B13.d 8 Bad People

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You’re going to die.

Sam half lay and half sat on the floor, curled up and whimpering, as the others gathered around Immanuel and the glowing sarcophagus-tank near him.

“Well, this went wrong,” the gorgeous young man – whom she’d only ever met once before, when he’d welcomed her to the Installation – said with a calm smile on his face, showing absolutely no discomfort at the stump of his left arm being poked at by the Tapirapé woman in the white labcoat kneeling next to him. “So, what’s the diagnosis, Fräulein Doktor?”

He’s going to die.

The middle-aged woman rolled her eyes and pulled the two needles she’d been poking around inside his biceps with out. “The diagnosis, Herr Schwachkopf, is that you pissed off the wrong centenarian demigod and you’re lucky it only cost you your arm,” the Ascendant told him in a biting tone. “But if you’re asking whether I can make you a replacement, the answer is probably. Whatever he did, thanks to Master Konrad’s swift intervention, it’s been neutralised.”

She’s going to die.

Sammy whimpered, looking down at the stump of her own left arm, where it ended just below where her wrist had once been, now neatly cut off and then bandaged by Tsukiko. Same as her left leg, just below the knee.

If it wasn’t for Konrad, she’d have lost more than that…

***

The tide of darkness was steadily advancing, grinding down their people. Chronicle was doing her best to stem it from where she stood next to Immanuel, along with Prism and Judicator, resetting the few she’d been able to record beforehand every time they took too much damage or died.

It wasn’t enough, not by a long shot. The shadow demons kept coming, over and over, and it wasn’t just their sheer mass that was slowly killing people, like they’d killed Brad, torn him limb from limb just out of her sight, so she’d been unable to reset him before he’d been dead for too long.

There was a mind behind them, one single mind. A malevolent intellect that wanted them all dead, dead and gone and she could see its hatred, his hatred, in every motion of his demons. Coordinating them, the small ones and the big, unique ones, the ones with powers of their own.

Fifty-eight people on their side, fifty-eight metahumans, and they were being beaten by a single enemy they hadn’t even been able to scratch yet.

Chronicle saw Karasuha reform out of her bird form, dropping down onto the Dark, only to be quickly dispatched like a fly to be swatted down, and reached out with her power, focusing on her love’s recording…

***

“Sammy,” Tsukiko spoke softly, kneeling down next to her in a graceful motion, having stripped off her armour and robe, wearing only the black bodysuit underneath and her boots. “Here, drink this,” she continued in that beautiful Japanese accent of hers, holding a flat bowl to Sam’s lips. “It will ease the pain.”

Look at her pretty face. It’s going to rot, after she dies.

Sam whimpered, drinking the slightly glowing, purple brew. It tasted… warm, and kind of earthy, and the pain in her arm and leg instantly eased.

You’re still going to die.

Tsukiko smiled, leaning in to kiss her on the forehead. “There, much better now, right?” she asked, looking down at her with warm, loving eyes.

Sam looked back with wet, tired eyes in turn. She didn’t trust her voice, so she just nodded, and got a hug in return.

You’ll both die, and never be together again.

Looking over her wife’s shoulder (her ring had been on her left hand… gone now…) she looked at the glowing sarcophagus. It was one of those used to store the Ascendant’s creations, repurposed to help its occupant recover from his wounds.

Within lay a nude man. He was tall and young, in his mid-to-late twenties, though she suspected he was much older.

Konrad, Immanuel’s partner and opposite, the right hand of their leader, where Immanuel was the left one. The sword, where Immanuel was the pen.

He was Immanuel’s opposite in appearance, as far as that was possible while still being from Germany. Tall and broad-shouldered, heavily muscled to the point where his abs had more abs, though his build was still slimmer than that of many a strongman, more like a ballet dancer who’d gone overboard with his workout. His face was merely attractive, instead of drop-dead gorgeous, with a slightly crooked, yet noble nose, visible beard-stubble and long, shaggy blonde hair. If Sam had been into men at all, she’d probably have already been crushing on him already, even before seeing his power.

He’s going to die.

His right arm had partially dissolved, scars of molten flesh winding up from his fingers all the way to his shoulder, but they were healing, even though he’d been touched more directly than either her or Immanuel, even though he’d struck the monstrosity…

***

A huge impact shook the Installation, causing Chronicle to stumble. She would’ve fallen, if Immanuel hadn’t reached out and gently pushed on her shoulder, allowing her to regain her balance. He hadn’t even been inconvenienced.

“Something’s coming up,” he said, stepping backwards, the group around him automatically falling into line. Sablo, the ribbon-haired, nude woman who’d been protecting them from the Dark’s wraiths, keeping up a glowing white circle on the ground that moved with the group as they retreated along the metal walkway they were on. Even the Dark’s greater demons had been unable to breach it yet, though they’d also been unable to focus on it to any meaningful degree, either. “All of you, brace yourselves!”

Chronicle did just that, grabbing a hold of the rail next to herself, as even the Dark’s assault briefly stalled.

Near the centre of the Installation, four objects burst through it in showers of metal and salt water, shooting up into the air above, the force with which they’d broken through so immense it briefly caused the entire floating city to tilt left and right like a ship in a storm.

Everyone paused and stared up as the water streamed off what appeared to be four perfect, kind of liquid spheres, each of a different colour – white, red, black and green. Each seemed to be about twice the size of a person.

“Oh, Heng, what were you thinking?” Immanuel complained. “Blindly injecting so many samples at once… now we don’t even know which ones produced these.”

The four spheres hung in the air for a few moments, then they suddenly shot in four different directions, away from each other, without the slightest sound.

Chronicle stared up, dumbfounded. What’d just ha-

“Watch out!” Judicator cried, pointing ahead, causing her to look towards their enemy again – only to feel her blood run cold. Colder.

Several of the individualistic shadow demons had gathered up. One, humanoid with wings instead of arms and but a single red eye in the centre of its face, was floating above the others, staring resolutely at their small group, while smaller demons circled around it, absorbing attacks upon it with their own bodies, sacrificing themselves to keep it safe from the attacks of the remaining defenders – twenty, at best, by now.

Beneath it, a muscular demon with a lop-sided build, upper body far thicker, heavily corded with pulsing muscle, while the legs seemed almost comically thin, was holding a sword that was easily twice as long as the demon was tall, and half as broad, holding it two-handed and pointed at their group. Another demon, a curvy female shape with twisted, almost U-shaped horns growing out of its smooth, six-eyed head and standing on her toes, was pointing its clawed hands at the sword, eldritch blood-red flames streaming from them to wrap around the blade in a double-helix that continued to grow more and more dense, more and more bright. A third demon, featureless save for its six eyes and tentacles instead of legs, was spinning some kind of web between its long-fingered hands, casting out strands of it to form another, larger web in the air in front of the pointed blade.

“If that is what it looks like… I don’t think I’ll be able to hold out, Sir,” their protector admitted in a strained voice, without looking away from their enemy. “I’ll try to lessen the blow, at least,” she affirmed, her arms still raised, fingers together in a box-like shape.

“Wait for it,” was all Immanuel said in response.

“We need Konrad,” Judicator spoke in a mellow voice, though the note of worry underneath was unmistakable. “He’s our only hope to beat the adversary, or at least manage a proper retreat.”

“Wait for it,” their leader repeated.

“Sir, something is sapping my shield’s power!” Sablo cried.

Chronicle could do nothing but stare as the Dark’s demos built more and more energy up to unleash at them – the ribbons of almost liquid fire around the blade were so dense the sword beneath could no longer be seen, and so massive they more than doubled its size. The web between them and the sword had grown fantastically elaborate, as well.

Beyond the demons, the Dark himself stood, seemingly impassive as he stared at them, his form writing softly, dripping shadows – only it was dripping them up, rising towards the sky and fading away. A small detail, but like everything about the sight of him, about his whole presence, it profoundly unnerved Chronicle.

Then he made a gesture with his hand, casually dismissive, and his demons loosened their attack.

The muscle-bound demon raised its sword high, the blood-red flames of the female sticking to it, and swung it down with all its strength, unleashing the stored-up energy. The flames formed a huge, bloody fireball, which hit the web of light the third demon had woven – and was multiplied, huge becoming gigantic, a sphere of almost liquid flames coming straight at them, big enough to swallow a city block whole before it even exploded.

Chronicle didn’t see her whole life pass before her eyes, as the saying went. No, she only saw Yukiko, and…

A figure dropped out of the sky, wearing a black longcoat over broad shoulders and wielding a curved short-sword in his left hand. Chronicle saw long, messy blonde hair, for a moment, before the new arrival swung their blade at the incoming fireball, striking it at the very moment it came within reach of the blade.

The entire fireball was reversed and swelled in size, flying back towards the demons and their master, twice as big as it had been before.

