B13.e 17 Good People

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“I really don’t see how that’s your fault, Jess,” Jake spoke over the phone, his voice soothing her upheaved mind. “It’s not like they told you and you gave permission.”

”But I’m in charge of them, Jake. I’m supposed to notice this stuff and reign them in,” she countered, putting her head down onto her desk – well, it was Rounds’ desk, usually, but since she didn’t have an office of her own, she’d been using his – while still holding the phone to her ear. “I’ve been a pretty horrible leader, but this, this is beyond the pale. Rounds is going to put me on a spit and roast me over a fire. Slowly.”

”Now there’s an image I’d rather do without,” a mellow, smooth voice butted in.

Jessica, known to most as Amazon, fearless melee fighter of the New Lennston United Heroes, screamed like a little girl and nearly fell off the office chair she’d been sitting in.

”Jess? Jess, what’s going on?” Jake asked through the phone, though she was too focused on the new arrival to reply.

Percy Norton was an odd sight amongst superheroes. He was tall – that was quite common – with naturally messy dark blonde hair, muddy dark-blue eyes and a body that could best be described as scarecrow-ish: tall, thin, the limbs seemingly a little too long to really fit. Wearing thick winter jeans, boots and a red sweater, he looked like any guy you might see on the street, especially now, leaning against the frame of the door to his own office, his arms crossed, his mouth smiling.

”B-boss,” Jess stammered, shooting up onto her feet. “I, I didn’t know you were back already! Where are the others? Did you have a nice journey? Why didn’t you tell me you’d arrive sooner, I’d have welcomed you all back, and probably organised the ju-“

She stopped when he raised a hand, making her blush as she realised how she’d run her mouth.

”Jess, breathe,” he spoke calmly, walking closer to pick up the phone. “Hi! Jake, right?” There was a response which Jessica missed and Oh God my Boss is talking to my boyfriend.

”So, did Jess finally get the nerve up to asking you out?” Rounds asked, making Jess blush furiously.

”I’m still in the room, you know…” she mumbled, embarrassed.

”You were the one? Good for you, young man,” Percy continued as he walked around his desk, shooing her out of  his office chair and sitting down, sighing as he did so.

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

”Well, I wish you both the best of luck,” he kept on talking, leaning back on his chair, while Jessica moved around the desk, self-consciously fiddling with her sleeveless red bodysuit.

Then he suddenly turned serious, the cheer leaving his face. “But just to be clear – break her heart, and I’ll break you, got it?”

Jessica sputtered and threw herself across the desk to get the phone, but was stopped when he raised a leg and pushed against her shoulder, pushing her down onto the desk instead.

”I’m not a little girl!”  she complained, flailing weakly, the phone out of her reach.

Of course, Rounds ignored her as he listened to Jake’s response, breaking out into a smile again. “That’s the spirit! Anyway, I actually have some business to attend to with your beau, but we definitely need to meet soon. I’ll introduce you to the folks around here and we’ll tell you every embarrassing story relating to Jess that we know of.”

“Hey!” said woman protested in outrage, but was summarily ignored.

”Have a nice day, Jake,” her boss finished. “Yes, I’ll pass it on. Goodbye!” And he hung up, before he focused on her ag ain. “I’m to pass on his love and the promise that he’ll prepare your favourite dinner food tonight.”

The thought of Jake’s molten-cheese-and-jalapeno covered nachos made Jess’ mouth water and slightly eased her outrage and embarrassment. Slightly.

”That’s nice, but I’m not some little girl that needs to be protected!” she complained petulantly, only to receive a sharp sting to her butt, making her yelp and leap off the desk, her hands flying to her butt.

”I don’t know, you’re still pretty defenseless, as usual,” a sultry voice all but purred at her.

”Rachel,” Jess said, recognising her without even needing to turn around. Though she did that, to keep her butt out of the older woman’s line of fire. “You suck.”

Despite her words, she was honestly glad to see her again. Rachel was the true second-in-command of the team, Rounds’ right-hand woman and his most probable heir, once he moved up to take the Feral Family’s place as a Shining Guardian (that he would, none of his team members doubted). It was doubly impressive, because Venatrix had been a villain, once, until she ran into Rounds and he recruited her for their team, about two years before Jess herself joined.

Even though she’d changed sides, Venatrix – Rachel to her friends – had kept the basic  style of her old costume (as a reminder of how far she’d come, she said), wearing a one-piece sleeve- and legless bodysuit in black with blood-red accents, mostly arranged to emphasise the curves of her slender figure. Her arms were covered in black gloves reaching up to her biceps, leaving only a little skin exposed, and matching thigh-high spandex socks covered her legs. Her feet were bare, the socks only extending into stirrups for the feet, rather than cover them fully. She wasn’t wearing her equipment, other than her right gauntlet, a slim metallic one which glowed with an inner light, a glowing, crackling whip – like electricity – dangling from her hand.

Jess’ butt was intimately familiar with said whip, as were those of all the other team members – Rachel really enjoyed whipping them into shape, as she called it – save for Rounds himself.

Rachel’s ruby-red lips stretched into a grin, her mediterranean features currently free of her usual mask, her blonde hair tied back into a simple ponytail. “I’d make some lewd joke about just what I’m sucking or would like to suck, but honestly, I’m just glad to see you again, Applebutt,” she replied, letting her whip retract back into the glove as she spread her arms.

Jess rolled her eyes, but complied and walked over to hug her. “I’ve missed you, Gutterbrain,” she said, feeling misty-eyed.

Rachel chuckled and rubbed her back. “I’m back now. We all are,” she said softly, before pulling back a bit to kiss Jess on the cheek. “And what is this I hear about my third-favourite butt having found a boyfriend?”

Jess blushed again, looking aside. Oh God, I have to keep her away from Jake, no matter the cost!, she thought in quiet horror, while she replied out loud, “It’s not such a big deal. M-me and… Jake… got together.”

“Finally!” her mentor-slash-molester exclaimed, rolling her eyes while holding Jess at arms’ length. “I thought you two would never get to it.”

”I’ll say!” bombastic voice exclaimed, followed by steps that shook the floor.

Before she knew it, Rachel had let go of her and Jess was enveloped in a literal (and two-fold) bear hug, lifted clean off her feet by the huge figure currently busy squeezing the life out of her.

Ursa Gemini was a giant of a man in any sense of the word – his manifestation had caused him to grow to a good two and a half metre in height, his frame filled by enough dense muscle to make a whole Mister Universe pageant feel inferior and his body covered, mostly, in dense, yet not coarse fur, leaving only his hands (except for the backs) and his face uncovered. As well as his butt, as he liked to joke, but Jess tried not to think about that. He was followed everywhere he went by the other reason for his name, a silvery glowing after-image which was actually bear-shaped, usually mirroring his actions – currently adding onto the hug, partially phasing through him to hug her tightly.

”Marcus… air… breathe…” she gasped, even while trying to return the hug – though even on the best of days, her arms didn’t fit even halfway around his mighty torso.

“Sorry Jess,” he replied, though he neither sounded nor looked sorry as he put her down again.

She looked up at him with a grin and gave him a hug around his (slightly slimmer) waist. “Glad you’re back, fuzzball.”

”Glad to be back,” he replied, scratching the back of his head. “Wall duty is not the way I wanna spend my time. Nevermind that Faith and the kids are ready to put me in chains so I can’t go away again.”

”Have you seen them yet?” Jess asked, then looked at Rachel. “What about Tony?”

”Of course,” Rachel replied, snorting in mock indignation. “We arrived here in the morning, we just didn’t tell you so we could surprise you.”

”Well, Rachel was supposed to call you,” Marcus corrected her with a grin. “But I guess she was so busy sobbing over finally being with her master again she forgot.”

Said crybaby hissed at him and kicked his shin, to no effect – it’d take armor piercing rounds just to tickle the furry giant.

Jessica chuckled, and turned away from the two of them and their antics to look at Rounds, only to turn and come face-to-face with another member of her team.

”Eeeeek!” she cried out, as he’d moved up to stand right next to her, his face only inches away from her own when she turned. “Laurence! I’ve told you not to sneak up on me!”

The slender man with the blindfold sporting his eye emblem over his actual eyes – or rather, the lack thereof – stood there in casual jeans and a black sweater, having eschewed his usual costume much like Percy had (even Marcus was wearing his customary armoured silver-and-green briefs and boots), having of course managed to sneak in unnoticed, at least by her. He liked living up to his name, Eyespy, in more ways than just the one his power allowed him to.

”You told me so,” he agreed, nodding his head with a sly grin. “I never agreed to it, though.”

She tried to slap him over the back of the head, but he ducked under it with a cackle, easily dancing out of her reach.

Still, she was feeling way too happy to get too annoyed at him. Looking around at her friends, grinning, she noticed that one was still missing. “Where’s Bismuth?” she asked about their team’s heavyweight; using her cape out of habit, as she preferred it over her real name.

”She’s on her way,” Percy assured her. “She’s visiting her sister, first. Seems like there’s not much time left.”

That put a stop to the good mood in the room, as they exchanged looks.

”Have you heard about what happened last night, yet?” Jessica asked in a subdued voice.

Percy’s gaze turned stern. “I have, in general. But I’d like you to give us all the details.” He looked around the room. “Well, almost all of us. We can fill in Bismuth later.”

She nodded, feeling a weight return to her shoulders, and sat down on a chair in front of his desk. The others sat or leaned against the walls.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

The key slipped into the door’s lock, but she stopped there.

I shouldn’t have told Heck to leave, Dalia thought, though it was really too late to reprimand herself for refusing her friend’s offer to accompany her and help her explain everything.

Vasiliki had enough on her plate, already. Who would’ve thought Amy’s Mindstar? And B knew.

That was another thing on her mind. She’d been crushing on Amy – though she’d told no one – pretty heavily, ever since that night at the club (even if she’d been too drunk to remember most of it). Now she knew that that gorgeous, witty, sexy, nice older girl was a major supervillain. That put a damper on her fantasies. A bit.

Is my crush even real? Or did she make me feel that?

She wanted to believe that Basil’s sister wouldn’t have done that to one of his friends, that she wouldn’t have done that, period, but considering her reputation…

So much for supernatural luck, she thought, and that brought her back to her current problem.

She closed her eyes, lowering her head. Deep breaths. Opening them again, seeing her current getup – she’d switched her costume for some clothes she’d stashed at Vasiliki’s place (at B’s insistence) for emergencies, in her case skinny jeans that she’d thought were sexy when she bought them but right now just seemed ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t bend over in them without half her ass sticking out. Her top was similarly tight, showing more cleavage than she’d intended to show, when she’d bought it and she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to button up her jacket if she’d tried. The only sensible part of the outfit were the winter boots she was wearing, and that was because the shoes she’d stored there weren’t up to the weather at all, and so Vasiliki had lent her one of her many, many, many pairs of boots.

I’m just procrastinating, she thought at herself. C’mon Dalia… you weren’t nearly so skittish attacking a floating city full of mass-murdering supervillains…

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

She took another breath and turned the key, unlocking the door, pushing it open with the same motion.

The apartment was a mess, as always. Maybe a little less so – at least the dirty underwear wasn’t present, currently.

”M-mom? I’m home,” Dalia said, her voice nearly breaking as she couldn’t immediately see her mother on her customary spot on the couch in front of the TV.

Was she alright? Had her power done something worse than usual to her? Surviving at the villain’s city, getting away safely… that must’ve taken huge amounts of luck.

Oh God… Her eyes filled with tears. I-is mom even, is she, did my power…

Her arms began to shake, tears running down her cheeks as she started to hyperventilate…

”Dalia?” a rough voice spoke, as the door to the bathroom opened, and her mother walked out, dressed in her night clothes and an alcohol-stained bathrobe. Her hair was a mess and her face blotchy and she was the most beautiful sight Dalia could ever remember seeing.

Her mother’s eyes widened when she saw the tears on her face. “What’s wrong, b-“

She was cut off when Dalia all but leapt across the entire room, throwing herself into her mother’s arms, nearly bowling her over.

”You’realrightyou’realrightI’msosorrysorrysorryI’msogladyou’realrightI’msorry…”

***

Percy was drumming his fingertips on his desk, his gaze never leaving Jessica’s face, his own utterly unreadable.

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

”I’m not sure whether those kids deserve a pat on the back for their achievements, or a thorough spanking for their misdeeds,” Laurence spoke up next. “Either way, though, this is going to be Hell of a shitstorm.”

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

”I am disappointed, Jessica,” he spoke gravely, using her full name as he rarely did. “You handled the crises that befell this city well enough, but I am disappointed in how you dealt with our juniors.”

Every word was like a slap in the face, and she felt tears threaten to leak out of her eyes. Stop it, stupid eyes! Don’t cry! You want them to stop treating you like the team kid!

”That they came up with this idea, that is on them,” he continued, leaning back on his chair, folding his fingers in front of his mouth. “That they went through with it, also on them. That you did not foster a relationship with them in such a way that they would at least have tried to gain your approval. That you didn’t impress unto them the discipline and forethought needed to see what a colossally stupid idea it was. Those, those are on you.”

”I… know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry. You trusted me to deal with these things… and I failed.”

”That, you did,” he agreed, his voice soft. “Learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again next time.”

”N-next time?” She looked up, surprised, only to find him smiling sadly at her.

”Jess,” he began to reply, and she felt herself instantly relax again, as he went back to using the short form of her name, “I am well aware that I left you in a difficult position. And that many of the things that happened under your watch were beyond your control. Even if they’d been and you’d genuinely messed up this badly, I’d still refuse to condemn you for it.” He sighed, parting his hands to run them through his hair. “There will be consequences for this… Patrid will become utterly horrid, at the very least, and there’ll be consequences both for our juniors and for you, personally,” he continued, making her flinch again. “Child Protective Services, the DMA, our own Board of Directors, all those and more are going to raise a stink over it.”

She paled, especially at the mention of the DMA. They could very well have her locked up, if they determined that she’d been negligent in her duties to oversee the juniors to the point of criminality, or at least ruin any prospect she might have to advance her career as a hero anywhere in the United States…

”We’ll stand behind you, of course,” he pressed on, his eyes remaining focused upon her face. “We’ll do whatever we can to smooth the, ah, ‘shitstorm’, as Laurence would say, out.” He stopped taking a deep breath.

