kudzu and his people had been roused from sleep for this, which was all well and good in the case of Kudzu himself, but he would’ve preferred not to torment the two kids who’d escaped along with him like that.

The man himself looked quite cowed, even before he saw him enter through the tall door (it would not do to have the king of supervillains have to stoop over to get through doors in his own fortress, not even when said king’s usual form was ten feet tall). He was still wearing his ‘costume’, save for his mask, and looked like he hadn’t slept at all. No surprise there. When he saw him enter, he went pale as a ghost, which Peter enjoyed far more than he should, really.

The other one, the boy – Leet – was sitting on a chair wearing a sweater and sweatpants hastily thrown over his pajamas, his short hair a mess. Coupled with his rather pear-shaped physique, it made him look quite pitiful. It didn’t help that he looked like he hadn’t slept at all since the caper, which was no surprise considering all his closest friends had been apprehended (and they hadn’t been broken out, yet). It was also no surprise to have him throw venomous looks at Kudzu, who’d been responsible for the whole thing, in-between giving the third person in the room love-struck puppy-dog eyes. He was looking at him with a mix of awe and fear, which also suited him just fine.

The third one – Calculass, and wasn’t that a pun of a name? – was the only female in the room right now, and she looked like the only one who’d gotten any sleep since the caper went off, as well as the only one who was relaxed, her chair tilted backwards with her feet resting on the table. She also looked like she’d actually had the time to shower and just generally get in shape, because her black hair was clean, shiny and finely braided. She was wearing a skin-tight dark green bodysuit with a few white details and apparently nothing else. Her face showed mixed heritage – Caucasian and Japanese Asian, if his guess was right – with a pleasant heart-shape and a small upturned nose, along with sharp black eyes. Unlike the others, she didn’t seem disconcerted by his appearance, the only change in her behaviour being a gleam in her eyes and the lowering of her feet off the table as she put the electronic toy she’d been playing with aside (he’d long since given up trying to keep up with the names and models). It was probably easier for younger people (she was fifteen, by his recollection).

If what he’d read about her power was correct (though her file was still woefully incomplete) then she’d probably expected being called in to begin with, and prepared accordingly. Likewise, she’d probably predicted that it wouldn’t be just their supervisor who’d show up for this.

Speaking of which, their supervisor was also present, a short, round man of Italian cast, with an ill-fitting, oily mustache and no other hair at all, in an expensive business suit. He was sitting on the side opposite to the one the three supervillains had taken their seats on, with several folders spread out in front of him. He nodded reverently at the Dark. Peter barely remembered his name, even though he made a point to know every member of his organisation. Luciano… something. He couldn’t tell, which annoyed him.

“Good evening, he began as he walked around the long table on the side of Luciano, then took a seat at its head, facing the door. “Let’s get down to business.” He looked at Luciano with all six of his red eyes. “Luciano, if you would please refresh everyone’s memory as to why we’re here?”

“Of course, Sir,” the short man said, his chest swelling with pride at being addressed with his first name by the Dark.

If only he knew it’s merely because I can’t remember anything else about him, Peter thought to himself with some amusement.

Luciano rifled through his files and pulled what had to be the official report out, several pages of small writing.

“The cliffnotes, please,” he intercepted before the man could get started. If I have to listen to one more full report tonight, I’ll have to kill someone.

“Oh, of course. Well,” the man floundered for a moment, before he caught himself and put the notes down, beginning to recount the events. “Yesterday at two pm and eight minutes, Kudzu and his associates, which include the currently present Leet, his apprehended teammates Foxfire, Fulcrum, Razzle and Lag, as well as the currently absent mercenary Phasma – who refused shelter after the event – and Calculass, junior member of the Pre-Apprentice program, who was sent along as an observer, attacked and took over control of the New Lennston Brights Arcades, so as to access the last remaining vault of the supervillain Lanning, currently incarcerated with no parole; to that end, Kudzu also hired a team of specialists in breaking into such buildings. Furthermore, he was also granted thirty trained baseline combatants equivalent to SWAT combatants.”

Kudzu shifted on his seat, growing more and more uncomfortable. The Dark ignored him for now, ostensibly watching Luciano, though he was, in truth, mostly paying attention to Calculass and Leet. Their behaviour was so different, yet both clearly showed impatience and an intense interest in him… probably waiting to hear him speak, to find out what he had to say.

Luciano continued to sum up how the operation had progressed, all the way up to the disastrous end. “Finally, though the vault was successfully opened, one of Lanning’s now-rampant creations immediately attacked the specialists and killed them, then went on a spree through the Arcades – with greater casualties prevented only thanks to Razzle safeguarding the hostages – which was stalled by the intervention of junior hero Polymnia and the vigilante Brennus, then ended by junior hero Gloom Glimmer when she broke through the shielding that had been thrown up to disguise the entire event. Kudzu, Calculass and Leet were able to escape, though everyone else was either killed or detained.”

The Dark nodded. “All in all, a complete disaster,” he concluded before he turned his head to face Kudzu, who shrank into his seat. “Do you have anything to add?”

He watched as the man pulled together what little remained of his self-esteem and set his jaw. “Yes, Sir. I do not dispute any of the statements Mister Calientri made, but I wish to add that I could not have predicted the presence of two superheroes – one of whom had apparently kept a major aspect of her power secret until then – nor Lanning’s rampant robot monster,” he explained. “Nor was I expecting Phasma – who could’ve easily put the robot down, as well as subdued the two heroes long before reinforcements could’ve arrived – to prove so… passive.”

“Phasma’s lack of cooperation, though understandable considering her connection to Brennus, has been noted and she willingly returned the advance on her payment to us; she won’t be hired again until she has proven to have worked through her issues,” Luciano replied after a glance from the Dark.

Basil, Basil, Basil, he thought. So adept at meddling in everything you are connected to even remotely. And I can’t touch you, of course, since you’re Amanda’s brother. Nor could he touch Melody, not that he would’ve retaliated against a junior hero, anyway, not for this kind of interference. But even if he would’ve, her relationship with Irene prohibited any and all actions against her, if only to preserve the peace at home.

“Phasma’s performance does not concern us, though,” he said. “She is an auxiliary operative at the best of times, a mere mercenary most of the time. This meeting concerns the catastrophic way in which the opposition encountered was handled by you, Kudzu.” He fixed the man with a hard look, making him shrink back into his chair again. “Frankly, I am quite a bit more concerned about the way you managed to get no less than four of our new talents arrested than the loss of the other personnel, or the failure to procure the diaries.”

Kudzu gulped, and Leet gave him a grateful look for prioritising his friends (and calling them all ‘talents’, he suspected); he was unlikely to blame the Dark for this disaster, anyway, but it was always good to solidify peoples’ loyalty.