“Friss das, Goldschmidt!” Immanuel cheered, throwing his arms up in the air, as everyone else just stared.

They couldn’t see the effects of the fireball upon the demons, as its own flames obscured the sight, but Chronicle was sure it had already passed over their position, hopefully destroying them, and was now rapidly nearing the Dark himself…

The fireball fell apart, dispersed in every direction, leaving behind a molten scar along its way; at its end stood the Dark, right arm extended towards them, the hand clenched into a fist, as if he’d just grabbed the gigantic sphere and crushed it.

Within the path of the fireball lay the molten remains of a gigantic sword, with no sign at all of its former wielder. To the left lay half of the demon who’d woven the glowing web, its left arm and most of its lower body gone. There was no way for Chronicle to tell whether it was still alive – if it had ever been to begin with – so long as it didn’t move . The female demon stood where she had, completely unharmed – clearly, she was immune to her own power’s flames, no matter how amplified.

Their savior stood up, dusting himself off before he made what Chronicle assumed to be a playful salute towards the Dark – and then he turned his back to him, facing them with a smile.

He was tall, almost two metre in height if not a little above it, and very muscular, wearing what must have once been a very expensive longcoat, now frayed and partially torn along its edges. It was unbuttoned, showing off a chest and stomach you could grind meat on, as he seemed to wear only a pair of black pants underneath, and brown boots.

Chronicle would have been deliriously happy to see a face as friendly as his, the easy, confident smile even in the face of one of their greatest enemies, but there was just something off, about those dark red, almost black eyes. Like something was… missing.

“Konrad, deine eklige Fresse ist zur Abwechslung mal höchst willkommen!” Immanuel greeted him, as their savior bowed deeply.

“Ach mein Freund, wir wissen doch beide, dass du dich stehts nach meinem Antlitz sehnst!” Konrad replied with a smile. “Jetzt beruhigt ihr auch alle mal während ich unseren Gast des Grundstückes verweise!”

He had barely finished his speech – not that Chronicle could understand either of them, she’d only just started learning German – when he whirled around and slashes his short blade in a wide, horizontal arc, just as a literal tide of demons closed in on him.

They were all obliterated, the entire mass of demons simply blown away into Nothingness, all the lesser ones gone. Only the greater demons, the ones which differed from the formless mass and had stayed back, still remained.

“Los gehts!” Konrad shouted and jumped, a single leap taking him across a hundred metre towards the nearest demon – the horned female – at such speed he seemed to all but teleport.

The demon raised a hand, bloody flames wrapping around it, but she was too slow – Konrad swung his blade and she was obliterated. Not slashed, not split in half, just entirely obliterated, leaving nothing behind.

“I rather liked that one,” the Dark complained, his voice barely restrained, bubbling with hatred just underneath the surface.

“I rather liked Brad and Rhoda and Jonas,” Konrad replied with a cheerful shrug. “But you k-“

“I really don’t care,” he interrupted him, as he suddenly appeared right in front of Konrad, looking down at the shorter man, as Konrad looked up with a smile. “Ich habe viele Geschichten über dich gehört, Konrad.”

“Nur gute, hoffe ich?” Konrad replied in a conversational tone, making no move to attack.

“Man erzählt mir du wärst der Stärkste der Starken. Stärker als dein Meister, falls es ihn überhaupt gibt. Stärker, sogar, als Gwen und ich.”

“Ich weiss nicht, ob ich stärker bin als ihr beide,” the shorter man replied, then chuckled. “Aber stärker als einer von euch beiden? Das könnte gut sein.” He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Lust, rauszufinden ob die Geschichten wahr sind?”

The Dark struck him, delivering a right-handed punch to Konrad’s face with such force, it created a sonic boom and distorted the air around them.

Konrad didn’t even move from his spot, though the punch did snap his head to the side.

“Ow,” he grunted, touching two fingers to his bloody lip. “Been a while since I took a hit that strong.” He looked up at the Dark, smirking. “My turn.”

He raised his blade, swinging with his left hand – but the Dark reached out, pushing his hand against Konrad’s wrist, arresting the motion before he could hit.

“No fair, I gave you a free shot,” the swordsman complained, though he didn’t sound particularly put off.

“I’m not here to play games,” the Dark hissed. “Now be a good lad and d-“

Konrad’s right fist connected with the Dark’s chest – he was just plain too tall to easily reach his head – and launched him across the ruined Installation, until he slammed into the remains of the Ascendant’s and Dusu’s lab, twisting and shattering them further than they already were.

“I think my punch was bigger than your punch,” Konrad said, as they watched the remains of the structure collapse, burying the Dark beneath the rubble.

***

Konrad opened his eyes, looking around inside his healing pod, and through the clear glass front. He made no move to cover himself up at all, rather, he just smiled at everyone.

“Yeah, this is everyone who made it out,” Immanuel answered an unspoken question. Konrad frowned down at him. “Thanks to you – if you hadn’t shown up when you did, none of us would’ve made it,” the one-armed man consoled him. “Except, possibly, for Bira and her doll, here.” He looked at the Ascendant, who’d moved away from his side and was kneeling next to the quietly breathing form of Elysium, who was lying on her side, and was pushing a gadget which looked like some kind of gun with a long needle coming out of the muzzle into her ear, not paying any attention to the rest of the room.

Konrad relaxed, shrugging those huge shoulders of his.

“I don’t know that you two should be so happy,” a new voice spoke up, as a stocky, plain-faced Japanese woman with brown hair in a bun entered, her heavy, practical work boots, jeans and dark green jacket contrasting greatly with the way everyone else in the room looked.

She’s going to die.

“For all your talk, we got ourselves kicked in our collective posteriors by one enemy, after getting ourselves completely shown up by a bunch of teenagers,” Heaven’s Dancer snarled at Immanuel and Konrad, her new host’s rough appearance making her look even angrier than she otherwise would.

“Totally worth it, though,” Immanuel replied with a smile.

“Worth it? Worth it!?” Heaven’s Dancer almost shrieked at them, clenching her caloused hands into tight fists. “How, in the name of God, was this worth it? What, exactly, did we gain?”

Immanuel opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, don’t tell me yet.” She reached into her jacket’s pocket and pulled out a phone. “He wants to talk to you lot.” She pressed a number and then held the phone out towards them.

“Immanuel,” a raspy, deep voice spoke through it. It was so deep, it was actually kind of hard to make out what the man – and it was very clearly a male voice – actually said. A voice so deep, it made one feel like their bones ought to vibrate.

Sam had never heard it before, but Tsukiko tightend up in her arms, as if afraid. “W-what?” she asked her wife in a whisper.

“That’s him,” Tsukiko replied, but before she could elaborate, Immanuel replied.

“What an honour to hear from you so soon, oh fearless leader of mine!” he greeted him, standing up just so he could bow with a fancy flourish of his one good arm. “I thought you would be busy-“

“Save the theatrics, please,” the leader cut him off, sounding exasperated, though not unfriendly. “I already know what happened. Tell me how we profited from it.”

He’s going to die.

“Well, first of all, we know about a herefore unknown metahuman factor – the so-called Journeyman,” Immanuel began to enumerate as he sat down once more. “Someone who’s not merely a blank to Espers, but is, in fact, completely invisible – I could not perceive him even when I knew where he was, could not even perceive a blank like with DiL. I’ve already combed our records and he shows up nowhere.”

“Such information is valuable, but limited and hardly worth our losses.”

“Secondly, he inadvertantly preserved a major asset for us,” the one-armed Esper continued, standing up. “Though Bira is probably better suited to explaining this one.” He walked over to Konrad’s healing pod and began to shut it down, draining the liquid he was floating within.

“Huh?” Bira looked up, confused for a moment, then seemed to realise what was going on. She went back to work, looking at the small screen on the back of her needle-gun, as she poked around inside Elysium’s head with it. “Oh, yeah. This. Turns out, I know how Elysium actually died, way back then.”

“She was killed by DiL,” their leader stated simply. “Are you saying that is not true?”

“Precisely so, Sir,” Bira replied politely. “DiL never defeated her – Elysium killed herself, through overuse of her power.” She clucked her tongue. “It appears there was a flaw to it, after all – prolonged usage put a strain on her brain. Not enough to be a danger under normal circumstances, but after stretching two hours of real time over what must have been several years, fighting the abomination, it became too much and caused a lethal stroke.” She frowned, looking at the readouts as she held the needle still. “She probably never had to push her power far enough to notice it before, and so didn’t know to pace herself in the battle.”

“Interesting,” he said, sounding pensive. “How did this Journeyman preserve her for us, then?”

“Simply put, their battle pushed her far enough that I was able to notice the side-effects when I did a quick scan of her immediately after our escape, but not so far as to kill her and ruin the last ten years of work I did to actually get her working,” the Ascendant explained. “Now that we know, we can look out for it. I might even be able to make some modifications which will eliminate her weakness entirely.”

