B13.2 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brennus didn’t give her a chance to continue, though, stepping forward towards Gloom Glimmer, who stood there with a serious expression on her face, her cloak wrapped tight around her form. He was about to start talking when a prompt from Eudocia flashed on his HUD.

‘Be polite.’

He stopped, briefly, blinking, then started again. “Gloom Glimmer, thank you for meeting me on such short notice,” he began, both annoyed and grateful that she’d pointed it out to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polymnia blushed, punching her friend’s shoulder. “Could you not phrase it that way? It’s not like the shippers aren’t really going crazy enough, without you adding more fuel,” the young musician huffed, looking resolutely at him, rather than the others and ignoring the chuckling around her. “Anyway, she’s not wrong. Aside from the fact that we owe you for all your help, this… these people are clearly evil. And Dusu is the only chance we have to heal… all those people. So, I want to help, too, even if the UH says to wait.”

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

“We are not going to assault them,” Brennus cut in. Everyone turned to look at him, as he focused on each in turn. “I never said I would be taking anyone along for this, other than Gloom Glimmer. The plan is to sneak inside and either steal the cure or else extract the information from Dusu – if necessary, we’ll apprehend her and bring her back for a more thorough interrogation, should Gloom Glimmer’s powers fail to extract such from her.”

I’d rather  have Amy along for that, but there is no way whatsoever she’d allow this to happen.

Everyone but Gloom Glimmer was now staring him in disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen to the catgirl,” Tyche agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, he disappeared from sight.

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B12.14 Born At Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

The huge cat purred happily.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a little more time.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

His entire body turned black all over.

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

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

***

An hour later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<What about civilian casualties?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It showed an aerial image of the city of Tokyo.

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

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

Melody just stared at her friend in horror.

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

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

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B008.2.1 Vra: Bargaining

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“Dude, this is creepy”, said a boy’s voice.

My head hurt.

“I mean, she looks just like her!” The speaker didn’t sound like he’d gone through puberty yet.

“Not quite. She’s more buff. And her hair’s different”, drawled a slightly accented girl’s voice. She sounded like honey and cherries, and I must have hit my head pretty hard because I normally did not make that kind of comparison.

My arms were numb, but I could feel that they’d been twisted behind my back and tied. Around some metal pipe or something, which was pressing into my back. Someone had taken my hoodie off, leaving me in my sports bra. The pipe was cold against my back, helping me focus. My shoes were off, too.

“Twitch never talked about a twin sister.” An older voice, a young man with the slightest hint of a lisp. It was unreal how sharp my hearing was right now.

“She never talked about her family, period,” replied the girl.

“What if this is a shapeshifter or something?” asked the boy again.

“She went down with one hit of Fox’ ball. That speaks towards her being a normie. Plus, she didn’t turn back to a real form when we knocked her out and I think a shapeshifter would have changed to look exactly like Twitch to sell a twin or something.” A new, rather nasal voice.

“I’m not a darned shapeshifter…” I said before coughing hard. I looked up and saw four teenagers stand over me, giving me suspicious looks. One girl, three boys. “And why did you take my hoodie off?”

A guy in his late teens – older than me, but most probably too young to drink – was the first to respond. He was really tall, at least as tall as the officer earlier, but so thin he looked like a stiff wind would break him in half.

“Do you have any idea how many weapons and traps a contriver can hide under or in a garment like this?” he asked with just the barest hint of a lisp, “If we were really professional, we would’ve stripped you naked and done a cavity search, too.”

I shivered, damn it. “Thank you for sparing me that. How long was I out?”

“Just about fifteen mi-“

“Who the fuck’re you?” interrupted the nasal voice, coming from the mouth of LagForward. It really didn’t fit his buff body. His open vest showed off the kind of sixpack and upper arm sculpting normal people had to work a decade for or so. “And why’re you here? Why did you attack us!?”

Now I looked down again, ashamed. Why did I attack? Even disregarding the fact that I could never stand a chance against four metahumans at once, even if they might be at the bottom of the power chart. Even disregarding the fact that I’d never been in a serious fight outside of fight training. I’d never even hit anyone with intent, not outside training, again.

Was I that angry at Linda and my parents? That unbalanced?

Well, duh.

“I’m sorry about that. Really, I just…” I didn’t look up at them, “I’m just so angry. My sister is dead, and no one seems to care.”

They didn’t respond, and I looked up at them, taking a closer look at each for the first time. The only one I hadn’t really gotten a look at yet was the girl, Foxfire. She was a gorgeous half-Asian girl with waist-length black hair in a somehow very naughty style, bright golden, slightly slanted eyes and a rather slim body for a meta-girl, at least going by what I’d seen on TV so far. Her clothes… didn’t really deserve that description, especially in the current winter weather – she was wearing a red bikini top, cut-off jeans and a black hoodie with an open zipper, as well as red training shoes. And she had a Japanese fox mask tied to her belt.

She had heavy black circles around her eyes, and in general looked dead tired. The others looked no better really. The short one – a curly-haired blonde boy who couldn’t be more than thirteen years old – looked like he’d been crying until a short while ago.

“You spoke about Linda. Twitch… that was her name, right? I mean, her supervillain name?” I asked, even though I knew the answer already.

