Breaking Point 14.5

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DiL was being covered with attacks, unleashed from every direction around and above her, trying to punch through those ribbons of distortion that circled around her.

Basil saw fire, lava, lasers, distortions that suggested spatial or gravitic attacks and far more, almost half of them unleashed by the remaining mementos – he judged that about a third of them had been destroyed, at a glance, though this was probably only the first wave while the second one was being completed in his orbital base – but that none of them reached past her defensive ability.

The gaps between the ribbons were too small, and ever-shifting with their motions, and anything which even partially touched the one of the ribbons was reflected – no, redirected was a better term, as they didn’t simply travel back the way they came.

The explosions resulting from this would have been a beautiful sight in a different circumstance, as all these effects were thrown all about, some cancelling each other out, some combining, or distorting, or simply hitting the surroundings and, in a few unlucky cases, some of the defenders. Add to that the forest of crystals all around DiL’s position which were smashed and thrown up, and it resulted in a gigantic light-show, which filled up all of Basil’s field of view.

“What the hell are they doing!?” Polymnia shouted, staring at it. “Why didn’t they probe her defense fir-“

Suddenly, she cut off, as all of them shuddered from head to toe

What…

Polymnia, Hecate and Gloom Glimmer all unleashed their attacks towards DiL. Sonic blasts, eldritch green fire and spirals of a fluorescent orange liquid shot towards her, only to be deflected in random directions by her defenses.

The only reason Basil wasn’t joining in on it was because he didn’t have anything he could have fired at this range.

At the same time, they started to drop, Gloom Glimmer shooting forward and losing – or rather, releasing – her grip on them.

Ah crap.

Fortunately, they hadn’t been flying too high up, probably so Gloom Glimmer would have been able to easily dodge behind one of the buildings, in case of another volley of crystal tendrils. Still, a drop from five storeys up onto the street could not be fun for any of them – even Polymnia would likely get hurt, especially considering the sheer weight of her equipment, which eclipsed that of Basil’s own. Since she had a certain amount of super-strength herself, her armor had been built to be far heavier than the average model, in spite of its rather… revealing nature.

Of course, either of the girls should have been able to mitigate such a fall on their own – Hecate could simply turn into her smoke form and Polymnia almost certainly had something amongst her manifold pieces of equipment to help.

Unfortunately, both of them seemed more focused on providing DiL with more ammunition for her mirror ribbons, and Basil couldn’t blame them, if he’d had any real offensive option he’d be-

Oh fuck.

They were just starting to fall, and his friends still focused on blasting at DiL with single-minded determination, when his thoughts clicked together.

She’s messing with our minds. Must be her third power, right now. But I’m… resistant? No, I still feel it… but I have nothing to attack with, so I can still think clearly.

And the girls are gonna smash into the ground something fierce in a few seconds, mate, cause they sure as hell aren’t thinking clearly, which would just be a waste, don’t you think? Even if it’d neatly resolve your relationship issues. Oh, and Gloomy’s prolly gonna get herself killed if she throws all of that magnificent power of hers at her big sis without thinking. You know what this means, right?

Yeah, I do. He looked around, quickly, measuring the distance to the buildings to the left and right of the street. They were in one of New Lennston’s ‘retro’ areas, which had been styled to resemble the original Lennston’s appearance – in this case, painted brownstones with colourful roofs.

He’d only get one shot at this.

He launched his grappling hook from his hip, connecting it to one of the corners of the nearest brownstone, and reeled it in just enough to swing himself towards the girls.

First came Polymnia, and he extended his line enough that it hit her first, rather than him crashing into her – her armor was at least five centimeters thick and he knew it wasn’t light-weight material it was made up of, so he was going to avoid taking that kind of impact directly – and kept on swinging.

The line pulled against her waist, making her yelp as her fall straight down was redirected, and she rolled down the line, losing some of her momentum before she crashed into his arms.

Blimey, she’s heavy. Hey, what percentage of her weight do you think is in those huge tits of hers?

Not the time!

Basil groaned as he held onto her, which wasn’t made any easier by her flailing around trying to get a straight shot at DiL again, and shifted his grip, so he was holding her against his side with his left arm wrapped around her waist.

Just in time to slam into Hecate, after pivoting his body just enough to catch her with his right arm around her waist.

The blast of green fire she was just about to let loose fizzled and washed over them, a sensation like bugs crawling over Basil’s skin, though it was diffuse enough not to cause any actual damage before it dispersed.

Seeing the wall of the brownstone coming, and unable to adjust their arc, not with both of them wiggling and trying to break out of his grip, Basil held out his legs, bracing him self – and hit the second-storey wall hard enough the shock nearly made him lose his grip on the two girls in his arms.

You know, I bet there’s a lotta blokes who’d commit murder to get a chance to hold these two.

He didn’t even bother responding to that one. Instead, he abseiled down to the curb – only to immediately throw himself and the girls into the alley next to the building, as a red laser beam cut down the street and over the spot he’d just been, slicing diagonally across – and through – the entire brownstone as if it wasn’t even there.

“Oh, come on!”

He reversed his direction, his soles hitting the ground hard enough to throw up a few sparks as he all but threw the girls out of the alley, and followed after them, moments before the brownstone slid down and collapsed over the narrow gap, destroying the adjacent building as well.

The three of them found themselves lying on the ground, a dust-cloud briefly billowing over them.

“Gamoto!” Hecate cursed, coughing as some dust got into her mouth.

“Are you still affected?” Basil asked them as he stood up and rolled his shoulders – he thought he might have pulled something.

Don’t forget them ribs, mate.

Thank you for reminding me. I was in danger of forgetting the incessant pain I feel each second.

Wouldn’t be the biggest thing you’ve forgotten, now would it?

“I… I think not,” Hecate forced out the words, shuddering. “I think not.”

“Neither am I,” Polymnia agreed. “That was… a strange experience. Like… attacking her was the smartest thing to do… I didn’t even question it. But I was fully aware and thinking clearly, at the same time.” She shook her head, looking as shaken as Hecate sounded, when she looked straight at him through her tinted visor. “How come you weren’t affected, Brennus?”

“I was affected,” he replied calmly, while keeping an eye out in the direction DiL had to be in – currently out of sight from them, thanks to copious amounts of dust and smoke thrown up by the devastation she had wrought. “But I do not have anything to attack her with at this range, nor the means to close in on her so as to make contact with my repulsor. So I was able to focus on other things.” He turned his head, smirking under his mask, though it was a pained one: “Such as making sure we do not all fall to our death.” Then he got serious again. “I am not under its effect anymore, though, nor are you two.”

“It hit us the moment we got closer to her,” Hecate observed. “Maybe we… moved out of range again?”

“No, we are even closer than we were then,” Basil replied, looking for the flashes of light and the sound of explosions within the dust cloud. “If proximity was all it took, then we would already be-“

The dust was blown away in a single blow, shortly followed by a massive, bell-like sound so powerful it visibly distorted the air around DiL, and he laid eyes on DiL again.

He almost broke into a charge, taking a sudden step forward, before he realised that he didn’t actually have the means to attack her, even if he got close. But then, what could h-

Polymnia slugged him in the gut, making him double over and retch (not like he had anything to throw up), falling to his knees.

“Polymnia! What are you doing!?” Hecate cried out, kneeling down next to him, as he pressed his armored forehead to the concrete, leaning protectively over him.

“He got hit by her power, I think,” Polymnia replied. “Cut off mid-speech and started forward – and then I remembered, I stopped feeling the compulsion to attack the moment we hit that wall together. So I theorised, you know, that a hard enough hit would break the effect again.” She was blushing as she explained this, looking both embarrassed and a little guilty. “Though, uh. To be honest, I didn’t think much about it, I just reacted.”

Basil couldn’t see Hecate’s expression, not even her lower face, from his position, but he was pretty sure she was slack-jawed.

“It is… quite… alright,” he groaned, slowly getting up – faster, after a moment, when Hecate clued in and helped him up. “You were right… I saw DiL and got hit by her power, so I guess it is necessary to both be within a certain range of her and see her for it to affect you – and when you hit me, it ceased taking effect.”

His fingers twitched, calling up his armor’s interface on his heads-up display, showing him a scan of his brain’s neural activity over the last few seconds.

There. A shift, the moment he looked at DiL. Then, another shift, when Polymnia hit him. Rolling further back, he saw the same shift when he’d first laid eyes on her, and again the second shift when he impacted the wall.

The girls could obviously tell he was up to something and so didn’t interrupt as he finished adjusting and activating a few protocols he’d built in a while ago.

“I have set my armor to deliver an electric shock to myself, should I fall under her power’s effect again. Let us see whether it works. Polymnia, please stand ready to knock me down again if this fails.”

Before either of them could agree or protest, he raised his head and looked towards DiL.

Again, that sudden shift in priorities and just as quickly-

Ow. Bugger me, mate, ain’t the shite she’s doin’ to us already painful enough? Why you gotta add to that…

Basil ignored the voice in his head and looked at the girls again. “Success. Polymnia, can you…”

“I don’t have the means to detect when I’m under her influence and I’m kind of both impressed and a little scared that you apparently just happen to have something for that built into your suit,” she said, looking at him with a slightly envious expression on her face.

He looked at Hecate.

“You know I can’t adapt my enchantments so quickly,” she replied, crossing her arms while trying very hard to both look out for incoming attacks and avoid looking at DiL – not the easiest task, seeing how any attack likely to come at them would be one reflected by her ribbons, and thus coming straight from her position. “You don’t happen to h-“

He pulled a small metallic armband out of a pouch on his belt and snapped it around her wrist. “I have copied my settings onto it.” He pulled out another and offered it to Polymnia, who slipped briefly disconnected her gauntlet from the rest of her armor to snap it around her wrist, before sliding it in again.

Hecate looked down at it, her lips twisted into a strange smile. “Somehow, I’m not surprised at all that you thought of having something like this on you.”

“It is mostly meant to serve as a tracker, actually,” he replied. “I just included some added functionalities for special occasions such as these.”

Another beam sliced down the street, but on the curb opposite of theirs, melting down the pavement and causing the buildings to sag slightly as it compromised their foundations.

“Darn it, that was Gloomy’s beam. She’s spending her powers way too quickly – if we don’t stop her, she’ll end up powerless way too soon!” An Polymnia looked towards the battle, briefly flinching as her wristband was set off.

“Then let’s see what we can do to help her,” Hecate stated firmly.

Mate, you guys are so freaking outclassed here…

***

Just one block further in, the Chaos was total. Crystal tendrils criss-crossed the street, shimmering as they broke and reflected the light that touched them, casting rainbow hues all over the street, buildings and people. Several buildings had partially or totally collapsed, some shattering attached or other nearby crystals, spreading shards all over the ground.

And then there were the corpses.

The most obvious ones were a group of civilians – a family, parents and three children – who’d apparently huddled together, the parents trying to shield their kids with their bodies, only to be pierced by the crystals. One child had been impaled with its parents, only for the other two to be slain by the spears that’d spawned from the first set, turning them into a grotesque set piece.

They were not even the worst thing to be seen on the street. Several defenders had been slain by reflected powers, bits and pieces of two or three people littering just the area Basil and the girls were in.

Detonations were still shaking the ground, now and then – and they’d already shattered all glass within sight.

Polymnia stumbled off to one side to throw up, Hecate followed her, looking little better herself, while Basil looked closer at the crystal tendrils.

The Desolation Field was messing with his scanners, but he was able to compensate, at least to a point.

“There is some kind of energy contained within these crystals,” he observed, speaking loud enough for them to hear him as he stepped amidst the crystals. “The closer they are to a human, the more energy is in them. The statues have the largest energy density.” He compared readings from a single costumed man with the entire family that’d been fused together. “A single metahuman – or at least this one – has a bigger charge than this entire family combined.”

“Incoming!” Polymnia shouted, leaping in front of Basil and Hecate.

Basil whirled around, his force shield flaring to life over his left arm, raised to cover himself and Hecate.

It was Polymnia, however, that protected them all, raising her arms out in front of her, and pulling them apart as the speakers built into her heavy bracers and the back of her armor, on her shoulder blades and down along her spine, began to pulse.

In the moments before the four spears coming in their direction reached them, the soundwaves they emitted built to a harmonious melody, visibly distorting the air around them to form a dome that encircled their small group.

The spears impacted the distortion, sending out ripples which spread out over the entire dome, creating a criss-crossing wave-pattern – but the crystals were deflected, redirected towards their surroundings.

Wherever they hit, four new tendrils shot out, though they didn’t seem to aim at anything in particular – though nine of them still hit and were once again deflected by the sonic cage, only for each to sprout three more tendrils… each of which sprouted two more, and then just one more, before this wave had run its course.

There were so many crystal tendrils and haphazard growths from the impact sites around them, Basil couldn’t even make out where DiL – and with her, the locus of combat – had moved to.

”Is it over?” Hecate asked, a slight waver in her voice in spite of her best attempts to stay calm.

“I think so,” Polymnia replied, though she did keep the sonic cage up.

”For now, yes,” Basil replied, having the advantage of his raven flying above, looking down at the street. It was a mess of crystal growths, rubble from partially collapsed buildings and body parts, and the three of them were barely visible amidst it all.

“We should move onto the rooftops,” he added, almost absent-mindedly. When the girls stared at him like he’d been possessed, he gestured at the nearby crystallized family. “Look. Her spears went straight through the previous ones. We not only have far less room to dodge down here, we also have barely any cover – in fact, the ‘cover’ works in her favour, rather than ours. Better if we go up, where we can at least see attacks coming and have room to dodge.”

They looked at the grisly sight – and indeed, the new growths had simply gone through the existing statues, as if they weren’t there at all.

Without another word, they all made their way upwards again.

***

Seconds after they’d reached the nearest intact building’s rooftop, DiL unleashed another volley, the crystals launched in far faster and coming in far greater numbers than before.

No one had found a way to force her to change her powers, yet, and so they kept building up, and up…

But to what? They contain energy within, yet the crystals don’t do anything with it. There have been multiple waves, and yet the energy has remained unused.

Basil kept turning it over in his head, as he stepped aside, dodging one spear, then raised his force shield, bracing himself by locking his boots to the roof, deflecting one of the successive spears which would otherwise have impaled Hecate.

Ow. That freaking hurts, mate, the Man in the Moon complained when pain shot up his arm and straight into his damaged ribs.

Basil ignored them, as much as possible, pulling Hecate out of the way of another spear at the same time as she used her flames to blow yet another out of the air, preventing it from skewering them both.

They were getting both more numerous and faster over time. A good third of New Lennston had already been covered, partially merged to the crystals. And the more numerous they became, the more energy they stored, with a decidedly more-than-linear increase.

He’d already shared his observation with the other defenders, through Memento’s communication network – which, being contrived rather than real technology, was not affected by her Desolation Field – but no one was quite sure what to make of it; the most common theory was that they were meant to blow up at some point, which made forcing her to change her powers all the more urgent, considering how far the crystals had already spread and how much energy they already contained.

Unfortunately, those space-warping ribbons and the ‘attack me’ compulsion were making it nigh-impossible to strategize so far. If it wasn’t for Memento’s many selves and their immunity to Control effects, they would likely be completely unable to respond in any way, currently.

In the distance, Basil could see weird objects – floating orbs and tesseracts and pillars that were only partially composed of matter, and some even weirder ones, unloading barrages of effects – forming force-fields around defenders to protect from rebound attacks or crystal spears, warping space to redirect crystal spears back towards the already heavily crystallized areas, unleashing pin-point beams of plasma, pure light, directed matter and what Basil was pretty sure were gravitic shears.

It was the kind of display that implied its originator could conquer the whole world if they so wished – and frankly, Memento probably could have, but Doctor Despair’s masterpiece was wholly uninterested in anything but pursuing its prime directive.

Though it was a Contrivance rather than a Gadget, Basil couldn’t help but marvel at the Doctor’s masterpiece; there had been Contrivers before and after him who’d created a Magnum Opus, and there’d been many who’d unleashed a Swan Song, at the cost of their lives; but Doctor Despair, as far as he knew, was the only one who’d done both at the same time – his mummified corpse had been found by one of his rivals in his workshop, slumped over backwards over the chair he’d been sitting on, as before him his last, final, greatest creation booted up. A single machine, shaped rather like a salt dispenser as tall as a child, with a clear dome at the top and a mechanical face fashioned after Doctor Despair’s long-time nemesis, the fallen Protector, contained within.

Memento, the self-improving, contrived and contriving Seed-AI, the only of its kind and quite possibly the greatest display of Contriving ever, could have likely conquered the world, but it had been created for one purpose and one purpose only – to end Desolation-in-Light’s threat to the world, once and for all. In the decades since, it had continually expanded itself and refined its arsenal, and though it had yet to succeed, many believed it to be merely a matter of time.

Whether or not the end of DiL would lead to peace, or see it become an even greater threat, no one knew.

At least right now, it’s a godsend, Basil thought quietly, catching his breath as the wave of crystal spears and the following growth came to an end. This particular one had spread the crystal cover out over half of New Lennston. Their position was becoming untenable, the growths spread out over the rooftops, a twisted, glittering jungle. Deep within it, mostly at street level, where people had been crystallised, it was brighter still, glowing almost like a soft torch. Where metahumans had been caught, it was as bright as day.

“We’re not doing anything but surviving – barely,” Polymnia spoke, her serious, calm voice as usual in stark contrast to the way she was bent over and supporting herself on her knees, gasping for breath. “This – I’ve never felt so useless!”