“Which brings me, neatly, to our greatest prize!” Immanuel butted in after stepping back from the pod, the glass sliding out of the way to let the now merely moist Konrad step out, unbothered by the temperature or his own nudity. “No, I’m not talking about us finding out about the Dark’s little rage mode,” he cut Heaven’s Dancer off before she could even speak, pointing a finger at her. “Though that’s certainly good to know…”

***

Chronicle pushed herself up, having fallen to her knees without even realising it, as she tried to get a better look at the pile of rubble the Dark had been buried underneath. “Is, is it over?” she asked, her voice shaking, holding out a hand to grab Karasuha’s as she joined them on the metal platform they’d ended up on.

Beyond them, the few remaining demons – greater ones, each and every – were standing there as if frozen, not sure how to react after their master was so suddenly punted aside.

“I can still feel his power,” Konrad replied to her question, joining their little group and grabbing onto Immanuel’s forearm by way of greeting. “Definitely a no, unless he decides continuing the fight is too big a risk and bails out.”

“Perhaps we should ‘bail out’,” Judicator spoke firmly, still holding his scales and his crystal ball up in front of himself. “Whether or not the Dark intends to continue, we have to assume that more opposition will arrive soon. Perhaps even her. I don’t think I have to tell you how ridiculously non-existent our chances of survival are if we have to fight both of them at once…”

Immanuel stroked his chin, then nodded. “Yes, that would be for the best,” he replied, looking aside towards where his former aide, currently Heaven’s Dancer’s host, joined them, her clothes torn to near-indecency, her shoes lost, but otherwise unharmed. “Let’s fall back to-“

Konrad whirled around to stare towards the rubble he’d buried the Dark under, a mere moment before all the demons let out howling screams and charged – straight towards their master.

Dozens, hundreds of demons, most of them lesser, but a few more of the greater ones, which Chronicle hadn’t even noticed before, crawled out from their hiding places around the city-sized Installation, some literally stepping out of walls or other structures, all of them charging into the rubble and digging into it, disappearing where their master had gone; the rubble beginning to shake as soon as they’d done so, pieces of it getting dislodged and tumbling down.

“What is he doing?” Immanuel asked, a hand held over his eyes for some shade as he tried to look closer.

“Whatever it is, it’s big,” Konrad replied to him, sounding quite relaxed, all things considered.

The rubble burst apart, blown skigh high in a fountain of dirt and debris as, with a titanic roar, a monster arose from amidst it.

Chronicle blinked, briefly believing that she was imagining this, yet even when Karasuha squeezed her hand hard enough to hurt, the image didn’t change.

A colossal, jet black dragon rose ouf of the dust, shrugging rebar and steel girders off its wings before it unfurled them.

A hundred feet long at least, from its head to its tail, it seemed to made out of solid darkness, its body oozing with shadows – oozing up, just as the Dark had. Scales could be made out which extended into razor-sharp spines, much like its wings, whose many sharp spines and scales made them look almost feathery. Its head sported six glowing red eyes in two rows of three, and half a dozen twisted, crown-like horns which extended backwards.

It raised one of its forelimbs, its upper torso configured more like a human’s than a lizards or any other kind of animal’s, putting five-fingered hands with razor-sharp claws up onto the remains of the building’s wall in front of it, then the other, propping itself up as it spread its wings wide, it thrust its head forward, extending its long, sinuous neck and roared.

The roar was like a physical force extending forward, distoring the air, the metal, the concrete, everything and with it came not sound, but a thought which slammed into their minds like the hammer of God.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast beat its wings and leaped forward, not landing on all fours before it pushed itself off again, half running and half gliding across the city towards them, the world itself distorting in the wake of its passing.

“Because of course he can turn into a damned dragon!” Immanuel ran his fingers through his hair, as the beast simply charged on, shedding the attacks the remaining companions were raining on it as if they weren’t even there.

As it reached the first group – five metahumans – they ran apart to dodge out of its way, but it paid them no mind, simply charging on.

One of them was clipped by its wing as it passed, and Chronicle watched in horror as the young man withered and died, dissolving into ash that seemed drawn towards the rampaging dragon.

The others were only a little more lucky than he, as the distortion around the dragon passed over them. When it was past, they had all visibly aged, some to the point of death, falling over as their bodies were left too weak to live; the others simply crying out in agony and horror.

“Don’t get near it!” Immanuel shouted at Prism, to have him relay it to everyone else. “Everyone, retreat in orderly fashion! Sablo, keep your circle up, it ought to repel this form!” He started moving backwards, but the Dark had become too large, was moving too fast.

“I’ll take care of him!” Konrad shouted, exhilerated and leapt at the beast, drawing his sword back for a big slash. “Have at you!”

The Dark slammed his forelimbs into the ground, violently arresting his charge as he used them like a pivot, whirling around; his tail slapped Konrad out of the way, all the way across the Installation and nearly into the sea, repaying him in kind for the earlier hit.

As the monstrosity completed its spin, facing them once more, it roared again.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

Chronicle cried out in horror as that horrible voice slammed into her mind once more, staggering back and falling, even letting go of Karasuha’s hand.

Someone was screaming as the dark dragon charged onwards towards them, everyone it passed by simply… dying.

There was Arresto, who’d once survived a nuclear explosion, if a small one. The dragon simply brushed him with its wing, and he fell apart.

Radger, who could regrow even his own head, fell just as easily. So did four others, before the dragon broke through their lines entirely, simply ignoring any power thrown its way as it bore down on their group.

When its hand came down on their group, its claws slamming into the circle of protection which Sablo had pulled up, pressing against it to slowly sink into the sphere of its effect, Chronicle realised who was screaming.

She was doing it herself, screaming as loud as her lungs would allow her, completely helpless to do anything – she couldn’t even rewind herself, if he got to her, not only would she be irrevocably dead, but so would Karasuha, her Tsukiko, and all the others whose records she’d kept.

Sablo cried out in pain and her protective power shattered, the clawed hand breaking through. One of the claws cut through the nude woman, splitting her from head to groin, the two halves dissolving into nothingness as they fell apart.

Chroncile lost hold of her book, and of her bladder for that matter, as she looked up at the colossal beast bearing down on them, reaching for Immanuel with one of its huge hands.

“Cover me!” Karasuha shouted and charged towards the beast at the same time as Immanuel dodged backwards, slashing at its exposed palm.

Her blade flared up with purple light and bit deep, cutting through the black, spiny scales to sink into the flesh beneath, but the Dark did not rear back – he simply pushed on, crushing her underneath its paw.

Chronicle cried out in despair – she couldn’t reset her if she couldn’t see her – but the beast ignored that and raised its hand again, the sword already falling apart, consumed by the same effect as the one that was breaking down Karasuha’s crushed remains.

At the last moment before they fell apart entirely, Chronicle pushed her power out towards her, and she snapped back to her previous, recorded state, sword in hand – and promptly burst into numerous crows which flew apart, away from the beast.

Several of them grabbed onto the shoulders of Chronicle’s robe, pulling her away with madly beating wings, while the dragon pressed on, reaching for Immanuel, too fast and with too great a reach to dodge entirely.

Immanuel had reached Chronicle, who’d stood several meters behind him, when the claws came down on him, and though he avoided a direct hit, one of them nicked his left hand.

As it began to fall apart, another claw touched Chronicle’s hastily held-up left hand – a stupid gesture, like that would achieve anything – and then her left foot, before it slammed onto the platform, cracking it and breaking through, briefly arresting the beast’s charge by sheer dint of the sudden loss of footing.

Sam screamed, louder than she ever had, as she watched her hand and foot dissolve, the flesh blackening before it fell apart, the blackness slowly spreading up her limbs-

A sharp, clear pain came next, and her corrupted, dying limbs were severed from her body in a single stroke, along with Immanuel’s arm, halfway down his biceps.

Konrad was back, looking as serene as before and no worse for having been hit directly by the abomination. though his coat was even more tattered and torn.

The Dark roared at him, pulling himself out of the wrecked and twisted metal of the platform they’d just been in.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

And it swung its free fist at him, but this time, Konrad was ready, and he dodged, leaping forward to slide under the strike, before he launched himself up.

Using both a long wind-up and the momentum of his leap and spin of his body, he punched the colossal monster in its sternum and hit with force way beyond his size and proportion.

The dragon was blown away, launched through the ruins behind it, through walls of steel and concrete, almost all the way back to where it had first burst ouf the rubble.

Konrad landed on his feet, then flinched, looking at his right arm – it was starting to dissolve, too, though very slowly.

Clucking his tongue, he shook his arm out, visibly expelling a black mist-like substance from it.

His arm was mangled, but not gone, and he was still alive.

Chronicle fell onto her side, starting to feel cold as her blood escaped her through the raw stumps of her arm and leg, feeling Karasuha reform behind her and pull her into a warm, comforting hug, before she began to do something with her numb limbs.

