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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B013.2 Call of the Sleeper

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“This is going to go wrong so much I can’t even put it into words,” Hecate complained, her mouth – the only part of her face, other than her chin, visible beneath her cowl – twisted into a frown as she leaned onto her staff, gripping it tightly with both hands. The green jewel at its top was stirring with greenish light and black smoke, as if responding to her nervousness… which it likely was.

“It can hardly come as a surprise to you,” he rebuffed her, himself standing at the centre of the rooftop, one hand clasping the other arm’s wrist behind his back. He didn’t look at her, just downwards, as if deep in thought, though really, his mind was too unquiet to be deep into anything in particular, right then. “They were hardly going to mount an immediate assault based purely on some information I got from strange visions.”

“When you put it like that, it only makes you look even kookier than usual,” Tyche commented.

“Thank you for that glowing recommendation,” he replied, deadpan.

“So, why insist on this meeting then?” Hecate pressed her point. “What’s the point?” Her voice rose slightly in frustration, yet Brennus kept his gaze downcast, fixed.

“I think it is obvious. I am going to go after her myself and recover the cure.”

The other two girls just stared at him, their jaws dropping.

Before the protests could begin, he looked up. “She is here… and she is not alone.”

The other two followed his gaze, to see several figures flying down towards the rooftop.

In the lead was Gloom Glimmer, her pure white cape billowing around her as she descended gracefully, toes pointed in perfect form. With her came Polymnia, in a vastly changed set of power armour, apparently carried by her friend’s power, stumbling gracelessly as they touched down, and Osore in his black bodysuit, leather jacket and Oni mask, as well as Spellgun and Tartsche.

They weren’t the only ones. A human-sized, black-furred bird with a cat’s head followed them, landing near the duo while shifting into a more humanoid cat-form.

Brennus spent a moment looking Polymnia up and down, taking in her new appearance. Spare armour, he realised. Less elaborate than her standard loadout. It must have taken too much damage during the fight in Esperanza for her to fix quickly. The new set of armour was still made out of that blue, transparent material that her other armour had consisted off – which Basil found quite offensive, transparent armour would be unable to protect against a lot of light-based effects – to reveal her pink shorts and top, but otherwise it looked entirely different to Basil’s eye. It lacked a lot of the former armour’s strength enhancements, he could tell with a glance, though there were still some parts he guessed were lesser servo motors, nor did it sport the prehensile limbs with her speakers and keyboard, which usually extended from her backpack; there was still a back module, though he couldn’t guess what it did, and her forearms were much more thickly armored, with numerous speakers built into the resulting gauntlets. Her hair was tied into a single, long, multi-coloured braid, shifting colours as sounds played over it, and she still wore the same visor as always. She smiled when she noticed him looking, her lips shifting colours just like her hair did.

“W-wha…” Vasiliki stammered at the sight of all of them gathered there.

Brennus didn’t give her a chance to continue, though, stepping forward towards Gloom Glimmer, who stood there with a serious expression on her face, her cloak wrapped tight around her form. He was about to start talking when a prompt from Eudocia flashed on his HUD. ‘Be polite.’ He stopped, briefly, blinking, then started again. “Gloom Glimmer, thank you for meeting me on such short notice,” he began, both annoyed and grateful that she’d pointed it out to me.

“I do owe you,” she said, a little levity entering her voice. “Besides, I can guess what you want to do, and it’s a worthy cause.”

“Well, if you can do that, you know him better than we do,” Hecate grumbled, stepping closer to flank him. “What about the rest?” she asked, then nearly squeaked when Polymnia waved at her with a smile.

“We’re here to help,” Polymnia explained, the fingers of her left hand wiggling the way Brennus’ usually did, when he used the air-keyboard function built into his gloves. Which explained how she intended to play her instruments without that giant keyboard she usually had.

Gloom Glimmer smiled. “I was going to come here, after you called, but Polymnia overheard my side of our conversation and got the rest out of me, insisting that she come along. Then Bakeneko noticed us preparing to leave and insisted that she come along. Osore heard that and chose to come along, and then I figured it wouldn’t be fair not to tell the others, too, which is how Tartsche and Spellgun joined the party.”

“Outstep’s still laid out recovering from the fight in Esperanza, otherwise he’d…” Tartsche explained, but Spellgun shoved his elbow into his byofriend’s side, making him flinch. “Ow! Well, ok, he likely wouldn’t have come help with this anyway.”

“Did he really get hurt that badly?” Tyche asked curiously, ignoring the second part.