”Welcome to a DiL fight,” Hecate spat, falling onto her butt, leaning back to support herself on her outstretched arms. “From what I read and hear, it’s usually like this. You run, you dodge, you survive, all the while looking for some way you can contribute; hoping that, if she does choose a set which requires your specific powers or skills to counter, you’ll be able to do so.”

“I… I guess…”

”We’ve just, got to keep each other safe. Keep as many others safe as we can, for as long as we can,” Hecate continued, trying to reassure her idol. “L-let’s just focus on that… or else I don’t think… I’ll be able to hold it together.”

Basil turned his head away just as she turned hers to look at him, focusing on the battle in the distance, occasionally twitching as his armor shocked him back to his senses, whenever DiL’s power affected him. He was tapping the communication channels, though he had to rely on the mundane ones, with all the disturbance that they came along with, while within this blasted field – it was half a miracle that his equipment had lasted as long as it had, he was not going to take a further risk by directly interfacing with the contrived technology Memento handed out.

Still, the channel the Dark was using to get his signal whenever he felt DiL change her powers was connected to a greater network – likely Wyrms. Though it could not reach beyond the Desolation Field, there was still some data going around within it.

No Lady Light, no Quetzalcoatl. No Severance. No Kong Long. Only Fleur and the Feral Family are here.

Meaning exactly the two members of that group who were of the least use against DiL.

To his relief, he heard Amy be mentioned, so she had to still be alive. Kraquok and Lamarr were also there, as was Daijisi, but no Dowager and the Dark was standing back, likely still weakened from the fight at the Installation, not too long ago.

Was it really just half a day ago? It feels so long ago…

He staggered, his legs buckling before he managed to regain his balance.

”Ba- Brennus?” Hecate spoke up, worried. Barely five seconds had passed since she’d said her part.

Seconds…

“Brennus?” Polymnia looked at him in worry, standing up, reaching out with one arm.

What’s wrong?

Take off your mask, mate.

He did so, and it came away with blood on it. Numbly, he raised his left hand to his face, touching index and middle finger to his upper lip.

They came away with blood, too.

”Brennus!” Hecate jumped up, catching him as he nearly fell over. She held his weight easily.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, though he wasn’t sure whom he was asking.

You’re dying, mate, the Man in the Moon’s voice somehow managed to sound both concerned and mocking at the same time. I’ve been taking the lion’s share of the pain so far, but just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean it ain’t doing damage.

Somehow, hearing those words, processing them, Basil didn’t feel scared or angered or saddened. No, even though he felt, he knew they were true, he just felt…

At home. More than just his own voice said those words in his head.

Nothing had ever scared him as much as that realisation.

Is that why you’ve been off?

Sorry, mate. But you gotta get out of here. Whatever this field is doing, however it’s interacting with you, with us, it’s breaking down the walls.

Killing me?

In a way.

It would be more accurate to claim that it is killing the you as you understand yourself, the Blazing Sun spoke up for the first time in a while.

Mine…

If you stay here any longer, you won’t be you anymore.

He managed to stand again, righting himself as he used his free arm’s sleeve to wipe off the blood. “I, I’ll be alright,” he told the girls, using that same sleeve to clean the inside of his mask.

It came away scarlet all over, but he could put the mask on again, once more covering his face from the bridge of his nose down.

You mean we’ll… merge?

If you wanna be saturday morning cartoon about it, yeah.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s pretty clear that I’m far from complete – perhaps merging back together will…

You are labouring under an erroneous presupposition.

What candle-head means to say is that you got it all back-ass-wards, mate.

I’ve never known you lot to be so chatty.

The walls are breaking down. So are our…

Fetters.

We can slip the leash a bit, because we are breaking down, piece by piece, too.

Then tell me already! Basil growled, taking a step away from the girls, his arm slipping out of Hecate’s grip. Enough with the cryptic hints! Just tell me everything!

We’re saying as much as we can. You gotta understand, it’s not you that’s incomplete.

A massive tremor shook the ground, throwing all three of them over as the buildings around and beneath them shook, most of them only held up by the crystals that’d fused to their structures and were now supporting them.

Basil shook his head, trying to focus through the pain throbbing in his head – not a change of power, just… more of the same, the pain that’d been in the background slowly bleeding into the forefront.

It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself, as he looked up, his eyes widening as he saw a slim figure flying through the air, white cape billowing as she tumbled away from where the impact had originated.

Living at the mercy of forces and people whom I cannot even name.

He couldn’t say where he dredged up the strength, the focus, to force himself onto all fours, to reverse the electrostatic clamps in his boots’ soles to instead repel him from the roof with such force, he left a spreading spiderweb of cracks behind.

I already knew that.

He flew up, his path determined more by instinct than any kind of rational thought, putting him right in Gloom Glimmer’s way.

She smashed into his chest, his arms wrapping around her more due to the force of the impact than any function of his muscles.

More pain still pulsed from his damaged ribs, up into his brain – but there was already so much there, it was just a drop in the ocean.

Living in a body that’s not entirely my own, with a mind that’s been twisted by factors beyond my control. Never knowing whether this moment will be my last, or not.

He reached behind himself with his left arm, aiming the repulsor. A twitch of his muscles, a tightening of his fist, unleashed a blast.

Shock travelled up his arm, nearly dislodging it out of the shoulder socket. Adding yet more inconsequential pain.

Isn’t that how Prisca’s life was, for all those years? All those years, until the bitter end.

Their flight so arrested, the two of them slowed and dropped, as he shifted his grip on her surprisingly light body, holding her sideways in his arms.

I can remember holding Prisca’s avatar like this, carrying her over the threshold of my bedroom. A stupid, silly little play-act.

But it’d made her happy to pretend, even if it’d ended up being another broken promise.

They hit the roof of a building – fortunately, a flat one, meant to be accessible to people – their combined weight coming down on his legs, bones and muscles and tendons groaning as he skidded across the rooftop, not daring to activate the clamps for fear that he’d simply cause himself to fall over backwards, hit his head and likely snap his ankles as well.

If I die, I die. But I’ll spend what time I have fighting, fighting until I can’t continue on anymore.

Why do you fight, mate? Why, why, why? Why be a hero, why be good why be Brennus why be?

He couldn’t tell. Couldn’t remember, not really. But every time he’d considered that question, what path to go down, what to fight for, what to be, he’d always remembered just three things.

First, the Rain.

Second, the Thunder.

Third, the Lightning.

And every time he did, he’d felt it in his guts, what he had to do.

Right now, he had to focus on the fight.

His heels hit the upraised rim of the roof and he barely managed to steady himself, leaning forward slightly to avoid tipping over the edge, absorbing the last of their shared momentum, slightly bending his knees to better distribute the force, rather than take it all with his joints.

For the Rain, and the Thunder, and the Lightning that comes after.

Lightning comes before the Thunder, mate.

No. The Thunder comes first. Then, the Lightning.

Where did those words come from, he wondered? A memory without any content, words without reference, emotions without source.

His Origin?

”Basil?” a soft voice drew his attention at the person he held in his arms.

Gloom Glimmer’s face was drawn, pale. It wasn’t the palor of someone who’d physically exhausted themselves, but rather, it reminded him of Prisca of all people. Someone who’d spent too much, no, been forced to spend too much, and been left with too little to continue.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, tears sliding out of her eyes, down her bloodless cheeks, and she didn’t sound like the self-assured, even cocky young heroine he’d first gotten to know. She sounded like the little girl underneath it all. “I’m sorry… I tried, but… I can’t… I can’t do anything… I wish…”

”I know.” At his arm, both communicators frizzed, trying to catch his attention as Memento warned everyone of the next coming volley, and the Dark tried to find out whether his daughter was alright.

His eyes moved from her face to her hands, where they were clenched together loosely above her breast.

A gray haze was spreading, from her fingertips down, only to flicker, the effect breaking apart.

“Isn’t it stupid?” she asked, choked. “I spent it. My immortality, my invincibility. That safe mode? I used it to try and protect others. But it wasn’t enough. They’re dead anyway, and I’m without my get-out-of-jail-free card now.” She choked, sobbing.

He nodded, looking out into the distance.

Past Polymnia and Hecate, who were just now turning away from him and Gloom Glimmer, several rooftops away, a veritable cloud of crystal spears was approaching, raining down in such numbers they blotted out the glow of the Desolation Field, and what sunlight still came through.

“You’ve got, got to run,” Gloom Glimmer begged him, wiggling, trying to get away from his grip. “I’m not sure… I can’t find anything to protect you with.”

“And who will protect you?” he asked, as he turned away from the incoming crystal death, letting go of her legs, letting her put her feet on the roof.

Huh. She’s shorter than me. I never noticed. Usually, she’s floating around.

“What are you-” she began to speak, only to blush when he put his right arm around her waist, pulling her close to himself. “B-“

He raised his left arm, putting the hand behind his head as if to scratch it, aiming the projector’s flat side that way. His raven dove down and landed on his right shoulder.

A force-field sprung up around them, an oval which wrapped around them, strongest at his back where the projector was, weakest, but still present, in front of them. It was really only meant to protect himself, but with Gloom Glimmer pressed as closely against him as possible, even if it had to be even more uncomfortable for her than for him – he wore stiff, cold armor, she wore a soft, almost velvet-like bodysuit, thicker and more modest than was common, but not particularly more protective either.

Still, this was better than getting skewered by spears and turned into crystal.

Spears rained down on them, smashing into the force-field at Basil’s back, and the rooftop all around them. Several glanced off the rounded shape of his force-field, hitting the roof as well.

From each site of impact, eight new spears shot forth, flying at them from every direction, some flying through each other as if they were insubstantial, trailing tendrils of crystal behind them.

His force-field was beset by impacts from every direction, warning sounds playing, as he looked down at his right forearm, wrapped around Gloom Glimmer, where a monitor showed him the danger – the force-field wasn’t designed to defend against prolonged, multi-directional assaults. It was rapidly approaching the point where the gadget may well short out on him, at which point they’d both die.

“It will not hold,” Basil whispered calmly, as the third wave started, seven spears from each impact site where the spears had come into contact with matter to convert. “The shield isn’t designed for this kind of attack.”

Gloom Glimmer shifted, wrapping her arms around his neck – but it wasn’t a show of or plea for comfort. Instead, she looked up at him with tear-stained cheeks and red eyes upon black sclerae. “I still have some power left.”

She reached for his gauntlet, pressing all ten fingers against it. He couldn’t turn his head to look, but his ravenbot could, and he saw what it saw on his other arm’s display, as her fingertips sunk into the metal, veins of red light spreading from those points throughout the gauntlet.

Immediately, the warning signs were replaced with error messages, as his systems detected a surge of energy from an unknown source, bolstering the field, while at the same time, pressure was taken off the circuits.

The field around them took on a reddish tint, particularly wherever it was struck by the fourth wave, which failed to penetrate no matter the direction they came from, as slowly, the two of them were encased in a cocoon crystal tendrils, no one of them thicker than two fingers, yet so numerous they were likely to encase them completely by the time the ninth and final wave was done.

She smiled at him, wetly, and he couldn’t help but smile back, even though she likely couldn’t see it, except perhaps in the way his eyes moved. “We have got to sit down and try to figure out your power, some day,” he said, before his common sense could edit the words.

She didn’t seem insulted or put off by the remark though – rather, she giggled at him. “You can join the club. No one’s figured it out yet, not even Mom and Dad.”

“Seems like a rather illustrious membership. I doubt I would fit in,” he replied, trying to take his mind of…

Actually, he had a lot of things to try and take it off of. The worry for his friends and sister, for the other defenders and the common people trapped here, the incessant pain in his head, even more pain in his chest, the questions surrounding his memory, the threat of whatever the Desolation Field was doing to his mind and the voices within, the fact that there were other voices in his head, Prisca’s fate, his many, many failures, the…

The list went on and on.

She knocked her forehead against his armored nose, gently, as a soft glow appeared where their bodies were touching, most noticeably around her… chest… squished against his armor. Soft, warm golden light that seemed to flow from within her and into his body, as he literally felt his ribs mend, all the bruises going away along with the pain in his joints and the sore muscles.

“You’d fit right in. I mean, sometimes, I can’t decide whether you remind me more of my mom or my dad, but I’d bet my plushie collection that you’d get along well to great with both of them.”

“Hopefully more with your mother than your father,” he replied.

She raised an eyebrow at him, taking on a deadpan expression. “What is that supposed to mean?”

He tilted his head to the side, slightly, confused. “Well, she is a hero, he is a villain. No offense.”

Gloom Glimmer relaxed again. “Oh. Right. Yeah, that makes sense.” She blushed, averting her eyes.

Are all girls so confusing?

Seriously, you don’t get what she thought? the most irreverent of his inner voices asked, with laughter in his otherwise pain-filled voice. She probably hears comments like that a lot, and not meant in the way you did.

I do not get it.

I know you don’t, mate.

Before he could ask what was going on, though, reality reasserted itself, as the final wave of crystal spears were deflected off his shield.

Gloom Glimmer pulled her fingers out of the gauntlet, slumping against him as her strength left her, and the gadget finally broke down, pushed beyond its limits. Sparks flew and some smoke came out, and the readout on his other arm just confirmed that it’d need at least some basic maintenance, if not a full rebuild, to be usable again.

But it had done what it was meant for, and then some. They were safe, for now, though surrounded by crystals.

We won’t survive another wave like this.

“We won’t survive another wave like this,” Gloom Glimmer echoed his thoughts. “We need to find Polymnia and Hecate, and get far away from h-“

“Hush,” Basil interrupted her, looking at his sensors’ readouts on his gauntlet.

Not that he’d needed to, because light was beginning to spread through the crystals covering a vast portion of the city – some tendrils had flown out so far they even extended beyond the Desolation Field. As it grew in intensity, so did the readings he got in.

That energy density…

Gloom Glimmer laughed, a weak, small sound, as she slumped against him, hugging him earnestly now. “It’s going to explode,” she said, as she cried softly. “Fuck. Fuck you, Bree. You just have to prove me wrong at every turn, don’t you?”

Basil didn’t know what to say. He could only watch as the crystals swelled, nearly liquefying in places as they grew brighter, and brighter, cutting off any avenue of escape they might have had; not that they could have gotten away quickly enough to escape an explosion of such magnitude – extrapolating from how much energy was contained within the local cluster of crystals, the whole mass of them, spread out throughout New Lennston, had to be enough to hit with the force of at least a dozen kilotons; likely more, since metahumans seemed to provide far more energy when crystallised, and there weren’t any such victims nearby for him to get a reading off of.

He sent his raven up, up and away towards the East. It was unlikely to survive, but if he was to die here, he at least wanted that bit to get away.

He’d written up some routines to go off in any of his ravens that happened to survive him, just in case. To contact the United Heroes, lead them to his lab, if it was still left after this, give them copies of his notes and files… a meaningless gesture, perhaps, but one he’d been intent on making.

The crystals swelled, as Basil stood there, holding the crying Gloom Glimmer, watching his raven fly towards the rising sun that shined through the Desolation Field…

Wait a minute.

He blinked, focusing his tired eyes into the distance.

The sun isn’t supposed to rise in the afternoon. Nor is it supposed to be white.

Before he could process that, the distant sun pulsed.

A massive, massive wave of light, like a pure white tsunami, blazed through the Desolation field, and drowned out the world as it flowed over New Lennston.

Light so bright it should have blinded, yet it did not; a pure white blaze which reflected off of everything, turning the whole world a pure white, yet without hurting his eyes.

It reflected off of everything. The rooftops. Gloom Glimmer’s hair. His raven, in the distance. Capes and cowls he could see on other rooftops, trying to get away from the incoming explosion. Telephone masts and other things.

Everything turned pure, solid white, the glow so powerful it erased their outlines, made it all solid.

All, except for DiL’s crystals. They seemed to absorb the light, fully, casting them in utter black, so dark it smoothed out their shapes, made them seem two-dimensional. Like the shadows of branches, drawn with ink upon white paper.

The wave of light moved on, there and gone again, moving on over the rest of New Lennston.

Wherever it touched, the crystals were rendered inert, their built-up energy simply… stilled.

They crumbled away into nothingness, not even dust left behind.

Gloom Glimmer raised her head, looking over her shoulder without a sound.

The second sun approached and passed through the Desolation Field and as it did, her aura blazed forth, like the sun’s own warmth, turned up to a level Basil had never even heard of, reaching at least as far into the area as Basil stood, and lightly further.

Wherever it touched the defenders, Basil saw shoulders straighten, people standing taller, more energized.

When it reached him and Gloom Glimmer, he felt her straighten up, making a soft, tender sound, a note of glee not unlike that of a small child being lifted up and enveloped by loving arms.

Basil felt it seep through him, taking away the weariness and smoothing out the pain in the back of his head. Even when DiL changed her powers, finally, what he felt was not a spike of white-hot pain, but merely a dull ache.

Hey… mate… something’s… I… we…

The voices in his head, the presences, grew weaker, as he felt something change. As if a weight had been taken off his shoulders, one he’d carried for as long as he could remember, and thus had never noticed, thinking it to be natural, normal.

For the first time he could recall, his thoughts felt light.

The second sun advanced, flying past his raven faster than its sensors could track her, straight towards the locus of battle, as the re-energized defenders rallied, calls coming through the communication lines, voices rising up around him as well, cheering, at the sudden turn of the battle.

Lady Light had arrived.

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B14.4 Breaking Point

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He found Hecate together with Polymnia atop a three storey apartment building’s roof, just half a kilometre or so away from the fight, where a dozen Mementos, Gloom Glimmer and Rounds were holding DiL back – or perhaps it was best to say that they were keeping her simply occupied rather than holding her anywhere.

