B13.17 Call of the Sleeper

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Wh- what… what’s going on? Amy’s thoughts intruded into their minds once more, sounding weaker, more quiet than before, while her body stirred, groaning in pain. I feel like I got punched by God. After he took steroids for like, four thousand years.

Basil didn’t know how to reply, too focused on the standoff in front of him and so stayed quiet. The others didn’t seem to be in any better shape, staring at the new arrival.

Who the fuck is that? Amy asked in a groggy voice.

I have no idea, but he just saved Heck’s life, so I like him, Tyche replied, sounding greatly relieved.

That’s – ow – Journeyman! Polymnia told them excitedly, in between taking shots in the back. Gloomy – ow – told me – ow – about him!

Amy looked at her, and reached out with her right arm, causing the next shot to rebound off a force-field appearing above Polymnia’s back. And the next. And the next.

Thanks! Polymnia said earnestly, moaning in relief.

Thank me by telling us who this guy is supposed to be. Can he actually save our posteriors from that bitch? Amy shot back sharply.

I really dunno. Gloomy’s said he’s like, crazy-powerful, and a friend of her parents. Well, mostly of her mom. Anyway, I don’t actually know what his power really is, other than that he can ‘go anywhere’ and that no one’s ever actually put the hurt on him, Polymnia elaborated at the speed of thought, sharing it all before either the Ascendant, Elysium or ‘Journeyman’ acted at all.

“Who are you?” the Ascendant hissed at the stranger, clearly put off by his sudden appearance and ability to so casually block Elysium’s attack.

“I am a special news bulletin that interrupts your favourite show,” he replied.

“Huh?” said at least half a dozen people.

He sighed. “No one appreciates the classics anymore.” With a light tap of his foot, he caused Elysium to stumble back a step. Putting his foot down next to Hecate’s shoulder, he lightly tapped her with his heel, causing her to slide away until she reached Tyche and Spellgun. “Now, what do I do with you?” he directed his question at the empty-eyed blonde.

That question seemed to shake the Ascendant out of her state of surprised shock. Clenching her fists, she barked a new order: “Four-four-four, designate the person in front of you as Priority Target Lambda. Eliminate him!”

Elysium twitched, briefly, as Journeyman seemed to be content to simply watch with an air of polite curiosity about him; then she performed a high kick, seemingly at his head and he, predictably, did nothing to defend himself.

Basil recognised the move as soon as it began, and wanted to cry out a warning, but it was too late – the loop snapped shut, trapping Journeyman in the same motion of stroking Graymalkin’s ears. Trapping his freaking cat along with him.

The Ascendant breathed a relieved sigh, taking a step back as she relaxed. “Pfff. Not a problem after all. Just a delay.”

Journeyman flickered, reversing to his previous motion. Then there was another flicker, and then – a shift. His form twitched, as it was reversed, a second Journeyman overlapping the other, like an after-image only this one moved at the same time in a different way, not the same way at a later time, moving briefly as if it was straining against something.

The effect around him broke, popping like a soap bubble.

“A time loop? Really?” he asked, incredulous. “Maybe I do need to be a little more public, so people stop trying the same, tired old tricks against me,” he complained to the cat on his arm. “What do you think, pal?”

The cat looked up at him with a bored expression and opened its mouth in a huge yawn.

Elysium kicked him, her foot preceded by a slight distortion in the air, only to hit his left biceps to absolutely no effect – she didn’t even budge him, much less cut him apart.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said to Graymalkin. “Totally not worth the trouble. Anyway, best to focus on the situation at hand.” He looked up, at the same time as he turned aside. The one looking up crossed eyes with Elysium, stepping forward and making her take a step back as she tried to process what was happening, while the other one, still holding Graymalkin, walked over to Basil. “Go join your friends,” he told him, tapping him with a foot.

Basil found himself sliding over to where Hecate, Tyche and Spellgun – all three of them still quite thoroughly hurt, but not in any immediate danger.

At the same time, the other Journeyman and Elysium moved.

He struck at her from the right with his hand open, the fingers curled, which she blocked by raising her left arm, followed by a kick from the opposite side, aiming for his side. Journeyman used his left arm, pushing his elbow under her leg, then pushing up, deflecting her kick in a motion that would have unbalanced a lesser fighter.

Either due to her power, or else simply due to sheer skill – the original Elysium had been a master martial artist – the young woman managed to not only avoid that, but use it to her advantage, flipping backwards in a smooth motion that brought her heel up to strike at his chin; yet Journeyman was already moving to dodge it, leaning back just enough to make it miss him by a hair’s breadth.

Elysium landed on her back, and flipped back up onto her feet, just in time to see Journeyman’s fist fly at her chest and reacted by crossing her arms, blocking the blow – but it was still powerful enough to launch her backwards, a grunt escaping her lips as the air was forced out of her lungs.

Journeyman stepped forth to press the attack while she rolled back onto her feet, but was intercepted by a glowing twin spiral of green fire, emerging from thin air between him and Elysium.

The attack splashed uselessly against his chest, where before it had very nearly broken Amy’s defenses entirely, failing to so much as make him flinch, much less slow him down at all.

“Pilfering’s always a pain in the behind,” the Journeyman holding Graymalkin said as he appeared next to Basil, grabbing him by the elbow to help him stand. He didn’t seem bothered by his weight at all.

The ground underneath the other Journeyman’s feet turned soft and malleable, causing him to sink in down to his knees, then hardened again.

“How’d she do that?” Tyche asked, her voice strained, before she started coughing hard.

“Pilfering rejected timelines,” Journeyman explained as they watched his other self get hammered aside by the very same telekinetic blast Amy had used earlier, only magnified many times, hitting him so hard he actually broke out of the floor and tumbled for several metre. “She can rewind time up to the point she started using her power, over and over. That’s why she knew all your moves in advance – she’d played the same fight out dozens of times, before she moved on to the final iteration. I assume she only looped Gloomy during the final one, as well – allowing her to perform a multitude of various attacks that she can now access, repeating them as necessary,”

As if to illustrate his point, several hundred softball-sized spheres, in all colours of the rainbow, appeared out of nowhere, filling up the twisted, shifting tower’s floor all around, followed by a black sphere that shot at the prone Journeyman, impacting him with the force of a cannonball – except that was nothing compared to what followed, as every single of the rainbow-coloured spheres suddenly moved, impacting him with such tremendous force, the shockwave bowled Basil over again, pushing him and the other heroes away by several metre.

The Journeyman hit by the attack disappeared in a cloud of dust, while the one who’d just stood by Basil remained still, unperturbed by what may have been his other self’s demise – the shockwave barely stirred his robe, at that.

“I wasn’t there myself,” he continued on in a conversational tone of voice as he turned around and casually walked towards Basil again. “But I guess that’s how she fought Bree. She kept pilfering attacks from everyone even tangentially involved in the defense of Old Lennston, including, I assume, Bree’s own attacks.” He reached down with his free hand, helping Basil up once more. “She couldn’t affect her directly, see, but she could replay the powers she was using.”

Elysium took a step back, away from the dust cloud, half-turning to look at the heroes, who were quite bunched up by now.

And then a grey-blue streak shot out of the cover of dust, resolving into the shape of Journeyman as he came to a halt behind her, arm raised.

His blow smashed her into the ground, face-first, and splattered blood, brain-matter and bits of bone all the way over to Basil’s feet.

Her remains flickered and she whirled around in a graceful pirouette which ended with her foot buried Journeyman’s stomach, another hammer-blow as before – to no effect.

Unharmed by both the earlier assault with the rainbow spheres and the powerful kick, Journeyman reached for her face with his left hand, his hand nearly closing over it, but she blinked away, reappearing a few steps away from him, while another burst of telekinetic force went off where she’d just stood, magnified many times over its original strength.

While the same attack had previously blown him away, and was still powerful enough to shatter the ground for almost ten metre around him, it had absolutely no effect whatsoever on Journeyman himself, other than making his robe flutter about.

He took a step towards her, crossing far more space than he ought to, and backhanded her head, decapitating her.

Her headless body fell over, blood spurting out of her neck.

She flickered, whole again, and lifted her feet even as she fell, putting them to his chest and kicking off to put some distance between them, sliding across the ground…

His foot came down on her head, crushing it to a pulp. Basil didn’t even see him move.

Elysium’s headless corpse flickered and disappeared, before she reappared near the Ascendant, looking both unharmed and unperturbed – not that Basil thought she really could feel worried, as she was now.

“Here, hold this will you?” Journeyman spoke to him, holding out Graymalkin, who was looking at him with bored eyes.

“Oh, certainly,” he replied and took his cat. “Long time no see, Graymalkin,” he greeted his cat, who responded by purring softly and deigning to pat his chest with one of his furry paws in a show of affection.

“Graymalkin? You know him?” Journeyman asked, surprised, as he looked closer at Basil and the cat, the images on his mask shifting to show… Basil, and Graymalkin, back in his home. “Talk about coincidence. Or perhaps it’s fate?” Journeyman sounded amused. “I found him in Esperanza City, during the Crocell attack,” he answered Basil’s question before he could even ask him. “Well, we can talk more about that later, I’ve g-“

Everything distorted, briefly, a strange sensation, like vertigo but not quite the same, coming over Basil as black spots appeared in his vision.

Then it was gone.

Polymnia growned and threw up, nearby, and Basil very nearly followed suit – only the fact that he hadn’t eaten in a while saved him from that fate. The others looked nauseous but not nearly as bad as he felt, when he looked around at them.

“Ah-ah-ah!” the other Journeyman admonished Elysium, wagging a finger at her. “I can’t keep you from rewinding yourself, but there’ll be no general rewind while I’m around, young lady!”

“What the fuck are you?” the Ascendant whispered, staring at him in fear as she hid behind her creation.

“I already told you,” he replied off-handedly. “I am the fingernail that scrapes the blackboard of your soul.”

The candles kept turning around them for a few heartbeats.

“That’s not an answer!” she shouted in outrage. “And it’s a different one from the one you gave before!”

He lowered his head, making a truly long-suffering sigh. “No appreciation for real art, at all,” he complained to no one in particular, both of his selfs speaking in synch with each other. The one who’d been holding Graymalkin walked up to the fighting one and simply stepped into him, fusing into one.

“Well, this was fun and all, but it’s time to put an end to this,” he said to Elysium. “I don’t know whether you’re the real Elysium or just a doll with her powers, but either way, I’d rather not allow the Gefährten to have access to powers like yours.” He cracked his knuckles, before he took a step forward with his left foot, entering a loose fighting stance.

“Four-four-four, go all out and kill him!” the Ascendant shouted at her slave, hurrying to step back and give her some space.

Elysium spread her arms wide, beginning a new dance, moving her shoulders and hips in hypnotic motions, causing dozens, then scores of distortions, none larger than a medicine ball, to appear in the air around her.