Looking around, there was barely anyone left. Prism had been reduced to a mummified corpse, Heaven’s Dancer had lost both legs and was bleeding heavily. Judicator still stood, if shakily so, but his crystal ball lay shattered all around him.

Immanuel was using his own belt to tie off his remaining arm, looking pale and not entirely self-assured anymore.

There were less than ten of their number left, gathering around him and Konrad, looking for orders, for direction, for protection.

He looked around at everyone, then at Konrad. “We retreat,” he said simply. “Everyone, move to the nearest escape pod. We have to get away before he pulls out whatever next trick he has in… store…”

His eyes grew wide as the dragon rose out of the shattered rubble, howling in rage.

YOU WILL ALL DIE!

The beast rose up on its hind legs, spreading its arms and wings wide as it roared to the heavens, even more of its body oozing upwards and dissolving into the sky.

Chronicle’s consciousness was rapidly fading, darkness creeping across the edge of her vision…

No, that wasn’t just her fading consciousness… a shadow was spreading across the Installation, as something above blotted out the sun, causing the others to look up in horror, but she was too weak to do even that…

“Du willst mich doch wohl verarschen…” was the last thing she heard, an utterly disbelieving whisper from Immanuel.

Then, Darkness.

You’re going to die.

***

“Don’t look at me like that,” Immanuel complained as the others glared at him. “I had no idea he could do that!”

“Hey hey, relax,” Konrad calmed him, patting his back. “I took care of it, and we got something out of the whole thing, right?”

“Took care of it? Took care of it!?” Heaven’s Dancer shrieked. “You nearly died! He destroyed the Installation, beyond any hope of recovery! He killed everyone we had left, except those in this room, including my body, with one blow!”

Calm down,” the leader admonished everyone, and silence fell. “Immanuel, how is this worth losing the Installation and so many of our companions? Don’t tell me it’s because you figured out the Dark’s weakness, we already know several.”

“No no, oh wise and fearless leader of ours,” Immanuel assured him with a smile. “It’s not his weakness I figured out. It’s hers.” He grinned, and it went all the way up to his eyes. “Ironic, that it would be the Dark who’d finally betray her, if unwittingly – but now I know Gwen Whitakers one true weakness.” He made a fist, pumping that arm. “Now we can-“

“Leave it be for another time,” the leader cut him off. While he – probably – couldn’t see Immanuel’s face, Sam was quite sure he heard Heaven’s Dancer’s amused giggle at the sight of it.

Even Sam felt a smile tug at her lips, seeing it.

“Skyfall’s project is complete,” he continued, unperturbed. “And she has workable results to show for it. We are thus moving Project Chainbreaker to the top of our priority list. You are to provide her every resource she requires, including yourself.”

“B-but… Whitaker and Goldschmidt…” Immanuel stammered, looking, for the first time, like he was truly not sure what was going on.

“The Abomination has just appeared in New Lennston,” the leader pressed on. “While it’s unlikely either of them is going to die, they will be far too caught up in dealing with that, and with the aftermath, to interfere with Chainbreaker. Once that is complete, we’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to dispose of the both of them at our leisure.”

“But, seriously, we-“

“That was an order, Immanuel,” the leader cut him off. “Whitaker and Goldschmidt are ultimately of no consequence to our greater plans. We need merely make sure they don’t interfere with the steps leading up to our goal, which the current deluge of crises shall provide. Now be about your work.”

And just like that, he hung up.

Sam looked at Tsukiko, feeling endlessly relieved – anything, not to have to face the Dark again.

It won’t be enough, and you’ll die.

“Alright people,” Immanuel said, finally, after taking several deep breaths, his usual cheerful disposition returning slowly. “You heard our fearless leader. Let’s all get to work.” He looked at the stump of his arm, then over at Sam, who was curled up against her wife, still. “Bira, please start work on replacement limbs for Sam, first. I can make do with just one arm for the time being.” He nodded to the two of them, before looking out over everyone else in the room. “I thank you all for your bravery today. Fear not – our brothers’ and sisters’ sacrifice will not have been in vain, nor go unavenged.” He bowed his head to them. “Have a good night.” And with that, he left the room, followed closely by Konrad, who threw them a playful salute.

Sam sniffed, looking up at Tsukiko with a weak smile.

Her wife’s response was almost blinding, as she leaned down and kissed her, hard.

Sam wrapped her arms around Tsukiko and held onto her for dear life. They may have been doomed, but she was going to stay brave and fight on, even in the face of invincible opponents. Maybe they were all going to die, but she would try, at least. Even if it was pointless.

***

The cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean made for a mostly uniform background over which Amy flew, trying to make her way back to the base of the Gefährten – though she was rapidly starting to think that it was pointless, as she had no way of making out where exactly it was.

Before, she hadn’t truly thought about it, having been beside herself with rage and worry, mindlessly flying in the direction her power told her Basil’s mind lay, but now that he wasn’t there, anymore, she had no way of tracking the place, other than flying straight towards the West, hoping to trace back the route they’d taken flying out of it.

Even so, she did it, focusing on casting her power out ahead of her, scouting for any signs of her goal, even if the largest reason she did so was not to support her boss, or make up for her lackluster performance, but simply so she wouldn’t have to think about what Basil had said to her, and what’d happened, and the ramifications of both.

However, with no goal in sight, those memories and the thoughts attached to them were beginning to creep back into her consciousness. She wouldn’t be able to ignore them for long.

Just then, though, she saw something which simultaneously filled her with elation – if the base of the Gefährten wasn’t there, then she’d never find it – and dread.

Who the fuck had summoned a meteor?

She flew towards the gigantic, glowing rock falling from the sky, tracing its trajectory towards its impact site, and could soon see, faintly, the glittering that indicated the huge metal city she was looking for.

What the fuck is going on? I hope the boss is still alive…

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B13.16 Call of the Sleeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

There was only one possible conclusion.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

It was a very familiar cat.

“Graymalkin?” Basil whispered, stunned.

What the hell was his cat doing here?

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

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

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B011.b Recreation

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Somewhere else…

Three people were sitting in comfortable beanbag chairs in a room with a panorama window, which showed the scenery of a tropic island at noon. The window was open, allowing a cool ocean breeze inside. The room itself was richly furnished, though not excessively so. A dining table was being cleared off by four identical-looking teenage boys in red valet suits, their black hair neatly parted into old-fashioned bowl-like haircuts, their faces missing eyes, ears or mouths – only thin skin stretching over where the sensory organs should be found. This particular lack didn’t seem to impede them at all, though.

The people in the chairs were looking out the window, relaxed, each with a glass and a bottle of their drink on a small table to their left. There was an air of quiet power around them, power that was rarely unleashed.

On the leftmost chair sat a glamorous woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. Dark brown hair formed delicate ringlets, framing a face that came straight off of a World War Two fighter plane, with scarlet lips and sharp blue eyes accentuated by a subtle purple eye shadow. She was wearing a pure white dress that clung to her torso like a second skin, stretched tight around a bust that could be best called ‘heroic’, leaving her left arm and shoulder free, while extending into a skin-tight glove on the right side. It was cut like a dress from the waist down, with a slit going up the left side to allow for easier movement and show off her leg. Her feet were clad in equally white pumps with high stiletto heels. She was drinking wine, the glass held in her right hand, a lit cigarette in her left one, as she watched the scenery beyond the window with a kind of serene amusement.

Next to her sat a man well-known across the Western world, though mainly in the USA, as the founder and leader of the Humanity First group, Richard Svenson. He was tall, well-muscled, his blonde hair and beard carefully trimmed to convey a serious, trustworthy image. His blue eyes were dark, intelligent and currently focused on a four-winged humming-bird with golden plumage. He was wearing a light blue suit with a white shirt, the jacket and tie currently held by another senseless valet who stood near the door. His polished brown leather shoes lay next to his seat, and he was very obviously relaxed, sipping from a glass of green juice – Adonis on a break.

The third person was easily the most distinctive, if only for how different she was. She was young, a teenager at that point in her development where she might be an adult-looking fourteen-year-old or a petite nineteen-year-old. Or anything in between. Her skin had the colour of a child of mixed races, dark but not dark enough to be African or African-American. Her features hinted at Eurasian ancestry, her face pretty but not really beautiful, though promising to be quite stunning once she fully grew up and filled out. In contrast to her skin, her hair was of a natural platinum blonde colour, long but tied back into a practical ponytail. To further distinguish her from her two companions, she was wearing loose black sweatpants and a dark blue sports bra that held a modest bust. Her feet were bare, and she had them pulled up onto the chair, while she drank directly from a red bottle of scotch. Unlike the other two, she seemed more bored than relaxed, her eyes half-closed as she apparently focused on something that wasn’t there.