Swinging onto the rooftop with his grappling hook and rope, he reeled them into the casing at his hip as he looked at the fight.

Rounds was in the air, clad in body armor styled to evoke a medieval knight’s plate armor, all in silver, red and blue. He was surrounded by only ten apparitions rather than the twelve Basil knew he could generate.

And they were all copies of Gloom Glimmer, save for a single apparition which was of Wary Wu, an elderly Chinese man with a very long fu manchu moustache and no other hair on his head, wearing a simple business suit.

Basil looked at Melody, assuming that she’d know what was going on there.

She crossed eyes with him and seemed to instantly pick up on what he was about to ask. “Interesting power interaction,” she explained with a strained smile. “He can’t copy her ability to assume new powers, but he can copy whichever powers she is currently holding. So any time she gets a particularly good set, he makes a copy of her and his power apparently considers her sufficiently different to make a separate copy, rather than replace the previous one.”

Basil turned that around in his head, then looked over at the fight again – Gloom Glimmer floated over to Rounds and they briefly touched hands, embers of silver light rising out of her body and coalescing into a monochrome copy of hers, looking like it was made of translucent silver.

Flying apart again, they dodged an attack from DiL – streams of bright blue plasma were shooting out from around here, a dozen of them, shooting out only to loop back to their origin point after just fifty metre or so – and both she, her new apparition and Rounds held out their right hand towards DiL.

Wood grew, from a single pinpoint in front of each of their hands, bursting forth into massive trees that shot out towards DiL, her plasma jets eating into them but being pushed back by the overwhelming growth – Gloom Glimmer’s power generated both greater growth at a time, and faster as well.

Hexagonal honey-coloured force-fields manifested all around her, any one only about as large as a dinner plate, and arranged in a loose, but precise honeycomb pattern, so there were gaps between the shields. They moved, pulling themselves together in three spots, overlapping for stronger defense.

The trees smashed into them and promptly grew around them, barely slowed down by the shields.

This time, he saw the shift, and thus the pain, coming, and yet Basil nearly fell over regardless.

Hecate grabbed him by the upper arm, helping him stay up. “Thank God,” she whispered, looking at the combatants.

DiL had started leaking sparks from all around her, creating a trail of them as she flew around, dodging Gloom Glimmer and Rounds’ attacks.

“Those loops were getting longer and brighter each time they went around,” she explained as he stood straight again.

“They do usually grow stronger with time,” Basil confirmed. “I feel like something should be said in regards to how utterly, unfairly powerful Rounds and Gloom Glimmer are together. Something involving multiple exclamation marks and strong expletives.”

“That would… usually be Tyche’s role,” Hecate replied softly, not looking at him as she pulled her hand away from him.

“Do you…”

“I dropped by her apartment before I came back here. She’s staying out of this fight. Took her mother to a shelter,” she replied.

He felt himself relax, a little bit. Shelters were hardly a guarantee that one would be safe from DiL, but they’d at least improve the odds.

Hopefully enough so her power wouldn’t need to further harm her mother so as to ensure Tyche’s survival, if it even worked against DiL.

Still… he would have liked to have her with them. If not for her ridiculously useful power then just…

Just to have her there.

DiL passed by nearby, the sparks she was shedding having increased in volume. Wherever they came into contact with solid matter, the disappeared with a brief flash… and took all matter within about a centimetre around them with them.

Rounds was hot on her heel, a full complement of apparitions around him – eleven Gloom Glimmer’s and Wary Wu, trying to hit her, somehow, using a staggering variety of powers.

None of them hit, be they tendrils which sprouted out of surrounding material lashing out, multi-coloured laser beams which froze anything they hit, explosions of pure force generated at the target point rather than thrown out and more.

DiL simply danced around and through them, never even having to rely on her invulnerability as nothing managed to touch her.

Some manner of combat esper power, Basil thought as he and the girls backed up to another rooftop, not wanting to test their defenses against those sparks or a possible shot from Rounds gone astray. Will she switch out as soon as she is hit even once?

Clearly, Rounds believed that to be the case, as he put his all into hitting the woman.

Gloom Glimmer, meanwhile, flew towards them and landed on the rooftop – only to stagger, trip, and nearly collapse.

Basil moved on instinct and caught her, his hands grabbing a hold of her shoulders before she could fall over entirely.

He had never seen her look so exhausted. Her face was nearly ashen, her lips as pale as the skin around them and her eyes were sunken, as if she’d gone for days without rest.

“H-hey,” she greeted him with a smile. “S-s-sorry… just need a… short break.” She slumped against him, her breathing laboured – and yet she was recovering even as she spoke, a little colour having already returned to her face.

Polymnia stepped up to them and he handed Gloom Glimmer over to her, as she wrapped an arm around her friend’s waist, holding her up.

It was then that Basil noticed something which her pigtails had previously hidden.

“Your ears are bleeding,” he said simply, looking at the trickle of blood running out of said ears.

She nodded, giving him a pained smile. “Ever since Bree showed up, I’ve been hearing this song, everywhere. The closer to her I get the louder and more painful it becomes and when she passed by me earlier, it nearly knocked me out. It gets briefly worse whenever she changes powers, too.” She raised her free left hand to touch her ear, pulling it back to look at the blood on her fingertips, while the fingers of her right hand were tapping on Gloom Glimmer’s side, like a keyboard. “It sounds kind of like the music I hear whenever Gloomy loses control of her power, or draws too deeply on it, only… louder. But with less… discord?”

“What are the chances that both of you would have a reaction like that?” Hecate asked as she joined their little circle, her arms crossed beneath her chest. “Basil has had the worst headache since DiL appeared, and he gets flashes of greater pain when she changes powers.” She looked at the two of them, worry visible on the lower half of her face.

”Very bad if we assume it is not connected in some kind,” Basil pondered the thought. “It may be significant that the both of us are Gadgeteers.” He looked at Polymnia with one eye, while watching the fight continue through his raven – by some miracle, it still worked, even though the ravenbots were by necessity not exceptionally hardened against interference.

Rounds was continuing his assault with the nearly two dozen offensive powers he had at his disposal and DiL was dodging his attacks by smaller and smaller margins as he got used to the way her power made her dodge. He would likely land a hit soon, at which point she’d switch out her powers again.

That would be the most dangerous time in any DiL battle – right after she’d switched powers, before anyone knew what she was going to do next, with no useful limitations upon what she might pull out next.

”You say you hear this song around Gloom Glimmer, as well? Do you hear it right now?” he continued to prod while they still had the time – it was very much possible that DiL’s next powerset would see them all thrust into the thick of battle again, while right now, they could do little more than stand by and watch.

Polymnia looked at her rapidly recovering friend. ”Not right now, no. I think that’s because she’s not actively using anything big at this time.”

Gloom Glimmer looked up at her, smiling apologetically. “I’ll be back in working order soon.”

”Hrm. So many questions,” Basil temporised, turning away from them with his hands clasped behind his back. “I have never heard of this particular phenomenon before.” He watched as the Mementos pulled up a huge force-field thick enough it looked more like a fortress’ wall than the usual screens such effects tended to produce.

DiL smashed right through it as she dodged a coordinated attack by Rounds and his apparitions, the force wall flaring up and crackling with electricity.

That seemed to do it, as pain burned through Basil’s mind, making him stagger again, as he heard Polymnia behind him groan in discomfort or pain.

He pressed the button on the communicator, not even sure whether it would be or ever had been of any use, but DiL didn’t give them a chance to adjust or prepare – her entire form erupted into a thick solid ash cloud, shooting out towards Rounds in a thick, very nearly rock-solid blast.

According to Basil’s heat sensors, it was more of a pyroclastic flow than just a mere ash cloud.

Rounds, fortunately, was prepared. He raised his arms and crossed them in front of himself, as one of Gloom Glimmer’s apparitions did the same while floating right next to him, the other apparitions all moving between the two of them as the concentrated flow simply… split, as if an invisible wedge had been driven into it, failing to touch them or so much as heat up the air around them while flowing past, causing devastating damage to a small children’s playground and some adjacent buildings, as well as killing a trio of unlucky capes who’d wandered too close and weren’t able to get away in time, their forms being near-instantly swallowed up by the flow.

Or so it seemed, as both of them appeared atop a nearby rooftop, one of the translucent Gloom Glimmers finishing a gesture she’d made towards them.

”That was lucky for them,” Hecate breathed a sigh of relief, even as she eyed the devastation warily – they weren’t that far away from it, certainly not at a distance where DiL would be unable to strike at them, if she did shift her attention away from Rounds.

”Not so much lucky,” Basil replied as he zoomed in on the trio. They weren’t capes after all. “That’s the triad. Wary Wu’s with them.”

He zoomed in on the notorious trio of criminals. Wary Wu stood in the back, behind his two underlings.

The elderly metahuman had been the main reason why Basil had quite decidedly voted for his team not to mess with triad business too much. At over seventy years old, he did not cut a very imposing physical figure, being short, thin, with a thin fu manchu beard and wearing a surprisingly cheap, ill-fitting suit without even a tie – but that mattered little when one considered that he’d been a cowl since his teens and was still alive, sixty years later. One challenged that kind of record at their own peril.

Of course, you just had to go and challenge a guy even older than that earlier today…

Shut. Up.

With Wary Wu were his left- and right-hand man, Drunk Da and Zealous Zhou.

The former looked even more average than his boss, a slender chinese man with long, messy black hair and a simple goatee, wearing a Chinese martial artist’s outfit – loose black pants and soft black shoes, as well as a wide-sleeved white shirt. The only part which stood out about him was the huge gourd strapped to his back, easily as tall and wide as his entire upper body.

Zealous Zhou was the only one of the trio wearing something even remotely appropriate to his vocation and the current situation – urban camo military fatigues, a tactical vest, a pair of straight short swords strapped to his sides and a rifle strapped to his back, as well as a red mask covering the upper half of his face, made of some kind of shiny resin, with a precise goatee covering his exposed chin and surrounding his mouth.

As DiL unleashed a second, larger wave of pyroclastic flow, the three of them were already moving at Wary Wu’s word. Wu and Zhou backed behind Da, who pulled the gourd up over his shoulder, taking a huge swig of some kind of clear liquid, messily enough some of it spilled over and stained the neck of his shirt.

Then he took a step forward, staggering in drunkenness, and balanced – barely – on his left leg, raising the right one and whirling it in a circular portion.

Even though he was moving barely faster than a normal person, the motion generated enough force to stir the air – and form a wind funnel that hit the incoming pyroclastic flow, parting it so it flowed past the trio without causing them any harm.

At least, no direct one, as Drunk Da yelped and beat at his own shirt, where the immense heat had ignited the alcohol he’d just spilled over it.

Zhou intervened by reaching over and ripping his shirt off entirely, throwing it on the ground, while Da beat out the flames that’d jumped onto his goatee.

While that show was going on, DiL had already unleashed another flow, even larger still – this time in the rough direction Basil and the others stood, though she did not seem to aim directly at them so much as at the capes and cowls who were massing in the market square next to the building they’d gathered atop of.

Basil was just about to retreat to another rooftop, when two Mementos dropped out of the sky, landing on the street the flow was travelling along with enough force to shatter the asphalt, and raised their huge hands, palms out towards the oncoming tide of destruction.

Space twisted in front of them, and a portal opened, catching the pyroclastic flow. Another portal opened above and behind DiL, redirecting the flow into her back.

Though she was obscured by the mass of lethally hot ash, Basil could easily tell that that must have counted somehow as her power being sufficiently interfered with – perhaps her defensive ability couldn’t deal with her offensive one? – as pain flared up in his head again.

“She’s pulling out something new!” Polymnia spoke with unnatural calm, even as she flinched in pain, her free hand rising to her ear again.

Gloom Glimmer raised her head, her eyes a bright red surrounded by utter black, and snapped her fingers.

There was an all too familiar wrench of disorientation and then the lot of them found themselves on top of a different building, four blocks away, just as dozens of glass-like, crystalline tendrils shot out of the ash cloud, spearing through and destroying three of Rounds’ apparitions – though he managed to avoid being hit himself, twisting his body out of the way of one that would have gone through his chest.

Drunk Da slapped a few of them aside with his bare hands, his power protecting him from what followed next.

Wherever the tendrils came into contact with solid matter, they fused into it, converting it into crystal, from which two tendrils shot out, aimed at random targets – sometimes metahumans, sometimes just parts of the scenery.

Those tendrils converted more matter into crystal, including several capes who’d been hit, as well as one Memento who’d shielded a trio of cowls from the attack, the victims transforming into distorted crystal statues, before a single tendril emerged from each point of impact, continuing the attack.

This last wave of tendrils did not spawn new ones, merely converting their targets to crystal.

None of them came even close to Basil and the others, but it was still a horrid show, as even with their limited view of it, they saw at least a dozen men and women die to the initial attack.

In the distance, DiL rose out of the remains of her own cloud, leaving several tendrils behind, their ends sticking into the air where they seemed to have emerged from her body – or rather, a few centimetre away from it, as they usually did.

Ribbons of some kind of reflective material encircled her form, allowing only for glimpses of the figure beneath, save for her hair, which was long enough to very nearly touch the ground below her. The ribbons reflected her surroundings, but in a distorted way, like trying to look at something through several improperly aligned, curved lenses.

“Those ribbons… defensive or utility?” Hecate asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Basil could still hear the sadness and the fear in it, and he wished he knew how to reassure her right then.

He didn’t want to lie to her, making false reassurances.

Instead, he watched Rounds fly up into the air again, leaving several crystallized people he must have tried to help to face DiL at a distance again, surrounded by six apparitions of Gloom Glimmer and the one of Wary Wu.

“He is getting whittled down… as is Memento,” Basil observed.

“Not for long,” Gloom Glimmer refuted, as she disentangled herself from Polymnia and stepped forth, her sock-covered feet not making a sound upon the roof even before she simply levitated upwards.

Looking at her, she almost seemed like a different person to before. Completely recovered and poised, whatever powers she currently held so intense, they seemed to distort space around her even when she wasn’t doing much with them.

This close to her, Basil could definitely sense… something. A change, in the… the cadence of the pain. As if whatever was pressing on his brain was being interfered with by another, similar emission…

It was actually kind of soothing, even if he couldn’t actually make out anything about the second one, other than the slight alleviation of pain he experienced.

So many questions. So much to unravel, once there’s some time to actually investigate, he thought, not that he wasn’t aware of how slim the chances were he’d still be around to do it.

Speaking of which… you gotta get moving, mate. You’re not doing much to help, as is.

Agreed.

A quick flick of his left hand’s fingers brought his force shield to life – it seemed to be safe from DiL’s interference, at least for now. A twitch deactivated it again.

He looked at Gloom Glimmer, who was in the process of turning away from them and flying away.

“Can you drop me off closer to the battle?” he asked her, stepping forth.

“B-Brennus!” Hecate called out, grabbing him by the wrist. “Are you… I mean, you can’t be serious – this is way out of our league!”

He looked at her hand on his wrist, then up at the shadows beneath her hood, to cross eyes with her.

Funny, how his mask was currently only covering the lower half of his face, and hers only the upper half.

Even funnier that he would even notice that, at such a time.

”Those crystals bond with solid matter,” he replied calmly. “I would bet my last raven that they will be unable to penetrate my force shield. And besides… I want to do whatever I can to help here.” He looked down again. “I am sure you understand.”

She stayed quiet for a moment, then let go of his wrist. Drawing her cloak tighter around herself, she seemed to shrink for a moment, her shoulders slumping out of her usually flawless posture – then she suddenly stood up straight again.

”Yeah. Yeah, you’re right… and so do I,” she replied, her voice firm. “I’ll come along.”

Heavy steps made all three of them – Gloom Glimmer had just been observing quietly so far – turn to look at Polymnia, who had a pained expression crossed with a smile on her face. “My sonic cage is just as good at deflecting solid matter as your force fields are, Brennus. And you couldn’t keep me away from this if you tried.”

They all looked at each other, then at Gloom Glimmer, who was looking at them with a strangely calm, serious expression – not that it wasn’t warranted, in this situation, but she wasn’t showing any real emotion right then.

“Alright. Let’s get going,” she said and gestured at them. Her power wrapped around them, distorting air and light, and they flew off towards the growing forest of crystal tendrils.

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B14.2 Breaking Point

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“Commencing fifty-ninth attempt at completing the prime directive,” the Memento in front of them said, its brassy, electronic voice carrying easily across the plaza. “Assuming command of local operations as per pre-existing protocols established with the relevant Metahuman Combat Organisations.”

Irene watched the machine – could it even really be said to be a machine? – reach out and touch the pillar of tesseracts. Golden light spread from the point of impact, circuit patterns spreading over and through the tesseracts as they folded into themselves and disappeared, until only one was left, floating at about chest height above the ground.

Her power twitched, a sensory ability falling into place which traced the spatial distortions, locating the tesseracts across the entire area covered by the Desolation Field. They’d been spread out, though not uniformly, clustering closer at key areas while neglecting ones at the fringes.

“These constructs serve as nodes for a teleportation network,” Memento explained calmly. “Touching one will project a map of the nodes’ locations and the area in general into your mind, allowing you to choose a node as the destination.”

He raised a hand, which split open and retracted the fingers, forming a cannon of sorts, as Irene felt the sensory ability recede in favour of a form of defense… desolidification of some kind, but she didn’t get a chance to figure it out before it was gone, her power realising that she didn’t need to defend herself against Memento.