The girl took over talking. “Yup, Twitch. Never told us she had a twin sister, though,” she answered.

I looked down, clenching my hands. There was some feeling returning to them, if only barely. “Yeah well, she didn’t tell me jack. Not that she had powers, not that she was a supervillain, nothing. Last week I wake up, get ready for school and then I find out, joy oh joy, my twin sister was not only a supervillain, she’d also just gotten herself murdered.”

“Man, that sucks,” commented the blonde boy. Razzle, going by the power he’d shown off earlier. Then he scowled at me. “What’d you do to her that she wouldn’t tell you?”

Had I not been tied up at that moment, I would have jumped up and punched him in the face. I tried to, even, despite my chance to even reach him being… low. But the restraints held. So I just ground my teeth and replied, “I don’t know. She just… shut me out. I can get why she wouldn’t tell our parents, but… why not me?” I looked up at them, as if searching for an answer. I doubted they knew. They hadn’t even known that their friend had had a twin sister. Linda had not spoken to them about me… ever.

They all gave me looks full of pity, which only made things worse.

“Twitch was a dear friend of ours, even though we only knew her for a month and a half,” said Foxfire as she nodded towards LagForward. He knelt down next to me and untied my hands. The other two didn’t seem to like it, but Foxfire was apparently their leader. “We met her shortly after she got her powers, though she never told us how she got them,” she continued, offering me a helping hand.

I shook out my hands, getting some feeling back into them, and took it, letting her pull me up. She was stronger than she looked.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said.

“A whole lot,” I replied, brightening up. Someone willing to talk and answer my questions? Could I have this much luck?

She smirked. “Well, so do we. How about you answer ours and we answer yours?”

That’s only fair, I guess. I nodded. “My name’s Terry, by the way. How should I call you?”

“Laura. And these are Jimmy, Cad and Fletch,” she answered, pointing out the tall guy with the lisp, the buff Asian boy and the short one. “Nice to meet you, Terry.”

“Likewise, Laura,” I replied, only half-sincere. They were very nice, especially Laura, but I didn’t trust them yet. And there was still the matter of my dead twin sister – if they were responsible…

* * *

They gave me back my hoodie – I’d barely noticed how cold it had been, but now I was thankful for being able to put it back on. I wouldn’t vouch on it, but I think Fletch and Cad were disappointed that Laura gave it back to me.

We went into the staircase and up, until we were on the highest level of the old parking garage, just one level beneath the roof. I stopped and stared from the entry.

The place had been turned into the most awesome hangout a teenager could want, at least in my opinion. There were thick cloth curtains in various colours hanging all around it, covering every opening to the outside – keeping the light in, and the warmth. Keeping the wind out. They obviously had electricity because they had a series of electrical heaters keeping the place not quite toasty warm, but warm enough to justify even Foxfire’s ensemble. Pillows, blankets, love seats – all second hand apparently, and many having been repaired rather haphazardly – covered nearly every inch of the floor that wasn’t taken up by at least two layers of all kinds of rugs. There were several flatscreens spread around the place, with every gaming console ever hooked up.

Holy Shit,” I whispered. “I thought you guys were supposed to be smalltime.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I felt the heat rise in my face. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Great move, Terry. Insult the only persons who might know what actually happened to Twitch.

Laura smiled sweetly, showing off a pair of rather long canines. They looked strange, but I guess boys probably liked her smiles a lot. “Don’t worry. It’s a compliment – we’ve managed to keep a low profile so far. And we’re not that big – most of the stuff here is second-hand, if that. And the tech is all self-made from scrap.”

That gave me a start. I looked at the flatscreens, the consoles and the heaters. The lighting, too. It all looked completely functional but… yeah, you could tell there’d been damage. A few pieces of equipment were also quite clearly cobbled together from parts that had originally belonged to several different appliances.

You’re getting distracted again, dummy.

I shook my head. “Anyway. Anyway… let’s get to the important subject, alright?”

The boys walked past us, Cad and Fletch throwing me suspicious glances while Jimmy just seemed to ignore me. They all sat down on the largest couch in the room, which was arranged along with three others in a half-circle in front of a flatscreen the size a house wall. That definitely looked handmade – there was the screen and a frame holding it in place, but no casing, and I could see wires emerge from behind it and up to the ceiling, where they joined a lot of other power lines.

“One question first, though. How do you power this stuff?”

Laura sat down on the couch along with the others, too. “Solar panels on the roof – it gets quite a bit of sunlight, so high up. And we also have a few bikes wired up to a bigass dynamo, for when we don’t get sunlight for a while,” she explained. “Now sit.” She nodded towards the couch next to the one the StreetBadgers were sitting (lounging, in Laura’s case) on, and I sat down, turning to face them.

“Do you want to start, or should I?”

Jimmy spoke up first, “Wait. We got one more member, but he went out to get food right before you arrived here.”

“I thought it was only you four, after… after Linda died.”

“Where did you get your information?” he asked.

I looked down at my feet, rubbing my hands. Hope they won’t overreact. “Well… the police. I asked a police officer what he knew about… about the case.”

