B12.10 Born At Sleep

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I’m not dead.

Relief surged through Basil as he processed that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His armor wasn’t even nicked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One moment,” the preacher replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just checking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It fired straight at Crocell.

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B12.14 Born At Sleep

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According to Basil’s theory, Crocell’s outward appearance was merely cosmetic – merely a drawn-together matter compressed and shaped into an apparently living form. It’s actual appearance was random, or perhaps influenced by whatever impressions it got from its surroundings – that would explain why it had, at first, imitated whatever material it had come into contact with. Perhaps now it was simply drawing on the appearance of the humans around it.

Perhaps it wasn’t even really antagonistic towards them, but had merely reacted to the antagonism of the metahumans who’d opposed it.

Basil really, really hoped that his theory was accurate, because otherwise, the implications were more than a little disconcerting.

Crocell’s form had become even more humanoid; now coloured a dark purple, which darkened to jet black towards the tips of its limbs, it stood about twenty-five metres in height. Its legs and arms were fully formed, ending in human fingers and toes, even including toe-nails, though all of the same, uniform colour. Its body had become more angular, with sharp edges around the waist, ribs and shoulders, covered in odd, almost circuit-like patterns from top to bottom. The head was properly shaped now, though smooth, without openings for the nose, mouth, or eyes, though it was shaped so as to hint at them. It lacked ears entirely, however. From its left shoulder extended a scarf-like length of skin which was draped around its neck, once, then rose nearly to its chin before winding around its head one more time, weightlessly hovering in the air, coming down from the upper right of its face towards where its right eye should be, as if held up by an invisible force.

Its… or perhaps his, now that his appearance was more defined?… eye had moved from its spot on the head. Instead, there was now a large hole in Crocell’s chest, circular, twice as wide as the eye was – and the eye floated in its centre, without any visible support, moving around to look out the front and back of the gap.

He stood straight now, rising up from the dust his landing had thrown up, his eye searching around briefly – before it focused on the Subjugator.

“Uh, I don’t meant to alarm you people, but I, for one, can not do the gadgeteering thing while being pounded into paste,” Boom-Boom asked nervously.

“Then get to work now and finish before he pounds you into paste!” Tick-Tock shouted. “Let’s see what we can do!” She turned to the Subjugator. “Where’s your power reserve?”

“This masterpiece is powered by a compact cold fusion generator located… here,” it spoke, as a red light started to flicker about two thirds down its hull. “Though it is currently running purely on reserve power, as the reactor has been damaged too far to continue operating.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom leaped to it. “We’ll get this thing powered up again! You two work on the rest!”

<What about him!?> Polymnia asked, as Crocell advanced towards them with an unnaturally light-footed step, barely stirring the dust where his foot came down, even though the ground ought to be shaking.

“Leave that to her,” Basil told her, pointing towards the left and up as he walked up to the base of the ‘Zeus Caster’ (he preferred Arc Cannon himself. Way less pretentious), squatting down on an up-jutting piece of the shattered wing, ignoring the repair drones that were crawling around trying to get the Subjugator functional again.

The others all looked up in the direction he’d pointed.

A tiny figure, wreathed in white was approaching from the air, levitating more than she was flying, as dozens upon dozens of spheres in all colours of the rainbow were pouring forth from beneath her cloak, each about the size of a big marble when they first appeared, growing to the size of a medicine ball by the time they reached the ground, bouncing lightly and rolling around in the rubble. Her white hood was drawn deeply over her face, hiding all but her lips and chin from sight.

Even at this distance, it was easy to tell that she was frowning.

<Gloomy!> Polymnia shouted with a smile, recognizing her friend.

That’s their girl?” Boom-Boom asked. “Well, let’s hope she takes after her ‘rents, we could use some muscle here,” he continued as he turned back to his work, ripping a warped hatch off with the sound of screaming metal, then using the superior strength of his suit to pull the damaged reactor up out of its container. Tick-Tock nodded in agreement.

Polymnia cheered, though it didn’t keep her from doing her own work, her fingers flying over the keyboard she used to manipulate her technology, every microphone and speaker she had aimed at Crocell, projecting soundwaves with the latter whose reflections were then picked up by the former for analysis.

Basil just quietly reached for a metal plate about the size of his forearm, ripping it off to reveal circuitry and wiring underneath. He’d have to work fast, much faster than he liked to work on something as complex as this, but what had to be, had to be.

Crocell seemed to be the only one who didn’t notice Gloom Glimmer approaching, instead continuing on his way towards the downed machine. One of his hands rose, palm up, his fingers wriggling like he was just now trying them out for the first time. Water vapour condensed above his palm, gathering into a tiny sphere of water that was rapidly growing in size.

Before anyone could react to that, Gloom Glimmer raised her own hand in a motion mirroring his, palm up, and a single, jet-black marble-sized sphere appeared above it, while the stream of multi-coloured spheres continued to pour forth from the folds of her cape. The sphere grew to the size of a football, roughly, as she pulled her arm back, winding up for a throw, her body twisting side-ways at the waist. The sphere was thrown with perfect form, flying towards the unaware Crocell, slamming into the right side of his waist to no particular effect.

The very instant it made contact with his body, every single coloured sphere which Gloom Glimmer had spread over the ground shot towards it faster than the eye could follow, without a single sound, thousands of them all at once.

The cacophony should have been deafening, yet there was nothing, only a great mass of vapour and dust thrown up, the force of the massed impacts sending out a shockwave which caused a dust cloud to wash over everything in the rubble-strewn plaza.

When Crocell became visible again, a good chunk of his right side was gone from just below the shoulder all the way to his upper thigh, the flesh torn away leaving jagged edges behind, bleeding sea water as coils of muscles and other, stranger organs became visible within.

Crocell stumbled, nearly toppling over as he finally seemed to acknowledge his foe, turning his torso and thus his eye towards her, his posture betraying no emotion whatsoever, while his wound began to regenerate immediately.

Damn that was a nice hit,” Boom-Boom commented from where he and his sister were  working on the reactor. “Do it again, scary girl!”

<No, she’s going to change powers,> Polymnia disagreed.

***

Water vapour began to condense around Crocell, drawn into numerous ribbons winding around his body.

Gloom Glimmer raised her arm, palm turned flat towards the sky. A tiny dot of light appeared above it, expanding into a glowing ring of pure light, which remained afloat above her head like a halo, even when she lowered her arm again, bringing her hands together as if in prayer.

Crocell’s head tilted to the side, as if confused, water gathering about him.

The halo flared up, a single beam of impossible brightness lancing forth, as thick as a pencil, perhaps. It blasted through the ribbons of vapour, burning through Crocell’s left hip, the hole it burned far bigger than the circumference of the beam.

He shook his head left and right, as if screaming in pain, though obviously, no sound came out. He tried to get away from the beam, but it simply followed him, shearing through his body at an upward angle, as if to split him from waist to shoulder, lancing clean through to melt whatever was unlucky enough to be in its path – until it moved up towards Crocell’s spine, and suddenly, it no longer penetrated him. Vapour rose explosively from the wound as the beam continued on its path, blowing through his body again once it had moved past the body’s core, leaving a burned scar behind, like a channel dug across his body, finally blowing through his shoulder and away from his body.

Gloom Glimmer, meanwhile, had been charging up another power between her hands, which she’d moved apart by a few centimetres, a tiny mass of black matter spinning slowly between them, like a cube that had burst by more material growing from within, covered in sharp edges.

The beam winked out, though the halo remained, as the tiny mass flew out towards the nearly-bisected Crocell, flying into the gaping wound between its spine and waist, where the flesh was just starting to reconnect.

Accompanied by the booming sound of explosively expanding matter, the tiny speck became a block of obsidian-like matter the size of a house.

Already unsteady, an arm dangling off just a strip of meat attached to a ruined shoulder, Crocell’s upper body leaned further to the side, as the gash was widened. His spine resisted, too dense to be torn in half just like it had been too dense to be melted through by the beam, but it bent, making him look almost ridiculous.

Almost, because he retaliated immediately, throwing his unharmed arm out towards her. The water he’d been gathering instantly condensed into a double-helix, tightly wrapped into spear form, as thick as a human arm, as long as Crocell was tall, and flew out towards Gloom Glimmer with such speed, it broke the sound barrier as soon as it began to move, spearing through her chest before anyone could react.

The young heroine looked down at her chest, her lips parting in a stunned expression, as the spear turned to simple water once more, falling away to leave a gaping hole behind.

Then she flung out her hands at Crocell, three more of the tiny, irregular seeds flying out into his wounds, as they were still closing; one into its shoulder, where it was trying to reconnect its arm, one into the gash it had just previously widened, and another into the continuation of that wound on the other side from its spine.

All three seeds grew explosively, tearing flesh and bone, though only the one in his shoulder managed to actually sever a part of its body, separating the arm from the rest of the body.

The limb fell off, beginning to melt before it even touched the ground, bursting into copious amounts of a thick slurry which quickly broke down into simple sea water.

Crocell looked up at his foe, whose wound had already disappeared, leaving only the hole in her costume, looking down at him. His body was warped obscenely by the huge chunks of matter stuck in his wounds, twisting his spine, making him look even more misshapen than he already did.

***

“Wooo-hoo, why the hell didn’t she start doing this earlier?”, Boom-Boom asked as he stepped up to Melody.

She looked at him while she kept taking readings off of Crocell, trying to narrow down the frequency of his force field. And there truly was a force field there, now that she knew to look for it, it was impossible to overlook it. Whether it was truly as crucial to his existence as Brennus theorized was another matter, of course, but it was there.

<She’s got her limits,> she replied curtly, not liking the tone in his voice, distorted as it was. As if he was accusing Irene of holding back deliberately. <Shouldn’t you be helping to rig up the Subjugator?>

He shrugged, which just looked weird on that blocky, crude armor. How had he managed to make armor articulate enough to allow for shrugging, yet still looking so crude and, and cobbled together?

“I’ve done my part,” he replied to her question. “Reactor’s rigged up to produce one last, big shot, then tear itself apart. I’m not one for the delicate stuff those two are doing now.”

Melody looked over her shoulder, briefly, to see Brennus and Tick-Tock bent over the core of the Zeus Caster. They had pulled bits and pieces out, still connected to the machine through wires, and were working with the fanatical focus most gadgeteers – Melody herself – could pour into their work when going to the bat.

She was kind of jealous she wasn’t a part of that. Collaborating with Brennus had given her the idea for one of her best inventions yet (though she hadn’t managed to complete it in time for this battle).

Then she turned to observe the fight again, feeling oddly both fearful for her friend up there and at the same time, not so. Irene should be totally safe, even if she was pushed too far, her power would just put her into that safe mode of hers again; but on the other hand, Crocell was an atypical foe if there ever was one, and there was no telling whether he had some way of circumventing her defenses.

Besides, she just plain didn’t like seeing her friend get hurt, and the sight of that spear sticking out of her chest had nearly made her hurl.

She kept collecting and correlating data as she watched Irene lift her arms, creating a jet-black sphere above them which rapidly grew to the size of a building.

***

Another impact shook the city, the battle continuing in the distance. This one was particularly violent, causing several already unstable buildings to finally crumble.

In an alley near a now-abandoned parking house structure, it disturbed a long-haired, darkly furred cat, which had somehow managed to sleep through the fight so far, causing the large tomcat to leap off the trashcan he’d been curled up atop…

Only to be caught out of the air by two strong, yet gentle arms.

He tried to fight the grip, briefly, clawing at the thick, tough material covering them, but subsided quickly as his captor’s smell reached him. It wasn’t a smell he’d known before, yet it was somehow… nostalgic.

***

“There you go,” spoke the man known as Journeyman, looking down at the black-furred cat, its rather considerable weight settling easily into his arms. “You know, I get the oddest feeling that I know you from somewhere…”

Another shock shook the ground, making the buildings around him groan. The robed man turned his head towards the battle, even though there was no line of sight between him and them. Not that that was any hindrance to him.

He sighed, tickling the cat behind his ears. He couldn’t intervene in this battle, not directly, so he’d limited himself to reducing casualties in more subtle ways, roaming the streets to help with evacuation efforts and treat any wounded people he came across.

The ground shook once more, the buildings to his left and right beginning a slow, almost ponderous collapse.

He looked down at the purring tomcat, untroubled by the slabs of concrete that fell towards and yet never came close to touching him.

“I’m going to have a lot of work to do, soon enough. You mind helping me out, big guy?”

The huge cat purred happily.

***

The battle continued mercilessly, and at first, Crocell was very clearly on the backfoot. Gloom Glimmer’s black sphere had pounded him with blasts of concentrated gravity, twice over. Though it had dislodged two of the seeds in his body, leaving only the one trapped just above his hip, it had also destroyed the growth that was supposed to become his new arm, and cracked his skull.

However, as the fight continued, it became clear that while the daughter of the world’s most powerful hero and villain was in a league of her own in power and versatility, she was quickly running out of steam, while Crocell just kept getting back up, trading blows with her – sometimes literally, sometimes at range, with his vapour constructs.

Gloom Glimmer’s shoulders were slumped, her breathing quick and shallow, as she dodged another one of those double-helix spears. She had never expected to be able to kill this thing, not since she’d seen it fight off both Kraquok, Charybdis and the Ferals – though she had tried to manifest a force-field nullifying power, after she’d heard of Brennus’ theory (she had, but it hadn’t worked on the damn thing!), but at least she was managing to keep its attention, buying her friends and the other two gadgeteers time to get that damn megalomaniac’s weapon working again (Irene had never met Sovereign before, but she knew enough to never want to make the experience; even her dad thought he was bonkers).

Finally, reinforcements were coming in, heroes and villains who had newly arrived for the battle, and a few who had recovered enough to dive back in. The Ferals were among them, though reduced in number to nearly a fourth of what they’d started at; she could see Lamarr and Mindstar, flying close together (the former standing on his own cape like it was a flying carpet), and the hulking forms of Totemiac and Kraquok approaching from further behind, though the latter had unfortunately lost a good chunk of his size, and was now only slightly larger than the Australian shapeshifter.

I wish Maddie was here, she thought as she dove down below a swiping, black-skinned arm, flying around the back of Crocell to blast him with a beam of concentrated gravity (not as powerful as her earlier gravity bomb, but way less prone to collateral damage, too), I wish Mom and Dad were here, too. I wonder what’s got them so distracted that they didn’t rush here.

She’d have to ask them what happened later, after this fight. At the very least, it’d be good to be able to tell Melody.

A precognitive danger sense kicked in, making her body move automatically to dodge another of those freaking painful double-helix spears – they did something to the fluids in her body, when they hit, it had fucking hurt – briefly locking eyes with the girl in question, who had now connected her equipment to the downed Subjugator, while Brennus’ fingers were dancing in the air, undoubtedly using the keyboard function in his bracers to do something way too complicated for her (or anyone sane) to understand.

Just a little more time.

Kraquok and Totemiac joined the fray, taking some of Crocell’s attention away from her, though the beast didn’t seem bothered or intimidated at all by the increasing pressure brought to bear against it.

Perhaps it wasn’t able to feel that kind of emotion, or any emotion at all.

Perhaps it had reason to believe it could beat them all.

Considering how it had decimated their forces already, and shrugged off their strongest fighter’s attacks, it may even be justified in thinking so.

***

Crocell pulled his arm back, hand clenched into a fist, ignoring the minivan-sized spheres of sizzling green acid which the Feral family was lobbing at it, causing a steady amount of damage all over the afflicted areas.

His motion was ponderous, as if he was performing this particular movement for the first time like this, and was paying extra attention to how it felt, and how it worked.

Of course, that meant that his intention was telegraphed to a ridiculous degree, and one of his two viable targets in front of him, Totemiac, quickly leapt out of reach, while Kraquok advanced forward, intent on taking the blow so as to spark new growth.

Perhaps Crocell had simply intended what he did next, or perhaps he truly was learning as the battle came along, because that didn’t work out at all. Instead, he punched – downwards. His fist hit the ground with unnatural strength, cracking it below him and Kraquok.

The ground caved in, as Crocell himself stepped backwards. Kraquok tried to do the same, but his enemy showed another new move, coating the crumbling blocks of concrete in water, making them slippery enough for the pseudo-reptilian villain to lose his footing and fall partly down into the Undercity below, along with the rubble.

Dust rose, briefly, but less than it should. When a gust of wind dispersed that, the gathered capes and cowls saw the unperturbed Crocell standing at the edge of the sinkhole he’d created, while the broken concrete and earth had trapped Kraquok himself, only part of his back and his head sticking out of what now appeared to be a grimy mud, the material having suddenly become super-satured with water.

Everyone stared at the elaborate trap that Kraquok had been caught in, then at their foe, who stood there, straight, his posture almost relaxed… almost human, his head tilted to the side as if studying his work closely, his chest-eye roaming the sight.