Each of them unleashed a different attack, from explosions to beams to streams of liquid, but they didn’t fire at Journeyman. Instead, all the attacks – even the explosions, which ranged from Amy’s force explosion to sudden, explosive growths of pink crystals – were twisted and gathered into a single spot in front of her, condensed into a jet-black sphere the size of a peach.

Journeyman tilted his head to the side, as if confused, before the sphere burst, unleashing a torrent of scores of interwoven effects, a beam broader than Basil was tall.

A beam that was flying towards Journeyman, and the heroes that stood a good deal behind him, yet still within easy reach of the massive attack.

***

“Now!” Immanuel shouted and leapt into the distorted space that made up the ‘walls’ of this tower, leaving Heaven’s Dancer – who, even in an expendable body, was not going to leap into that unless absolutely necessary – behind outside of it.

He closed his eyes as he traversed the space, knowing that it’d just give him an even greater sense of vertigo than he was already experiencing as his simple leap – barely enough to clear two metre of distance – moved him through the entire structure, taking advantage of the distortions like one would of river currents, depositing him just a metre or so behind the Ascendant, just as Elysium’s distortions appeared in the air, obscuring him from everyone’s sight.

Immanuel didn’t know how the stranger was going to react to the attack that was coming, if he even could, but he had a hunch that he could counter it. In fact, he hoped that he did, otherwise they’d lose everyone but Gloom Glimmer to this, and wouldn’t that be a waste?

He reached the Ascendant, grabbing her by the elbow, and kept running, pulling the startled woman along as he reached for the doll, his hand coming down on her shoulder.

***

Journeyman countered the massive blast in the most simple manner Basil could have imagined there, other than just standing still and taking it.

He punched it.

Except, ‘punched’ didn’t really cover it. Not by several orders of magnitude. He moved no faster than a normal person, struck with no more weight to his punch than one would expect of a man of his size, timing it so the beam and his fist met each other at the apex of his strike.

The blow caused such a massive shockwave it shattered the ground around him, spiderwebs of cracks spreading all the way to the twisted walls and up. The shockwave utterly blew Elysium’s interwoven super-beam apart, revealing – nothing behind it.

Elysium and the Ascendant were gone.

The shockwave moved on and utterly destroyed the far ‘wall’ of the structure, causing an ear-splitting cacophony as blew a building-sized hole through several dozen layers of materials.

Sunlight flooded the spatially twisted structure, moments before a lesser shockwave hit Basil and the other heroes; though not so strong it’d blow him over easily, he still had to brace himself against it, turning his shoulder into it so as to shield Graymalkin.

When the squalls died down and he looked up, he briefly felt a sense of vertigo again, if for a different reason than before.

Whether it was an effect of Journeyman’s strike, or due to Elysium fleeing, the tower she’d built had… flowed back, for lack of a better term.

Since the tower had been made of multiple parts of the structure layered together and condensed, this meant that the damage he’d done to seemingly just one wall was now spread out all throughout the Northern half of the structure – perhaps the Southern half, as well, but Basil couldn’t tell from where he stood.

He and the others were staring out through a colossal hole, as the entire Southern side of the lab complex was gone, along with part of its roof. A trail of utter destruction snaked its way through the visible buildings and connecting walkways, all the way to the central tower, which had been nearly split in half, a huge, irregular crack running from its base up to its tip.

“What,” Spellgun and Tyche said in unison. The others didn’t even say that much.

Graymalkin yawned and slapped Basil’s chest with his tail, so he used his free hand to scratch him behind the ears, making him purr happily.

Journeyman looked at what he’d wrought for a few moments – or perhaps he was just looking at where his foes had just stood – then he turned away and walked to the bubble of looped time containing Gloom Glimmer.

“Soft hearts,” he grumbled, barely audible over the distance. “Must run in the family.”

“Can you help her?” a desperate-sounding Polymnia asked him, stumbling closer, her wrecked power armour screeching its protests against the motion. She hadn’t even bothered to wipe her mouth clean, and there were some remnants of her rainbow yawn on her collar and chestpiece, as well, at stark odds to her cheerily multi-coloured, colour-shifting hair.

“Oh, sure, sure,” he mollified her. “I’m something of an expert when it comes to weird temporal effects.” With no further ado, he reached into the bubble of looped time and grabbed Gloom Glimmer by the collar, simply pulling her out and causing the bubble to pop, disappearing.

Gloom Glimmer flailed around in confusion, until he lifted her up by her collar, holding her like a naughty puppy so her head was on a height with his, facing his mirrored mask.

“J-journeyman!” she squealed in surprise. “What, how, who… Diantha! Diantha was here! Where is she!?” She looked around wildly, then suddenly went limp. “Oh. She got away.”

“Worry about yourself for once, will you?” he told her, sounding fondly annoyed. “If you’d been paying attention, then you could’ve at least dodged that attack.”

“Journeyman, that was Diantha!” she whimpered, her hands clenching into fists. “Mom still… we have to catch up to her! Take her to mom! Please, you’ve got to help me!” she begged, sounding far younger than usual as she looked at him with big, shiny, wet eyes, her lips trembling.

“Spare me the puppy dog eyes,” he replied, though he did rather pointedly look away before dropping her. “You’re not going after anyone right now, other than whom you came here for.”

Gloom Glimmer looked up at him, looking shocked and betrayed, but didn’t get a chance to voice either before Polymnia fell to her knees behind her and wrapped her arms around her friend’s arms and chest, pulling her tight against her hard armour.

“You frwskung idior, you scaeed the carp out of me!” she wailed, her control over her vocoder slipping, distoring her voice.

“Mel- Poly, what, what happened!?” Gloom Glimmer cried out softly, clearly able to sense the damage her friend had suffered in some way.

“After she looped you,” Basil explained, having approached with Graymalkin in his arm. “Elysium kicked our collective posteriors.”

The others approached right after him, including an incredibly ashamed looking Bakeneko, who’d shrunk down to two thirds her usual height, with lusterless fur, hugging herself with her shoulders hunched. Osore stood next to her, the shirt he customarily wore underneath his jacket – his only real costume was his Oni-styled mask, even now – stained with blood and sporting a big hole, though he seemed to have recovered entirely from the gut shot he’d taken earlier.

“Oh God, let me-” Gloom Glimmer rose up, her hands glowing, and touched Polymnia and Osore first, the glow spreading from where she touched and over their forms, visibly repairing any damage to their bodies and their equipment, then did the same for everyone else.

Basil felt her power course through his body, fixing the bruises he’d accumulated over the last two hours, as well as the damage to his knee and his armour there. Even his fatigue disappeared – or at least, the physical part of it.

Soon enough, Gloom Glimmer had fixed them all; while they were all still quite tired, they weren’t hurt anymore. She even fixed Polymnia’s ruined equipment.

“Hey, what about that badass drone of yours?” Tyche asked Basil, when it didn’t look like he was going to let her put it back together.

“The pieces were in the path of Journeyman’s and Elysium’s attacks,” Basil replied regretfully. “I doubt there is enough left to fill a thimble.”

”Sorry about that,” Journeyman apologised. “I didn’t even think about retrieving it first.”

Basil waved it off. “Hardly a reason to apologise. You saved us. Losing just a drone to Elysium is an amazingly lenient outcome, all things considered.”

Tyche gave him a sympathetic look, and Polymnia even more so, though he honestly didn’t feel all that bothered by it… compared to everything else that had already happened and was still going to happen, losing a drone, no matter how sophisticated, was nothing at all.

“You should go after Dusu,” Journeyman told them, interrupting Basil’s increasingly morose train of thought by pointing towards the door they’d originally come in through. It was a mangled, broken mess now, revealing another heavy blast door on the opposite side of the hallway. “She’s in there, along with Syrinx.”

”And our blood,” Basil added, drawing startled looks from half the occupants of the room. “They drew some of my blood, earlier. And they had three other syringes, all filled with blood, when they left.”

“That can’t possibly be good,” Spellgun muttered, before he spoke up louder. “Dusu’s a bio-gadgeteer. There’s no telling what she could do with blood from us… especially since they seem to like cloning, or whatever these things are supposed to do.” He gestured at the numerous sarcophagus-like tanks strewn about the laboratory. Most of them had been destroyed by Journeyman’s attack, but there were still some left s tanding. Not to mention several bodies (or body parts) strewn about.

“Hrm, right, those,” Journeyman grumbled, raising a hand. He snapped his fingers, and all the remaining tanks in the room instantly heated up red-hot, melting into slag. The bodies that’d been strewn about by the earlier devastation were also incinerated, reduced to ashes.

Basil and the others stared at the casual display, feeling the heat wash over them. Graymalkin mewled in Basil’s arms, the only one present to enjoy the extra warmth.

”Uh, yeah, I think with you along, this won’t be a problem anymore, Mister Journeyman, Sir,” Tyche said in a small, respectful voice.

He shook his head in response. “I won’t be coming with you, I’m afraid,” he replied, sounding guilty. “I’m afraid my assistance ends here. I’m sorry.”

Both Tartsche, Hecate and Tyche opened their mouths to respond to that, but Gloom Glimmer spoke up first.

”It’s about that backlash you sometimes talk about, right?” she asked in a small voice. “You overused your power, or something.”

He looked down at her – even floating five centimetre off the ground, she was easily a head shorter than he was, and he stood firmly on the ground, with flat boots and a relaxed posture. His mask was a riot of reflections, moving too fast to be made out in any detail, until they settled on a simple, shifting pattern of glowing white circles moving across the mirror, reflecting only what he saw in front of himself.

”Kind of,” he replied, his voice just a little sad. “Suffice it to say, as much as I’d like to help you all more, I can’t do so, right now.” He sighed, sounding incredibly frustrated. “Power like mine comes with its caveats.”

“But… Diantha…” Gloom Glimmer whispered, her hands clenching around her cape, drawing it closer around her body.

“Can you sense her, Irene?” he inquired softly. When she shook her head, he continued, “Neither can I, right now. I’m not all-powerful, and neither are you. We could try, you and I – but it’d mean allowing Dusu to get away, all for the chance that we might locate that clone, or whatever it may be,” he explained calmly.

Though he was being nothing but gentle, she still shrank with every word, hunching her shoulders and looking so miserable, Polymnia stepped up and wrapped her arms around her, drawing her in tight.

“Even if we found her, it’s unlikely we could easily subdue her,” he pressed on in that same, gentle, even tone of voice. “You’re nowhere near the point where you could face someone as powerful as your sister and I… am limited in other ways.” He shook his head. “No, you must finish what you began. Dusu is near. Go.” He gestured towards the door.

“Come,” Polymnia spoke to her friend, turning her away from Journeyman.

The others looked at the two girls, then at the tall, strange man who’d just saved them. He was just standing there, his hands clasped behind his back, facing in their direction, though with his mask, it was impossible to tell whether he was actually looking at them.