“It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to relax like this,” the glamorous woman said, her voice slightly rough from a long, long time of smoking. “I’ve missed it.” She looked at her two companions with a warm expression.

The young girl yawned, drinking from her bottle. “I should be working. I have four different projects going on right now, and two of them are entering their critical phase,” she replied, her otherwise beautiful voice taking on a nasal quality that betrayed annoyance.

“You always have projects running, my dear,” the glamorous woman replied warmly. “You need to learn how to unwind, or you’ll burn out.”

“Listen to her,” the man said. “She knows what she’s talking about.”

You, dearest, need to learn to unwind a little less,” she admonished him with a long-suffering smirk.

“Impossible!” he replied in an exaggerated manner. “I am always sharp!”

The young one sighed, yet couldn’t help but smile a bit. As much as she was annoyed by her companions’ attitude, it was amusing, especially in contrast to their usual behaviour.

***

Ten minutes later, the young one had almost emptied her bottle of scotch, while the glamorous woman was still on the same glass of wine as before, and the man had just had his glass refilled by one of the faceless boys, who’d mixed his cocktail in seconds, refilling just after he emptied his glass.

The glamorous woman emptied her own glass a few minutes later, but declined a refill.

“What’s wrong? You usually drink more than just one glass,” the man commented.

In lieu of a reply, she stretched slowly, pleasurably. “Just not in the mood for more,” she said. “Though, you know what I am in the mood for?” She gave him a smoldering look.

“What?” he asked, while the young girl perked up, looking curiously at them as if expecting something.

The glamorous woman raised a foot, wiggling it in his direction.

He rolled his eyes. “God, you’re like a cat!” But he got off his seat and sat crosslegged in front of her on the ground, taking both of her feet onto his lap. He took her pumps off, carefully putting them aside, before he started giving her a foot massage.

“Are you two going to have sex?” the disappointed looking girl asked.

“What? No!” the man replied, looking horrified. “She raised me! That would be just… just wrong!”

“Yeah, sorry, I can’t look at him without seeing that little boy who’d try to hide behind my skirts and bribe me with chocolate,” the glamorous woman said, closing her eyes in obvious enjoyment of his hands’ work.

“How disappointing,” the girl replied, emptying her scotch bottle. “Aren’t we supposed to be having crazy orgies and all?”

“First of all, we’re not that uncultured,” the glamorous woman admonished her.

“And second of all, you just emptied an entire bottle of eighteen-seventy-five Saint Miriam Rock of Scotland scotch in less than twenty minutes. That’s twenty-six thousand US dollar you just chugged down,” the man complained as he worked on the glamorous woman’s toes.

“Oh, stop complaining, Cloudlander,” she complained right back. “Also, twenty-six grand? Really? I mean, it was good, though I guess it would be better with some root beer mixed in.”

Cloudlander looked at her like she’d just told him she was going to eat babies. “Don’t you dare!” he almost shouted. “I killed the last guy who did that. Freaking idiot internet millionaire,” he grumbled. “I shoved his entire entertainment system up his ass and out the other side.”

“Cool. Next time, take me along,” the girl said unperturbed. “We can bond over slowly murdering people. That does count as a bonding experience, right?” One of the faceless boys replaced her scotch bottle with a black-labelled wodka bottle, and she immediately took a swig.

“It certainly does,” he replied, throwing a look at the glamorous woman.

She caught it, and giggled girlishly. “Oh yes, it sure does.”

They both laughed out loud, while the girl complained about not getting the joke.

***

Half an hour later…

They’d moved outside, sitting under the shade of several palm trees, while three faceless boys used big fans to keep up a cool draft.

All three of them were barefoot, enjoying the warmth of the sand. Cloudlander and the glamorous woman had changed into bathing suits – blue for him, white for her – while the girl was still wearing the same clothes as before.

“Since we’re all here anyway,” Cloudlander said, “I was meaning to ask you something, Skyfall.” He looked at the young girl, who was taking her time with her wodka bottle, having only emptied about a third of it so far.

“Shoot,” she said, with just the slightest slur in her speech, mostly in her ‘S’.

“What was up with that debacle in Chicago?” he asked. “I haven’t had the chance to look into it myself, but… why’d you throw the Ascendant to the wolves? He may not have been the most successful bearer of the title, but it wasn’t necessary to boot him out like that.”

She snorted in a decidedly disgusted manner. “Y’know, I strongly object there. I’ve inherited lots of weird stuff from the previous Skyfall, but I’ll never understand why he ever gave a position like that to that loser!” She took a long draught from her bottle. “He was a failure through and through! And besides, I had someone way better for the job!”

“Oh?” the glamorous woman perked up – she’d been relaxing more than the other two, even, her reclining chair almost flat, but she rose up on her elbows. “Who? And what makes them so good?”

“Well, she’s a gadgeteer, for one. Not a contriver. Why everyone acts like contrivers are the be-all end-all go-to guys for this stuff, I’ll never understand,” Skyfall complained. “Her work’s actually real. It’s going to be useful even after she dies!”

“Admittedly, that’s a big advantage that all gadgeteers share,” Cloudlander agreed with her. “But that doesn’t make contriver useless – they are considered to be among the most powerful kinds of metahumans for a reason.”

Skyfall dismissed the sentiment with a wave of her hand. “Bah. I’ll stick with gadgeteers, thank you. They’re stable, at least. Or tend to be.”

“You still haven’t told us what makes this woman so worthy of the name,” the glamorous woman gently reminded her. “The Ascendant is a rather great lineage after all.”

The girl reached out for a nearby small table on which lay a tablet computer. Though she fumbled and missed it, one of the faceless boys gave her the tablet. She tapped around on it for a little while, then handed it over to Cloudlander, who passed it on to the woman, who began reading whatever was on the screen immediately, her face quickly growing more and more alarmed.

“This is her main project,” Skyfall explained. “I think it’s got a great chance of working out, and even if it doesn’t, her preliminary research alone-“

“We have to bury this,” the glamorous woman snapped. She looked at Skyfall, her eyes hard. “This must not come out, under any circumstances! You are going to move her, and all essential personnel even remotely aware of the project, to the Installation! And you are going to kill everyone else who might even know a hint of this!” She was almost shouting by the end of it.

“Geez, Heaven’s, calm down!” the girl complained, looking almost – but only almost – frightened. “What’s so bad about this?” she asked as Heaven’s Dancer handed the tablet to Cloudlander, who quickly skimmed it.

“I agree with Heaven’s Dancer,” Cloudlander said. “And I strongly believe that our fearless leader would agree as well. We have to make sure none of this gets through to Whitaker.”

“The fuck? Why would that be a problem?” Skyfall asked, though she was looking a little concerned now. “Double L is always a problem, sure, and I guess this might get under her skin, but we can deal with h-“

“No!” both of the others shot her down in unison. They looked at each other, exchanging nods, and then Cloudlander spoke in a gentler voice.

“You don’t know Whitaker. You haven’t seen what she’s really capable of. The world has forgotten that, or at least chosen to ignore it – but if she finds out about this, she’ll stop playing nice. She won’t stop coming after us, though, and she won’t stop until everyone even remotely connected to this… this project is dead and gone!”

“How’s she going to find out, anyway?” a petulant Skyfall asked. “It’s not like I’ve let anyone untrustworthy know about the project…”

“Whitaker has greater resources than some might think,” Cloudlander said.

“To be honest, her intelligence-gathering capabilities are still a mystery to us,” Heaven’s Dancer admitted. “Which also means we have a hard time making sure everything crucial stays secret from her.”

Skyfall frowned, thinking it over, but then she nodded. “Well, you know her better than I do. I would’ve suspected her to be rather happy about this, really, but I’d be a fool not to defer to you two in this.” She sighed and took another draught. “Alright. I’ll move the Ascendant to the Installation, and I’ll kill everyone who knows about it but can’t go along.”

The other two nodded, relaxing again, as one of the boys took the tablet away. “Damn it, and I was just unwinding,” Cloudlander complained.

“Language, young man,” Heaven’s Dancer admonished him. “And besides, unwinding has never been an issue for you. Just do it.”

They all fell quiet for a short time.

“Oy, since we’re talking about the Installation already,” Skyfall spoke up after a few minutes, “How’s Project Wake coming along?”

Heaven’s Dancer groaned. “It isn’t coming along, at all. We’ve done nearly everything short of throwing nukes at the Sleeper – not that we have any at our disposal right now – and it’s failed to so much as make her stir.”

“After all this time, I’m starting to think that Project Wake is doomed to fail anyway,” Cloudlander said calmly. “Maybe we should stop wasting so many resources on it?”

Heaven’s Dancer dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “No no, even if Project Wake itself has so far had no successes, the other projects centered around the Sleeper have been paying huge dividends. We’ve learned more about powers and the Starchildren in the last ten years than in the seventy-nine years before that, just by studying her and all the derivates.”