“You’re working with the fucking police!?” Fletch screamed, jumping up and into fighting position, fists raised. “If ya think ye can sell us o-“

“Fletch, sit.” Laura barked those two words like a well rehearsed line, and Fletch immediately dropped down onto his seat, though he still gave me the evil eye.

And who the hell names their child ‘Fletch’ anyway?

“I’m not working with the police. I just… got picked up by a police officer. He wanted to take me home, I got him to talk then bailed,” I explained in a single breath.

Their eyebrows shot up in an almost coordinated motion. “Really?” asked Laura in a curious tone. “However did you get away from him?”

Looking down, I felt the heat rise to my face again. The officer had been really nice and understanding, and I’d… but it might help me break the ice here. “I uh… I pretended I felt sick, and when he stopped and got out with me, I… kicked him in the balls and ran.”

They looked at me, stunned for a moment… then they broke out into laughter, which only led to my face feeling even hotter than before.

It took a while for them to calm down again. “Man, do you know how to treat’em,” Laura gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “How did you find us, after you bailed from the cop? I’m pretty sure they don’t know where we hide, on account of them not storming our place to lock us up.”

“Uhh, honestly, just by chance. I got lost in the Shades, and then I followed this big cat over here,” I replied, glad she wasn’t focusing on the officer.

“What cat?” Jimmy asked, suddenly serious again. “Where is it? I saw no cat!”

“Whoa, dude, calm down!” I said, inching a little away from him. “It’s just some cat!”

Laura gave me a hard stare. “In our world, there’s no such thing as just some cat that just happens to lead the twin sister of our just deceased team member to our secret hideout! Where is it?”

“Um, it was searching through your trash cans last time I saw it…”

Laura threw Jimmy and Cad a look and they both left immediately.

“Can I ask a quick question?” I asked her.

“You already did,” she replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

She nodded and waved her hand in an approving motion.

“When I woke up, you said that me being taken down with one hit from your ball is an indicator for me not being a metahuman. How come?”

“Well, that’s the Coltenhagen effect, duh!” She looked at me like it was obvious.

“The… Coltenhagen effect? I think I heard that somewhere…” I raked my brain, but all I came up with was the word being used, once, regarding ‘Humanity First!’ demanding more non-powered superheroes. But nothing else.

“Well, it’s kinda the reason why there are no non-metahuman superheroes or villains. Or why the military is so damn paranoid about even low-level enemy metas. Simply put…” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kinda like this – every metahuman has a kind of real low-level power resistance. Not enough to really block powers, but enough to make it possible for them to resist, so to speak. Or at least resist to a meaningful degree.”

“So a metahuman could take more than one hit from your ball?”

She nodded, “Yeah. Or like… take that freak Mindstar, or the fortunately departed Mindfuck. A newly manifested, untrained teenager could resist their powers just as easily as an adult professional soldier with mental training. Doesn’t make us tougher or anything, it just… gives us a better chance to resist the really bad powers. Transformations, mind control, possession, that kinda stuff. The things that really give you nightmares.”

“And how does that apply to your taser ball? I mean, are you guys like, more resistant to electric powers?”

“No no, my ball doesn’t use electricity at all!” she said. “That would be way more dangerous. No, it’s a mental move. It just works LIKE a taser, but it’s not a physical effect, really. Otherwise, you’d be having cramps and burns where it hit you.”

I checked. True, my stomach was completely unharmed. I let my hoodie fall down again and looked up just in time to see Fletch look away from me. I ignored him, again.

“So that’s why there’s no non-powered heroes?”

She nodded. “For example, the Drakainas – they could easily shore up their numbers with non-powered pilots in suits, but they’d be highly susceptible to those kinds of powers I just described, and many others. Like emotion projection. People who make others feel fear, or lust, or apathy. Quite common, all things considered, and really lethal against normies.”

“I see. That certainly explains a lot.”

Just then, the boys came back up, Jimmy holding the big tomcat in his arms.

“Looks like a normal cat, if really big, Fox,” he said as he handed the purring tomcat to Fox. She took him into her arms and scratched him behind his ears, sniffing him while he purred contently.

“Smells normal, too,” she said. “D’awww, he’s just a big cutie!” She lifted him up over her head. “A really big cutie. Can’t smell anything strange about him, though he’s strangely clean for a cat that apparently belongs to no one.”

“Can we keep him?” Fletch threw in. “I mean, it’d be nice to have a pet here!”

We all looked at him and he blushed a little. But Laura nodded and handed the tomcat over to him. “But you have to make sure to feed him. And train him not to do his business all over the place.”

He nodded, eagerly, and took the tomcat onto his lap. It was really quite cute.

And then, there was the sound of a ringtone, and Laura checked her cellphone. “Oh, food’s here! Go and help Peter haul it up, boys!”

And just like that, Jimmy and Cad left again for the staircase.

Whoa, she really got them whipped right. I felt jealous. I never could get boys to do what I tell them so easily. Maybe she can give me lessons?

Soon, the boys returned along with this Peter. He turned out to be… a normal boy around my age. The kind I usually didn’t notice at school. Not fat, but definitely overweight, with his brown hair in a bad haircut, sloppy clothes under a thick coat and oversized glasses.