Amy stepped forward, making all the junior heroes tense up as she walked to stand in front of Journeyman, her hands on her hips. Even in those ridiculous heels, she was still shorter than he was – and she wasn’t a short woman even without them.

“Thank you, for the save,” she said, sounding oddly subdued.

”You’re quite welcome, Amy,” he replied softly, making her flinch. “Yes, I know you. No, you don’t know me. No, telepathy doesn’t really work on me at all.”

She blushed, even as she took half a step back. “Who are you? How come I’ve never heard of someone like… like…” She gestured at the devastation he’d caused to the floating city.

He shrugged. “I guess I’m just shy,” he quipped casually.

“Yeah, right,” she snorted softly. “Well, either way, I owe you big time. So if there’s anything I can do for you, just say the word,” she finished with a smile.

Is she… flirting with him? Basil shuddered at the thought, even as he noted Hecate’s hand clenching tightly on her staff, staring at the two of them; her jaw, the only visible part of her face, was set into a tight frown.

“There is, indeed, something you can do for me,” Journeyman replied, leaning in closer.

“Oh yeah? Say the word, big guy,” she grinned, looking curious.

”You could…” he began, almost whispering as he leaned even closer, until his face was next to her ear. “Stop being a villain.”

Hecate sputtered when she heard that, nearly dropping her staff.

Her grin faded, replaced first by confusion, then annoyance, as she stepped back.

”I can’t do that,” she hissed at him, looking like he’d insulted her. “Don’t make impossible requests.”

”Impossible?” He seemed quite amused. “All I’m asking is that you be yourself.”

”I am myself!” She turned around, stalking away from him. “Weirdo.”

Journeyman remained in the same position, as if she still stood where she had. “No, you’re not,” he spoke quietly, barely audible. Yet it still made her stop. “You’re many things, Amanda, but you’re not yourself.”

He shrugged and turned around, while Amy just stared at him, slackjawed.

”It doesn’t matter,” he concluded, making a dismissive gesture. “All masks fall, eventually.”

He stepped over to Basil and reached for Graymalkin, scratching the huge cat behind the ears. “Goodbye, big guy. It was a pleasure travelling with you.” He raised his head, looking at Basil, who was quite certain that this strange man could see right through his mask. “Go. Bring an end to this.”

Basil nodded, numbly, finding himself rather unable to say anything meaningful. So instead, he turned around and walked towards the door, overtaking Polymnia and Gloom Glimmer.

Amy scrambled to catch up to him, before she remembered that she could fly and lifted off the ground, and the others finally turned away from Journeyman, to follow along, all save for Hecate.

”Yes, dear?” he asked her in a friendly tone of voice, speaking with only a handful of them at once now.

She took a short breath, and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Sir.”

“It was my pleasure,” he replied with a magnanimous nod.

The others who hadn’t yet scrambled to thank him, as well, following her example, save for Basil, who found himself in a strangely pensive mood, and Polymnia, who was focused on Gloom Glimmer.

While he waited on them to finish, Basil recalled his last raven, which had been drawn into the shifting space of Elysium’s tower, and had only now found its way back to him. With its fake feathers ruffled and quite a lot of scratches all over, it looked kind of… outraged, as it landed on his shoulder, as if even the tiny machine was getting fed up with things.

Graymalkin looked up at it, sniffing the air with a hungry look in his eyes, but was apparently able to tell it wasn’t edible – he sneezed, looking even more annoyed than usual as he dismissed the mechanical bird and looked away again.

Finally, they gathered together again (though Amy kept a certain distance from Basil, throwing rather fearful looks at the cat in his arms) and made their way towards Dusu’s lab, leaving the strange, powerful, irreverent man with the mirrored mask behind amongst the wreckage of the lab.

“Hey kids!” he shouted, suddenly, making them stop. “Remember – the only thing you need to blame yourself for are your own choices!”

The gathered heroes and villain turned around to look at him, confused more than anything, but he was gone, leaving no trace behind.

***

The final door between them and their target did not hold for more than a second or two, after Gloom Glimmer, Mindstar and Hecate all blasted it, utterly shredding it apart.

Beyond it, a huge lab was revealed that looked like a cross between a chem lab, an animal testing lab (though the appliances they could see were disturbingly fitted for humans, not smaller animals) and a cyberpunk enthusiast’s wet dream.

The latter was due to the huge structure dominating the laboratoy: Hanging above a wide hole in the ground that seemed to lead all the way down to the seawater, it looked like a gigantic mass of tree-trunk-sized metal cables, several spheres made of some kind of see-through material that didn’t seem to be glass, filled with various liquids and one with some kind of gas, and a multitude of other mechanical parts that were nigh-impossible to identify, even for Basil. From that, dozens of thick cables – really more like flexible pillars – wrapped in a black, fabric-like material reached down into the hole in the ground, disappearing into the water below.

At a console in front of the hole stood their target and her colleague, Syrinx, working on several dials and a keyboard. The syringes they’d stored the blood in had been inserted into fitting slots on the console and, just as they entered, a light next to them turned green and they were emptied of their contents.

Whatever it was meant to do, Basil decided not to give them time to complete it. Before he got to act, though, Mindstar and Gloom Glimmer did.

A single gesture of Amy’s pulled them both away from the console and lifted them into the air, followed by Gloom Glimmer gesturing with both hands, causing numerous gadgets to simply off their bodies, flying out of their sleeves and pockets.

Syringes, wrist launchers, throwing darts and more were gathered together in the air before a spherical force-field snapped shut around them, followed by it heating up red-hot, destroying everything contained within.

Hecate raised her staff, aiming at the console, but Basil reached out with his right arm, pushing it down. “No. We might need it for the cure. Besides, there is no way to tell what might happen if you just blow it up.”

She growled, jerking her staff away from him, but subsided.

Well, here we are, baby bro, Amy spoke into his mind as he turned to look at Dusu and Syrinx, who were looking at them with varying degrees of surprise and shock.

“How are you here!?” Syrinx asked, staring at them like they’d come out of a nightmare. “You should be-“

“Shut him up, please,” Basil said softly, and someone – either Amy or Gloom Glimmer – complied, causing his jaw to snap shut. Putting Graymalkin down, he advanced towards the two villaneous gadgeteers.

He came to a halt, just a few steps away from them, looking up at the immobilised and declawed Dusu, who looked down at him with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. What the others behind him were doing, he couldn’t tell.

“Please put her down,” he said, and Amy did so, lowering Dusu onto the floor in front of him. Basil reached up and threw his hood back, before he unlocked his helmet and took it off.

Lowering his arms, the helmet dangling off the fingers of his right hand, he dropped it, causing it to hit the floor with a loud clang.

Looking down, he beheld the woman he’d wanted to hurt for so, so long.

She was… average. A short Chinese woman with small, almond-shaped brown eyes, a perky nose and thin lips. The only thing that even remotely stood out about her was her long, silky black hair, formerly in a tight bun but now loose, as Gloom Glimmer had removed the chopsticks she’d used to keep it in shape.

Something’s wrong, the thought came up through the simmering rage rising up from where he’d kept it down for so long. Something about the way she looked, it was… off. In a way he couldn’t quite put into words.

However, there were other things he had to take care of.

“Dusu,” he said her name, his voice as calm as he could keep it, his black eyes boring into her brown ones. “I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time.”

“Aw shucks, you’re waaaaaaay too young for my tastes, sweetie,” she replied in unaccented English, speaking it the way someone who’d learned it as a second or third language would, as she grinned up at him, seemingly unperturbed by the situation. “Still, I’m flattered.”

The sound of heels on the floor alerted Basil to the fact that Amy had walked up to stand just behind his left side. “Want me to just get the info out of her?”

Tearing her mind apart would be a good start, Basil thought to himself.

But it’d be too quick, now wouldn’t it? the Man in the Moon countered.

“Not yet,” Basil replied to Amy, still focused entirely on Dusu. “Maybe she’s going to be reasonable. Then we get what we want and we take her back home, to stand trial.”

“I don’t really relish the idea of a trial,” Dusu interjected, as she shifted her position to sit more comfortably. “But I’d rather have that than getting mindfucked, thank you very much.”

The others moved up, taking position around Basil in a rough half-circle, all looking down at Dusu with varying degrees of contempt. Syrinx was ignored entirely, spinning slowly in the air, still gagged by having his jaw held shut.

“Why’s this bitch so calm?” Tyche asked, her voice almost a snarl. “She ought to be shitting herself right about now.”

“I feel fear,” Osore noted, breaking his silence for the first time in quite a while. “Not much, but there’s some.”

“You may have noticed that this place is crawling with terrifyingly powerful people,” Dusu quipped light-heartedly. “You guys are really rather adorable in comparison. Though I would like to know how you managed to beat the Ascendant’s doll back.”

Gloom Glimmer flinched, black veins creeping over her sclera, but Basil, who saw it through the eyes of his raven, raised a hand, cutting her off.

“We are not here for that,” he told Dusu. “You have something we need.”

“Ohhh?” she focused on him again, her cold, uncaring eyes studying his face. “What is it, sweetheart? What can I do for you? It’s not like I have much of a choice, huh?” she asked with a smirk.

It took all of Basil’s considerable restraint not to strike her across the face, just to wipe that smirk off.

Instead, he clenched his fists, his arms trembling due to the tension. “No, you do not,” he spoke quietly. “I am here because of the Hawaii plague. I want you to give me the antidote, or cure, or whatever y-“

He didn’t manage to finish his sentence. As soon as he mentioned Hawaii, her eyes widened – and then she started to laugh.

What? He stared at her, surprised, as she laughed and laughed, loud and shrill as she shook back and forth, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

“That’s… what you… came for?!” she gasped in between bouts of laughter. “You attacked this place… risked your lifes… wrecked our operations… a decade of research… all for that!?” she doubled over with laughter, her head nearly hitting the floor.

“What the fuck is wrong with this putana?” Hecate breathed, looking like she was afraid to catch something from the woman on the ground.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out,” Amy said resolutely, leaning in as she focused her power on her…

Only to recoil, staggering back. “What the fuck!?” she shouted, staring at the madly laughing woman with wide, shocked eyes. “How dare you… you… how could you? What kind of monster would do that!?” she screamed at her, lunging at the laughing woman with a snarl on her face.

Everyone stared in shock, completely taken by surprise by the sudden, violent reaction, and Basil barely managed to step in between them, blocking Amy’s lunge. “Amy, wait!”

He caught her in his arms, and would have gotten thrown aside or bowled over, had he not locked himself to the floor with his boots.

She struggled briefly against him, snarling. “Let me at her! That bitch, she’s… she has to die!”

“Amy, what is going on? What did you see?” he asked her, confused and more than a little worried. She’d never lost it like that before – she was very nearly frothing at the mouth.

The others stepped back from her, clearly intimidated – the only one who appeared to be unaffected was Dusu herself, who was still laughing like a loon.