“Speaking of derivates,” Skyfall interjected, “What about Project Sarsaok?”

“Oh, right, I was rather looking forward to the result of that one,” Cloudlander added. “How is that one going?”

“It’s… a reasonable success, actually,” Heaven’s Dancer replied. “Actually, if it weren’t for the fact that the team working on it was aiming for something completely different, and them having no idea how it turned out like this, I’d even call it an exceptional success. It’s rather useless to our original designs, though, as we can’t replicate it.”

Skyfalls face fell. “What a shame,” she said in between drinking from her bottle. “I would’ve liked having an-“

“Actually,” Cloudlander interrupted her, “if we can’t use it for anything else, why not just let it loose?”

“What, on Japan?” Heaven’s Dancer asked, surprised. “That would be rather… crass, don’t you think?”

He made a dismissive gesture. “No, not Japan. They’re already getting enough of a pounding as is, especially with the collapse of the Sovjet Union throwing most of Asia into chaos,” he replied, “I was thinking of the USA, actually. Esperanza City, perhaps.”

Skyfall chuckled. “What, still sore about how that business with the Afolayan family turned out?”

He groaned. “No! Yes! But that’s not the reason! Actually, I’m thinking this could actually serve the whole thing, maybe get the boy to finally manifest.”

“Why’re you so interested in him manifesting, anyway?” Skyfall asked. “I know he’s got a weird condition, but what about it makes him special?”

Heaven’s Dancer answered that question instead of Cloudlander. “Actually, he’s very interesting to us, because he’s not the only one of his kind – there have been a few other children like him, all over the planet. Four that we know about, though we haven’t been able to snatch any of them away – either Goldschmidt or Whitaker managed to snag them up before we could, putting them out of our reach,” she explained. “The Afolayan boy was the only one we knew about, but of whom neither of them had found out… until his sister went and joined the United Heroes, of course; now Whitaker probably knows.”

Cloudlander gave her an annoyed look. “And remember who exactly didn’t want to just kidnap the boy put the blame on some anti-Humanity First villain and have an actual test subject to work on?”

“Puh! Don’t be so negative,” Heaven’s Dancer dismissed his outrage. “I doubt we could’ve learned so much more than we can if we push him to trigger like this!”

“Guys, what the hell is up with this squirt that you’re so into him?” Skyfall asked with exasperation, as she threw her arms up (and spilled a good quantity of wodka).

“He’s a vector-less second-generation metahuman,” Cloudlander said simply, sipping from a fizzy green drink one of the faceless boys had put into his hand at his behest. “Shows all the signs of pre-manifestation second generation, but has no metahuman vectors from which to have inherited it – and like the other cases we know about, he’s suffering from regular fits that play hob with his brain chemistry in ways that really ought to kill the boy.”

“Wow, that is interesting,” Skyfall admitted. “How about I just go snatch him up? We could vivisect him and-“

Or we just send Sarsaok to Esperanza, which will massively bolster anti-metahuman sentiment and potentially kill his remaining sister and might push him to manifest in a dozen other ways,” Cloudlander interjected. “We need to drum up some more support for Humanity First, anyway. With war on the horizon, the good people of the USA are suddenly growing brains and realising that having lots of metas on their side is an invaluable advantage.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Heaven’s Dancer agreed. “Let’s send Sarsaok to Esperanza. And we’ll send an observation crew along to observe how the project goes,” she decided. “I’ll get the ball rolling tomorrow.”

“Wonderful,” Cloudlander said, and leaned back again. “It’s promising to be a wonderful week, all things considered.”

“Yeah,” Skyfall groused. “If only it wasn’t for me having to move a major, sensitive project halfway across the world in total secrecy. Nevermind how that whiny bitch-“

“Language, young lady!” Heaven’s Dancer interjected, making Skyfall roll her eyes.

“Alright, never mind how that whiny female dog,” she continued, “Dusu has been just a huge disappointment, ever since the Hawaii job. I’m honestly considering putting her up for a performance review next.”

“My, you’re going through your ranks quite quickly, Skyfall,” Cloudlander said, half in jest and half seriously.

“I think my predecessor was too soft,” the girl in question complained. “Too much stagnation is not good for progress. Especially when looking at a loser like Dusu.”

“Actually, your predecessor was considering getting rid of Dusu after the Hawaii debacle,” Heaven’s Dancer told her. “But our fearless leader objected, asking him to give Dusu a few more years.”

“Probably one of our great leader’s many visions,” Cloudlander said wisely. “So far, they’ve never really steered us wrong.”

Skyfall rolled her eyes again. “Well, I’m not betting on that. Dusu’s got a little time left, then I’ll put her up for performance review, even if the boss says otherwise.”

“Do what you think is best,” Heaven’s Dancer advised her. “Just keep in mind that gadgeteers like her are hard to replace, as you well know.”

“Oh, I’m sure I can manage,” Skyfall said with a small smile. “It’d be more important to keep things in motion than to keep every slot filled, anyway. Even if there weren’t lots of eager aspirants to our legacies, anyway.”

She sighed and stretched luxuriously on her seat. “One month. If she doesn’t come up with something amazing until then, I’ll put her up for a performance review.”

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B008.5.2 Vra: Acceptance

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The kitchen fell silent. The only sounds were those of Freddy drinking his hot chocolate, oblivious to what my words meant.

I looked away from them, down at my chocolate cup. Waiting.

Someone swallowed dryly. Mom, I thought. I didn’t ask.

“You… are going to register…” Dad said, his voice shaken. “Terry, you… did you ma-“

“No,” Mom whispered. “No, nononono, God, please…” She started to sob.

“Mommy? Whatsa wrong?” Freddy asked, putting his cup down.

I used my power to look at them without raising my head. Mom was sobbing into her arms, whispering one small ‘no’ after the other. Dad looked pale and shocked, Freddy was confused and scared, watching his mother break down.

I shouldn’t have told them.

But I had.

Linda didn’t tell us, and look where it got us.

I wasn’t going to repeat her mistakes. I might make new ones, but I certainly wouldn’t do the same.

“It happened at the cemetery. I’d been… I hit rock bottom, I guess. And then… it happened.” I smiled, feeling a gentle warmth pulse in my belly. I wasn’t sure if it was really there, or just the memory of the way the shards felt like when I swallowed them. “I manifested.”

Mom sobbed harder.

“What’s going on?” Freddy asked, more desperate. “Why’s Mommy crying? Is Terry sick?” He looked straight at me, his eyes wide.

I looked up, shaking my head. “No, Freddy. I manifested. Means I got superpowers.”

“They’re not ‘super’!” Mom shouted all of a sudden. I flinched, looking at her blotchy, wet face. “These… these abnormities already killed one of my children! And now y-y-you… you have them… oh Gooooood…”

If my heart wasn’t already broken, it’d break now, as I watched my mother break down herself, crumbling on her seat.

Every moment that passed, I felt less certain of my decision to tell them about my powers.

Dad stepped forward, putting his hand onto Mom’s shoulder, gently squeezing it to no avail. She just kept sobbing, her face hidden behind her hands.

I wanted so much to walk around the table and hug her, but if she flinched away from me… or screamed, or if Dad tried to stop me… I doubted that I could take that.

Suddenly, I felt a tug on my shirt and turned to see Freddy standing next to my chair. He was looking up at me, his face strangely somber.

“You have superpowers? Like the glowy boy?”

One of his imaginary friends… though I guess they might not be as imaginary as I thought. I just nodded, not sure if I could form a coherent sentence.

“Can you make Linda come back home?” he asked, his voice serious, his eyes hopeful.

I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and then the tears burst out before I could even process it all. “Oh Freddy…” I slid off the chair, down onto my knees and hugged him hard against me. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m not nearly that powerful.”

“Oh,” he said. That was all, and then he started crying himself, hugging me back.

After God knew how long, I heard Mom’s chair move, then steps, and I braced myself for having her pull Freddy away from me, letting up on my deathgrip on him… but she only fell onto her knees next to us and hugged us both to her chest.

Then Dad joined in, and suddenly we were all crying.

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 2 hours

Again, we changed rooms, moving to the expansive living room. Mom sat down first, looking pale and drawn, her hair and face a mess as she craddled Freddy on her lap, who didn’t look any better.

Dad sat down on an armchair, and I sait down in one opposite of him, with Mom and Freddy to my right.

“So. Powers,” he said, his eyes haunted.

This has to be one of his worst nightmares come true.

I just nodded, not sure what – if anything – I could say right now to make it better. Looking to the side, I caught a look from Mom, and I had no idea what she was feeling right now, except that she seemed incredibly tired.

“What… what are your powers?” Dad finally asked, almost gagging on the words. “Are they like… anything like Linda’s?”

Blinking, I shook my head. “No, not… it’s a Perception power, which her power fell under, too, but different. And really, really weak.”