He came in looking quite serious, and immediately looked at me, apparently having been briefed by the other two. “So, Twitch had a twin sister,” he said in a rather soft, weak-sounding voice. “Hello, I’m Peter. I’m kinda the tech guy for this team.”

He put down the stack of pizza boxes he’d been carrying (five boxes, five more in Jimmy’s arms and ten in Cad’s. How much did these people eat?) and offered me his hand. I took it and we shook hands. His was sweaty. He let go quickly and sat down on another couch, keeping his teammates between himself and me.

Strange.

They quickly spread the pizza boxes around… and my stomach growled the moment their smell hit me. I blushed as I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten since… well, apart from the donut earlier, I hadn’t eaten since morning.

Laura gave me a look and handed me one of her boxes (she three stacked in front of her. Fletch had two, Jimmy and Peter three, Cad four). “Here, eat.” I was way too hungry to protest.

The pizza turned out to look even better than it smelled. It was obviously from a real Italian restaurant. And it was loaded with yummy stuff. Well, except for the broccoli. Yuck.

While the others dug in, I carefully removed the green abominations from my pizza, then started to eat. Mmmmmm…

We ate in silence. Cad pretty much breathed his pizzas in, while the others took more time. Fletch fed the cat, too.

Then we relaxed and leaned back. They’d all been jumbo pizzas, and I usually didn’t eat this much, so I was quite… floored.

After about ten minutes though, I started to… recover my earlier impatiance. Maybe I’d just been too hungry and groggy to feel it, though. “Um, now, about Linda… I mean Twitch.”

That got their attention. “Can you tell us some about your background? I mean, Twitch always refused to,” Laura asked, and I nodded. It might not have been smart, but… this was my chance to learn something. So I’d play nice.

“Well, we’re twins, obviously. We have a little brother, and live with our parents in the Oak Leaf community,” I began.

“Shit! Oak Leaf! That’s one of the richest places in the entire Esperanza area!” shouted Peter. The others seemed similarly surprised.

“Why, in the name of God’s green earth, did she become a supervillain and hang out here with us?” asked Cad. “I mean, she even ran away from there two weeks ago – why?”

I looked down at my feet, but thankfully, Laura took over explaining the obvious.

“Cad, think about it. What is Oak Leaf known for?” she said.

I heard Jimmy gasp as he got it. The others didn’t, I think. Not that I looked to check.

“It’s the biggest ”Humanity First!” community in the entire world,” Peter explained. “Among other things, Richard Svenson lives there. Current leader of ‘Humanity First!’…”

“And a regular dinner guest at our place,” I added without looking up. “My parents are deep into it. That’s why Linda never told them, I think. Not that it explains why she wouldn’t tell me. But… my parents seem to be more shaken up about her being a metahuman than her being dead,” I continued, spitting the last word like poison. I didn’t look up at their faces. I didn’t want pity.

“She started acting strange about two months ago, and wouldn’t talk to us. Two weeks ago, we kind of made an intervention, but she just… blew a gasket and stormed out of the house…” I still remembered the feeling of betrayal, when she just left instead of talking to me. I could have understood if she wouldn’t talk to my parents, but why not to me.

“That was when she moved in with us. Do you want to see her place?” asked Laura, her voice full of… sympathy.

I nodded, quietly, and she took my hand (hers was unnaturally warm – suddenly it made sense that she’d run around in light clothing) and all but dragged me around the staircase. There were several “rooms” partitioned off from the rest of the space by way of heavy curtains and wooden screens acting as walls. She took me into one of them. It turned out to be a small bedroom, with a bookshelf loaded with books, a laptop on a desk and a small dresser drawer.

The curtains were all blue, and there was a pressed tulip in a frame, hanging over her bed. And a picture of me, from five years ago (we’d still looked identical back then, but I remembered that photo being shot, and besides, I was wearing a yellow dress in it. She’d always worn blue). I just stared at the picture.

“What… what can you tell me about her?” I said, not taking my eyes off of it. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you have a picture of me here, but you never told me?

“She was what we call a ‘Brain’ in the business. Mental powers. Perception. She had a kind of danger sense, except she could spread it to cover others. Give her a warning when others were in danger. She also got a boost in her reaction speed and all. Mental only. And only when her Danger Sense was set off.”

“Who killed her? Why?” I turned to look at her. I might have been crying.

She looked uncomfortable. “We… we’d gotten a commission, to steal a package that was being transported by a bunch of mobsters,” she said. “Job went well, we stopped their car, took them out, got the package… but then everything went to shit when the Hellhound appeared.”

Oh no… Everyone in Oak Leaf knew the Hellhound. He was a kind of hero to ”Humanity First!”. Unofficially, of course. I’d never paid much attention to it, beyond the basics.

“I heard that he’s a metahuman hater. I mean, real hate. Hunts and kills any he finds,” I said, my voice strangely monotone. “Something about his family being killed.”

“Yeah, his wife and daughters were eaten by a cannibalistic villain team,” Laurel explained. “Guy’s major badass crazy. Goes after metahumans with heavy weaponry, sniper rifles, you name it.”