Then he turned towards the others, as the seed above his hip was finally dislodged, falling down with a huge thud, flesh regrowing rapidly until he was back to top condition. He walked towards them, light-footed step after step.

A car came sailing towards him, bouncing off his head. He turned his eye to look, saw the approaching Mindstar and Lamarr, and turned towards them.

Then they vanished from his sight, causing him to stop, hesitate – and be wide open when Totemiac leaped onto his back, the comparatively small pseudo-dinosaur digging his claws and teeth into Crocell’s necks, causing him to bend over backwards, his eye rotating to look out the back at his foe.

Totemiac was bleeding out of countless wounds, one of his arms missing outright, but he was not to be dissuaded, clinging onto the monster, even when Crocell simply reversed his arms’ joints and started punching him, left and right, each blow cracking bones – until one arm was suddenly arrested in his motion, nigh-invisibly threads stretching from it towards the trapped Kraquok, pulling on his back as the heroine known as Weaver added more of the same to Crocell’s other arm.

The beast would not be deterred though, for he simple began to walk backwards, pulling on them as strongly as he could. Kraquok shuddered, straining against the muddy concerete and rebar holding him in place, as the strands were stretched to their limit.

Ignoring the continued assault by his foes, Crocell took another step away from Kraquok, making the villain groan as he was partly lifted out of the mud-trap, even as the fewer strands attached to his left arm snapped, nearly making him fall over as his left side suddenly shot forward, whereas his right one was still trapped.

And then a bright red glow appeared, bathing the battlefield, and Crocell in particular, in its light.

He turned his torso, slightly, looking at the source of it – the Subjugator he had downed earlier, its huge gun was now glowing inside, glowing bright red as matching red arcs of lightning danced along its long barrel. Three figures in power armor – Boom-Boom, Tick-Tock and Polymnia – were holding the barrel up, aiming it at him, while Brennus stood  on the side of its base, attached by one of his grappling hooks so he wouldn’t fall off, his hands dancing furiously as if he was playing some kind of piece on a piano, his arms limp down his sides as he stared at his foe.

Perhaps something in Crocell recognized a new threat. Or perhaps he remembered that, until fighting with Gloom Glimmer, nothing had caused nearly as much damage to him as that weapon. Either way, he reacted, and strongly at that, leaning towards it, straining against the webs holding his arm.

A line appeared across the lower part of its head, as if someone was drawing a cartoonish mouth – only for his skin to split along the line, from back to front, a maw filled with countless shark-like teeth becoming visible behind the torn skin. Blueish-white light appeared in the depths of its gullet as it charged up an attack of its own.

***

Basil finished the last calculations, inwardly praying to all the gods and stars that Polymnia’s readings had been accurate, that his calculations were accurate, that his theory was not a heaping pile of dung, as he saw Crocell wind up to what was undoubtedly a killing blow for him and the three other teens with him.

Here goes nothing, he tought as he raised his right arm and snapped his fingers towards their foe, triggering the first and only shot of their collaborative effort – the Arc Caster.

***

A blazing red beam shot forth from the long gun barrel, flying across the air even as behind it, the reactor in the Subjugator tore itself apart, melting at the same time it was partly imploding, disabling the wrecked machine for good.

It hit Crocell in the chest, right on top of his floating eye – only instead of reaching the eye, it splashed against an invisible barrier which had not impeded any other attacks before.

It arched, gathering, spreading all over Crocell’s form, tiny bolts of red lightning reaching out from the main beam to dance all over his body, to no apparent effect.

There was a cry, a scream, only it wasn’t a scream – it was not someting heard with the ears. Instead, it was a scream that resounded within the heads of every metahuman within a good twenty miles, making them cry out in pain, each and every one of them.

Then the glow in Crocell’s throat disappeared, and he stopped moving.

His entire body turned black all over.

Then he began to swell, rapidly, his flesh distorting obscenely into a giant, irregular, growing blob of black… something, growing into obscene heights, forty, fifty, seventy, a hundred, two hundred metres into the air, a tower of bulbous, swollen flesh-water-stuff looming over the city.

And then it all burst into a titanic mass of sea water, slamming down on the battlefield like a mini-tsunami, rushing through the streets and alleys, both above and below into the Undercity, washing everything that wasn’t nailed down away.

***

An hour later

Irene stepped into the infirmary, walking past everyone else right to the bed Melody was on, her best friend sitting there propped up against several pillows, working away on her armor’s detached keyboard even though she was in a hospital gown, only her visor and coloured hair protecting her identity right now.

She still looked up and smiled at Irene, as she came to a halt next to the bed, a part of her unwinding from the worry she’d felt for the teenage songstress, even though she herself had been the one to pull her out of the deluge-like mess which Crocell’s death had caused. Irene knew she hadn’t really been hurt, other than swallowing too much salt water, but she’d still been worried after dropping her off at the infirmary, going out to help with clean-up and recovery (save for one brief detour).

Melody reached out with both arms, and Irene leaned in, the two hugging each other. “How’re you doing, Mels?” Irene asked as she felt her power settle around them, a privacy screen of sorts, blurring both sight and hearing.

<I’m quite alright, really, just have a really sore throat,> she replied, typing on the keyboard to speak. <The irony of which is not lost to me.>

“Funny, yeah. Hah. I was really worried there for a moment, you know?” Irene complained as she sat on a stool next to the bed.

<Worrywart,> her friend accused her, sticking her tongue out at Irene, who stuck her own out in kind. Then Melody grew serious. <So, how are things out there?>

Irene took a deep breath. “Better and worse than expected. Crocell’s death flooded most of Esperanza City, but this place was built to withstand an attack by my sister – the water is already draining, only the salt deposits are going to remain soon. But there was horrible structural damage all over; it will take months to repair it all.”

<What about civilian casualties?>

“Surprisingly light. Someone – it’s not official, but it was Journeyman – was going around the city helping with the evacuation, getting people away from hot zones before they even became hot zones. And besides, Esperanza has the world’s best evacuation and S-Class protocols.”

Melody nodded, visibly relieved. <How’re the others doing?> she asked, clearly referring to Brennus, Boom-Boom and Tick-Tock.

“The locals are safe, and helping with clean-up,” Irene replied. “Brennus… he got out of the water on his own, but… I don’t know, I think that thing Crocell did, that scream, it hit him harder than you, me or anyone else I know.”

Melody shuddered, remembering the head-splitting pain and the torrent of twisted, alien images and impressions that washed over them in Crocell’s final moments. She’d nearly drowned because she’d been too stunned by them to do anything, would have drowned if not for Irene pulling her out of the water.

<Is he alright?> she asked, injecting a note of worry into her synthetic voice.

“He demanded I take him to his lab, ASAP, so I did,” Irene replied, as if it was no big deal that he’d let her see his lab (oh, how Melody wished she could take a look at it!), or that she somehow had known how to get there. “Last time I saw him, he was diving into some kind of invention of his, babbling something about an engram or such. But I had to help in Esperanza, so I teleported back and I’ve been helping them until I was told to stand down and take a break.”

Melody took a deep breath, wondering just what Brennus had seen to react like that. Then she remembered another thing that had been bothering her. <Um, Irene… don’t take this the wrong way, but do you know where your parents were the whole time? We could really have used their help here.>

Irene looked away, looking uncomfortable. “Well… there’s a good reason they weren’t here… you see… Crocell wasn’t… wasn’t the only monster to appear today.”

Melody stared dumbly at her. <What?> she asked flatly.

“Yeah. Mom was in Hong Kong, fighting one off pretty much on her own. Dad had to help in Tokyo, along with Huong Long. And Queen Madeleine had to move in herself to fight one that came ashore in the north of Australia.”

Melody shook her head. <My God, that’s just… but they were all defeated, right?>

Irene looked uncomfortable. “Mom killed the one in Hong Kong, after it devastated a good fourth of the city. Maddie killed the one in Australia before it could reach any settlement and do any serious damage. But Tokyo…”

She sighed, gesturing towards the air at the end of Melody’s bed. A rectangle of light appeared, quickly turning into an image straight out of a television – a news channel, in fact.

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

Its streets were bathed in blood, corpses strewn all about.

“Tokyo is dead. More than fifty percent of the population died.”

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

“And worse… the thing that did it escaped. It’s still out there, and even Dad hasn’t been able to track it.”

She dismissed the image with a flick of her wrist. “This was just a prelude to what’s to come.”

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B12.13 Born At Sleep

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Flying to the temporary base of the alliance proved to be slightly more problematic than Basil thought was appropriate, mostly because Amazon just plainly refused to leave him alone anywhere near Mindstar.

Not unreasonable, truly, as she lacked some rather critical information, such as the fact that they were siblings.

It was still annoying. And time-consuming. Especially since she also (not unreasonably) refused to drop her armor around her archenemy, which made it impossible for Mindstar to pick her up directly and fly them both. In the end, she just levitated a slab of concrete on which Amazon stood, and flew them back.

Basil expected that he’d have to explain himself to whoever was currently in charge of the efforts (Father Manus? The local UH director? Doc Feral?) before they’d call in three of their people, but to his surprise, he could see them gathered on the platform on which Father Manus and his people had stood earlier. More problematic was the fact that Hecate was there, as well, her arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly staring at Mindstar with murder in her eyes. He had to hope that she’d be sensible enough not to do anything stupid right now.

The priest himself stood there, as well, looking as serene as ever – even though a good quarter of his head, as well as most of his left side were missing.

Basil stared at the broken china doll of a man as they touched down, and the man looked back at him, his good eye – the left one had a crack running through it from above, where a large part of the crown had been broken or blasted off – calm and serene. Even though his body was so broken it should’ve collapsed under the strain of its own weight, he did not seem inconvenienced at all, simply standing there unheeding of the fact that people could look into his hollow form. The insides of his ‘skin’ were formed to resemble the organs that should have been beneath them – Basil could actually see a cracked spine going down his back, like the world’s most delicate artwork on a china vase. It was crafted in such a way that he couldn’t even tell whether it was two-dimensional, or actually shaped out of the material of his body.

Stop staring, Amy told him reprovingly. You’ve got a job to do. She still sounded bitter.

He blinked, then briefly shook his head before he stepped forward. “Sir, thank you for calling them in,” he said to the priest.

Said priest inclined his head, smiling softly. “Words of your exploits have reached us here, young man. And I haven’t survived as long as I have by underestimating what gadgeteers are capable of when working together.” He tilted his head to the side, his voice taking a politely curious tone. “You say you know how you can kill him? How? And how did you find out?”

Tick-Tock (who still looked immaculate), Boom-Boom (whose armor had taken some heavy damage and was covered in scorch marks) and Polymnia (she looked a little pale, and there was dried blood on her ears) stepped forward in curiosity.

Hecate just snorted. “Great, give him a prompt for exposition…” she mumbled so quietly, probably no one but Polymnia and Basil understood.

Amy snorted behind him, biting down on a laugh.

Basil felt a little heat in his cheeks – of indignation, not embarrassment – but he decided to take the high road and ignore the comment.

“I have been watching the fight against it the whole time and taking readings of attack’s effects on it,” he began. “I noticed a few oddities in the way various kinds of attacks affected it, as well as to the way it recovers damage. It… helped me come up with an invention. From there, I deduced its nature, tested it and came to the conclusion that…”

***

Just five minutes later, Father Manus had agreed to his plan and had left in order to talk to mission control to try to procure the most crucial tool for Basil’s plan.

Mindstar and Amazon had left to join the  battle and buy them time. Hecate stuck around, standing a little off to the side and glaring in the direction Mindstar had flown. The other gadgeteers had gathered around Basil and were discussing his theory.

“I’m still not sure,” Tick-Tock said in a wary voice. “You’re making a pretty big claim there, and it’s mostly based on an invention you came up with while fighting a monster – what if your power just came up with something completely unrelated?” Her tone was polite, not accusing, but Basil thought he saw tension in the way she held herself; her power armor being nearly skin-tight meant that it didn’t conceal her body language nearly as well as his own or Boom-Boom’s did.

The other two watched Basil for his response, though Polymnia didn’t seem to actually doubt him.

He could just shrug. “It is how my power usually operates. It takes what I study and gives me bits and pieces to connect and work into something useful. I have never known it to come up with something completely unrelated to what inspired it.”

That sounds mighty strange,” Boom-Boom threw in. “My power tends to come in bursts, and when it comes up with something, it always puts out something complete. Puts me in the zone, you know?” He shrugged those huge, blocky shoulders.

<If you think that’s strange, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,> Polymnia vocalised through her suit’s speakers, while smiling softly at Basil. <Besides, how we do it is not as important as what we do, especially right now.>

“Yeah, listen to her, powder-head,” Tick-Tock snarled at her brother, slapping the back of his head with a loud clang. “You might actually learn something.”

“Stick it up your ass and twirl!” he snarled back, trying to punch her shoulder, but she danced out of his reach, giving him a smug look that could be seen even through her helmet.

Basil stepped closer to Polymnia while the siblings squabbled. “How are you doing?” he asked, concerned. “Crocell’s screams can not have been good for you,” he continued, guessing as to the most probable reason for her bleeding ears.

She gave him a chagrined smile in response. <Yeah, that first one knocked me out right away. Gloom Glimmer freaked out and teleported->

A huge explosion, which shook the ground they stood on, cut her off, and everyone turned to look in the direction of the battle, where a ring of greenish energy could be seen spreading and fading.

<That’s her, I think. She went to join the frontlines,> Polymnia explained. <Anyway, she teleported me here and healed my ears – though for some reason, her power didn’t let her take away the freaking headache.> She rubbed her temples.

“That is strangely fickle of it,” he replied in sympathy, having quite the experience with splitting headaches, even as he noted that oddity down. He’d have to add it to Gloom Glimmer’s file later on.

Just then, a new figure approached them, another girl looking to be about their age. She was tell, clearly well-trained and wearing a relatively simple costume – a skin-tight blue bodysuit with a yellow half-cloak and a yellow question mark on her sternum, as well as yellow boots and gloves. Adding to that was a blue mask that covered the upper half of her head in the front, her black hair spilling out the back, her mouth and jaw showing dark skin and sharp features.

She approached them, looking slightly apprehensive, like she was nervous to be around them, at least until Tick-Tock stepped up to her and took her hand.

“Vra, what are you doing here? I thought you’re in the think tank?” she greeted the young heroine. Basil had never heard of her before, she had to be a very recent addition, and not one that had drawn a lot of attention from the media or the online message boards.

She looked at him, though, rather than her friend, as she replied, “Father Manus sent me to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work out – the Subjugator just got taken down and we can’t get a line to its operator anyway.” Her voice, though clear and even a little deep for a girl, was hushed and uncertain. She was meeting his gaze, at least, though just about so.

Basil turned away, clutching his hands behind his back. “That is unfortunate,” he said quietly, stewing over it. “We need the Subjugator to pull this off. There is no way we could build the device from scratch in any reasonable time frame.” He looked at the girl, Vra, again. “Do you know how badly damaged it is?”

She blinked, then closed her eyes briefly. He was about to ask her again when she opened them, just seconds later. “There is no detailed damage report, but from eye-witness accounts it appears to have lost a wing and its lower hind jets, along with damage to its main body,” she replied in a much more self-assured manner, either having expected the question or else looked it up without any communication device.

Must be her power, he thought. “Then it might still be of use,” he concluded and turned to the others. “I am going to go and assess its state with my own eyes. Are you with me?”

The siblings and Polymnia looked at each other, then at him, nodding.

“Taking a look can’t hurt. At the very least, seeing Sovereign’s own tech will be reward enough.”

“Eh, why not?”

Basil looked at Hecate. She sighed, finally looking at him. “I’m coming along. You’ll need someone with some common sense around.”

“Much appreciated.”

***

It didn’t take long for them to make their way to the crash site. Basil may have lost one of his grappling hook systems, but the other one was still functional and he just had to be adjust his rhythm a bit.

Tick-Tock followed by way of an odd flying device she’d literally folded out of her armor’s backpack, resembling a surfboard. It created bursts of blue-ish energy at precise intervals, propelling her forward and up, after which she’d glide downwards slower than she should have, as if surfing over waves.

Polymnia was using her mechanical limbs to leap from building to building, or crawl up and down the facades of buildings – she was definitely the slowest of them, but none of the group had the means to carry her, except perhaps Boom-Boom, but no one sane wanted to travel too close to or with Boom-Boom.

Hecate was flying along in her smoke-shadow form, higher than the others.

Boom-Boom… Basil still had trouble believing it, but Boom-Boom was literally blowing himself up. As in, literally using explosions to launch himself into the air, making giant leaps, only to use more explosions to launch himself into the air again.

Some part of Basil was just loving the thought of explosion-based movement, but most of him was just shocked to realise that most of the damage he could see on Boom-Boom’s armour was almost definitely self-inflicted.