She looked up at him again, feeling just a little hopeful that this would be it, for now – she really needed to get to Jake and have him hug her a bit to feel better – but his gaze only became more stern.

”Now let’s get to these youths. Brennus, Hecate and Tyche,” he moved on to the other subject, and she felt her bowels clench up. “What were you thinking letting them run around freely?”

She clasped her hands tightly, lowering her head once more.

Then a pair of arms wrapped around her, from behind, as Rachel leaned over the back of said chair and gave her a hug.

Jessica had seen this one coming a long time ago, though, and she did have a response prepared.

“I did talk to them about joining up,” she replied calmly. “Only Hecate showed the faintest interest, but she claimed that she had personal reasons to refuse. Tyche showed no interest in joining any group which didn’t involve her friends and Brennus wasn’t interested at all. While I could’ve pushed to force them in, it’d likely just have driven them further towards the villain side and I didn’t want to risk that.”

Percy frowned. “I know it’s rather… customary to turn a blind eye towards vigilantes who toe the line, but I’ve always tried to impress upon you that just because something has become a habit, perhaps even a necessary one at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. Vigilantism is illegal and teenager vigilantism doubly so.” He took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’ve often butted heads with certain parts of our organisation which prefer to toe the government’s line and be lenient over this, and I stand by my point – children should not be on the frontlines. When I left you in charge in my stead, it was with the understanding that you’d do your level best to do with it as I would, which you haven’t.”

Jessica turned pale, averting her eyes from him. If he’d slapped her, it’d have stung less.

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

“This isn’t just your fault, Jessica and believe me when I say that I’ll make my opinion known to everyone else involved in this, particularly that stunt with the Rabid Eight.” His eyes grew even harder. “Though I would like to know why you let them talk you into allowing the juniors to confront a group of super-powered serial killers.”

“I…” she started to speak, but cut herself off. It felt so long ago, even though it had only been a scant few months. “We-“

“We decided that a show of force was necessary,” a new spoke up, startling everyone but Laurence.

Jessica turned around and looked at the newcomer. Patrick Patrid, in his customary white three-piece suit, of course.

What was not customary, though, was the heavy frown on his attractive face (she’d had a crush on him, when she’d first joined the team, until she’d realised just what an asshole he could be).

“A show of force… involving children,” Percy replied, locking eyes with the man.

“Brrr,” Rachel shuddered, still holding onto Jessica, and she felt she had to agree with the sentiment. When these two met, the room temperature always seemed to drop. They almost always clashed in terms of ideals and opinions as to matters at hand. They both wanted to do the right thing, but Percy cared about doing the right thing right, and Patrid wanted to do the right thing and have it look right. PR clashing with morals.

It didn’t help that Patrid was such a damn enigma. What the sense was behind a PR manager being one of the most powerful members of the US division – and by extention, the United Heroes as a whole – Jessica could not, for the life of her understand. Nor how such a sly man – watching him give interviews and manipulate everyone without anyone noticing was as creepy as it was impressive – apparently stood high in Lady Light’s trust.

“The children were all we had,” Patrid replied, unfazed by Percy’s glare as he stepped in, carrying a file folder under one arm. “I told you that going to the Wall was a mistake, did I not? But no, you said dodging the draft would’ve been wrong.” He threw the folder onto Percy’s table. “Here’s some uncomfortable truth, Rounds. New Lennston was on the verge of a gang war. If it wasn’t for the Hastur Incident wiping out the majority of the Black Panthers and the Morning’s Children, said war would have happened. While you all were off playing soldier. We had to make a show of force. Show people that even with the adults gone, the juniors could still hold the fort.”

He stopped, smirking as he adjusted his tie, before unbuttoning his jacket and sitting down on the sole remaining chair facing Percy’s desk, to Jessica’s right. “Besides, with Irene finally cleared for action, we just had to take advantage of the chance to give her one hell of a debut. That we managed to do the same for our pop princess was a bonus. And before you complain, Mrs Whitaker was there the whole time, merely invisible. None of those crazies would’ve come close to actually hurting any of the children.”

I don’t care if all the Shining Guardians were there as well!” Percy shouted, slamming a hand on the desk. “You put those children into battle against serial killers! Then you allowed them to assault an Acre with nothing but a bunch of other children as support! The Hastur incident was out of your control, perhaps, but don’t you think all that contributed to them thinking last night’s stunt was a good idea instead of a suicidal one?”

Patrid’s smile turned into a frown again, and he put his hands together in front of his face, almost as if to pray; one leg crossing over the other.

Even his shoes are white, Jessica noticed, having decided a long time ago that it was better to stay quiet whenever these two clashed.

There’s something you and me agree on, for once,” Patrid groused. “Last night was a disaster in too many ways to count. However, I still stand by my decision to advise the director towards the fight against the Rabid Eight; and the Acre had to go down before they managed to grow a Blossom – I would have loved to call in reinforcements, but there simply was no time, Rounds.”

“And is that why you didn’t call in adult professionals to deal with the Rabid Eight? To discourage the gangs? There’s roaming teams specifically for such situations! When I left New Lennston, I thought you’d call in one, maybe even two of them,” Percy replied, calming down as well.

“We – by which I mean, the Director, Jason and I – considered but dismissed the idea,” Patrid explained. “For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that all our roaming teams are currently tied up, we chose not to dislodge a team from another crisis herd.” He tapped his fingers together, looking around at the others in the room. “You all know about Irene Whitaker by now?”

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

“That girly seems to be pretty amazin’,” Marcus hollered. “I thought people were dreamin’ it up at first.”

“It’s all true, the good and the bad,” Patrid said. “She’s incredibly powerful, even more versatile, occasionally unstable and very much dedicated to being a hero. Numerous parties within the UH expect her to become one of our top capes within a few years, so the director wanted to give her as impressive a debut as possible. After a long discussion on the subject, we decided that the Rabid Eight, while dangerous, where not a serious threat to her, nor to the other children while both she and her mother were present.”

He stopped, looking up at the ceiling. “To be fair, there’s barely anyone in the Northern Americas who’d be a threat with Mrs Whitaker around, but that’s beside the point.” He shifted a bit on his seat, turning slightly towards the others. “Anyway, we decided it was worth the minimal risk, for the sake of showing the gangs that we don’t even need outside support to overpower them. This whole discussion is quite thoroughly beside the point, however,” he pressed on, glaring at Percy. “It’s not their lawful, if risky, deeds that we should be focusing on, but the utter catastrophe of last night. Whether or not you agree with me on whether or not we should employ teenagers in combat against supervillains, we both agree that last night should not have happened and we must make sure it does not get repeated. Can we prioritise that, for now?”

Percy glared at Patrid, who only gave him a smirk in response, the air between them crackling with tension.

Jessica sat there quietly, all but holding her breath as she waited to see what’d happen next. Leaning against her back, Rachel was doing the same, and she was pretty sure the guys were no more relaxed.

Patrid’s and Percy’s arguments had a tendency to drag on for a while, and jump from subject to subject, over and over. The last time, they’d ended up shouting at each other for nearly four hours.

This time, however, it seemed like they’d be spared the experience, as Percy averted his eyes and sighed, leaning back on his chair again.

“Fine,” he replied. “This isn’t over, though.”

“It never is,” Patrid agreed, looking almost pleased.

***

At some point, her mother had pulled Dalia over to the couch and sat down, guiding the girl to lie down on the couch, her head on her mother’s lap as she sobbed bitterly.

Jana was looking down at her baby girl, her face showing both worry and affection, stroking her hair and humming some half-forgotten tune to her, trying to soothe her.

Strangely enough, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Not that she was feeling all that well, but compared to the alcohol-fueled, half-conscious nightmare that the last few months had been, being able to just be a mother to her child was like a balm upon her soul.

Even the pain that seeing her baby girl so broken up caused her was welcome, because it meant there was something she could do. It was a good pain, a pain that was not a punishment but a signal, that she had something important to do.

Taking care of her baby, as it were. Something she’d neglected for far too long, to the point where she’d nearly killed herself.

Her heart still clenched up at the memory, when she’d found her baby girl on the floor in her bedroom, an empty pill bottle beside her. Sleeping pills, which Jana had bought to help herself sleep between shifts at work. According to the doctors, her baby had survived by sheer, incredible, stupendous luck – that it was more than just luck was something she’d realised later, not that it had made her feel any better.

That her own life had fallen apart shortly thereafter, even as her baby girl was met by such a string of incredible luck, had felt… just. She’d deserved worse, for failing her so.

But the cuts, the bruises, the occasional broken bone, the lost tooth, the hangovers and the burns… none of it hurt as much as realising how badly she’d failed as a mother. None of it continued to hurt as much as seeing her baby pull away from her, just when she’d realised how much she’d neglected her, when she’d finally seen that she had to make amends and be a mother again.

She’d been happy for her, of course. To hear that she’d made friends, that she’d won entry into the most prestigious school of the entire state, and that her marks were up near the top of her class.

Even when she’d realised that her baby girl had become a hero – oh, she hadn’t told her, but neither had she been too careful about what she’d said and what she’d held back, and Jana had drawn the connection the first time she’d seen ‘Tyche’ on the television – she’d been relieved, not worried. Her baby had found something good to do, something to dedicate herself to.

She would never begrudge her that.

Now her baby had walked in, wearing clothes that were far too tight and revealing, both for the weather and for Jana’s heart, and looking like the world had ended.

But she was unharmed, and she was there, with her.

Jana gave her as much time as she needed, stroking her hair and humming the melody to a lullaby she’d used to sing her, back when she’d been little, before she’d screwed everything up. She didn’t even remember the text to it, or the title. Something about a bridge.

It took over half an hour for Dalia to calm down. Finally, she pulled back, kneeling on the couch as she rubbed her face with her hands. Jana only pulled her hand back slowly, letting her fingers run through her gorgeous red hair.

“S-sorry,” Dalia said, before hiccuping the way she usually did, after crying.

“You have nothing to apologise for, sweetie,” her mother said, standing up carefully – she didn’t want to ruin things now by stepping on a shard or something, she had to worry about Dalia, not be worried over by her – and leaning over to give her a kiss on the forehead, just as the younger redhead hiccuped again. “Let me get you a cup of water.”

She walked over to the kitchenette of the decadently large apartment that they shared – said kitchenette being a corner of the huge living room which was larger than the whole kitchen in their old place had been – to pour some water into a plastic cup – she’d locked all the glassware away a while ago, not that it’d helped much, as she’d just found other stuff to break and hurt herself on – and take it back to her hiccuping baby, picking up a towel along the way that she wetted in the sink.

Dalia was still kneeling on the couch, looking miserable as she leaned against the backrest, so Jana held the cup to her lips rather than hand it to her, and helped her drink. Once the cup was empty, she used the wet towel to clean Dalia’s face up with gentle touches, sitting down and turning so as to face her.

“There we go,” she spoke softly once that was done. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

Dalia looked away from her. “You’re not even asking why I’m wearing this costume…”

Jana chuckled, brushing some strands of hair away from her face, pausing to look at them – she really needed to take better care of her hair, it was starting to look truly horrendous and she had neither Dalia’s youth nor her power to make up for the lack of care. But that was for another time.

“Dalia, I may not be the best mother out there, but if you think putting on a skintight outfit and a mask is enough for me not to recognise you, then you’re quite thoroughly wrong,” she replied, putting the towel and cup aside. “So, what’s got you so tied up in knots? You know you can tell me anything, right?” She reached out to touch Dalia’s cheek, but her baby flinched back. “Dalia?” she asked, worried.

Dalia started to take deep breaths, almost as if about to hyperventilate as she tried to look everywhere but at her.

Jana was about to try and calm her down, to prevent her from actually hyperventilating, when she something seemed to give in, and the words began to spill out.

She stared at her daughter as she shared everything that’d happened since she’d gone out to be a superhero the first time. Everything, even things she probably shouldn’t have told her, about her friends and other heroes, but she let her speak anyway, as it was clearly important to her to tell it all.

When she heard about the insane stunt they’d pulled last night, she almost shouted at her for being so reckless, but her outrage quickly got lost in the rest of her tale.

And then, the true reason she’d been so broken up.

Jana listened in quiet horror as Dalia explained to her how she now believed her power to truly work. What it’d done to the girls who’d tormented her. What it’d done to Jana, herself.

She felt a pain in her heart, hearing of what’d happened to those girls, though she couldn’t find it in herself to feel too bad, not after what they’d done to her own daughter. Though she did sympathise with their parents, even if they’d been responsible for raising those girls to be what they’d become.

But what it’d done to her, and why Tyche believed it had happened…

“No,” she said, simply, firmly, and pulled her startled baby into the tightest hug she could manage, crushing her against her chest. “You’re wrong, baby girl,” she spoke, sobbing, as a huge weight fell off her heart.

“W-what?” Dalia gasped, surprised by the sudden gesture and the words, wiggling to tilt her head up and look at her.

Jana looked down at her baby, and smiled. “I thought… what I was going through, that it was just punishment for having failed you… but instead, instead it something much, much more important.” She leaned down, kissing her baby on the forehead. “I’m not angry at you, Dalia. I’m glad. If me suffering like this is all it takes for you to be safe and happy… then I’ll take that bargain, and be grateful as well.”

***

It had taken nearly an hour before Percy had sent Jessica out of his office, to pick up the juniors.

Now she’d brought them back, all seven of them. From the stoic (as usual) Tartsche all the way to Gloom Glimmer, who was looking incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around and looking at everyone and everything but Patrid, as if afraid of what he’d say or do.

She wondered about that – Irene had never shown herself to be uncomfortable around or fearful of Patrid; then again, she’d never screwed up like this before.

They filed into the office, the space in front of the desk having been cleared of its usual seats – those stood by its sides, so the adults could face the juniors, and were currently taken by Rachel and Patrid – with seven simpler chairs standing there in two rows, upon which they sat down quickly, Harry sitting front and centre.

Jessica felt proud of him. Whatever anyone might say, Harry had been a great leader, after Bismuth had graduated from the juniors. He’d taken to it with the same calm determination that ran through every aspect of his life, from the way he made breakfast in the morning to how he’d wooed and won over Thomas.

She wasn’t so sure that’d help him now.

“Hello, kids,” Percy greeted them with a pained smile. “Especially you four,” he looked at Irene, Melody, Goudo and Aimihime, the four who’d joined after he’d left the city. “I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Percy Norton, also known as Rounds.”