“Heh. Heh heh hehahaha!” she shook all over, tears in her eyes. “I’ll show you! Look, look, I’ll show you what’s so fucking funny!” she half screamed, half gasped the words, having trouble speaking past the torrents of demented laughter.

Basil let go of Amy, who stepped back again, staring at Dusu with outraged eyes, and looked down at her.

The demented woman reached to the collar of the turtleneck sweater she was wearing underneath her labcoat, and grabbed an intricate, silvery charm hanging off a chain around her slender neck.

A single tuck broke the thin chain, tearing the charm off.

Her form distorted slightly, the wrongness he’d noticed earlier becoming more profound as he realised that he’d, however unknowingly, picked up on the fact that her appearance wasn’t real.

Beneath the disappearing distortion, a horrific sight became visible, making everyone, except for Basil, step back in horror and disgust. Even Syrinx, seeing it from a distance, gasped, sounding like he was about to throw up.

On the ground before them sat a woman who was barely more than a corpse. Lush black hair had turned pure white, mostly fallen out, leaving her haggard, flesh-less head – just skin drawn taut over bones – looking oversized, like a misshapen egg, the skin pale, greyish and thin as rice paper. Her eyes looked bigger here, due to the eyelids having become so thin and shrivelled, the eyeballs seemed to bulge out of her skull, their brown colour threaded through with grey, the sclera showing pink veins.

But that wasn’t nearly all. Her nose was gone, leaving a gaping wound in the centre of her face through which she drew air with a wheezing, sharp sound. Her lips had shrivelled and thinned, lacking any colour to distinguish them from the rest of her skin, revealing entirely toothless gums as she shook, laughed and gasped. Her cheeks had rips and holes in them, as if partially rotten, stretching obscenely as her jaw moved, distorting her laughter further into an inhuman, wheezing sound.

Her hands were similarly shrivelled, with chipped nails where they weren’t outright missing, the knuckles and wrists swollen as if infected by something. Her veins stood out starkly on her papery, greyish skin, where it was visible.

The rest of her body, though hidden by her coat, sweater and pants, was visibly emaciated, her clothes, formerly fitting tightly to her slender frame, now hanging off her bony shoulders, her pants legs so loose it seemed like she only had sticks within them.

Basil stared down at her in horror, recognising the symptoms. She looks just like… like… like Prisca…

“W-why?” he breathed the question, his voice nearly breaking as he felt his stomach turn cold.

“It wasn’t, wasn’t a plague!” she hollered, tears running from her bulging eyes as she looked up at him, the expression on her face, distorted as it was, dripping with sadistic glee. “I was… I wanted to be an Adonis! So jealous, of all these pretty boys and girls prancing around looking like they’d jumped out of a wet dream!”

She fell back, barely catching herself on her arms and leaning her negligible weight onto her hands, as if she was just relaxing among friends.

“So, you see, I got stupid. Too eager!” she continued, appearing to enjoy herself greatly. “I figured, well, I can do poisons real well – what if I do one that’s meant to make the victim better, rather than worse? I mean, that’s what medicine is, in the end, right? Just a poison turned on its head!” She tilted her head to the side, calming herself a bit. “Got in a real goooooood craze. Three days of work, non-stop. Didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, hell, I didn’t even shit the whole time.” She made a coy smile, though it only made her look even more disturbing. “Didn’t turn out so well. I was so fucking off the rocker when I came out of the craze, I really, really wanted to be strong and beautiful and all so much… I just injected myself with it. Didn’t test it on anyone.”

She shrugged. “You can see the results. I’ve been trying to find a way to fix myself, but… no luck, so far.” She sighed, shaking her head as if disappointed at how the world was treating her.

“Hawaii,” Basil cut in, his voice barely a whisper. “Why Hawaii?” Why’d you destroy Prisca’s life?

“Well, I couldn’t find a cure myself!” she proclaimed, waving an arm in an exasperated gesture. “So I figured, hey girl, why not outsource that?” She grinned, an unmistakable note of pride on her distorted face. “All these rich vacationers, all in one place. I figured, even if the heroes didn’t come up with a cure out of the good of their hearts, all those richies would pay enough to get someone to fix them. And then I could swoop in and get myself fixed, too!”

The bottom dropped out of Basil’s stomach, his blood running cold as he followed the evidence to its inevitable conclusion.

“Of course, I hadn’t quite thought it through,” she admitted, pouting – not that she had much of a pout, with her lips as withered as they were. “I blame it on all the painkillers I was on at the time. But, you see, I’d custom-made the stuff to affect me. To work with my genome, not that of other people. So… it was rather more lethal than I had expected it to be.” She shuddered. “You won’t believe how worried I got, before the first news of survivors came through! Y’see, I’d only made one batch of the stuff, and I spent it all on that bomb, so if no one’d survived Hawaii, I’d have been royally screwed!”

She sighed, again. “Of course, my luck remained as rotten as ever. No one found a cure. No one. Been waiting for years. I even released what little I’ve been able to reconstruct about the serum on the internet, using pseudonyms and all.”

He’d found some of those. Downloaded the information, hoping it might help him, wondering who had managed to figure even that much out, as little information as it was.

“Well, that didn’t pan out. Turns out I’m way too awesome. Not even the Gefährten, with all their mojo, have been able to fix me,” she complained, sounding like a little child, averting her eyes. “Body’s gonna last a few more years, tops. Only chance I’ve got left is getting to that retard in Britain, only even if I could get close enough, I doubt that faggot would be willing to heal me, you know?”

She looked up again, grinning at Basil. “So, you wanna know what’s so funny? This is! If you want to find a cure for my serum… sweetie, you can have everything I got! You can use my lab! Hell, I’ll fucking assist you myself! If you succeed, I’ll fucking blow you!” She leered at him, waving one of her arms at the equipment all around her. “Use the computer! I got all my files on it there! Use my equipment, if you can! By all means, find a cure for all those poor, poor victims!” She started to laugh again, her torso shaking, head dipping up and down with each gasp. “You never had to attack this place! You never had to fight! You could’ve just called me up, sweetie, and I would’ve sent a fucking plane!”

Basil staggered back, his vision tilting oddly. His whole body was cold, barely felt at this point, even something as simple as stepping back becoming an unstable, uncoordinated stumble.

The scarecrow on the floor kept laughing, shaking all over. “So, can you do it, sweetheart? Can you… do… what all the others… have failed to? You can’t… can you?” She looked up at him, her eyes wide, nearly glowing with the insanity now unconcealed behind them. “I looked you… up… when you built… that equipment… for the little… Fion bitch… you’re no bio-gadgeteer… you only do mechanical stuff.”

She lowered her head, shaking with barely restrained laughter. “Well, too bad!” She suddenly looked up at him again, eyes as wide as they could go. “Because the only way you’re getting a cure is if you come up with it yourself! I sure as hell have no idea how to do it, I tell you!”

And she threw her head back, laughing, mocking, as Basil’s world spun around him.

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B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

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They really like bringing back the dead, don’t they? the Man in the Moon asked in a mocking tone, though it was clear he was feeling just as freaked out as Basil did. What’s next, is fucking Weisswald himself gonna walk out of one of those tanks?

Don’t jinx it, Basil thought furiously as he felt the world slow down around himself – his every heartbeat seemingly as loud as a canon shot. How the fuck are we supposed to get out of this?

The worst part was, for all he knew, they’d already lost – there was no way to tell for him, or anyone except maybe Gloom Glimmer, whether Elysium’s power was already in effect, until she wanted them to.

He’d studied her, of course. Nearly everyone who went to Diantha High did, usually without even meaning to – Lady Light had turned the school into a shrine for her fallen daughter. So he knew all of her achievements and he’d, in the course of studying high-end powers – particularly ones like Ember’s, which seemed to control a certain ‘territory’ – looked up every scrap of information he could find on her power.

The only fight she ever came close to losing was the one that killed her, he thought, observing their foes… foe, really. The gadgeteers behind her didn’t even matter. And none of us is as powerful as DiL, not even Gloom Glimmer.

Fuck DiL! Amy snarled into his mind. If that’s really the Elysium, then she’s also the one who stomped the fucking Dark into the ground!

Get out of my head! Hecate shouted, mentally, making Basil realise that Amy must’ve linked them all up together, especially once similar exclamations came from everyone but Gloom Glimmer, Tartsche, Tyche and Spellgun.

Shut it! Amy shouted right back, louder than everyone else combined, to the point where Basil physically flinched in response. We don’t have time for this! We need to work together or else we’re done for!

No one, not even Hecate, had a rebuttal for that.

“Diantha, can you hear me!?” an anguished voice pulled Basil’s attention back to what was right in front of him – Gloom Glimmer had taken another step closer towards her unresponsive half-sister. “Is that really you? Please, say something!”

Behind the… clone? Zombie? Was it a cyborg of some sort?… behind the maybe-Elysium, the woman they only knew as the Ascendant leaned back against the open tank’s side, crossing her arms as she watched the scene with obvious glee and pride in her eyes.

“Four-four-four, designate the last speaker as Priority Target Alpha,” she spoke in level tones. “Designate the others from left to right as Priority Targets Beta through Kappa. Disable and capture Alpha as priority task. Disable Beta through Kappa.”

The empy-eyed beauty raised her head, her eyes moving over the gathered heroes – and one villain – without showing any emotions. Then she took a step forward.

Gloom Glimmer matched her, stepping closer. “Diantha! Diantha, you don’t have to listen to her!” she begged the older girl. “You don’t know me, but I’m your sister! Come with me, I’ll take you to mom – she’ll be so happy to see you!”

“Gloomy, stay away from her!” Polymnia shouted as she raised her arms, unleashing twin blasts of focused sound straight at Elysium.

The famous dancer reacted with an elegent step to the side, twisting her body in a single, fluid motion. The barely-visible blasts curved around her, drawn into the motion, and flew straight back at Polymnia, who just barely managed to counter them with another pair of matching blasts, creating a brief, shrill scream that staggered those not under the protection of Tartsche’s power – that being, Tartsche himself, as well as Tyche and Spellgun.

Elysium kept moving, her bare feet making barely any sound on the cold metal floor as she closed the distance to her little sister, the graceful motions of her legs in stark contrast to her limp arms as he turned and made a high kick towards the stunned girl.

Though she was clearly struggling to think straight, Gloom Glimmer reacted immediately, but not to defend herself but rather, reaching out towards her sister.

Elysium didn’t hit her, though – instead, her kick flew above the younger heroine’s head and continued on in a downward arc; her torso nearly horizontal, she turned on her one leg, to continue the kick all the way down to the ground, as a distorting haze enclosed Gloom Glimmer mid-reach.

As her foot touched the ground again, the trap snapped shout, a hazy bubble around Gloom Glimmer entrapping her in the middle of reaching out with her right hand, her mouth open to call out something.