A silvery beam was projected out of the arm cannon, like the wave patterns on liquid mercury you dropped something into, only it was just the waves without the mercury. Where the beam concentrated, a huge metal crate… faded into view, becoming fully solid within a few seconds.

Once the beam cut off, the crate folded open, revealing hundreds of small, about palm-sized objects, looking like watches without hands or bands.

“Every combatant is strongly advised to take one of these communicators and affix them to their body by touching the flat side to whichever spot upon them that they want it to adhere to,” he explained, as people began to appear out of the node, seemingly blinking into existence out of nowhere, up to four at a time each touching a different side of the tesseract.

Irene paid them no mind and stepped forward, feeling the cobblestone beneath her feet, thanks to the sock-like bottoms of her suit that she wore in lieu of actual shoes; a choice she’d made for a variety of reasons, from having no need to walk where it would be impractical footwear, to just wanting something cute and unusual…

And she was deflecting, letting her mind drift rather than deal with the here and now. She had to focus, to get herself ready to dive back into the fight; so she took one of the watches, turning it about in her hand as she walked away from the crate – it was more of a container really, when looked at from close range, it’d only seemed like a mere crate due to Memento’s present body being so huge – and came to a stop a little apart from anyone else.

She didn’t feel up to interacting, right then and there. The last few minutes still weighed heavily on her, as she touched the contrivance to her left collarbone, just below where the cape she’d inherited from her mother was connected to her bodysuit, and it stuck to it under its own power, booting up with a barely audible hum.

Mother’s cape, Irene thought morosely, remembering the occasion when her mother had given it to her – just minutes before she’d fought the Rabid Eight in that stupid stunt the director and Patrick had cooked up to show New Lennston that the UH still had teeth, even with nearly the entire adult membership being away for several months (it had worked, of course – barring the two bizarre S-Class events which followed upon one another, and the Red Goblins’ idiocy, the crime rate in New Lennston had risen only slightly, way below the projections made by Argus Panopticos), the moment when her mother had pulled the cape off her shoulders and put it around Irene’s, followed by a kiss to the forehead, standing out far more in her recollection than the entire battle which had followed, than the entire rest of the day, even though it’d been the day she’d first met Melody.

“You will surpass us, my love,” her mother said, her words as clear as if she was saying them right now. “You are the best of me, and the best of your father, and one day you will be more than we could ever be.”

And she’d said that with such conviction, like it was an absolute truth, and yet so calmly and casually, like it was self-evident.

Her father had been there also, as he was now, when her mother was not. Just like then, now, he moved closer, wrapping his arms around her from behind, lifting her off her feet to give her a light hug; though his wraith had been more solid then, his power more present, not expended as it was now.

“What are you thinking about, zeiskeit?” he asked now.

“What your mother is trying to say is that, one day, she and I will be but footnotes in history books, our only notable achievement being that we gave birth to and raised you,” he’d said then. “Now go and show the world a glimpse of that.”

“I’m thinking about Bree,” she said softly, feeling his body stiffen briefly, a flinch she could only notice because she was pressed so tightly against him, half engulfed in the wispy mist of his wraith. “I tried to… to reach her.” Her eyes watered, though she managed to blink the tears away, moments before her power offered and then withdrew a power that’d deaden her emotions. “She didn’t even notice me.”

She’d been so proud, back then. To finally be stepping up to the task. To finally have enough control over herself and her power that her parents trusted her to put on a costume and go out and do good.

To finally be able to start working on the one thing she knew would delight her parents more than anything, perhaps even more than answering that question – to recover their firstborn, so their family could finally be whole, without Bree’s spectre always looming over them.

To prove to the world that no one was beyond redemption.

To save her big sister.

And on a more selfish note, to prove that she herself didn’t have to follow down Bree’s path and even if she did, that she could still be saved even then.

She used to have nightmares about becoming like Bree, about killing those near and dear to herself – first her parents, then those like Gruncle Jake or Uncle Neil or Journeyman. Later, others had joined them in her nightmares, Thomas, Harry, Aimihime, even Goudo and Jared. Even Basil and his teammates, though she knew them so little. Prisca.

Melody.

“She is beyond saving, Irene,” he spoke softly, as he put her down and gently turned her around to face him, lowering himself down on one knee to look her in the eyes as he put a hand on each shoulder. “Please, please, if you must fight here – and believe me, if I thought I could enforce it right now, I wouldn’t let you take part in this – then you must not try to save her. You must not try to reach her. The only way you can go if you want to stay here is to see her as the enemy she is and work to mitigate the damage she does… and protect yourself.”

He pulled her into a hug again, the mist-like shadows wrapping around her, engulfing her face as she was pulled tightly against his hard chest, his arms warm and strong around her.

Even as she felt her body relax a bit, even as she focused on him to center her thoughts a bit, to keep them from continuing to fly apart, she couldn’t help but remember and consider…

You’re her father. Shouldn’t you, above all, believe that she can be saved? Do everything possible to save her? If not you, then who?

“How can I be more than both of you, if I can’t even do this?” she asked instead, her voice barely audible even to herself, catching hold of a different line of thought.

“Maybe one day you will be able to do what we couldn’t,” he replied, his voice soft in spite of the manifold distortions worked into it. “But that day is not now. Please, Irene, promise me. Promise me that you won’t try to save her, not today. Promise me that you’ll prioritise keeping yourself safe.” His grip on her tightened, as if he was trying to pull her deeper into his shadows, restrain her so she wouldn’t be able to join in the fight. “If not for your sake, then for mine. I could not bear to lose you.”

Unbidden, powers rose to prevent even that. High-speed teleportation, gaseous desolidification, a crude yet immensely powerful form of telekinesis…

No, she didn’t need those. She pushed the powers back, preventing them… herself… her steward… whomever from lashing out at her father or escaping his embrace.

Still, it served to illustrate his point well. Perhaps, if he hadn’t spent himself fighting Marchosias, then the Gefährten, he might have been able to restrain her, but the way he was now…

All he could do was plead with her and she would be lying if she denied that his heartfelt plea – for it truly was such, there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his emotions – didn’t make a part of her want to just curl up in his arms and leave, abandon the fight and just shut out the world for a while, regardless of the consequences…

But that part of her wasn’t the part that was in charge.

“I’ve got to fight, daddy,” she said softly, as she pushed her hands against his chest.

He resisted, briefly, but then he let her go, his six-eyed ‘face’ completely expressionless as he remained on one knee, briefly, before standing up again. He remained quiet.

Looking up at him, she felt her heart break a bit as she admitted to herself that he was right… to a point. “I… I promise you… I won’t try to save Bree, today,” she said, knowing that if she tried, she would fail and most likely die… “Today, I will fight to protect others from her, and I’ll do my best to keep myself safe as well, as far as that’s possible.”

And if Irene died, then who would save Bree? Who would save everyone else?

Who would answer the question she’d been born to answer?

He looked her in the eyes, six red ones to two blue ones, and nodded. “Thank you, zeiskeit.”

She nodded to him, lowering her eyes again. “What about mom?” she finally asked, after a few quiet seconds passed, while around them the capes and cowls were moving out. Most of the junior heroes had left her alone to talk to her father, but Melody was still there, waiting, watching her with those big, soulful eyes of hers.

Probably hearing everything they said, too, not that Irene minded that.

“I’ve sent a messenger to recall her as quickly as possible,” he replied calmly, back to a more business-like demeanor. “Unfortunately, she had to move beyond the reach of most forms of quick communication… it may take a while for the message to reach her, and even more to make her way here. For the time being, we will have to deal without her.”

She nodded. “What about you?”

He shook his head. “I spent too much. The way things stand, I can’t even provide communications with my wraiths,” he admitted, his anger over his own impotence evident even through the distortions of his darkwraith. “I’ll stay in the back, use Memento’s network to help coordinate and guide our forces.”

“Alright.” Deep breaths. “I’ll… be getting ready, then.” Her power was roiling, as active as she’d ever known it, like a pond or a small lake over-filled with fish fighting and striving to rise to the surface. She turned around to move away, but he took her by the shoulder.

“Irene, I am all but powerless right now,” he said, his voice soft. “But you know there’s a way for me to recharge rapidly.”

“A monstrous way,” she replied without turning around or even looking over her shoulder, her voice less than a whisper.

“Nonetheless, if I deem it necessary to protect you, I will walk that way, no matter the price to me… or others. Do you understand?” he countered, his voice as hard as it had been soft before.

A shiver ran down her spine as she contemplated what he was talking about… and the real meaning of his words.

To openly use, perhaps even publically reveal the true nature of his powers, kept secret for almost a century, just for the sake of protecting her.

You’re my daddy, after all, she thought, not without some wistfulness. I just wish you’d feel the same way about Bree.

Then again, perhaps you did try, and that failed, too.

She reached up with one hand and squeezed his hand where it lay on her shoulder. “I understand. I’ll make sure it won’t be necessary, I promise.” She squeezed his hand again, then she moved away, letting it slide off her shoulder as she walked over to Melody, quietly taking her friend’s hand.

Her father looked after her for a few more moments, then he turned away and moved over to Memento’s instance.

“I’m sorry,” Melody spoke softly, using her vocoder. Irene’s power wasn’t volunteering any telepathy right now… rather, it seemed to be building up to something big, by the feel of it.

“It’s alright,” Irene replied, squeezing her friend’s fingers tightly enough to be felt through her thick, rigid gloves. “Everything will be well, you’ll see.” She tried to give Melody a reassuring smile, but it clearly didn’t work well, judging by her expression.

Melody didn’t press the point, however, and Irene averted her eyes, looking out over the plaza again just in time to see Basil… calling him ‘Brennus’ just felt wrong to her, somehow, like it was missing something… approach the node, looking over his shoulders at the two of them – they were the last ones of his fellow teenagers still on the plaza, everyone else having moved on.

Another lost one, she thought, feeling a wave of sympathy wash over her. She knew about Prisca’s death, of course. She had cried when she heard, and she would likely cry more and grieve properly, once she had the time, but right now, others needed her more.

Others, like Basil. Something about him… he’d always felt different to her. Not in any way related to powers, but in a far more primal way.

It was like she’d thought moments ago.

He’s lost, like I am, she thought quietly, watching him touch the node and disappear, then she looked up and into the distance, seeing lights flash and dustclouds rise in the distance where the fight was even now going on.

We all are, really. Capes and cowls, the lot of us. Basil and Prisca, Vasiliki and Amanda, Dalia and Bree, all the others and foolish little Irene, all of us, here in the city where it all began, all the lost ones.

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vote for brennus

B14.1 Breaking Point

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Pain lanced through Basil’s head, again, only to remain there, like a nail that had gotten stuck in his brain, a steady throbbing sensation, making him feel like his head was about to burst, or perhaps collapse, or perhaps simply burn to ash.

Pain was an old friend, one he didn’t really remember, yet familiar none the less. It had made it easy to ignore the many wounds he’d suffered throughout his short career as a hero so far, helped him compartmentalise the experiences, focus on taking the necessary steps to survive, rather than be preoccupied with the pain.

It helped here, again, even though this was a purer pain than ever he’d known before, a pain that was not in his body, but his mind, yet without any emotion to cause it. Still, he looked away from it, focused on what lay beyond his inner thoughts.

Frankly, focusing on the pain seemed like a more pleasant option. Desolation-in-Light still floated above the street, seemingly blind and deaf to the world around her, not that there was much to hear as everyone near her was deathly silent save for the occasional sobs.

He’d heard rumors, read stories of eye witnesses, many put off as mere attentionseekers, liars or crazies, of DiL appearing in places, isolated ones usually, only to do nothing at all but stay a while, floating in the air, and leave again, causing harm to none. Usually it was only witnessed by one or two people, in those stories, but they remained remarkably consistent and most of the reports had had the ring of truth about them.

A small part of him, a very small one, dared hope that she would disappear here, too, leave them be – leave it at a mere scare, rather than the sheer namesake desolation that was sure to follow if she struck now.

The pain in his head redoubled as a shower of light, like liquid, glimmered around her, starting above her head from a single point, spreading into a glowing halo, before it ran down, tracing a sphere around her as it expanded until the halfway point, then collapsed again, until it gathered into a single spot beneath her feet again and disappeared, as the pain in Basil’s head returned to its earlier, more managable throbb.

Tiny spots appeared all around her, as if stuck to the surface of the invisible sphere the light had just traced, the spots growing as they spun in place, tiny rocks that grew, starting to make grinding sounds as they cracked into many smaller pieces that ground against each other even as they continued to grow and spin and dance about her.

Basil was still unbalanced by the sudden surge of pain, but Vasiliki, fortunately, was not and she didn’t wait to see what this power, or whichever others she had picked, could do. Rather, she threw something at the ground in front of them, and a cloud of greenish smoke rose up and encircled them, forming a slightly glowing dome around the bench they’d sat on.

Rising up, she reached into her purse and withdrew an elongated package wrapped in white fabric several times the size of the tiny purse, throwing it at him.

He caught it, more out of instinct than conscious thought, recognising the emergency package he’d entrusted to her a while ago, for occasions such as these.

Unwrapping it, the white fabric was revealed to be a replica of his cloak with the corvid uroboros upon the back, having been wrapped around a pair of boots and gloves, as well as a sleek, yet boxy rifle made of silver and black metal, as long as one of his legs from toe to hip and, finally, a slender mask.

Vasiliki, meanwhile, had stripped out of her clothes right next to him, revealing that she’d worn her bodysuit underneath her clothes, just with the sleeves rolled up – what he’d thought to be stockings had been her costume’s pants. She finished tugging it into place, putting her clothes into the purse before pulling the outside cover off said purse, revealing it to be her bag of holding.

They dressed up, both of them, with Basil’s shoes and jacket disappearing into her bag as well, while she pulled out her belt, her cloak, her staff, boots, gloves and various other odds and ends she’d crafted over the months, lesser contrivances compared to the power she’d concentrated into her staff, belt and bag, but formidable nonetheless. She didn’t wear a mask, rather, her hood was enchanted to always stay on and shroud her face in shadows, only showing her jaw and lips, and only if she wanted it to at that.

Basil was done before she was, finally just holding the mask in his hands, looking down at it. It was a simple thing, not a helmet but a mask, yet without straps. Rather, its insides showed a lot of moving parts, as it was designed to shift and clip onto his face, molding itself to its contours, hiding it from his hairline down to his chin. Designed to look smooth, almost glassy on the outside, its lines barely implying the shape of a face, it was of the same jet-black ceramic as his armour was, except he had left that back home.

He held it to his face and felt it shift, attaching itself to it so finely he barely felt its weight once it was done and his interface booted up, the mask becoming seemingly transparent to his eyes as the all but invisible channels worked into its surface captured light (as well as other things), serving essentially as a big camera that covered the entire front of his mask. Two small extensions had folded out the sides and covered his ears, though they quickly picked up the sounds around him and channeled them through, allowing him to hear as clearly as if there were no obstructions at all. The mask did not nearly have his full suite of sensors and communication technologies, even he could only fit so much into such a small space, but it had enough to give him half a dozen vision modes and an uplink to his own personal network, the one he shared with Eudocia, his sole remaining raven and the equipment back at his base.

The gloves and boots were simple things, too. Both were meant to let him stick to objects by manipulating the forces that allowed molecules to stick together, creating temporary bonds between their surfaces and whatever he was touching. Both could also serve as contact-tasers.

Picking up his rifle – a small railgun which could also fire a grappling hook – he looked at Hecate.

”Sound test,” he said, a flick of his eyes making it so he could only be heard through their communications network.

“Hearing you loud and clear,” Hecate responded. “Oneiros’ Shroud will be down in sixteen seconds. What should we do?”

They, of course, hadn’t just thrown up a smokescreen while within such close range to DiL, blinding themselves to any attack that may come. The spell which Hecate had named Oneiros’ Shroud was an expensive one – it had taken her nearly a whole week to prepare this one, and they’d determined to only use it in an emergency. According to her, the smoke it generated transposed whatever it enshrouded into the world of dreams… well, he definitely needed to brush up his knowledge of Greek mythology, some day.

Either way, they ought to be safe until it went down. The fact that they hadn’t horribly died yet spoke to that fact.

Still, they’d need to act, and they’d need to act in concert in order to survive and save as many people as they could.

Feeling bone-wearingly tired, Basil took a deep breath and focused on his friend. “We make a move for the civilians. Try to get as many of them as far away from DiL as possible. Try to get in contact with other capes and cowls, coordinate as much as possible.”

No point in making too elaborate a plan when there was no way to tell how the situation was going to be. For all of her appearances, DiL rarely created the same kind of chaos twice and was all but impossible to plan ahead for.

Hecate looked at him, her face unreadable beneath her hood’s shadow. “Alright. Don’t die, Basil.” She reached out and took his free hand, squeezing it tightly. “There’s still… a lot we need to talk about,” she finished, her voice thick with emotion.

He looked down at their joined hands, nodding, though he didn’t get a chance to reply properly as the shroud dissolved around them and they found themselves amidst a wasteland of jagged rocks and shattered trees.

Looking about, letting go of each other’s hand, they saw huge growths of jagged grey and black rocks which seemingly sprouted from the ground all around, utterly savaging the park and the street DiL had appeared above, as well as the buildings there. The rocks had smashed trees and cars and buildings and impaled no small number of people, and crushed others.

DiL was not in sight, but where she had been was in evidence as the rocks all seemed to have spawned from around her, and lead back and up to it, twisted rock formations forming almost hand-like shapes as they reached up into the air, wrapping around what was now just empty air.