“How come he’s still around? I mean, the Coltenhagen effect…”

She shook her head. “He’s a metahuman, too, though most don’t realize it. Some kind of resurrection ability – no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back.”

“So he killed Twitch because…”

“He was after the package. Someone sold us out, maybe, or sold the same information twice. We dropped the package and ran – guy’s too dangerous for us – but he pursued. Twitch…” She choked, wiping her eyes. The others, who’d followed us, looked utterly miserable. “She… she convinced us that someone needed to distract him. That we needed to split up. We did that, and he pursued her, and…”

I looked down at my feet.

The Hellhound.

My sister had died just because some guy had a hate-on for metahumans. Oh, the irony.

The fucking Hellhound.

My sister had died to save her friends. Because that guy couldn’t swallow his hate.

The Hellhound murdered my sister.

I felt the rage rise up inside me. When I raised my head, the StreetBadgers all took a step back.

“I want to go after him. Are you guys in?”

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B008.1.2 Vra: Anger

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A minus 11 Days

I reached the industrial district almost an hour later, completely out of breath and drenched in sweat.

While I was very – even exceptionally – fit and trained regularly in a variety of sports, long distance running among them, I’d managed to spend myself running without pacing myself. I just couldn’t focus enough to do that. Usually, when I ran, once my body got used to the motions I’d just relax and go into my zone, just… running.

Not this time. I felt like there was a maelstrom of emotions inside me, held back by a knot in my belly that it pressed against and tore at. Most of it was rage, I was sure.

Nonetheless, I arrived. Our gated community was pretty much on the opposite side of the city, or at least it felt like it. It had been built in its spot deliberately, far away from the districts frequented by metahumans. And let’s face it, it was pretty much a law that low-level heroes and villains would throw down in abandoned factories and warehouses.

There were plenty of those in Esperanza, and nowhere more than in the old industrial district. Heavy industry had almost entirely fled the cities due to the Environmental Protection Act (also known as the GreenGreen Act, named after the superhero group that had been its most fervent supporter) of nineteen-eighty-two and now tended to cluster in isolated so-called industrial conclaves, far apart from cities and other protected sites.

Which left more than enough abandoned warehouses and factories behind in the cities, since it wasn’t worth the money to disassemble them or knock them down and build new things in their place. Esperanza had been rebuild almost entirely from the grounds up, after Desolation-in-Light wiped out Los Angeles, but there were a few parts of the old city left, surrounded by the new one. Most people called them ‘the Shades’ (as a contrast to the Brights in New Lennston) and they were the places the scum of the city gathered in.

The old factory I had run to – I’d remembered the address from when a policewoman had told us what had happened – didn’t stand out from the surrounding buildings at all. It was big, it was run-down, it was made of brownish-red bricks with tall, stained black chimneys. I had no idea what had once been produced within, as there was no identifying sign left, save for the street name and number written on a small, rusted metal signpost.

The idea that my sister had died in such a stereotypical place almost made me cry, but I was angry enough to let any tears evaporate before they even left my tear ducts. Taking a deep breath and drawing my wholly inadequate hoodie closer around my body – West Coast or no, November was not the best time to run around in only your underwear, a hoodie and sweatpants. Especially if you were drenched in sweat from stupidly running like a madwoman – I walked through the open gate. It looked like someone had broken it down – probably the police when they’d stormed in to see what was going on.

Despite the late hour, the factory was, well, not well-lit but it was bright enough to see. The back half of the ceiling had collapsed at some point – I couldn’t tell if it was recent or not – and moonlight was flooding in, thanks to the cloudless sky and the current full moon.

There was still some police tape left at the scene, bright yellow that stood out sharply against the black, brown and grey of the factory. No police in sight, though, and why should there be – sure, they hadn’t caught the murderer, but it’d just been a supervillain girl who died. No one important.

I shook my head. No, that wasn’t fair. It probably had nothing to do with the police not wanting to help. She’d died almost a week ago, and whatever clues had been left here were most probably already filed away.

Past the police tape, the front half of the factory still stood, covered in dust and old grime, but apart from that, it looked like it could still light up and start working… though I still had no idea what it was meant to produce.

Gee, talk about avoiding the issue. Get your ass in gear, idiot!

Kicking myself in the ass, I looked through the place… and then I froze.

The chalk outline was still there. As were a lot of dark stains on the floor, many small ones and one really big ones…

Mesmerized, I stepped closer, until I was just a hair’s breadth away from having my shoes on the big stain.

Whoever had died here had bled. A lot.

What a way to go.

Then, I suddenly heard heavy steps behind me, and a gruff voice said: “Hey, miss, you’re not supposed to be here!”

Spinning around, my hand went for my baton – but then I stopped when I recognized the uniform the man was wearing.

In the movies, there’s usually only two kinds of fat cops. The dirty (in more ways than one), donut-and-burger eating asshole or the jolly good-natured veteran who takes it easy and likes all kinds of good food in large quantities (and donuts). You can usually tell them apart by how clean their uniform is, and by just how grossly overweight they are.

This guy… looked like a little bit of both. He was quite a bit taller than me, had at least three hundred pounds more on his body than I did and his uniform was straining quite a bit around his body – his fat was spread relatively evenly across his body, except for his impressive belly. He had very short black hair, barely visible beneath his policeman’s cap, rather attractive black eyes and heavy jowls.