Calculass only smirked, as if she’d seen through the act.

Interesting. I wonder whether she is simply astute, or her power helps. If she’d managed to get placement in the apprentice program without a team, then she ought to be a special talent.

And yet her file had not been flagged for him to read, even though he’d explicitly ordered that he be kept up to date on any special talents within the organisation. Maybe it was just an honest mistake. Maybe someone was trying to keep her off my radar.

Or maybe he was just so bored that he was reading way too much into a single smirk.

Fortunately, Kudzu drew his thoughts back to the matter at hand when he tried to evade responsibility. I wonder how he’ll try to achieve that.

“Sir, please, this is being blown way out of proportion,” he began. “Yes, there were multiple factors I hadn’t predicted, and yes, I failed to achieve my objective, but the talents you assigned to me are all still alive, and since the ones that were captured are all minors, and lack unmanageable powers, breaking them out of whichever juvenile detention facility they will be put into should not be an issue – and I will gladly do it myself, on my own dime-“

“Enough!” he shouted, slamming a fist on the table. Time to end this charade.

Everyone went quiet, even more so once he began leaching the light out of the room, casting an oppressive gloom about everyone. He rose, slowly, reaching out for Kudzu. The fool leaped off his chair and ran for the door – he’d probably set up some crazy escape plan, just out of habit – but Calculass reached out with one foot, tripping him.

He fell on his face with a yelp, and then the Dark was upon him. Lifting the man by the neck, he held him up so his head was almost touching the ceiling.

“On your own dime, eh?” he growled, making his wraith pulse for extra effect. “How very gracious of you. How noble. How utterly asinine! Of course you’ll break them out free of pay, and you know why? Because otherwise, I will break you! Does your intellect suffice to understand that?” He shook the man until he nodded. “And as to why I’m doing this myself, instead of letting Luciano rip into you – I know you accessed our files on the capes of New Lennston, so you ought to have known that Polymnia and Brennus both are hands off! Had you actually killed either of them, your punishment would’ve been far, far harsher than you can imagine, boy.

The man paled, though Peter was sure he didn’t realise just how close to a gruesome death he’d gotten. Amanda had been screaming bloody murder within an hour after the whole thing had become known, and he’d just barely talked her down before she went after Kudzu – fortunately, Basil hadn’t actually been hurt, and so she’d finally calmed down, after he’d promised to personally take care of the issue.

Calming down Irene had been considerably easier – the girl was taking much more after her mother than him, and she’d been willing to let it go, so long as she never had to see or hear of Kudzu again.

“As if all that were not enough, you lost the diaries! They were either destroyed or picked up by someone we don’t know about, which at best means the Syndicate will have to pay top dollar to get them back, if we ever get them at all!” he shouted at the man, his eyes flaring up like blood-red stars. He could smell the man soil himself as he threw him towards the door, before he calmed himself down, letting light fill the room again. “You have forty-eight hours to draw up a plan to break the survivors of your failure out of prison, and another seventy-two hours to pull it off; don’t you dare show your face to me again unless you succeed.”

The man nodded fearfully, all but crawling out of the room and breaking into a run.

The Dark returned to his seat and took a look at the three who remained. Luciano looked calm and professional, though he could see the signs of nervousness and fear in him… ah, he’d been the one to sign off on this operation, and he was fearing that he’d be punished as well.

“No blame lies with you, Luciano,” he soothed his worries. He’d have preferred to use his last name, now that he knew it, but he’d already used his first name before – switching to his last name could be seen as a kind of punishment, and that was not the message he wanted to bring across. “You followed procedure perfectly, and Kudzu’s failure will not reflect back on you.”

“Th-thank you, Sir,” the man breathed in relief.

“The same applies to you, Leet,” he continued, turning to look at the boy. “Your performance was exemplary. I fear you were simply outmatched against Brennus, which is no fault of yours.”

“Yeah, uh, I didn’t know anyone could work like that. He was shutting me out of any system he got access to without even trying, even though he had barely any resources and I doubt he studied the Arcades’ security systems beforehand,” the boy said with a blush that offset his annoyed look. “I read up on the guy, and I can’t even begin to guess at what he’s capable of – what is even his speciality?!” he asked, sounding as exasperated as he looked.

You’re not the only one who’d like to know that, he thought to himself. “Sooner or later, a pattern will emerge and then we’ll figure out just what his limitations are.” He turned away from the boy and looked at the girl. “Do you have anything to add, Calculass?” he asked curiously.

“I think Kudzu could’ve dealt with the heroes, or with the rampant contrivance – it was just that both together were too much, especially since Polymnia turned out to have an ace in the hole like that,” she stated firmly, her voice carrying a French accent… French Canadian. “He completely failed to adapt his pre-conceived plans, though; I think that’s a limitation of his power, not of himself – he needs to work in advance, not on the fly. He really should never have been allowed to actually lead a mission himself.”

“His power may be thus limited, but being aware of that and knowing ones own limitations – or rather, not doing so in this case –  is on him; he’s been active for years and has still failed to figure it out, it seems.”

She just shrugged. “Well, that’s all I had to add, I guess.”

Liar. He didn’t know why, but his gut was telling him that there was more that she wanted to say. But why was she holding it back?

He looked closer at the girl. She was relaxed in a calmly detached sort of way – her profile suggested sociopathic tendencies and a certain amount of general detachment from the real world – but she was definitely holding something back…

Ah. That’s how it is.

“Luciano, Leet, you two are dismissed, please, return to your rooms – you’ve both earned some sleep,” he said. He looked straight at the girl. “I would like to have a private word with Calculass, anyway.”

They nodded and got up to leave, though Leet threw the girl a worried look which she ignored. “Um, good night, Calculass. And good night, uh, boss,” he threw in at the last minute.

The Dark acknowledged him with a nod, though Calculass gave no sign of even having noticed him. He left after Luciano.

“That was rather mean, to ignore him like that,” he said lightly. “Why the cold shoulder?” The more he knew about her, the better.

She looked up at him, sitting up straight. “It’s more likely that he’ll stay infatuated with me, without demanding actual reciprocation, if I give him the cold shoulder in between a few sparse responses; responding too much might lead to him growing impatient and demanding a definitive answer as to my interest in him,” she said coldly.

“So you’re just stringing him along in order to exploit his talents?”

“No. He does that all on his own – even if I rejected him, I doubt it would end his interest in me, and it might merely lead to him growing actually obsessed with me; better to make use of it while it lasts.”

“How very calculating of you,” he joked.

She rolled her eyes. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one before.”

“What did you expect with a cowl like that?” Not that it’s nearly the worst cowl I’ve ever heard, he thought, reminded once again of ‘the Evolutrix’.