“Can you explain it to us?” he continued, while Mom remained silent and Freddy looked interested.

“It’s like… I can ask questions. In my head. I can get anything I ever sensed or learned, and I can know anything I could learn at that moment – like, I can ask for what is behind me, and I’ll know as if I turned my head and looked.”

“I’m not sure I completely understood that… but that means it’s something you can keep hidden?”

“Um, sure, I guess. I mean, even if I use it, it doesn’t show,” I replied. Where is he going with th- I cut myself off before I finished that question. That would most likely hurt like hell.

He sighed, relieved. “So there’s no need to reg-“

“No. She’ll register,” Mom suddenly said, cutting Dad off. We both whipped our heads around, looking at her as she gave Dad one of her looks. “We’ve been campaigning in favor of registration for years now. It would be pure hypocrisy to keep it a secret, not to mention illegal,” she continued – when had she pulled herself back together like that?

“Honey, considering where we live and who we work with…”

“What?” she asked. “We don’t have to tell them, only the government.”

Dad sighed. He knew he wasn’t going to convince her otherwise, but I guess he felt that he had to try.

Me, I was just going to be quiet and unassuming and let this play out…

“There’s no way we’ll be allowed to stay here if it becomes known that both of our daughters manifested,” he said, sagging a little in his armchair.

Dad loved the community here.

“Then we won’t tell them. Registration doesn’t mean we have to make it public,” Mom continued. “But we’re not going to break the law or move away from our home.”

Freddy hugged her harder, sniffing. Mom hugged him closer, whispering to sooth him.

“What if she spreads it?” Dad asked, his face going pale. “My God, I didn’t even think about it, but the whole point of this community is to keep the inf-“

“Dad, I’m pretty sure it’s not an infection,” I interrupted him. Mom and Dad both turned to look at me.

I hadn’t even thought before saying that, but… no, I was pretty damn sure. There was no way she was part of some kind of virus or anything.

Still, can’t hurt to check. Is there some kind of virus, bacteria or any other infectious inside me that causes or enables manifestation?

No.

“Pretty sure it’s not. What I saw when I manifested… there’s no way that was done by a sickness.”

Not to mention there’s never been any proof whatsoever that metahumanity was in any way a biological phenomenon.

“I don’t know… I find it hard to believe, that it’s something completely supernatural,” he replied. “After all, Whitaker and Goldschmidt caused Point Zero with mundane technology.”

I shrugged at that. “I don’t know Dad. All I know is that what happened to me… I don’t think it can be explained by way of conventional science, at all. Not to mention all the people out there who utterly and completely break every single law of physics.”

“We’re getting sidetracked,” Mom said in her business voice. “Let’s get back on topic. How do we proceed?”

I think it helps that she can actually do something now.

“I’m going to get registered, and sign up for expanded registration,” I declared, deciding to make my stance as clear as I could. “I want the training. And if I can help somewhere, even with a power this weak, then I want to.”

Mom gave me one of her looks, but I just stared back at her calmly. As much as they’d used to make me freeze up, they just couldn’t hold a candle to the Hellhound’s casual gaze.

“Expanded registration means you might be called upon for combat,” she said. “I will not allow that. Not while I still have any say in it.”

“I need the training, Mom. If only to be able to defend myself,” I tried to convince her. “And they’re not going to deploy a minor into a combat situation, anyway. Not unless I sign up for the junior heroes, and I’m not going to do that.”

Not like my power seems to be any good in combat, anyway.

“Terry…”

“Look, Mom, I want it, alright? I want to learn as much as I can about my power, and about how powers work in general. Expanded Registration is the easiest way to get that, apart from simply signing up with the United Heroes as a member.”

“I’d much rather you just let your power rest, dear,” she said in response, and Dad nodded in agreement.

I shook my head. “No way am I gonna be able to do that, and you know it. This power is a part of me now. And I want to use it. I certainly suffered enough to get it, you know?”

“We shouldn’t rush this,” Dad threw in, seeing Mom’s temper flare (she had this vein on the left side of her forehead that pulsed visibly when she was about to get really angry). “Look, you’re not going anywhere today. You need to rest, and you’re excused from school for the rest of the week, anyway. So how about we postpone this?”

“This isn’t exactly something we can delay, Phillip,” she admonished him, but Dad didn’t back down.

“No. We need to think this over. Let it sink in.” He looked straight at me. “And I want you to think this over carefully, too. I don’t think you have, yet.”

I nodded, lowering my eyes. He’s right, I guess. We need a break, and I need some time to think.

“Alright, you’re right. We need a break, and,” I looked at Mom and Freddy, “Freddy has fallen asleep.”

She looked down and saw that Freddy had gone slack, breathing evenly.

We completely forgot how stressful this has to be for him.

Mom rose up, holding Freddy in her arms. “We’ll talk about this again after dinner,” she said, then walked over to me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

I shivered a little, instantly feeling better. I’d needed that.

“Lunch is in the oven, sweetheart,” she said. “You need to eat a lot. And don’t worry,” she continued, kissing my other cheek. “No matter what happens – we’ll be there for you.”

I sniffed, feeling the tears rise up, and just nodded.

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 1 hour and 30 minutes

Some time later, I ended up back in my room, my belly full, sitting on my bed.

I’d been determined to think things through again, but really, I always came to the same conclusion.

I wasn’t out for revenge anymore. What the Hellhound had done, it was wrong. Evil. But… I couldn’t waste my time hating him for it. Or pursuing vengeance.

Neither was I going to try something like going out and ‘saving’ the StreetBadgers. They’d chosen their way themselves, and even if they’d wanted to be saved, there was no way I could go up against the Dark Five anyway. Not to mention their boss.

But I wanted to train, to get to know my power better.

Maybe, somehow, I felt like I could keep Linda close as long as I did.

Combat’s not the way though. Way too scary. And my power’s not gonna protect me from gunshots or anything.

“So I guess I’ll just train, and live my life as I would have without my power, otherwise,” I said.

“You sure?” asked a chorus of voices.

I jumped off my bed, almost shrieking as I whirled around.

There he was. The man Freddy had described seeing; the ‘Mirrorman’.

Guy was tall. Not freakishly so, but way taller than average. He was wearing this kind of robe that you sometimes saw with metahumans – it was open in the front, allowing for free movement, but heavy, with wide sleeves and a deep cowl. His was of a dark blue colour.

Beneath, he wore… some kind of skintight black jumpsuit, though his was thicker than most – or at least I thought so, it wasn’t like I was any kind of expert on it.

The weird part, though, was his mask. Freddy hadn’t been lying – it was a mirror, and a freaky one at that. Molded to suggest the lines of a face, it flickered from one image to the next, reflecting… God knows what. I could barely keep up with the images, as they changed with every heartbeat.

“Wh-wh-who are you?” I asked, going into a defensive stance. “How did you get in here?”

He chuckled. “You can call me… Journeyman,” he introduced himself, speaking in a chorus of countless, overapping voices. It was eerie as all fuck. “Don’t be afraid, I mean you no harm.”

“Breaking into my house isn’t exactly helping me believe that. Why should I trust you?” I was trying to think of an escape, but I didn’t know if my family was in danger if I left.

“Ah, true. I tend to forget that problem. I’m sure you understand,” he replied, tapping his ‘chin’. His suit extended to cover his hands, too.

No, I totally don’t. But contradicting the possibly-mad metahuman in my room wasn’t a good idea, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Well, how about this – I’m here because a mutual friend of ours brought you to my attention,” he said in a casual manner, moving both hands behind his back.

My mouth dropped open. “Y-you know her, too?”

He tilted his head to the side. “Her?” he asked, sounding a little confused. Then he straightened up again, raising a hand with the index finger pointing up in a ‘Got it!’ gesture, “Ah! You saw him as a woman!”

“So she isn’t one?” I asked, confused. She’d said something in that direction, but…

“Eh, he isn’t really anything like humanoid. But calling him ‘it’ only makes it sound awkward,” he replied with a shrug, taking a few steps to get closer. “He has no voice or form of his own, only what those he converses with provide him.”

I dropped my stance, relaxing. “So… what is she?”

He shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you, my dear. Sorry, but that’s need-to-know only.”

“So you know what she is?” I asked, hoping to get something out of him.

“I do. I won’t tell you… but I’ll say this much: He might be your friend, but he is not human in any way you’d consider human. Be very careful as to how you interpret whatever it is he told you.”

I opened my mouth, but he cut me off, “No, don’t tell me. Whatever you saw during your manifestation, it’s yours and yours alone. Don’t share it with anyone you don’t trust completely.”

I closed my mouth, nodding. “Alright… next subject. Why are you here? And why did you let Freddy see you?” He’d obviously been able to hide himself from both me and my parents.