They all replied with variations of ‘welcome back’ and ‘nice to meet you’, except for Irene who just nodded, fiddling with one corner of her heavy cape while chewing on her lower lip, and Goudo, who barely inclined his head, sitting on his chair with a rigidity that belonged on a statue, not a human.

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

Jessica walked around their group and joined Marcus and Laurence, leaning against the wall on the left side of the office, from Percy’s point of view.

“In case you don’t know yet, these are the other members of our team – that’s Rachel, also known as Venatrix, Marcus, wo’s clearly Ursa Gemini and Laurence our Eyespy. Some of you may remember Bismuth, though she’s not currently present – she’s visiting family,” he introduced them all, with each adult raising a hand or just plain smiling at the teens when their turn came up. “And you already know Jessica, Amazon, and Patrick, who’s our public relations manager.”

Percy didn’t leave time for any further pleasantries, though. “Now, while I’d love to take the time to talk to each of you and get to know you better… and I’d certainly like our first real gettogether to be under a better star… I must say, what I feel primarily right now is disappointment.” And with that, his mirth at seeing the teens faded into sadness and anger, making almost all of them cringe. “What in God’s name where you thinking!?”

The junior heroes exchanged looks, briefly, before Harry spoke up.

“We wanted to help, Sir,” he said, his voice betraying the nervousness his face so stoically hid. “We talked to each other and… we decided that it was worth the risk, since the director said that it would take time to verify the information and muster a proper strikeforce, but Dusu’s victims were, are, dying now.”

“So you set out to assault the fortress of a group of mass murderers capable of creating city-destroying monsters, without verifying the information, without adult supervision, relying on the words of a boy you barely know, whom as it turns out you didn’t know the first thing about, according to this report!” Percy stabbed said file on his desk with his finger, before flipping it open, leafing to a particular page. “Reacts with unstable berserk state to Osore’s power… possible split personality… supposedly Mindstar’s brother, if that’s even true as we don’t have the means to check whether they actually are related, or she just made him believe so. Did any of you have any inkling of any of this?” He looked at everyone in turn, getting headshakes one after the other, except for Osore – who’d obviously known of Brennus’ response to his power, to use it deliberately – and, perhaps not so surprisingly…

“I knew about that,” Irene admitted in a small voice. “Not the split personality thing, but him being Mindstar’s brother. It’s true. Daddy told me, shortly after I first met him.”

Jessica gulped, crossing her arms as her hands clenched into tight fists, trembling as the mention of that bitch brought up memory upon memory…

Not now, Jess, she admonished herself, taking deep breaths to force that down. She could have a meltdown later, when she was with Jake again. Right now, she needed to focus.

Meanwhile, Irene shrank a bit into her chair under the looks she got from the others, including the juniors, except for Melody, who just reached out to take and squeeze her hand.

It’s not her fault, she’s just twelve, no matter what she looks like…

“And you didn’t think it was necessary to bring that up?” Percy asked in a soft voice. “Irene, please look at me,” he pressed on when she didn’t respond. When she did, he continued to talk softly. “According to this file, there used to be a standing order to consider Mindstar for a death warrant, if she was found to try and subvert the boy; which may appear harsh to some, certainly to me, but makes some modicum of sense, seeing how she is based in this city, he is unaffiliated and she’s subverted many people before. Don’t you think you should have told us, to prevent a tragedy?”

“W-we’re not supposed to… talk about secret identities,” she stammered, looking both guilty and… distracted? What did she have to be distracted about. “I would’ve told people, if it’d come to that, I swear.”

Percy pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is such a mess… and on top of the disaster this turned out to be…”

“Disaster?” Melody spoke up, her artificial voice sounding confused. “I know we failed to find a cure, but we have Dusu. She can be tried for her crimes now! And the Dark’s probably pulling the rest of those villains apart as we speak, if he hasn’t already. And we all got away safe and unharmed. This was far from a disaster, in my opinion.”

Percy focused on her, but she didn’t flinch back, looking at him with polite defiance on her face.

“That’s one way to look at it. May I tell you how I see things?” He waited for her to nod, then said, “You assaulted these monsters without a plan, got captured, broke out purely because they underestimated you, then you only survived because, let me enumerate – the gods-damned Godking of Mars happened to be in a generous mood; Brennus turned out to have a hidden, violent personality that could mop the floor with some mooks who were otherwise taking you apart; Mindstar flew in to protect her brother; a complete unknown showed up to fight off some manner of time-and-space-bending mad science creation-” For some reason, the teens all flinched or threw confused looks at each other, but Jessica didn’t have time to ask what was wrong, before Percy pressed on, “and then the Dark happened to save you because Irene’s power, against her will teleported her to him rather than face what appears to be a major combat esper. There was so much luck involved in you surviving this, if you hadn’t also found out that Tyche’s power is literally supernatural luck, I’d seriously recommend you each buy a hundred lottery tickets right now!” He leaned back, nearly throwing his own chair over as he tried to calm down. Then he looked at them again, still furious. “Nevermind that two of you violated your parole – you are aware that this may cause Goudo, at least, to be convicted of violation and be sent to juvenile prison, are you?” Most of them paled at that, looking at the Japanese teenager – who showed no reaction at all, looking calmly ahead. “As for capturing Dusu – Mister Patrid, don’t you want to take that one?”

Patrid nodded, as Jessica felt her stomach drop. It was not a good sign that the two of them were together on this. Poor kids

“So, you captured Dusu,” Patrid said in his usual calm, smooth tone of voice, looking no more agitated than ever, even slightly amused, as was his default expression. “Did any of you bother to consider what to do with her next?” He stroked his chin with one hand. “While she does have more warrants on her head than I can easily enumerate, the fact of the matter is that now, publically prosecuting her is going to be a clusterfuck,” he spat the curse like a grenade, making everyone but Percy and Goudo flinch. “You took her from Japanese territory, during an illegal, unsanctioned assault on a villain base. You are all underage and mostly untrained, two of you being on parole for being members of a criminal gang in one case, as well as that and a number of offenses in another case. When all that comes out, the press, the justice system, perhaps even the Japanese government are going to go on the warpath.” He ran his fingers through his hair, showing agitation for the first time. “Kids, we’re already on incredibly thin ice with the Japanese, for numerous reasons,” Laurence’ head snapped up, suddenly, turning towards the door of the office, but no one but Jessica seemed to notice. “They’ve only been waiting for an excuse to boot us out of Japan, and you may have just given them a perfectly legit one! We may well l-“

Running steps came closer to the office, and then Widard all but tumbled inside, stumbling as he nearly fell over. “Rounds!” he shouted, white-faced. “Bismuth! The police precinct! Dusu!” he gasped the words, bending forward to put his hands on his knees, as everyone stared at him in surprise.

Jessica felt her stomach drop down into her feet as she almost instantly made the mental leap to what was going on.

Percy didn’t seem to be far behind. “But… she’s visiting her sister…”

“She’s dead,” Irene whispered in a small voice. “She’s dead and Bismuth…”

Jason nodded, looking up at Percy. “She walked into the precinct’s metahuman containment cellblock and, and sealed the entrance up. There’ve been screams heard, from inside.”

Percy leapt up from his seat. “Everyone, costume! NOW!” And just like that, the adult heroes all rushed out of the room.

***

Widard finally caught his breath, standing up and looking out over the juniors, as Melody looked at her friend, squeezing Irene’s hand. She didn’t know why Irene was so torn up – or why she’d edited Diantha out of the report like that, it had to have been her – but she was clearly distraught.

“Kids…” Mister Widard said, looking at each of them in turn with great sadness in his eyes. “I’m… so glad you’re all alright. Please don’t do that again.”

Somehow, Melody felt worse about saddening him than she’d felt about being chewed out by… damn near everyone else, since coming back. Even Steph and the other handlers had been outraged.

He didn’t give them a chance to apologise, though. “I’ve got to go… help take care of this situation. You all… we’ll talk later. There’s going to be a big meeting, I’m sure.” And with that, he, too, left, leaving them alone with Patrid.

Whose mere presence was still making her skin crawl, especially now that he was just quietly sitting there, studying each of them in turn.

“You are dismissed,” he said, finally. “Go to your rooms, I’ll… also need to take care of this. Another nightmare…”

They all filed out as she shook his head, looking calm yet seeming quite tired, somehow.

“Patrick,” Irene said with a soft voice, not moving from her perch atop her chair, drawing his gaze to her, even as she let go of Melody.

I’m sorry, but please, I need to talk to him alone, she whispered into Melody’s mind.

Feeling even more worried, Melody nonetheless did so, getting up and leaving the room, listening to both Jared calling everyone else idiots for going along with the raid, and the two in the room, as they walked away…

“What is it, Irene?” Patrick asked, his voice far gentler than she’d ever heard it be.

She couldn’t see Irene, but she could just imagine her fidgeting on her seat, holding her cape in her hands like a security blanket, or a comfort one, avoiding his gaze.

“W-we need to talk,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s…”

And then they were too far away to hear, and Jared too loud, especially since no one felt up to telling him to shut up… it wasn’t like he was wrong, really, either…

***

The entire UH New Lennston division, minus Bismuth, entered the building that served the central police precinct – a fortress-like building itself near the centre of New Lennston, with a wide, open area around it covered in cobblestones, rather than being squeezed in amongst other buildings – as a prison to hold super-powered criminals until they could be processed and sent to wherever they were to be held.

It was generally considered to be one of the most secure and heavily defended buildings in New Lennston, but it was mostly designed to keep criminals in and villains out – not to prevent the lawful heroes of the city from entering and talking to the villains, for whatever reasons they had.

Clearly, Bismuth had had no problem getting past the considerable outer defenses and into the building, which was currently swarming with police officers.

They approached the Chief of Police, an older, broadly built man with a broom moustache. He stood in front of one particular wing of the small, compact prison, whose entrance was blocked by thick, irregular crystals that seemed to have partially fused with the concrete around them – or rather, been grown out of it – shimmering in all colours of the rainbow as light reflected off of the grayish growths.

The whole place was almost eerily quiet and there were certainly none of the screams Jason had been talking about.

Jessica felt sick to her stomach, praying quietly to God that her friend and teammate was alright, that she hadn’t…

“Rounds, you know what’s going on?” Chief Mason asked, glaring at the arriving heroes like this was all their fault.

“I’m pretty sure I do, Sir,” Rounds replied, resplendent in his shining knightly outfit, silver and gold armour atop a royal blue bodysuit, a shield and lance-sword strapped to his back. “Please, we’ll explain everything presently, but we should get in there first and get Bismuth out before-“

“Less talking and more breaking through,” the Chief agreed, stepping aside. “Everyone, clear the area! Let the capes handle their own!”

The police officers grumbled, though some, at least, didn’t look too broken up about what was going on. Jessica didn’t have time to wonder about that, though.

Instead, they gathered in front of the crystals, and turned towards Eyespy.

The slender man frowned, crossing his arms. “Everyone in there is either dead or has their eyes closed,” he said. “Can’t see a thing.”

Rounds looked at the Chief. “Dusu was the only prisoner held in this wing?”

The Chief nodded.

Their leader looked at the team. “Amazon, Ursa, Venatrix, break through the crystal.”

They nodded in unison, stepping forth. Jessica reached for her power, pulling up her trusty translucent armour, feeling herself instantly relax and become calmer as it sprang up, protecting her from the rest of the world.

Rachel’s equipment – her boots, both of her gauntlets, her visored helmet, her chestplate and armoured skirt, it all flared and crackled with electricity, as she clenched her heavier left gauntlet into a fist, building up energy.

Ursa Gemini just flexed briefly before they began to pound the crystal, quickly joined by the two women.

It was no easy work – no one of them could have broken through Bismuth’s crystal on their own, not when she’d grown it apparently as thick as the entire doorway, and anchored so firmly in the surrounding concrete – even when they broke it, it just grew whole again, and again, and again.

But all together, they managed to make headway, slowly digging through, destroying it faster than it was regrowing…

Then it suddenly shattered, all at once, shards flying inwards as it all crumbled away, Jessica having to briefly fight to be stay on her feet. Ursa Gemini just stumbled into the floor outright.

They didn’t waste a second, all of them rushing in in coordinated fashion, Rounds ahead of the others. They could see Dusu’s cell, and the blood-red crystal’s growing out of it, wrapping around the doorway, the door that was supposed to seal it off so that not even air could escape lying in crystal-covered shards nearby…

Rounds and Ursa Gemini, who’d made up the vanguard, froze as they reached the cell, looking inside.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Ursa Gemini gasped, staggering back and blocking Rachel from getting a look by accident.

Behind them, in the foreroom, Eyespy bent over and vomited.

Jessica didn’t want to see what was inside… but she had to, and so she did, stepping around Ursa Gemini to take a look.

She immediately regretted doing so.

Dusu wasn’t dead. But she certainly wished she was, that was for certain.

She was there, clothed in tatters of an orange prison suit, all but crucified upon a crystal growth. One that was as red as blood. Her blood.

A single clear, rainbow-hued crystal pierced her sternum, next to her heart. That was not what had killed her, though.

Her body had been… pulled apart, from the inside out. Crystals of various red hues had literally grown out of her, tearing, cutting, pulling… It was the most grisly sight Jessica had ever laid eyes upon, and that included everything Hastur had done to her victims.

The crystals had pulled the cadaverous woman apart and spread her out over the wall. The crystal she’d seemed to have been crucified on was actually numerous, branch-like growths come from her back, connecting her to the wall and lifting her up. Her limbs had been pulled apart, stretched, the nerves visible, fused to the crystals. Her muscles torn, her bones turned almost entirely into bloody white crystal branches within the mess of red branches. Her torso… was open, her heart still there. Still beating, somehow, even though crystals were growing out of it, leaking blood, connecting it to other crystals. Blood flowed through veins that had become like transparent, rigid tubes. Two jagged, long branches grew out of her eye sockets, branching out, like a stag’s horns sharpened into points. More crystals stabbed out of her gums, giving her a bloody grin.

Worst of all were her nerves, spread out throughout the entire construction, interwoven with the branches and her body… clearly still functional, as she twitched soundlessly, her lungs all but entirely gone, her brain sustained… barely… somehow…

No, not anymore. Her twitches grew faint as they watched; within seconds, just as Jessica was starting to take in the entire scene, she expired with a last shudder.