She actually blushed a bit. “It’s from my favourite book series, alright!?” Then, as if as an afterthought, she added, “Sir.”

“I see. So, what’d you want to say earlier?” he finally got to the point.

“I noticed some weird interference, during the mission,” she said at once. “Sir.”

He tilted his head. “Define interference.”

“Interference with my power,” she complied. “Do you know how my power works?”

“I’m afraid I only know that it’s based on numbers and that you have been classified as a potential A-Class Esper – which is very curious, as I am supposed to be briefed on every such individual as soon as they’re classified, yet I’d never even heard of you before this debacle.”

She looked down at her hands on the table. “I, ah, wouldn’t know about that…”

He chuckled good-naturedly, making her look up at him in surprise. “Who’s your master?”

“Dominaria,” she said before she swallowed dryly.

Ah, light dawns. “You know why she tried to keep you hidden from me.” A statement, not a question, backed up by as stern a glare as he could manage (he could manage a very stern one, especially with six eyes).

She looked down again, her shoulders slumping a bit. “She… she’s planning a coup. Not that I think that she’s got any chance, but… she’s planning.” She hunched her shoulders, then looked at him with wide eyes. “Please don’t hurt her. I know she’s… but…” Words failed her, obviously.

“Oh, I’m not going to hurt her, child,” he said. “I’ve known about her little schemes for a long time now; I just didn’t know about you.”

“You know…” She cut herself off, and her eyes… flickered for a moment, her pupils refocusing visibly. “Oh. Better the devil you know.”

Interesting. Quite so. Dominaria is quite useful despite her overblown ambition; better to let her think I haven’t seen through her little games and make use of her, instead of inviting someone more competent to take her place. But enough of that, please tell me about that interference.”

She cleared her throat, then she sat up straight, instead of lounging or being hunched over. “As you know, Sir, precognitive powers, as well as some other Esper-type abilities, interfere with each other when being focused on the same or closely related subjects – for example, when multiple espers are part of the same operation, especially when they are on opposing sides.”

“I am all too aware of that, believe me,” he said, reaching up with his hands to massage his temples. “And I have very vivid memories of the migraines that come with it.” That was a straight lie – he’d never had to deal with the downsides of esper-abilities himself – he had his wraiths for absorbing the unsavory side-effects of powers like that.

She smiled in sympathy. “Yeah, me too, Sir,” she said, shuddering a bit as she no doubt remembered suffering through the backlash of her power. “So, anyway – my power is partly precognitive, and even its present-focused components appear to suffer from the same interference; it wasn’t so bad when I was working together with Kudzu, as his power mostly works in advance, and not while we were together out on the field; and even then, we were on the same side, and I was just an observer, not an actor.”

He nodded, to show that he was still following her.

“But then it got weird. It was like someone with a major esper-ability – some kind of serious precog, probably, since they always cause the worst interference – had suddenly, and out of nowhere, inserted themselves into the situation. I only dodged a migraine because I was, as I said, just an observer, and holding my power back in general; and Kudzu probably didn’t even notice, he doesn’t seem to be too aware of his power’s workings – but I have no doubt that it contributed to his catastrophic failure to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Well well well, I guess I might’ve been a little too hard on the man. Just a little bit. “Do you have any idea who might’ve been responsible?”

She shook her head. “Only wild mass guessing, Sir. Nothing based on any evidence.”

“Tell me your top theory, please,” he asked nicely. The girl was quite astute – few people her age were that aware of the inner workings of the more subtle powers, even other espers; even veterans like Kudzu often lacked the proper awareness of the subject matter.

“I suspect one of the heroes, Sir,” she said. “Polymnia already concealed an impressive level of brute power – it would not be too much of a stretch to assume that she’s kept another ability secret. However, multiple powers are rare, and three powers of such diversity are even less likely. So I’d probably bet on Brennus. We barely know anything about his abilities anyway, it is reasonable to assume that he has a precognitive ability on top of his Gadgeteering which he doesn’t advertise.”

Not as far as I – or he – he can tell. “Reasonable. Of course, there might’ve just been a precog hiding among the civilian hostages. Then again, they wouldn’t have been able to interfere too much in the situation without giving themselves away, which they didn’t…” He made a break in his speech, inviting her to conclude the thought. Just to see if she’d realise what he was talking about.

“And a passive precog is not really going to interfere with active ones – they need to actually use the information they get in order to force our powers to try to account for them… which would cause their power to have to account for ours, provided we’d be interested in and able to respond… which would initiate the cycle of interference, which it did, which implies that the precog actually did act, and did not merely observe as I did; they would’ve caused far less damage if they’d acted like I did.” She shook her head. “This is so frustrating, Sir.”

“That’s the life of an Esper, dear. Believe me, it’s even more frustrating for those who aren’t blessed with that kind of ability. Why didn’t you want to say this in front of the others? Your observation would not have put you at a disadvantage in any way.”

“I’m naturally secretive, Sir,” she said. “I prefer to keep the circle of knowledge small. Controllable. There was no need to share it with the others.”

“My, you’re already talking like a veteran. I approve.”

She blushed and smiled a bit, shifting around on her seat in a pleased way; then she fixed met his eyes directly for the first time. “So… what now, Sir?”

“Now you will explain your power to me. And then I’ll decide whether you’re more useful as Dominaria’s subordinate, or whether to use you somewhere else.”

She swallowed dryly, but didn’t speak up, looking… really rather scared, her earlier cheer gone. Sociopathic tendencies? Either she’s a world-class actor, or she’s more normal than her psychological profile suggests.

“Begin.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “Well, my power relies on numbers, as you already know. I… see numbers, everywhere. She looked around the room. “The length of things, the height, angles, weight, whatever – it starts simple, but builds up. For example, I look at you, and my power immediately compares your height to my own, and so I know that you’re exactly three metre tall.”

He raised a hand, interrupting her. “It uses the metric system?”

She frowned. “Actually… now that you mention it, no. Not really. But… when I have to express the numbers, they come out in the metric system… it’s hard to put into words, I only see and work with numbers in a system that has no words, no descriptions. Just numbers and graphs, but as soon as I try to put it into words – whether in my head or vocally – it just naturally parses into the metric system; but I can also parse it into the imperial system. I just… prefer the metric system. It’s way more elegant.”

“Not to mention sane,” he added.

She smirked, relaxing a bit. “Yeah, that. So, to get back to my power… I start with simple numbers. Like your height. Then, I calculated your weight, which is only seventy-three kilogram, which suggests that you’re either insanely underweight, or this appearance of yours is not really your physical form.”

“That is correct,” he admitted. I’m liking this. “How did you calculate my weight? Did the number just come to you, provided by your power?”