Then the image flickered and she was back to the beginning of the motion, reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out… reaching out, her mouth opening to call out…

The loop continued for all to see, a sphere of looped time around their friend and her half-sister standing in front of it, looking at it with an empty-eyed gaze.

Polymnia cried a wordless scream of rage, unleashing a steady, ululating sound towards Elysium, but it never reached her. She took a single step towards it, placing the toes of her foot a measured distance forward, like a ballerina and the distortion in the air that was Polymnia’s attack split in two around her.

Moving forward, twirling on her toes, the attacks crossed through each other without any effect, then curved back towards Polymnia, forcing her to counter them again.

Is she holding back? Amy asked into their mental link, as Basil detached his drone from his leg, causing it to project a stream of octagonal force-fields from one end, riding them the way Sovereign’s Subjugator had. She’s only reacting.

If we are lucky, whatever process they used to bring her back has left her without her previous experience and skill, or any memories at that, Basil replied. Hecate, I am going to attack from the left. Try flanking her. As pissed as Hecate must be at this point, he was quite certain she’d be able to look past it in such a situation.

She didn’t reply, but she did switch into her smoke-form, moving into flanking position in the same instant that he leapt forward.

At the same time, Amy shot up before gesturing with her right hand at Elysium, unleashing an unseen blast of raw force which didn’t travel like a projectile, but appeared right on top of the dancing woman – only to vanish without a trace. Furthermore, a twin spiral of green fire, so bright it hurt to look at, appeared behind her out of nowhere, slamming into Amy’s back and making her cry out at the unexpected attack – though her shields held true, the attack nearly overloaded them with its force and he could see that her back had gotten burned when she turned around to look for the source of the attack – but there was none.

Dumbfounded, yet not hesitating, Basil used the distraction – Elysium was on one knee, currently rising up again into what was perhaps going to be another pirouette – to launch his drone at her back, hoping that her power would fail to protect her against an attack she didn’t see coming; or perhaps it might create an opening, at least, for Hecate or one of the others to hit her. She was just human, after all, once one got past her power, as had been discovered painfully during the fight against DiL, all those years ago.

The drone shot forward, projecting an oscillating, arrow-head-like force-field so dense it was completely opaque over its tip. Hecate cried a single phrase – he missed the words, but they were clearly Greek – and unleashed a twin spiral of green fire so bright, even Basil had trouble looking straight at it. An attack he instantly recognised.

It was completely useless, of course. Diantha rose, then bend over, the leg she wasn’t standing on kicking out towards the drone, toes pointed. Where they came close, the force-field, then the drone, simply parted in half; for just a moment, he thought his force-field was hold, but it was a vain hope – it parted like water before the prophet, and the drone itself offered no more resistance as the space between its molecules was expanded, causing it be cut in half with such a perfect, straight edge, it was almost beautiful, revealing its glowing innards before the pieces tumbled to the ground and went dark. An attack that knew no defense, other than a spatial effect of equal or greater power.

Reaching forward, her body still horizontal, she caught Hecate’s attack in both hands, then kicked off the ground, rotating in the air and causing it to disappear in between her hands.

Something hit Basil’s right knee from the side, very nearly shattering the armor and causing a sharp pain to shoot up his leg, before he lost all sensation but that of cold. Looking down, stunned, he saw his right leg largely encased in ice, and bending the wrong way at that.

He looked at Spellgun, who was staring at him in shock and confusion, holding his rifle up – he hadn’t even fired yet.

There was a scream, causing him to look up only to see Hecate be blown away by Amy’s earlier attack, the massive blast blowing her aside and causing one of the jewels sewn onto her chest to flash in a bright, red light, then shatter as it overloaded her defenses, conveying enough force through them to both hurt her and send her hurling across the room, slamming into a wall.

A flicker, and she was lying where she’d started, crumbled into a heap.

Fuck, it wasn’t that strong! Amy shouted in confusion, before she startled, finding herself right in front of the twirling blonde.

Before she could react, Elysium jumped from one foot onto the other and brought her knee up, connecting with Amy’s stomach; the blow was so powerful it created a sonic boom, causing Amy to spit blood as she was launched away, slamming through half a dozen steel tanks, crushing them and their contents, before she impacted the wall, leaving a sizable impression on it, then fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Amy!” Basil shouted, trying to take a step towards her – but all he achieved was that he fell over, his half-frozen, likely broken leg giving out under him as soon as he put any weight onto it.

Elysium continued the motion with which she’d kicked Amy, and the tanks returned to their previous state, while Amy appeared in front of them, still unconscious.

Basil fired his grappling hooks towards Amy’s body, intending to draw himself towards her, but they barely crossed a metre – seemingly – before they fell to the ground; somehow, they’d spooled out entirely to their very limit, leaving two heaps of super-strong black cable on the ground.

The whole room began to shift, as if drawn into a whirlpool with Elysium at its centre, space bending in a disorienting, vertigo-inducing fashion, slowly forming a huge spiral, the centre of which began to lower itself deeper – or perhasp the edge rose up, it was hard to tell through the vertigo-inducing distortions all around.

He saw Bakeneko try to escape, in a quadrupedal form, running for the edge of the effect towards the door, but whatever Elysium was doing to the space, it made it look like she was running in place, unable to move a single step closer to the exit no matter how much effort she put into it, trapped in what could only be described as a sinkwell of space, unable to go anywhere no matter how she moved.

Osore was on the ground, groaning in pain, several limbs broken and numerous gashes and holes across his body, which were mending slowly – When did he go down? – and Tyche and Spellgun were staring helplessly at their surroundings, while Tartsche was glaring towards the villains on the far side of the room, standing in a pocket of undistorted space.

Basil watched helplessly as Elysium kept dancing, her movements not nearly as joyous and graceful as he’d seen in recordings of her many performances, yet still beyond the ken of even professional dancers; she was dancing in a circle, leaping from foot to foot, never touching the ground with both at once, sometimes dipping down while standing on her toes to draw a wide circle around herself.

All around, the room continued to twist, folding up even as the ceiling itself folded apart, opening up to show not the sky but rather, a continuation of the room itself, rows upon rows of steel tanks studding what were now the walls, leading up into infinity; each row of tanks rotating in a different direction, alternating left and right as the space continued to twist and expand.

Beyond that, he could see more of the structures around the building they were in, being drawn into the whole, folded up and into it; buildings he’d seen from the air earlier, now joining the rotation of the tanks, fitting into the gaps between them even though they should have been several times their size; the prison his friends had been sent to, the giant candle, appeared floating on thin air, compressed to the size of a man-sized candle, floating a few metre above the ground he stood on; then it tipped to the side, yet left another of itself in its place. And another, and another, starting to spin like a clockhand, only each motion left another candle behind, even when it passed over the previous ones, continuing to make more and more of itself, the ones behind seeming to extend into an endless space beyond.

Then, they multiplied, all around the circumference of the room, a dozen endlessly spinning, duplicating candles illuminating the room as even more of the city-sized structure was being drawn in, as did parts of the ocean around them, flowing into the gaps.

***

“Himmel herrgott nochmal!” Immanuel shouted as the floor dropped away underneath him, drawn into the ever-rising spire of twisted space just ahead of them. He just barely managed to grab onto Heaven’s Dancer’s arm, drawing her onto a ‘flow’ of space that was more stable, standing atop what was once a train station bench that had been elongated to a ridiculous length. “What is that woman thinking, allowing her to use her power without any restrictions?”

Heaven’s Dancer looked around at their base, even as it was being drawn in – the effect had not yet spread beyond the immediate area around Dusu’s and the Ascendant’s personal lab complex, but it was going to reach the centre at some time, and then the Contriver section… that could end up truly catastrophic.

There was only one possible conclusion.

“You were right,” she told Immanuel, who looked at her in surprise. “We really need to rethink the idea of putting this many mad scientists into one place…”

He smiled wrily, then turned towards their destination and kept moving, always stepping onto safe footholds, navigating the ribbons of twisted space in ways she couldn’t hope to achieve.

Heaven’s Dancer followed, trying not to think about just how she was going to explain this to the others…

“Dem Mädchen gehört der Arsch versohlt,” Immanuel muttered under his breath, putting a voice to her thoughts.

***

Elysium jumped into a backflip, curling up in mid-air to avoid a shot by Tyche and instead of flying on to hit the three gadgeteers standing behind her, it impacted Polymnia’s knee from behind, making her cry out and flip over, landing heavily on the floor; her sonic attack, just begun, went wide, never coming even close to Elysium even without a further use of her power.

The mighty dancer landing on one foot and rose onto her toes, the other leg angled to have her foot rest against the other leg’s knee, only to move immediately into a spin, making a roundhouse kick into thin air.

Tartsche grunted as he was hit in the solar plexus, thrown back and away from Spellgun and Tyche, landing heavily on his back a few metre behind them.

Those still conscious stared in shock at how she’d seemingly ignored his defense entirely, but she gave them no time to react, much less adjust, raising the foot she’d been balancing off from the floor moments before the one she’d kicked with touched it, spinning into wide scything kick towards Tyche and Spellgun, launching them backwards for a metre or two before they suddenly curved downwards at a perfect ninety-degree angle, slamming into the ground hard enough that Basil thought he heard bones snap.

What can I do? he asked himself, desperately. There was nothing he could think of, nothing he had left. His railgun was long wrecked, and now he’d lost his drone, as well. His gauntlet and knife could likely kill her, if he managed to land a clean hit – but the chance of him achieving that was near null and even if he did, with his right leg nigh useless and space and time arrayed against him, unless he killed her in a single blow, she could simply rewind time and try again.

I wonder how often we beat or almost beat her already, and she just rewound and tried again? he couldn’t help but wonder. There was a good reason why she’d never lost a fight until she’d come up against her half-sister. More than one, really, but this one alone would likely have been sufficient all in itself.

It ain’t like you to pity yourself, mate, the Man in the Moon commented unhelpfully. Maybe you sh- ow!

A sharp sting distracted Basil from his thoughts, right in his left arm pit, where he lacked armour other than the ballistic weave of his impact suit.

Having essentially risen onto all fours from where he’d fallen, he looked down at it, and saw… a syringe the size of a small bottle, its needle buried in his flesh, the back attached to a rope leading to…

Syrinx, standing just a few metre away, grinning smugly.

Yet he also stood with the others in the unaffected pocket of space beyond Elysium.

“What the…?” Basil asked, though he didn’t waste time waiting for an answer; rather, he flung his knife at the villain, piercing his right shoulder…

He was gone, as was the syringe, though he was still stung and bleeding lightly. His knife clattered to the ground, with no blood or other sign of having hit on it.

The Syrinx standing with the others looked down and found the syringe there, in his right hand, half-filled with Basil’s blood. He held another in his left hand, and Dusu was holding two as well, one in each hand.

What?

He was starting to have trouble concentrating; his leg hurt abominably, his armpit now joined the fun along with his left shoulder, nevermind the vertigo induced by the spatial distortions all around him.