The area that Oneiros’ Shroud had protected was unblemished, untouched by rock, the outgrowths forming a perfect circle around them, sheered off where they had reached into the mist.

“I did not know it could do that,” Basil whispered.

”Neither did I…” Hecate replied. “I guess… we got switched back… and the rocks jutting into the shroud were pulled along as it returned to its rightful place.”

Basil nodded, and looked out over the devastation, switching through various modes of vision. “Over there. Survivors!”

He took off, running towards a particularly dense concentration of body-shaped… mostly body-shaped… heat signatures, behind a wall of jagged rocks, but without his grappling hooks, Hecate easily overtook him, shooting past him as a mass of green-black smoke, surging across the wrecked park, the broken street and into the ruins of what used to be a toy shop.

By the time he got there, she was already triaging the survivors, applying her healing salve to only the most immediately dangerous wounds – she didn’t have much of it and it was by far one of her most expensive contrivances in terms of materials required to make it.

Basil joined in as she pulled a first aid kit out of her bag, throwing it at him. He caught it and went to work.

There were eight survivors in the toy shop, half of them children and more corpses than he cared to count.

Of the eight, two were in critical condition – one six-year-old boy had had one of his legs shorn off by a razor-sharp blade of stone and had nearly bled out before Hecate had gotten to him, and a woman had been impaled through the abdomen by a thin spear of the same material.

The children weren’t even crying yet, still not having processed what was going on it seemed.

Basil tied off the boy’s leg stump after Hecate applied her salve to it, and tightened the kn-

He gasped, bending over, as the pain spiked again, his vision briefly going white as his whole world was nothing but agony for a moment.

“Brennus, what’s wrong?” Hecate asked in worry as she reached over and finished tying the knot.

“I do not… some kind of headache… since she appeared… momentary spikes of white-hot pain,” he gasped, the agony dying back down to the steady throb of background pain he could actually deal with.

She spat some kind of curse in Greek and slid over on her knees, finishing his work on the boy’s stump. “Can you help her?” she asked with a nod towards the woman who’d been impaled.

Getting up and walking over, he took a closer look, as the woman looked up at him with eyes that were nearly delirious with pain, as she held onto the hand of a toddler in a stroller, the little girl staring at her mother in confusion – unable to understand what was wrong, but still grasping that something was off, he guessed.

He couldn’t help with that, but he could help the woman, and told her so, his voice calmer than he felt as he knelt down next to her.

She was young, just a little older than Amy if he had to guess and had the kind of thinness he usually associated with out-of-practice athletes – she no longer worked out to maintain the muscle tone, but hadn’t really put on much weight either. She was healthy though, clearly, and that might make all the difference.

A sharp spear – more of a rough blade, really – had thrust up out of the ground, impaling her through her green pullover. She was half bent over, on her knees and trembling from head to toe; fortunately, the blade had pierced her at an angle and had missed her spine, at the very least. It was, however, in position to have pierced through her intestines, her stomach and perhaps even a kidney.

”I can not remove the spike in these conditions,” he told her calmly. “I will cut it off beneath you, so we can move you someplace you can get the surgery needed.” Right then, the spike was likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding out, and he didn’t have the equipment on hand to operate.

She looked at him, blood running from her mouth over her lips and down her chin, nodding when she couldn’t find the strength to speak.

Basil switched places with Hecate again, telling her what needed to be done. He checked over her work on the boy – he’d passed out – and then went on to apply first aid where needed, while Hecate used one of her charms to simply disintegrate the spike beneath the woman as a store clerk helped hold her steady, then lowered her gently to the ground.

It was good, but it wasn’t enough. The woman, the boy, at least three more, they weren’t going to make it unless they got them somewhere sa-

He flinched, briefly stunned by another spike of white-hot pain, before it receeded again.

They had to get them somewhere for proper treatment, else they’d die. But they were in no state to be transported and survive it.

As cruel a catch twenty-two as any-

White-hot pain.

He shook his head, trying to centre himself again. A shorter interval, this time. Is it just going to get more frequent, until there’s nothing but the pain?

He’d counted the seconds between episodes, in the back of his mind, and he could not yet see any regularity to them. No pattern.

Not that he had the time to really analyse what was going on…

He looked up, moments before the air before the shattered storefront window twisted, condensing into a whirl of shadows, then snapped apart again, a familiar figure appearing out of it and landing nimbly on her bodysuit-covered feet.

The people in the shop, especially the children, looked at her in awe, some cheering weakly as Gloom Glimmer smiled at them, trying to look reassuringly friendly, even as Basil could see a pain that put his headache to shame behind those brilliant blue eyes.

She looked at him and Hecate. “We’re gathering up at the Memorial Plaza. Make your way there while I take these people to the medical camp.”

Basil and Hecate exchanged looks, then nodded to Gloom Glimmer, briefly telling her the most crucial details on the people there before they made their way out of the former toy shop, not even taking the time to look back as they heard the twisting snap of Gloom Glimmer’s teleportation.

***

The Memorial Plaza stood where the centre of Old Lennston had once been, making up one of the three central points of New Lennston, the others being the Town Hall and the United Heroes’ headquarters, the three of whom were connected via a ring road encircling a big, circular park with several small lakes and ponds within.

While the plaza had originally been designed for the sake of remembering Old Lennston, it had evolved past that singular purpose – there was now also a memorial to Lennston’s fallen superheroes, as well as those of its scions which had gone off to war and never returned alive. There was also one for the casualties of the police force… the place had in general become a place for remembering all that had been lost to Lennston, both Old and New.

Nineteen capes and cowls stood in front of the obelisk which made up its centrer, at the steps of which stood the unmistakable figure of the Dark, who was addressing the others.

Basil and Hecate landed near the group, just in time for another surge of pain to nearly knock him off his feet.

If this goes on I may well grow used to it…

The Dark looked at them, his expression as unreadable in its absence as ever – but his form was unlike anything they’d ever seen before – rather than the thick, almost liquid darkness of his customary wraith, his form now was smoky, billowing around his form; just as hidden as before, but somehow less… substantial, both in appearance and presence.

Exhaustion? From the fight against the Gefährten?, Basil asked himself, and immediately felt guilty – they needed the Dark in this, he was one of the most effective and efficient counters for DiL, and if it was his utterly failed excursion which drained him just in time for his deranged daughter’s attack…

Hecate punched his shoulder, staggering him out of his contemplation.

When he looked at her, he couldn’t see her face but he could tell she was glaring at him. “You can’t go around blaming yourself for everything. We each made our own choices,” she said firmly.

Basil looked away from her and down, taking a moment to absorb her words. Then he nodded, quietly, which seemed to please her as she grunted in a rather unladylike fashion and turned away to focus on the other gathered capes and cowls.

He only looked around briefly, but he didn’t see Amy… he hoped she was alright. He hoped she’d gotten out of that hellscape. He hoped she hadn’t gotten hurt.

How did I not worry about her? he asked himself as he followed Hecate quietly, staying behind her as they joined the Junior Heroes. All this time, I was just thinking about myself, while she was out there fighting, risking her life because I dragged her into that madness. I…

There was a hard impact on the ground nearby, causing Hecate and the Juniors to stagger, while Basil just adjusted his stance slightly, turning towards the source – only to get a face-full of Amy’s spandex-clad breasts as she drew him into an almost literally bone-crushing hug.

I heard. I’m sorry, she whispered softly into his head, even as she squeezed the life out of him. Deliberately, surely – she was still angry with him.

Basil raised his arms, giving her a light hug back – he really didn’t care whether more people found out about their relationship now; anyone who mattered already knew or would know regardless.

He saw Amazon glare daggers at the two of them through his raven, but most people were focused on the Dark.

Another spike of pain caused him to flinch, his legs buckling briefly at the sudden interruption to the soothing embrace.

”Brennus! What’s wrong?” Amy asked worriedly, looking at him with wide eyes as he let go of her and staggered back. Our connection was interrupted for a moment!

”Pain… ever since she showed up, there’s been this constant pain in my head,” he replied, holding his head with one hand. “And sometimes there’s a spike of even worse pain, but I don’t know why.”

”When did you first feel the increased pain?” the Dark interjected suddenly, having moved closer. At the same time, Rounds and the other adult heroes – save for Bismuth, who stood apart from the rest for some reason – came closer as well, their leader looking worried and more than a little suspicious.

Basil looked up at him, too numbed by… by everything, to really feel anything at his presence. Cycling through his raven’s memory, he found the moment. “When she first assumed a power-set,” he replied, his mind already leaping apart to a possible explanation…

The Dark nodded, as if a thought was confirmed. “You’re reacting to her power changes,” he replied with the tone of absolute certainty. “It might be useful to know if we lose sight of her to be able to tell whether and how often she changes powers.” He reached into the shadows enveloping his body, causing strands of jet-black mist to drift off, then held his hand out. “Wear or connect to this communicator.”

Basil reached out and took the flat, disc-like gadget – he wasn’t sure whether it was actually made by a gadgeteer, but it looked so compact and well-crafted, he strongly suspected that it had been – and turned it over. The palm-sized disk was smooth and silver on one side, but had several exposed circuits on the other.

Touching the circuit-covered side to his mask’s forehead, he found that it activated and synchronised with his mask’s systems easily – too easily. Wyrm’s, I suppose, he thought to himself as he pulled the disc away and attached it to his belt, where it stuck by itself.

”You’re now connected to our local network. Send a single ping whenever you sense a power change and we’ll route it through to everyone with a communicator,” the Dark instructed him.

Before Basil could reply in any fashion, even to agree, the wispy figure turned away and walked up the steps towards the monument, turning around to talk to the gathered capes.

“If I may have your attention, please,” he spoke, his voice deep and powerful enough it easily covered the plaza without any obvious amplification. Once everyone had turned to look at him, he went on. “We don’t have much time, so I’ll be brief. Most of you have never fought a battle like this before. You all think you know what to expect, from television, reports, books and whatever else told you about these fights. Most of them don’t know much. Here’s the facts as we know them: DiL is utterly invulnerable to damn near any effect ever used against her. Her personal, permanent defense makes it impossible to affect her with anything, including moving her in any way she does not wish to be moved. Sensory and mental attacks are just as useless as spatial and temporal ones. Her hair, teeth, finger- and toe-nails glow with a bright white light which acts as disintegrating contact poison that can eat through most defenses and constitutes a certain death unless you sever the affected portion of your body. She can fly and she has no known top speed – it ranges from walking speed to what is effectively short-range teleportation, especially since her invulnerability means that anything in her path will be obliterated rather than stop or even slow her. She does not rely on mundane senses whatsoever and appears completely unresponsive to such stimuli. It is theorized that she senses powers in some fashion, though she has demonstrated the ability to perceive baseline humans in the past, as well. However her sense or senses may work, they appear to pierce any kind of shroud. She is an impenetrable blindspot to Espers of all kinds, particularly Pretercognitives. Do not rely on danger senses or their like.”

“Your goal must not be to attack her but to interfere with and, if possible, counter whichever other abilities she assumes,” he clarified, looking around at the gathered capes and cowls. “She always assumes three distinct powers which can broadly be classified as offensive, defensive and utilitarian, respectively. Her powers start out world-class and grow from there. Whenever at least one of her abilities is interfered with to any meaningful degree, she changes her entire loadout and the new abilities she assumes start out at base level again. Why she acts in this fashion, we don’t know. If she’s allowed to build up for too long, the consequences tend to look like Mexico, Old Lennston, Portland or Okinawa. Do not let her build up.”

He stopped, giving them a moment to digest that. “Furthermore, the Desolation Field. Normally it extends to a radius of roughly two miles around her person. This time, she appears to have simply extended it over the whole of New Lennston and left it stationary, though fortunately she has not ‘hardened’ it as she did during her last appearance. The field blocks any kind of signal from crossing its boundary. This includes powers – Espers can’t perceive into or out of the field, even precognition is blocked. Power effects can travel across, but powers can’t reach through it – so if your power lets you, say, create a fireball you lob somewhere, it will travel across, but you won’t be able to, say, target someone for teleportation across the boundary, or affect them with any kind of mental power. Any such power will work properly within the field itself. Also, though it’s likely not useful to know, but maybe it’ll spark an idea somewhere, no one has ever manifested while within range of her Desolation field. People have manifested during her attacks, but only while outside the range of her sphere of influence, never while within it. Heterodyning also appears to be impossible while within range of her desolation field.” He paused again, looking out over the gathered crowd, as if searching for something, his gaze briefly stopping on his daughter as she stood together with most of the other teens – Outstep was missing – before moving on.

Basil looked around, once it seemed that the Dark was taking a break, and what he saw was a mixture of determination, resignation and sheer hopelessness spread liberally and to varying degrees over any face and body he could see. They all knew that this was a fight which could at best end in a phyrric victory which could only delay the destruction, not eliminate its source.

He would likely have felt some such emotions himself, but he was still blissfully numb.

“In spite of all this, our situation is not hopeless,” the Dark drew everyone’s attention back to himself. “Our biggest advantage is that DiL is not intelligent. She has no sense for tactics, forethought or subterfuge. Any such instances perceived in the past were ultimately just coincidences, never to be repeated – and they are incredibly rare to begin with. Furthermore, we-“

There was a shout, followed by another, as people pointed upwards at the sky, interrupting the Dark.

Basil looked up just in time to see a huge figure drop through the Desolation field, its descent slowed by blue-hot jets of flame shooting out of its feet.

And then another.

And another.

And more besides.

Dozens of hulking, glimmering figures dropped out of the sky, some of them accompanied by strange objects and weaponry – the closest one, which dropped down and lended with a pavement-cracking thud a dozen metre away from the gathered capes and cowls was reaching out, its hand laying flat on the side of a pillar as thick as two people and twice as tall as a schoolbus was long, made apparently from hundreds of chest-sized, silver-and-gold tesseracts shifting and moving into and through each other in a dizzying display of reality-defying engineering.

The figure next to it was no less impressive, though more familiar. A hulking humanoid made of steel, brass and gold, crafted as much for aesthetic appeal as raw functionality, was twice as tall as the Dark himself, easily four times as wide if not more and moved with mechanical perfection as it looked around them, its head encased in a dome of what read as see-through diamond to Basil’s sensors, holding a human-sized mechanical head within, its inner workings exposed, showing wires, chips and lots of clock-work-like bits which moved to give it the illusion of facial expressions, a pair of glowing red lenses making up its ‘eyes’. It looked out over the gathered capes and cowls, its expression neutral, as dozens more of its kind landed all across the city, each accompanied by a different device, some of them immediately joining in the battle against DiL in the distance.

“Huh,” the Dark looked at him in what appeared to be surprise, while a ripple of pure relief went through the other gathered metahumans. “Good to see you’re not sitting this one out again, Memento.”

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B13.e 17 Good People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really was an extraordinarily comfortable chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t going to be easy.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B and Heck wouldn’t hesitate at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

”Well… fuck,” Rachel said gravely.

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

Jessica lowered her head, feeling wretched.

Percy stayed quiet for another minute, then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t finished yet, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Percy, Rachel and Laurence all just nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would never begrudge her that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t get that boy, at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chief nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She immediately regretted doing so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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B13.19 Call of the Sleeper

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Gloom Glimmer’s power drew them together above the floating city, as the ribbons of distorted space intertwined around them, creating something of a shell that they all sat within.

She’d grabbed everyone who’d been in that room, other than the Dark himself, Immanuel and Syrinx. Even Dusu was there with them, looking down at the floating city in shock.

Basil didn’t even have the energy left to feel disgust or hatred, or even satisfaction at seeing the grin wiped off her face – though he’d enjoyed seeing Hecate beat on the woman a bit – as he leaned back against the odd ‘wall’ of the capsule they found themselves in.

Amy was with him, her head on his lap and groaning as she came out of the daze caused by whatever drug Immanuel had injected her with. She was still far from lucid, but at least he was pretty sure it wasn’t anything that’d cause lasting damage.

The others weren’t in much better state. Gloom Glimmer was crouched over Polymnia, who’d taken a worse beating than he’d thought at first, slowly healing her mangled arm as the young gadgeteer sniffled, trying not to cry anymore. They’d taken her armour off, leaving her only in her spandex shorts and top, and her armoured boots, while Gloom Glimmer also fixed multiple bruises across her exposed skin.

Tartsche and Spellgun were huddled together, with the latter all but sitting atop the former’s lap, looking through a pair of copper binoculars at the battle going on below.

Bakeneko was hugging Osore, shuddering and sobbing, while her boyfriend showed all the emotional range of a rock, even though Basil was quite certain he had recovered fully by now – if his regeneration worked off of feeding on fear, like the rest of his powers, then he’d certainly gotten more than enough energy to work with by now.

Tyche had paired up with Hecate, hugging her knees to her chest as she leaned into Hecate’s side, while the witch was stroking her hair with one hand and staring into the distance – or maybe she was looking at something, but he couldn’t tell what.

He looked away from her, with an odd, painful feeling in his gut.

The only one who seemed comfortable was Graymalkin, who’d reclaimed his resting place atop Amy’s breasts, curling up and yawning before he closed his eyes. The thought of how she’d freak out once she woke up and saw that almost brought a smile to his face, before he was reminded of… well, everything else, and that smile got squashed like a bug; so instead, he focused on the scenery below instead.

Though they were pretty high up, he could still make out details by using his visor’s zoom function.

The Companions’ floating city had turned into utter Bedlam. The Dark’s wraiths were everywhere, hundreds, thousands of them. Most of them were the small ones he tended to produce en masse, skeletal humanoid torsos with blank, six-exed faces, emaciated, clawed arms and no real lower body as they crawled across the floor, simply melting into darkness where their hips should be and below, said darkness forming an almost serpentine shape, if a rather short one compared to the rest of them.