She shook her head. “No. I mean, I can do that, too, but it… no, let’s not do this out of order. I’ll get to that later, alright?”

“It’s your power – you ought to know how to explain it,” he agreed.

“I had trouble with your weight, for a moment, because it’s so disproportionate to your height – normally I compare a person’s height to the noise they make when they walk, the way their body moves, how much they sink into their seats, and so on. With you, those numbers were out of proportion, or plain hidden – I can’t tell how you move beneath those shadows, for example – and it took me a little longer than usual to get your weight. I had the same problem with lung capacity and fitness; normally, looking at a person’s body, listening to their voice and their breathing is enough to determine those numbers; but with you, it’s all skewed.”

“We keep coming back to that problem. Please use someone other than me as an example,” he told her.

She nodded. “Alright. Let’s take Kudzu. He’s one meter and seventy-three centimetres and nine millimetres tall – which I could tell by comparing his height to mine – and he weighs sixty kilogram and two-hundred and fifty gram. He has slightly below-average lung capacity at five-point-five litres and his muscles show slightly blow-average density, too. His bones are average for men of his age, in terms of density. All these numbers were inferred from observing his height, movements, breathing and speech. I also have numbers on his reflexes – again slightly below average for men of his age – and other statistics,” she recounted with some pride in her voice.

“Impressive. But that is hardly the reason why you’ve been given a Esper classification.”

“No, that’s just how it starts,” she corrected emphatically. “I can add any number about a subject to their… their profile. And the more information I already have, the more I can compute. But I have to be careful how far I stretch it – if I work off of too little hard information, I not only tend to reach wrong numbers, but I risk my models collapsing and causing me a huge migraine. Also, it’s easier for other espers to block me if I rely on too little hard information.”

“I think you’ll need to explain that more elaborately,” he admitted suspiciously.

“Well, for example – let’s say I want to calculate a weak point in a person’s body, to cause the maximal damage with a simple strike,” she said, her eyes staring off into the distance. “Even if, say, I only have a person’s height and weight – and nothing else yet – my power can jump ahead, giving me numbers I haven’t worked up to yet – like the shatterpoint of a person’s right arm’s bones. But if I use that… that soft number to calculate how to hit for maximum damage, and that other person is also an esper of some kind, then my calculations are far more likely to be off than they would be if I were to work up to the shatterpoint by analysing bone density, muscle density, previous damage and so on and getting the same, but hard number to use.”

“But if you already have those numbers, you are resistant to the effect?” Please say no, please say yes…

“Yes, that’s it. I become more resistant to interference the more hard numbers I have. And the effect is even more pronounced if I have hard numbers on an esper’s power – if I really analyse it, and I let my power work out their power by processing observations, reports and so on, then I can start to work against them without their power interfering with mine.”

Oh, this is going to be a problem… “How very… interesting. But I assume there is a limit to this?”

She nodded. “Yes, very much so,” she admitted sullenly, as if the thought of her power being less than perfect offended her. “Figuring out powers is really hard, especially the more subtle ones. And even more so if they don’t have external effects. I mean, calculating the strength and toughness of a brute is trivial. As is range, accuracy and heat of a laser beam,” she said off-handedly with a shrug. “But working out a person’s precognition, or their enhanced intelligence or to which extent they can mimic powers? Not so much, not usually. And when I work with complex, subtle stuff like that, I have to be even more careful not to slip and leave too many gaps in my calculations – it can happen unconsciously, without me noticing it – which leads to migraines again.”

“You mentioned earlier that you have precognitive abilities. Explain that, too.”

“If I have enough numbers on something, I can calculate probable future actions and events, as well as how likely they are to happen,” she replied with a proud grin. “The more I know, the further into the future I can look, and the more accurate it becomes. It gets even better if I have information on previous behaviour – or, even better, if I have first-hand experience. Which is why I could tell that there was a seventy-nine percent chance of Kudzu trying to escape when you increased the pressure on him, and I’d already calculated how to stop him – a simple trip was enough – as well as how to trip him the best way – maximised effect, minimised risks for me; after all, I didn’t want to twist my ankle, or have him step on my foot,” she finished with a disdainful sniff.

She’s adorable. “And you can predict anyone so long as you have numbers on them?”

“No. I can’t predict DiL, not really. I can create a… a model of her, something to fill in the gap, but it’s still a gap, and so my predictions are largely useless, at least in the long term – I can’t predict where she’ll strike next, nor even where it’s most likely to happen – and I can’t figure out any weaknesses, either – I just get a migraine out of trying. I might be able to predict her behaviour in the short term, if I was present during an attack, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are some people who’re just… living gaps for my power, no matter how much or how few numbers I have on them.”

I almost wish Gwen was here to hear this… though she’d probably snatch the girl right up. “Let me guess – Ember and Pristine are also living gaps to you?”

She nodded. “Yes. And… uh… I tried to… to analyse Gloom Glimmer – just as a thought exercise, of course!” she admitted, making a rather ridiculous-looking calming gesture, as if she was afraid he’d lash out at her for even thinking about it.

“And what was the result?”

“My power works normally on her… sometimes. And sometimes, she’s as much of a gap as… the others. I can still predict her using a… let’s call it a theoretical model, I mean, I remember the numbers I use when my power is working normally on her, and I can use them to create a gap-filler, but even though those same numbers worked just fine before, my power treats them as if they were soft numbers, and not the hard numbers I was using before. It doesn’t help that I don’t really have any firsthand experience with her, only reports and videos on the internet.”

“Numbers from firsthand experience are more useful?”

“Yes, extremely so. Far less risk of unconscious gaps if I’m actually there, experiencing things firsthand.”

“What about non-sentient targets?”

“Easy stuff,” she said, her grin returning to her face. “A rock falls the same way, every time. I just need to know its weight and shape. Animals vary. The more complex they are, the more information I need to predict them; insects and the like are trivial, mammals are more complex; no animals are half as difficult as humans, though.”

“I must say, your power is impressive. No wonder Dominaria would like to keep you to herself.”

She blushed. “Uh, yeah. She’s said that, too.”

He noted the blush. Considering Dominaria’s usual modus operandi, he wouldn’t put it past her to have used her power to make the girl fall in love with her… whether or not she was interested in females.

Then again, she didn’t seem to have that strong a hold on her… espers tended to be more resistant to mental powers.

I see quite a bit of research coming my way… though I could also outsource it, I guess.

“I think I’ve heard enough for now,” he concluded. “Thank you for your cooperation. You may go to your room – sleep, for you will need to be on the top of your game tomorrow.”

She paled. “W-why, Sir?”

“Can’t you tell?” he asked curiously.

“I don’t have nearly enough numbers to predict you, Sir,” she said.