His friends were down, though only Amy was knocked out, and Gloom Glimmer stuck in a loop, endlessly repeating the same motion over and over again.

Hecate was trying to stand up, pushing against the floor, but her motions were weak, though he could hear her determined, angry growling beneath her hood. Polymnia was likewise rising, if slowly, her suit damaged far more than Tyche’s one shot should have been able to do… only then Basil saw that same shot hit her again, knocking her over once more. And again, coming from above, smashing her into the ground. The same attack, repeating itself whenever she tried to get up, slowly chipping away at her armour and keeping her trapped.

It’s a miracle we’re even still alive…

***

“Why are they even still alive?” Dusu asked in a bored voice, as she played with the syringes full of blood in her hands. “She could’ve killed at least some of them already…”

“I only ordered her to disable them,” the Ascendant replied, sounding pensive. “Also, I suspect there’s more of the real Elysium in her than I’d like – and she never killed. With her power, she never needed to.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be more fun to have her kill one or two of them?” Dusu suggested absent-mindedly. “Make it clear this is your Elysium, and yours kills. Own her.”

The striking woman of Aztek descent stroked her chin, narrowing her eyes. “Well, why not? We only need Gloom Glimmer and the Gadgeteers alive, the others are quite inconsequential.”

“Aren’t we supposed to strive to create more metahumans, rather than kill ones who’re no threat to us anymore?” Syrinx – Roy – asked them, feeling rather contrite about the idea of killing several of God’s chosen ones.

“Eh, we’ll eventually make way more than we could hope to kill,” Dusu waved it off. “Anyway, we should get these samples into my lab, I have a marvelous plan for them…”

“Do that. I’ll take care of these… not Mindstar, though,” the Ascendant noted. “Way too valuable, both for her powers and the information she could give us on the Syndicate.” She looked at her precious little doll, her magnum opus. “Four-four-four, create a passage for Priority Subjects Beta and Gamma to the adjacent lab, then execute target Eta,” she commanded in a calm voice.”

***

Oh, fuck no! Basil thought furiously as he heard the Ascendant’s command, forcing himself to rise onto his good leg, putting as little weight as he could on the bad one. You’re not taking her!

Elysium obeyed her command without hesitation, and both Dusu and Syrinx disappeared, presumably to their portion of the structure.

A little jump and turn, and Hecate lay on the ground before her, on all fours, looking up with an expression filled with fear and anger. “You…” she groaned, looking at the Ascendant with hate-filled eyes. “Vevilyierosilyisse ena miasmiko katharma!” she screamed at her.

Basil reversed the wall-sticking effect on his left boot, launching himself at Elysium from behind and to the side, pulling his left arm back, the gauntlet charging.

Basil swayed on his feet as he saw Hecate, having just cursed the Ascendant, get smashed into the ground again, hit in the back by some kind of massive impact strong enough to shatter another of her protective gems.

Her cry of pain made him see red, raising his gauntlet – his gauntlet was ruined, a perfectly smooth cut running from the tip to the elbow, the intricate, yet sturdy circuitry inside ruined.

No!

He stumbled forward, falling over again, unable to do anything other than watch as Elysium raised her right foot, aiming at Hecate’s head.

“Let this be a lesson to you brats,” the Ascendant spoke, her accented voice as condescending as can be. “Don’t mess with the pros,” she taunted them, looking around at the young heroes all around the room, beaten down yet still conscious, unable to do anything but watch.

“Heck!” Tyche cried out as the foot came down on their friend’s head, to cut or crush.

To no effect, as another foot, this one in a smooth black boot appeared above Hecate’s head, catching Elysium’s stomp on the dorsom of the foot. Instead of crushing or simply parting the boot and flesh beneath, it was stopped cold.

***

“Wer zum Teufel!?!” Immanuel cried out, coming to a dead stop in the middle of running through a pulsating, twisting corridor of pipes.

Heaven’s Dancer stopped, stumbling briefly before she turned around to look at him, shocked to see him… shocked. “What is it? Immanuel, what’s going on?”

“Someone… someone’s there with them,” Immanuel hissed, his eyes staring into the distance. “Someone… or something. I’ve never seen him before. I can’t see him, not really.”

Her current body’s blood ran cold as she parsed that information, though she refused to freak out. Instead, she asked, as calmly as she could, “What do we do now, then?”

He hissed again, his hands clenching into fists. “We wait. If he doesn’t leave on his own, we wait until Konrad arrives. I’m not going in blind.”

***

Everyone but the trapped Gloom Glimmer and the unconscious Amy stared at the new arrival, a tall man – was it a man? It was hard to tell – in a dark blue robe with wide sleeves and a deep hood, parted down the front to show a jet-black, skintight bodysuit. He was even taller than Basil by almost a full head, almost as tall as the Godking had been, and slenderly built underneath his wide robe. His suit extended into a pair of smooth boots and gloves, covering every inch of his body, and he balanced on one foot easily, while using the other to protect Hecate from a grisly, swift death.

His face was not visible underneath his hood – rather, he seemed to wear a mirrored mask or helmet, which was currently split into octagonal pieces, like a single huge compound eye, reflecting the face of everyone in the room. His stance was calm, relaxed.

He was holding a huge cat with long, dark fur in his left arm, stroking it behind the ears with his right hand.

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

The stranger tilted his head to the side, the images on his mask shifting as if they were fixed in place, and he was now reflecting a different part, showing their faces from different angles. He looked at the Ascendant, then at Elysium, looking her up and down.

“Oh man,” he spoke in a weird, soft voice – like several voices layered on top of another, yet not so much they’d be like a full chorus. “You idiots really, really, really want to piss off the big gal, don’t you?”

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B13.15 Call of the Sleeper

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The floor panel groaned briefly as it was crushed, crumpled up and cast aside by Amy’s power, revealing the power cables underneath.

Basil knelt down and got to work, ripping them out and jury rigging them to connect to his armour’s recharger, a device he’d specifically created to be able to recharge his batteries while in the field, by tapping into any available power grid – it was built into the bottom of his armour’s ‘backpack’ module.

Soon enough, the half-empty charge icon on his HUD began to blink and slowly fill up again.

He took the chance to run several system checks, making sure that everything – particularly his still-unnamed drone – was running smoothly, even after the heavy use the other one had made of them.

Fortunately, everything except for his utterly wrecked rifle was in working ord-

You are aware that you’re just avoiding the issue, right, mate? the Man in the Moon mocked him from the back of his head.

Basil couldn’t deny it, looking up. He’d squatted down to attach the cables, finding himself apart from the others.

Amy was hovering nearby – both literally and figuratively – with her arms crossed over her chest, looking both embarrassed and furious, but staying quiet even as she avoided looking at Basil.

The Junior Heroes stood as far away from Amy as they could while still being on the same platform, talking quietly amongst each other; Everyone but Gloom Glimmer looked thoroughly shaken and Spellgun, at least, was regularly glaring at both Amy and Basil. Gloom Glimmer herself had so far remained quiet, floating a few centimetre above the floor, her cloak hiding most of her body. He couldn’t tell where she was looking, but her hood’s opening at least wasn’t pointed his way.

Near the juniors, Tyche leaned against a pillar, her arms crossed and her bare face expressing both confusion and sadness as her eyes moved from one of her friends to another and back, over and over again.

Hecate stood as far away from Basil as she could, her back to him, her posture impossible to determine beneath her own cloak, facing the tunnel they’d come in through.

That hurt the most, by far.

You knew it was coming, the voice continued on. You knew ever since you found out about her cousin. Of course, you didn’t think it’d come to a head like this, but still…

Unless you have anything constructive to say, be quiet, Basil directed a particularly forceful thought at the Man in the Moon.

Have it your way.

The charging process finished and he disconnected the cables, standing up. Looking briefly at his sister, he turned towards Hecate…

I should give her a little more time.

He approached Tyche instead, stopping just a little over an arm’s reach away from her and reached up into his hood to unlock his helmet and take it off, so she could see his face.

“This is really, really fucked up, B6,” Tyche spoke softly.

“It is,” he agreed with her. “I am sorry to spring this on you like that. I…” He stopped, not sure how to continue that sentence.

“You would’ve preferred not to tell us at all,” she completed it, without any accusation in her tone.

He opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn’t, lowering his head instead.

“I’m not angry at you, B,” she continued reassuringly, making him look up at her in surprise. “Or angry with you. Or whatever.”

“You are not?” he stared at her, dumbfounded as he truly couldn’t find any anger in her eyes.

“You’re my friend, B,” she replied, looking down as he felt a knife being driven into his heart. “Friends forgive each other. Friends understand one another. And I understand why you kept it a secret. Can’t really say I wouldn’t have done the same.” She raised her head again, smiling wrily. “So I can’t really blame you for it, even if it hurts that you didn’t trust us with it.”

The knife twisted, slowly.

“I wanted to tell you, both, so many times,” he said, honestly, his voice thick. “But there always seemed to be a reason not to. Especially after…”

“After you found out about Heck’s hateboner for your sis?” She chuckled, the sound oddly muted compared to her usual expressions. “Yeah, that was quite the bomb even for me. Must’ve been even worse for you.”

He nodded mutely.

“Well…” she temporised, “I… honestly, I should probably be angrier at you, but… I kinda topped out on emotions for today. And… it’s not like… you know…” She looked down, suddenly looking ashamed, which only served to confuse Basil even further. “After this… I’m out, anyway.”

Basil looked at her, his blood gone cold. “You are leaving the team?” he asked, trying not to show how much the thought hurt him, even if he’d expected something like that.

She shook her head. “No. Not the team. Or, not just the team. After we go back home, I’m… leaving Tyche behind,” she explained in a quiet voice. “I’m putting the cape down, so to speak. Or hanging it up, I guess.”

Basil raised a hand, running his fingers through his hair, his hood falling back as he processed that. “Why? Is it because…”

“It’s got nothing to do with you,” she assured him, raising a hand to forestall his guess. “I was pretty much set on it even before we found out about that.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “I was gonna tell you and Heck after this mission was over, but… I better tell each of you, separately.” She took another deep breath, her eyes flitting about, left and right, held low, before she finally looked up to meet his own gaze.

There were tears in her eyes.

“Remember when you used to tell me that probability manipulators like me, we build up bad luck for every bit of good luck we get?” she asked, her voice thick. Before he could even nod, she continued. “You didn’t want to believe that my power was free of that. You told me to be careful, not to rely too much on it. You refused to rely on it, wouldn’t have me like, flip coins or roll dice to figure stuff out and all.” The tears finally fell from her eyes, running down her cheeks. “You were right, B. You were so god damn right. I did create bad luck, every time I had good luck for myself. Only I’m way more selfish than the other guys with my power. I didn’t get bad luck myself, I put it… on others.”

Basil stared at her, not sure how to reply.