He came to a stop near me, squinting to see me despite the twilight. The way I was standing, the full moon was falling on me from behind, hiding my face in the shade. Not that he’d recognize me, anyway.

“Miss, this is a dangerous part of town, especially for a young lady!” he said, his voice in stark contrast to his appearance. This guy made Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sound like Micky Mouse on helium. Not to mention that the words did not fit the stereotype. “Miss?” he asked again, when I stayed silent.

I relaxed, letting my arms hang down by my sides loosely. “I’m sorry, officer. I just… wanted to see.”

He relaxed almost imperceptibly once he could see both of my hands. “See what, Miss? This ain’t a place for sight seeing. Nothing good happened here.”

“I know I…” I looked down. I’d taken a step back and was now standing on top of the biggest stain. “I… she died here…”

I looked around my feet. I was standing right where Linda had died. I was standing right where Linda died.

“My… my sister,” I chocked, suddenly unable to breath. “My sister died here… oh God, my sister died here.” I felt tears leak from my eyes as his expression turned from concerned to horrified and pitying.

Not that I cared. “Linda died here.” I tried to breath, but it came in too short. Not enough, I was feeling so dizzy. So I took another. And another, quicker one. Again. And again.

The factory began to spin, the policeman merging with the surroundings in my vision as I stumbled around, unable to keep my footing on the wobbling ground. She died here. She died here and I wasn’t with her!

* * *

I have no recollection of the five or ten minutes that followed my breakdown. I don’t know if I passed out or just repressed them, or whatever. All I know is that, some time later, I was leaning against the hood of a police car, eating an expensive donut with extra thick chocolate frosting, and drinking a cup of steaming hot chocolate.

The donut I get, but where the hell did he get hot chocolate from?

The policeman had the doors of the car open and the cabin light turned on. He was on the other side of the car, keeping it between us. Giving me some sense of privacy, after the utterly humiliating way I’d lost it in front of him. He was on his second donut, with a cup of steaming hot coffee on the side.

After a few more minutes of chewing and drinking, I said, “Thank you for the meal. And… thank you,” without turning around to face him.

“Not much of a meal, Miss Afolayan,” he said in that badass movie-cop voice. I was sure that people who heard him before they saw him imagined some kind of Dirty Harry slash Arnold Schwarzenegger guy.

Of course, what was more interesting was that he knew my name, and even pronounced it right. “H-how do you know who I am?” I asked, still not turning around.

He chuckled sadly. “You said your sister died here. One Linda Afolayan, alias Twitch, member and supposed leader of the StreetBadgers, a superpowered teenage villain team. More of a youth gang, really. Until a week ago, that is.”

I tensed up – I’d never actually heard of Linda’s supervillain name. I didn’t even know what kind of powers she’d had, or who her team had been.

“Do you… do you know more?” I asked, finally turning around to look at him across the hood of his car. I could see his nametag from here. Officer Widard.

I thought I’d heard that name before, somewhere. Maybe he has famous relatives?

He gave me an unbearably sad and compassionate look. “Miss, there’s other problems here. Namely the fact that a minor is out at night, in one of the worst parts of the town. And visiting the scene of a crime, no less.”

“I’m sixteen,” I replied, weakly. As if that meant anything. He ignored it.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take you home, now. Please get into the car, Miss,” he said. He was saying ‘Please’ but there was no doubt he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I was pretty sure that, if I ran away, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. There was no way he’d shoot me, and by the time he got into the car, I could have run down the street so he’d have to turn it first, or into an alley too narrow to drive into.

But… if I stayed with him, I might just get some information out of him. I really had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know who the StreetBadgers were, or who their members were, or where they could be found.

“Alright,” I said and got into the car. “My name’s Theresa Afolayan, by the way. Please call me Terry.”

He got in once I’d closed the door. His seat had been pushed back as far as possible for him to fit – even disregarding his girth, the guy was about six foot nine tall. “Name’s Tom Widard. A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Now, let’s get you home.”

* * *

He drove away from the old factory my other half had died in. I stayed quiet, for a minute or so, before speaking up.

“Sir, you seem to know a little about… about my sister’s case. No one’s told me anything, so I wanted to ask…”

Without taking his eyes off the street, the officer replied, “Normally, I’d say it’s up to your parents, Terry. But… I guess you deserve to know some. On one condition.”

Please don’t say… “What condition, Sir?”

“You’ll promise you won’t go off do something stupid like what you just did again. This part of the city really ain’t safe, at all.”

I thought it over, looking for loopholes in that promise. “Alright. I promise I won’t repeat those actions, no matter what you tell me,” I replied.

He didn’t seem to pick up on the loophole I’d built into it, or maybe he knew he wouldn’t get anything better out of me.

“Your sister was a member of a rather notorious youth gang. Call themselves the StreetBadgers. Mostly vandalism, graffiti, petty theft and some low-grade fights with other low-powered youth gangs. They all avoid the heroes cause they don’t stand a chance – maybe one in ten of them has anything more than a single Exemplar power, and almost none have any meaningful training,” he explained calmly, stating the facts the same way he’d probably do it if he was briefing a new partner. He sounded positively intimidating.