“It comforts me to know that my mysterious mysteriousness remains mysterious to you,” he chuckled as he rose up and walked around the table – on her side. She didn’t flinch or shrink away when he reached out to run his palm over her head, but she did shiver. Not fear. Not arousal… but something else. Ah, she’s attracted to power, he deduced. She wasn’t the only esper in the room, after all. “You’ll need to be well-rested for the first day of the rest of your life. I wish you a good night… and sweet dreams.” And with that, he left the girl and took the elevator back up.

***

He dismissed the wraith while on the elevator, and walked by Denise’s desk – taking the time to give her blonde-haired, pale face a look that implied appreciation of her beauty, to appease her vanity – with a light step. “Denise, I want you to re-assign Calculass,” he told her.

“Where to, Sir?” she asked without preamble, and without even asking who he was talking about.

“To me. I’m taking her on as my personal apprentice.”

That got a reaction out of her. Her cool, collected mask slipped for just a moment, betraying surprise, before she got herself under control again. “I will do so, Sir.”

“Call her up tomorrow at eight o’clock. She is to assist you the whole day,” he ordered.

She nodded, already tapping her keyboard. “Shall I put her through the wringer, Sir?”

“Absolutely. I want to know what she’s made of, whether she can swallow her pride and do work that, to her, would be beneath her and her power,” he elaborated. “Don’t be too obvious about it, though – with her power, she’ll probably figure out that she’s being tested sooner rather than later, but the longer it takes her, the better. Best not to mention that she’s to be my apprentice, either – only tell her she’s supposed to assist you. Don’t mention me, and don’t let her contact me; as far as it concerns her, she’s been assigned to be your bitch, and nothing more.”

The corner of her left mouth ticked up. “Oh, I think I’m going to enjoy this a lot, Sir,” she admitted as she made the necessary arrangements.

“I’m sure you will,” he said with a gentle touch to her shoulder. “Also, make sure she doesn’t contact Dominaria in any way.”

“Of course, Sir.”

He nodded and walked to the door. “I’ll be in my office then.”

“Yes Sir. I sent a new batch of request forms to your computer – the urgent ones have been added to the front of your queue, the rest to the back.”

He groaned with as much feeling as he could put into it. “You know, if I see just one more request form, I’m going to take over the world and wipe out the very concept of request forms!” he swore.

“You make that oath three times a week, and the request forms are still here. I suppose they are mightier than you,” she said in a perfectly level voice.

“No one respects me anymore,” he complained as he entered his office.

“The request forms certainly don’t, Sir,” she said to the sound of her fingers flying over the keyboard.

***

Sitting at his desk, he reached for his phone before he’d get back to those infernal request forms. He pressed the first speed dial button.

The phone barely had a chance to ring before it was picked up.

“Hello Petey!” said Gwen’s bright voice, and immediately, he felt at ease. Much more pleasant than request forms.

“Hello Gwen,” he replied warmly, as he put his robe and mask aside. “How’re you doing?”

“Oh, I’m quite well, my dear. Just hunting down a few annoying villains. Same old, same old,” she answered. He didn’t hear anything other than her voice, since she usually used a directed microphone that picked up only her voice when in the field.

“Anyone I know or should be worried about?”

“No. Just a bunch of teenage hotheads who think it’s funny to advertise online that they’re planning to sexually assault heroines – I’m going to teach them a lesson,” she said, with a little annoyance and a subtle thread of outrage sneaking into her otherwise happy voice. “What about you?”

“Oh, I just found a possible proof of your theory on the mechanics of precognition,” he said off-handedly, as if it wasn’t anything special.

“What? Really!” she spoke, her voice rising a little higher. She sounded very pleased. “Who, or what, is this proof?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he asked and hung up on her. Then he blocked her number on his phone, for the time being, laughing to himself all the while. Oh, this would annoy her for hours. She’d get all worked up and annoyed with him… and then, maybe, he’d let her ‘convince’ him to tell her, later on… perhaps in bed. Yes, that would serve nicely. They hadn’t had much time together lately. So busy, the both of them.

His mirth lasted all through the first ten request forms, four of which he approved. Then he was back to being deathly bored.

***

He had slipped into a mercifully numb fugue state, as he worked through his queued up work, when his intercom buzzed him back to life.

“Yes?” he asked, just in time for the door to open and Wyrm to simply walk in. She was one of the few people who were allowed to do that. “Nevermind,” he said into the intercom. Then he turned to her. “Hello, Wyrm,” he greeted her as he looked her up and down. “How are you doing?”

She was wearing a new power armor again – she never left her den without wearing power armor, though a quick check with his wraith confirmed that it was her at least, and she wasn’t trying to pass a remote-controlled drone off as herself again.

This armor was remarkably sleek, even considering her usual designs, which had actively avoided the clunky look of her early power armor (she was still getting embarrassed about that) for decades now, and it even hinted at some female curves underneath. Her helmet looked sleek, with a smooth faceplate and a stylised draconian design on the sides and top, extending out to the back. A backpack of sorts extended from her back, with what looked like two folded dragon wings attached to it which lacked the skin between their bones. The whole armor was coloured mostly black with glowing neon blue bits all over. It would most likely look pretty eerie in the dark.

“I’m just/ fine,” she said in her usual way of combining various soundbites from various sources, as she walked up to his desk and let the wooden panel which hid his projector flip open.. “It’s really/ inefficient to/ have me come personally/ for every report./ A video conference/ would be much more efficient,” she brought up her usual argument while she began to remove the old projector and install a new one she’d brought with her.

He smiled at her, already looking forward to whatever new gadget she’d come up with. “Perhaps, but if I didn’t make you come here for reports, you’d never leave your den at all, except on a mission,” he reiterated his usual response.

“What is the purpose of/ a den/ with every possible/ comfort and/ tool/ if I have to leave it?” she asked without bothering to look away from her work.

“None whatsoever!” he said cheerily, which earned him a deadly glare (though anyone who didn’t know her well enough to read her tells would think she’d only looked up from her work). “What do you want to talk about, my dear?” It can’t possibly not be more interesting than request forms.

“You asked me to/ investigate the source of/ Brennus’/ income,” she said, and he immediately became more serious, straightening himself out.

He’d been waiting to find out about that. “What did you find out?”

“I found out/ where it came from,” she replied. “Robin Hood.”

“Robin Hood?” He hadn’t heard anyone use that handle in… a long time, really. “Who is that?”

“Not who/ what?” she corrected him as she finished working on the projector and closed the panel. “I wasn’t sure/ at first/ but I’m now sure/ that it’s an/ AGI.” She walked a few feet away, letting the screen roll down, which she promptly dismantled.

Now the last bit of his cheer went away. “What kind?”