She pressed on. “And you know who? Not the villains, or anything. No. Civilians. Normal people. People, I, I didn’t like…” She sniffed, tears running down her cheeks. “I, I told you about those, those girls, who bullied me? Who I got these powers from?”

He nodded, mutely.

“Whom,” a soft, slightly hoarse voice spoke so quietly it was barely more than a whisper. “The right term is ‘whom’.”

Both of them turned to the side, and found themselves faced with Hecate, who’d walked up to them without a sound.

Her face was hidden in the shadows of her hood, but she was quite clearly looking only at Tyche, and decidedly not at Basil.

“Right, ‘whom’. Your favourite word,” Tyche giggled through her tears. “You heard everything I said?”

Hecate nodded.

The redhead sniffed, then pulled a tissue out of her leather jacket’s pocket to blow her nose. “W-well… it hit, hit them,” she admitted in a quiet, miserable voice. “The bad luck… it went to them. It… one of them’s dead. Hit by a bus. Another tried to kill herself after… after some horrible stuff happened to her. And the last one, she’s apparently become a supervillain, after Hastur’s monsters nearly k-killed her, too.”

Both Hecate and Basil could only stare at her in response to that. He wasn’t sure about Hecate, but Basil, at least, felt his jaw drop.

“Oh, Tyche,” he said, only to flinch as he realised that he’d spoken at the same time as Hecate, and said the same words, in the same tone of voice, as well. He briefly looked at her, but she kept ignoring him.

Their friend nodded, weak little sobs escaping her throat as she looked down at her feet.

“Tyche,” Basil spoke carefully. “How do you… how do you know that?”

“Th-that guy… Immanuel… he told me,” she explained, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands, trying to stem the flow of tears. “He knew, so much about me. Knew everything. More than I did.”

If I ever catch this, I’m going to turn his face onto his fucking back. “How do you know he is… that he is right? Even if he had the power to somehow know all that, how can you be sure he is being sincere, and not, well… lying through his teeth?” he prodded gently, not sure how far he could risk pushing her right now.

He felt horrible just for not stepping forward and embracing her, she looked so miserable; but he had to make sure she wasn’t just being manipulated by some jerk – of which there was an extreme abundance on this floating city.

Fortunately, Hecate took over that part, reaching out to pull Tyche into a tight embrace. The redheaded girl sobbed quietly, wrapping her arms around her friend and holding on tight.

Basil averted his eyes, feeling uncomfortable at the distance he felt towards them… just a few minutes ago, he’d have embraced them as well, or been drawn in by Hecate. Not now, obviously.

He didn’t press his point, waiting quietly for Tyche to regain her composure. He knew this was wasting time, again, but he couldn’t bring himself to care right then and there.

“He knew, knew everything else. Knew even…” She was interrupted by a sudden hiccup. “It’s not just them. Not just those girls. My mom… it’s been going after my mom…” She dissolved into incoherent sobbing again – if it wasn’t for Hecate holding onto her, she’d have collapsed right then and there.

“Brennus,” another voice spoke up from behind Basil, and he turned around. Tartsche looked at him, with the rest of his team arrayed behind him. “We need to talk. Right now.” He looked at the sobbing Tyche, looking uncomfortable, then focused on Basil again.

“Let’s step aside,” Basil said, not waiting for him to agree as he walked away from his friends. Hecate was whispering to Tyche, and he was pretty sure she’d ask all the important questions and do what she could to help her, even – or perhaps especially – without him.

He walked to where the junior heroes had been standing together earlier, feeling Amy’s attention on him – not her physical eyes, but her other sight, he was sure. Ignoring her, he turned around to face them.

All of them, save for Gloom Glimmer and Osore, were looking at him rather uncomfortably, studying his face. Polymnia looked rather shocked as she looked at him, but he didn’t care, and stayed quiet, waiting for Tartsche to say his piece.

Finally, the young leader of the group crossed his arms, his expression going from uncomfortable to determined. “Gloom Glimmer assures me it’s true, and it ain’t some kind of weird plot by Mindstar, and you’re not her mindslave or anything.”

Basil couldn’t help but smile slightly. “It’s true,” he replied, though he couldn’t keep himself from adding, “Of course, she might just be making me say so.”

Amy snorted loudly from where she was still floating in place. Everyone did their best to ignore her, except for Basil, who leaned to the side, so he could look at her past the heroes.

“It is not polite to eavesdrop!” he called out.

“Like I care!” she called back, before she very pointedly rotated in place to give him the cold shoulder.

He stood up straight again and looked at Tartsche with a tired smile. “Continue.”

Tartsche took a deep breath. “I can’t even begin to describe how fucked up I think this all is. And honestly, in any other situation, I’d take my team and bail, right now,” he stated, his voice hard.

Basil titled his head to the side, confused. “But you will not?” He was expecting him to, at least.

The young hero shook his head. “You being her brother and her being here doesn’t change the fact that there’s people who’re going to die horribly if we don’t find a cure, and whatever the UH or the government or whoever else has planned just plain won’t come in time. So I, at least, am sticking with this. And I’ve talked with the others, and they all agreed to do the same. But after this… you know we can’t keep this a secret, right?” he concluded, giving him an uncomfortable, even apologetic look.

Basil kept smiling. “I would not expect you to keep it secret,” he replied calmly. “Nor am I going to hold it against you when you reveal it to the UH.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders to loosen up a bit. “I knew what I was getting myslef into, when I revealed our relation, earlier. But it was either that, lying to you all, or having her edit your recollection. The latter was unacceptable and the second I have been doing too much of for too long, so…”

“You decided to put it out in the open,” Tartsche concluded, nodding. “I can respect that. Even if the timing’s horrible.”

“Well, I did not exactly plan for her to show up here,” Basil defended himself and shrugged. Then he looked over the assembled heroes. “You are all staying? In spite of this?”

They all exchanged looks, then focused on him again and nodded.

“I can’t speak for the others,” Gloom Glimmer said mirthfully, “but I’m hardly one to cast stones over someone having a supervillain as a family member they don’t disavow.”

“It’s not like you chose who your sister was going to be, or that she become a supervillain,” Polymnia assured him in a soft voice.

“That doesn’t mean this won’t have consequences for how we interact, after our current mission is over,” Tartsche took over again. “The UH has been extending a lot of trust and good will in how it treated you and your team, in part because of how depleted our numbers are. But there’s no way that’ll continue once it comes out that you’re Mindstar’s brother – nevermind the fact that you’ve been keeping it a secret, regardless of her being family.”

Basil just nodded. “I know. And speaking of which…” He looked sideways at Hecate and Tyche. The latter was standing on her own again, though keeping her head lowered as her friend held onto her shoulders with both hands, speaking quietly – too quietly to hear. “We really should get going. Finish this, before they muster another line of defense.”

***

“Well, that didn’t go as expected, did it?” Heaven’s Dancer mocked, trying to mask her concern – not that she could, not from Immanuel – as she in a demure position on the edge of the platform he’d been meditating upon, her hands folded primly on her lap, her knees together.

Immanuel was in the process of tying his bootlaces, having changed into a more formal outfit taken from a box that’d slid out of the same platform. He was now wearing a pair of loose, smooth golden pants and a sleeveless black shirt made of a shimmering material as tight as a second skin, exposing his arms, which were in turn partially covered by black fingerless gloves that reached up to his biceps, with some gold embroidery on the back of his hands and around his wrists. His boots were black, as well, with golden laces. Other than that, he made no concession to the usual costuming craze – even this much had mostly been forced on him by his over-eager staffers deciding to ‘spruce up’ his usual outfit. Children these days…

“I admit, things are going horribly wrong faster than I expected,” he spoke with neither rancor nor chargrin in his voice or expression. “Mind you, I never would have expected Brennus to be able to locate this base based on a momentary glimpse of the nightsky given to him by Crocell’s dying throes,” he admitted. “In fact, I’d really like to know how that managed to evade my sight. There’s something fishy going on with that boy, and I’m not talking about his messed-up memories.”

“Something even more fishy than that? Oh, joy of joys,” she couldn’t help but reply in her most deadpan voice. “You really should’ve taken them down as soon as they appeared, not dilly-dallied this long, you know? He won’t like that.”

He waved her concern off. “The base was lost the moment young Brennus discovered its location – he was smart enough to share it with every authority he could reach as soon as he knew, and even with the Syndicate, via his sister,” he justified his decision to take a more relaxed stance on the issue. “Nothing we do here is going to prevent its loss – it’s not like we can move the Sleeper somewhere else. All we can do is prevent a total loss – thus why I began a silent evacuation as soon as I realised what was coming – and gather as much data on how we got compromised to begin with, and on what’s clearly several major talents, some of whom we didn’t even know about.”

“You always know how to make it sound like you know what you’re doing, don’t you?” she asked in annoyance, not that she could actually refute any of his points. “But even so, we ought to take some precautions, make sure they don’t actually mess up anything too valuable before they get away… mind you, is letting them get away even that wise? We ought to keep at least some of them, like this Brennus.”

“Perhaps,” he temporised. “But keeping Brennus would require that we capture or kill Mindstar. He’s also close to Gloom Glimmer, whom we’d also have to take care of, and I really don’t want to explain again why killing or capturing that one would be a stupid, stupid idea.” He stopped in the middle of tying the last knot. “Also, there’s Tyche, of course. Her power, combined with Gloom Glimmer’s, means we really don’t have any truly safe way to deal with them, other than to let them reach Dusu, then leave on their own. At least not until Konrad arrives.”

“You called Konrad!?” Heaven’s Dancer paled. “Immanuel, dropping him into this situation…”

“Konrad is one of only two people – the other being me – whom we know can take that group down without killing anyone,” he assuaged her worries. “I can most likely do it by myself, but just in case I fail, I want him on his way here.” He finished tying his laces and leap onto his feet in a nimble move, segueing straight into some stretches to limber up. “Enough talk. I have my boots on – time to start kicking ass!”

***

“You know, you don’t have to make us feel that amateurish,” Spellgun complained as they all looked around at the unconscious and, in some cases, heavily wounded bodies strewn about the room.

They’d run – at Basil’s and Tartsche’s insistence – deeper into the installation, following the directions Immanuel had given Tyche on the assumption that it was better than running blindly – nevermind that, according to Gloom Glimmer, they were moving closer to Dusu.

Unfortunately, even running while bolstered by Gloom Glimmer, who was preventing them from growing tired, they hadn’t been able to move fast enough to get to their goal before the next line of defense was set up – if it hadn’t been already set up before they even fought the late Skulls’ group earlier.

Ten metahumans in combat gear had been waiting in ambush, literally melting out of the walls and floor around them as they ran down another featureless white hallway.

Before even one of them could bring their powers to bear, Amy had torn into them with a savage cry, swiping them all up with her telekinesis and smashing them all over the place, into walls, the ceiling, the floor, hurting them before she simply turned them all off with her telepathy.