“He didn’t really get hurt,” Polymnia replied, even while her eyes kept moving from Brennus’ new gauntlet to the black-and-silver oblong ovoid currently attached to it, seemingly sticking to the gauntlet’s engraved surface just by itself.

“Outstep did evac work during the battle,” Tartsche picked up, explaining. “Kept pulling the defenders out of the way of attacks, or collapsing buildings. Hundreds of saves, but he really over-taxed himself, and he’ll probably be laid out for at least a few more days.”

Brennus nodded absently, his eyes on Gloom Glimmer. “You know what I intend to do, and judging by what you said earlier, you are willing to help?”

She smiled at him, a sight that would likely be quite distracting for most boys and cocked her hip before replying, “Hey, you saved my girl, I’ll help save yours.”

Polymnia blushed, punching her friend’s shoulder. “Could you not phrase it that way? It’s not like the shippers aren’t really going crazy enough, without you adding more fuel.” Everyone on the roof other than Brennus and Polymnia chuckled at that.

The young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others. “Anyway, she’s not wrong. Aside from the fact that we owe you for all your help, this… these people are clearly evil. And Dusu is the only chance we have to heal… all those people. So, I want to help, too, even if the UH says to wait.”

“This is crazy!” Hecate burst out before anyone else could reply. “You’re talking about assaulting the base of some super-secret villain organisation that makes monsters which can level cities! We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

We are not going to assault them,” Brennus cut in. Everyone turned to look at him, as he focused on each in turn. “I never said I would be taking anyone along for this, other than Gloom Glimmer. The plan is to sneak inside and either steal the cure or else extract the information from Dusu – if necessary, we’ll apprehend her and bring her back for a more thorough interrogation, should Gloom Glimmer’s powers fail to extract such from her.” I’d rather  have Amy along for that, but there is no way whatsoever she’d allow this to happen.

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

“What?” he asked, feeling slightly defensive. “Did you really think I would advocate an outright assault on this kind of enemy? The only reason why I even insist on going along myself is, first of all, because it is my idea and I am not going to send someone else into danger without taking the same risks, and second, my expertise might be needed.”

“Can’t Gloom Glimmer just use a gadgeteer power of her own?” Hecate asked, sounding less annoyed and more serious now. “Speaking of which, can’t you just fix the bodies of Dusu’s victims? I’ve seen you manifest healing powers before,” she now addressed her directly.

The girl in question sighed, looking down. “No, to both. I’ve never been able to manifest gadgeteering powers, or Contriving, for that matter. Or any long-term powers, for that matter. As for healing, don’t you think I’ve tried to fix people like that?” she complained in a petulant voice. “I can’t control what powers I get, or when I get them. I only really get healing powers when people close to me get hurt, and even then, it doesn’t always work out well – during Crocell’s attack, Poly had to sit most of it out because I could only heal her ears, but not fix the migraine his scream gave her!” She stomped her foot on the roof, hard enough to make thin cracks spread out from her heel.

“I thought so,” Brennus commented. “Either way, we should not dally any more than absolutely necessary. I have the coordinates for the enemy’s base, and all my relevant equipment. We should l-“

“Oh hell no you don’t!” Hecate cried out, turning around to swat Brennus over the back of the head.

“Hey!” he shouted, more startled than he was hurt – he’d made sure to heavily armour his head, of course.

“Look, you’re an idiot, Brennus, and this whole plan of yours is idiotic, but I’ll be damned before I let you go there without as much backup as possible!” she shouted at him, very nearly at the top of her lungs. Certainly loud enough that anyone down at street level would hear her, if they weren’t empty at present (he had his last two ravens keeping a lookout). “Now, I want to save her, too, and since the UH want to play it safe, it seems, we gotta do something – but not like this, and certainly not on your own!” she finished by stabbing a finger into his chest. Not that he felt it, through his armour.

“What kind of infiltration are we going to pull off if all of us come along?” he asked in exasperation. “Nine people is way too many!”

“Ten, actually,” Eudocia whispered into his ear, but he ignored her.

“Actually, I think she’s got a point,” Tartsche spoke calmly, stepping forth so he stood next to Brennus and Hecate, between them. “If you and Gloom Glimmer went alone, and she’s taken out, then you’re pretty screwed. You shouldn’t put the responsibility all on her shoulders.”

Brennus crossed his arms. “I am not. That is why I am going along. I can take care of myself, I can back her up, and I know what to look for.”