“I am absolutely certain/ that it’s a Gadget,” she replied, and then fell quiet to let that sink in while she carried the old projector and the screen out of the room for housekeeping to take care of.

He leaned back in his seat and raised a hand to put his palm on his forehead. Just great, he thought. A contrived AI was one thing – they were only rarely able to interface with non-contrived systems, and even if they did – they inevitably caused damage to whichever normal system they managed to interact with, which both limited their utility and their ability to use subterfuge, as their impossible nature caused glitches and worse in the programming of actually functional computer systems. An AI created by a gadgeteer… was not so limited.

They’d learned that the hard way, just a few years ago.

“What do you know about it? Is it anything like Morgana?” he asked, referring to the AI which had very nearly destroyed the British finance system in her effort to wipe the Syndicate off the British Isles.

She thought it over for a moment, sitting down on his desk right next to his left hand, then she spoke up, turning her head so her helmet was looking straight at him – though he knew she was using micro-cameras all over her helmet and armor to have a constant field of view of three-hundred sixty degrees anyway.

“My report/ took this long to complete/ because I wanted to be sure/ of what I found,” she began. “My conclusion/ after extensive research/ is thus:/ Robin Hood/ was created by/ the same person as/ Morgana.”

He groaned softly, rubbing his forehead. “Any clues as to who that person might be?”

“None,” she replied. “Occam’s Razor/ suggest that it’s/ one of four people./ Unless we assume/ it is someone who is/ entirely unknown/ in which case we/ would have nothing to go on.”

He motioned for her to continue. She turned to look towards the door, and the projector she’d just installed popped up. It promptly projected a file into thin air.

The image was crisp and looked almost solid, showing the image of a young Chinese woman, perhaps in her early twenties, with long, straight black hair and an arrogant look on her pretty face that belied the usual stereotypes about Asian women.

Peter, of course, knew that face. “Su Ling,” he said, even though her name was being projected next to her image, along with several bits of information on her – birthdate, height, weight, etc.

“Though there is/ little reason to/ believe that she is/ alive/ Su Ling has proven/ herself capable of/ creating true AI./ They may have been/ created before/ the Viridescent Dawn/ or perhaps/ she survived and/ has been creating them/ ever since.”

A chilling thought – if Su Ling survived, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were mad at the world, and out for blood. There was no telling what kind of damage she could cause. “We did find and positively identify her corpse, though,” he said.

“True, but/ considering her abilities/ it would be foolish to/ entirely discount her/ after all/ she could’ve made them in advance, as I said.”

“Alright. Go on.”

The file changed, showing the face of a preteen girl. She was cute, as all children were, with rosy cheeks and curly blonde hair, though perhaps a little heavier than was the average for a child. Her bright brown eyes were glittering with mischief. Her codename was also displayed in the lingo of internet denizens and English both: I<3U/I Love You.

“Though she is/ rather young/ I Love You/ has proven herself capable of/ creating Artificial Specialised Intelligences./ She may well/ have made the jump to/ Artificial General Intelligence.”

“If it’s her, then we can at least deal with it easily,” he replied. “We know where she lives, we can talk to her, convince her to take any AGIs she has down – or turn them to our purposes.”

“I have been/ talking to her/ through an Instant Messenger./ She is/ too enamored with her freedom/ to toe the line./ That is all/ I can say about her,” she admitted.

“Still, it leaves us options, if she really is the one – though I doubt it,” he concluded. “I hope not. I’d rather not have to move against a child that age… not again.”

“Fortunately, there are/ two more options,” she continued, and the image changed to show the mask of an angelic, porcelain-skinned woman with vermillion-coloured eyes. “Though/ Atrocity/ is not a/ gifted programmer in the sense that/ she is extremely limited in what she can produce/ her speciality is, after all/ man-machine integration./ She may well have managed to/ encode a human brain/ or fuse a/ human brain/ to a computer system/ thus allowing it to/ operate not unlike/ an AGI.”

“That’s a stretch, dear, even considering the Savage Six’ predilection for defying expectations.” He tapped drummed his fingers on the desk in a short staccato. “Nevermind that I sincerely doubt she wouldn’t just go for the maximum possible amount of damage all at once.”

“Perhaps, which is why/ she is only the/ third-most/ likely known choice,” she replied. “Robin Hood’s/ nature suggests/ a more benevolent creator,” she continued. “Speaking of which.”

The image changed to show an image from a battlefield – a city, torn asunder in metahuman combat, under a jet black sky. In the center of the image was a young boy, older than eight but younger than ten, in the middle of leaping from a crashed truck towards several of the Six’ heavily armored minions, who were shooting at him with assault rifles.

The boy was laughing as he pointed a gadget gun at the men, wearing jeans, sandals and a black shirt himself, and bullets bounced off of a force-field around him, projected by the harness he’d strapped over his shirt.

“Macian,” Wyrm said simply. “No other name/ known. Only this one/ image/ exists, and the image quality/ does not allow/ reliable face-matching./ Known connection to/ the Savage Six./ Suspected connection to/ Brennus.”

“And then there is Eudocia…” Peter whispered. “Basil believes that Macian made her. I am inclined to agree, which would indicate Macian as the source of all our trouble.”

“You should/ just let me/ take/ Eudocia/ for research,” she said, sounding almost petulant.

“There’d be no way to hide her loss from Basil. And you know the rules – he’s safe so long as he doesn’t become an active threat to the Syndicate. Even then, Amanda would have to be consulted.”

“I’m not proposing that we/ attack/ him/ I just want the/ box!” From petulant to annoyed.

“No. Not yet. Besides, Eudocia is merely a very sophisticated ASI, as far as Basil himself has been able to determine,” he replied calmly. “It may not be connected to Morgana and Robin Hood at all. Do you have any other information to tie them together?”

She shook her head.

“Alright,” he replied. “Let’s shelve this for now. We should focus on what we do know – namely, this Robin Hood AI. What is it capable of? What does it do and where is it located?”

The projector shut off. “I have not/ been able to/ determine its/ physical/ location./ It deals in/ money./ Exclusively so,” she said. “Stealing money from/ criminals and corrupt governments/ as well as/ some/ other politicians./ Redistributing it to/ people in need/ charities/ and hero organisations lacking support.”

“So the money it gave Basil may not have anything to do with a connection between them and merely have been him helping out an up-and-coming superhero?” he threw in.

“Possibly not./ Though/ it/ usually only donates to/ proven heroes/ with very few exceptions,” she answered. “It is/ very good at/ what it does./ Where it not for/ me/ tracing/ Basil Blake’s money/ I would probably not have/ found it.”

That good?”