“I didn’t let your brother see me. But his… condition makes him uniquelly able to see past many a barrier,” he answered. “As to wh-“

“Wait!” I shouted, my eyes wide. My arm was trembling, and my mouth was so dry, I felt like my tongue was going to turn to dust. “Y-you… you know what’s wrong with Freddy?”

He nodded.

Oh God, please… please…

“Do you know how to… to heal him?” I asked the big question. Please… please…

“I do,” he said, and I felt my heart stop in anticipation. “He just has to manifest.”

Oh. I wiped my eyes with my hand, turning away to hide my tears from him. “I… I see.”

“I’m sorry, Terry. But there’s nothing that I, or you, can do for him.” His voice(s) sounded… sympathetic.

“W-why him? Why does he have to suffer so much?”

“Bad luck. Nothing else, my dear. It’s a random… let’s call it a ‘glitch’ in the system. It happens, sometimes, and there’s no way to predict, prevent or reverse it.”

I nodded, turning back to look at him. “So, why are you here?”

“To help you,” he said. “I’m usually quite content to just watch the story unfold but… sometimes, I meddle. Some times more directly than others.” He held out his right hand. “Specifically, I want to help you make an informed choice.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, curious. He was offering me information. I was all game for that.

“Show you ’round the block, so to speak. Take my hand, I’ll show you a few truths.”

I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed his hand.

 

 

* * *

 

His strong, slender hand gripped mine firmly, and then he turned around, pulling me after him.

The world shifted, and suddenly we stood in the middle of an abandoned factory.

The abandoned factory. I recognized the old, dust-covered machines standing around, the hole in the ceiling, the big front door.

Linda had died here.

Looking around, I saw no trace of it, though. No blood.

“Why are we here?” I asked him, uncomfortable. This was possibly the last place on Earth I wanted to be at.

“Watch.”

The door burst open and…

And Linda ran in.

My heart stopped.

She was wearing a skintight jumpsuit. It was black, mostly, save for dark blue patterns on it that were reminiscent of… of a person’s nervous system, really. It covered her body completely, including her hands and feet, leaving only her head free. And that was covered by a leather mask that wrapped around the top half of her face.

“What’s going on?” I asked in a whisper. I felt hot tears run down my cheeks.

“Hush. Just watch.”

Linda looked around, panicked, for a place to hide. Apparently, she found one, because she ran towards the old machines – but a quarter along the way, the doors behind her flew open completely, and the Hellhound came in.

He looked quite different from how I remembered him, decked out in urban camo and carrying a heavy assault rifle.

Linda froze when he levelled the weapon at her, and oh God, he’s going to ki-

Wait a minute, an assault rifle?

I looked closer. Yes, that was not a shotgun. In fact, he had nothing like a shotgun on him.

Using my power, I dredged up every memory I had of the report. It hurt, a lot, to get it all in detail again, but… no, she’d been shot at with a shotgun.

The Hellhound came closer, approaching her.

Linda opened her mouth to say something – and he slapped her so hard she fell onto her butt.

My mouth fell open, and I felt the heat rise to my face. How dare he…

Linda seemed similarly angered, but mostly stunned, looking up at him as she rubbed her tender jaw.

“Why do you waste your time like this?” he asked, his voice very rough. Like he didn’t use it all that often. And even now, he was more whispering than talking out loud. “Don’t waste your life, child. Others won’t be as merciful as I am.” He gave her one of his burning looks, then…

He turned around and left the factory.

Leaving Linda on the floor. Alive.

What the fuck?

“What the fuck?” she whispered, standing up.

She’d gotten halfway up when a shot rang out from behind her.

And everything froze.

I blinked. I could see the shotgun pellets in mid-air, flying towards her leg.

Whirling around, I saw a… a shotgun, floating in the air.

“What… what’s going on?” I asked Journeyman.

“You’ll see. Come, there’s no need for you to go through the rest.”

And before I could protest, he pulled again and the world shifted.

 

 

* * *

 

We stood in a large office room in a skyscraper, with windows on three sides looking down at Esperanza City.

Journeyman stood with me in front of one of the windows, then turned with me.

And I looked at Richard Svenson, behind his gigantic mahagoni desk, reading something on a tablet.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

“Hush,” he said again. “This happened two days ago. Watch. Listen.”

His phone rang – not the one on his desk, but his cellphone.

Sighing, he put his tablet aside and took his cellphone out. When he saw the number, he raised an eyebrow and put it down on his desk, on speakerphone.

“What a surprise,” he said in his usual, smooth tones. Though he sounded far less condescending than usual. “I didn’t expect to hear from you before our next meeting, Dancer,” he said.

Dancer? A codename?

“Richard,” a rich female voice replied, her voice pure pleasure for the ears. “I just wanted to ask if your little pet project turned out well. You were quite looking forward to it, after all.”

He sighed, his face darkening a little. “No. I’m afraid not. Even his sister’s death didn’t cause Frederick’s manifestation. Nor did his other sister running away.”

What, what, WHAT?

“Such a shame. Though I wonder, how did you get the girl to run away, anyway?” the woman asked the same way I’d ask a friend how she prepared such a good presentation for school.

“Oh, she was already on the verge herself. I just had to push a little with a few well-placed words. Whoever needs mind control powers, anyway?” he replied, laughing amicably at the end.

What the hell is going on here? He wanted me to run away? He wants Freddy to manifest?

“Well, that fits you. But it didn’t help? Maybe you should have the other girl killed, too, and his parents along with her – that might push him over the edge,” the woman suggested casually.

My entire body turned cold. Have the other girl killed ‘too’?

“No, her parents are too important to Humanity First. And to be honest, I was hoping she’d manifest. She certainly was in the right mindset, and she even spent days in it, spiraling out of control,” he said to her. “But no such luck – I visited when she was at the hospital, and she hadn’t manifested. Nor are there any signs that she did since.”

“Would her family not keep it a secret?” the woman he called ‘Dancer’ asked.

“Not from me,” he replied.

A sigh came over the line. “Ah well. Maybe next time. Do keep my suggestion in mind.”

“I will, I will. And how’s it going on your end? Any news from the Installation?” he asked, now sounding more curious himself.

“Oh, yes!” she replied happily. “The Geek thinks project Typhon might yield some usable results soon. No progress on projects Daimyo or Ziz, though. And according to Dusu, there has been no progress on Project Wake, either.” The last two sentences were considerably less happy.

“Ah well, you can’t have everything. Who knows, maybe Skyfall’s newest idea will pan out instead. How’s she doing, anyway?”

The woman on the other side laughed in that strange way they often portrayed noblewomen to laugh, only it was intimidating instead of ridiculous. “The same as ever. She’s in China right now, playing her usual game.”

Svenson sighed, looking disappointed. “Ah well, I guess it was futile to hope she’d actually focus on one thing for a while. Anyway, I have to go and talk to the Afolayans again. At the very least, this whole affair should cement their loyalty to Humanity First’s cause completely.”

“I’m sure you’ll exploit every advantage you can get out of this. Well, have a nice day. Heaven’s Dancer, out.”

“You too, my dear. Until the next council meeting. Cloudlander, out.”

He turned the cellphone off, put it away and walked out of the room.

 

 

* * *

 

A minus 1 hour

Journeyman took me back to my room, and I immediately sat down on my bed, feeling numb.

“Ups, I think I took us a few minutes too long,” he said as he let go of my hand.

“What… why?” I asked him, not sure what exactly I was asking.

He looked down at me, seeming even taller now that I was sitting. I saw myself in his mask, only it was flickering between different versions of myself.

Some of them were very scary.

“I will explain no more. Make of it what you will,” he said. “This is already quite a bit outside my comfort zone – and I’ll have to deal with one hell of a feedback here – so I won’t help you anymore. You have all you need, for now.”

He turned around, half fading out of sight. Then he turned, half his body still visible, blurry at the edges. “For what it’s worth, I wish you the best of luck, Terry.”

Then he was gone.

I put my elbows onto my knees and face into my hands, and stayed there like that.

Using my power, I went through the last few weeks again in detail. It took me almost an hour to do so, but by the end, I’d gone through every. Single. Important. Second.

Richard… Cloudlander had Linda murdered, to get Freddy to manifest. And he’s planning more, and worse.

And I had absolutely no proof to show, only the visions – if you could even call them visions – a complete stranger had shown me.

But our friend had sent him, or at least drawn his attention to me. And it felt right, somehow, what he’d shown me.

I need to fight that.

Whatever Cloudlander and his friends wanted… whatever they were doing, it was evil. Someone had to stop them.

I don’t stand a chance by myself.

I needed training. I needed allies.

Not for vengeance… though I’ll enjoy any chance to get that.

But I needed to put a stop to it. So…

What are my options?

The United Heroes. The Hellhound. The Dark Five.

I thought it through. Then I made my decision, and went down to talk to my parents.

It was time to move forward.

Acceptance

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