They were his weakest creations, and they went down by the dozens, crushed, torn, penetrated and otherwise relatively easily destroyed by the many, many powers the fifty or so metahumans of the Companions’ brought to bear, being only a little tougher – if at all – than normal humans.

Even so, their sheer numbers more than made up for it, and Basil watched with rather clinical curiosity as half a dozen of them managed to break through to Boltstar and literally pull his limbs off, before one used his own leg to bash his head in.

Chronicle either couldn’t or wouldn’t rewind him, and then his corpse was obliterated along with the wraiths when one of the newcomers unleashed a spherical, orange explosion that disintegrated both them and the ground beneath.

Everywhere he looked, the carnage continued. Fifty metahumans, none of them lightweights judging by what he’d seen of the Gefährten so far, and yet for all their power and numbers, they might as well only have been an annoyance to the Dark.

For the first time, Basil really understood how he could still stand at the top.

The wraiths moved in waves, surging against the villains, and every time they did, they whittled them down a little more, breaking up their formations, taking down one or two – even if they didn’t stay down.

Basil could see Immanuel, standing in a circle of white light maintained by a nude woman with strips of some kind of white fabric instead of hair, along with a man covered head to toe in crystal shards that seemed to have either been jammed into him or grown out of his body and another man in a golden robe, holding a set of scales in one hand and a crystal ball in the other. He was clearly giving out instructions, speaking to his companions (at least one of whom likely transmitted them), coordinating his troops. Chronicle was there, as well, clutching her book to her chest, shoulders hunched and apparently frantically using her power, over and over, continuously rewinding any one of her people who was killed or crippled, whenever she managed to get her eyes on them.

The Gefährten had the advantage of numbers and sheer power, with at least fifty different metahumans, but they just couldn’t seem to break through the Darkwraiths in force, and every time they exchanged blows, every time they broke another wave of wraiths on their defenses, they lost one or two more, sometimes permanently, and their formations kept being pulled apart, separating them.

Meanwhile, the Dark just kept spawning more wraiths, replacing his lost ones, buying time for the greater ones to return to him and be… repaired? Recharged? Basil wasn’t sure how it worked, but he was healing those with actual powers of their own, while sacrificing the mindless crawlers and some larger, sturdier, but still powerless brutes.

In spite of the mad rush of his creations, the Dark himself seemed calm again, coordinating the battle and clearly pursuing a strategy of dividing and then obliterating his enemies; and it was working.

The King of Supervillains towered above the carnage around him, standing tall as more and more wraiths poured forth from the darkness at his feet. His head didn’t move to track the battle around him, not that he needed to – it was pretty well-known that he shared his wraiths’ senses – and he only moved when someone managed to break through his wraiths’ lines to attack him directly, countering whatever they threw at him with contemptuous ease.

A murder of crows dove down at him, pulling together into the form of Karasuha as she brought her sword down upon the Dark’s head, but he simply caught the blade, arresting her entire drop, and reached up with his left hand, grabbing her head and smashing it down on the ground to hard it burst like a melon. Before he even rose up, he flipped her sword around to grab it by the hilt and beheaded a man in a cheetah costume who’d rushed up to him with unnatural speed.

Karasuha’s form flicked and she was returned to life, her sword back in her hands, but the Dark simply brought his now empty hand down in a motion reminiscent of a karate chop.

Her body flickered and was replaced by another, a huge mountain of a man – though he was still shorter than the Dark – with his arms raised and crossed, ready to take the blow.

The ‘chop’ simply cleaved through him, through his crossed forearms, through his head, his torso, his loins, splitting him in half.

And it wasn’t just the Dark himself who perpetuated the slaughter. There were other wraiths, greater ones. Each with unique variations to their appearance, they were fighting the Companions with their own powers – Basil counted eighteen of these unique wraiths, and each one was at least equal to any two of the Companions’ villains.

“Hey, Gloomy, didn’t your power say that Immanuel was more dangerous than the Dark?” Melody asked, her voice sounding much more steady and  calm than she looked. “Because he’s totally kicking everyone’s ass – and giving me enough nightmare fuel to last a lifetime,” she concluded as they watched one particularly brutal scene where a wraith unraveled into scores of thin black tendrils, which stabbed forth into an enemy’s body, then tore him to pieces, pulling him apart from the inside out.

Most everyone looked away from the gruesome sight.

”It did,” Gloom Glimmer replied in a subdued voice, looking down at the battle, her expression saddened. “It still does, in fact.”

”It occurs to me,” Basil interjected, making both girls and some of the others look at him, though he kept looking straight down, “That perhaps your power is judging how dangerous they are to you, personally, not how dangerous they are in general. I find it hard to believe that the Dark is that big a threat to his own daughter.”

Gloom Glimmer thought it over, then nodded.

“Dunno about you guys, but I’m plenty glad he’s dangerous right about now,” Tyche mumbled, barely audible since half her face was pressed against Hecate’s collarbone.

“A-fucking-men,” Spellgun agreed with her.

”Gloom Glimmer, please take us home,” Tartsche spoke up. “There’s nothing left to do here.”

”Hey hey!” Dusu spoke up in protest. “The f-“

Spellgun shot her in the face, knocking her out.

The Dark’s daughter looked down at the fight. “But…”

“Irene, the best we could hope for if we got involved in that would be to not be used against him by his enemies,” her team’s leader spoke softly. “Even you aren’t strong enough to help him, not against such an enemy.”

She didn’t look at him, didn’t look away from her father, but she nodded. “Ok,” came a soft whisper, and then the capsule they were in began to move, seemlessly. There was no feeling of acceleration, no G-Forces pressing them flat against the ‘walls’ – they simply accelerated, instantly, to such a speed that their surroundings became a blur. “It will take a few minutes to get there,” Gloom Glimmer explained as she finished fixing Polymnia up. “Does anyone else need healing, while I still have it?”

Basil leaned back as Gloom Glimmer went around fixing the last remaining bruises and other wounds they’d accumulated in their short – and very one-sided – fight against Immanuel.

He noticed that Hecate had turned her head, her hood now pointed towards him, looking at… Amy’s head on his lap, his hand stroking her hair as she slowly recovered.

”I am sorry,” he said quietly, so quietly the junior heroes were unlikely to hear it.

She turned away.

They kept moving without actually moving, until Gloom Glimmer walked up to him and Amy – the two of them sat a little apart from the rest – and squatted in front of them.

Basil looked at her face, trying to decipher her expression, but she just seemed calm to him.

“I’ll fix her up, if you don’t mind,” she spoke softly.

He nodded and took his hand off Amy’s hair, while Gloom Glimmer reached down and put her glowing palm onto the villainess’ forehead. Unfortunately, this also caused Graymalkin to snarl at her and leap off his resting place stalking off with the kind of offended aura only a cat could project.

After a few moments, Amy’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned in pain. “Ugh… my head… princess? Basil? What’s going on?” She looked at the two of them in confusion, yet still calm.

”We are safe,” Basil said, to head off a freakout. “Gloom Glimmer brought her father and then took us away. He is tearing the Gefährten up now.”

”Wu-what?” she stammered, shocked. “The boss is here? I’ve got to help him!” She shot up, using her power to stand up near-instantly, but Basil grabbed her by the wrist.

”I do not think that he needs any help,” he spoke calmly. “Plus, he seemed really angry at Immanuel… way beyond what I would expect, even in this situation.” He looked at Gloom Glimmer, as did everyone else in the capsule, all with the same question on their minds.

What the hell could piss the Dark off that much?

Gloom Glimmer sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve never heard of Immanuel before, and Daddy never mentioned anyone he hated that much to me before,” she explained, her voice betraying just a hint of a whine towards the end.

”Well, that’s a mystery then,” Amy quipped as she brushed her hand over Basil’s helmet’s top, a brief gesture of affection. “Still, he’s my boss and I should be there. You brats are safe now and I’ve got to make up for going down like an amateur twice now.”

She looked down at Basil, and their eyes met. He nodded, and she smiled. “Let me out, princess,” she said, using the nickname without any bite to it.

Gloom Glimmer shrugged and the capsule stopped its movements above the sea, the water stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction.

”Alright, see you later, Basil. Princess. Brats,” Amy said, looking at all of them, before she dropped through the floor, reangled herself in mid-air and then shot away so violently, she distorted the air around herself, though they heard nothing of it inside the strange capsule Gloom Glimmer had created.

They moved on again.

Basil looked away, briefly, then looked back at Gloom Glimmer, who was still sitting on her haunches in front of him and studying him, as if she could see through his mask.

She probably can.

“I know it sucks,” she said softly, making him look up at those unnaturally blue, warm eyes. “Family’s family but Wrong’s wrong, too and how’re we supposed to do the right thing there?”

He smiled weakly. “A catch-twenty-two if I ever heard of one.”

She smiled back. “Yeah. Look, I know we barely know each other, and this is obviously quite private and all, but… if you need someone to talk about it… you can talk to me. I understand, and I won’t judge. Just, uh, just wanted to say that,” she spoke, sounding insecure again as she blushed a bit and averted her eyes.

”I will keep that in mind,” He lowered his eyes as well, feeling strangely humbled by the offer. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed, and then she did something he absolutely didn’t expect – Gloom Glimmer leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, her lips and jaw going through his helmet like it wasn’t even there.

Her lips were warm and soft on his skin and felt a great deal of tension melt off at the simple gesture.

She leaned back again, far too soon. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find the cure. I… maybe we can find some other way to help Prisca.”

”Yeah, maybe…” He couldn’t bring himself to agree, not really, and looked away.

Gloom Glimmer didn’t press the point and walked back to join Polymnia, who wrapped an arm around her friend’s shoulders and pulled her head to rest against her shoulder.

Minutes passed, minutes during which Basil found himself unable to really focus on anything. There was just too much on his mind. Worry for Amy. Vasiliki’s reaction to the truth about his sister. Dalia’s own tragedy. Dusu. The Gefährten. The Sleeper. The constant presence of his power at the back of his mind, coming up with fragments of ideas even now, for him to try and assemble into a cohesive whole. Prisca.

He looked at Dusu’s passed out form. Just how am I going to explain this to her? To her mother? That it was all so…

Pointless.

He might have continued to wallow in his misery, had Tartsche not gotten up and moved over, stopping just a step away from him, his arms crossed as he looked down on him.

“I believe you promised me and the others some answers, Brennus,” he said in his usual calm, firm tones. “Much as I understand that you just took some major blows, I think it’s best we get this over with before we get back to New Lennston and I have to make a choice about how to proceed.”

Behind him, Tyche frowned and leaned forward, as if to get up, but Hecate pulled her back by the arm wrapped around her shoulders, while her other hand remained on Graymalkin’s back – at some point, he’d crawled onto her lap and curled up there.

The others all turned to look at Basil and Tartsche, as well.

“By ‘how to proceed’ you mean ‘whether or not to immediately tell Amazon and the UH in general’ about Mindstar’s and my relationship and our identities’,” he stated with neither rancor nor bitterness in his voice. It was just a fact.

Tartsche didn’t even look abashed or anything. “Exactly. This is too big, really. Mindstar’s a wanted criminal, and not a smalltime crook, either – having one of the Five blow her secret identity like that, that’s the kind of thing I’d normally tell them instantly. But,” he temporised, “I am willing to hear you out, first. Not just about you and her, but also about whatever the fuck,” he spoke the swearword like a gunshot, hard and fast, making nearly everyone jump where they sat, and Graymalkin throw him an annoyed look, “happened when Osore nailed you with his power.”

He turned his head and looked at the Japanese hero. “By the way, not cool, even if you knew what was going to happen,” he admonished him, then raised a hand to cut off any reply, “I know it saved our butts. Just saying.”

Turning back to face Basil, his mouth and jaw – the only part of his face currently visible, as he’d removed his helmet’s mouth guard – were set in a severe frown. “So, are you going to tell us what the fuck,” he made everyone jump again with the force of the expletive, “is going on? And before you say anything like that it’s private or that we’re better off not knowing or any of that crap, you owe us the truth, after all this,” he finished with a firm glare.

Basil met it without flinching, though at that point, that was simply because he was too worn out to react much, not because of any amount of fortitude on his part. “I do not have any secrets left, at this point,” he replied, looking over at Hecate. “Ask and I shall answer to the best of my knowledge.”

”Who are you, really?” Tartsche asked, straight up.

“I do not know,” Basil replied calmly, looking at no one in particular. “I thought I knew, but I have found that all my memories previous to about three, maybe four years ago are entirely fake. So are Amy’s, for that matter.”

He heard a few gasps, but didn’t bother to look at anyone to gauge their reaction.

”Three and a half years ago,” Bakeneko spoke up in a small voice. “That’s when we first met in middle school.”

“Wait, you know him?” Spellgun asked, startled.

Basil didn’t see it, but he was pretty sure Bakeneko was shrinking into herself at being the focus of attention all of a sudden.

“Y-yeah. We’ve been friends for… years. Though I, I didn’t know he was… Brennus… until recently,” she admitted in a near-whisper. “I didn’t know Amy was a villain, though… It just doesn’t seem to fit… I mean, she’s kind of… really weird, and a huge perv and totally overprotective and she always knows more than she should and… actually, it totally makes sense now.”

”Mindstar’s memory’s are fake, too?” Tartsche pressed on, focusing on the core of the matter. “Are you sure she’s not faking it? Making you think she’s your sister while suppressing your memories…” He seemed pretty uncomfortable bringing that last point up, but did it anyway.

Basil twitched, briefly, tempted to lash out at him for the mere suggestion, but…

”I have considered that,” he admitted, and a part of him felt like a traitor for doing so. “But I have dismissed it for several reasons. One being that she would have to be vastly more powerful than she has ever shown herself to be. Another the fact that…” he frowned, trying to figure out how to put it. “It is more of a gut feeling, really. But I know that she is my sister, even if we can not even remember our parents.”

He didn’t seem happy with that, but didn’t get push the point.

“There’s no way in heaven or hell my dad doesn’t know about that,” Gloom Glimmer stated firmly. “Not if it affects one of his Five.”

“You sure?” Tyche asked her, while her eyes remained on Basil.

”My dad’s the most nosey person on the whole planet,” the man’s own daughter stated with perfect conviction. “I’ll bet you anything he knows and hasn’t told anyone because he thinks it’s funny or something.”

“You really think he’d take such a risk with one of his Five, just for his own amusement?” Hecate asked in a disbelieving voice.

”Absolutely,” both Gloom Glimmer and Polymnia replied instantly and in perfect synch.

They gave everyone a few moments to digest that, before Polymnia spoke up next.

“What about your reaction to Osore’s power?” she asked through her vocoder, her eyes on Basil.

He sighed. “I have no freaking idea whatsoever,” he replied. “It has only ever happened when Osore used his power on me. Not even when I was in a life-threatening situation, like when Hastur had me in her clutches. I do not remember at all what happened during either episode, though I at least have a recording of this last one,” he explained, reaching up to stroke the head of his sole remaining ravenbot.

”No idea at all?” Tartsche asked.

Basil frowned. “Well… there is one… but is less of an answer and more of… another question. A whole host of questions, in fact,” he amended his earlier statement. “I may be connected to someone named Macian, somehow. At least, I found a journal written by him, amongst my things and I sometimes have memories of being another person, someone who’s also a gadgeteer.” Plus at least two distinct personalities in my head, other than my own.

“This is unbelievably fucked up,” Tartsche replied after a minute or so of just staring at him.

For just a moment, Basil felt a manic grin spread on his face as he looked up at the armoured boy. “Try living with it.”

Tartsche shuddered. “No thank you,” he said, finally. “Well, this was… not at all informative.” He looked around at the others, before focusing on Basil once more. “I’m sorry, but considering the situation, and what we know about your sister – if she even is your sister – and… everything… I can’t possibly justify not raising every alarm I can as soon as we’re back.” He groaned, reaching up to pinch his nose, only to remember he was still wearing his helmet. “Hell, I should probably take you into protective custody – or something – straight away, but I have the feeling that wouldn’t work out too well, considering what you did to the Skulls’ group.” He gave a side-long glance to Gloom Glimmer and Bakeneko. “Nevermind that I can’t be entirely sure whether all my teammates will support me on such a course of action.”

Both girls blushed and averted their eyes.

Basil raised a finger. “I know it is not exactly the smartest thing to do, but let me remind you that I have only ever been able to perform on that level after being affected by Osore’s power, so unless he shoots me again, you will not have to worry about that,” he corrected him.

Hecate palmed her own forehead.

With a chuckle, Tartsche responded, “Yeah, I’m not that slow. Still…” he put his hands on his hips, tapping his foot… which didn’t actually generate any sound, since there wasn’t actually any floor to tap it on. “Are you going to come in willingly? I know it’s an extremely shitty situation and all, but it’d help a lot, and ease a lot of worries, if you just came in and explained yourself.” He sighed, lowering his head. “The United Heroes are good people. And Amazon’s real fond of you. I’m sure we can work this all out.”

He looked up at the slightly older hero, then down again. Then at Hecate and Tyche, before he looked at his raven again. “I… do not regret what I have done today,” he said first. “Not the attempt to get into the base, not revealing myself or the risks I took. I only regret that it was not enough, and wish I could have done more, gone further…” He stopped, looking down again. “I will not run from it. But I will go and give Prisca the news myself, before anything else.” He looked up at Tartsche, locking eyes with him even through their masks. “You can make your report, meanwhile. Bakeneko knows where I live, and where my lab is,” he turned to look at his shapeshifting friend, “and she has my permission to share. You’ll find me… afterwards.”