“Yes./ It is an AGI/ after all/ yet one which/ focuses on/ a single field of/ activity,” she admitted. “Its ability to/ evade notice and/ escape pursuit/ is nearly on par with mine/ but stealth is much easier than/ tracking on the internet/ especially for something like/ that.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but stopped and leaned back to think it over. An AI that was limiting itself to redistributing money like that… was a reason to worry, but probably not a threat. Maybe. Possibly.

“Has he stolen from us?”

“Yes/ though only/ small amounts.” She threw up a file of a middle-aged hispanic man. “This accountant/ of ours/ has been stealing/ from us,” she explained. “Robin Hood/ found out and/ has been taking money/ from the accounts he manages./ As doing so would also/ reveal his own duplicity/ he has not reported this.”

Oh, the irony. “So Robin Hood inadvertently helped us find out about a leak in our own finances,” he said humorously. “How much did our accountant steal? And how much did the AI take?”

“Eight hundred and/ forty-four/ thousand dollar and/ twenty-two thousand dollar/ respectively.”

“Robin Hood took relatively little money,” he observed.

She nodded. “From what I could find out/ it prefers to deal in/ small amounts./ Five hundred here/ two thousand there./ The money it/ gave to/ Basil Blake/ was among the largest/ amounts it ever/ moved.”

“Interesting… did you interact directly with it?”

“I attempted to/ but it is rather/ skittish./ It seems to/ prefer to/ abandon any project/ it is/ working on/ rather than risk/ being found/ and/or/ analysed,” she replied. “It took me/ three days/ just to confirm/ it exists/ and two weeks/ to determine its/ nature.”

He put his fingers together in front of his face, tapping his chin with the indices. “So we have an AGI of unknown origin, which steals mostly small amounts of money to redistribute among heroes, charities and generally needy people; which is doing its best to stay hidden and not draw attention; and which has been active for… how long?”

“I was able to/ confirm activity/ over the last/ two years and/ seven months,” she answered immediately. “Should I/ attack it?/ Given some additional resources/ and two weeks/ I ought to be able to/ track down its/ physical location.”

He thought it over for a few minutes, quietly. She wouldn’t mind waiting – a few minutes were little to her, provided they were well-used.

“No,” he finally decided. “We ought not antagonise it, so long as it is… tame. That might push it into rampancy, or worse. No, we ought to reward it.”

“What?” she asked, surprise showing through in her (limited) body language. Mostly in the abruptness with which she moved her head to lock onto him again.

He nodded, quirking his mouth into a smile. “It did help us find a traitor in our midst. Transfer the usual reward – subtracting the money it already stole from us – to the account it was moving the money from ours to. No additional messages.”

“It used/ several accounts/ just for that one/ source.”

“Then to any one of them,” he replied, dismissing that issue. “Just make sure it gets the money. That way, we’ll both express that we are aware of it – and of its theft – and that we are… reasonable. Who knows but that it will cooperate with us some day.”

“Very well./ What of/ the accountant?”

“Have an example made of him, and anyone else involved in his treachery,” he replied with a hard voice, the mirth gone. “With extreme prejudice.”

She nodded simply, and had probably already sent off the orders before he even finished his sentence.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. He knew she disliked wasting time, so best to press on.

“Yes/ there is,” she replied. “You have/ chosen an/ apprentice again.”

“Yes, I have. Calculass caught my interest, and work has been… quite boring lately,” he explained, not surprised that she’d already known about it. “Do you object?”

“Not directly,” she answered. “I am more concerned/ with your habits regarding/ your apprentices.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking up at her ‘face’. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You/ only took apprentices/ twice before,” she explained. “You took/ Sweetspot/ after/ Aaron/ ran away/ and you took Cataclysm/ shortly after DiL’s/ birth.”

He frowned – he’d never really paid attention to that happenstance before.

“Now Irene/ is striking out on her own/ and no longer needs you/ as much as before,” she continued unabashed, “She/ has chosen being a/ superhero/ pursuing her mother’s path/ instead of yours./ And now you take/ an apprentice/ and a teenage girl/ near her age/ as well.”

He sighed, putting his right elbow on the armrest, and resting his cheek on his hand. “I never… thought about it that way. Do you think I should… abort?” he asked honestly.

“I don’t think/ that that is necessary/ so long as you/ are aware of/ just what you want,” she replied simply. “An apprentice will/ certainly alleviate/ the moods you’ve/ found yourself in/ since Aaron returned/ and Irene left/ and it never hurts to/ encourage great potential.”

He nodded. “Thank you for pointing all that out. I shall take her as an apprentice – she is talented enough to warrant it, even if you disregard my… empty nest syndrome, I guess.”

“Good./ There is/ one more/ subject which/ we need to talk about,” she said, getting off the desk and walking around it again.

“Do tell,” he said curiously.

The projected image changed, showing… Amanda, in full costume. “I have to question/ your decision to/ hand over full/ operational control/ of North America/ to Amanda Blake,” she explained. “Though she is powerful/ she is too unstable/ to shoulder the responsibility./ As I have said before/ she is unfit to be a/ full/ member of the Dark Five.”

“Objection,” he… objected, sitting up straighter. “She has vastly improved lately, ever since her and Basil’s relationship has become strained – and their falling out has pushed her to excel, where before she mostly slacked in her criminal duties.”

“Which is/ admittedly/ impressive/ and worrying at the same time,” she replied, calling up a picture of Basil next to Amanda’s.

The boy was looking rather unhealthy on this rather recent picture, making Peter frown. He’d known, thanks to his wraith, that Basil was cutting back on both sleep and proper eating lately, but he hadn’t known it had gotten this bad. I might have to intervene before something irreversible happens.

“The fact that/ her brother has/ such a massive impact/ on her efficiency as a/ villain/ would suggest that/ removing him from the picture-“

“Stop,” he cut her off sharply. “Don’t even finish that sentence. You know the rules.”

“I know them/ but they are still/ largely incomprehensible to me/ or rather I should say/ your rigid adherence to them/ even when responsibility could be diverted/ seems inefficient to me. We could/ be rid of the boy/ and pin it on/ someone undesirable/ so as to/ motivate/ Amanda Blake/ to even better performance.”

“Or break her, instead,” he replied. “Nevermind that rules really aren’t worth the ink they are written with, if one does not adhere to them even when safe from repercussions – it’s not a Contractualist tenent that one obey the law even in the absence of repercussions for nothing.”

“Contractualism/ is not for/ supervillains,” she shot back. “Nevermind that your decision/ as to this subject matter/ is largely driven by/ sentiment/ rather than/ philosophical deliberation.”

“Sentiment is important.”

“I find it largely confusing.”

He smiled sadly at her. “I know. But you could understand it; if you did, I would feel fully comfortable handing the Syndicate over to you, and retiring. But you do not, yet, and thus I am still the better choice to lead.”