Almost as one, they all turned away from it, the others looking as numb as Jessica felt. Looking at the cell opposite of Dusu’s, whose door was unlocked, open, giving the one sitting inside free view into the cell to watch Dusu’s suffering.

The crystal Dusu had been crucified upon extended like red veins along the ground, leading into the cell, towards a pair of bare feet, attaching to them.

Moving up the bare shins and knees, they joined the thin sheet of crystal which was currently the only clothing Bismuth had, a kind of one-piece bodysuit that covered her torso entirely, almost like a second skin of symmetric crystals, looking like her namesake, covering her from neck to thigh and halfway down to her elbows.

Red hair hung over her face as their teammate looked up at them, her uncovered face blotchy with tears, eyes red and… empty.

Jessica’s heart went out to her, even as she felt disgusted and horrified at what her friend had just done to a defenseless prisoner.

“Bismuth… what have you done?” Rounds asked in a heartbroken whisper.

She looked at him with those painfully empty, despairing eyes. “I couldn’t… couldn’t stand it. The thought that, that she was alive… alive while my sister… while all the others, died… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I’m not sorry. I can’t be. I had to kill her, else I would have killed myself, because I couldn’t… couldn’t stand to know, to even think, that she would live, while… while my… while Prisca is dead,” Rosalie Fion spoke in a soft, broken voice.

In the distance, and nearby as well, the emergency sirens went off. The special ones, made specifically to announce DiL’s appearance. Then another set, announcing that she was here.

Not one of them could bring themselves to react, as they stared at their teammate in horror and sadness.

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13.9 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-“

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

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

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

Within moments, she had entered completely into his body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She leapt at the Protector, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no sign of the Protector.

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

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

The others just stared at her, even Basil.

What the…

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

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

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

Even as they watched, it was visibly healing.

What the…

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

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

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

Basil squinted, looking closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three of them reappared in his sensors readings.

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

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

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

Fair enough, I guess… Spellgun admitted.

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

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

Barely a second had passed since the conversation began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? he thought, stunned, beginning to fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My cue to dodge!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that he’s exactly making it hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

εύρηκα.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a few moments, silence reigned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, not just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pillar shot up.

A shade began to form, tall and gaunt.

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

Gloom Glimmer cried out, making a grasping motion.

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

The scythe fell to cut through the shade.

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

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

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

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

A pale blue glow emanated from his body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emyr snorted softly. “How conceited of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

His hand could not pass through.

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

“Yes,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B13.8 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded, as understanding dawned on her face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil’s grip on his rifle tightened, hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That caused a few moments of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basil was pretty sure she was crying.

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

Worse yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Good. Continue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, right, I forgot that this would happen…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was surrounded by a soft blue glow.

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

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B13.5 Call of the Sleeper

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A few minutes earlier

“Well, that didn’t go as expected at all,” Dalia mumbled, as she looked out upon this freaky floating city, half admiring and half scoffing at all the weirdness on the half of it that, according to the freaky girl, was made for and by the Super-Crazies. “I’m not surprised.” Somehow, something had gone wrong when freaky girl had tried to teleport them in, and she’d somehow managed to end up alone atop this huge, weird tower – the one at the centre of it, which they hadn’t been able to tell the purpose of, earlier. To her surprise, while the tip – a wide disc, bigger than her old house had been – was transparent from the inside, even though it had looked opaque from the outside. Even the floor was transparent, where she stood, letting her see pretty much everything around and beneath the tower.

“Why is that?” a smooth, melodious voice asked from behind her.

Dalia yelped, whirling around and drawing the collapsible staff Basil had built for her from her belt, extending it as she faced…

The fucking prettiest guy she’d ever seen, ever.

He sat on on a raised, flat platform in the centre of the circular room, which was made of a gleaming white material, like the stuff space ships were made of in one of those dorky sci-fi shows Tim liked to watch with Steph. It was the only part that wasn’t transparent, it and the floor immediately around it. The platform itself was flat and looked hard, with no cushions at all, yet he sat there, his legs folded in… what was the word… lotus position!… and his arms resting comfortably on them, forearms on knees.

None of it all was even remotely as interesting as looking at him. He was slender, looking like he could not possible be older than twenty-five, if that. His skin had the light tan of someone who spent time in the sun, but not excessively so, and was all smooth.

All smooth. He was wearing nothing but a pair of simple, dark blue drawstring pants, putting his smooth, hairless chest on display; not wiry, but not muscular either, at least not as much as she was used to from other metas – and she did not believe for one second that this guy wasn’t a meta, not here, in this place, and not someone who looked prettier than herself. His face was youthful, soft, with full lips and friendly, grey eyes that were so warm and cozy, just looking at them made her want to hug him and take him home. His hair was brown, smooth and just long enough that, combed back as he wore it, it reached his throat, almost but not quite touching his shoulders.

Holy shit he’s yummy, she couldn’t help but think, even as she reminded herself that this was a really bad place where really bad people worked at, no matter how yummy they were. And those eyes… They were almost hypnotic, so deep and inviting…

She shook her head, then focused again on him with a glare. “Who are you?” she asked, though it didn’t come out the way she’d wanted it to – her voice cracked midway through the sentence, and it wasn’t just because of how pretty this guy looked – she wasn’t an idiot, anyone who hung around this place, alone at that, and without any obvious weapons or job to do was either a major power or else someone’s boytoy – and she doubted a boytoy would get the tallest tower’s top to himself, or sit on a hard surface without any comfort around him.

He chuckled softly, slightly tilting his head to the side as he studied her, radiating nothing but friendly curiosity, an invitation to relax with him and maybe see if he was that hairless below the w-

Focus, Dalia! Down, girl!

 “Relax, Tyche,” he spoke again, his voice even more beautiful than his appearance and god damn was it hard to remind herself not to drool. He even had just the slightest accent – German, maybe? Something European, at least. Only made it sound exotic and even better. “I mean you no harm. There is really no need for you to draw any of your weapons.”

She did relax, in spite of her best efforts not to – he sounded completely sincere, her usually so reliable bullshit detector having gone completely silent. “Yeah well, I don’t react well to suddenly being teleported into a weird room with a weird guy, all alon- hey, how do you know my name?” Had he picked it out of her head? Was he a telepath? Shit, what if he picked all the secret stuff she knew by now out f her h-

“I do watch the news,” he interrupted her train of thought, “You and your team have been making quite the name of yourselves lately.”

She let out a breath she hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding, the sudden relief palpable enough to make her knees briefly weak. “Oh, uh… that’s, yeah, that makes sense,” she stammered. It wasn’t proof that he wasn’t a mind-fucker, but at least it was a sensible explanation and why would he need to lie about it if he was? Still, it’d pay to be careful, especially since… “How do you know I have more weapons than this?” She held her staff, her only visible weapon, up.

“You’re on a team with a very prolific gadgeteer,” he replied smoothly, raising a hand and ticking off a finger. “Your power becomes exponentially more useful the more options you have to act.” Another finger, ticked off. “Your jacket is unevenly heavy, most likely because you haven’t distributed your equipment properly.” A third finger joined the others.

He knows? How could he possibly know of my power!? “How… how do you know?”

Again that head-tilt, to the other side now. His smile was incredibly calming, but not enough to overcome just how scared she felt. Far more so than she was used to, than she had been even when fighting Crocell.

“I didn’t get to where I am today by collecting bottle caps, Tyche,” he said with a gleaming, boyish grin. “Don’t worry – I’ll say it again, I mean you no harm.” He took a deep breath, then released it, sitting up straighter – he’d been leaning a little towards her before, as they’d talked.

She stayed quiet, after that, mulling the whole thing over. “If you don’t mean me harm, then what do you want… whoever you are?” she spoke, glaring at him, as much as she was able. God-damn yumminess.

He actually seemed taken back by that, before he ducked his head in embarrassment. “Oh, um, sorry, sorry! I don’t usually get unexpected visitors here; I guess my manners have atrophied more than I thought they would,” he said, giving her a heartmelting, boyish smile of apology.

He was making it very, very hard for her not to giggle like a schoolgirl. “Y-you are forgiven – if you tell me your name!” she replied with a tremor in her treacherous voice.

“Immanuel,” came his reply, as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “I’m afraid I don’t really do capes and cowls, so my real name will have to suffice. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tyche.”

“L-likewise,” she replied on instinct, not sure at all how to react to having him share his real name – or at least what he claimed to be his real name, she wasn’t quite foolish enough to take him on his word. Speaking of… “Well, this was fun and all, but I really gotta go.” I’ve gotta find the others – they’re probably in huge trouble.

“Go where?” he asked, sounding amused as he leaned his cheek on his left hand.

“To my friends, of course!” she answered him hotly. “Where else?”

“Of course, but do you even know where your friends are?”

“Well…” She lowered her staff, stunned. “Um… that kind of… slipped my mind. I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me, would you?” she continued, though it was mostly to buy her time to think. With my power, I could probably find at least Gloom Glimmer or Basil – freaky girl has the power to find the others, and Basil is the sort to always know what to do next…

“Hmm,” he tapped his chin, before sitting up straight and turning to the right, lifting a hand to point at a particularly weird tower on the Southern half of the city. It looked like nothing so much as a huge candle, with a flame at the top, made out of wax twisted into spirals. “They’re all there, on levels three, five, eight and fifteen,” he explained. “All in individual cells. Except for Polymnia and Brennus, they were teleported to another facility.” He turned to the North, pointing at a squat, circular building, like a huge coin, but completely smooth and featureless. “Both of them were sent into a capture room for Gadgeteers, but they broke out… ah, anti-EMP technology? Impressive.”

He frowned, scratching his chin. “No, wait. Gloom Glimmer broke out… where… ah, she’ll be with Polymnia and Brennus, soon. I think. That girl’s a pain to keep track of.” He shrugged, then smiled at her again. “You can just take the elevator down to level zero, then take the B-line North to station fifteen. From there, just follow the left-hand path and you’ll find the three of them. Or take the D-line South, then take the D1-line East and get off at station twenty-eight, and you’ll be at the Candlekeep, if you want to try and break your friends out of there on your own.”

She stared at him, uncaring that her mouth was hanging open. “Wu-what?”

He just kept smiling, which did not help her regain her wits, and remained quiet, waiting.

“Why… why would you tell me that?” she asked, feeling off-kilter again.

“Just trying to be nice,” he said off-handedly. “I have no particular reason to oppose you and your friends.”

“We’re attacking your big evil secret badguy base!” she shouted, gesturing wildly with both arms at him – she barely managed not to whack herself on the head with her staff. “We’re after one of your evil mad scientists!”

“Evil mad scientists? Isn’t that kind of redundant?” Again, that smile.

“I’m friends with two good mad scientists! Even if one of them thinks she’s Harry Potter with boobs!”

He nodded gravely, as if conceding the point. “Point taken.”

“Anyway, why are you helping? If you even are helping and not just bullshitting me!?” she shouted at him, trying to get things on track again.

He just shrugged. “As I said, I have no particular reason to oppose you children. You may not see it now, but we’re ultimately all on the same side in this.”

“Yeah, uh, bullshit. You guys are like, super evil. I mean, making giant monsters to attack all over the world was bad enough – if kinda awesome – but Hawaii? Seriously?” she countered, aghast. “You guys are, like, Weisswald levels of Evil with a capital E!”

That finally got a reaction out of him, as he winced, closing his eyes. “Ow. We’re not that bad, seriously.” He shook himself. “Adolf might have started out well, but he went way over the line.”

Dalia was just about to rebuke him, hard, about the ‘started out well’ part, but then her brain caught up with the implications of the way he’d phrased his reply (you couldn’t hang out with Miss Fuzzypants for any length of time and not start paying attention to the wording of things), and she took a step away from him, feeling suddenly way less cheeky. “Y-you’re saying… you knew him? You’re talking like you actually met the guy.” Which would make this guy way older than he looked, which meant danger.

“Long story,” he waved it off. “Don’t concern yourself with that – you have more important things to focus on, don’t you?”

R-right… play nice with the possible pal of Weiss-fucking-wald. “Um, yeah, right, uh…” Think, Dalia, think – what should I do next? What would Basil do? “Since you’re being so helpful and we’re all being secretly on the same side and all that, I’m sure you won’t mind telling me where I can find that crazy-ass bitch Dusu?” She didn’t actually expect him to rat out one of his own people, but then again, it couldn’t hurt to try… she hoped.

Again, he surprised her by pointing at a place on the North side of the floating city. It was on the North-Eastern projection, unlike the building that he’d claimed Basil and Rainbow Brite were in, which stood on the central part. “Take the A-Line until the hub station, then take the A3-Line until the very last stop, and you’ll be in Dusu’s laboratory. It takes up that whole structure.” He gestured to his right, and a circle formed on the white floor, rising up smoothly to reveal a simple, pure-white elevator cabin. “Just take the elevator down to level zero and go from there.”

“Alright, I give up,” she sighed, letting her arms fall down her sides. “Why are you doing all this? Why help us, why betray one of your own? If this ain’t all just your way of messing with my head, or setting me up to run into a fucking trap?”

Immanuel smiled that heart-melting smile again, making her knees tremble. “Because I feel like helping you out. Also, because Dusu has frankly turned out to be a monumental disappointment and she’s really not worth the effort, time or resources it takes to keep her work going. If she fails to even deal with a group of – please excuse the language, I don’t mean to be insulting – of amateurs, then she’ll frankly be getting what’s coming to her.”

“Ok, that second part, I get. That’s suitably villaneous and all,” she commented, feeling herself actually relax – evil insane power politics of evil, that she could get behind! Having the evil bad guy be nice and helpful, that just freaked her the fuck out!

He shrugged in response, staying quiet as he lowered his arm again and sat up straight.

“Well… ok, uh…” How am I supposed to talk to him? He’s a villain! He’s clearly insane! Yet he’s so nice! And helpful! And oh my GOD he’s so yummy at that! She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. “I’ll… I’ll be off then.” Well, he’s been quite nice and helpful after all… “And… thank you, I guess,” she said, as she began to walk towards the elevator he’d summoned, hoping it wouldn’t drop her into a shark-tank full of laser-eyed cyber-sharks.

“You’re welcome, Dalia,” he replied with a warm, bright smile.

“Yeah, you too, Im- What!?!” She leapt backwards from him, drawing her staff again and moving straight into a defensive position again. “How the hell do you know my name!?” she screeched at him.