“Why have I never heard of them?” I asked. “I mean… any of them?”

He shrugged. “They’re really no more a problem than any other youth gang, Miss. Sure, their powers can be one hell of a headache, but even the most outlandish among them can be dealt with by us street cops, if we don’t go in blind – and most of them are low-level bricks, those are not hard to handle for even normal police officers – and they really pale to the real supervillains, so they don’t get much coverage.”

“What about the Badgers’ members? And could one of them have killed Linda?” If they’re that little of a problem, I should be able to pick them off one by one.

He sighed, as if he could read my thoughts. “Don’t even think it, Terry. The StreetBadgers are one of the more competent gangs out there.” But he still continued, laying them out for me: “Four members are left, now that your poor sister is gone. Fulcrum, a low-grade manipulator who can redirect the movement of any single object within his sight; LagForward – name’s supposedly written as one word, with the ‘F’ capitalized, an above-average brick for an Exemplar Tier meta, with the downside that he can assess his strength and speed only in momentary bursts,” he paused, drinking from a cup of coffee. “Foxfire, kind of their mascot. Low-level physique, and she creates this really annoying melon-sized ball of stroboscoping light, throwing it around and tasering anyone she hits. Finally, Razzle, he can create a cloud of sparkling fireworks and all, concealing and misdirecting. Can make it so it doesn’t block her or her friend’s vision.”

He stopped talking to let me digest that, finally driving out of the Shades and into Esperanza proper. The streets finally turned brighter.

So, there were four subjects. But… “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think any one of them is the murderer?” I clenched my fists.

“Nah,” he shook his head, not even thinking about it. “They’re brats, but these gangs are tight, and the StreetBadgers are known for loyalty. Besides, your sister… she was killed with a military-grade rapid-fire shotgun, using modified shells meant for fighting metahumans. No way those kids could have gotten their hands on it, half of them are younger than you are.”

I nodded. “My sister… what do you know about… about her? As a supervillain?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.

It took him some time to answer as we got closer to my home. Then he said, “Her name was Twitch. She was the second most recent recruit of the group, after Razzle. Suspected low-grade physique, but judging from you, that was misapplied. Some kind of danger sense and/or limited precognition. They really started rising up once she joined them, winning fight after fight, always evading us poor cops.”

“Could she fly?” I blurted out. We’d always dreamed of flying.

He threw me a curious glance as he waited for the next green light. “No. Pure Brainpowers, far as we can tell. Of course, it’s not like we know everything…”

I leaned back in my seat, pulling my arms close around myself. Couldn’t she at least get that one thing?

“Why would anyone want to kill her?” I whispered, only half to him. “Do you have any suspects?” I asked, louder.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, looking honestly so. “This whole thing… it makes no sense. Whoever killed your sister had professional gear. But what reason would a professional have to kill a teenage gang member?” He ran the fingers of one hand through his messy dark hair (he’d taken his cap off earlier).

“Maybe she found something out she shouldn’t know?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine any real reason, either.

“Maybe.” He fell silent.

“Where do they usually h-” I started asking, hoping I’d get some more information, but he threw me a glance that shut me up.

“No. I won’t tell you where you can find them. I’ll get you home, and hand you over to your parents. You know, the legal, right thing to do. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

I didn’t answer. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t budge. The fact that he was more than three times my weight didn’t make it better.

* * *

A minute or so later, the officer was cursing under his breath. There’d been a traffic accident, a truck had apparently spun out of control and was now lying across the street, blocking it entirely. He had to take a way around, but Esperanza, though far better planned than most cities, had a lot of construction and reconstruction, as well as maintenance going on right now, despite the winter weather.

We drove for a few minutes, constantly re-diverted by construction sites and, in one case, a battle between the Six Sentries and some villains I didn’t recognize.

He took a shortcut through the nearby Shades, and that’s when I saw a large piece of graffiti writing, saying ‘StreetBadgers’ in white-black-white lettering.

Take this chance, dummy.

I decided on a course of action. It was a dickmove, especially considering how nice Officer Widard had been, but well… family comes first.

“S-sir?” I asked, trying to sound as unsteady as I could. I’d been silent for a while, just looking out the window, and it wasn’t a stretch to play the role I had in mind.

“Yes, Terry?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the street. Good, he might have noticed something.

“I… ugh, I think that… that donut isn’t agreeing with me… I think I’m gonna throw up,” I said, speaking like I was ill, putting a hand over my mouth. Making a suspicious break in the sentence, to make it look like I was blaming my state on the donut and meaning something else.

Like my sister’s death.

“Wait, I’ll pull to the side. Can you hold it in for a moment?”

“I’ll try…” Gotta love nice people. I held my stomach, curling up on the seat.

He pulled over to the side of the street and got out, circling the car to unlock the door on my side and help me out (he was smart enough not to unlock it first and give me an easy escape).

I let him help me out of the car and stumbled with him in toe away from the car to a trash can, bending over.

“I’m really sorry, Sir,” I apologized, meaning it. Before he could react, I lashed out with my foot, kicking him in the balls.