“I doubt that/ I shall ever/ understand this,” she said with an indifferent shrug.

His smile turned knowing. “Is that why you still wear the nightdress Hurton gave you?”

She froze for a full minute. Then she turned away. “I wasn’t objecting to/ Amanda Blake’s/ promotion/ solely due to/ her brother’s influence/ on her,” she said, obviously hoping he wouldn’t pursue that point. “She is an/ unstable serial rapist/ and her status as a/ member of the Five/ reflects badly upon us/ despite our best efforts to/ foster as positive a/ public image/ as possible. Nevermind how/ unreliable she is/ or need I mention/ her loss of control/ during the Hemogoblin incident?” She turned around to look at him again.

Oh, I’ve been waiting for this.

“Why are you/ grinning like that?/ It’s creepy,” she said. “And annoying.”

“Well…” he reached into a drawer of his desk and pulled out a thin folder. “Take a look at this – it’s Walker’s report on the incident.”

“I’ve already read it,” she replied.

“Not this one,” he said, his grin almost splitting his face. “This is the actual report, which he didn’t transfer into the system at my behest.”

She walked over and picked the folder up, reading through it in moments.

“What… what is this?” she asked, and the soundbite fit just perfectly. “Why would you/ keep this a/ secret from me?/ What does it/ even mean?”

“I wasn’t keeping it a secret from you, specifically,” he told her, standing up. He held his wrist with his hand behind his back, and walked around the desk. “But considering Amanda’s abilities, keeping it unknown to anyone but me and Walker was the best option for making sure she did not learn of this… also, I wanted to surprise you, once my research into the matter was complete – which it now is.”

“Explain,” she demanded.

He smirked. “As you can tell from the report, something isn’t quite right with Amanda’s… perception of things,” he began. “She reported torturing Switchbitch,” he spoke the name with distaste – really, the taste of some people!, “to death, and according to Walker’s official report, she also abused the woman sexually… or so it seemed. After Amanda had left, Walker decided to eat the woman’s remains, and found them to be… changed. His curiosity piqued, he investigated and found that she had been killed before her weapon was forced up her anus, nor was there any sign of sexual contact of any kind.”

He paused and reached out for the floating projection. To his delight, it still recognised his hand signs and it called up several news reports.

‘New Supervillain seduces Hero to the Dark Side’

‘Fallen Superhero revealed to have been brainwashed and abused!’

‘Mindstar declared S-Class threat. No Kill Warrant yet – why?’

The articles continued like that, showing the progression of Amanda’s career as Mindstar, including all her sexual escapades.

“I decided to make a new background check, to see whether there’d been any history of mental illness in her family,” he explained. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that her entire past – including her parents – is entirely fictitious!”

“No,” she contradicted him. “I ran the/ background check/ myself/ before we contacted/ her./ They are real.”

“They were, at the time – or at least the documentation was,” he replied firmly, but gently. “But they are not. Amanda’s and Basil’s life in New Lennston is real. They have lived there for more than five years, and though numerous people remember interacting with their parents, I am absolutely sure they never existed to begin with.

She stayed quiet, probably doing research of her own even while she listened. He decided to continue.

“Considering all this, I decided to dig further; their past before coming to New Lennston is entirely made up,” he elaborated. “Basil’s memories of his family and life before that are very real – but they have no basis in reality. The same for his memories of financing and building his own base. As an aside, the fact that their parents – and their deaths – were never real to begin with certainly explains why even Basil does not appear to mourn them, or to have been actually affected by the loss – even if he has false memories of the event, he lacks the actual experience.”

“I can count the/ number of people/ who have proven to be/ capable of affecting/ long-term memories/ in anything but the/ crudest/ way possible/ on one hand/ and still have/ fingers left,” she stated simply.

“Quite so,” he agreed with a nod. “But it becomes more interesting still,” he threw in. “You see, though Mindstar’s career is quite real… her escapades are not.”

“What?” she asked flatly.

“You heard me. I went after and investigated all her supposed victims in the time since the Hemogoblin incident,” he explained. “From the sorority to Amazon, I investigated them all. Hell, I even did some deep mental probing, just to be sure!”

She nodded, waiting for his verdict.

“I couldn’t believe what I found! It made no sense at all!” he said with exasperation in his voice, throwing his arms up as he dramatically walked up and down the projected screen. “So I snuck into the Blakes’ residence and-“

“Probed Amanda Blake?” she asked. “That is/ incredibly risky/ considering her own/ powers.”

He waved her off. “No, I didn’t probe her… not mentally. I did do a full physical on her while she slept, though.”

“You/ snuck into a young woman’s home/ and did a full physical examination on her/ in her sleep?/ That is rather/ creepy/ even by/ your standards,” she commented, though he doubted that she disapproved.

“Compared to killing people, that’s really rather tame,” he defended his decision. “But never mind – what is important is not what I did, but what I found.”

“And what/ did you find?”

He walked over to his chair and sat down again. “As far as I can tell, both from the physical on Amanda, and the deep probing of her ‘victims’ and other partners, I can say with confidence that Amanda Blake…” He paused for dramatic effect. “Is a virgin.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Impossible,” she replied. “She has/ numerous lovers/ chief of all/ being Markus Birkovich./ He would not/ be satisfied with a/ merely platonic relationship.”

“And he isn’t. He’s very satisfied by their deeply physical relationship,” he replied. “Though he is as wrong about that as Basil is about financing his projects on his own, or as wrong as Amanda is about abusing her numerous victims.”

Her head tilted to the other side with a mechanical whirring sound. “What is/ going on here?”

He shrugged. “I am not quite sure. Amanda believes herself to be a rapist, she has even admitted that to her brother – not that it’s a secret. Amazon is absolutely certain she was sexually abused. The sorority girls Amanda visited still have wet dreams of the night they spent with her. Markus vividly remembers their frequent trysts. Notice a pattern here?”

“Yes/ and I am very worried,” he she replied. “Why are you/ promoting her/ instead of/ cutting all ties/ before whatever this is/ causes any damage/ to us?”

He spread his arms. “What, and ruin the suspense? This is the most interesting thing to happen in years!” he answered with a wide grin.

She slapped a hand to her armored forehead. “Oh please/ not this again.”

“C’mon dear, you can’t tell me you don’t want to know how this’ll play out! And besides, we know something is wrong – we can plan accordingly, keep her away from any truly sensitive information and keep an eye out for whomever is responsible for this – I don’t know about you, but I want a metahuman that powerful either on our side, or dead. And we won’t find them if we cut Amanda off.”

“So we…”

“We watch. We stay vigilant,” he said firmly. “And when the time comes, we’ll strike without mercy.”

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