He looked a little hurt at her response, sighing in disappointment. “I really thought we were past the whole ‘threatening with violence’ bit. Please, relax, Dalia. As I said before, I mean you no harm.”

“Are you fucking kidding me, Immanuel!?” she shouted again. “You know my power, you know my real name and I’m supposed to relax?! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t beat you unconscious and drag you along to the others?”

He shook his head, looking at her in disappointment. “Dalia, please, don’t be crass. I have done nothing but be helpful and polite, haven’t I? There’s no need to have this devolve into meaningless violence.” He sounded like her fucking middle school teacher, lecturing her for coming into class with juice in her hair, like she’d done it deliberately to insult him and…

He’s messing with my head! she admonished herself. Fuck, this whole time he’s been fucking with my fucking head! I just know it!

“How is defending my secret identity meaningless, huh?” she shot back, as she couldn’t really think of anything else to do other than attack, and somehow she didn’t think that was the smartest thing to do, right now. What’s his power? God damn it, what could be his power? Is he a telepath? But he wouldn’t need to mess with me like this, if he was, wouldn’t he?

“It would be meaningless as you would invariably fail,” he replied calmly, in as friendly a manner as he’d been speaking the whole time she’d known him. “There is no way that fighting me is going to lead to a better result, for you, than being civil and talking to me, I assure you.”

“You’ve been helpful and all, but I really don’t see how you could be more helpful than you’re a freaking danger because you somehow figured out my name!?”

“Dalia, please, calm yourself. It’s not healthy to get so worked up…”

How am I supposed to calm down when you keep using my fucking name!?” she screeched again, her face flushing red.

“Alright, I’ll call you Tyche then. Does that help?” he asked with that infuriating, boyish ‘don’t-be-mad-at-me-I’m-too-cute-and-yummy’ smile of his!

“F-fuck… you… you’re unbelievable! How am I supposed to react to all of this?” She slammed her staff on the ground, pointing an accusatory finger at him as she screamed, “What do you even want!?!”

“I want to help you, of course.”

How?”

He rolled his shoulders, never breaking eye contact with her. “I’m going to help you understand your power.”

“What is there to understand? I have super-luck,” she snarled back at him, starting to feel angry again. Where did he get off, acting like he knew what her powers like, when even Basil and Miss Fuzzypants hadn’t figured it out? “I get lucky and my enemies get unlucky. So you better not mess with me!” She pointed her staff at him, wishing again that her mask didn’t cover her face entirely, so he’d be able to see her sneer at him. Stupid Basil insisting on full coverage…

“Oh, that much is obvious,” he said with a wave of his hand. “What’s important is whom it considers your enemy.” He smiled sadly at her. “Heard of Tanya, recently?”

She flinched, involuntarily, hunching her shoulders. “W-what about her? She… she got run over by a bus, wasn’t she? Stupid bitch didn’t look left or right.” She felt no satisfaction knowing that, no or when she’d learned of it. Yes, they’d made her life a living hell, but she’d never have wanted even one of them to die… not for real.

“That she did. Distracted at a crucial moment and then… dead.” He tilted his head, again, as if trying to look at her from a different perspective. “How’s Mandy doing?”

“Why do you bring them up? I hate them! I don’t want to think about them!” Wasn’t it enough that they’d driven her to nearly kill herself? Wasn’t it enough that they’d ruined years of her life? Why was he bringing them up?

“It’s important, Tyche. Please, how is Mandy doing?”

She frowned, not that he could see that, averting her eyes. “She’s… she tried to kill herself, I think. I heard something like that, from some old schoolmates.” She’d barely paid attention, really. It was… uncomfortable. She’d nearly killed herself, though her powers had come in just in time to save her.

“Yes, she did. What’s interesting is why,” he continued, his face turning from a smile to a sad expression. “She was in a club, you see? Someone slipped something into her drink, and then… well, I’d rather not say it aloud. But she thought she had no way of dealing with the memory other than killing herself.” He took a deep breath, then released it. “Fortunately, she failed, but the attempt has left… lasting damage. And her parents put her into an asylum, to be treated, rather than bother taking care of her themselves.”

Fuck… that’s… She shook her head. No one deserved that, not even one of those three. “I don’t know why, why’re you bringing this up? They got nothing to do with me! Not anymore!”

“What about Natalia?” he pushed on, asking after the last one of the bitch-trio.

“What about her? I haven’t heard of her in ages!” And good riddance…

“She was in the shelter underneath the mall, when Hastur appeared there,” he said calmly. “Strange coincidence, that she picked that one, of all. Natalia didn’t see her face… but she was caught by the monsters that resulted. Brutalised, to the point of manifesting.”

“Wait, that bitch’s got powers now? Just great!” She turned away from him, crossing her arms, trying to stave off the shivers she was feeling creeping up on her. Why was he telling her this? Why was this important? “What’s she… what’s she doin’?”

“She’s put on a cowl,” he replied. “Her experience in that shelter was just the last in a long line of humiliations and abuses, since you last met her. Now she’s sharing her pain with the world.”

“How… how do you know that? Are you just making all of this up!?”

“Sometimes I wish I did, but no. It is the truth,” he continued to speak soothingly, calmly. “What is important is why it happened.” Suddenly, his voice became… not hard, but firm. “Dalia, look at me.”

She turned around. She didn’t want to, but she did, when she heard that commanding tone. “You said you wouldn’t use my n-” Her protest cut off when his eyes met hers, two grey mirrors that captured hers, somehow finding them even though her mask hid them entirely.

“They suffered because of you, Dalia,” he said, and it was like a hammer striking her mind. “You knew this – Basil told you. Probability manipulators build up bad luck, and dump it somewhere – usually on themselves. But not you. You channeled it unto others instead.”

“N-no…” she whimpered, as the pieces began to fall into place. “I… I wouldn’t…” How didn’t I, she thought, but stuttered. It’s so obvious, now, but…

“Yes, you did,” he said, and yet there was no accusation in his voice. No reprimand. Only sympathy. “Your power guided them into misery, every time you defied fate.”

No… Her hands began to tremble.

“You won the lottery, becoming richer than you ever thought you’d be, free of the shackles of poverty,” he began, speaking as softly and as implacably as death itself. “And they lost their friends, abandoned to become pariahs as you had once been.”

It can’t be!

“You met Basil and Vasiliki, ‘by accident’, guiding the formation of your group, to be blessed with real friends. And Mandy was drugged and raped.”

Her staff fell to the ground.

“You survived the battle against Hastur’s monster, but Natalia was brutalised by them instead, until she snapped and became a monster of her own.”

Her knees hit the ground.

“Buildings collapsed atop you, and yet everything fell in such a way as to leave you spotless, not a hair harmed on your head. At the same time, a bus hit Tanya when she was distracted at the wrong moment.”

“Nooooo…” She… she hadn’t. She couldn’t. That couldn’t be true.

I can’t breathe.

“And those were just the high points,” he continued, mercilessly, his warm, silvery eyes captivating her. Not letting her blink, even, though tears made her vision blurry. “You don’t even know of all the small, petty miseries it inflicted. The small cuts, the twisted ankles, the embarrassing secrets that came out, the chance humiliations in public. Remember when you heard that someone pulled Natalia’s pants down in public, and she wasn’t wearing underwear at the time? Oh, how you laughed…” He sighed, still without averting his gaze.

She ripped her mask off her face, choking, trying to breathe.

But it wouldn’t come.

No, no, I’m… I’m a hero! I don’t…

“I’m a hero…” she protested weakly, trying to… to defend herself? What was she even saying?

It made so much sense. How had she not seen this before?

“You are,” he affirmed with a soft, soft smile. “But that doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of your actions. For every good deed you’ve done, your power has brought an equal amount of misery to the world. To those who hurt you. Whom you hated.”

“Whom you resented.”

“Wh-who… who else?” she asked, trembling. Her arms wrapped around her stomach, she felt nauseous and she couldn’t breathe.

“To a lesser degree than those three, your teachers. Your old classmates. Your guidance counselor, your principal. All the people whom you blamed for the torment you experienced, all those who failed to protect you when they should have, they each suffered to the degree to which you blamed them for it.”

“Nonono… I’m a hero! I’m… I help people! I never… I never wanted this!” she cried breathlessly, her voice cracking several times, as she tried to fight it.

Tried to deny it.

Tried not to follow it to its logical conclusion.

“And most of all, the one who let you down the most,” he continued, without mercy, without accusation, his voice so good, so soft, so… cruel. “The one who should have been protecting you, above all others, and failed. She suffered most of all, and suffers still.”

“Don’t… please, please… don’t…”

Finally, finally, he averted his eyes, those cold, beautiful mirrors releasing her eyes, letting the tears spill forth.

“You ruined your mother’s life, above all,” he confirmed all her fears. “Every broken bone from tripping over her own feet, every cut in her skin from glass that broke in her own hands, her descent into alcoholism to try and deal with the constant pains and humiliations… because you resented her, blamed her, hated her.”

“Noooooooooooooo!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, bending over, her forehead pressed to the ground. “No, no no no, I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I love her! She’s my mom! She’s my mom, my mom, I wouldn’t hurt my m-m-om…”

And yet, she couldn’t deny it, not anymore. Not when it was in her face like this. All this time, she’d… skipped over it. She’d seen her mother suffer, seen her break down, piece by piece, step by step, and she… she hadn’t connected the dots… How could she have been so stupid!?

“Of course you love her,” he spoke. “Of course you do. But love does not preclude hate. It does not preclude resentment. When you were broken, when you were being beaten on… your mother failed you. Never deliberately, but she was so busy, all the time, wasn’t she? Working two jobs to pay the bills, to put you through a semi-decent schools… didn’t even have time to feed you, didn’t she? You had to cook for yourself, more often than not. So many nights spent alone in front of the television, asking yourself whether life was even worth it. No friends, no father, a mother that was barely there, bullies who drove you to attempt suicide.” He sighed, as if he himself couldn’t believe it. As if it hurt him even a fraction as much as his words were tearing her up inside. “You know it’s true. I haven’t spoken a single lie to you.”

She cried, bitterly. Sobbing, tears and snot running over the cold, transparent floor. Her shoulders shook, even though she was hugging herself to calm her body. She could only press her face harder against the floor, trying to steady herself, to find… something… to hold on to…

Suddenly, his voice spoke from right above her.

“It’s not your fault, Dalia,” Immanuel said, his voice overflowing with care. She looked up, seeing his bare feet, then his pants, then up past his body to his caring face. He knelt down, reaching out with one hand to cup her cheek.

His hand was warm against her skin. Warm and steady, when she was neither.

“You felt resentment for those who hurt you, for those who let you down – that is only natural, that was and is your right. But your power took that and turned it into fate,” he said, gently stroking her cheekbone with his thumb.

“What… what do I do… I don’t… I don’t want to hurt them… didn’t…” Her voice broke again.

He sushed her, as he pulled her in with both arms, wrapping them around her, holding her to his breast. So warm…

“Of course you don’t,” he spoke, his voice thick with feeling. “I truly am sorry for your anguish,” he caressed her back with his hand, as the other one held her tight, not caring about the snot and the tears that touched his bare skin. “But you needed to know. There is not a problem in the world which can be solved if you don’t know.”

She whimpered, limp in his embrace, without even the strength to push him away… or accept it.

He just held her. “Now you know. And I know, and I’m here, with you.” He held her tighter.

“We’ll find a way to fix it, I promise. You, me, Basil, Vasiliki and the others, all together,” he whispered into her ear, his voice full of conviction.

“Dafür sind Gefährten da.”

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B013.3 Call of the Sleeper

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Travelling with Irene was always an interesting experience to Melody, no matter how often they did it (and they did it quite a lot – Irene loved taking her all across the world at the drop of a hat); it always went a little differently. Even when they just teleported somewhere, the transition tended to happen in all kinds of ways; from the seamless ‘we’re-here-now-we’re-there’ that she’d employed to get them to Esperanza City, to that one time when they’d spent a few minutes walking across these strange, dark grey rock-paths floating in a vast sea of darkness, with stars all around – she still regretted that she hadn’t thought to bring a camera along to preserve that image.

Flying could also be pretty fun, if for no other reason that her power seemed to almost never use the same method twice; right now, for example, they weren’t so much being lifted as it was like space itself had wrapped around them, somehow, and was just… moving them along through the air. There was no pressure on them, no air in their faces; they simply moved.

Melody had quickly caught on to it and just relaxed, loosening her limbs to enjoy the ride, while Irene’s power held her pretty much in place. The others had followed suit soon, once they realised that they didn’t need to hold themselves up anymore. Apart from Tyche, that was, who’d taken to trying out different ‘flying poses’, sometimes asking Hecate whether one was cool or not.

For her part, Hecate seemed to be lost in thought, barely taking notice of her teammate, let alone the others that were travelling with them.

She closed her eyes and focused on her latest invention, a pair of earpieces that connected to her visor (pink, of course), which protected her ears from sudden spikes of noise (such as the one that’d taken her out for most of the fight against Crocell) while also improving her hearing by several levels.

Hecate’s heartbeat was a little uneven, faster than would signify calm. She was worried, and trying not to show it. Melody felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, she was clearly unhappy about this whole operation, even if she’d agreed to come along.

Tyche, on the other hand, was ecstatic. She didn’t even really need her gadget to tell, wouldn’t even have needed her already enhanced hearing – the girl was grinning like a madwoman, while she enjoyed the perks of this strange weightlessness. In other words, she was the same as every other time Melody had interacted with her. She was kind of envious of how that girl could seemingly enjoy any situation, no matter how horrible. And she still didn’t know what power she, because she sure as hell didn’t have just some minor physical enhancements!

Spellgun – Thomas – was quite scared, if in a different way than Hecate. He was more obvious about it, fiddling with his insane rifle or checking the bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest. He’d get more and more worked up, until Tartsche reached out to squeeze his hand, or his shoulder, or just pat his back, all but instantly calming down again, until he started to get anxious once more.

Tartsche’s heartbeat was the same as everything else about him, warm, steady, steadfast. She’d never known a person whose power fit them better, never known someone who was so at peace with himself. She’d never known Harry to lose his cool or lash out, or even appear to be nervous. Instead, he was spreading his calmness to his boyfriend, while also looking at the others to see if anyone else needed some encouragement.

One such person was Aimihime, Bakeneko, currently in her favourite form, that of a darkly furred catgirl (though thankfully with sane proportions, as opposed to what she used to look like in the past – not that Melody had any right to really complain about others sporting ridiculous bust sizes), trying to look calm while her eyes moved alternatively from Brennus to her boyfriend and back.