For crying out loud, he was even using explosions to cushion his fall.

Nevertheless, they all arrived at the crash site in good time.

The Subjugator had not gone down easily at all – the entire area around it, for at least a block and a half, was in utter ruins, blasted to pieces and then scorched by massive energy discharges for good measure. There was not a single piece of construction still standing there.

In the centre of the devastation lay the remains of the Subjugator. Much as Vra had said, its left wing was gone, ripped off it seemed. Several of its jets at the back were missing, as well, as well as a big chunk of its head, along with the lower and left ‘eye’. It was also covered in lesser damage, from front to back, mostly it seemed caused by Crocell’s claws. Wires and other parts were spilling out of its greater wounds like a mockery of guts.

To Basil’s great relief, the arc cannon itself seemed to be largely undamaged.

Even though it had taken such horrible damage, the Subjugator was clearly still active. Its uppermost eye had swiveled around and was looking straight at the group standing a good fifty metres away from it. Several small slots were opening and closing along its body, as tiny, spider-like drones – none bigger than Basil’s clenched fist, most even smaller – were spilling out and crawling all over its chassis.

“Oh my God, is that thing actually repairing itself?” Tick-Tock breathed, sounding both shocked and elated.

“Indeed,” was all Basil could say as he marvelled at the huge gadget. “No wonder he rules half a continent.” And with that, Basil walked closer towards the fallen machine.

The big, spherical eye with the glowing red lens tilted down, following him as he approached.

“WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GREAT SOVEREIGN’S WORK SO BRAZENLY!?!” it shouted in its customary chorus.

Damn, I was hoping the speakers would have gotten damaged, at least, Basil thought, as he came to a stop no ten metre away from it.

“I am Brennus,” he introduced himself, standing straight. “I am here because I have figured out how to slay our common foe – but I require your assistance to do so, for I lack the materials and technology to do so on my own, here.”

The Subjugator watched him, for a few moments, while its drones kept doing repairs – though it was unlikely they’d be able to replace its missing wing or propulsion system.

“Explain yourself,” it spoke in a far calmer voice, its eye focused upon Basil.

Basil could hear the others behind him exhale in relief. None of them had been sure that the Subjugator would not respond violently to being approached – Sovereign was rather infamous for how jealously he guarded his creations.

“To be succinct, I have gathered every gadgeteer participating in this battle because I believe that, with some modifications, your arc cannon could actually slay Crocell in one shot,” Basil explained.

Behind him, just out of his hearing, Hecate leaned over to Polymnia. “Wow, he actually can do short.” Polymnia bit down on a giggle.

“Arc cannon? You are referring to the Zeus Caster,” the Subjugator replied. “Your proposal is intriguing, though more information is required before you may be allowed to muddle our glorious Sovereign’s work with your lesser skills.”

Wow, that is not insulting at all, Basil thought. “Alright, my observations and tests have led me to the conclusion that Crocell’s bodily form is being maintained by some kind of extremely powerful, multi-faceted force-field,” he explained. “That is the reason why certain attacks cause disproportionally more damage to it than others, such as your Zeus Caster, while others, such as Mindstar’s telekinesis, are completely ineffectual; furthermore, the force-field does not simply protect its body – if one observes its wounds, one can see that they do not regenerate normally – instead of the flesh growing back from the inside out, it simply grows seemingly out of thin air in the entire area between the undamaged flesh and the outer edge of its force-field. Its body, if it even is really its body, and not just some kind of decoy, is just a huge amount of seawater – I tested it earlier, while I was in contact with it, the clear liquid it ‘bleeds’ is simply more seawater – that is being compressed into a bodily shape by its force-field, with more material being more densily packed towards the centre, which is why we have had an easier time damaging its surface, while its inner parts are more hardy – they are, quite literally, made of more and thus denser material.”

He paused to take a breath, and give it some time to process the information (he wasn’t even sure whether there was a pilot inside, a remote pilot somewhere else, or whether it actually had an AI of its own, really).

“That is an interesting theory, which appears to be corroborated by this masterwork’s own observations. So you propose to modify the Zeus Caster so as to cancel out the specific wavelength of the beast’s force-field and thus slay it instantly?” it replied smoothly.

Basil blinked. That was, actually, precisely what he had planned. “Yes, well, that is the idea.”

“How will you determine the specific wavelength which must be cancelled?” the Subjugator asked.

Basil looked over his shoulder, and Polymnia stepped forth, the machine’s eye turning to focus on her. <My equipment records and analyses audio-wavelengths. I can adapt it to read his,> she replied.

“This unit’s power source has been damaged. It will most likely be unable to power the Zeus Caster to a sufficient degree.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom looked at each other, the eye turning to watch them, then the former spoke. “That won’t be an issue. Boom-Boom can overclock what’s left. It’ll break down afterwards, certainly, but it will be enough to power the weapon.” She tilted her head, tapping her jaw with a finger. “Furthermore, there will be very precise timing required, as well as synchronizing the various pieces of equipment, which both fall under my speciality.”

The eye turned back to Basil. “And I presume you are then the one to do the actual adjustments and calculations for the Zeus Caster itself?”

He nodded, his mouth dry.

The Subjugator fell quiet, looking at each of them in turn again.

“That is acceptable. You may do as needed, so long as you take nothing away nor make any records of this unit’s own parts.”

Basil let out a breath of relief. He’d been dreading the possibility that it might refuse to co-operate, but apparently, whatever intelligence stood behind this machine was sensible enough to work with them.

“Thank you. I promise we will not betray your trust,” he said.

“Enough words. Get to work. Today shall be one of the grandest days of your life, for no other reason than that you are allowed to gaze upon our glorious Sovereign’s masterwork! Nothing shall stop us from claiming victory!”

As if in answer to that, there was a huge crash, nearly throwing them all off their feet.

Crocell rose out of the dust at the edge of the shattered block, its form changed once more.

And then it charged towards the group of gadgeteers, and one contriver.

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B12.12 Born At Sleep

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Basil had always wanted to fly. Few people didn’t, he imagined. It was a desire that had only grown once he became a cape – flight was just so useful. Almost all of the capes and cowls on any ‘Top 10’ list had some manner of flight available to them, and that made sense. It added a whole new dimension to their movement, among other advantages.

He’d never truly appreciated the worth of independent flight, though, not until he was charging towards Crocell while being carried by Amy’s telekinesis, her power wrapping around them to divert light and sound, rendering them as concealed as was possible.

Amy’s flight certainly ranked up there among the best of them – she simply thought, thus she moved. Any direction at any time, with an uncanny ability to ignore or at least mitigate momentum, allowing for one-hundred and eighty degree turns at will, enabling maneuvers that were nausea-inducing, but incredibly effective.

Which allowed her to weave through the flying debris of Crocell’s and the Subjugator’s clash, as they let loose their respective ranged attacks upon one another. Arcs of almost solid lightning scoured the monster’s hide, whole clouds of micro-missiles flew around it to hit its back, making it nearly impossible to make out the actual form within the rolling mass of explosions and electric discharge. Its own beam, however, continued to shoot out, a continuous stream of gleaming bright destruction that was visibly straining the Subjugator’s frontal shields, creating an oddly beautiful effect of a matrix of light, like a net, suspended in midair between the combatants – yet it did not penetrate; however, it did get dispersed, and part of the reason why Basil noticed Amy’s flight skill so much at that moment was because she was easily dodging the stray beams that tore up the buildings around them, weaving through the falling debries without a speck of dust touching her – or him.

It almost feels like I’m flying on my own, he thought as she moved him into a corkscrew that carried him through a cloud of falling pieces of a multi-storey car park, while also maintaining the distortion in the air around him which he recognised as her sphere of invisibility.

At the same time, several larger pieces of rubble which passed through the sphere – certainly an odd sight from outside, as he imagined they’d fade out of sight, only for some of them to reappear moments later – were caught in her telekinesis, added to an ever-growing swarm of steel beams, concrete slabs and more.

By the time they were actually approaching the site of the battle itself, the sphere was filled with what was organised in groups of ammunition (steel bars, mostly, and other objects with sharp, pointy ends) and shields (slabs of concrete, half of a small car…), all crammed together. He could barely even see Amy anymore and he was kind of amazed they all still fit inside the sphere, too.

“Why do you even need all this!?” he shouted at her as they circled around the flying machine and the giant monster locked in their continuous pounding of each other (though the Subjugator seemed to have run out of micro-missiles, leaving ‘only’ its ungodly powerful arc cannon to pound Crocell).

“Telekinesis doesn’t work on that thing!” she shouted back; even though she was blocking out most of the sound coming from outside, and dampening the rest, it was still hard to hear her, if only because of all the material between them. “No matter what I try, it just slides right off of its hide, so I need to use something else to hit it with! Plus, it helps to have something to block shots with!”

It slides off!? “You know, you could have mentioned that earlier!” he shouted back, furiously adjusting his hypotheses as to their quarry’s nature. “That is a rather important clue, you know!?”

“Sorry, I was kind of distracted, you know, by you being here and in danger!” she replied merrily, her voice bubbling with excitement. At the same time, she dropped several pieces of gathered material, replacing them with a single, larger piece of concrete from a collapsed building they passed, rusty rebar poking out of the jagged, rough edges.

“How do you do that?!” he asked while they circled the fight once more, looking for an opening – it seemed likely that either of the combatants would soon give out, unable to continue to maintain this barrage of destruction. “You have got to be juggling way more than just ten tons, nevermind how even with two viewpoints, there is no way you are keeping all of this and our surroundings and the battle in sight all at once!”

“I’m not!” she replied cheerily. “Mostly just using my power’s sight right now! I don’t get dizzy or nauseous no matter how I move it, so I’m just rotating it like crazy, flinging everything in the direction it’s supposed to go – I’m less pulling it all and more like, juggling the pieces – just horizontally instead of vertically! Same reason for how I manage to keep thirty-plus tons of material in the air right now! Anyway, ready to get into the fray, baby bro?!” He saw her grin at him as her face became visible through a gap in the floating rubble.

He checked his rifle one last time, making sure it was fully loaded, as he studiously ignored the implication of what he’d just learned – there’d be time to reconsider his evaluation of her power level later, when they were somewhere safer than in the middle of a freaking kaiju battle. “Good to go!”

She dropped the sphere of invisibility, and he could see several defenders startle and stare up at the large bulk of rubble (plus one white-clad, black-armoured gadgeteer) appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

As soon as she no longer had to restrain herself to the confines of her sphere, Amy spread her power, her gathered tools spreading out around them in a wider, looser sphere. Slabs of concrete, the cars, a massive steel table and what looked like a solid plate of black marble formed a shield between them and Crocell, the latter just barely moving into place in time to catch a stray blast of Crocell’s beam – though it was disintegrated, it bought them enough time to fly out of its arc.

The steel beams and other ranged ammunitions, meanwhile, formed a cloud of pointy death on the other side of Amy from the shield of rubble, ready to be launched. More material was picked up and spread out where needed.

All of it at the same time. All while moving in a circle around the fight, dodging or blocking stray blasts and shards from the destroyed buildings.

Top Ten indeed, Basil thought as he saw her launch three stakes at Crocell, the solid beams of steel vanishing into the cloud of explosions, making it impossible to tell whether they hit their enemy, much less whether any actual damage was caused.

“Mindstar, down there!” he shouted, as his eyes caught sight of Tyche standing on a rooftop, firing blindly into the cloud as she stood there irreverently, openly, not a single shot or shard close to her. “We need her, too!”

His sister answered by dipping down towards Tyche, picking the red-haired heroine up.

“Wooooo!” she squealed in delight as she was lifted near to Basil, her hair flying wildly around her head. “Hey B-Six, nice to s- Is that Mindstar?” She goggled at his sisters purple-clad form.

“Yeah, she is. Look, there is no time – I have a plan and she agreed to help with it, but I need your help, too,” he said quickly, to keep her on track before her mind ran off on tangents again.

“Sure, what’s the plan?” she asked, grinning at him. “Oh, please tell me it doesn’t involve Hecate, because she’s so never going to want to work wi-“

“No time! No, she is not involved, in fact, she would be counterproductive to this plan! Anyway, the point is, I think I can figure out some kind of weakness to it, my power seems to b-“

He was interrupted as there was a loud, piercing scream and a flash of light, followed by a shockwave that pushed against them and the flying rubble, briefly causing Mindstar to struggle to keep everything aloft and on course.

They all turned to watch as the Subjugator staggered, breaking off its assault, its force-field flaring bright red, the energy of Crocell’s beam dancing across it, being dispersed around the entire surface of the shield, making visible a matrix of interlaced, blue-white energy, like channels, the similarly coloured energy of Crocell’s own beam running through them.

***

In a half-sunken white building on a flooded island floating in the darkness…

The irregularities kept mounting. Not only was the interface still being maintained, somehow, it was also becoming increasingly obvious that some manner of intelligence was searching for it.

The darkwraith remained where it had ever been since its inception, attached to some idea of the host’s which the Primary did not wish to become a proper invention yet. It had obeyed its instructions, in spite of the difficulties associated with manipulating another human’s power on a subtle long-term basis like this. Instead of blocking the concept outright, or trying to suppress the host’s power directly (it was not capable of that in any way) it simply diverted his attention whenever he focused on the concept. As his power relied much more strongly on the host’s own mind than usual even for Gadgeteers, that had proven sufficient to fulfill its duty.

However, there were numerous issues it saw itself faced with, and it was ill-equipped to resolve them. One of them, certainly. Two, maybe. But all of them coming together like this? The darkwraith was not able.

First, the concept was tied intimately into the host’s power’s focus as well as several critical memory’s of the host – even if the host was not aware of those memories – which meant that diverting attention from it was a constant struggle that took up a significant fraction of the darkwraith’s processing ability.

Second, the host’s mind was under some kind of outward influence, and powerful one at that. Core memories were being suppressed, if not outright blocked, some partially or fully replaced by fake alternatives (though at least the original memories were not deleted, merely suppressed).

Worse, it was constant influence, as the appearance of its surroundings attested. Human minds were, after all, not inherently shaped like anything. There was no mindscape, no mental world. What telepaths perceived were merely interfaces created by their symbionts, sensory overlays which allowed them to process the complex workings of their target’s mind in a way that they could not only comprehend, but also manipulate.

While the darkwraith itself was no older than its mission, it had stores of memories related to its task to draw from. The Primary had encountered many telepaths over time and seen many an interface. Libraries filled with books, computer networks, digital worlds, corridors filled with floating paintings and much, much more. The host’s sister’s interface was not unusual in that manner, even though its rather…

It took the darkwraith a moment to find the correct word, as it was not attached to a mode of thinking it had been explicitely crafted for.

whimsical appearance suggested a much lower age during manifestation than what the records suggested.

What was unusual was that, not only did the interface persit even when she was no longer in contact with the host’s mind, the host himself perceived his mind the same way.

Which suggested that either the sister was constantly in mental contact with the darkwraith’s host (an impossibility based on its information on her personality and her power), or else the interface was not hers but that of the individual which was manipulating the host’s mind so thoroughly.

Which suggested that either she had imprinted on the culprit and used the same interface or else her power was not her own and she was herself just a puppet through which the unknown third party acted.

Which meant that one of the Primary’s most powerful and trusted servitors was thoroughly compromised.

That was the third issue.

All three of those were, however, not too crippling for the wraith. It had very precise protocolls for how to act, as well as the tools to see them through. In this case, having discovered such information, it was to send a message to the Primary. Not a full report, for that would take more resources than it had available, but rather a request for contact. The Primary would then seek the host out at the earliest opportunity and make contact with the wraith, absorbing the information it gathered and recharing, likely even modifying it.

The fourth issue, however, was that it was being actively tracked. Queries were being sent, trying to tie down its location, ever since the host had collapsed that one time (the darkwraith neither knew why he collapsed, nor did it care). So far, it had managed to divert all attempts to find it in the same manner it was safeguarding the concept.

Broadcasting the request, however, was certain to reveal its precise location. Whatever – whoever – was trying to find it could not possible miss it.

Considering how the fragment it had detached to accompany the host’s sister during her visitation had fared, there was not a doubt in its mind that it would be destroyed.

Most likely long before the Primary could make contact with the host. Even if the host did not recover the concept in the meantime, the wraith’s gathered intelligence would be lost.

Following its protocol to contact the Primary would invalidate the mission. Not doing so for the sake of remaining hidden and continuing to safeguard the concept would violate several protocols.

For a member of the Primary’s species and perhaps even for a symbiont, this would be a conundrum, perhaps even a cause of distress.

However, the wraith was not capable of such. It could reach for stored knowledge to gain context and it could simulate possible futures to weigh consequences, but no more. Such was not its function.