As he keeled over – and I felt like vomiting for real now, what in God’s name am I thinking? – I bolted, running into an alley that would take me roughly towards the street I saw the graffiti art.

I doubt he’ll be that nice to random teenagers in trouble again.

* * *

I found the graffity again. It had been expertly painted on the front of an old restaurant building. Striped like a badger. How imaginative. Did Linda really hang out with people who do art like this?

It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t look like something really original.

You’re stalling again.

Not that I had any idea how to proceed.

Get off the main street, dummy. The officer might remember this and come to look for you.

I walked around the corner of the building – and finally realized why they called these parts of the city the Shades. I’d read about them, seen reports, but…

Esperanza had been built atop the ruins of Los Angeles. Literally in some cases – a lot of the city was standing on gigantic concrete pillars, or raised parts of the earth that had been moved by Desolation-in-Light. Many of the old parts were constantly in the shadow because of that.

Right now, I was in an alley that would have been jet-black if not for a single, flickering lightbulb over a side entrance.

That graffiti was territorial marking. So their hideout should be close.

I pulled my hood over my head, and went down the alley, looking around for further signs of the StreetBadgers.

* * *

After about half an hour, I knew one thing for sure. I should have brought a torch.

And a map. And a compass. Because I was utterly, completely lost. I could barely see the sky from where I was standing, and it was really miserably cold here.

Shivering, I walked pretty much blindly through the place, until a nearby trashcan tipped over and something flew at me.

I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but I shrieked like a little girl when a dark, red-eyed shade bounced at me – and then a pretty big cat with reddish-brown eyes and a jet-black coat of fur smacked into my chest, making me fall back onto my butt.

I looked down at it, feeling slightly silly. But only slightly, because beeing jumped by red-eyed black things in dark alleys was a common element of horror stories nowadays, even more than ever before.

“Hello kittie. Whatever is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

It really was a pretty cat. He – I just assumed it was a tomcat – was big, weighted about twelve pounds by my estimation and had a long tail and a fluffy, long coat. His eyes were really more brown than red, but still. Damn.

I stroked his fur – it was quite clean and fluffy, and he purred like a starting jet, only softer. “Do you belong to someone, you big cutie?” Checking him over, I found no markings whatsoever.

The tomcat (I checked) flicked his tail and jumped off my lap, turning around then looking back at me. Expectantly.

Wait, is that cat telling me to follow it?

Well, my life was weird enough as it was, anyway. And I had no idea where to go, anyway.

And maybe he belonged to the StreetBadgers. Coincidences happen, right?

I followed him, trying to stick close so as not to lose him in the darkness.

* * *

The cat took me to an old, abandoned parking garage. The large building had seen way better days, and looked rather uninteresting, not to mention uninviting.

But when I followed the tomcat, we passed by a pillar that a stylized badger had been sprayed on. Ohhh. Good kittie.

I followed him, now more carefully. One hand beneath my hoodie, at the baton I’d tucked into the back of my pants.

The tomcat led me to some stairs… and a few trash cans beside them. He jumped onto one and starting looking for food.

Oh. That’s what you wanted.

Still, way useful. I snuck past the cat up the stairs. They were at the center of the parking garage and obviously very old… but there was barely any dust around.

I snuck up the stairs to the next level. Nothing to be seen. Nor on the next one.

Then I heard voices on the third level.

Holding my breath, I snuck to the doorless opening, hiding on one side to glance inside.

There was actually some moonlight here, if barely. There were a lot of crates and other shapes lying around, or piled up. I couldn’t make them all out in the current lighting.

There were also four figures standing in a circle, arguing about something in some Asian language. I had no idea which one it was, though it might have been Japanese (Linda had been way into anime).

I waited as they argued. And somehow, somewhere, my rage from earlier came up again.

These people had taken Linda away. She’d hung out with them, instead of me. Told them of her problems, instead of me. Fought with them, instead of me.

Linda died, and they didn’t save her.

I pulled my baton out and snapped it open. It clicked.

Dammit. The conversation stopped, and the figures – I could just barely make out two boys, a girl and a third, shorter one – turned to look at me. They didn’t call out. They didn’t wait. They started moving immediately. Flickering lights began to form around the shortest one, showing me a boy in his early teens, wearing skater clothes and a magician’s mask. Then the cloud expanded, obscuring my vision of the group. Except for one really buff, tall chinese boy, wearing jeans and a thick vest, as well as army boots. He stomped in my direction.

I could also make out a melon-sized sphere in the cloud of fireworks that was rapidly switching colours.

I don’t know why exactly I did it, later. Was I really that angry? That unstable? I should have put my baton away and talked to them. They ought to recognize me. And even if Linda had never told them about me, I did look a lot like her. I should have talked.

Instead I pulled my hood down and attacked them.

Not my smartest move.

The Chinese boy – probably LagForward – gave a start when I charged him, but he blocked my strike with a lazy motion.

I pulled my knee up to hit him in the balls, but he just blurred to the side, going super-fast for just a split-second.

The sphere that had been thrown out of the cloud of fireworks missed him by a split-second before hitting me in the gut. Last thing I saw was yellow, then all black.

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