That brought a frown to Melody’s face, though she tried to hide it. Aimihime had been way too eager to come along and help them… she’d all but been lurking outside in the hallway, jumping at the chance to join Irene and her when they left, almost as if she’d known something was going to happen beforehand… but how would she?

It’s none of my business, Melody chided herself. She might just have felt stir-crazy, after having been unable to really contribute at all since the Hastur fight. If Melody hadn’t had the chance to help with the Arc Caster, she’d probably have felt quite badly about herself, too.

Underneath them, the scenery changed from land to ocean, as the day got brighter still.

Melody looked out over the wide, wide Pacific Ocean – surprisingly, she’d never actually seen it before, in spite of Irene’s frequent jaunts around the world. She took a few seconds to just look and pay the beauty of it its due.

Afterwards, she focused on Osore, curious about how the strange, quiet boy who’d joined them together with Aimi was feeling… only to barely hear a thing, his heartbeat being so calm she thought, for a moment, he might have fallen asleep; but no, he was quite awake, his dark eyes just barely visible through the eyeholes of his oni-style mask, calmly surveying the room.

She’d never known him to be anything but detached and calm. Or talk, really. She didn’t even remember his name from his introduction, it’d been so short and they literally had not exchanged a single word since. She wasn’t even really sure why he’d agreed to come along on this mission, other than perhaps for Aimi’s sake.

I’m just distracting myself, aren’t I? she thought quietly to herself, focusing her gaze forward, where Brennus was floating-standing next to Irene. Not that it’s surprising. This isn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Not even Top Ten.

That made her think again. Why was she going along with what was, essentially, a huge shot in the dark hoping to find something which could heal Dusu’s victims.

Or rather, one victim in particular, even if Melody was sure that Brennus was going to help each of Dusu’s victims equally, given the chance.

She focused her eyes (and ears) on Brennus, curious how he was dealing with the pressure…

Only to find him almost as calm as Osore. Cold. He wasn’t unnaturally calm – she could still make out his heartbeat as well as she’d expect, through his cloak and body armour – but he was definitely calmer than she would have thought, his heart beating steadily, quietly, his breathing as even as can be. There was something intense about him, his posture, his aura, as if his entire being was focused ahead at their mission.

Isn’t he nervous at all? If I’d been the one to organise an undertaking like this, I’d be a nervous wreck. How can he just ignore the pressure and remain so calm?

It wasn’t like this was new, either. When she thought about it, Brennus had always been way too calm during a crisis – when he wasn’t being maniacal, that is. She’d wondered, more than once, just what must have happened for him to turn out the way he did, thriving in situations in which she’d rather curl up and scream.

The fight against Crocell had been just another in a long list of occasions that had demonstrated to her that he was just on another level than her, no matter how much she tried to improve herself – while she’d been taken out in the first moments of the fight, he’d fought the entire time, pursuing and analysing the beast, until he actually came up with a way to defeat it – and then he’d led her and two other gadgeteers to implement it on the spot, even getting Sovereign (or rather, whomever or whatever controlled that Subjugator) to cooperate.

Melody was rather starting to feel inadequate, really, even though Hotrod had assured her that Brennus was very atypical for a young gadgeteer and that, compared to most, she was already plenty advanced.

It didn’t help that every time they’d run into each other, he’d sported a new or completely reworked gadget, like that gauntlet of his, which seemed to have replaced the sword he’d previously wielded, as well as the strange ovoid attached to it, both made out of metal rather than the strange ceramic which Brennus normally used for his inventions, their surfaces covered in circuit-like grooves and she really wanted to know what it did. However, with the way the mood was right now, she really didn’t want to speak up just to ask about what his newest gadget did.

She was quite certain it was going to make her feel envious and at least slightly inadequate, anyhow. Especially since most of the equipment she had on her was a downgrade, built from spare parts and some handouts from Hotrod (in exchange for her help with his own project) to be a more portable, if less powerful, version of her usual rig. Not that she’d had a choice, really, after the flood Crocell’s death had caused had ruined most of her equipment beyond repair.

Then she’d found out that the EMP countermeasures he’d gifted her as an afterthought, a little gesture of goodwill after taking some samples from her tech, way back during the fight against the Rabid Eight – God, it’s only been a few months! – without asking her, was being implemented all across the United Heroes’ infrastructure, nevermind their field equipment.

Even her own armour used it, all over, to protect against the dreaded bane of gadgeteers everywhere – a reliable EMP protection that was applicable to personal equipment was a rarity even among their kind, at least one that could easily and relatively cheaply be replicated.

She seriously doubted he’d gotten even a quarter as much out of sampling her tech as she had out of his handout, nevermind the boon it was likely turning out to b-

You’re obsessing again, Irene’s warm voice whispered into her thoughts.

Huh? Melody perked up, looking forward at her friend, who was looking at her over her shoulder with a gentle gaze, her hood thrown back to reveal her head. She blushed, thinking about how obvious it must have been for Irene to pick up on it in this situation. S-sorry. I didn’t mean to, it’s just…

I know, he can be pretty intimidating, Irene replied, turning forward again even while keeping their mental conversation up. He’s kind of like mom, you know? Seemingly effortlessly out doing everyone around him.

Having him compared to Lady Light of all people does not make me feel less inadequate, Melody grumped mentally. He’s my age, for crying out loud! He’s had his powers for less time than me. And yet both his technology and his skill in combat make me look like an amateur… I’ve had my powers for years!

Some people just get lucky, her friend tried to soothe her. Exhibit A, I myself. Exhibit B, my big sister. Exhibit C, Brennus.

Wait, which sister are you…

The one who’s not going around wiping out entire cities at a time.

Oh. Yeah, uh… sorry, but that doesn’t make me feel better, either.

You’re putting him on too high a pedestal, Irene continued calmly, while the day grew darker around them.

You’re the one who just compared him to Lady Light, yourself and Elysium in basically one breath!

I was merely illustrating that some people get luckier than others. And I bet he’s not as good as he appears to be. You of all people should know that – you see the end product, you don’t see all the hours he spent training, or working on an invention just to have it turn out to be a dud, the sleepless nights…

Alright alright! Melody had to restrain herself a lot not to throw her arms up – that would just have looked strange, considering the circumstances. I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself!

Irene looked over her shoulder again, briefly sticking out her tongue at her and winking, before she faced forward again.

Ohhhhh…

***

Almost an hour of relatively quiet travel later – a brief argument between Spellgun and Tyche regarding her opinion that he really should call himself Spellrifle, as he didn’t actually wield a gun, notwithstanding – there was finally a change in the scenery (Melody never would have thought the ocean would get so boring when you were just flying across it).

In the distance, there was, at first, a glint, followed by, as they approached, a a multitude of lights – they’d travelled far enough west quickly enough that it was still dark, even if sunrise wasn’t far away – in an irregular line, clustering around the middle and the edges, like a W.

“Is that it?” Aimi asked, her form shifting slowly, teeth and nails lengthening slightly as her whole appearance grew less cute and more feral. An unconscious effect, Melody knew.

“That’s where Brennus’ coordinates are leading,” Irene confirmed. “Wait, I think I can zoom in…”

The view in front of them distorted itself, then rapidly came closer much faster than they were actually moving across the water.

“Oh wow…” Melody couldn’t help but say, even if it felt kind of silly at times to type that kind of sentence fragment into her vocaliser.

“Yeah, ‘wow’ is a pretty good description,” Hecate whispered as they stared at the floating city.

An actual, floating city. At least, it was big enough to be a city, with skyscraper-sized towers in the centre and the edges. They were looking at it from above, at an angle, and so could see that it was a huge disk roughly divided into six projections out from a central cluster of towers, with more towers at the tips of the two biggest extensions, the ones pointing directly to the left and the right, from their perspective – the Northern and Southern ones, that is – the whole thing forming a pointed star-shape that was further divided into two, with the Southern part looking somehow… stranger than the Northern one.

Melody didn’t even know where to start describing it. The Northern part looked like it had jumped straight out of one of those Japanese Cyberpunk shows, all grey, black and silver, with glowing neon lights all over and more cables, wires and pipes than she could easily count, or even guess at the number of. Everything, every single building – if they really were buildings, and not just extentions of the structure underneath – was interconnected not just on by the platform they stood upon, but also by a multitude of pipes and free-hanging wires, some of them glowing in various neon colours, others coloured a dull, boring gray. The whole thing looked like a riot of colours alternating with dull steel, in winding, twisting shapes that made her brain twist itself in knots trying to follow, except for the circular tip of the North-Eastern extension, which instead looked like a bonsai tree four or five storeys high, surrounded by floating platforms holding even more bonsais, as well as other, more exotic plants, some of them in colours that no natural plant should have, as pretty as they looked.

It was nothing compared to the Southern half. Melody’s eyes watered just from looking at it.

It was… it was…

It was impossible to put into words, unless she took the time to write an entire book. There were… floating parts and crystal spheres… obelisks covered in glowing runes… patches of greenery and twisted trees with glowing leaves… and so much, much, much more, the most impressive bit being a huge sphere of what appeared to be liquid mercury floating above a circular pit at the Southern-most tip.

The only remotely normal part was in the centre, a cluster of skyscraper-sized towers that gleamed even in the darkness, serving no purpose she could easily guess at.

“Two halves, one for Contrivers, one for Gadgeteers,” Irene said calmly. “They’re keeping the two apart to avoid unfavourable interactions between their work, yet keeping them close enough that they can both study whatever it is they’re studying at the same time.”

“How do you know that?” Spellgun whispered, sounding awed.

Irene tapped her temple without averting her eyes from the… whatever it was, Melody couldn’t think of a good name for it. “I want to know it, and this time, my power is cooperating. I’m getting all kinds of data on this place, it… it’s amazing. It’s even bigger than it looks, below the surface. This is just the tip of the actual structure.”

“Alright… we’re all sufficiently intimidated, so how about we turn around and go home now?” Hecate asked in a nervous voice, her hands clutched tightly around her staff.

“May I remind you that I did not want any of you other than Gloom Glimmer to join me in this endeavour in the first place?” Brennus asked flatly. “If you want to go, please, go and be safe. It is bad enough that I have to drag her into this, nevermind all of you.”

“N-no,” Hecate stammered, sounding embarrassed. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just wish you would stop, but if you won’t, then I’ll back you up.”

Brennus turned around to look at her, for the first time during the flight.

Though Melody couldn’t see his face – obviously, with that featureless full-face mask – she could hear his heartbeat, and she could tell that it briefly sped up.

“Thank you kindly,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I think it’s a wee bit late to turn around now, unless we abort entirely,” Aimi added, with Tyche nodding her assent.

“I just hope you actually have a plan for this,” Spellgun mumbled, his eyes glued ot the huge construction before them. Tartsche reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Mmm,” Brennus turned to the front again, as everyone focused on him. “It’s relatively simple… though now that there’s so many of us, I’m not entirely sure it’s still the best way to go. I was planning to infiltrate this place quietly, under the guise of Gloom Glimmer’s powers, track down Dusu and her lab and either steal the cure for her plague, force her to give it up or kidnap her back to New Lennston to get it out of her there.”

“That still sounds good,” Tyche said, slamming her fist into her open palm. “Especially if we add beating this bitch up a bit,” she added with what Melody was sure was a savage grin beneath her mask.

Tartsche gave her an uncomfort glance. “Let’s focus on getting the cure. Vengeance is not our goal here, so let’s stay focused.”

Brennus and Irene both nodded to that, as did the rest, except for Tyche and Osore (who’d remained completely quiet so far).

The black-and-white-clad gadgeteer pivoted around, weightless, to look over them as he folded his hands behind his back, his intense gaze coming to a stop on the quiet boy from Japan. “What about you, Osore? Are you in on this? No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this out.”

Finally, the young hero showed a reaction, lifting his head to look straight at Brennus. “In all the way,” he said, his voice quiet, gentle even.

Brennus nodded, briefly looking down. “Alright. Let’s get to it then.” He turned around to look at the city, of sorts, that lay ahead of them. “There is no way this thing is staying hidden from satellites, ships and over flying planes without some serious security measures, nevermind what they probably have to detect intruders,” he explained, as the vision ahead of them moved back again, then came closer naturally, the actual distance between them decreased enough that it no longer required a zoom to see. “We will need to find a way to pass into their perimeter without setting off their alarms.”

“I can probably teleport us inside,” Irene supplied, drawing closer to the structure. “I can see some kind of… force-field, around it.” She waved a hand, and the air in front of them rippled, refocusing until it showed a kind of net spread in a dome over the entire structure, flickering with electricity. “I’m not sure what it does – it’s a Contrivance, those are always hard to figure out – but it shouldn’t be a problem if we just teleport past it… no wait, yes, that’ll work.” She clapped her hands, lightening up. “It’s both an early warning system and an interceptor – if anything without the proper authorisation tries to fly through it, the entire field will focus its power on that spot and fry the interloper – but it won’t affect teleportation.” Melody could hear Irene’s grin, with no need to actually see her face.

“Can’t you just port us straight to Dusu and out again?” Tyche asked.

Irene’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I wish I could, but I can’t home in on her. Dunno if that’s because they have something that hides her, or because I don’t know her well enough or…”

Or because you don’t want to get to her enough, Melody finished the sentence in her thoughts, feeling sorry for her friend. As powerful as she seemed to be, she doubted most people ever considered how frustrating it must be to have so much power and not be able to use it as well as you’d like to.

“She will most likely be in the Northern half of the structure,” Brennus pointed out, moving the conversation along. “If you can teleport us onto the Northern half of the central disc, there might be some map or some other way to determine Dusu’s location, or that of her laboratory… or someone we can simply extract the information from.”

Irene nodded. “Ok… ok, I can do this. Hmm…” She crossed her arms, concentrating. “Teleportation… yup… a stealth power… remote targeting… danger sense…” She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I love it when my power plays along. Everyone ready to go in?”

There was a chorus of agreements, some more firm than others, and Irene raised her arms as if about to conduct a ceremony.

“And here we g-“

Space began to warp around them, drawing together in a mind-twisting way – and the sphere to the South of the construction rippled all at once, tendrils of liquid mercury shooting out at incredibly speed, even as time seemed to slow around them.