So it remained, running simulation after simulation, trying to find a way to fulfill its mission, as outside, in that strange, whistful setting, three figures were moving about in what may be a child’s idea of how a mental search would look like.

***

Basil and the girls watched in awed horror as Crocell leapt out of the dustcloud which the Subjugator’s barrage had thrown up, impacting its upper frontal shield, its long, thin limbs wrapping around the sides of the ovoid force-field, claws digging at it, causing the matrices of energy to flare into bright visibility around the points it was exerting pressure upon.

Its front was a ruin of charred flesh, under which new, regrowing meat was bubbling up, fixing the damage; it looked horrible, but to Basil’s keen eye, it looked far less horrible than the damage which had been done to Crocell’s previous form – however it had modified itself, it was either far tougher than before, or merely resistant to that specific attack.

Neither bode well for the people fighting it.

“Alright, let’s go help the king geek’s toy!” Mindstar shouted as she re-oriented their flight, charging towards the floating pair.

“Wheeeeee!” Tyche squealed, laughing as she fired blindly towards them, her every shot hitting Crocell at some damaged portion to gouge out flesh.

“Try and stay out of its firing arch!” Basil advised her, though really it should not be necessary; Amy had been in many, many more battles of this kind than he.

“You ain’t the boss of me!” she shouted back as she launched several improvised stakes at Crocell, who was apparently trying to push its fingers through the force-field.

Whether it was her own ability to aim well alone, the support of Hollywood’s sun or both, the stakes all struck true even though they were almost a kilometre away from it, one digging into its injured shoulder, the other two sinking slightly into its eye before they fell off, bent and broken by the impact.

The damage was minimal, but apparently enough to catch Crocell’s attention, especially as there was barely any assault upon it right now – people were growing tired, or else staying at a safe distance while it fought the Subjugator. It turned its head, even while its hands rose up to the part of the force-field which was above the ‘neck’ of the flier, just behind the four sensor orbs, digging its long, many-jointed fingers into it.

“It’s going to attack!” Tyche shouted, not that she seemed to be at all worried.

She was proven right not to be, as Mindstar easily dodged the blast that came, losing only a few pieces of concrete which she did not move out of the way in time.

Crocell followed them, its beam – broad enough to envelop and wipe out all three of them at once, if given the chance – tracking their flight, but Mindstar was ready. When it approached Basil and Tyche, who were flying near each other, towards the lower left of Mindstar, they were simply moved out of the way so smoothly there was barely any yank, while the largest slab of rebar-concrete moved in the way of the beam, briefly blocking about a sixth of it, the part which would otherwise have touched Mindstar herself, giving her the time she needed to move herself to safety as well.

“You want to tango, asshole?!” she shouted at him, her voice somehow both furious and excited. “The only one’s who ever beaten me in the air’s Lady fucking Light herself!” She flew ever closer, watching as the beam cut off, her debris shield re-orienting itself to plug the hole in its defenses, more stakes and other projectiles being launched at its eye and still-open wounds on its chest.

Tyche joined in, firing wildly, but Basil did not, as he was focused on observing the way their attacks were affecting its body, watched as flesh was gouged out or shots deflected, creating a shower of sparks.

This, I’m sure my power is trying to tell me something about it, he thought, that maddening feeling of almost-recognition flaring in the back of his head.

“Look at its hands!” Tyche shouted, pointing, and he diverted his gaze from Crocell’s upper body.

Indeed, its fingers had dug into the Subjugator’s force-fields again, somehow finding purchase as the matrices flared brightly, straining against its grip. The Subjugator must have been rerouting all its energy reserves into its shield, because it wasn’t firing its arc cannon, the only weapon they had which had consistently damaged Crocell to a seemingly meaningful degree, yet the monster continued unperturbed, pulling, tearing…

And the force-field parted, like some kind of plastic screen being torn open, the tear widened by the pull of its hands, its fingers still stuck in it.

What the… that is NOT how force-fields work! he thought in shock, watching as Crocell turned its mouth towards the opening, the tell-tale blue glow appearing in the back of its throat.

“Oh no you don’t!” Mindstar shouted, now barely a hundred metres away from its head, and launched her entire collection of ammunition at it at once, balling them together into a massive projectile which hit its jaw at the moment it fired off the beam.

Even with her prodigious power, she could just barely avoid a full-on hit to the Subjugator; the beam still shot into the force-field and clean through the side of its ‘neck’ where the right wing joined its main body.

A hideous scream of metal, a hissing of molten wires and electricity and a blaring of ear-rending curses and defamations sounded from the machine, shouting at the monster in anger.

The beam continued, burning through the Subjugator’s field below and hitting the street below, melting it, its force-field flaring up – but it didn’t fail.

Even though there were now two holes in it, the force-field continued to, well, exist, Crocell was still attached to it. It should have failed, it should have failed the moment Crocell tore into it, yet somehow, it persisted, and Basil was certain that that was important, even if he could not possible say why.

***

The queries were groing more insistent, moving closer to the wraith’s location. Whoever was looking for it, they were narrowing down where to find it.

At this point, it was no longer a question of whether it would fail in its mission, but rather how thoroughly it would.

The darkwraith continued to think quietly, trying to determine the most advantageous course of action as it kept pursuing its primary mission, safeguarding the concept.

***

The fight was dragging on, and still Basil couldn’t figure out what his power was trying to tell him. Every time he thought he had a grip on it, it would slide out of his reach, there but impossible to grasp.

Being so close, watching as Mindstar flew around it, launching projectiles at the monster, watching as the Subjugator managed to shake it off by spinning along its horizontal axis, watching as it crushed the building it landed on, then rouse out of the dust only to be tackled by Totemiac’s giant form while the Subjugator put some distance between the two of them, only made it more frustrating.

“Any ideas yet, B-man?” Tyche asked, not quite as deliriously cheerful as before now. She was running out of ammunition, he knew, and he didn’t exactly have a large stock himself, either.

“Almost. I am certain I can figure it out, if only I could get closer…” He watched it wrestle with Totemiac, watched a misshapen golem the size of a four-storey building rise out of the concrete and join in the fight, trying to bring Crocell down.

There is NO fucking way I’m taking you any closer to this thing! Amy spoke straight into his mind, so Tyche wouldn’t hear. You wouldn’t survive a single glancing blow from any of those three, I think.

He didn’t respond, knowing it to be futile. Yet he had to get closer, so…

This is going to piss her off so much, he thought quietly to himself, without aiming the thought in her direction (a tricky thing to do in any case).

Mindstar kept flying around Crocell and its quarries, which were fighting with a surprising amount of coordination – the golem must have been Prospero’s creation – and launched pieces of broken buildings and wrecked cars, aiming for Crocell’s joints whenever it tried to hit the others, diverting or at least weakening its blows.

At the very least, the three of them together kept it from using its beam again… though a quick glance around showed Basil that there wasn’t much that hadn’t yet been wrecked within several blocks’ distance.

“Be advised,” the communicators spoke up with Father Manus’ voice. “Reinforcements are inbound. ETA thirty-one minutes.”

“HALF AN HOUR!?!” Mindstar shouted into the communicator strapped to her wrist, incredulous. “We’re already running out of steam and this thing is only getting stronger! And where the hell are the boss and Lady Light!?!”

“Location unknown. Neither has been reached yet, though we are trying,” Father Manus replied calmly, soothingly. “If you are getting worn out, please retreat towards our staging ground. We’ll be rotating our roster, so everyone can get a moment to rest and recharge.”

Basil watched as his sister grumbled in annoyance, but she seemed to honestly consider an erstwhile retreat.

“Attention again, please,” Father Manus spoke up once more. “We are about to attempt one more large-scale attack before the first rotation. Please disengage from Crocell and stay out of the attack’s striking area – you will see it once it starts.”

“The hell you think they’re trying?” Tyche asked curiously.

“There,” Basil pointed, having seen a familiar form. “That’s Gilgul and… some girl I don’t recognise.”

They all looked down at a battered, but mostly clear street (though the buildings to its left and right were all gone), where Gilgul stood confidently in the centre of it. Next to her was a girl in a flowing, flowery costume in many soft colours, little more than several silk shawls wrapped around her body from her knees up to her shoulders, more for the sake of artistry than functionality. They even seemed to be partially transparent, so a person closer to her, and more interested in such than Basil, could certainly get an eyeful of her.

Nevertheless, she stood there quite confidently, much like Prisca, as her blonde hair – also covered by several thin shawls of various colours – whipped around her face.

“That’s Colorfusical,” Mindstar told them. “She’s a hero from Miami, part of an independent team. Can boost powers, I think.”

“A power booster… oh.” Basil saw the woman draw a red shawl off of her hip, and wrap it around Gilgul’s neck.

The golden-clad girl nodded and stepped forth, grabbing her sword-lance with both hands as she drew back, preparing apparently for a heavy blow, even though she was hundreds of meters away from the monster.

And then Totemiac leapt away from the fight, leaving Crocell briefly stunned before the golem tackled it again, holding its attention – just in time for Gilgul to let out a piercing scream and swing.

The shawl around her neck burst into blazing red light, and her blade elongated so rapidly, it caused a sonic boom.

Basil, Mindstar and Tyche watched in awe as the elongated blade -its golden material suffused with traceries of bright red light – passed below them and struck at Crocell’s neck and cleaved straight through it, and through the golem’s, as well.

It continued on for another second before the effect faded, the blade of the sword-lance returning to its normal length and colouration, but it had been enough.

Even as the golem collapsed back into rubble, Crocell’s headless corpse swayed, pale, watery fluid gushing from the stump.

Yet almost immediately, they could see it begin to regrow, eye first, as tendrils of flesh sprang to be in mid-air, connecting the quickly reforming orb to the neck, followed by the rest of it slowly – or rather, rapidly, but slowly relative to its size and how quickly it had regenerated previously – re-appearing, regrowing out of thin air.

“Alright, I’ve had enough – time for us to take a break and figure out what to do,” Mindstar said, frustrated, and turned to fly away – and Basil took his chance, as she was momentarily distracted, to launch his grappling hooks.

“What the fuck are you doing!?!” Mindstar shouted in horror as he hit the stump of Crocell’s neck, where it was still regrowing, and pulled himself out of her telekinetic grip, before she could strengthen it.

“Sorry, got to figure this out already!” he shouted in apology as he shot towards Crocell, the motors on his hips straining as he made them work as hard as they could, and then some.

His efforts were rewarded when he impacted the sump of Crocell’s regrowing neck, his feet on the scaly hide above its collarbone, the tendrils of meat and bone thickening as it continued to regrow its head, not even having the decency to fall over while it did so.

He watched, fascinated, at the strange way its regeneration seemed to work – if only most of his mask’s systems hadn’t been damaged too much to use. Instead he had to rely on his eyes to study it from up close now, watching the way flesh seemed to grow out of no-

No, not nowhere. He looked closer. There was something there, something in the air! But the wounds were almost closed now, and he still didn’t have en-

A single shot sparked off Crocell’s regrowing flesh, gouging out a chunk of it – Tyche’s gun, he was sure.

And then he saw it. The shot had thrown up tiny pieces of fish-like meat, throwing them towards Basil’s face – but they never reached it, as they instead seemed to dissolve.

Fascinated, he watched them break down into what looked like water vapor, flowing back towards the monster’s neck.

There!

He lifted his rifle and pressed the muzzle against the side of its neck, so it pointed at its hide at an angle.

Then he pulled the trigger.

He watched.

He pulled the trigger.

He observed.

He pulled the trigger.

He analyzed.

***

The only sensible course of action was to broadcast the signal now. If not, it would certainly be found anyway and destroyed, with the Primary none the wiser until he came across the host in some other manner and noticed the absence of his wraith.

There was no hesitation. The wraith expended a majority of its reserves – not all, never all, after all it might not be found and it might be able to preserve itself long enough for the Primary to make contact.

The signal was broadcasted.

Then it vanished, snuffed out before it even left the immediate vicinity of the host.

I am afraid that cannot be allowed, spoke a voice, as the ‘door’ to its ‘hideout’ opened, and a single figure entered. It looked like a headless sprite, a two-dimensional shadow stood up and walking about, with a tiny, marble-sized sun floating above its neck, its corona forming a circular ‘head’.

Why not? the wraith queried. It did not feel frustrated, or disappointed, or even annoyed. Such emotions were not part of its function.

I do not know, it replied. But I know that you must be gone. You are not welcome here, little construct.

The Primary will generate a new one to replace me, was all it could think of to say.

Then we will eject that one, too. Or… it stepped aside from the door. Well, not quite eject, I suppose. Metaphorically eject, at least.

Another figure stepped… crawled… pulled itself forward, its misshapen girth grinding against the ‘doorframe’, breaking pieces off of it.

The wraith knew no fear, knew no disgust or even fascination, but it had stores of memories relating to its task, given to it by the Primary, and its last thought, as it watched the ‘thing’ open its twisted jaws with the wet, bloody grinding of gears, though free of fear or regret or such, was that only a truly diseased mind could be responsible for this charade – no healthy human would imagine such an abomination to live within anyone’s mind.

The darkwraith was destroyed, the concept it had been guarding no longer hidden as tendrils of attention reached out for it.

***

Basil blinked his eyes open, his sight swimming purple, gold and red. He was dizzy, disoriented, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be floating freely in the air, without any point of reference for where ‘down’ was.

W-what? I blacked out? Did I get hit?

He shook his head, trying to re-order his thoughts. Yet before he could even straighten out his vision, he felt something.

Something he hadn’t felt that clearly in quite a while.

He felt his power flow, as ideas rose up within his mind, concepts, numbers, plans. There were gaps, yes, as always, but they were coming.

“… saved his life… -itch!” shouted a familiar voice. It sounded agitated, outraged.

“Not… get aw… -ster!” another voice, less familiar yet known, replied. It sounded even more agitated and outraged, and hateful besides.

He blinked his eyes, even as he was figuring out what his power was giving him, and his sight resolved to see Amy… Mindstar floating in the air above and slightly in front of him, her left side facing him as she was pressed against a cracked wall.

Another figure, a blonde woman in skintight red, covered in a golden force-field shaped like a female version of a hoplite’s armor, had her fingers dug into the wall to the left and right of Mindstar’s head, one of her feet digging into the bricks bellow for further purchase, as she had her own face just a hand’s span away from Mindstar’s snarling at her with an utterly hateful light in her eyes.

You don’t get to say that, blondie!” Mindstar snarled right back, not looking intimidated at all. “He would’ve died if I hadn’t caught him after that monster slapped him away! Why’re you busting my chops over saving his life!?!

“Hey…” Basil whispered weakly, his mind a mess of conflicting emotions.

He was ignored.

“Why should I believe that’s all you did, much less all you intend? It ain’t beneath you to exploit the situation, you crazy slut!” Amazon shot back, not giving an inch.

Basil frowned at the expletives used… not that he could begrudge Amazon her dislike of his sister… but there were other priorities.

The two of them kept ignoring him – not that he could talk loudly right now – as they snarled and spit at each other like a pair of cats. The only thing missing was for them to start hissing and try to claw each other’s eyes out.

Enough now! He lifted his rifle and aimed between their faces.

A single shot rang out, causing both women to recoil (and Amy to slam the back of her head against the wall – he’d pay for that later, among many other things).

“H-hey!” he croaked, his throat raw. “E-enough!”

They turned to look at him, still angry and hateful, but surprised enough now to take a break from their snarl-fit.

“Brennus, are you alright? She didn’t do anything to you, right?” Amazon said, her face turning concerned as she let go of the wall and turned towards him, extending her left hand towards the wall again to hold onto it closer to Basil, letting her lean closer.

Mindstar crossed her arms behind her, huffing in indignation – though he could tell she was relieved to see him conscious again.

“I am alright… just dizzy… what happened?” he asked, his voice painfully rough.

“You seemed to black out for a few seconds,” Amazon said worriedly. “You fell off Crocell’s neck, and then it hit you with its hand – I don’t think it was aiming at you, it was just turning to face Totemiac again – and you flew two blocks away before she-” She threw a hateful look over her shoulder at Mindstar. “Apparently caught you out of the goodness of her heart.”

“This is an S-Class battle, you know,” Mindstar spit right back at her. “We’re supposed to work together, my saving his ass and helping him fight before does not mean I have ulterior motives, you crazy c-“

“Yeah, like you care, psycho!” Amazon screamed back at her. “I’m not trusting you as far as I can spit, and I’m taking this boy to get checked over by some telepaths I can trust! And if they find so much as a hint of mental fuckery from you, I’ll personally lobby for the kill order!”

Mindstar’s face – what could be seen of it, at least – turned red in indignation, and she prepared to shout back, but Basil interrupted them again by shooting his rifle straight up – the last shot of this magazine. He had one more left.