Tartsche spread his arms, as if saying ‘that’s what I’m saying’ or something. “Look, no one denies that. But my point is, nine people is not that much and if something happens, we’ll be able to provide backup and support!” He took a deep breath. “Look, if it was up to me, we wouldn’t be doing this at all. This is way beyond reckless. But I also believe that we have to help Dusu’s victims, and time is running out on them. I’m sure Rounds would agree with me, which is why I’m here, and willing to help. But we’ve got to do it smart. Otherwise, we’ll all just die, or be captured, and we won’t help anyone!” Spellgun stepped up behind his boyfriend, nodding his assent.

“Look, B- Brennus,” Aimi, Bakeneko, spoke up. “You can trust us. We’ve been through a lot, and we’re not any amateurs anymore. You need every bit of help you can get.”

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

“I still think nine are too many,” Brennus disagreed, though more calmly now. “Can Gloom Glimmer even transport and hide that many?” He looked at her.

She seemed to think it over, briefly, then she nodded. “I can do it. Not much more difficult than just two, really. Right now, I have a kind of, telekinetic plane power, and a stealth field and… some kind of enhanced perception, it’s kind of hard to put that one into words.”

Brennus looked around at everyone. He didn’t like it, one bit; he wasn’t an idiot, in the end. He knew this whole plan was extremely risky at best, suicidal at worst, but he’d decided that he couldn’t not try it. Dragging the others along, though… at least he could be all but certain that Gloom Glimmer could escape from any kind of situation, leaving him behind if need be.

He looked them all in the eyes, until he was looking at Osore, who’d just stood back, his arms down his sides, motionless.

“What do you think? You’re the only one who hasn’t said anything, yet,” he asked the quiet boy.

“Any action is better than no action,” Osore spoke quietly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Let’s roll the dice, and see where they fall.”

Brennus looked down at his feet, then up at Gloom Glimmer again.

She shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. If I am crazy enough to go along with this, what right do I have to dissuade anyone else from the same course of action?”

He sighed, before he snapped his fingers, causing his two ravens to fly up and land on his shoulders, one on each side. “Alright. Let’s go.”

***

Unseen and unfelt by anyone, a figure in a dark blue robe sat on the edge of the roof, watching the teens gather up, stroking a black cat’s long, soft fur as the feline lay curled up in the grip of his left arm.

He watched quietly as Gloom Glimmer’s power rose up around them, a transparent, but not invisible energy wrapping around the group, forming something like a upward-pointing cone, before another power wrapped around them like a shroud, causing them to fade from sight.

A trivial alteration of his position allowed him to penetrate that ability, as well, so he could watch them fly East.

He stayed quiet, his thoughts unreadable, until just moments later, a black-and-purple blur came down from the sky, smashing so hard onto the rooftop, the concrete cracked, nearly caving in.

Mindstar rose from a crouch, her lower face twisted into a snarl of rage and concern, looking around wildly.

“Where is he!?” she shouted at no one in particular, looking around wildly, her eyes wide and livid. Then she seemed to zero in on something, looking in the direction they had flown off towards and, with another snarl, she shot away after them, cracking the roof further.

Journeyman watched as she disappeared in the sky, standing up and stepping forward just as the rooftop began to crumble in on itself. As the concrete broke away beneath him, he just kept walking on the same level, as if the air could carry him just as well as concrete.

The cat purred in his arms, his fingers going from its back to the back of its ears, scratching them skillfully.

“The plot thickens, my friend,” he spoke calmly to the cat. “And I’ve got to say…” he gave off a strange chuckle, sounding elated “… most of this, I did not see coming.” Though his face was hidden by mirrors and strange visions, one could somehow still see his grin. “Didn’t see it coming at all. Oh, joyous day.”

He looked down at the cat, who looked back up at him with lazy eyes, then yawned, showing off its teeth.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on them,” he continued, petting it underneath its chin. “Might even lend a hand and help them, if they surprise me enough. Wouldn’t that be swell, eh, pal?”

The cat yawned once more, then subsided in his arms, purring calmly.

He tilted his head, looking down at for a little more, before he looked up and after the others. “You know, if I could just remember where I’ve seen you before, I could finally find out your name.”

Beneath him, the house alarm went off, finally, as the roof collapsed fully into the floor below.

“Oh well, I need to get going anyway.”

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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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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B12.11 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any idea what kind of weapon that is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?” she said from his side.

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

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

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

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

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

He’d only have one shot at convincing her.

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

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

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

“Amy… please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go ‘gather data’, baby bro.”

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B012.10 Born At Sleep

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I’m not dead.

Relief surged through Basil as he processed that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His armor wasn’t even nicked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One moment,” the preacher replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just checking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It fired straight at Crocell.

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B012.9 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they ripped into the beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloom Glimmer nodded to them and flew ahead as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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