Irene’s eyes flew wide – “Wha-“

***

Melody’s head hurt abominably, as she picked herself up off the floor she suddenly found herself on, her display flickering with some kind of interference.

What the hell…?

She could hear someone next to her… Brennus, she recognised him by the particular sound of his heart… and there were more people, just outside the room she was in, as she slowly pushed herself up, looking around in confusion.

They were in a bare room, the walls, ceiling and floor all made of steel, with three large radio dishes above them, all pointed to the central area of the room she and Brennus lay in.

Brennus picked himself up just moments after her, standing up and looking around. “My head is killing me…” he groaned, raising his right hand to touch his mask’s forehead. He twitched, his head dipping to the right. “Some kind of… teleport interdiction? Did they know we were coming, or was it an automatic response to someone trying to teleport into their territory?” He looked at her, but she knew no more than he did, and so just shrugged.

Then he looked around them, and up at the radio dishes. “Shit. Those are EMP dishes,” he said, causing her to suck in a startled breath. So that was why her interface was flickering – the EMP shielding still held, but it wasn’t perfect and they were being bombarded with electromagnetic waves at point-blank range.

Yet her armour was working, and guessing by his ability to instantly analyse what those dishes did, so did at least the sensors in Brennus’ suit. And if the most sensitive parts of it worked, then so would the rest.

Right then, she didn’t feel jealous of him anymore – she just wanted to kiss him.

“No reason to smile, I am afraid,” he spoke, looking at her, causing her to realise that she’d been doing just that. Then she blushed, of course, stupid cheeks. “Even if our equipment is safe… I assume yours is safe, at least…” She nodded. “We were still split up, apparently sent into a room meant to specifically lock Gadgeteers down.” He took a deep breath. “Which means our friends were likely also split up and teleported into similar rooms, tailored to their abilities.”

She took in a sharp breath, blanching. Irene was probably safe, almost definitely, having so many powers at her disposal, but the others

“We need to find them,” she spoke, the words coming out slightly distorted.

He nodded, and turned towards the only visible exit out of the room, a very solid-looking, circular door that was very, very tightly shut.

They walked out of the circle in the centre of the room, out of the dishes’ area of effect, and her interface stabilised again; though she had no doubt in her mind that, without Brennus’ EMP shielding, it’d all be destroyed entirely by now, its circuits fried beyond hope of repair, much less use.

“There’s… twelve people outside. Calm, confident heartbeats,” she said, causing him to turn his head to look at her in surprise. She smiled at him again, this time more confidently, tapping her ears. “New earpieces. Protect and enhance my hearing.”

“Interesting. I could use something like that, if you do not mind a trade, later on,” he said, almost making her giggle at the thought that he wanted something she made.

“We’ll see. Let’s survive this, first,” she said instead, as she focused on the door, trying to figure out how to get through it… trying to ignore the gnawing, paralysing fear in her chest, trying to reach out and strangle her…

He nodded, turning towards the door. Then he reached for his new gauntlet and… pulled the ovoid off of it, as it detached at his touch, then touched its long side to the side of his thigh, attaching it there with a clicking sound.

“Step back, please,” he said, lifting his left arm, fingers spread, to aim his palm at the door. “I have not had the time to test this thoroughly.”

She breathed in, sharply, and stepped back, though watching eagerly to see his new invention at work.

His arm was pointed straight at the centre of the door, his right hand resting on his left forearm, steadying it. A light humming sound began to emit from the gauntlet, clear to her ears, likely barely audible to normal people’s, as light began to fill the circuit patterns on the metal, a blue-white light that moved from the back to the front, like water flowing through channels dug in the earth.

“Here goes nothing…” Brennus whispered, and then the gauntlet flared, momentarily.

There was a huge booming sound, a flash of light, the screeching, ear-rending sound of torn metal, followed by the screams of startled and injured people.

When Melody could see again, she saw a huge hole where the door had been, the edges torn and ragged, the door itself gone, shoved into the adjacent room by the force of the blast.

Brennus lowered his arm as the light faded from its grooves, as he looked at it, turning his hand up and down as if studying it in awe.

She certainly felt awed.

“Well, that went well,” he quipped, chuckling.

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B013.1 Call of the Sleeper

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Yesterday was a big day, for yesterday was the day, on which the first of the Chosen of the Blood, of whom our Leader speaks so much, has visited Germany.

They call her Lady Light across the sea, and by God Almighty, a more fitting name, I can barely imagine. Angel, perhaps.

Goddess.

She came to us glowing like the sun, brilliant and flawless, escorting the American President on his way to a peace conference. A sham, really; no one here in Europe actually wants peace, I think. But at least it allowed me to lay eyes on her.

Later, many of my landsmen spoke about how she was living proof of the Truth of Blood and Heritage, even if she was a woman, at least the first of the Chosen had been a true Aryan, the rumors of her relationship to one of the accursed Jews notwithstanding. Personally, I never saw the point in despising people merely because of race. Yes, some people are born inferior to others. Others superior. That is nature.

That is no reason to hate, though. Pity, perhaps, for those less fortunate, but certainly no hate. Disdain, for those who refuse to recognise their place, but certainly no rage.

Besides, even in my limited experience, I have come ot realise that the same differences exist within the German – or Aryan – race, as well. Perhaps not to such extreme extents – other races are definitely more different from us than we are among each other – but the difference exists. No one would ever say that I was an average member of my race and I say this without a hint of vanity. I had proven myself to be better than most even before my blood awakened.

Perhaps if I tell myself that often enough, I’ll even convince myself that I didn’t end up proving to be less than most, too.

I am rambling again. Mother always tells told me that I tend to ramble too much, if I don’t have others to keep me on track. Adelheid just says said I’m addicted to the sound of my own voice. It is quite likely that she is right.

Where was I… ah, yes, Lady Light. Such a simple name, to encompass such an enrapturing creature. At first I thought, this is it? This is the first Chosen? She was… thin. Almost a head shorter than I, and looking so fragile. Weak. I could pass for her older brother, even though I’m barely half her age.

And yet… and yet, there was something, something that drew one’s eye to her. A quiet confidence, a core of will, of conviction, as uncaring for what us mere humans may do as the sun itself is, and just as brilliant. A blazing sun in human form. I have never seen its like before, not even in the Leader.

She did not talk to me – why would she, I was but one lesser chosen among several gathered there? – but her gaze passed over me. It felt like she was staring right into my soul.

Whatever happens… whatever else comes of the next few years… I pray that I shall meet her again.

***

8 am, November 17, the day after the Crocell Incident

The door to the container ‘hangout’ that Basil used as a cover for one of the entrances to his base opened, and Vasiliki entered alongside Tim and Dalia, studiously trying to ignore her friend’s choice of clothing. Fashion was just one of the many subjects which they clashed on, and she wasn’t going to get into another discussion about how appropriate skimpy tops and miniskirts or hot pants with tights were, especially during winter. She’d just quietly stick to a nice (hand-made) long skirt and a comfortable (hand-made) sweater.

Maybe some day, Dalia would learn. And until then, she’d keep entertaining Timothy, who clearly did not mind her fashion sense at all.

They walked to the elevator, that would lead them down to the base.

“You think B-Six is already awake?” Dalia asked lightly, smiling as she moved with a casual, unconscious grace which Vasiliki greatly envied her for. “Or perhaps still? Could see him skipping sleep, after yesterday.”

She wasn’t wrong, though. “I can imagine that being the case, yes,” she admitted while they pressed the hidden switch beneath the counter to take them down. The elevator started to move without a sound. “Studying that monster, then getting a chance to work with three other gadgeteers, on Sovereign’s equipment, no less, well…”

“Basil got his hands on new tech?” Timothy asked, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified. “I bet he was… ecstatic.”

That elicited a giggle from Dalia. “He must’ve had such a huge nerdgasm!”

Vasiliki rolled her eyes at the crass language, though she couldn’t honestly object to the point made. Basil could be very easily excited by anything to do with his power, and the fact that he’d somehow convinced Gloom Glimmer to take him straight back here, right after the battle was over, spoke for him being almost out of his mind with new ideas. Otherwise, she was absolutely certain he would not have left them behind.

Not that Vasiliki wouldn’t have stayed anyway, to help with search and rescue. It had still been an unpleasant surprise to find out that he’d left so suddenly, and without even telling them that he’d survived.

Vasiliki had been scared for her friend.

He’d better have a damn good excuse, she thought to herself, while also trying not to think about all the corpses they’d pulled out of the flooded rubble and collapsed buildings.

So many corpses, even though an anonymous hero had been going around helping evacuate the civilians…

She was distracted from that train of thought when the elevator reached the living room and ‘command centre’ of the base, where they were immediately greeted by Eudocia’s emblem appearing on the large central screen.

“Hi you three!” she chirped, sounding to all the world like an over-exited preteen. Which, in some ways, she pretty much was. “How’re you doing?”

“We’re fine, thank you for asking,” Vasiliki replied. “Is Basil in his lab?”

“Yup, he’s been there since he came back. Didn’t even sleep. If it wasn’t for Prisca, he wouldn’t even have eaten,” Eudocia complained sullenly, as usual exasperated in how hard it was to pursue her self-imposed duty of looking after Basil’s oft-neglected health.

At least he keeps himself nearly obsessively clean, Vasiliki thought, thanking the gods for their small favours. “Do you know what he’s been working on?”

“Nope! Whatever ideas he got, they’re way beyond me,” the AI replied, chirpy again. “First thing he built was some kind of headgear he used on himself, but I have no idea what it really did, he wasn’t being too chatty. Seemed to give him a headache, though. Since then, he’s been working on some kind of bracer or gauntlet. He cannibalized most of his stuff to make it, even his vibrosword!”

Dalia whistled, though even she looked like she could see the issue with that. Vasiliki couldn’t help but frown, too. She knew that Basil’s resources were running thin, which explained why he had to take apart previous projects – or unfinished ones – to make new stuff, but sacrificing his sword?

Well, it wasn’t like he’d used it all that much to begin with – he didn’t like killing any more than Vasiliki did, and the vibrosword was pretty much only useful for taking apart inanimate objects, unless you wanted to kill your opponent.

“We’ll talk to him,” she stated firmly, sorting out her thoughts. “Try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, time for a little reality check,” Dalia said in a similar tone of voice. She hadn’t taken him just leaving them behind much, if any, better than her. “This is weird even by his standards.”

“Thanks. I hope you’ll talk some sense into him,” Eudocia said, opening the door that lead down to the lab proper.

The three of them walked down the short staircase and entered into the lab… which honestly looked not much different than usual, at least to Vasiliki’s eye. It had always been a strange mixture of obsessively neat and absentmindedly chaotic; several worktables with half-finished or just-disassembled projects laid out in what seemed to be utter disorder, to the point where she sometimes suspected Basil might have an eidetic memory, just to explain how he ever found anything, contrasting with the neat, orderly way that said tables and projects were laid out in the room, with clear, neat pathways between them, everything stationed so that, no matter at which one Basil was sitting, he could look at any other project by turning in the right direction.

She’d never admit it to him, for fear of his head swelling even more than it usually did, when it came to his gadgets, but watching him work, seeing all the strange stuff he was working on, was a really fun pastime for her, trying to figure out what the hell he was fiddling with at any time and all. The fact that he tended to get so absorbed in his work, he’d likely not notice her even if she was standing around naked and singing in Greek, made it all the easier to observe him in his ‘natural habitat’, as she and Dalia tended to joke.

It had changed over the last month or so, though. Vasiliki had been aware that he was having trouble continuing his work, both due to his power being baulky and due to dwindling money, he’d complained about it a few times, and Eudocia had shared some of it, as well, but right now, it was as obvious as ever that he was starting to run out of resources, at least.

Half the lab was empty, really, with only a few small parts and tools on most tables, his work mostly concentrated on the five centre tables, one of which being his computer station, at that.

She couldn’t even begin to guess at the purpose of most of the things he was working on, but one table, at least, was easily identified – the one he’d been performing maintenance on his battered armour (as skillful as he could sometimes be, somehow he still managed to get it wrecked a whole damn lot), the individual pieces laid out along with the bodysuit worn underneath them, looking like they were back in top condition.

The other tables were far less obvious. One sported what she assumed was a computer tower as tall as she was, standing at its centre. It seemed to have been built by cannibalising damn near every other computer in the room, fitting all the necessary parts together into an amalgam that would have made Frankenstein proud. With all the wires leading out of it, and the irregularly spaced amber-coloured cooling lines, it reminded her kind of of some japanese anime’s idea of a mechanical tree or such. And that was only the most obvious piece, as its wires connected to a variety of other devices, which were interconnected in turn, the whole construct so expansive it extended onto another table, all of it ending up in what looked like a twisted, uneven VR headset that had to weigh as much as a small child at the least, currently resting on the table in front of where Basil would normally sit.

Another table sported what looked like three hollow, egg shapes that fanned open like flowers, the insides of the petals covered in countless tiny spines, with one of Basil’s hand-made laptops wired up to them, running some kind of program with a progress bar that was half-done.

Finally, there was one last table on which lay a single gauntlet, sized to fit over Basil’s forearm and the back of his hand. Unlike the rest of his armor, it wasn’t made out of the black ceramic he tended to use, but of several overlapping half-rings of silvery metal, covered in gold and copper circuits which seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever (though Vasiliki knew better than to assume Basil would waste resources on mere aesthetics). The table was actually clean apart from that, all the tools put neatly away, signifying that this work, at least, was complete.

The one responsible for all that, Basil, sat at his computer terminal, wearing black dress pants and an unbuttoned white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps, lounging on a swivel chair, turned halfway towards them.

Vasiliki felt her face heat up a bit, hoping to all spirits that her dusky skintone would hide the light blush as she was reminded that Basil had been… really getting more attractive, ever since she first met him.

Oh, he wasn’t turning into a supermodel, and he likely never would be; but gone was the gangly, messily black-haired, stick-thin nerd with the sharp black eyes she’d first befriended. His hair had grown long (and stayed messy, in spite of his attempts to keep it under control), nearly touching his shoulders by now, and his face had lost a lot of baby fat it’d still sported just a few months ago, making it look even sharper than before (which was saying a lot), his cheekbones looking like she could have sliced bread on them. His unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves showed the results of working out regularly, nevermind all the combat training they did whenever all three of them had the time, nevermind the regular patrols; he was still a little too thin and she doubted he’d ever look like a body-builder, and he often looked like he was tired due to what seemed to be some natural wrinkles around and underneath his jet black eyes, but…

Damn it, I’m feeling a little jealous of Prisca now, she thought. All in all, she wouldn’t be surprised if Basil wasn’t going to be getting a lot of hopeful suitors, come prom time – traditionally, Diantha High always had girls’ choice there, and Prisca wasn’t around to lay claim to him.