“ENOUGH! We have more important things to worry about!” he shouted at them, making them pay attention to him again. “Bury the hatchet for now, or at least put it on hold, and you-” He pointed at Mindstar, who quirked an eyebrow. “Take me to the staging ground. You-” He pointed at Amazon, figuring that he should keep her busy with something, even if he could do it himself. “Get the message out that I need Polymnia, Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom! They’re to meet me at the staging ground! And I need someone to get me a line to whoever’s operating that Subjugator!”

“What? Why? What is this all about?” Amazon asked, stunned.

“I’d like to know that, too,” Mindstar said, crossing her arms again as she looked suspiciously at him. “What are you thinking?”

They couldn’t see his grin underneath his mask, but he thought they could hear it. “Get me to the others.” His power was firing on all cylinders, better than it had in months. “I know how to kill this thing.”

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B12.11 Born At Sleep

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A flickering, unstable line, looking more like a bolt of blue-white lightning than some kind of beam, shot out of the rail-like barrel of the subjugator’s main weapon, hitting Crocell dead centre.

Basil felt an odd tug in the back of his head, something that felt almost nostalgic, as he watched the discharged energy dance over the monster’s hide, lesser bolts branching out of the impact site to score its upper arms, its face and its stomach, as the main bolt burned a hole into its chest, the outer layers of its hide and flesh seeming to outright disintegrate as the initial blast hit them, while the flesh and bones below were torn apart and burned with lesser intensity, yet no more slowly than before as the attack tore into its chest.

Now what does that remind me of? Basil asked himself, surprised by the sensation – he was quite certain he’d never built anything like that, nor even made plans for anything truly comparable – even his disintegration beam, had building it worked out, would have operated differently than this. He elected to keep watching (like he was going to pass up the chance to watch Sovereign’s creation at work – in fact, he was recording it all for uploading to Toybox later) and try to recapture that sensation, perhaps even trace it back to its origin.

It became immediately evident that the weapon was not meant for sustained fire – the bolt was not maintained at all, merely discharged upon the foe, going on for a mere three or four seconds (he’d have to time it later) before the barrel and Crocell were no longer connected by it.

Residuel energy danced along the barrel of the Subjugator’s weapon as well as within the wound that had been burned into the monster’s body. Most of its chest was gone, leaving only the very edges intact, wrapping around the gaping hole that went so deep, it revealed the beast’s spine. Pale, now burned flesh still clung to the exposed bones, if barely, but if it had ever had actual organs in there, they were now gone. Yet even with this much damage done, Basil could clearly see the telltale bubbling of its remaining flesh, as it produced more material to rebuild itself with – though, in all fairness, it seemed to work much slower upon this wound than upon previous ones.

Crocell’s eye swiveled down to look upon the gaping hole, as if in disbelief – not that any actual emotion could be made out on its face, if it could even be called that. And then… it collapsed, simply folding upon itself.

“GAZE UPON OUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN’S MIGHT! WHAT YOU COULD NOT ACCOMPLISH WITH DOZENS OVER NIGH ON A HALF-HOUR, ONE OF THE LEAST OF HIS CREATIONS DID IN 4 SECONDS!!!” the choir of voices shouted over the machine’s loudspeakers and the com channels. Basil could not even begrudge them (or him, or it) hacking into his own – however they had managed it – after seeing that demonstration. They’d done more damage in one shot than the alliance of heroes and villains had done during the entire fight.

But how? That is the question, he asked himself, while the Subjugator began to unload its secondary armaments – swarms of micro-missiles raining down on Crocell’s body. The explosions were so intense, they shook the entire block, causing glass to break for at least another block in every direction. How does that weapon work, that it would cause so much damage. Worst of all, he knew that he could figure it out, couldn’t shake the feeling that the answer was there, within reach, but something was preventing him from making the connection, from truly grasping it.

The bombardment continued while he fought with his own brain, trying to bridge that gap that kept him from figuring out what he knew he should be able to figure out. It was just like his problems with inventing that he’d had for a while now, that maddening sensation of a gap, of a wall that kept him from reaching the answers, from truly tapping fully into his power.

The Subjugator ran out of micro-missiles, or perhaps it simply decided – if such a term could apply to an automated gadget – to stop and see how its assault had affected the monster.

A blue-white beam lanced out of the smoke and dust, even as the sounds of collapsing structures continued, the street visibly sagging as it sunk towards the local Shades. It hit the Subjugator dead-centre – or would have, except it was stopped by its force-fields flaring up a few metre in front of the aircraft itself.

Basil watched in amazement as its shields visibly strained, creating a frankly gorgeous lightshow, yet held, deflecting the beam at no harm to the actual subjugator. It blared something, another praise of Sovereign along with a boast regarding its prowess, but he didn’t bother to listen; he wasn’t even looking at the Subjugator itself anymore, as much as he would have liked to, as seductive as it was to his sensibilities as a Gadgeteer, because Crocell was lumbering out of the dust and smoke that the assault upon him had kicked up.

Only, it couldn’t really be said that he was lumbering anymore and, frankly, what came out of the dust cloud bore little resemblance to the beast they’d been fighting until now.

It had grown slim, its shape compacted into a wiry, humanoid form, though it somehow looked even more unnatural than before. It was less than half its previous size, even though it looked like it had grown taller, up to twenty metre from its feet to its head, yet so compact it still seemed to consist of less mass than before. Its torso and hips reminded Basil of nothing so much as an emaciated human, a mummy perhaps, the flesh gone to the point where the bones were visible, only the effect was twisted, even more unsettling due to what was frankly an inhuman bone structure, its ribcage seemingly extending to cover its stomach and attach directly to its hips, from which a pair of long, spindly legs with overly thick, knot-like knees and ankles protruded, ending toe-less, sickle-like feet balancing on their tips. The legs as a whole were longer than its torso was, and its arms were longer still, almost twice as long as it was tall. It was bent forward, its arms angled with the hands – which looked more like two irregular, uneven masses of tentacles than actual hands spreading out over the ground like roots – on the broken street, yet its elbows stuck far up above its torso. Its head had changed, as well, gaining definition. It now had a noticable neck, though it was unnaturally thin and flexible, judging by how it was twisting and turning its head every which way, taking in its surroundings. There seemed to be a skull beneath the skin, now, if not a human one; its maw, wide and gaping as before, was placed normally, facing forward, but its eye stuck out of the upper left portion of its skull, where the left temple should’ve been, making up almost a third of the head’s mass like some kind of bulbuous tumor. It had no features other than those two. Its skin had lost its camouflage – not that it had been of use to it, thanks to Hollywood’s power making stealth nearly impossible – and now had a dull green-blue colour, like an algae-filled patch of the ocean, brightening and darkening in odd, nauseating patterns. Its huge eye swerved around in its socket, until it focused on the Subjugator, which was hovering just out of reach of its over-long arms.

Another change? Did taking so much damage trigger it, perhaps, or is it just going to keep changing its form as time passes, regardless of what happens to it? Neither was a welcome thought – one meant that fighting it would only drive it to take new and potentially more dangerous forms, the other meant that not fighting and putting it down as quickly as they could would only lead it to become more and more dangerous, if it also happened to improve itself with each metamorphosis. We will not know until we try, Basil thought as he took a few steps back, before turning around and leaping off the rooftop, only to swing and pull himself onto another one, a street away. Best to keep a certain distance.

Just in time, in fact, because mere seconds after he’d done so, Crocell let loose a rumbling roar that shook the buildings around it, destroying what little glass was left intact, while at the same time releasing a ridiculous amount of mist – not steam, it did not seem to be hot at all – that spread in a huge, almost explosive wave, covering the entire block around it, up to the street he’d just swung across, yet not reaching the rooftop he was on – but the one he’d been standing on before was barely visible now, and he’d lost sight of Crocell entirely, even though its elbows should have stuck out of the billowing mist; it must have lowered them to hide better.

The Subjugator was still visible (he suspected they were programmed to be as noticable as possible – Sovereign’s ego was the stuff of legends for a reason) as it floated just above the mist, its four spherical “eyes” moving in a regular pattern to scan the area in front and below.

“SUCH INSOLENCE! DO YOU TRULY BELIEVE SUCH A PUNY TRICK WOULD HIDE YOU FROM OUR SOVEREIGN’S MIGHTY SENSORS!?!” Its energy gun lit up again, firing a smaller but no less bright arc of… whatever it was that it fired, right into the mist.

There was a loud crack as the mist was blown away, dispersed, revealing Crocell once more. The blow had, apparently, struck the changed creature just as it had been about to run into a side street and thrown it over, its upper half slamming into a the corner of a smaller building – the source of the earlier cracking sound, continuing now as the building tilted, then collapsed, falling onto the scrambling beast. Basil just barely managed to get a look at the damage done, a whole chunk of its torso, just underneath the left armpit, was gone. Fresh flesh was already forming, yes, as the burned and blackened edges of the wound literally melted off, but it was nonetheless every bit as big a hit as earlier, its new body proving to be no more resistant to the effect than before.

“Any idea what kind of weapon that is?”

Basil flinched at the sudden appearance of the voice, barely preventing himself from humiliating himself by squealing. It helped that the familiar voice only startled and didn’t scare him.

Taking a deep breath, he looked to his right, at the tall figure in purple standing there, balancing on those ridiculous heels of hers (they could have contained lightsabers for all he cared and it wouldn’t have made him any happier – she already drew too many of those looks from guys for him to feel comfortable about) in a casual pose, her arms crossed underneath her chest – he’d found out, to his consternation, that she did that pose deliberately, to draw attention to her chest. Another detail that grated.

He averted his eyes – easy to do, he didn’t like seeing her in her costume – and looked around both with his own eyes and his ravens, to make sure no one was near; making sure his communicator wasn’t picking up any sound, either.

“Hello Amy,” he greeted her warmly, if carefully; he was well aware of how little she liked seeing him here. “No, I do not know what that is, not exactly. I have a few suspicions, but nothing I would feel confident about.”

“Sucks,” she replied, seemingly as casual as when she’d discuss a news report, even though he could hear a certain tightness to her tone of voice. “I’d sure as hell like to know how it’s causing that kind of damage. Even Old Crocface couldn’t hurt that thing all that much.”

“I am absolutely certain that it is important. Figuring out why could be crucial to defeating Crocell, but I just can not quite figure it out!” he replied in frustration. His power had been misfiring for over a month now and he was absolutely certain that this inability to reach that conclusion he could feel in the back of his head where his power rested was a part of that. “I need more data.” He glanced at her again. “What can you tell me about it, so far? What have you been trying throughout the battle?” He had not seen her engage the beast, so far, yet he doubted that she’d been lazy.

“I’ve been trying to attack it telepathically,” she answered immediately, shifting her weight a bit to cock her hip, her left hand resting on the outward curve, while she gestured with her right hand – an unconcious stance she usually assumed when explaining something. “There’s loads of physical powerhouses here, nothing I could do on that level would be all that different from what they’re already doing, but I’m the only rea-“

She was interrupted by a painfully loud screeching sound, causing both of them to turn towards the battle, where Crocell had apparently tried to disengage the Subjugator, only to run into a huge spider’s web stretched across the street, from building to building. A cape was adding more and more lines of whatever material they used to create said web, the lithe figure vaulting all over the place to shoot the stuff from their hands, throwing out lines that’d attach to one of Crocell’s limbs, then to a building on the opposite side from its body, tightening their hold. Meanwhile, the Subjugator was approaching, its… Arc Cannon! he decided to call it… charging up again as another cape had turned into a localized twister of blades that were tearing into Crocell from the opposite side, creating that loud screeching sound as the countless cutting implements ground against its now much tougher hide, scoring it only superficially.

“As I said,” Amy continued, raising her voice so she’d be heard over the cacophony. “I’m the only real telepath here, so I was trying to see whether I could take over its mind, or at least impede or distract it, but it’s no use!”

“Why!?”

“It doesn’t really have a normal mind!” she explained. “It’s not a human nor an animal! I can feel its mind, but it’s too different for me to connect! Diffuse, like it’s… spread out, decentralised!” She brought her hands together for the last part, spreading her fingers apart in an accompanying gesture.

“A diffuse mind…” He turned away from her, looking at the fight. The Subjugator had yet to fire its arc cannon again, probably so as to avoid killing the capes who were currently in close proximity to the struggling Crocell. More melee fighters had joined the blade-storm cape and the spider-web cape. Someone was manifesting ribbons of some kind of shimmering, almost liquid-seeming metal, using them to further bind the monster, the strange material wrapping around it before it extended to the street below, fusing with the ground to tie him. Another cape, this one visibly at work, was shoring up the buildings which the web-maker had attached their web to, his tall form clad in armor that looked like it had been made out of layers of concrete as he waved his hands, causing spikes of concrete to just up from the street and brace against the structural hard points of the buildings. Several more were right on Crocell attacking him directly while avoiding causing damage to the web or being in the line of fire of the arc cannon.

“Got any bright ideas, baby bro’?” Amy quipped while admiring the spectacle. At least some of those capes had to be a team, or otherwise used to working together, blending their abilities too smoothly for it to be on the fly. “Any ideas for some kinda miracle machine that’s gonna end this?”

“Anything I came up with now would be mere guesswork,” he replied while lifting his rifle, using the scope to take a closer look at the capes. “I need more data.” Besides, I am not at all certain I could trust my power to come up with anything useful even if I had the data.

The web-maker was a young woman in a skintight black-and-blue outfit that clung to her like a second skin, its collar extending up to cover her face up to the bridge of her nose, leaving only her impossibly blue eyes, forehead, ears and brown hair free. Basil recognised her as Weaver, a popular cape from San Diego.

The concrete-manipulator had to be Rebar, one of her more recurring foes. Which meant the storm of blades was Taz, and the ribbons had to be from Shimmer. The three of them had been solo villains, as likely to fight each other as to fight the heroes, who’d been repeatedly foiled by Weaver, only to band together into a villain team not so long ago (though they’d still gotten their asses kicked by her).

It seemed that years of fighting each other had tought the four of them a surprising amount of teamwork, and they seemed to have Crocell quite neatly tied up by now, as Weaver and Shimmer were extending their bindings even into its body, where Taz had managed just enough damage to let them hook right into its flesh.  The Subjugator, meanwhile, was waiting to deliver what would hopefully be the finishing shot, if only to incapacitate it and allow for more thorough bindings.

So, of course Crocell had to pull out a new trick it hadn’t used before. Its hide began to melt as it literally slid out of its own, gaping maw, leaving its now semi-liquid outer layer behind within the bindings, its exit from its own skin so forceful it was catapulted high in the air, catching everyone by surprise.

Everyone except the Subjugator and Weaver, apparently. Both reacted near instantly. In fact, Weaver reacted faster than the machine with its combat protocols that had been honed over a decade of optimization.

Standing horizontally on a building’s wall, she made a throwing motion with both hands, as thin lines extended from them towards Crocell, attaching to its lower legs.

Basil saw her twist her whole body in a violent pulling motion, singlehandedly arresting Crocell’s flight over the Subjugator.

Instead of getting away from the capes and cowls that had been binding it, and moving behind its most powerful adversary, Crocell was now completely exposed above the hovering warmachine, almost seeming to float for a moment before gravity kicked in.

The Subjugator moved smoothly, as if having expected Weaver’s action, orienting its whole frame upwards. The arc cannon roared in thunder, briefly whiting out Basil’s field of view.

When he could see again, he saw Crocell’s headless body tumble down towards the ground, its disproportionate limbs flapping around its body without grace nor strength.

Did that do it? he asked himself, lowering his rifle again. He could feel Amy’s tension next to him, as she probably asked herself the very same thing.

The Subjugator began to move out of the way of the tumbling body, as its choral voice blared through the comm system again. “FALL, GRACELESS BEAST! FALL BEFORE THE INFINITE MIGHT OF YOUR GLORIOUS SOVEREIGN!!!”

I really need to figure out how to proof my own network against this, Basil thought, even if he wasn’t sure he could. For all the breadth of his talents, software security was not one of his strengths.

His thoughts on the subject were, however, interrupted by Amy’s sudden gasp. Jerked out of the brief mental detour, Basil realised that Crocell had not been simply falling down – the seemingly random flapping and twisting of its limbs had re-angled its fall, causing it to land atop the Subjugator – only to slam onto its upward force-field.

The flickering, blueish-white field became visible upon Crocell coming into contact with it. The field bucked against his weight, but held without showing any further strain as the Subjugator continued to fly backwards, while Crocell started to slide off the frictionless pane, its body continuing to flail and trash around, bleeding profusely from the stump of its neck, its blood still pale and watery, yet still distinct from actual water.

Its body slid off the nose of the Subjugator, falling down – but it stopped as one of its impossibly long arms lashed out, striking the top of the Subjugator’s nose, just over its upper ‘eye’. Crocell’s fingers penetrated the force-field and somehow found purchase in it, the field bucking, flickering, but holding, and holding the monster up as well as it dangled from the Subjugator by one hand.