At least, Basil hoped it was her telepathy, and that she hadn’t just killed them all. A quick check with his enhanced vision modes showed that, yes, they were all still alive, if definitely out of any fight for a while now.

Amy, meanwhile, ignored Spellgun’s comment. “Keep moving,” she snarled instead as she flew onwards, the only one not on her feet, now that Gloom Glimmer was running with them. “I’m in their heads – Dusu’s lab is nearby. She’s got a whole building basically to herself; only one else there is the new Ascendant.”

They turned a corner, moving down another featureless hallway, passing by several heavy steel doors.

“Ok, so, what can we expect?” Tartsche asked, directing the question towards Basil.

“We’re going up against two gadgeteers in their own labs,” Basil replied. “Assuming both are there, they’ll be both at an advantage and at a disadvantage – an advantage because they’ll have all their creations there, at hand, plus their likely heavily fortified labs – I know I built a lot of traps and defense systems into mine – and at a disadvantage, since they’ll likely want to prevent us from smashing all their hard work into pieces.”

“Not that we should,” Polymnia added. “Dusu is a plague-gadgeteer. We do not want to unleash anything she’s got stored in there.”

“No going in with a hammer then,” Hecate concurred. “Seeing how we want her alive and able to talk, and she’s not supposed to have any other powers, we shouldn’t go in smashi-”

She was cut off at the sound of a crash from further up ahead the hallway, behind a heavy steel door. Screams soon followed.

“The hell is that!?” Bakeneko asked, staring at the heavy door.

“Just cleaning up some trash,” Amy replied calmly, while Gloom Glimmer stepped forth and put a hand to the door, causing it to simply melt away into the floor.

Beyond it, another group of cowls – each in their own costume, save for a pair of twins in matching viking outfits – was busy fighting each other, completely ignoring their group as they ran past.

“What’d you do to them? Ma’am,” Tartsche asked Amy, appending a honorific at the end, apparently on reflex.

“Call me ‘ma’am’ again and I’ll feed you your boyfriend’s gun,” she replied, flying ahead of the group. “And I just adjusted some details in their perception. They were already primed for a fight, so it wasn’t hard to set them off.”

“You’re one scary bitch,” Spellgun grumbled under his breath, barely audible; yet Amy heard him and looked over her shoulder at him, giving him a grin that made him shudder.

“Careful, gunbunny,” she told him. “You might make a girl feel bashful and undeserving of such praise, make her try to earn it.”

Hecate snarled audibly as Spellgun waved his free hand in a negating gesture, assuring Amy that he hadn’t really meant it and all.

Basil ignored the byplay, mostly, and kept running. He already knew what Amy was capable of – she’d never hesitated to share – and was glad that at least he hadn’t destroyed his team, his friendship with Hecate and his rapport with the UH for less than a massive boost to their efficiency.

After five more minutes of running – they’d decided not to use any more trains – he started to grow seriously suspicious of how quiet the whole place was.

“How come we are not running into more people?” he asked aloud. “This place is larger than the average American town – there should be far more people around.”

“They’ve been evacuating it,” Amy replied. “Saw it in one of their minds. They’ve guessed that we’ve shared the location of the place with the kind of people they can’t fight off, so they’re packing up what they can to get away.”

“What?!” Basil shouted, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Why did you not say so sooner!? We need to hurry up, or she will get away, if she has not already!”

“Relaaaax,” she replied and though he couldn’t see it, he knew she was rolling her eyes. “Dusu’s still there. That’s why there’s so many guards left along the way to her; she and the Ascendant are working on high-priority projects, and they’re taking some time to get out – we should get there before Dusu has left. The Ascendant’s projects are apparently slow to move, too, so she’ll likely also be there.”

“Alright, let’s haul it then!” Tartsche exlaimed and picked up speed, bolstered by Gloom Glimmer’s power.

They ran through two more doors – and past another security team that went down quickly between Amy and Gloom Glimmer tearing through them – before Basil noticed that the hallways were growing wider, and the doors on the sides more sparse.

Finally, they tore through one more door and found themselves in a long hallway with glass walls and a glass ceiling, leading straight towards a larger, cubic building that stood apart from the rest of the nearby structures.

“Dusu’s in there,” Gloom Glimmer announced. “I can feel it.”

“Yeah, that’s what the memories I saw said, as well,” Amy confirmed her statement, flying ahead of the group down the hallway. “She should be somewhere in the eastern half of the building, that’s where her and Syrinx’ – some lesser gadgeteer who works as her assistant – labs are. The western half belongs to the As-” She stopped talking, suddenly, raising her head before continuing on. “There’s something in there… a bubble of space in the western half that I can’t look into. Every other part of the building is empty, I think… save for some…”

“Some what?” Tartsche asked when she wouldn’t continue.

“Test subjects,” she spoke with a note of disgust in her voice. “The lower levels of the building are filled with people they’ve been experimenting on.”

“But where is Dusu?” Basil pressed the important point – as much as it sickened him, whether or not they had a chance to help those poor souls, they had to capture their tormentors first. “In that bubble you can not look into? Gloom Glimmer, can you see into it?” He looked at the black-haired heroine.

She shook her head, hair flying left and right. “No. That power… I’ve felt something like it before. One of Dad’s subordinates, he could kind of… push powers away around himself. Completely messed up more delicate stuff, like remote senses, and weakened cruder powers, too. This should be similar.”

“I remember that guy,” Amy replied to her. “Fuzz, was his name? Didn’t he die in a crash during a car chase or something?”

“Yup, that’s him,” Gloom Glimmer affirmed. “Anyway, I don’t think I can pierce the effect – but I know Dusu is close, and that’s the only place I can’t look into, nor can Mindstar, so…”

“To the Ascendant’s lab we go,” Basil concluded, and they continued their charge down the glass hallway.

***

“I must avow that we need to rethink the whole ‘put an army of mad scientists into an enclosed location and give them near-unlimited resources’ concept,” Immanuel admitted to Heaven’s Dancer as they were using a train to move towards Dusu’s lab. He’d overridden its normal programming, of course, so it wouldn’t stop at any station along the way.

“Why do you say that, now?” Heaven’s Dancer asked him rather warily.

“Because what Dusu, the Ascendant and Syrinx are planning right now is either going to be incredibly awesome or an utter catastrophy for us all…”

***

Basil put his force gauntlet to the final door and with a simple eye twitch, activated the blaster, blowing the heavy steel door open in a massive cacophony of tormented steel, followed by him, Gloom Glimmer and Amy charging in ahead of the others into a huge room full of metal coffins standing upright on circular podests, lit by fluorescent lighting from above.

Coming to a halt, he looked around for his target, his heart pumping, ready to leap at Dusu and beat the cure out of her…

And there she was, looking just like in the one photograph he’d been able to find of her, taken many years ago shortly before the Hawaii incident, before she became an internationally wanted bio-terrorist, having aged not a day since.

An utterly unassuming looking woman of Chinese descent, attractive but not so much that she’d stand out in a crowd with a heart-shaped face and long, straight hair held back by a white hairband, wearing a white labcoat over scrubs, a mockery of a medical professional.

There was a man with her in a matching outfit, tall, well-built but otherwise unremarkable save for his wild blonde hair, and a taller woman with features matching images he’d seen of South American indigenous people, also in scrubs and a labcoat.

The man – probably Syrinx – looked at them in shock, the Ascendant was busy operating the control panel of one of the upright coffins and Dusu looked straight at them, her gaze dismissive, a smirk on her lips…

Basil saw red, and gestured towards her to launch his drone straight at the bitch…

But Gloom Glimmer intercepted his movement, catching his hand. “No. Remember, we need her whole,” she whispered, apparently having seen it coming.

“Well, look what we have the-” Dusu began to say, but was cut off when she, Syrinx and the Ascendant were suddenly dragged away from the coffin-like tank they’d been working on. Crying out in surprise and shock, they leaned away from the pull, even as Amy visibly focused on moving them, reaching through whatever power was protecting them now that she could see them with her own eyes.

“There we go…” Amy said. “They’re planning something… but I can’t read their minds… yet,” she explained as she grinned, savagely. “Don’t worry, dear idiot brother – you’ll have your cure, soon enough.” She advanced on them, along with the rest of the group.

A hand sign from Tartsche made them fan out, watching as the three villains were being dragged inexorably towards them, straining against the effect to no avail.

“Oh, come on…” Syrinx groaned. “I thought two-oh-one’s power would protect us!”

“It’s not perfect,” the Ascendant replied calmly, looking rather unperturbed by the whole situation. “But it should buy us enough time.”

“Enough time for what?” Basil asked, letting his drone float off his thigh, drifting into an orbit above his head.

Then the coffin they’d worked on hissed, and unlocked, the part facing them opening upwards to expel a large amount of vapour.

At the same time, the Ascendant reached into her pocket and pulled out a remote, pressing a button before anyone could stop her – and all three of them were pulled forward, towards Amy, her grip suddenly several orders of magnitude stronger.

“She turned off the anti-power field!” Gloom Glimmer exclaimed, raising her hands towards the villains, causing glowing chains to appear and wrap around them, restraining them.

“Too late,” the Ascendant smirked, her smoky voice dripping with smugness. “I just needed to make sure two-oh-one wouldn’t interfere with four-four-four.”

Amy’s eyes widened as she read their minds, and she raised her hands, gesturing at the coffin as a single figure – a woman drenched in a sticky fluid, wearing nothing but a bathsuit-shaped grey material that covered her torso and crotch, leaving her long, slender legs and arms free, revealing smooth, healthy skin and long gold-blonde hair, currently darkened due to being completely drenched.

The telekinetic blast caught the woman in the head before she could raise it from the crouching position she’d been caught in, smashing her body into a bloody pulp and destroying the container she’d been in.

The woman rose from her crouching position, whole again and dry, her long hair now much more voluminous, her suit, while still nearly obscenely tight and little besides her torso, was also dry again.

“Who the fuck is that?” Bakeneko asked aloud as they saw the woman’s – a girl, really, only a few years older than them and about Amy’s age – lovely, heart-shaped face.

None of the others (except perhaps Osore, who remained quiet about it in any case) had any trouble recognising her – they passed her statue pretty much every day, whenever they entered or left their school, just for starters.

Bright, sapphire-like eyes opened, looking at them without feeling or recognition, empty of any warmth or even the most basic of emotions, her movements oddly graceful in spite of her loose, hunched-over posture, her arms dangling limply.

“Subject four-four-four!” the Ascendant shouted in a loud, clear voice. Basil whirled to the right, sending his drone out to smash into her mouth and shut her up rather roughly, but he was too late – the drone smashed into the empty floor, bouncing off. The villains stood behind the blonde beauty, unharmed and standing, free of Gloom Glimmer’s bindings, which dissolved as they hit the floor where their prisoners had just lain.

Not that Gloom Glimmer seemed to care, as she took a wavering step forward, staring at the young woman in shock.

“Diantha?” she asked in a small voice. “Sis?”

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