”Alright,” Tartsche replied, turning his head away. “I believe you. And… I’m sorry.” There was a world of emotion behind those last two words.

“Thank you, Tartsche,” Basil replied, and took his helmet off, looking up at him with a tired expression on his face. “You went… above and beyond what anyone could expect of you, for the sake of strangers, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart. You and all the others.” He looked around at the other teens, some of whom, at least, met his eyes.

Tartsche took a step away, then stopped. “You’re wrong, you know?” he spoke softly, making Basil focus on him again. “I expected more of myself.”

With that, he sat down next to his boyfriend again and fell quiet.

***

The rest of the journey passed in silence and they arrived in New Lennston, where Gloom Glimmer first dropped Basil, at his request, off in front of the hospital, before moving on to take care of the rest.

He didn’t know what Hecate or Tyche were going to do, but he had to prioritise somehow, and neither of them was dying right then.

Standing in front of the hospital, having appeared basically out of nowhere, he drew a great many surprised looks, in large part because he hadn’t bothered to put on his helmet, his drawn-up hood the only protection for his identity. Not that he really cared at this point.

He ignored the stares and walked into the hospital, ignoring the two armed security guards at the front entrance and simply breezing past the reception – he more than knew his way by now.

Walking through the hallways, ignoring every attempt to stop him or talk to him, he wondered whether he should’ve gone through with the idea of dragging Dusu in here and presenting her to Prisca and her family, but he’d dismissed it, and not just because he doubted that Tartsche would allow it – he didn’t want something like Dusu to spoil Prisca and her family’s final days together.

If she even had days left.

Oh God, I hope she isn’t already dead…

He could call Eudocia, ask. He hadn’t even thought to contact her.

Too late now. I’ll know soon enough.

He took the stairs up, eschewing the elevators – if he had to stand still for however many seconds it took them to go up, he’d explode.

Taking the stairs three steps at a time, he quickly reached the fourth floor and entered the intensive long-term care wing.

There, in front of Prisca’s room, sat several people on some chairs, while being watched over by multiple professional bodyguards in expensive suits – suits which, to Basil’s eye, showed modifications for combat and hiding weaponry.

As soon as he entered, the men whirled around at a sign from the one who’d been facing the door, drawing their weapons on him.

He ignored them and just moved on.

Beyond the bodyguards, a startled young woman rose up, and his heart both clenched and relaxed at the same time, though he showed none of it on his face.

Rosalie Fion took heavily after her mother, just as Prisca should have, and basically looked a lot like Gilgul, though older, being in her early twenties, and a little more lithe and a little less… top-heavy. She was wearing a simple, dark red dress that reached her knees, black stockings underneath and her rich red hair loose. She only wore a little make-up on her finely featured face and was currently busy staring at him, her mouth open.

That she was there, it meant that Prisca was still alive. She would have been inside the room if she was dying, and she would be mourning if she was dead. But that she was here also meant that there wasn’t much time left.

”B-basil? You… you’re…” She stammered, staring at him with wide green eyes the exact same shade as Prisca’s had once been.

He nodded to her as the guards stepped between him and the door (and Rosalie), though they seemed less openly combative now, as he seemed to be known.

Still, they were in his way, so he glared at them, briefly.

The first two men nearly fell over as they staggered aside, while the three behind took a startled step back, and he used the distraction to breeze past them, briefly nodding to Rosalie – and getting a nod in return – as he walked up to the door and, without bothering to knock, opened it and stepped through.

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B13.18 Call of the Sleeper

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He’d failed.

He’d failed, and it had all been pointless to begin with.

Basil staggered back, away from Dusu. Not hearing, or even really seeing how the others reacted. He just turned away, looking around the room without seeing anything.

There were voices, in the distance, but he paid them no mind, ignored the hand that reached for his arm, didn’t even register who it was.

She has no cure. She has no cure. I can’t come up with one, I’ve never been that good with actual biology. Maybe, if she had the actual formula… but she said she put it all online already, and I’ve read everything there is on the plague online. Prisca only has a few days left, at most.

Life support could only keep her going for so long, especially after the additional damage Hastur’s attack had caused. She certainly wouldn’t survive a flight to England. Even if Gloom Glimmer teleporter her along with all the life support… no, she’d never survive the journey to Ember himself. And even then…

They’d opened the Protectorate again, on a limited basis, after he’d revived that baby, but… it was a toss-up whether he’d actually react to anyone who managed to get close enough. More than once, one of the countless hopeful had weathered the pressure of his empathic assault, managed to get the remains of a loved one all the way to him… only to be promptly ignored until they passed out or went mad.

Basil didn’t know whether he could make it through that, not with the way his mind had gotten screwed up, but he would do it.

However, there was no way Prisca could survive it. If he took her in while she was still alive, in her current condition, it’d likely kill her, if it didn’t destroy her mind.

Ember could fix that, obviously. Assuming he got to him.

What if I put her into stasis? the thought came suddenly. Put her into a state where she’s not truly conscious. It would protect her from his aura…

Don’t be stupid. Just wait for her to d-d-die and take her corpse to him.

The whole point of this is to make sure she doesn’t die in the first place!

Then forget Ember and the Protectorate! You need to focus on working out a cure!

How!? If even Dusu couldn’t… she’s been working on this for half a decade! I have days, at most! Nevermind that I’m not a bio-gadgeteer to begin with and this is, is, it’d take ten bio-gadgeteers to work this out!

Then find a non-biological solution!

How!?! I’ve tried so much… I can’t just replace her infected body parts, because every part is infected in three different ways? Removing her brain to later implant it into a new body, even if I could perform surgery like that, would be meaningless because her brain is also infected!

That’s it. Her brain, that’s the solution!

Of course… I can’t physically remove her brain, but I could scan it, save a complete engram of her brainwaves… it would require more storage than even my computers have, but I’m certain I could convince Mrs Fion to buy any materials I might need…

I save the complete engram. That’ll buy me time, it’ll allow me to figure out how to create a new, healthy body for her, then copy it over… since it’ll be made while she’s still alive…

It can only be made while she’s still alive.

That way, she’ll never have to experience death… whether or not we can get her to Ember…

I can call this Plan A, and getting her to Ember would be Plan B.

There is another issue. Would she want that? To be copied over to a new body? Technically, she wouldn’t be the same Prisca as before. Her mother might not want that, either.

I’m not a philosopher nor a priest. Leave the existential debate to someone else.

But shouldn’t any proposed solution be considered in light of Prisca’s wishes? She is the one whose life is at stake. Copying her mind into a new body – and it’s far-fetched to believe I could do that – only to create a copy of her which does not consider herself to be the Prisca would only serve my own peace of mind.

Stasis.

Like on Tartarus Star. That might be a solution. I could perhaps work out a stasis chamber, or maybe trade Stasis himself for the designs or a complete chamber… or perhaps Mrs Fion could buy one off of him… we could keep Prisca alive indefinitely while I work on finding a cure.

Stasis is no hero though. He works for the government and he is committed full-time to maintaining Tartarus Star. His technology is considered a national secret; it is very unlikely that he’d be allowed to reveal his designs, nevermind actually buying a stasis chamber off of him – they’re supposed to be incredibly expensive, to boot.

Between Mrs Fion’s wealth and the technology I can of-

***

A hand closed around his biceps, tugging him around. He looked up at Amy, black eyes to purple ones.

Hey, baby bro, she whispered gently into his mind. You need to calm yourself down, before you give yourself a stroke.

He looked away, then looked up at her, feeling his expression harden. I can not afford to, right now. I need to find a solution! Could you scan her mind? Perhaps she’s keeping something secret?

Amy shook her head, causing him to feel even colder inside. Even more so when he realised she was trembling, sligthly. Just what had she seen?

She didn’t lie, nor did she ommit anything. She really has no clue how to fix it, Amy told him. And… there’s more. The blood she took, earlier. And what they’ve been doing here. Where these monsters came from. I saw it in her mind.

What’d you see? Basil asked numbly. He wasn’t sure there was much of anything he could get worked up over right now, as worn out as he felt.

Too much, she replied. But first… what about her? She nodded towards Dusu, who’d calmed down considerably, simply sitting cross-leged on the floor and chuckling occasionally, completely unperturbed by the looks of disgust and hatred the others were throwing her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you give her one of those concoctions you said you’d prepared just for her?

Basil looked over his shoulder at Dusu. Those were always meant to force her to give up the cure, in the end, he replied. No point to that, now. Besides, how could I possibly top that? He gestured towards the twisted, half-decayed woman.

Let’s just get this over with and go home.

***

Melody wouldn’t have thought she could hate a complete stranger as much as she hated Dusu right then. Just looking at the woman sitting there on the floor, looking so darn amused.

Amused that she’d destroyed so many lives.

Amused that she’d drawn them into such a dangerous, unnecessary battle.

Amused that she’d crushed their hopes, Brennus hopes in particular, and of all those innocents she’d poisoned, and all those whom cared about them.

She’d used to have trouble accepting Irene’s insistent statement that her father, while evil, was far better than most. Even after meating him in person, she hadn’t really changed her mind.

But now? Looking down at this, this coprophage, this… bitch, she saw true evil. Senseless evil, evil that didn’t have a purpose other than its own betterment.

At least the Dark clearly cared about his daughter. Melody wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that Dusu didn’t have anyone she cared about, that she would have sacrificed her own child if she’d had one, just to try and undo her own fuck-up – for herself.

It took a lot for her not to unleash one of her more cruel tunes on her, just to make her suffer a bit. A bit more, she amended the thought, watching how the woman laboured to draw breath, the way she repeatedly twitched as if in pain, in spite of her carefree attitude.

A little tune to make her bowels empty themselves as violently as physically possible, or cramp up painfully and remain so for a while. Another to throw her sense of balance completely off for hours. Or perhaps one she’d never yet used, because it’d seemed too cruel, a tune that’d give the victim a painful tinitus that’d last for days, if not longer.

So many options. So many incentives to explore them, one by one.

Fortunately for Dusu, Melody was distracted from the recreatively violent train of thought when Brennus came back towards them, shadowed closely by Mindstar.

And wasn’t that a shock? When Mindstar had first appeared, she’d been scared, then relieved – she did work for the Dark, so she wouldn’t turn on Irene and her friends, right? Then it’d seemed like she was going to attack anyway, and Tartsche had tried to reach Brennus to protect him from her (she still remembered the briefing when they’d been told that she might target him – Tartsche had clearly remembered it, as well), only for her to slap them all down with literally just a thought.

She’d known that telepathy was Irene’s one true weakness, but she hadn’t expected it to be that effective.

And then it turned out that Brennus – no, Basil, that boy she’d sat next to in school a few times! – was her brother and he proceeded to beat her, one on one.

If it wasn’t for Irene confirming, while under the aegis of Tartsche’s power, that it was all genuine, she’d have thought the whole fight, no, their every interaction, had been staged.

Now, of course, she was instead faced with the fact that a boy she’d been thinking of as a friend, if a distant one, was the younger brother of a major supervillain…

Which, really, didn’t mean much to her, seeing how her best friend was the daughter of said supervillain’s boss. It would have been the height of hypocrisy for Melody to condemn Brennus for his relationship with his own sister, when she so readily accepted Irene’s relationship with her father.

The only thing she could, maybe, accuse him of was not being open about his relation to her, the way Irene was about her being the Dark’s daughter…

But then again, their situations were very different. Brennus, for one, didn’t have the aegis of Lady Light and the United Heroes to protect him.

I wonder whether she’s the reason he didn’t join us to begin with, she thought to herself as she watched them join the rest of the group.

All those thoughts and more continued on in her head, though they were quickly overshadowed by dismay at how utterly worn-out Brennus looked. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never known him to express a sense of defeat, a lack of purpose. Now though…

“Let us wrap this up,” he spoke in a listless tone. “We should get away from here.” He looked down at Dusu, his gaze briefly hardening – but then it softened into listlessness again. “What did she do with our blood?” he asked no one in particular, apparently.

It did seem directed at Mindstar, however, as she sighed and stepped forth, while Brennus’ helmet floated off the floor and into his hands. “I’ll show you,” she said, gesturing at the computer console.

Using her telekinesis, she logged into the system, making Dusu frown in annoyance. “Y’know, you don’t have to use telepathy… I’d just tell you, at this point.”

“Shut it,” several people said all at once.

“This is the place where they made those monsters that appeared yesterday,” Mindstar spoke seriously, with neither levity nor anger in her voice. “They’re all spawned from the same source…”

The screen switched to a three-dimensional model, showing the floating city they were on, before zooming out and moving down, showing an incredibly long tether that lead down into the depths – the same one they could see before them, dozens of cables thicker than grown men – and following it down…

And down…

And down…

Until it reached the bottom of the ocean, and the view moved, looking down from above, at an angle, at…

A gigantic something at the bottom of the ocean, connected to the station via the cables in front of them.

As the image focused on whatever was below, it was rendered in successively more detailed layers, with Mindstar talking over it, sharing what she saw within Dusu’s mind.

“They found something down there. Something huge. And I mean, really fucking humungous. It’s over a thousand miles in length, and over three in diametre,” the villainess explained as the bottom dropped out of Melody’s stomach, her eyes widening at the rapidly expanding sight of… that.

“What. The. Holy. Fuck,” Tyche succinctly summed up how they all felt.

“That’s what they used to make those monsters,” Mindstar spoke, her voice growing hushed. “They injected it with… human blood. It doesn’t always work out, not even one in ten times, but when it does…”

Brennus looked down at Dusu again. “So that is what you took our blood for,” he stated as he put his helmet on. “Mine and… whose else?”

Before Dusu could respond, Mindstar did so. “All of us. It wasn’t just the four you saw. They got samples from all of us…” She frowned, stroking her chin. “I mean, they came here and found them… put them here in other timelines… ah, fuck time travel! They got samples from each of us, except for the princess, using Elysium’s power.” She looked at the console. “And they injected it all into this thing. That’s what Dusu and that nobody over there were responsible for – figuring out a way to inject something through its armour, after the Gefährten realised that extracted samples bonded with human DNA.”

Melody’s fingers went to work, tapping the air to formulate a sentence. “And that’s how they made Crocell and the other three monsters?” she asked, keeping her vocoder’s voice much calmer than she actually felt.

“Yeah. Only successes they’ve had so far. They injected forty-three samples and only four of them spawned something,” the villainess replied in a cold voice, glaring at the unperturbed mad scientist on the floor. “Though they never injected so many at once, like she just did.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for being in a bit of a hurry!” Dusu protested Mindstar’s accusatory tone. “Besides, aren’t you curious what might come out of it?”

“No!” shouted half a dozen people at once.

“Alright, so, may-be this is totally obvious and Ah’m just missing it,” Spellgun spoke up for the first time in a while, his accent even stronger than usual, “but what the fuck is that!?!” he gestured wildly towards the three-dimensional model on the screen.

“It’s God!” Syrinx shouted fervently, floating upside down where Mindstar was holding him in the air. “It’s a fragment of the divine tri-“

Hecate reached into a pouch on her belt and threw a handful of glittering green dust at his face, which flew farther and in a tighter stream than it ought to, and he went limp, falling asleep instantly.

“Oh, thank God,” Dusu rolled her eyes. “Guy’s a cutie, but h-“

Hecate whirled around so fast Melody actually jumped, and struck Dusu across the face with the butt end of her staff, knocking the woman over and causing her to cry out in pain.

“Don’t you dare address me in any way,” the slightly spooky superheroine snarled, her English distorted slightly by a faint accent Melody had never noticed before, her tone of voice so vicious it made nearly everyone take a step away from her, even Mindstar.

Not Brennus, nor Tyche, though.

Dusu rubbed her rapidly swelling jaw, having finally stopped grinning, or smiling or otherwise looking happy, as she glared up at Hecate – but she kept her mouth shut.

Mindstar actually looked impressed, giving Hecate odd looks, though the spooky heroine couldn’t see them.

“They’re not sure what it is,” Mindstar continued where she’d left off earlier. “Or at least, if the Gefährten know, they haven’t told Dusu. But she, and her co-workers have a few running theories – all unproven, admittedly. One is that it’s a metahuman whose manifestation just plainly went spectacularly wrong. Another is that it’s some kind of by-product of superpowers as a whole, maybe an animal that soaked up whatever energies power metahumans. And another is that it’s either the source of superpowers, or connected to it in some way.” She shrugged. “Honestly, they don’t even know how long it’s been down there. Seems like time goes wonky around it, so they can’t even analyse the age of the cracks in the rock around and beneath it that it’s caused, because they don’t age uniformly.”

No one spoke up for a minute as they digested that. Finally, Melody turned her head to look at Irene, who’d remained still so far, hovering an inch or so above the floor, her cape closed in front of her and her hood drawn deep, like a white shroud.

The hood twitched as Irene looked up, her face hidden in the shadows, mostly, save for her blue eyes. “I don’t know what it is. I have some suspicions, but… nothing I’m sure of enough to say,” she answered the unspoken question.

Melody felt both disappointment and relief, as part of her just plainly didn’t want to know what that thing really was – she was afraid that it was even worse than she could expect.

“The blood is already injected?” Brennus interjected, directing the question at Mindstar, at his sister.

His helmet-mask always distorted his voice, but even so, Melody’s ears had no trouble picking up the fact that he still sounded… defeated, really. His voice was flat, lacking its usual intensity.