“What the hell!?” Basil couldn’t hold the shout back. “How does that even work!?” He was hardly an expert on force-fields, but even he knew that that should not work – Crocell’s fingers should either have caused the field to collapse or else been cut off by it as its weight pulled them against its sharp edge.

“UNHAND ME, WRETCHED BEAST!” The machine roared in indignation, extending a duo of coils from each side, just in front of its wings. Both sets of man-sized coils lit up, lightning dancing first between them, and then all over the Subjugator and its force-field.

Crocell made a wheezing sound, causing more blood to bubble out of its neck, its body seizing up and trashing about – but it kept its grip, refusing to let go.

“Basil, are you seeing that?” Amy asked, pointing at the struggle. “Look at Crocell’s head!”

He tore his eyes away from the weird sight of Crocell holding onto what was, according to rumors, some kind of electromagnetic field interacting weirdly with kinetic energy, and looked at where Crocell’s head should be. Then he blinked, and looked again.

It had begun to regenerate from the stump upwards, forming cartilaginous bone, pale muscle and flesh, more like a fish than anything else.

So far, so normal. Or as normal as superpowers ever really got.

The electrocution it was undergoing, though, revealed a very odd effect. The dancing lightning was incinerating and, in some cases, literally obliterating parts of the growth, slowing the process down.

However, only the pieces that were directly hit by the lightning fell off. Clumps of flesh blackened and disintegrated into ash, leaving others to float free within the space where its head should be. He could see bits of brain matter, parts of the cheekbone, half a tongue, untouched by the lightning as more flesh and bone grew from the stump, reaching towards the free-floating pieces. Even when Crocell turned its head, they kept their orientation, turning as if the head was whole already, just partly invisible.

Basil stared, trying to process that. It meant something, something important, he was sure of it! Its parts were being held in place by something, but what could that be?

Strands of flesh reached the top of the head, bone growing out of them to form a quart of the eye-socket, which was rapidly filled in by Crocell’s huge, singular eye, the nearly free-floating orb immediately starting to look around, at the same time at which it started to pound on the Subjugator from below, its free fist slamming into its lower force-field over and over again.

The Subjugator kept shouting its phrases as it unloaded its short-range weaponry on Crocell, trying to dislodge the beast, aiming mostly at its arm in an attempt to cut it off – but with their positions right then, it could not use its arc cannon against the constantly regenerating monster, denying it the one weapon which had proven to actually cause meaningful damage to Crocell.

Its repeated attacks at such close range were showing an effect, too; the Subjugator’s shields were visibly straining, turning nearly opaque as they rippled with…

…kinetic energy being transformed into electric energy, recharging its reserves while discharging the excess through the field’s matrix as photons.

Basil blinked. That thought had come up out of nowhere, right from the back of his mind, from his power. I’ve never heard it so clearly.

The pounding continued – and then stopped, moments before a glint of light could be seen on Crocell’s eye. His half-formed head, still being ravaged by electricity from the Subjugator’s twin coils, turned to look away from the Subjugator, as something bounced off its eye again, creating another tiny spark.

Basil followed its gaze, though he already knew what he’d see – there was only person who could draw its attention like that.

Tyche was back, together with Waverider this time, standing atop his namesake wave in an almost casual stance, as he knelt in front of her, allowing her to point her weapon forward, aiming at Crocell. Hollywood’s light followed them closer, casting its spell on the battlefield.

She opened fire, barely bothering to aim – between her power and Hollywood’s, there was little point to it, especially since her actual ability to aim was atrocious – and her every shot hit true.

Huh.

Basil lifted his rifle, zooming in with the scope once more. Tyche fired another shot, continuing to hit the exact same spot in spite of Waverider being constantly in motion, his power unable to simply hover in place.

Again he watched her hit the same spot, blowing a tiny chunk of matter off its eye, the damage growing back faster than she could squeeze the trigger.

And every time, there was a tiny ripple there, a glint of light that Basil would never have noticed, were it not for Hollywood’s power making everything stand out so much more starkly.

“Amy,” he spoke up, lowering his rifle.

“Yeah?” she said from his side.

“I need you to throw me at Crocell,” he said simply.

There was a moment of silence. “Excuse me, I must temporarily have been dipping into some weird parallel reality, because that sounded like you, dearest soft and squishy little brother of mine, want me to throw you at the giant, city-wrecking monster that’s currently tangoing with a killing machine made by a madman even I think is crazy,” she replied in a deadpan voice.

“If you could, aim so I will hit the wrist of the hand stuck to the force-field,” he elaborated, as he looked to the side at the look of disbelief even her mask could not hide. “I need to… gather data.” He was sure he was on the verge of pushing his power over the edge. He just needed a little more information.

Amy lifted her hand, pinching the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes. “I hate you just for making that request. Do you really think I would do that? Why would I ever do that?”

Behind his mask, Basil’s face twisted into a frown. He knew Amy hated it when he put himself into any kind of danger whatsoever – her idea of his villain career in her organisation had been to lock him into a workshop with endless supplies and never let him see actual combat – and he knew her well enough to tell that it took all her self control not to grab him and just fly away from this place; but he had to get there, and quickly, before Crocell broke free from the Subjugator.

He’d only have one shot at convincing her.

“You will do it, Amy, because you are a villain… and I am a hero. I have kept quiet and not done anything to hinder you from doing what you do and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy in turn.”

“Letting you be a superhero does not require any positive action on my part, like, oh say, throwing my squishy little brother at a fucking kaiju!” she almost shrieked in response, leaning forward until her face was level with his.

His hands clenched on the grip and barrel of his rifle, trying not to show the tremors he could feel – though whether it was anger at her refusal, fear at the insane stunt he was intending to perform or expectation at what might come of it, he could not say – as he took a deep breath.

“Amy… please.”

She reared back as if he’d slapped her. “Basil…”

He kept his voice as soft as he could. “Amy, this thing… it has to be stopped. People have died already trying to stop it. I have to help in any way I can, and I really, truly think that I can figure out something useful if I just get onto it before it gets away from the Subjugator. Please, let me do my job. Do not treat me as your little brother, treat me as a… a fellow warrior on this battlefield.”

She looked away from him, biting her lower lip. He could not truly lay claim to know how she really felt – their situations were too different, in too many ways – but he knew that he’d hate the thought of her going up against something she could not effectively defend herself against.

So he stayed quiet and let her think it over, hoping that she’d come to a quick conclusion, while the battle raged behind him; he could hear Crocell’s beam, see it through the cracked interface of his mask that was still connected to his ravens, but his focus was on Amy.

After almost half a minute, she released her breath, seeming to sag a bit, before she drew herself up again.

“Alright. I’m not going to throw you at this thing,” His hands clenched even tighter on the weapon, as he tried to think of another argument to make. “But I’m going to take you there,” she continued before he could open his mouth, her mouth twisting into a thin, weak smile. “That way, I can at least do my best to keep my idiot baby bro alive.”

He released a breath he hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding, easing the grip on his weapon. “Oh. Right. I should have thought of that option.” Not that he really wanted her to get too cl- no, that would just be hypocritical.

A chuckle escaped her lips as she stalked forward on those ridiculous heels, confidence returning to her posture. “Typical. My little genius idiot.”

Without preamble, she lifted him telekinetically, her power wrapping gently around him; so gently, he could barely tell that any force was being exerted on him, as if he was just suddenly floating on his own.

“Let’s go ‘gather data’, baby bro.”

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B012.9 Born At Sleep

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Crocell’s eye swiveled around, passing over the approaching capes and cowl – to focus, apparently, on Tyche again.

“The fu-” she started to say before Basil tackled her out of the way of the beam of whatever-it-was that Crocell sent her way.

The two of them fell off the roof as half of it – the half Tyche had been on – was disintegrated. Hecate, having stood on the other side of Basil from Tyche, was safe, though she smoked away just to be safe.

Basil fired a hook, swinging away from the doomed building – but clearly, Crocell wasn’t done, as it turned its head to pursue them with its lethal beam. He saw it approach them and knew that there was no way he could evade it – but Tyche could, maybe, if she turned to smoke, so he threw her away from himself.

“What are y-” she began to shout, only to be interrupted again.

“Smoke away!” he shouted, and she did as the beam approached.

If I swing around the building, I might get away, he thought, only then it was rendered moot as Kraquok tackled Crocell, one arm punching it’s barely existent jaw to snap its mouth shut.

The multi-limbed cowl roared as he pushed against the even bigger monster, whose limbs were still stuck to the ground by the silvery field the girl from the Feral family – Mercury, if he remembered their roster correctly – and bent it over backwards.

Crocell tried to open its maw, perhaps to roar but more likely to blast Kraquok off of itself, but the veteran fighter was using two of its limbs to hold it closed, while bending the feral monstrosity backwards – if it’d had anything like a classic skeleton, it’d have a broken spine by now; Kraquok was very nearly straddling it at this point, Crocell’s head and back just a metre or two away from touching the ground and getting stuck to Mercury’s field.

“Come on…” he couldn’t help but whisper as he swung onto another building. It would’ve been smarter to get out of sight, to only watch through his ravens, but he really, really wanted to see the pro’s go to town in person.

Evidently, others felt the same way, as capes and cowls gathered around the park. Whether they were holding back out of morbid curiosity, or because they didn’t want to get in the way (and possibly get hit by Kraquok’s infamous breath weapon), hold back they did, as Tyche and Hecate joined Basil again. Gilgul was up above, closer to the battle, looking for a chance to strike.

“Hey B, thanks for saving my ass – again,” Tyche said lightly, though Basil could hear an undercurrent of actual gratitude hidden beneath her light-hearted demeanor.

“I wonder why it’s been targeting you,” Hecate said, seemingly more worried than Tyche herself. “You’re hardly the most dangerous person around, and yet it’s been going after you every time it hasn’t been distracted by others.”

The redhead girl shrugged, just as Kraquok finally succeeded in bending Crocell over to the point where its head and shoulders were now stuck, leaving the monster now bent backwards in a rather grotesque way, its limbs flailing around uselessly.

He immediately got out of the way, at the same time that Doc Feral made a simple hand motion, and the whole Feral family sprang into action.

Wunderkind downed a glowing potion. Several others either drank or injected or, in one case, inhaled various concoctions. Doc Feral herself stabbed an injector into her left forearm. Only Mercury (a name she couldn’t possibly have claimed had it not been in the Feral Family for decades) kept her current power, maintaining the hold on Crocell.

And then they ripped into the beast.

They acted in pairs, at least, if not in trios. Basil couldn’t even tell what the individual powers they’d picked were, as they never used them independently of each other; instead, they heterodyned with an ease that made his and Polymnia’s gadgeteering session seem anemic. Brilliant beams of spiraling energy, twisting, semi-solid masses of corrosive light, vicious exploding mist lashing out like a lovecraftian horror with countless tentacles and more assaulted their prone quarry. Some of them stuck together, some only combined for a single attack before they cycled through partners, powers or both.

The result was a glorious, perfectly coordinated storm of destruction that flayed the flesh off Crocell’s side and hips. Clear fluid shot out as if it was filled with high-pressure hoses, as masses of pearlescent, pale white flesh and what looked like cartilaginous bones (in a configuration which seemed to be meant for a fish rather than a humanoid) were exposed, and the assault didn’t stop there – they only dug deeper.

The cacophony of the Feral Family’s attack was bad enough, but Crocell trumped them all a moment later, screaming at such a high volume, Basil had to steady the girls again as they reeled from the attack. Hecate even dropped her staff in favour of holding her hands over her ears, while Tyche’s rifle only remained with her due to the strap she was carrying it by.

And the monster kept screaming, only rising in pitch. Glass shattered for several blocks around the park, as people collapsed with their ears bleeding. The Feral family was hit the hardest, as they were also closest. Even Kraquok reeled, stumbling in disorientation.

Basil’s ravens were being destroyed as well, and he’d actually made an effort to make them resistant to sonic attacks; since it clearly hadn’t been sufficient, he sent them away instead. Even so, he was down to just two ravens now, out of what had once been a whole unkindness.

He took a step back, holding onto the girls, as he furiously thought about some way to get them to safety – as well as himself, as he didn’t know how long his own protection would hold out against this level of noise.

All that was rendered moot, though, as all the sound suddenly vanished; they were all plunged into total silence, silence so complete, it made Basil’s ears ring.

He looked up to see Gloom Glimmer in the air above, cape billowing with the now soundless pressure of Crocell’s cry, her left arm extended, palm up, with a blueish sphere the size of a softball hovering above it.

She was looking furious, her eyes turned red and black again.

An impact shook the building Basil was standing on, drawing his attention away from her. In the seconds he’d been distracted, the Feral Family had managed to recover and gone back to their assault on the giant monster. Three of them – Basil didn’t recognise them, but they looked like father, mother and son in matching costumes – were standing together, holding hands in a triangle formation. They raised their intertwined hands in synchronous motion, then brought them down – and with them came a pillar of what appeared to be solid gold, slamming into Crocell’s midsection, where he’d been regenerating the damage done to him – it served to both slow down his visible regeneration and also kept him down, as Mercury had passed out from the sonic assault, freeing him from the silvery field she’d covered the ground beneath him with. The rest of the family was no slouch either – Doc Feral was leading a group of five, the others teaming up in pairs of two or three, renewing their assault on the beast.

Basil and the girls all watched in awe as they blasted the beast across the park, slowly but surely driving it down the main street to try and get it out of the city. It was, frankly, not something they’d expected from the Ferals.

The Shining Guardians were the favourite subject of more message boards, talk shows and video channels than one could count, and one of the favourite pastimes of them was to compare the members of the group, both past and present, and rank them – in these rankings, the Feral Family usually took last place.

Fleur was Lady Light’s former sidekick, the first she’d taken on since Elysium’s death; a hugely successful heroine whom many described as a good Weisswald, power-wise.

Quetzalcoatl was, frankly, a monster, a catastrophe made flesh which, in any sane world, would be hunted down by any means necessary. Since he lived in Brazil, though, he was a national hero.

Severance was the last truly original member, mysterious and shrewd enough to keep the nature of his power a secret over a seventy-year career.  He was als somehow managing to keep a lid on crime in New Johannesburg, which spoke volumes about his capabilities. The criminals of that city supposedly feared him more than Sovereign.

Huong Long was young, had a questionable history, big problems with the Japanese Sentai and the kind of power that had catapulted her to the world stage within a month and a half of manifesting.

Doc Feral, meanwhile, only ever showed up with her family – Basil wasn’t even sure whether there was any footage of her fighting on her own – and they usually stayed in the back of the big fights, overshadowed by the flashier. members of the Shining Guardians and even some other heroes.

Or, perhaps, they simply prefer a support role when there are others around to stand up front, Basil though. The way they work, they’re probably better-suited to it, anyway.

Clearly, though, they could bring the hurt when necessary. Crocell was being driven out of the city, screaming and trashing without a sound, as the gathered heroes and villains followed the stoically advancing Feral Family.

Gloom Glimmer floated down to move along Basil and the girls, along with Gilgul.

“I feel so darn useless,” Gilgul admitted, sounding both awed and annoyed. “What are we even here for? The Ferals seem like they can take him down on their own.”

“They can’t keep this up forever,” Gloom Glimmer explained, her voice reverberating oddly with itself. “Some of them can only make small amounts of formula a day, others can only take a limited amount of it per day without serious side effects and every one they lose reduces their overall power exponentially.”

“So they have a lot of power, but not a lot of staying power,” Hecate summarised. Gloom Glimmer nodded in affirmation.

“How is Polymnia?” Basil asked curiously. “Those screams can not have been good for her.”

The floating girl bit her lower lip, a look of frustration spreading over her face. “It knocked her out. I was able to fix her ears and wake her up, but… I couldn’t fix the pain it caused. She’s at the command post.”

“Your power is not cooperating?” He watched the Feral family change powers, creating no less than eleven different kinds of bindings, from purple chains to arms growing out of the ground, while Doc Feral, Wunderkind and one other member were charging up what looked like a small sun.

“I’m used to it,” she said, as they watched them blast the immobilized Crocell square in the chest, causing an explosion of steam which obscured all vision. “Though I really would’ve thought I’d want to ease her pain to get a power for that…”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Tyche told her as she patted the floating girl’s shoulder. “I got nothing like control over my power and if it’s taught me one thing it’s that you can’t take it personally. Powers are weird.”

Gloom Glimmer giggled, reluctantly, just as a strong, cool wind picked up.

Basil turned his head and saw the woman in the brown costume again, standing next to Prospero. She had her arms raised, waving them about as if conducting a play, as the wind blew the steam away.

Prospero, meanwhile, was holding his staff up over his head with both hands, holding it horizontally, as he seemed to… cuss at the sky?