Oh Goddess, what the Hell am I even thinking? I have way more important things to worry about! she thought to herself as the two of them walked up to Basil.

“Hey, B-Six!” Dalia greeted him cheerily, and Vasiliki noticed that the red-head was clearly not as restrained as she tried to be about ogling the eye candy. “Did Prisca just leave?”

Timothy coughed suddenly, looking away.

Basil looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “Just a few minutes ago, yes. Her charge ran out and she had to wake up. How did you know?”

Yeah, how did sh- ohhhh, Vasiliki caught up just a second later, and felt her face heat up even more. She really had to get herself a boyfriend already.

“Female intuition, I guess,” Dalia quipped brightly. “I see she got you to eat, huh?” she continued, nodding towards an empty plate on the table next to the computer.

Their friend shrugged. “I was not really hungry, but Prisca was really… insistent,” he said casually, as if it was nothing special.

“I really need to get that far with my girlfriend…” Vasiliki heard Timothy whisper from behind her.

Amen, she thought. And I need to find a boyfriend in the first place.

“Anyway,” she spoke up, trying not to focus on her relatively irrelevant relationship status. “We’ve got to talk, Basil.”

He turned his chair to face them fully and she realised that it wasn’t just his natural look she’d picked up on earlier. He really did look tired, though not as badly as he’d gotten before their intervention a while ago.

Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on him again, I don’t think that Eudocia is really cut out for watching over her ‘father’.

“Let us talk then,” he said with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“What happened at the end of the battle?” she asked straight out, not wanting to beat around the bush anymore. “Why’d you just dump us to come back here, and why’d you risk showing Gloom Glimmer our base?”

He flinched a bit, looking actually guilty. “I… I am sorry for leaving you behind. I am not entirely sure of all the details, but when Crocell died… well, you noticed his death throes, right? They call it a ‘psychic scream’, I think.”

Vasiliki nodded, shuddering at the memory. It had been profoundly unsettling, not to mention painful – her headache had lasted for hours. She knew that Dalia’s experience had been no better, either.

“What did you experience while it happened?” he asked them, gesturing for her or Dalia to take over.

“Flashes,” the latter immediately spoke up. “Flashes of colours and shadows, and weird sounds, like whale songs,” she explained as she sat on a chair Timothy had pulled up for her.

Vasiliki looked around and saw that he’d done the same for her, and was now sitting on one of his own, too, so she sat down as well, the four of them forming a loose circle among Basil’s workstations.

“My experience was very similar,” she continued once it became clear that Dalia was finished. “But even less distinct. Just shadows and screeching, but muted, echo-y, like it was underwater,” she described as best as she could, while Timothy remained quiet – he was the only one here who hadn’t been present. “I think there was more, while it happened, but it… didn’t stick in my mind.”

Basil made a thoughtful sound as he intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, elbows on the armrests of his chair. “I saw… much more. Perhaps because I was so close to it. Images, mostly. Memories, I think, of Crocell. To be more precise, his birth… and his creators.”

“What!?” Vasiliki shouted, jumping up onto her feet. “That thing was made? And you know who did it?!” She’d track these monsters down and blow them to high heaven!

He raised a hand in a calming gesture. “I will get to that,” he said, standing up as she sat down and buttoning his shirt closed, before he walked over to the huge computer tower to flip a single switch, causing it to boot up quietly, numerous fans that were hidden among the already extensive cooling lines starting their work. “I can not say whether it happened due to Crocell’s presence, but during the battle, it was like my power… came unstuck.” He gestured towards the gauntlet with one hand, using the other to type something on the tower’s keyboard without even looking at it. “That is how I was able to figure out how to kill the beast. Anyway, my memory of the contents of its scream began to fade quickly, and that is when I came up with this.” He gestured towards the computer tower and the headpiece it was connected to. “A neural engram recorder and visualiser,” he explained. “It can read the neural signals of the brain’s visual cortex and record them, provided one focuses long enough on an image – I used it to save as much of these visions as I could, before they faded from my mind, as well.”

The three of them just gaped at the boy, but he didn’t seem to notice, or care, as he continued on.

“Now, as to what I saw…” he stopped, suddenly, and turned to his computer terminal. “Eudocia, how is Prisca doing?” he asked calmly.

“She’s awake and talking to her mother,” the AI replied. “It seems like it will take a while, but I can’t be sure, since I’m not allowed to listen in on private conversations without permission,” she continued, sounding sullen.

“Good,” he said, sitting down again. “She will have to hear this, too, but… I would rather discuss it with you all first.”

And with that cryptic comment, he tapped a few keys on his terminal, calling up an image of… some kind of underwater scenery, a trench maybe. A slick rockwall could be seen, covered in corals and illuminated from below in all colours of the rainbow.

A tap of a key called up another image, looking up said wall towards the surface of the water, though little could be seen of it.

“I was not able to save much,” Basil continued, as he moved on, going from picture to picture. Crocell – it had to be him – was swimming up, it seemed, approaching a jet-black shape that seemed to float on the water’s surface, something like a huge octagon. “Here is where it gets interesting.”

More pictures came up, until Crocell seemed to break through the water’s surface, looking up at the starry sky.

Then, he climbed on top of the water, and looked down and out over a huge, almost city-sized floating island of metal, formed like an octagon.

His gaze swept over several people who’d gathered on some kind of platform at the edge of the installation, and focused closer on them.

Vasiliki felt her heartbeat speed up as she saw what she assumed to be the villains behind all the murder and bloodshed these monsters had caused over the last day. There were many, and not all were distinctly visible – the image quality was not the best in every shot, probably because Basil had had trouble remembering every detail – but a few stood out.

A woman in what looked like a samurai-themed knight’s armour mixed with a black-and-purple ball gown, wearing a helmet which reminded her of a bird, and a katana strapped to her side. Another woman, short, Asian, in a lab coat, with an ecstatic look on her face, her black hair drawn back in a bun. Next to her, a pimply, gangly man who looked like the stereotypical nerd in an oversized labcoat. And finally, a black-skinned woman in a smaller, tighter labcoat, her hands in her coatpockets as she seemed to look almost condescendingly at the viewer – at Crocell.

Others were around them, but they were indistinct, blurry. The focus was clearly on those four.

“That’s them, huh,” Dalia whispered. “Anyone recognise the bitch in the fancy costume?”

“No, I have never heard of anyone with that costume,” Basil replied, both Vasiliki and Timothy saying the same.

“Nor have I found any images on the internet which match her,” Eudocia added, her voice much more serious than usual.

“I did recognise one of them, though,” Basil continued, zooming in on the short Asian woman and the gangly nerd. “Eudocia was also able to identify the man – he is known as ‘the Geek’, a legacy villain who disappeared a few years ago. But it is this one that I am most interested in.” He zoomed further in on the short woman. “That… is Dusu.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop in the resulting silence.

Vasiliki stared at the image of the woman who’d ruined Prisca’s life, and that of so many others – no wonder Basil didn’t want to confront her with this rashly. The crippled girl would go ballistic.

She very deliberately did not ask whether Basil was sure – he would never speak about this unless he was absolutely sure.

“Is there a way to tell where this place is?” she asked instead, her voice barely more than a whisper. “There were some images of the stars earlier, perhaps one could determine its location that-” She cut off when she saw Basil’s grim smile.

“I did just that,” he affirmed, tapping a few keys. The images of the starry night showed up on the screens, one in each, and graphs began to appear, measuring the distances between stars, shapes they formed and more. “I also calculated how deep the trench Crocell rose out of must have been, based on the speed at which he rose and the height we observed when he first surfaced at Esperanza City. With those values, I was able to determine that it must be built somewhere above the Mariana Trench, specifically this general location.”

He called up a map of the Pacific Ocean, zooming in on the relevant portion and highlighting an area with a red circle. One quite near to the Challenger Deep, Vasiliki’s geographical knowledge told her.

“It is only accurate to within about a hundred kilometres, but nevertheless – whoever these people are, their base is somewhere there. And I am going to tell the United Heroes about it soon enough.”

Vasiliki swallowed dryly at the thought of the kind of violence that information would unleash – there was no way the heroes, and even a lot of villains, would hold back, not after the massacres caused. Nevermind governments like that of Japan, who’d been hit the hardest hit.

She wished she could participate. She’d drawn children out of the rubble of Esperanza.

“Damn, B-Six, that’s just… that’s so awesome,” Dalia said, hushed, her hands on her cheeks.

“Yeah, man, this… this is huge,” Timothy agreed, after having been quiet for most of this. “Are you… are you certain? I mean, I know you wouldn’t say this lightly, but if you’re wrong…”

Basil shook his head. “I am certain in what I saw, and the conclusions drawn. Crocell was made and he was made there. And Dusu,” he all but spat the name, “was involved in some fashion.”

He smiled grimly, showing teeth, the sight making Vasiliki shiver down to her toes. “This will not just be a chance to punish them for the monsters they unleashed. I intend to take the chance to find a cure for Prisca’s condition; if anyone has it, then Dusu, the one who created that plague in the first place.”

The Greek sorceress leaned back in her seat, running her fingers through her hair as she took a deep breath. “By the Goddess, this is… this is so much, Basil. Too much. We need to, to think this over, plan… and we need to tell Prisca, too. She deserves to know.”

He nodded, sitting down again. “Yes, yes she does. And I will. As soon as she comes back – I want to do it face-to-face, or as close as it gets with her insisting on the projection over her real body.” He sighed, leaning back as well.

“So, how are we going to tell the UH?” Dalia asked thoughtfully, an expression that was just weird on her, in spite of the situation. “Just give them a copy of the images and all?”

“I can not think of a better way,” Basil answered. “It will probably take a while to convince them that it is reliable, but I do not think that they will dismiss it, in the end. They need to take the chance to nip this at the bud, before even more monsters are created and let loose.”

Vasiliki nodded in agreement – that was paramount. Followed by punishing them for what they’d already done, of course.

She wished she had the power to directly send such villains to Tartarus herself.

“Alright, let’s talk about how we’re going to get this information to them in the most efficient, convincing way p-” she began, but was cut off when Eudocia suddenly butted in.

“Father!” she shouted, sounding panicked. “You’ve got to help!”

Basil turned his chair around, sitting straight and with alarm. “What is going on, Eudocia?” he asked briskly, but calmly.

“It’s Prisca!” the AI exlaimed, seeming to grow more and more panicked. “She just had a stroke!”

Basils knuckles turned white as he gripped the edge of his table. “Status report, now,” he hissed as Vasiliki just stared in shock.

The screens changed to ECG readings and other information that Vasiliki couldn’t even begin to make sense of, making her briefly wonder where he was getting them from… until she remembered that he’d built most of the medical equipment currently sustaining Prisca, and there was no way he hadn’t left himself a connection to it for just such an occasion.

She watched as Basil’s eyes flew over the information, seeming to absorb it in record time. “Any reports on the other surviving victims?” he asked, his voice tight.

“Two of those whom I have access to had strokes over the last hour, one of them fatal,” she replied, her voice growing calmer, more mechanical, now that she was getting orders to pursue. “I’m hacking into what little there already is on their hospitals’ networks… nothing conclusive, as usual, but it seems like the plague is attacking their brains more aggressively than usual.”

She saw Basil tremble, even though his face – which she could see from the side, sitting where she was – was completely calm. “Keep collecting data. I want every byte you can get, he said calmly, leaning back on his seat.

Vasiliki couldn’t sit around anymore, though, and leapt up. “We should get to the hospital, see what you can do for her… or maybe me, if all else fails,” she said, turning around to go for where she had her spare costume stashed. She knew her healing magic -what little of it she was capable of – was not the most reliable, but if all else failed…

Dalia got up to join her, her face tight with worry.

“No,” came a sharp, cold voice, freezing them both in their tracks. “We are not going to the hospital.”

They turned around, both of them, and Vasiliki felt her blood run cold as ice.

Basil was leaning back on his chair again, his fingers intertwined as he’d put his hands together over his lap, his head slightly leaning forward.

His eyes were cold as ice and blacker than the darkness itself.

“W-why not? We need to help her!” Dalia protested, but Vasiliki just stared at her friend, who was looking into the distance with those cold, hard eyes.

“We will be of no help rushing to the hospital,” he spoke calmly, ignoring Dalia’s protests. It was like someone completely different was speaking. “I have already done all that I can for her, with just my skills and resources. Vasiliki’s magic is not compatible with my gadgets, and no one knows how it might react to Dusu’s plague.”

“W-what are we supposed to do, then?” Vasiliki asked, her voice trembling, and not just for fear for Prisca. This Basil… she’d known that there was something cold, and hard inside of him, some part of his that couldn’t be explained by the life he’d lead so far, but that was nonetheless there, but she’d never thought she’d see it so clearly.

He was scaring her.

“It is simple,” he said with that ice-cold voice. “There is only one person who knows how to save Prisca,” he continued, calling up the image of those four villains again. “We are going to go after the source of the plague.” He tapped her face on the screen.

“Are you crazy!?!” Vasiliki shouted, unable to restrain herself. “There’s no way we have enough time to wait for the heroes and the government to gather their troops and get there, Prisca will be dead or brain-damaged long before that!”

Basil remained maddeningly calm, in the face of her outburst. “I never said we would wait. Or I will not, at least. I will go after her as soon as I can arrange for some transportation, and gather up as much firepower as I can on short notice.”

She gaped at her friend, unable to believe he was being so reckless, so… so stupid, even with his girlfriend’s life on the line! These were some major supervillains, and there could be a whole army on that floating island!

The other two seemed just as shocked as she was, unable to protest, as they watched Basil pick up his cellphone from the table.

“How… how are we even supposed to get there on our own?” Vasiliki asked weakly.

“Yeah, unless you got a jet stashed somewhere around here, there’s no way we’re getting there anytime soon,” Dalia agreed.

Basil just punched a number into his cellphone and lifted it to his ear. Whoever was on the other end picked up quickly.

“Gloom Glimmer,” he greeted the other side. “Brennus here. I am calling about that favour you said you owed me…”

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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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