“Yeah, it is. Nothing we can do to stop it anymore,” Mindstar replied, her voice softening almost imperceptibly (to anyone but Melody) as she addressed her brother again. “All we can hope for is that none of it causes this… Sleeper to spawn another monster.”

“How long did it take before they knew whether an injection had been successful in the previous cases?” Brennus continued his line of inquiry in that same tone of voice, his head tilted forward as he looked at something he was holding in his left hand. Melody couldn’t see what it was, though it had to be palm-sized.

“Anywhere between five minutes and three hours,” the answer came almost as soon as he finished. “If it doesn’t work, it’ll eject the rejected blood in crystalline form – they have computers looking out for it.”

As if on cue, a new window opened, showing a black-and-white image of a bismuth-like crystal growing in fast motion, right out of one of its scales, before it detached and floated away.

“Aaaaaand that’s one,” Mindstar sighed in undisguised relief. “Eight more to go.”

“Is there anything we can do to abort the process?” Tartsche asked quietly, sounding as calm as ever as he held onto Spellgun’s hand. “Force it to purge them all or something like that? Some way to make sure no more monsters are generated?”

Both Mindstar and Dusu shook their heads, one seemingly impassive, one very clearly quite pleased with herself.

“And there’s nothing here about a cure?” Tartsche pressed on. “She doesn’t know anything, or have anything we can make use of?”

Mindstar shook her head, and Tyche and Hecate slumped a little, while Brennus showed no outward reaction, though Melody thought she might’ve heard something from within his helmet. She wasn’t sure though, as quiet as he was being.

“We should go, then,” Brennus concluded what was obviously Tartsche’s thought process, putting away whatever he’d been looking at. There was barely any inflection at all left in his voice. “Every second we remain here just increases the probability of another enemy showing up.”

“Now that’s as good a straight line as I could hope for!” a new voice spoke up.

Melody squeaked in shock as she turned, just in time to see Mindstar stagger forward, nearly falling, her hand going to her neck and pulling a tiny dart tipped by a needle out of it.

“Huh?” She stared at the dart, her eyes growing unfocused.

Brennus grabbed her, pulling her away and behind him, revealing the person who’d stuck her with the dart, who…

Oh God he’s so yummy, was the first thought that came to Melody’s mind as she saw the gorgeous, brown-haired young man in what appeared to be black-and-gold workout clothes, only of much higher quality than usual, and reinforced, fingerless gloves.

If she hadn’t met so many insanely pretty men since manifesting her powers, she’d probably have squeed and melted on the spot.

He stood there, looking as calm as if he was just taking a stroll, with an easy smile on those perfect lips.

“Immanuel!” shouted Tyche, taking a step away from him.

Wait, Immanuel? That guy? Melody blinked, remembering what Tyche had told them earlier. Fuck, we have to-

She raised her arms to fire at him, only to stop when Irene cried out.

“Wait, no, stop!” Irene shouted as she was enveloped in ribbons of twisted space… and then she disappeared.

Immanuel looked at the empty space where Irene had just floated, looking only mildly surprised. “Heh. Nice one,” he said, grinning.

***

Space unfurled around her and dropped Irene onto a grassy hill, which looked out over a tranquil beach and the ocean.

“No!” she shouted, desperate, reaching for the power which had brought her there. “No, no! Take me back! I’ve got to get back, Melody is still there! My friends are all still there! Take me back, please!”

She begged her own power, even as she felt the teleporting effect – one she hadn’t had before, to her recollection – sink beneath the darkness, tears beginning to run from her eyes.

She’d been so focused on that giant thing below, that, that thing that might have been, just possible, one of them, perhaps. A steward, in this world. Her parents were going to flip out.

Somehow, even though she’d had her danger sense up and running, that man, that… Immanuel, he’d managed to sneak up on them, and then her power had reacted to the suddenly present, overwhelming threat by taking her away from her friends.

“Please, please, just take me back!” she shouted, trying to reach for that power again, only to get… flight and the power to tell where magnetic north lay. “No, I need to be fa-“

“Irene? What are you doing here?” a tired voice asked.

She whirled around, staring at the figure behind her with bloodshot eyes.

***

“I think you’ve all had more than enough fun,” Immanuel spoke in a conversational tone, clasping his hands behind his back as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Basil didn’t give him a chance to say more – torn between checking to make sure Amy was going to be alright and taking down the new threat, he chose to trust in her constitution and went on the offensive – and launched one of his grappling hooks at him, aiming straight for his belt buckle.

Immanuel simply stepped aside, dodging it by a hair’s breadth with such ease, it seemed rehearsed. “For those of you who don’t know yet, I’m Immanuel, and I’m in charge of this charming base,” he continued on, as if nothing had happened, even as he bent over forward, letting a blast of green fire fly over him and splash over Tartsche’s protective field, blinding Spellgun and causing him to miss his shot, which instead hit Osore in the forehead just as he was gathering up a fear blast in his right hand; his mask cracked, though not broken, he was thrown backwards as electricity raced through his body, stunning him and causing him to fall gracelessly and heavily onto the floor. “And while I greatly sympathise with your noble intentions, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop you right here,” he concluded, standing up straight again, smiling at everyone around.

How did he just do that? Basil thought furiously, stepping back to keep some distance between himself and the new enemy. That was way too smooth… he must be an Esper. Some major combat cognition. He stared at the empty spot where Irene had just been, then at Amy behind him, through the eyes of his bedraggled ravenbot. And we’ve already lost our two strongest combatants.

“What did you do to Gloom Glimmer!?!” Polymnia shouted at Immanuel, both of her clenched fists – and the speakers on the wrist modules above them – aimed straight at him.

“Don’t worry, I just gave her a bit of a scare,” Immanuel replied soothingly. “I suppose her power decided she was safer away from me than next to me.” He tilted his head to the side, both as a gesture and to dodge a shot from Tartsche’s rifle. “Can’t blame it, really. In fact, I’m quite grateful – makes my job easier.”

His expression turned thoughtful and he tapped his chin. “Hmm… just forty minutes before she comes back… with Lamarr. Maybe the Dowager, though I doubt it.” He blinked, as if another thought came to him. “Hm, no. She won’t come – just Lamarr and some of his people. Goldschmidt wouldn’t let her back here.” Without even looking, he bent forward and also lifted his left leg up, as if to kick out, though he merely tapped the charging form of Bakeneko – in the middle of transitioning from a bipedal to a quadrupedal form –  on the shin, lightly, causing her to trip and bowl into Polymnia, who just barely managed to brace herself and not get bowled over as well, though she still missed her shot, the twin beams of focused sound going wide and tearing up some computer equipment on the far wall of the room. “Nothing I can’t deal with.”

Basil barely paid attention to his words, instead opting to study his opponent more closely. The way he moved, the way every dodge of his led to them hitting each other in some way… it reminded him of the way it usually went when Tyche fought, except far more controlled.

Deliberate.

Speaking of Tyche, she was just standing there, her hands trembling as she tried to aim at Immanuel – but he didn’t seem worried at all, and she didn’t seem capable of actually pulling the trigger.

“I, I thought you said, you wanted us to, to succeed,” she stammered, taking a step back from him when he turned his head to focus on her.

He blocked Basil’s punch, which he loosened the moment his attention was on Tyche, with an absentminded swipe, “I did and I do,” then he deflected a knee-strike to the groin by raising his own knee and gently pushing it aside, “Though I never said I thought it was actually going to happen,” he turned into the follow-up elbow strike that Basil turned his over-extended strike into, “I did know that Dusu has never been able to figure out a cure for her own work,” his arm came up, applying minimal force to Basil’s elbow and causing him to strike the air above his head, unbalanced by the flawless counter, “Nor did I say I’d actually let you all leave after you reached Dusu,” he placed one hand onto Basil’s chest and the other one’s forearm against his waist, pushing with both and flipping him over until he hit the ground with his head, only his helmet saving him from being knocked out, though it still rang his bells quite well, “Sorry,” the angel-faced villain concluded, smiling apologetically at Tyche.

She gulped staring at him with wide eyes. He just smiled back, throwing Basil’s combat knife, which he’d filched from his belt when he’d flipped him, at Polymnia, without even looking at her.

The blade pierced the membrane of her right wrist’s speaker just as she loosened another attack, causing a feedback that overloaded it and made it blow up around her arm, throwing her aim with the other arm off so badly she shot Bakeneko instead just as she was about to get up again, making her cry out in pain and tumble away from the armoured songstress.

Polymnia herself cried out in pain, her arm covered in bruises and cuts from the explosion, though her innate toughness and the layer of ballistic weave she’d between her skin and the actual mechanical parts prevented heavier damage.

“Now, I’m not a complete jerk,” Immanuel followed up, stepping forward towards Tyche with his arms spread wide, following it up by an absent-minded kick to Dusu’s throat, causing her to choke up and bend over in pain, just as she’d been about to speak up. “I really don’t feel like listening to you, Heng,” he quipped, and continued to walk towards Tyche with a disarming smile.

Basil groaned, slowly getting back up on his feet – the strain of the last few days was really starting to catch up to him – as he blinked the stars out of his view. By the time he managed that, the only ones left standing were himself, Tyche, Tartsche and Spellgun.

Amy was on the ground, moaning softly with unfocused eyes. Bakeneko and Osore were both still conscious but stunned, lying on the ground. Polymnia was on her knees, holding her mangled right arm to her chest, sniffling as tears leaked from her eyes. Hecate was on the ground next to Immanuel, who was still holding one of her arms by the wrist. Basil hadn’t even noticed her go down.

Both Tartsche and Spellgun were aiming their guns at him, but since he stood between them and Tyche, they didn’t want to risk taking the shot.

Tyche was staring slack-jawed at him, her grip on her rifle quite loose.

Graymalkin had curled up on Amy’s breasts, using them as pillows as he yawned.

“So, now that all that unpleasantness is over,” Immanuel said with a small sigh, seemingly not even winded. “How about we have a nice talk, hm?” He looked around at the teens. “I have no interest in keeping the lot of you here, really. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to let you get back home.”

“What is the catch?” Basil asked suspiciously, not believing him for a moment, even though everything about him just plain screamed sincerity.

“Well, you do have quite a lot of damages to make up for,” Immanuel replied, turning his back to Tyche and letting go of Hecate’s arm, so he could face Basil. “So I think it’d only be fair if you and Melody over there were to work for us for, let’s say… a quarter of a year, each.” He clapped his hands together, smiling brightly. “You two promise me three months of servitude each – no wetwork, nothing illegal, even – and I’ll not only let your friends go right now, I’ll even pay you both quite handsomly. And you can get back to your own affairs. How’s that sound?”

“Never,” Polymnia replied, her voice coming out distorted. “Like we’d ever agree to work for someone like you!”

“Now, don’t be judgemental,” Immanuel wagged a finger at her. “You don’t really know me just yet.”

“We’ve… seen enough…” Hecate groaned as she got up on her feet, leaning heavily onto her staff. “You fucking people belong in a maximum security prison… or better yet, six foot under,” she snarled, her eyes flashing with raw hatred within the shadows of her hood.

Language, young lady,” he frowned at her, mockingly. “What would your grandmother say if she heard you talk like that?”

Hecate flinched, snarling audibly at him.

He knows too much, Basil thought, his brain racing wildly, trying to come up with an idea on how to take him on. If he’s some kind of combat precog, then the only way to beat him would be to trap him in a no-win situation.

Great idea, mate! Except for the little fact that he’s holding all the cards in his hands!

You’re not helping. Either come up with an idea or else shut up.

“Now, as I was saying – this doesn’t have to end in more tears,” Immanuel continued. “If you two accept my offer, I’ll even let you use all our resources to try and figure out a cure for Dusu’s plague.”

Basil clenched his fists, hard.

Immanuel smirked at him. “You know there’s no way you’ll be able to save her on your own. She wouldn’t survive a trip to the Protectorate, and it’s unlikely someone with your manifold issues would be able to reach him, anyway. And you don’t have the knowledge base nor the resources to work out a cure – but we might.” He put his hands together, palm-to-palm, as if praying – or begging. “Please, Basil. Think about it. You’ve always believed that the ends justify the means, no? I’m offering you near-endless resources, and the support of our best bio-gadgeteers – including Dusu.” He gestured at the unconscious woman. “Consider how much it would improve your chances if you had the actual source of the plague to work with, even if she doesn’t consciously know how it works or how to fix it! Accept my offer and not only will your friends be able to go back home safe and sound, but you’ll also be able to save Prisca.”

He bit his lip hard enough that it hurt, feeling angry with himself just for considering the offer. Yet he did, and Immanuel knew he was saying just the right things.

“Basil, you know the choice is barely one,” Immanuel pressed on. “Not for you. You know what needs to be done, and what needs to be done is a cure being found for Dusus many victims – are you really going to decline an offer to do what you know needs to be done?”

He lowered his raised fists, letting his arms hang loosely. Fuck. He was right, wasn’t he? Even disregarding the fact that there was no other option he could see to get his friends to safety – Immanuel seemed quite confident he’d be able to deal with Gloom Glimmer and any reinforcements she’d be able to drum up, even if those were members of the Dark Five – he was completely out of options as far as actually saving Prisca was concerned – the reason he’d organised this entire, ill-advised operation in the first place!

Even if he’s lying about letting me leave freely, afterwards, I’ll stand a better chance of getting out of this, nevermind of fixing Prisca, by playing along for now.

It needs to be done.

He sighed, releasing a breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding, as his shoulders slumped, opening his mouth to-

“To pursue what is necessary is the province of beasts – a true man must pursue naught but what he desires.”

He clenched his fists again, feeling an angry heat rise up from his gut. A snarl escaped his mouth, making Immanuel frown, looking honestly serious for the first time yet.

“Fuck. You,” he snarled at the villain.

Immanuel tilted his head, looking actually surprised for once. “Hm. I suppose that’s a no, then.” He put his hands on his waist, huffing. “The day’s full of surprises.” He looked over at Polymnia, who was still on her knees and craddling her bleeding arm.

Even though she was crying heavily, she glared back at him with defiance in her eyes.

“That’s a no then, as well,” he concluded with a sigh, lowering his head and shaking it. “What a waste.” He looked around at them all, watching as they all slowly got back up on their feet, at least those who weren’t still standing. Even Amy was getting up, on wobbly feet, barely able to balance on her stiletto heels, but determined to try, clearly.

Everyone looked scared, worn out and just plainly tired, but Basil could tell that they all intended to keep fighting.

He raised his fists again, clenching them, facing the brown-haired villain.

Even now, Immanuel looked, at worst, like he was annoyed, not worried.

“Well, let’s do… this…” Immanuel began to speak in a chipper tone of voice, but trailed off, frowning as he looked around the huge hall.

The lights flickered, once. Twice. Three times.

When they came back on for the fourth time, a huge, vaguely humanoid shadow stood between Immanuel and Polymnia, to Basil’s right, his back to the Esper who’d just kicked them all around so easily, looking down at the crying Polymnia.

“Me- Polymnia!” cried a familiar voice, and an equally familiar, white-cloaked figure stepped forth from next to the huge shadow, rushing over to her friend and throwing her arms around the kneeling girl, hugging her tight as light spread from every point of contact between them, gathering around Polymnia’s wounds and starting to mend them.

“So, this is it, huh?” the Dark said, curiosity in his distorted, choral voice, looking around lazily. “Now where’s that giant…”

He suddenly cut himself off as he turned around and looked down at Immanuel, who’d moved back by several metre, almost running into Tyche – as if he’d been trying to sneak away quickly. In his current form, the Dark was more than two heads taller than him, and Immanuel was by no means a short man.

The two supervillains stared at each other, one’s expression hidden utterly beneath the darkness of his power, yet radiating a sense of utter, disbelieving shock, while the other’s expression was calm, friendly, even amicable, yet he radiated nervousness.

“You,” the Dark breathed, sounding stunned. Off-balance. His voice barely more than a whisper. “You’re alive.”

“Long time no see, Goldschmidt,” Immanuel spoke carefully, putting his hands in his pants’ pockets. “Surprise, I guess.”

Whatever Basil had been expecting to happen next – whatever anyone had expected, from Tyche to Gloom Glimmer, all of whom were staring at the scene with bated breath – none of them, he was sure, expected what came next.

The Dark sobbed, staggering forward by a step, reaching out with a hand towards Immanuel, hesitating, as if afraid that he’d disappear if he made too sudden a move.

“Oh, oh… thank God… thank God…” he sobbed, his voice soft, the tears actually audible, though invisible. “I was so afraid… so, so afraid… that you were gone…”

The shadows he was wrapped in began to boil, spreading out slowly around him, like tar slowly creeping over the floor.

“That you had died…”

The shadows rolled off of him, writhing, expending, contracting, increasing.

“That I would never get my chance…”

He took another step closer, his voice breaking, another sob escaping him, like the sound a wounded animal would make when it finally found balm for its pain.

Gloom Glimmer flew towards Tartsche and Spellgun, pulling Polymnia along behind her with one hand, as more, ghostly hands reached out for all the others.

“To kill you myself…”

Basil found himself being pulled towards Gloom Glimmer, along with all the others, as she shot straight up, throwing a solid black sphere that blew through the ceiling, paving the way.

“To finally, finally… hurt you!”

Beneath them, as they rapidly flew above the floating city, the Darkness exploded, a tide of boiling shadows wallowing across the floating city like a tidal wave.

And above all, there was a scream, a cry of such utter, unadultered, unrestrained hatred, it chilled the blood in their veins.

Over fifty figures who’d been floating, flying and standing around the building Dusu’s lab was in charged forward to join their master in battle.

And then the Dark went to War.

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