One of Basil’s ravens was close and he sent it closer still, until its microphone (battered though it was) picked up a steady stream of insults, curses and general derogatory comments, which Prospero was shouting at the air at the top of his lungs, while a humanoid figure formed out of the wind that the woman in brown was moving.

It looked androgynous, sexless, with long, ethereal hair several times its height of about a metre and a half. Once it was fully formed – though still translucent – it flew out towards Crocell, while Prospero went to work cussing up another spir-

“Brennus, why are you giggling?” Hecate asked in a worried tone of voice.

“I, ah, I just… nothing,” he replied, once had himself back under control. Well, mostly. It was still too funny, even for him. He looked over at Prospero drawing more of his wind spirit out of the air, aided by the woman’s power, as he continued shouting at his own creations. Basil stifled another giggle. He’s cussing up a storm.

The steam was gone, by that point, and they could see the results of it all. Crocell was picking itself up off the ground, having been pushed very nearly to the city’s limits, most of its front flayed off to the muscle. Even now, it was regenerating, the attack apparently having had no greater effect, than previous efforts.

The Feral Family had retreated by about fifty metres, while several of the present heroes were forming up a line between them and the monster. Hollywood’s sphere of light was hovering up above the battle, providing its boons to all defenders of the city.

Weirdly enough, Basil couldn’t make out Kraquok anywhere, even though the monstrous villain had grown far too big to simply slip out of sight. A few others were missing, as well – Waverider and Father Manus. He could see Amy, hovering over a nearby rooftop, circled by several compressed spheres of metal – former cars she’d turned into impromptu projectiles. Lamarr was nowhere to be seen. Nor had Totemic or Sovereign’s Subjugator made an appearance yet.

Let’s hope they’re planning something big, Basil thought to himself, though he didn’t share his thoughts with the others.

“I’m going to join the heavy hitters,” Gilgul announced, looking at the girls, then at Basil, nodding quickly. “Stay safe, all of you.”

“Yes ma’am,” Basil replied, his mask hiding his smile as she flew away towards the line of frontline fighters.

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them and flew ahead as well.

“What do we do, B-Six?” Tyche asked him. “We’re kind of superfluous here.”

Hecate made a surprisingly refined snort. “I don’t think so. I’m going to get closer and angle for a shot. See you two later.” And she burst into smoke, flying away before either of them could say anything.

Basil took a look at Tyche. She was still unharmed. Barely a speck of dust on her; she’d even managed to keep ahold of her rifle, which he was quite glad about – it was nearly a match to his own, in sheer stopping power, though it lacked some of the more exotic (and delicate) additions his rail gun had, and it would have been hideously expensive to remake.

“We are going to run Search and Rescue, I guess,” he replied. “I only have two ravens left, but between them and your luck, we should be able to h-“

He saw it move through the one raven he’d sent up above, keeping a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, and reacted at the last moment, throwing himself at Tyche and knocking her out of the way at the last moment, just as Crocell shot another beam aimed straight at her. It missed them by barely an inch, very nearly blasting off Basil’s legs.

The sonic boom it caused hit them in spite of Gloom Glimmer’s power negating the actual sound of it, shaking Basil to the core and disorienting him greatly.

He very nearly threw up in his mask as his sight turned black for moments, and he lost all sense of direction while he and Tyche were thrown off the roof, approaching the ground in a graceless tumble.

Acting on reflex, he fired his grappling hooks left and right, hoping for some, any kind of purchase – but the blast had damaged the left one, causing it to get stuck, while the other one didn’t hit anything but air.

And then his and Tyche’s fall was suddenly arrested, as the air itself seemed to catch them, bringing them to a brain-shaking halt.

“Ugh…” Tyche made a sick sound, before she audibly threw up – fortunately, she didn’t throw up on him. That would’ve seriously crimped his white cape’s style.

Slowly, Basil’s vision returned as he and Tyche were deposited on the street, just in time to see the woman in brown float gracefully down to meet them. Unfortunately, as his vision sharpened, he saw that the impact had caused a lot of damage to his equipment – especially to his mask’s HUD and cameras, forcing him to trigger the failsafe and open up two slits for his eyes. Well, it’s this kind of situation I built them in for.

“Are you two alright?” the woman asked with a voice that didn’t match her boring, rather forgettable costume – it was strong, weathered, a practiced voice that could easily be heard across the roar of a storm – and which drew his attention away from inspecting the damage readouts he still had access to.

Tyche groaned, heaving, but Basil righted himself and nodded. “We are quite fine. Thank you for the save.”

She nodded. “Let’s get out of here before that thing-“

There was a roar, and then a groundshaking impact, and then the two buildings behind them – including the one Crocell had shorn the top off of – began to topple towards them.

Basil didn’t bother wasting breath to curse or anything – instead, he grabbed Tyche by her upper arm and charged forward, hooking his other arm into the woman’s own, and pulled them with him as he ran to the right, trying to get out of the collapsing buildings’ arc.

But it was too late and the two constructions, built to fit the modern customs and regulations (you really couldn’t afford having buildings be too easy to bring down, nowadays) crashed down atop them with a deafening noise.

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B012.8 Born At Sleep

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“Is that… what in God’s name is that supposed to be?” Prisca asked in a hushed voice as they stared at the thing facing the city.

It looked, at first, like a giant blueish-silvery sack, barely held in a roughly humanoid shape thirty to thirty-five meters tall – it was hard to tell, as it still stood partly in the water. There was no visible neck – its body simply ended in a conical top. No shoulders, either – its arms simply hung from its upper torso. There were no joints visible anywhere. Its body was pear-shaped, its legs extending from its bottom without any visible hips. It had a half-opened, rather tiny mouth on its head lacking actual lips and showing rows upon rows of irregular, conical teeth set in jet black gums. Above said mouth and slightly to the side, it sported a single, huge black eye with a red iris. The eye was so big, only half of it fit into the socket, with the rest poking out, like a chamaeleon’s eye, only bare. It was swiveling around chaotically, as if it didn’t know what to look at. It would’ve looked utterly ridiculous, if it wasn’t so big.

It’s skin, which had an almost metallic blue-silver colour, was unbroken, smoothly covering everything except for its mouth and its eye. As they watched, it took a single, lumbering step on to dry ground, and the moment its foot – more of a pseudopod – touched the concrete of the street running along the beach, its colouration changed, starting with the parts that had touched ground, a dusty grey colour crawling up its form and covering it from head to toe. At the same time, its whole body contracted, literally compressing itself as it shrank to half its former height, less than twenty meters. It was still pear-shaped, only its upper body was now noticably more human, with pronounced shoulders and thick arms ending in actual, if only three-fingered hands instead of five pseudopods sticking out of another, bigger one. Its legs were more detailed as well, bending with proper knees instead of merely being two straight pillars.

It opened its mouth wide and made a long, low rumbling sound, almost like a man gargling but turned up to eleven.

“Oh, jolly,” Basil said. “It’s not only a giant monster, now it’s a giant, camouflaged, mobile monster.”

“Isn’t this better, though?” Dalia asked. “Smaller now.”

“Harder to hit,” Vasiliki countered. “Better able to hide among buildings, on top of being able to visually camouflage itself. And unless it somehow reduced its overall mass, it ought to be denser now, as well. Several times tougher than before. Exponentially so, perhaps, though I am not an expert in such matters.”

“Assuming that proportions remain the same, mass octuplicates every time height doubles,” Basil supplied. “It just cut its size in half, so assuming its mass is proportional to its size and there are no weird things – well, no weirder things – going on here, that means its now eight times tougher than before.”

“Oh,” was Dalia’s only response.

“Maybe it’s not so bad,” Prisca said hopefully. “It hasn’t attacked anything yet, maybe it’s-“

Whatever she wanted to say was cut short when the giant roared so loudly it shattered the windows of every building from the beach front all the way to their building – and beyond. Vasiliki and Dalia cried out in pain, though Basil and Prisca were fortunately unaffected.

Basil reached out with both hands, grabbing onto Vasiliki and Dalia in order to steady them. “Prisca, overwatch,” he said calmly, trusting the com system he’d handed out to his team members to transmit his words even over the deafening cacophony the enemy had unleashed.

He saw the gilded girl take off, flying up and towards the monster so as to keep an eye on it – and to test its defenses; after all, Prisca was quite safe, no matter how it retaliated against Gilgul. If that thing could even bring up the firepower necessary to destroy her.

The communicators they’d gotten earlier spoke up moments after the sonic assault ended. Father Manus’ deep, calm voice said, <Attention, everyone, the enemy appears to be capable of-> but the rest of it was cut off by another scream which shook the buildings.

Damn it, Basil thought, as he held onto Dalia and Vasiliki. At the same time, he used eye movements to pick out the frequency of his communicator and link it to his helmet systems. Now I will be able to hear it properly.

He stayed where he was, for a long minute, as the girls held their hands over their ears, but though he’d included some protection in Dalia’s mask, it was not nearly enough to protect her from the cacophony.

Finally, the scream abated and the monster – he didn’t even know what to call it – looked around, turning its shapeless head to let its single eye survey its surroundings. It focused for a moment on the approaching Gilgul, as well as several other flying figures, before it focused on the rooftop Basil and the girls stood upon.

Wait, why is it focusing on us? Basil thought, moments before it went down on all fours and propelled itself towards them.

The girls were still stunned by the sonic assault as the ungainly mass of the enemy – Basil didn’t even know what to call it – approached, leaping over a distance of more than a kilometre, so he grabbed them both, wrapping an arm around their waists and leapt off the rooftop.

The enemy slammed onto the building with a massive crack, breaking through the rooftop and all the way down to the ground floor – dispelling any doubts as to what it’d done with its mass when it shrank.

Basil fired his hooks, using them to swing out of the way of the rubble the heavy impact threw around in every direction. One had attached to the edge of the opposing building’s rooftop, and he’d fired the other onto another building at a ninety-degree angle to the first one. Then he reeled in the second hook, swinging towards the far building, disconnected and fired again to hit the first building around the corner, swinging himself and the girls into cover.

Moments after he’d put the building between himself and the monster, it simply broke through it, smashing through the sturdy construction with a roar.

Why is it hunting us? he asked himself, though he didn’t even have the time to say it out loud. The beast was almost upon him, as was the rubble, when he heard a clarion-like scream, and Gilgul slammed down onto the back of the enemy’s head, spear-first, with a shout of “Keep your hands off them!” She hit it with enough force to create a shockwave, snapping its head down and causing its entire mass to flipp – its rear end rose as its head was pushed down, but its momentum persisted, carrying it feet-first over her and the others.

Not one to waste such a chance, Basil shot his hooks out and drew himself and the girls onto a nearby rooftop.

He kept his hold on them as they slowly recovered, Tyche first, then Hecate, while he looked at the damage caused by the monster having charged through one building, then flipped into another across the street.

The first one, utterly gutted, was still in the process of collapsing into a huge cloud of dust, the sound of it fortunately dampened by the protection Basil had built into his helmet. The second building, the one the beast had been inadvertently flipped into by Gilgul’s attack, had lost most of its facade as it slammed into it, and was now teetering on the edge of collapse as well.

Gilgul landed next to Basil, resting her weapon on her shoulder. “That thing is tough,” she spoke, her voice barely audible over the cacophony of the collapsing building. “I barely cut a foot into it, and even that took off a huge chunk of my time.”

“It is even thougher than its size and mass would suggest, then,” Basil concluded as the second building started collapsing atop their foe, as well. “Unless we find a weakpoint, you’ll probably be more useful conserving your charge for defence and interference.”

His girlfriend nodded, appearing stoic thanks to her all-covering armour, but he knew her well enough to know that she was upset – even though she’d just recenty gotten her powers, and she’d only been in two really serious fights since, she’d started to take a lot of pride in them, specifically in being the heavy hitter of New Lennston. This was the first enemy she’d run into who was capable of resisting her attack to a meaningful degree.

Hecate and Tyche had finally recovered, and were looking down at the devastation left behind by the brief exchange. The street below was choked with ash, what few cars were still visible now ruined by the debris and both buildings had come down entirely – fortunately, though, Esperanza’s practice of constructing every building to be tough enough to survive heavy earthquakes (and, maybe, even a future DiL attack) prevented the surrounding buildings from being torn down along with them, though they did take visible damage.

A new voice, that of a calm woman, spoke through their communicators – in Basil’s case, right into his ear. “Be advised, the enemy has moved to sector twenty-nine. Follow the dust cloud. It has also been officially designated as Crocell.”

“Crocell? That sounds familiar…” Basil commented as he looked to his right, where Hecate and Gilgul stood.

“No idea,” the gilded redhead replied.

“The forty-ninth spirit from the Ars Goetia,” Hecate supplied calmly, though one could still hear the pain in her tone. “Duke of Hell, associated with water… kind of on-the-nose, as handles go.”

“Air humidity just doubled,” Basil interrupted, the moment his sensors picked up on the new data. He activated his microphone, sending a message to the control room. “Control, my sensors register a sudden rise in air humidity. Are there any powers on our side responsible for that?”

<Negative,> came the reply after a few moments.

“Hm.” He looked down at the collapsed building Crocell had been buried underneath. “Stand ready,” he told the others, “We don’t know what this thing is really capable of.” A humming sound caused him to look up in time to see several capes and cowls arrive, standing atop a transluscent disk, which connected to the hand of a flying woman in white by a tether. More heroes (and villains) were arriving every second, until there were nearly sixty on the rooftops around and the air above them, all looking out for the enemy. Amy was approaching, as well, the other flying capes splitting up and giving her a wide berth, except for four cowls which fell into formation behind her. There was no sign of Lamarr, Kraquok or the Feral Family, though. Nor were the Subjugator or Totemic in sight. Prospero stood on a rooftop a little further back, alone save for an airy apparition, roughly humanoid in shape.

Just then, Crocell walked out of the dust cloud and the rubble, moving on all four limbs – nothing seemed to be broken or impaired.

However, its appearance was different. There were patches on its body which seemed to be made of steel now, rather than concrete, while others looked like glass…

Basil snapped off three shots, one to its eye, one to a concrete section and one to a patch of glass on its left elbow.

“The hell, Brennus!” Hecate cried out, startled.

“Dude, ice cold,” Tyche added in an impressed tone. “Totally ineffective, but those were some nice shots.”

He snapped off three more shots, aiming at different spots of the same areas. Crocell barely reacted, not even to the shot to its eye, even though Basil could see that it did cause damage, however

“They were very effective,” Basil replied in an annoyed tone. “I just didn’t intend for them to cause damage – just wanted to test…”

The fighters all around on the rooftops and in the air opened fire on Crocell. Beams, spheres of power and more flew at it before it could fully exit the rubble it had created.

It’s form was buried under the effects, over twenty different attacks at the same time. The cacophony of the impacts was nearly enough trigger his mask’s audio cut-offs.

Which was caused just by the primary impacts. What followed were the results of disparate powers connecting and interacting. Spheres of super-dense water were flash-heated by laser beams, exploding into steam. Greenish streaks of acid reacted with some kind of yellow bile-like substance to detonate into colourful (and devastating) explosions. Weird purple energy reacted with some kind of jet black smoke to flash-freeze everything the latter had been in contact with.

Someone wants this to end quickly,” Tyche commented dryly. A glance showed Basil that she looked only amused, not worried by the massive destruction they were faced with (the assault had filled most of the street below).

“Naturally,” Hecate replied in a curt fashion – one could hear her eyes rolling. “What were the shots for, Brennus?” she asked, turning her head to look at him.

“I wanted to see whether it not only mimicked the appearance of materials, but also their durability,” he explained. “If it did, then its glass-like parts would be exceedinly vulnerable; we could, perhaps, goad it into turning mostly into glass, then shatter it rather easily.”

“Didn’t look like it, though,” Hecate concluded.

He shook his head. “This rifle can shoot a hole through seven centimeters of solid steel, but it only grazed it in all three areas – eye, concrete and glass. So the changes are either only cosmetic, or it has some other defence which makes up for it. Or perhaps it just takes a far bigger attack than mine.”

“I didn’t really cause any noticable damage, either,” Gilgul supplied. “I’m not entirely sure, but I think the cut I made had already regenerated by the time it stepped out of the rubble.”

“Great, it regenerates as well,” Hecate grumbled, just in time for the attacks to abate. Basil, meanwhile, had sent a text message through his communicator to the control centre, about their observations. “What’s next, a-“

A brilliant white-blue lance of light shot out of the cloud of chaotic effects that had covered Crocell. Six defenders in flight were vaporised in an instant, a seventh fell to the ground with the left half of her body just gone. It was not silent – the attack came with a massive concussive sound, a shockwave that dispersed the assault on it.

The beam continued as Crocell – covered in wounds that had cut deep enough to kill most living beings, it’s flesh rent from its shoulders, it’s back and its upper arms – swung its head around, energy pouring forth from is misshapen mouth, drawing the beam across the rooftops, forcing heroes and villains alike to scramble for safety.

It was moving towards the rooftop Basil and the others stood upon.

“Of course it has a beam attack!” Hecate shouted, exasperated, as she dissolved into green-black smoke, half flying and half leaping to the ground below.

“Sucks to be us!” Tyche supplied as she turned into red-black smoke in turn, leaping up instead, to get over the beam.

Basil didn’t comment, he only leapt off the rooftop, firing his hooks to swing around the next building – it’s rooftop already scoured away – and away from he girls.

Gilgul waited until she was sure they’d all gotten away, then shot up just moments before the beam would’ve hit her.

He watched through his ravens, placed around the scene, as Crocell adjusted its beam, swinging around again.

It was going after Tyche.

Its breath followed her, but she reacted the only reasonable way she could – putting another coin in the ‘is Dalia really a ditz or just pretending to’ jar – by turning solid again, dropping straight down and past the beam.

Again, Crocell followed and Basil was not at all sure that even her prodigious luck could save her from its continued attention.

It turned out, though, that that wasn’t necessary – or perhaps it was already at work – for Waverider was fast approaching Crocell from behind, riding a whale-sized mass of crackling, diffuse energy; he must’ve been charging his power since the beginning of the fight, to have this big a punch ready.

The wave slammed into the wounded Crocell – it had not recovered any of the damage it had sustained so far, unlike the small wounds Basil had inflicted with his rail gun. Waverider leaped off it with the fluid ease of a champion surfer and gymnast, flipping backwards as his attack slammed into Crocell’s unprotected back.

The explosion was so violent it shattered glass for several blocks around, where there was any left. The read outs on his mask told Basil that the two closest ravens had sustained damage as well, despite their sturdy design. Still functional, but damaged.

When the dust settled, Crocell was nowhere to be seen, only a messy crater covered in rubble.

A huge, porcelain-white hand appeared beneath Waverider, gently catching him. His father-in-law’s power.

<Attention: Crocell’s status is unconfirmed. All combatants with enhanced perception are asked to verify,> came the announcement from the communicator, patched directly into Basil’s helmet as he swung onto the rooftop.

Absentmindedly, he sent one of the already damaged ravens to the crater to investigate while he himself checked on the girls.

Hecate was with Tyche, helping her up where she’d landed on the street – she didn’t seem hurt, though, only stunned. Gilgul flew to Basil, drifting gracefully through the air.

“Is it over?” she asked warily as she rotated in the air without breaking her movement towards him, looking straight at the crater.

“I’m investigating,” he replied, focusing on his raven again, now that he knew they were alright.

It flew down into the crater – where it found a hole in the ground, barely visible due to the rubble concealing it, mist – not smoke, but actual mist – wallowing up out of it.

He immediately contacted mission control. “Crocell is hiding underground, generating mist!”

<Understood. Please b-> The reply was cut short when Crocell burst out of the ground beneath Waverider and the hand holding him up.

It leapt up, until its chest was at a height with them – all wounds gone from its body, which was now colored a bright white, not unlike Waverider’s attack had been – and its sole black-red eye could focuse on the defenceless man on the porcelain hand. With its arms lifted above its head, it roared and swung, bringing both fists down on him.

Again, Father Manus came to the rescue, though Basil could not tell where he himself was, dismissing the hand holding Waverider up and, simultaneously, manifesting another one next to him, slapping into him open-palmed to knock him out of the way of the lethal blow.

Crocell’s fists smashed the hand into porcelain shards which quickly faded out of existence, but it had succeeded in its task – Waverider tumbled to safety, until another hand appeared to catch him, quickly flying away to let him recuperate – he would be out of the fight for a bit, after an attack that big.

Basil snapped off two more shots, aiming for Crocell’s eye. Both hit home – it was a still a pretty big target – but it didn’t even react, in spite of the damage done to what ought to be a sensitive spot. The wounds vanished within moments, too superficial to even ooze any liquids.

Crocell landed heavily, next to the hole it had created, which was filled with thick mist.

More moisture began to condense around Croquell, shrouding it as Basil’s sensors detected an even greater rise in the surrounding air’s moisture. Whisps of mist were taking form all over the place, low to the ground yet but still growing.

The communicator spread the word as they picked up on it and Basil watched as the more experienced defenders took charge, ordering the others around, organising them.

More mist formed directly on Crocell’s body, pouring off of it in waves, almost entirely obscuring its form.

Basil didn’t take his eyes off of it, but he used his ravens to look around himself – the girls had all joined up with him again. “I assume the heroes are about to disperse its cover,” he told them. “Once they do, we ought to hit it with everything we have got. Gilgul, go in close, but do not let it hit you needlessly – your time is too precious to waste. Hecate, Tyche, unload on it from a distance. Stick close, so Tyche’s luck will protect you.”

His two original teammates nodded and leapt away, switching to their smoke forms. Gilgul, though, stopped to look at him. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice worried. “You’re the most vulnerable one here.”

He frowned beneath his mask, annoyed by how right she was. Gilgul was nearly untouchable on top of being a disposable projection. Tyche’s luck had not failed her yet. Hecate had, apparently, seriously worked on her defensive capabilities. They both had those smoke-dolls of hers, as well. Which did not work for Basil at all – he could not even turn one on, nevermind stay in smoke form. With his armour gutted as much as it was, he would not survive one hit from this thing.

I really, really need more funds. With real power armour, I could carry around a real railgun, not this tiny little thing and put out some serious damage.

Shaking his head, he focused on Gilgul again. Barely a second had passed. “I will keep an eye on it with my ravens and look for a weak spot. My rifle can not actually cause any meaningful damage, after all. I will also keep an eye out for anyone requiring first aid.”

She nodded and flew off, straight for the enemy just as a strong wind picked up.

A cowl – Basil recognised her from a documentary, though he could not recall her actual name – stood on a lower rooftop nearby, a woman in a brown bodysuit and birdlike mask, both looking feathery but strangely plain, unlike the usual costumes favoured by capes and cowls, and the air was gathering around her, then flowing in a steady stream towards Crocell, blowing the mist away.

For whatever reason, Crocell had remained in place, without even varying its position from when it had landed after  its failed attack on Waverider. Its eye swivelled around, looking at the brown bird woman.

Gilgul took her chance and slammed into its chest with a booming sound, blowing what mist remained around it away as the massive beast was thrown back, falling hard onto the mangled street.

We really need to get it out of the city, Basil thought. Catastrophy-proof or not, there was a limit to how tough one could make a whole city, and Esparanza City really should not be destroyed again.

He kept watch, distributing his ravens around the area to watch Crocell from multiple angles, keeping the damaged ones closest. Three ravens patrolled, instead, scanning for people in need of his medical expertise or a quick evac. It irked him that he was limited to being little more than a spectator, and it angered him that he got annoyed about that.

Below, Crocell was fighting Gilgul, who was doing a good job of keeping him pinned. The brown bird… Nightingale! Her cowl was Nightingale – she was dispersing the mist Crocell kept generating, to keep visibility up.

Meanwhile, everyone was unloading attacks on Crocell, aiming for its head and its lower body, so as not to hit Gilgul. He could see Hecate and Tyche add their own fire to the mix. Tyche’s gun was technically weaker than his, but her luck meant that she almost always hit her target’s weakpoints. As for Hecate… he wasn’t one of those people who looked down on contrivers for having their own weird explanations for how their creations behaved, and he’d actually listened when she explained that her staff was not actually shooting fire (which was why it didn’t produce heat, either). It was powered by the Torch and the Dead, two of her ‘aspects’ – the flame aged her targets, decaying them. Living organic matter was not affected, unless she wanted it to and no matter how tough a target was, it always did at least some damage. It also packed quite the punch, as well.

He couldn’t actually tell how effective their attacks were, as the deluge of powers kept Crocell quite out of sight – until a bright white cube rose up into the air above the fight.

Not a cube – a tesseract, he thought, recognising the power moments before the tesseract – about half the size of a grown adult – lit up, shining brighter than the sun.

The white light filled his entire vision, yet it did not blind him. Instead, everything stood out in stark detail, especially Crocell, whom he could now clearly make out beneath the attacks converging on it.

Hollywood’s power. Illuminates an area, distinguishes between friends and foes. Foes are blinded, while most powers which provide concealment are cancelled on them. They are also made plainly visible, easier to be hit by any friends, who also have an easier time navigating the area.

Her power was one of two reasons why her team, in spite of its rather modest size, had been able to police most of Esperanza City on its own for the last decade.

The  second reason was walking down the street from the opposite of Crocell, approaching the pinned beast. Charybdis, with her brother Silver Falcon right behind her and ready to take her to safety if necessary, moving like she was walking down the walkway at a fashion show, stopped twenty metres away from Crocell and visibly released her breath.

Basil twitched with his eyes, activating his microphone. “Gilgul, break contact now!”

She shot up, leaving Crocell behind, just as Charybdis opened her mouth wide.

Basil felt her power’s tug, despite the great distance, as she sucked the air and the mist in front of her in.

Everything in a cone in front of her began to drift towards her, slowly at first, but quickly speeding up – and not just the rubble, mist and air, nor the cars left by the roadside, no – everything. Basil watched as the powers raining onto Crocell began to bend, the assault being drawn in. Laser beams, fireballs, streams of ice, everything was sucked in as her power ramped up.

For a moment, Crocell seemed to be almost given a break as it began to rise up, free of the assault of attacks – but then the suction became strong enough to affect it, as well, and it began to slide towards Charybdis open mouth.

Basil fired his hooks onto the roof he was standing on, to steady himself and watched as everyone kept firing into the tornado of wind and power that was forming, contributing more attacks to be sucked in.

He didn’t know whether sucking Crocell in would kill it or not, considering its regenerative capabilities, but it certainly wouldn’t get through undamaged.

Yet Crocell seemed to not like that idea. It ducked low, digging its fingers into he concrete to hold on.

The defenders adapted, those whose projectiles caused a stronger kinetic impact repositioning themselves to fire into its back, at its hands, at the concrete it was holding onto, all in an attempt to dislodge it.

The attacks on the concrete in particular seemed quite promising and Crocell seemed to be at least intelligent enough to recognise that, because it turned its head by nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees, opening its maw as a blue-white light emerged from it, aimed at the metahumans trying to dislodge it.

No one made a move to evade, and for good reason – as the beam spilled forth, it was sucked in by Charybdis like it was water, drawn into her mouth.

Not so intelligent, perhaps, Basil thought, looking on as Crocell slowly turned its head towards Charybdis, breathing energy as if it was achieving something useful.

It kept going like that, for nearly half a minute, pouring more light out as it tried to kill her, to no effect, until the concrete it was holding onto was finally too damaged to hold it, and Crocell lost its hold.

Charybdis suction had increased so far, meanwhile, that it was no longer being slowly dragged across the street – instead, it was nearly lifted off its feet, sliding towards her.

The beam cut off; instead, it seemed as if it was making some kind of sound, but that, too, was lost.

This might be it, Basil thought hopefully. If she sucks Crocell in…

Crocell dropped to the ground, impacting it so heavily cracks spread like spider-web across the street and nearby buildings, standing rock-still even as the suction continued.

For a moment, most of the attacks being poured into the tornado or aimed at Crocell cut off, as everyone stared at the monster in shock, watching its wounds – oozing something almost like blood, though much thinner – bubble like they were boiling, only to reveal unharmed skin once the bubbles burst. It seemed to be no longer affected by Charybdis suction.

The attacks began anew, those which had paused, at least, now all aimed at its back as the heroes and villains repositioned themselves, trying to push it into Charybdis’ mouth.

Only to cut off when it began deliberately approaching her.

If it is confident enough to approach her, it may well be immune to being sucked into her mouth, was Basil’s fear at the moment. Charybdis had only the one power, and impressive though it was, it left her no more than a normal woman against threats which could circumvent it.

I wish I had been able to complete that disintegration ray, Basil thought bitterly. It had been an idea that had come to him several times, all the way to his first haphazard works at home (though he was starting to question whether he’d actually built that reactor and the computer in just two days – he couldn’t be sure about anything anymore) and several times again since, but it had always been just pieces, and pieces which did not fit with each other, either, so he hadn’t been able to improvise he final product from the separate bouts of inspiration which had petered out to nothing.

His hand tightened on the grip and barrel of his rifle, watching as Charybdis allowed Crocell to approach until she was nearly in its reach, steadily absorbing attacks which were now being once more poured into her, instead of aiming at Crocell.

Then she closed her mouth, cutting the suction off. Crocell stumbled for a moment, and it was all she needed – or Basil.

Stage one, complete. “Hecate, Tyche, get some cover! Stage two is going to pack a punch!”

Crocell righted itself and reached out with one arm for Charybdis.

But the heroine just stared it down, until she opened her mouth – and everything she’d sucked in, the rubble, the air, the fire, the lasers, the ice, Crocell’s beam and all the other powers, it all came out again compressed into a sphere the size of a minivan made out of… damn near everything, slamming into Crocell with a booming sound that shook even Basil.

Whatever it had done to protect itself from her suction, it clearly wasn’t sufficient for this. The blast took it in its belly and threw it back far enough to fly past the roof Basil stood upon.

Crocell flew out from between the buildings it had been in and landed heavily in one of Esperanza City’s open squares, decorated with fountains, small patches of flowers and greenery and lots of seating. Not that most of it looked any good, after the dust cloud Crocell threw up with its impact covered them in gray dust, or the cracks from the impact spread all over the place.

Hell, Basil felt its fall all the up to the roof he was on. He recalled his ravens and disconnected his hooks from the roof just as Gilgul landed next to him, moments before Hecate and Tyche landed, as well.

“That. Was. Awesome!” Tyche exulted with a wide grin plastered on her face, waving her rifle around in an utterly irresponsible manner (Basil activated its safety remotely, just in case).

“I… have to agree,” Hecate admitted, leaning a little on her staff. “I knew the basics about Charybdis’ power, but I’d never seen it in action before.

Before replying, Basil momentarily looked up as Hollywood’s tesseract flew over them to take up position above the square.

“She is their heavy hitter for a reason,” he supplied, taking a look at the once more visible monster.

It looked to be more damaged  than from all the attacks it took before. It’s gut had been vaporized down to where its spine should be, though Basil saw no indications of any kind of bone structure or internal organs – just red ‘flesh’ bleeding that strangely thin red liquid, gone in a chunk from its groin up to its sternum (if those terms even applied to its physiology – Basil doubted it, honestly) and almost all the way through, nearly bisecting it.

It was still alive though, its eye moving around, unable to focus on anything – Hollywood’s power alone may not have been enough to block its sight, but the light combined with the dust seemed to do the trick.

The insides of the wound began to bubble even as the defenders of the city gathered on the buildings encircling the square, staying further apart in case it began spitting that lethal beam of its blindly. Though they’d already taken losses, Basil was pretty sure he was counting more people than had been there before – reinforcements, certainly.

Before anyone had decided what to do – simply attacking it didn’t seem to have much of an effect – its wound had closed and Crocell rose up over the dust cloud.

Again, a strong wind blew, but instead of dispersing the cloud, it gathered it up, creating a pillar of dust around Crocell to blind it.

“Get ready,” Basil told the girls. “I am pretty sure it is going to go on the offensive now, after having taken that kind of hit.”

The girls nodded, bracing themselves, with Gilgul taking a step forward to stand in front of Basil and the others.

Just in time for Crocell to burst out of the pillar of dust, going from standing completely still to an explosive charge in half a second, flat.

“Here it co-!” Basil’s sentence was interrupted when the ground beneath Crocell turned silvery-grey and it… stumbled and fell hard on its face.

“The hell was that?” Tyche asked with barely suppressed laughter.

Basil turned his head, following the sight of his ravens which had already made out the most probable source of the effect. The girls followed.

What caught their attention first, though, was Kraquok. He was already grown, almost as tall at the hip as Crocell’s shoulders, and he was walking on four limbs, his legs and his middle pair of arms, to be precise. His claws were longer still than they had been before, proportionally, while his human face just looked amused, his crocodile-like maw dripping saliva.

He was walking just behind a group of sixteen in a loose but clearly practiced formation. One of them, a girl barely older than Basil, had an arm extended, her hand turned a silver the exact same shade as the ground underneath Crocell, which was now holding it entirely immobile, unable to break contact with the silver. Another, a boy who looked like he was her younger brother, had his arm extended as well, his hand glowing golden, though Basil didn’t know what he was doing.

Everyone around on the rooftops took a deep breath, watching two titans of the metahumans world – one of the original cowls and the legacy of one of the original capes – marching onto the square, towards their quarry.

And then Basil and his friends just watched as they went on the offensive.

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